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Road to War

History of World War One

If the Great War of 1914-18 had any single root cause it surely was the desire of the French Army and Nation to avenge the humiliations of the Franco-Prussian or Franco-­German War of 1870-71. Aware that France would never acquiesce to the unification of Germany under a Prussian King (or the appalling prospect of a German prince on the vacant Spanish throne), the ‘Iron Chancellor’ , Otto von Bismarck, maneuvered the inscrutable (but weak and vacil­lating) French Emperor, Napoleon III, into declaring war (19 July 1870).

sign of the Treaty of Versailles
The dictates of the Allies in the Versailles Peace Treaty. Reparations, Allied dispute, War guilt issue, Hitler's rising. Here to
The battle of the machine-guns on the Somme from July 1 to November 18, 1916. The battlefield and forces, the
spraying of disinfectants on the streets of London
The Spanish flue from 1918-1919 and its implications in comparison to the plague and actual Coronavirus. Impact of the pandemics:
Results and statistics about 15 battles of World War One. Beginning with the Battles of the Frontiers from August 14-23,
SMS Scharnhorst entering Valparais
German Armored Cruisers Scharnhorst class from World War One, and the battle of the Falklands (part II). History, development, service,
The Russian Brusilov Offensive in summer 1916: History, preparation and conduct of the most successful Russian offensive in World War
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914. The murder of an important political figure often had
The fallen comrade
Figures of losses to soldiers, civilians, ships, by the air war and war costs and damage in the First World
Armenians are deported
The genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1916 during World War One. Among the terrible
Easter Rising - Easter week 1916 in Ireland. The Irish rebellion on Easter Monday, Dublin burns and starves and reprisals
Resources of David and Goliath for the Easter Rising in Ireland 1916. Part II of Easter Rising. Here to Part
The Easter Rising in Ireland on Easter Monday 24 April 1916. Causes and the preparation of the Irish Easter Rising
'fighter of Verdun'
The Battle of Verdun (February 21 - December 18, 1916). Situation end of 1915, to bleed the French army white,
The largest naval battle in history, which took place at Jutland on May 31 to June 1, 1916. Naval forces,
Vickers machine-gun in action
The British Vickers machine-gun in action during the First World War. to Part I: history, development, service, specifications and pictures
armistice Compiegne November 1918
The Armistice of Compiegne in November 1918: Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Germany's allies, secret diplomacy and war propaganda. Wilson's Fourteen Points

Proclamation of the German Empire in 1871
The proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is the culmination of Bismarck’s policy.
Contrary to all expectations the Imperial armies of France quickly proved inadequately prepared, equipped and led. Neither Austria nor the supposedly anti-Prussian states of South Germany showed the least inclination to form an anti-Prussian alliance. The German campaign was masterminded by Moltke. The Germans crossed the frontier on 4 August 1870 and won a series of victories over Marshal Bazaine’s optimistically named ‘Army of the Rhine’, culmi­nating in his encirclement with 173,000 men at Metz. Napo­leon III and Marshal MacMahon attempted to raise the siege but were surrounded at Sedan on 1 September 1870 and obliged to surrender with 83,000 officers and men. The Empress Eugenie fled from Paris to begin half a century in exile and the Third Republic was founded. A Prussian-domi­nated German Empire was proclaimed at Versailles 18 January 1871.

When Paris was shortly afterwards besieged, fiery Republican minister of the interior, Leon Gambetta escaped by hydrogen balloon to organize a levee en masse in the still unoccupied provinces. The garrison and National Guard of Paris, faced heavy odds after the ignominious surrender of Metz (27 October 1870). General Trochu continued to defend the capital and even counterattacked until January when near-starvation and heavy bombardment made further resistance impossible. The armistice was succeeded by the draconian ‘Peace of Frankfurt’.

Terms of the Treaty of Frankfurt 10 May 1871

  • 1. Cession of provinces of Lorraine & Alsace (less Belfort)
  • 2. German army of occupation to be stationed in 43 depts
  • 3. Reparations of 5 billion francs (£200 million) to be paid by instalments
  • 4. Trade: Germany to enjoy ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status vis-à-vis France

The last German garrison (at Verdun) left France in September 1873.

Less than two months after the fall of Paris, a provisional government of Socialist and far-left Republicans was elected by the ‘Commune’ of Paris in response to an at­tempt by the right-wing National Assembly to disarm the Paris National Guard. Civil war broke out. In ‘Bloody Week’ (May 1871), MacMahon stormed the capital and at least 20,000 Communards and innocent citizens were massacred: ‘The last stage of the Commune was not a battle but a massacre… The victors were embittered by the shame of having to fight a fresh war against their own countrymen under the disdainful eyes of the Prussians … Despite … orders from MacMahon that the lives of prison­ers should be spared, the victors killed without mercy’ (The Development of Modern France by Sir Denis Brogan, London 1967).

The trauma of these catastrophic events was so severe that in 1889 a shallow opportunist general and Minister of War (Boulanger) was nearly able to provoke a war with his anti­-German speeches. Seven years later, an accusation that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, born of a Jewish family at Mulhouse (Alsace), had betrayed the specification of France’s revolutionary soixante-quinze (75mm) quick-firing field-gun to Germany, sparked off a protracted series of crises. These more than once threatened to tear French society apart. Although the entirely innocent Dreyfus was brought back from the living hell of Devil’s Island (near the modern Kourou space center), declared innocent on appeal and reinstated in his military rank (1906); the venom spewed out during the Affair should have been a warning that if, and when, the opportunity ever arose for a renewed Franco-German trial of strength it could easily escalate into a bestial struggle for national survival.

