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World War I Outbreak of World War I

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How did the First World War start and who was to blame?

Nov 6, 2018

Arion McNicoll

The causes of the Great War are still being debated a century on, but time has led to some clarity

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Topical Press Agency

This gallery provides a series of snapshots illustrating the way in which the First World War unfolded at home and abroad, and on land, in the air and over water. In this picture two airman, followed by a boy with a bike, make their way to a German zeppelin airship that had crash-landed in an Essex field in September 1916.

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Britain will honour its fallen soldiers this Remembrance Sunday, with special events planned across the country to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

See related 
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The royal family and political leaders will join current and former members of the Armed Forces for the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.  

A two-minute silence will be held at 11am, marking the end of fighting between Germany and the Allied Forces on the Western Front in 1918.

Wreaths of poppies will then be laid at the foot of the Cenotaph, followed by a short religious service.

With this year’s Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day falling on the centenary of the end of the First World War, The Royal British Legion expects a record number of spectators at the London event.

There will also be an additional event, the Nation’s Thank You procession, which will take place after The Royal British Legion parade.

The special procession will allow 10,000 members of the public, selected by a random ballot, to join a procession past the Cenotaph, to pay their respects and help express the nation’s thanks to the generation who served, and those who never returned.

But, 100 years on, debate still rages over the causes behind the conflict, which claimed the lives of 17 million people, traumatised a generation, overturned old empires and changed the world’s political order forever.

How did WWI start?

The simplest answer is that the immediate cause was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria-Hungary. His death at the hands of Gavrilo Princip – a Serbian nationalist with ties to the secretive military group known as the Black Hand – propelled the major European military powers towards war.

The events that led up to the assassination are significantly more complicated, but most scholars agree that the gradual emergence of a group of alliances between major powers was partly to blame for the descent into war.

By 1914, those alliances resulted in the six major powers of Europe coalescing into two broad groups: Britain, France and Russia formed the Triple Entente, while Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy comprised the Triple Alliance. 

As these countries came to each other’s aid after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, their declarations of war produced a domino effect. CNN lists these key developments:

  • June 28, 1914 – Gavrilo Princip assassinates Franz Ferdinand.
  • July 28, 1914 – Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
  • August 2, 1914 – Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Germany sign a secret treaty of alliance.
  • August 3, 1914 – Germany declares war on France.
  • August 4, 1914 – Germany invades Belgium, leading Britain to declare war on Germany.
  • August 10, 1914 – Austria-Hungary invades Russia. 

As the war progressed, further acts of aggression drew other countries, including the United States, into the conflict. Many others, including Australia, India and most African colonies, fought at the behest of their imperial rulers.

But even the alliance theory is now considered overly simplistic by many historians. War came to Europe not by accident, but by design, argues military historian Gary Sheffield .

According to Sheffield, the First World War began for two fundamental reasons: “First, decision-makers in Berlin and Vienna chose to pursue a course that they hoped would bring about significant political advantages even if it brought about general war. Second, the governments in the entente states rose to the challenge.”

Sheffield adds: “At best, Germany and Austria-Hungary launched a reckless gamble that went badly wrong. At worst, 1914 saw a premeditated war of aggression and conquest, a conflict that proved to be far removed from the swift and decisive venture that some had envisaged”.

Was WWI caused by a family feud?

Far from being remote rulers who knew nothing of their enemies, the heads of state of Britain, Germany and Russia – George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II – were first cousins who knew one another very well.

A BBC documentary screened earlier this year, Royal Cousins at War , told the story of Wilhelm’s difficult relationship with his parents and antipathy towards all things British and argues that this helped bring the world to the brink of war.

The three monarchs were like “sleepwalkers stepping towards an open lift shaft”, Richard Davenport-Hines says in his review of Miranda Carter’s book on the subject, The Three Emperors. The events leading up to the conflict are “a study in the envy, insincerity, festering rancour and muddle that only families can manage”.

Unlike many family feuds, however, disagreements between the royal cousins exacted a geopolitical price. “As relationships between the royal cousins waxed and waned, so did the relationships between their countries,” the Daily Mail’s Ruth Styles says.

Queen Victoria attempted to broker peace between the cousins, but after her death good will “between the Russian, British and German branches of the family dissipated and Europe edged closer to war: George V and Tsar Nicholas on one side, and their estranged cousin, Wilhelm, on the other,” Styles says.

The engagement was disastrous for all three monarchs. By the end of 1918 the German kaiser was deposed and had fled into exile, the Russian tsar and his children had been executed by revolutionaries, and the British king presided over “a broken, debt-ridden empire,” Davenport-Hines says. 

Which nation was the primary aggressor?

The question of which country or countries caused the war is sometimes flipped on its head by scholars who have asked which countries – had they conducted themselves differently – could have prevented it.

On the BBC website, military historian Sir Max Hastings says that while no one nation deserves the blame alone, Germany is more guilty than most, as “it alone had power to halt the descent to disaster at any time in July 1914 by withdrawing its ‘blank cheque’ which offered support to Austria for its invasion of Serbia.”

