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The Prelude to WW1

by Dean Hunter

Oh the tangled web we weave…
Military build up for "defensive reasons".
Recipe for disaster
"Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans…"
The dominoes begin to fall.

The build up to WW1 is a period of time known to historians as the "long fuse", a period of approximately 85 years beginning in the mid 19 century. Europe at the time was a very different place to what it is today, not just politically but geographically also. Countries that existed then no longer exist today and countries that exist today didn't exist then. Few countries had the same borders then as they do today. The dominant forces in Europe were Germany, France and the British, Russian, Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) and Ottoman Empires. WW1 was very much a clash of these empires and soon after the WW1, three of these empires would cease to exist.



had seen rapid growth and there was a general fear of Germany's growing industrial strength. Germany also had its eyes on opening up trade with the Ottoman Empire and in 1898 under the Tirpitz plan began to build up their navy.
  The British Empire
was the super power of the world at the time. Britain being an island state relied heavily on its navy to retain its supremacy and they ensured the British navy ruled the seas. The British pound ruled the world's money markets and when the British Prime Minister spoke the world listened.

  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the wealthy Habsburg family covered a vast area encompassing not only Austria and Hungary, as the name suggests, but also a large part of the Balkans, including what is now Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But Austro-Hungarian Empire was militarily weak. By 1914 it was widely accepted that the empire was on the verge of disintegration. Yet the Austro-Hungarian Empire wished to expand further into the Balkans and had its eyes on Serbia.

  The Russian Empire
was in a state of collapse, economically bankrupt, the Russian people were starving and revolution was in the air. In 1905 a revolution was put down. Russia wanted control of the Black Sea and its link to the Mediterranean, the Dardanelles. The Dardanelles is the stretch of water, which connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which is then connected to the Black Sea by the Bosphorous. For 3 months of the year this the only access to Russia's Black Sea ports as Russia's other ports, on its northern coastline, are frozen.
The Dardanelles
become even more important, not just to Russia, when it is realised that Russia at the time supplied most of Europe's wheat, Russia at the time was known as the "bread basket" of Europe, so access to Russia via the Dardanelles was important to Europe also. Control of the Dardanelles required control of the Balkans, which in turn meant conflict with Austria-Hungary, whom also wanted control of the Balkans. Russia looked to the Balkans for allies and assisted several Balkan countries achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire. German Chancellor Bismarck, dismissed in 1890, said, "All those races have gladly accepted Russian liberation from the Turks; but since they have been free they have shown no tendency to accept the Csar as successor to the Sultan."

  The Ottoman Empire's
gradual erosion of the past for three centuries accelerated during this period and the powers of Europe gathered like a pack of wolves to snatch what they could. The empire was effectively bankrupt.
In 1809 Greece won its independence, in 1878 Serbia and Rumania. In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina and, in the same year, Bulgaria claimed its independence. In 1911 Italy, successfully, attacked the Ottomans across the Mediterranean to gain Tripoli (modern day Libya). In 1912-13 Albania and Macedonia declared their independence after the 2nd Balkan War.
  During this troubled period the countries of Europe began to fear the outbreak of a European war. "All Europe, uncertain and troubled, prepares for an inevitable war, the immediate cause of which is uncertain to us." Echo de Paris in 1913. "Statesmen in every country have begun to despair of averting the final crisis." German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in April 1914 "I am of the persuasion that a European war must come sooner or later," German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke in 1913. He went on to say it would be "the mutual butchery of the civilized nations of Europe." "Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans," Chancellor Bismarck's prediction on what would provoke the next war.  

Oh the tangled web we weave…

The nations of Europe began to form alliances with each other, in the hope that they may avoid such a war. Not unlike the role that NATO fulfils today. Nowadays countries agree to remain at peace with each other, but back then, the alliances were worded differently. Within these alliances countries agreed that they would support each other "if attacked". In other words if one country was attacked then the other would come to its support. The complex web of alliances is difficult to piece together even today. The series of alliances, when analysed today, divided Europe two distinct sides. The main alliances were: - The Triple Alliance Austria-Hungary - Germany - Italy The Triple Entente Great Britain - France - Russia. Note also the Russia had an alliance with Serbia.. It was realised that it would only take one country to be attacked for the series of alliances to be called on, one by one and like dominoes they would all be involved.

Military build up for "defensive reasons".

Countries also started building up their military forces for 'defensive' reasons should this war break out. France introduced conscription and then increased it to 3 years and opened a war college. An arms race began as armies tried to outdo each other by building and buying bigger and better military hardware. In 1898 Germany begins building up its naval power to a point where it starts to threaten Britain supremacy on the seas. Britain retaliates by beginning a build up of its navy and an event called the 'dreadnought race' takes place where both try to outdo each other by building progressively more and more powerful and faster battleships. From 1905-1914 Germany and Britain built 69 battleships, speeds increased from 21 to 28 knots and armament increased from 8 x 12 inch guns to 8 x 15 inch and 16 x 5.9 inch guns.
Recipe for disaster.

And so the stage was set. The series of alliances meant that almost every country in Europe was allied with several other countries, but when looked at closely divided Europe into two sides which revolved around those of the "The Triple Alliance" and those of the "The Triple Entente". Countries were building up their military capabilities and the pressures slowly built up.

