Buildup to War

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Buildup to War

On June 28, 1914, in the streets of Sarajevo, a young Bosnian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This single event triggered a chain reaction that slowly drew every major European nation and many other nations around the world into the bloodiest war yet known to humanity, a war now known as World War I. But World War I was not caused by a single gunshot. It arose out of tensions that had gripped Europe for nearly fifty years. To understand how and why the war began, one must first understand the conditions in Europe before the war.

Though it is known as World War I, the conflict that shook the world from 1914 to 1918 had its roots in a European conflict. When it began, the Great War, as it was first known, pitted the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Great Britain in a dispute over Serbian interference in Austro-Hungarian affairs. (Upon entering into war the opposing sides are known in this work as the Central Powers and the Allies, respectively.) The most important and bloody battles of the war were fought

on European soil. But the war also spread to involve the far-flung colonies and allies of the larger warring empires.

The Shape of Europe

Western Europe at the dawn of World War I looked much as it does today, with France and Germany the dominant geographic and economic powers on the Continent. It had not always been this way. In fact, a hundred years earlier there had been no German nation, but rather a scattering of independent Germanic states. Beginning in the 1860s the state of Prussia, led by Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), began to conquer the other Germanic states in a series of short wars. Prussia defeated Denmark in 1863 and Austria in 1865, proving itself the dominant power in Europe—except for France. Finally, in 1870, Prussia and its allied German states attacked France. To the surprise of many observers, Prussia and its allies defeated the French, and by doing so they changed the political landscape of Europe.

Following the Franco-Prussian War, in January 1871 the Germans unified their twenty-six independent states into the German Empire. They named Prussian King Wilhelm I (1797–1888) their emperor, or kaiser, and Bismarck became the chancellor, the German equivalent of a prime minister. One of the first acts of the German Empire was to penalize France for its recent defeat in war. The Germans claimed the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine for their own and forced the French to pay reparations (cash payments for damages done during wartime). These penalties were perceived as a grave insult by the French and ensured that the two countries would remain enemies for years to come.

German Alliances

The Franco-Prussian War established Germany as a major power in Europe, but the German Empire was far from strong enough to succeed on its own. To the east of Germany lay Russia, a vast country with a huge population. Hoping to ensure that it would not have to battle both France and Russia at the same time, Germany initially sought friendship with the Russians. In 1872 Bismarck engineered an agreement known as the League of the Three Emperors, in which the emperors of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia pledged their friendship to each other. That alliance was renewed and made more lasting with the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887, in which Germany and Russia pledged not to go to war with one another. But friendship with Russia was not to last. Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888, and his grandson, Wilhelm II, took the throne; Bismarck, architect of the peace with Russia, soon left office. Relations between German and Russian leaders quickly broke down, and before long Russia entered into a more secure alliance with Germany's enemy, France.

Germany's strongest alliance was with Austria-Hungary, its neighbor to the south. Austria-Hungary was the oldest of the European monarchies, and it was ruled by the longestserving head of state, the Emperor Franz Josef I. Franz Josef I had taken the throne in 1848; by 1914, the aging Franz Josef had been in power for sixty-six years. The Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted of two separate states that shared a single emperor and followed a single military and foreign policy. Thea Austrian half of the partnership had its capital in Vienna, and the Hungarian half-claimed Budapest as its capital. The Hungarian half of the empire was split into a variety of ethnic groups: Half of its inhabitants were Magyars (ethnic Hungarians), but there were significant minorities of Romanians, Germans, Slovaks, Croatians, and Serbs. These ethnic divisions would eventually lead to the breakup of the empire.

Germany first allied itself with Austria-Hungary in the League of the Three Emperors (1872). In 1879, however, the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary created the Dual Alliance, in which the two countries agreed to support each other in any military conflict. When Kaiser Wilhelm II took power in 1888 and ended the German friendship with Russia, he strengthened German ties with Austria. Wilhelm II felt that he could dominate the partnership with Austria-Hungary. Little did he know that this weaker partner would soon draw Germany into a war that it might otherwise have avoided.