Sir Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge disagrees, arguing that Serbian nationalism and expansionism were the root cause of the conflict. “Serbia bore the greatest responsibility for the outbreak of WW1,” Evans says, “and Serbian backing for the Black Hand terrorists was extraordinarily irresponsible,”

Other leading scholars believe the blame should be shared equally between all the main players: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Serbia, Russia, France, the Ottoman empire and Britain. The “fatal mixture of political misjudgement, fear of loss of prestige and stubborn commitments on all sides of a very complicated system of military and political alliances of European states” led to the descent into all-out war.

Why did the US join the war?

Until the US Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson “had strained every political sinew” to keep the country out of the conflict, author Patrick Gregory writes for the BBC .

Despite widespread horror in the US over newspaper reports of German atrocities against civilians, the general feeling among in the early months of the conflict was that American men should not risk their lives in a European war.

That all started to change in May 1915, when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner the Lusitania as it crossed the Atlantic, killing 1,198 of the 1,962 people on board.

The attack provoked shock and fury across the world. Among the dead were 128 Americans, putting substantial pressure on the government to abandon its neutral stance on the conflict.

Although ambivalence to the war remained strong enough that Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, Gregory writes, the Lusitania atrocity swelled the ranks of the pro-war lobby, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt.

In response to the outcry, Kaiser Wilhelm II halted U-boat operations in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the pro-war sentiment in the US continued to fester – and when Germany announced plans to resume its naval strikes on passenger ships in January 1917, it exploded.

Public opinion was further inflamed, writes Gregory, over the emergence of a telegram, supposedly from the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman to Mexico offering military assistance if the US entered the war.

Observers soon came to believe that the change in public feeling made US entry into the war inevitable, and eight weeks later Congress approved a resolution declaring war on Germany.

The Anglo-German arms race

Towards the end of the 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany embarked on a massive project to build a fleet that would rival Great Britain’s.

The Royal Navy at the time was regarded as the most powerful in the world, although its primary purpose was not military, but the protection of trade.

“Britain relied upon imports and its economic prosperity rested on seaborne trade, financed by the City of London,” Paul Cornish, the senior curator at the Imperial War Museum , says. “Any threat to Britain’s naval supremacy was a threat to the nation itself.”

A shipbuilding arms race with Germany began in 1898, but Britain had gained a technological edge over its rival by 1906, with the development of a new class of battleship – the dreadnought. 

“Designed around the firepower of heavy guns and powered by steam turbines, these huge vessels made all earlier warships obsolete,” Cornish adds. “In both countries, the public, encouraged by the press, popular authors and naval pressure groups, demanded more battleships.”

Ultimately, Germany was unable to keep pace with the spending power of its rival and shifted attention away from its navy back to the development of its army. However, “the damage to Germany’s relationship with Britain proved irreversible”. 

Is it wrong to try to point the finger?

Attempting to identify which nation or nations should be held accountable for the war is an exercise doomed to failure, Margaret MacMillan argues in her 2013 First World War history, The War that Ended Peace.

In her Spectator review of MacMillan’s “important new study”, Jane Ridley says that the book’s main thrust is that the blame game itself is “conceptually flawed”.

“The alternative to searching for scapegoats is to examine the system,” MacMillan argues “and the international system in 1914 was seriously dysfunctional”.

According to MacMillan, the alliances drawn up between nations before the war could actually have helped to preserve the fragile peace.
However, pacifist ideals were brushed aside by the “frightening shifts” in the mindset of Europe’s leaders who ultimately came to think in terms of military solutions rather than diplomatic ones.

“The most we can hope for,” MacMillan says, “is to understand as best we can those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace.”

Can any individual be blamed for the First World War?

The Guardian identifies six people who, from a British perspective, had the largest roles in the events leading to the outbreak of war:

Kaiser Wilhelm II, the “hot-tempered, military-minded ruler of German empire and kingdom of Prussia” who was “increasingly suspicious of motives” in Britain, France and Russia

David Lloyd George, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, who “against his earlier inclinations” ultimately became a leading proponent of military action against Germany

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who found himself caught between Russia’s loyalty to Serbia, and his desire to avoid war on the continent

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was “keen to strengthen Austrian army” but wanted not to antagonise Serbia

Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister who led the nation into war, to be replaced by Lloyd George in December 1916

Edward Grey, the foreign secretary who “was ineffective in his attempts to warn Germany against threatening Belgium’s neutrality in 1914”.


Read more:

World War 1
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    Outbreak of World War I

    The seeds of the devastating conflict had been planted long before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.


    1. Europe by 1914
    2. Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
    3. The Road to World War I
    4. The Great War and Its Impact

    Europe by 1914

    Almost exactly a century before, a meeting of the European states at the Congress of Vienna had established an international order and balance of power that lasted for almost a century. By 1914, however, a multitude of forces were threatening to tear it apart. The Balkan Peninsula, in southeastern Europe, was a particularly tumultuous region: Formerly under the control of the Ottoman Empire, its status was uncertain by the late 1800s, as the weakened Turks continued their slow withdrawal from Europe. Order in the region depended on the cooperation of two competing powers, Russia and Austria-Hungary. The slumping Austria-Hungary–in which small minorities (Germans in Austria, Magyars in Hungary) attempted to control large populations of restless Slavs–worried for its future as a great power, and in 1908 it annexed the twin Balkan provinces of Bosnia-Herzogovina. This grab for territory and control angered the independent Balkan nation of Serbia–who considered Bosnia a Serb homeland–as well as Slavic Russia.

