EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE GREAT WAR
The Franco-Prussian War, of 1871, ended with the defeat of France, who was forced to hand over her Eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. This war was the prelude to a period of hostility in Europe that was to last until the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the European summer of 1914, two great European alliances found themselves in a state of fury against each other. The initial main protagonists were Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the one side, and France, the British Empire and Russia on the other. Against the backdrop of plumed and helmeted Emperors and Generals, both sides possessed, by way of machine guns and high explosive artillery, weapons of terrible destruction. The origins of this war lay in the complicated cocktail of greed, fears, prejudices and misunderstandings of the early 1900’s. In 1914, Europe was still widely perceived as the financial, cultural and political centre of the world. The major European powers, however, were engaged in an arms race. Each was trying to acquire colonial possessions in the under-developed world.
In the late 19th Century, Bismarck had forged modern Germany out of a collection of smaller nation states and in doing so had upset the balance of power in Europe. Using her strengthening industrial power, she had built up both an army and navy of formidable size and capability. The two former players, France and Russia, concerned at Germany’s intentions formed a defensive alliance in 1894. Great Britain, alarmed at the German navy’s potential threat to the British domination of the world’s shipping routes aligned herself with France, whose fear of German aggression was nourished by her yearning for the return of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Russia, with its population of 125 million had a vast resource of manpower and massive landmasses, but she lacked the technological skills and an industrialised state. In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed the dual alliance to help each other should the other be attacked.
Within this background of alliances stood two faltering empires, the glories of the Turkish Empire, now widely recognised as the sick man of Europe, were already only a memory. The Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted of a ramshackle collection of states in the South of Europe. Austria-Hungary was particularly suspicious of the independent country of Serbia, who she saw as the effective leader of an international Slav terrorist movement. This was fermenting unrest between the 23 million Serbs living in the Empires’ territory. By 1914, the tensions in Europe had reached a dangerous level and, the very alliances, formed to protect the peace, now sucked the great nations of Europe into war.
Now we must turn to the Balkans. The Turkish Empire was disintegrating, and Russia confronted Austria-Hungary, the ally of Germany, the other power seeking to move into her area of interest. Here in this cauldron, with their different nationalities, religions, and languages, an incident in a city called Sarajevo set alight the tinderbox and the world went to war. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph who had ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1848. Ferdinand had chosen the 28th June 1914 to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, and a part of his uncles’ empire. In Sarajevo that day, several young revolutionaries had come for assassinating the Archduke. One of these, a 19-year-old tuberculoid student called Gavrillo Principp was sitting in a café when the Archdukes’ car took a wrong turning and had to reverse back past him. Principp, seizing this historic opportunity fired two shots at 5 yards range, killing both the Archduke and his wife Sophie. These two fatal shots were the opening salvo of the Great War.