France and Russia

Despite its defeat by the Germans in 1870, France was still a powerful nation. Following the Franco-Prussian War, the French quickly developed one of the strongest economies in Europe; they also built one of the strongest armies in the world. Yet they could not help but fear the growing power of Germany, especially as it secured an alliance with Austria-Hungary that extended German power from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. As Russia slipped from the German embrace in the 1890s, France sought to strengthen ties with the Russians.

France and Russia were very different countries. A republic since the fall of Napoléon III in 1870, France had the most representative government on the Continent. The French people elected a two-house legislature, which selected the country's president; the president in turn selected a prime minister. Russia, on the other hand, had one of the least representative and most authoritarian governments. Russia was led after 1894 by Czar Nicholas II. (Czar, also spelled tsar, is a Russian term for emperor; the czar was also known as "Emperor and Autocrat of all Russias.") Power in Russia was shared by the czar and an elected parliament, but it was not shared equally: The czar had full control over military affairs. Despite their differences, both France and Russia wished to contain the power of Great Britain's colonial empire and defend themselves against the growing strength of the Dual Alliance.

By 1894 France and Russia had entered into an alliance of their own. They agreed to share military plans and to protect each other in case of war. France loaned Russia money to help it construct a railroad spanning the vast Russian countryside. Both countries agreed that they needed to protect the Slavic peoples living to the east of the Austro-Hungarian border. And both countries were concerned about the power of the world's greatest empire, the British Empire.

The British Empire

Lying just off the continent of Europe was one of the most powerful nations in the world, Great Britain. What made Great Britain so powerful? As the first nation in the world to experience the industrial revolution, Britain had a powerful economy. It had many factories and its banking system was strong. More importantly, Britain had colonies and territories scattered throughout the world, including India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and portions of Africa and the Caribbean. Legend had it that "the sun never set on the British Empire." These colonies and territories provided markets for British goods and raw material for British factories. In order to protect its interests around the world, Britain had built the world's most powerful navy.

The growing strength of Germany, France, and Russia concerned Great Britain. These countries were also eager to build their empires by establishing colonies and trading relationships in other parts of the world. Russia was interested in gaining influence in Afghanistan; France wanted to extend its influence in Africa; and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II launched a plan for expansion he called welt-politik, or world scheme. By the turn of the century, Germany had colonies in China, Western Samoa, and Africa. Britain worried that the race for empire would bring on a war. It needed to find an ally among the European powers. But which one?

In the end, Britain allied itself with France and Russia. The reasons were many: Britain and France had a long history of cultural ties; Britain stood to gain the most by avoiding conflict with Russia and France; and Britain wanted to contain German expansion. In 1904 Britain and France signed the Entente Cordiale (an entente is an understanding), an agreement settling long-running arguments over colonial territories and promising future cooperation in military affairs. The Entente Cordiale was tested in 1905 and 1906 when France and Germany clashed over the African country of Morocco. Britain supported France in the conflict, thus ending German influence in Morocco. In 1907 Russia and Great Britain agreed to settle their differences in Afghanistan, Persia, and the Black Sea. Britain now joined with France and Russia in what was called the Triple Entente.

Booming Economies

The alliances and ententes that the major European powers entered into were designed to offer protection and stability. Germany had enemies on the west and east, but it knew it could rely on Austria-Hungary in case of war. France and Russia felt that together they could contain what they saw as Germany's desire to dominate Europe. Britain felt that it could best retain its empire with the help of France and Russia. The alliances offered a sense of peace, but they did not discourage competition between the countries. In the years leading up to World War I, each of the major combatant countries grew dramatically, both in population and in economic strength. As they grew, and watched each other grow, each country became wary of the other's power.

Though Britain had industrialized first (in the middle to late eighteenth century), by 1900 the most vibrant economy in Europe belonged to Germany. According to Stewart Ross, author of Causes and Consequences of World War I, "Between 1870 and 1914 Germany's coal production soared 800 percent to rival Britain's. By the outbreak of war, Germany was producing as much iron as Britain and twice as much steel. Its electricity output matched that of Britain, France, and Italy combined, while its electrical and chemical industries led the world." Germany's share of world manufacturing grew from 8.5 percent in 1880 to 14.8 percent in 1913; during the same period Britain's share fell from 22.9 percent to 13.6 percent, according to P. M. Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000.

