World War I: the stakes
In the aftermath of the attack on Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, the gears of the various treaties and alliances that followed were set in motion, triggering a succession of declarations of war. The whole of Europe erupted into violence, soon to be joined by the rest of the world.
The conflict would eventually involve countries from all five continents with some 60 million men fighting, 10 million of whom would be killed and another 10 million seriously injured and disabled. This conflict, the first ‘complete’ war in the history of humanity and the first ‘industrial’ war, marked the real start of the 20th Century, beginning with blood and tears, the Battle of Verdun providing a most horrific example of this.
The causes of war
There were many factors involved in the decision to go to war, although hegemonic, territorial and economic desires and a fear of one’s neighbour were the main elements that triggered the outbreak of the First World War. There had been a great deal of mistrust among the great powers of the continent for a long time. As a result of various long-standing treaties, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy (the Triple Alliance of 20th May 1882) were allies. France, Great Britain and Russia had also joined forces to sign a series of treaties as part of the Triple Entente. This was the age of ‘secret’ diplomacy, even though all protagonists were informed of the actions and intentions of their rivals.
The colonial issue
Disputes had been on the increase since the late 19th Century. The colonial issue was initially a regular discussion point among diplomats, which sometimes resulted in military repercussions. The French and the British divided the most part of the colonial ‘cake’ between them. Following the unfortunate Fashoda Incident in Sudan in 1898, where the French lost ground to the British, the Entente Cordiale was signed in 1904, with Asian and African territories being divided between the two colonial powers, much to the displeasure of Germany. Wilhelm II, who was by this time the head of a powerful military and industrial empire, was looking to strengthen his economic influence and his modest African colonies were no longer enough for him. Indeed, in 1905 he made public his desire to ‘oppose French interests in Morocco’. A new landmark was reached in 1911 when the Panther gunboat was brought to Agadir following the arrival of French troops in Fes and Meknes, but confrontation was avoided.
The epicentre of the tension
The tension between the various powers on the European continent was focused on the Balkans. The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s annexation of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, which was also approved by Germany, did not go down at all well with Russia and its allies, but they were not prepared, in military terms, to go to war. The Balkan Wars took place in 1912 and 1913, the first resulting in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the Balkan League and Turkey losing its European territories. The second war saw former allies from the Balkan League fighting each other, resulting in victory for the Kingdom of Serbia and its allies over Bulgaria. The aftermath of this conflict saw the break-up of the Yugoslavian peninsula as well as an increase in nationalism.
Fear of one's neighbour
Old grudges and a fear of one’s neighbour were also background issues, with France, and its 39 million inhabitants, mistrusting Germany, with its population of 67.8 million and an increasingly keen appetite. Of course, should the opportunity to take back Alsace and Lorraine have arisen, that would have done the national pride no harm whatsoever. Germany felt torn between France and the Russian Empire, a constantly evolving demographic power which could potentially overwhelm it, whilst the Austro-Hungarian Empire was concerned about the vague attempts at expansion on the part of Serbia following its successes in the Balkan Wars. What remained of the Ottoman Empire was in danger of having its gateways to the ‘hot’ seas taken control of by Russia and the United Kingdom still remembered the desire expressed by Germany in 1900 to form a marine corps equivalent to the Royal Navy, whose supremacy on the seas, along with Britain’s territorial integrity, would therefore be under threat.