"History had already poised its gigantic soldier's boot over the anthill." Leon Trotsky reflecting on the summer of 1914.

The Ottoman Empire were also aware of the threat of the war that seemed inevitable decided to add two battleships to their navy to assist in the defence of the empire from possible Russian attack via the Black Sea or attack via the Dardanelles. They agreed to purchase two battleships, which were already being built in England. But the Ottoman Empire didn't have enough money in their treasury to pay for those battleships so an appeal was held throughout Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Peasants, farmers and businessmen donated whatever they could afford to the cause and eventually the money was collected.

The arrest of assassin
Gavrilo Princip

"Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans…"

Meanwhile an event, which may have otherwise passed relatively unnoticed, took place in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, at the time an Austria-Hungary province. Serbian students, members of the 'Black Hand' movement, assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne on June 28, 1914.
This movement was under the leadership of a "Colonel Apis" (the bee), whose real identity was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrievitch, no less than the head of Serbian military intelligence. The assassins travelled to Sarajevo on June 3rd with pistols, bombs and cyanide to await the visit of the Archduke.
By July 5th all were apprehended with the exception of Mehmedbasic, the only member to escape.
"The attack directed against my poor nephew is the direct consequence of the agitation carried on by the Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavists whose sole aim is the weakening of the Triple Alliance and the destruction of my Empire."
Emperor Franz Joseph, Vienna, delivered to the Kaiser in Berlin on 5 July 1914.
Over the following month ambassadors raced from embassy to embassy and a series of telegrams crossed from country to country as each country vied for position. Austria-Hungary had their excuse to crush the perceived movement, in the Balkans, against them. On July 6th 1914, the Germans, not realising Austria-Hungary's intentions, agreed to support them.
"The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship."
Kaiser Wilhelm II via his Imperial Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg.

The Austro-Hungarians saw this as a "blank-cheque" and proceeded aggressively pursuing the Serbian Government.


A grossly mishandled inquest, which lasted through July, was held in Sarajevo. It found that the assassins were carrying bombs, Browning pistols, ammunition and hand-grenades originating from the weapons depot of the Serbian army.
Customs officials at the border had allowed the assassins and their weapons across the border. But complicity of the Serbian government was never proven. Friedrich von Wiesner, an Austrian official sent to investigate the proceedings in Sarajevo, wired his findings back to Vienna:
"There is nothing to indicate that the Serbian government knew about the plot."
The Austro-Hungarians, intent on conflict, began to prepare an ultimatum. "The note is being composed so that the possibility of its acceptance is practically excluded." German Ambassador to Vienna, Count Heinrich von Tschirschky, to German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg.

"The most formidable demand ever imposed on one state by another."
British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey on the Austrian ultimatum.
On July 23rd, 1914, a 10-point ultimatum was sent to the Serbian Government.
They demanded amongst other things that all movements and organisations against their government be suppressed, the arrest and punishment of the assassins and their assistants and that all public criticism of their government be suppressed. Two days later, the 25th of July 1914, the Serbian government replied. Their reply was compassionate and apologetic and they agreed to all the terms of the agreement, but tried to explain that they could not control the freedom of speech of their people nor of their press.
"Part of your demands we have accepted... For the rest, we place our hopes on your loyalty and chivalry as an Austrian general."
Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic delivering the reply to the Austrian ambassador, Baron Vladimir von Giesl.

The dominoes begin to fall.

The Serbian leadership, fearing the worst, that Austria will attack no matter what the contents of the reply, orders general mobilization of it's army at 3:00 pm the same day. Nobody knew it, but, World War I had just begun. The powers of Europe, with the exception of Austria-Hungary, saw the Serbian response as more than reasonable. "Every reason for war disappears." German Kaiser Wilhelm II, July 27 1914.
"The reply of the Serbian government to the Austrian ultimatum, which has now been received, makes it clear that Serbia has agreed to the Austrian demands to so great an extent …"
Telegram from the German Imperial Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, to the German Ambassador at Vienna, Tschirschky, July 28, 1914.

On the 28th of July 1914, the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia.

The armies of Europe began to mobilise as Europe's leaders frantically telegrammed each other in an effort to avert all out war. But the die was cast and the fateful web of alliances were beginning to be called on and one by one almost every country in Europe was dragged in.

The dominoes were beginning to fall and quickly. On the 29th of July 1914, Austrian began shelling Belgrade, the Serbian capital, from the Danube. Between the 29th of July and the 1st of August a series of telegrams cross between the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Russian Csar Nicholas II, initially pleading for and finally demanding demobilisation. The Kaiser and the Csar were cousins.

Within a week Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia and Serbia would declare war. Italy withdrew from the Triple alliance on August 1st.
The Marquis di San Giuliano said "as the war undertaken by Austria was aggressive and did not fall within the purely defensive character of the Triple Alliance,.., Italy could take part in the war."
Italy later entered the war on the side of the triple Entente.

  And so the stage was set, the drama was about to unfold. Read now of the sea battle which was to lead to the tragedy of Gallipoli. Click HERE