Germany was not the only country growing quickly. France was also industrializing rapidly, and it shared its abundant capital with Russia, which grew to overtake France in the production of coal, iron, and steel. Perhaps even more than France, Russia posed a threat to Germany. Its population was more than twice Germany's, and with French financial support, it seemed that Russia might soon threaten Germany's economic dominance. Across the seas lay yet another economic giant, the United States. Its growing production in the closing years of the nineteenth century promised that it would soon become the world's largest economy. Because the United States had no formal alliances with the European powers, it was free to supply war material to any country it liked.

Building Modern Armies

As the economic power of the countries grew, so too did their military power. But the military power of the combatant countries did not grow evenly. In fact, in the years leading up to the war, Germany fell behind Russia, France, and Britain in its ability to wage war (as measured by the number of men, ships, and guns it had available for the war effort). The story can largely be told in numbers.

Military thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century generally believed that victory in battle would go to the army that put the most soldiers into the field the quickest. Thus they placed a premium on having large standing armies and on having huge numbers of trained men ready to be called up for service. The Russians, with their large population, naturally had the largest army. Their peacetime strength (the number of soldiers in active service ready for battle) stood at 1,445,000 in 1914; they were capable of increasing this force to 3,400,000 in case of war, according to statistics quoted by Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War. France followed Russia in peacetime strength, with 827,000 soldiers, a force it could increase to 1,800,000 in wartime. With their allies—Belgium,

Serbia, and Montenegro—the Entente powers had a total peacetime army of 2,622,000 men and a total wartime strength of 5,726,000. Both the Russian and French armies relied on conscription, or required service in the armed forces. The British resisted calls for peacetime conscription and thus had a much smaller army.

German military leaders feared the huge and growing armies of France and Russia and bolstered their own army's strength accordingly. Military service laws passed in Germany in 1912 and 1913 increased the strength of the German army dramatically. By 1914, according to statistics cited by Ferguson, the German military had a peacetime strength of 761,000 men and was capable of increasing its wartime strength to 2,147,000. Austria-Hungary boasted a peacetime strength of 478,000 and could expand its army to a wartime strength of 1,338,000. Together, the Dual Alliance powers could count on a wartime army of 3,485,000 men—over 2 million men less than the Entente powers.

The Entente powers also had a significant advantage at sea, thanks to Britain's navy, which was known as the greatest in the world. In 1914, Britain boasted 209,000 naval personnel and 29 large naval vessels. Russia and France contributed 54,000 and 68,000 men and 4 and 10 large naval vessels, respectively. In total, the Entente countries had 331,000 men and 43 large naval vessels. German strategists had long feared British dominance on the seas. Their biggest fear was that a powerful British navy could blockade the import of food and supplies to Germany in case of war. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted desperately to develop a world-class navy, and he poured money into the effort. Still, by 1914 Germany had just 79,000 naval personnel supporting 17 large naval vessels. Combined with Austria's meager navy—16,000 men and 3 large naval vessels—the Central Powers had only 95,000 men and 20 large naval vessels. Thus the Entente powers had three times as many men and twice as many ships at the beginning of the war. It was an advantage that would, in the end, prove impossible to overcome.

The numbers of men capable of fighting for the warring nations were important, but there were other factors to consider. Though Germany had fewer men than its enemies, German military strategists believed that they possessed a real lead in mobilization (the process of bringing an army to the field of battle). To mobilize well was to quickly bring soldiers, guns, and supplies to the front, and at this the Germans were prepared to excel. They had the most developed railway system on the Continent, and their general staff (bureaucrats in charge of war planning) had developed detailed plans for speeding troops to key positions. The Germans felt that in this area they were unrivaled in Europe. With its booming industrial capacity, Germany also had slight advantages in the number and quality of its weapons. Russia, for all its numbers, was known for mobilizing slowly and for having inferior weaponry. These failures would cost the Russians thousands of lives.