    Upstart Serbia then doubled its territory in back-to-back Balkan wars (1912 and 1913), further threatening Austro-Hungarian supremacy in the region. Meanwhile, Russia had entered into an alliance with France–angry over German annexation of their lands in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71–and Great Britain, whose legendary naval dominance was threatened by Germany's growing navy. This Triple Entente, squared off against the German-Austro-Hungarian alliance, meant that any regional conflict had the potential to turn into a general European war.

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    Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

    Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a great friend of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, met with him in mid-June 1914 to discuss the tense situation in the Balkans. Two weeks later, on June 28, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were in Sarajevo to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip and his fellow members of the nationalist Young Bosnia movement learned of the archduke's planned visit, they took action: Supplied with weapons by a Serbian terrorist organization called the Black Hand, Princip and his cohorts traveled to Sarajevo in time for the archduke's visit.

    The royal couple was touring the city in an open car, with surprisingly little security; one of the nationalists threw a bomb at their car, but it rolled off the back of the vehicle, wounding an army officer and some bystanders. Later that day, the imperial car took a wrong turn near where Princip happened to be standing. Seeing his chance, Princip fired into the car, shooting Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range. He then turned the gun on himself, but was tackled by a mob of bystanders who restrained him until the police arrived. The archduke and his wife were rushed away to seek medical attention, but both died within the hour.

    The Road to World War I

    In order to maintain its credibility as a force in the Balkan region (let alone its status as a great power), Austria-Hungary needed to enforce its authority in the face of such an insolent crime. However, with the threat of Russian intervention looming and its army unprepared for a large-scale war, it required Germany's help to back up its words with force. Emperor Franz Josef wrote a personal letter to Kaiser Wilhelm requesting his support, and on July 6 German Chancellor Theobald Bethmann Hollweg informed Austrian representatives that Vienna had Germany's full support.

    On July 23, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Serbia delivered an ultimatum: The Serbian government must take steps to wipe out terrorist organizations within its borders, suppress anti-Austrian propaganda and accept an independent investigation by the Austro-Hungarian government into Franz Ferdinand's assassination, or face military action. After Serbia appealed to Russia for help, the czar's government began moving towards mobilization of its army, believing that Germany was using the crisis as an excuse to launch a preventive war in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28. On August 1, after hearing news of Russia's general mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia. The German army then launched its attack on Russia's ally, France, through Belgium, violating Belgian neutrality and bringing Great Britain into the war as well.

    The Great War and Its Impact

    Over the next four years, the Great War (as World War I was then called) would grow to involve Italy, Japan, the Middle East and the United States, among other countries. More than 20 million soldiers died and 21 million more were wounded, while millions of other people fell victim to the influenza epidemic that the war helped to spread.

    The war left in its wake three ruined imperial dynasties (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey) and unleashed the revolutionary forces of Bolshevism in another (Russia). In the end, the uneasy peace brokered at Versailles in 1919 kept tensions in check for less than two decades before giving way to another devastating world war.

    FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn’t look right, contact us!


    How a Wrong Turn Started World War I

    How a Wrong Turn Started World War I

    A look back at the legacy of World War I nearly 100 years after the conflict began.

    Legacy of World War I

    WWI may have been the war to end all wars, but it was also the beginning of many military and civilian technologies.

    World War I History

    In a Mail Call video, R. Lee Ermey answers a question from Mark of Kansas who wants to know what was in a World War I backpack. Ermey reveals that on top of all the other hardships WWI soldiers had to endure, their backpacks proved to be another annoyance. Men from the Great War Historical Society strapped on the WWI packs and completed some drills; by the end, they definitely felt the WWI soldiers pain. The bottom section of the backpack, known as the diaper, was detachable and carried the soldiers blanket, shelter half, and shelter half pole and pins. On the belt youd find ammo, a first aid kit, a canteen cover, and a canteen and cup. Inside the flaps were a baking tin, a condiment can, and boxes of bread rations. Also inside the flaps were a towel, soap dish, shaving kit, handkerchief, foot powder, and extra socks. Attached to the outside were the bayonet, shovel, trenching tool, and a mess kit. The entire weight of the pack lies entirely on the soldiers shoulders, making it very uncomfortable. If a soldier wanted to get anything out of his pack, he would have to stop, unravel everything, get what he needs, and then pack everything back up. Due to the placement of the bayonet, most soldiers would have to have a buddy put it back for them.

    World War I Packs


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    World War I

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    How a Wrong Turn Started World War I

    As the summer of 1914 approached, the balance of power in Europe looked shaky at best. It would take only a single crisis—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie Chotek by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist in …read more


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    Archduke Ferdinand assassinated

    On this day in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie are shot to death by a Bosnian Serb nationalist during an official visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. The killings sparked a chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I by early …read more


    Bulgaria enters World War I

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