'Peace pledge' of  the Triple Alliance
The ‘peace pledge’ of the Triple Alliance between Italy, the German Empire and Austria-Hungary from 1882, which was promised in this reminder sheet of the 1888 deceased of Emperor Wilhelm I should turn out as desired belief.
Moreover, this anticipated conflict would be made even more terrible and widespread by a whole series of so-called ‘defensive’ pacts and alliances concluded between 1878 and 1907. Germany – now an empire under William I – had allied herself with Austria. They were joined by Italy in 1882. This ‘Triple Alliance’ could also count on a large measure of support from the German-born rulers of Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. In reply, France concluded military and political pacts with Russia (1892-4). Between 1902 and 1907 Britain concluded the so-called ‘Triple Entente’ with France and Russia and formed an alliance with Japan. Thanks in some degree to the influence of a Francophile English king, Edward VII, the Entente Cordiale was negotiated in 1904. A similar understanding between Britain and Imperial Russia was reached in 1907. The Kaiser’s ministers and generals responded by forging a close understanding with the ‘Young Turks’, the largely German-trained radical officers who seized power at Constantinople in 1908. A Turco-German treaty of alliance was signed in early August 1914.

Both Russia and Austria were eager to dominate the Bal­kans, where the once-omnipotent Ottoman armies of occupation had been pushed back almost to the gates of Constantinople in 1912-13. Germany, too, aimed at securing a trans-Balkan corridor as a key element of a grandiose Berlin-Baghdad rail link for which she had received a concession in 1899.

The Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz
The Kaiser, Admiral Tirpitz (center) and the Chief of the Fleet von Holtzendorff.
All the European Powers (except moribund Russia) had colonial ambitions. They had partitioned Africa from the 1880s and exercised an almost complete stranglehold over the trade and economic life of China, whose ancient, but defunct, empire had collapsed in 1911. Japan, too, would soon demand a rich slice of the ‘Chinese cake’ as a reward for her continued adherence of the Allied cause, alter the occupation of Germany’s Asiatic and Pacific possessions by Japanese/British Empire forces in August-November 1914.

Imperial Germany nursed the conviction that she had been cheated of a fair share of the spoils in the 19th-century ‘Scramble for Africa’ proper. Between 1884 and 1890 she had established protectorates over Togoland, the Cameroons, South-West Africa and Tanganyika. But com­pared with France’s richly endowed and populous territo­ries, stretching from Morocco to the lower Congo and east to the ‘Great Red Island’ of Madagascar, German Africa was of little account. Even so, Berlin felt impelled to initiate Tirpitz’s naval expansion program from 1897, to safe­ ‘guard her developing overseas trade routes. This soon escalated into a deadly ‘Naval Race’ with Britain.

German Kaiser Wilhelm II
German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

From 1904 to 1914 a series of crises increasingly threatened the long-established European balance of power ­- Algeciras (1906); Bosnia-Herzegovina (1908); Agadir (1911); Italo-Turkish War (1911-12); First and Second Balkan Wars (1912-13); Sarajevo (1914). On 28 June 1914 the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the venerable Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph, was assassinated by Serb-armed nationalists during an official visit to the town of Sarajevo. Austria declared war on Serbia, 28 July 1914, with the aim of achieving a rapid, local conquest of a perceived South Slav nuisance. When Russia mobilized in that Balkan kingdom’s support, Germany declared war on Russia and France and invaded neutral Belgium, a country whose ‘perpetual neutrality had been guaranteed by all the Great Powers since the 1839 Treaty of London. Britain declared war on Germany (4 August) and Austria (12 August 1914).

Although not legally bound to do so, the self-governing former British dominions, Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined forces with the Motherland in the hour of supreme trial. So did the Princes of the vast Indian Empire. Only South Africa hesitated. However, a pro­-German Boer rebellion war was suppressed by Smuts and Botha and South Africa entered the war. Italy, invariably treated with condescending patronage by Germany and Austria (and not consulted by the latter after Sarajevo), saw no good reason to rush to the support of her Triple Alliance partners. Accordingly, she remained neutral until May 1915.

Europe 1914
Europe 1914
The Great War was the apocalyptic climax of the Age of European (and American) Imperialism. But what had begun as a relatively straightforward struggle for territorial and economic gain, and (in the cases of Austria and France) for revenge on perennial neighboring foes, inexorably devel­oped into what the German strategist Ludendorff called ‘Der Totale Krieg’ (‘Total War’). In other words, not merely a contest between the armies, navies and embryonic air forces, but a life-or-death struggle between Peoples in which all the human, material and moral resources of the nation were utilized to the utmost.

Three dynastic mighty empires – Germany, Austria and Russia – were swept into the dustbin of history. And a far­ flung but decrepit oriental despotism – Ottoman Turkey – also fell to be transformed into a compact Westernized secular republic; her outer provinces ultimately becoming the new Middle East states of Arabia, Iraq (Mesopotamia), Syria and Jewish-settled Palestine.

Out of the European melting-pot there soon emerged Communist Russia, a restored independent Poland, the new states of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and later Fascist Italy followed by Nazi Germany.

References and literature

Illustrierte Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs (Christian Zentner)
History of World War I (AJP Taylos, S.L. Mayer)
Der Erste Weltkrieg – Storia illustrata della Prima Guerra Mondiale (Hans Kaiser)
Der I. Weltkrieg – Eine Chronik (Ian Westwell)
Chronicle of the First World War, 2 Bände (Randal Gray)
Unser Jahrhundert im Bild (Bertelsmann Lesering)

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