Steps on the Road to War

The mere existence of interlocking alliances and growing armies was not enough to drag Europe into war. In fact, despite popular fears in each of the eventual warring nations that the enemy was priming for attack, each country had good reasons to avoid war. In the first decade of the century, antiwar socialist political parties were slowly gaining power in France, Austria, Britain, Russia, and especially Germany. According to Ferguson, these parties were growing in strength because every country in Europe was extending the vote to more of its citizens. The number of votes going to antiwar socialist parties reached 25.4 percent in Austria in 1911, 16.8 percent in France in 1914, and 34.8 percent in Germany in 1912. These figures indicate that substantial minorities of citizens supported candidates who wanted to avoid European wars. Most businessmen too preferred to avoid war. Despite growing popular opinion against war, a series of diplomatic clashes brought war ever closer.

In 1905 the French sought to increase their influence in North Africa by declaring Morocco a French colony. Germany protested this move, for it wanted a port of its own in Morocco. Kaiser Wilhelm II traveled to Tangier, the capital of Morocco, to assure the sultan of Morocco of his friendship. Britain stood by French aims in the region and helped prevent armed conflict when it organized the Algeciras Conference of 1906. The Algeciras Conference divided control of Morocco between the French and the Spanish, and refused to allow the Germans to establish a port there. It was a stinging rebuke for Germany, which had wanted to extend its power into North Africa.

A bigger crisis between the European powers developed in 1908. The Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, had long dominated affairs on the Balkan Peninsula, a landmass that included the states and provinces of Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Albania, and Greece. The Ottoman Empire's control of the region had been slipping for some time, however. Serbia wanted to extend its influence in the region, and several of the states wanted to become independent. Austria-Hungary, however, did not like the idea of independent Serb countries on its borders; it wanted to keep the Balkan States under its control. In 1908 it annexed (claimed as part of Austria-Hungary) the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia, which claimed Bosnia and Herzegovina as its own, appealed to Russia for help, and Russia protested Austria-Hungary's actions. At this point the German kaiser announced that he supported his ally and would gladly go to war alongside Austria-Hungary if need be. Russia was not willing to go to war with Germany and backed down. The confrontation left bad blood in the east: Russia was humiliated and determined not to back down again; Serbs in Serbia and within Bosnia and Herzegovina vowed to have their revenge against Austria-Hungary. The stage was set for future troubles in the Balkans.

In 1911 the Morocco issue came back to haunt Europe again. The French broke the agreement made at the Algeciras Conference by trying to establish more direct control over the semi-independent kingdom and Germany, France, and Britain all sent or prepared to send troops to the region. The Germans once again looked to gain a foothold in North Africa, and the French and British were determined to keep the Germans out. Three European powers stood on the brink of war. When British prime minister David Lloyd George spoke out against Germany and assured the French that they had full British support, the Germans backed down. But like Russia, they resolved that next time they would not give in to diplomatic pressure.

At the Breaking Point

By the early 1910s the peace that had existed in Europe for the previous forty years was growing increasingly uneasy. Since 1870 the major powers had slowly organized themselves into two competing blocks: the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Great Britain. Each side viewed the actions of the other with suspicion. Germany, which already felt itself surrounded by Russia on its east and France on its west, suspected that the French and British were working together to halt German colonial efforts in Africa. Russia and Austria-Hungary both thought that the Baltic region should be under their control. And now, after the diplomatic clashes over Morocco and the Balkans, the leaders of each country felt compelled to defend the honor of their country.

Each of the major powers had made itself highly capable of waging war; each country had masses of men and military weaponry at the ready. Despite rising antiwar beliefs among the people, there was also a spirit of nationalism in each country. This meant that if leaders decided to go to war, they could count on the support of the people. Military leaders had laid careful plans for how they would wage war; their mobilization schedules stood ready.

