In the 1870’s Prussia, the most powerful of the 39 independent states in what was to become Germany and with the help of other states successfully invaded north east France taking Alsace and Lorraine. It was the trigger for the 39 states to unite in 1871. The King of Prussia became Emperor and Bimarck his Chancellor became Chancellor of Germany. Fearing retaliation from France, Bismarck sought and created an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, that promised support for each other against Russia and France. In 1882 Italy joined them forming a triple alliance later known as the Central Powers.
In the 1890’s France and Russia were concerned at Germany’s growing power and formed an alliance. Britain too became concerned and she signed in 1904 an Entente Cordiale with France (a friendly understanding). Three years later Russia signed a similar agreement with Britain making for a triple entente. They later became the Allied Powers or allies.
Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 added to pre war tensions
In 1905 Kaiser Wilhelm ii visited Tangiers and declared his support for the Sultan of Morocco there. Much of the entente cordiale had been about settling North African issues between Britain and France. Britain could pursue its interests in Egypt while France could extend its interests into the independent Morocco. The Kaiser’s remarks were considered aggressive and a clear change from the earlier Bismark policies that had been more conciliatory. The Kaiser’s visit resulted in a 1906 international conference that awarded France a controlling interest in Morocco.
A second Moroccan crisis occurred in 1911, when the French pushed troops into the country, claiming to be defending the sultan against riots that had erupted in Fez. In response, Germany sent its own warship, the Panther, intensifying the enmity between the two nations and, by extension, their allies.
Bosnian Crisis of 1908/9 also added to pre war tension
The Congress of Berlin (1878) had given Serbia independence from the Ottoman Turks and had given Austria-Hungary the right to occupy and administer Bosnia and Herzegovina temporarily, although the provinces officially remained possessions of the Turkish Ottoman Empire
In July 1908 a Young Turk revolution in Constantinople (now Istanbul) established a government there. Austria, fearing the new Turks Regime would move to take their territory back, did a deal with the Russian Foreign Minister that gained his support to annexe Bosnia and Herzegovina. The move brought much opposition from the Russia public and from Serbia, which was closely related to Bosnia and Herzegovina geographically and ethnically. Serbia, now with Russian support demanded a portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Austria, supported by its ally Germany threatened to invade Serbia if that country persisted in its demands
Then in the March of 1909 Germany put Russia on the spot demanding that she either agree or disagree with the annexation. With little support from elsewhere Russia had no choice but to agree.
The growth of Anglo German rivalry.
In the late 19th century Britain had adopted a policy of going it alone, avoiding alliances. The policy was known as solitary isolation. But as we learnt above in the early 20th century those policies were put under pressure causing Britain to make friendly agreements with France and Russia. .
Germany had become an industrial power that was a rival to Britain and by 1913 she was considered to be Europe’s leading industrial power and with the most powerful army. She had no empire like Britain and France. Weltpolitik was Wilhelm ii’ s foreign policy and unlike that of the earlier chancellor Bismark it was intent on getting an empire. By 1914 she had colonies in Africa, the far east and the pacific.
The entente powers, Britain, France and Russia had all started rearming. They and others that joined them in the war came to be known as the “Allies”. The rivalry was most fierce in the naval race between Britain and Germany. In 1906 Britain had produced a new style of warship HMS Dreadnought. By 1914 Britain had 30 of those whilst Germany had 20. War loomed.
Outbreak of War
In June of 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie made a planned visit to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. A Serbian terrorist organisation called the Black Hand had trained and armed three Bosnian student activists. A bomb was hurled at Franz Ferdinand’s car but failed. However later that day Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot and killed.
The Austro Hungarians demanded that Serbia take full responsibility and made several demands of them. When the Serbs did not comply with all their demands, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia and then received unconditional German support. It was late July and the Russians announced they were moving their army to help the Serbs. The Germans declared war on Russia. The French rallied their troops to support Russia and the Germans then declared war on France in early August. Italy stayed neutral and only later joined the war on the side of the allies.
Germany was now at war on two fronts; in the West with France and in the East with Russia. Britain was not yet at war with Germany but the German Schleifen Plan was to make a speedy attack on France and capture her before the Russians got themselves up to the front. It involved passing through Belgium, a neutral country and across a less protected border into France.
The Germans sought by telegram to obtain free passage through Belgium on the pretext that France was going to attack her by doing the same but Belgium made it clear they were neutral and would resist attempts to pass through their territory by any nation. Britain had an agreement with Belgium, and by entering into it Germany invited Britain into the war, something they did not expect.