Between 1911 and 1914, the prospect of war was in the air. Europe awaited the incident that would provoke leaders to use military force. Not surprisingly, that incident came in the Balkans. Through 1912 and 1913 small wars flared between the Balkan states and provinces. Serbia grew in strength, but neither Austria-Hungary nor Russia intervened. Then, in 1914, a pro-Serbian terrorist from Bosnia assassinated Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Unwilling to ignore this open assault, Austria-Hungary decided that it must punish Serbia. The alliances locked into place: Germany sided with Austria-Hungary, Russia came to the defense of Serbia, and the French sided with Russia. Within days, Europe was on the brink of war. The next chapter discusses how the assassination of the archduke finally drew all of Europe into war.

For More Information

Bosco, Peter. World War I. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Clare, John D., ed. First World War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Sommerville, Donald. World War I: History of Warfare. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Stewart, Gail. World War One. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1991.


Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992.

Kennedy, P. M. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987.

Ross, Stewart. Causes and Consequences of World War I. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Country Snapshot: Germany

  • Total population (1913): 66.9 million
  • Industrial Potential (1913; Britain in 1900 = 100): 137.7*
  • Share of World Manufacturing Output (1913; as percentage of whole): 14.8 percent
  • Military and Naval Personnel (1914): 891,000
  • Warship Tonnage (1914): 1,305,000**

(Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers [New York: Random House, 1987], p. 199.)

* This is a relative measure of the strengths of the various economies.

** This is a measure of the number of tons of water displaced by a nation's warships.

Country Snapshot: Austria-Hungary

  • Total population (1913): 52.1 million
  • Industrial Potential (1913; Britain in 1900 = 100): 40.7*
  • Share of World Manufacturing Output (1913; as percentage of whole): 4.4 percent
  • Military and Naval Personnel (1914): 444,000
  • Warship Tonnage (1914): 372,000**

(Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers [New York: Random House, 1987], p.199.)

* This is a relative measure of the strengths of the various economies.

** This is a measure of the number of tons of water displaced by a nation's warships.

Country Snapshot: France

  • Total population (1913): 39.7 million
  • Industrial Potential (1913; Britain in 1900 = 100): 57.3*
  • Share of World Manufacturing Output (1913; as percentage of whole): 6.1 percent
  • Military and Naval Personnel (1914): 910,000
  • Warship Tonnage (1914): 900,000**

(Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers [New York: Random House, 1987], p.199.)

* This is a relative measure of the strengths of the various economies.

** This is a measure of the number of tons of water displaced by a nation's warships.

Country Snapshot: Great Britain

  • Total population (1913): 45.6 million
  • Industrial Potential (1913; Britain in 1900 = 100): 127.2*
  • Share of World Manufacturing Output (1913; as percentage of whole): 13.6 percent
  • Military and Naval Personnel (1914): 532,000
  • Warship Tonnage (1914): 2,714,000**

(Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers [New York: Random House, 1987], p. 199.)

* This is a relative measure of the strengths of the various economies.

** This is a measure of the number of tons of water displaced by a nation's warships.

Country Snapshot: Russia

  • Total population (1913): 175.1 million
  • Industrial Potential (1913; Britain in 1900 = 100): 76.6*
  • Share of World Manufacturing Output (1913; as percentage of whole): 8.2 percent
  • Military and Naval Personnel (1914): 1,352,000
  • Warship Tonnage (1914): 679,000**

(Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers [New York: Random House, 1987], p. 199.)

* This is a relative measure of the strengths of the various economies.

** This is a measure of the number of tons of water displaced by a nation's warships.

Country Snapshot: United States

  • Total population (1913): 97.3 million
  • Industrial Potential (1913; Britain in 1900 = 100): 298.1*
  • Share of World Manufacturing Output (1913; as percentage of whole): 32.0 percent
  • Military and Naval Personnel (1914): 164,000
  • Warship Tonnage (1914): 985,000**

(Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers [New York: Random House, 1987], p.199.)

* This is a relative measure of the strengths of the various economies.

** This is a measure of the number of tons of water displaced by a nation's warships.

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Buildup to War

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