The First World War was no more started by Gavrilo Princips shooting Archduke Ferdinand and his wife than the computer age was ushered in by Bill Gates stringing MS-DOS together and flogging it off to IBM. Both events were merely catalysts which stirred up, probably unintentionally in both cases, something that was already on the boil.
The Great War actually started in 1897, and it was started, unwittingly, by Queen Victoria. And she started it by (a) living long enough to have a Diamond Jubilee, and (b) more to the point, having a major naval review at Spithead to celebrate it. Invited to that auspicious occasion was her grandson, the relatively newly-minted Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, itself a relatively newly-minted country. Willy had an inferiority complex of a magnitude which would allow any halfway decent psychiatrist to set himself up in practice on a one-client basis.
Prior to 1871, Germany had been a hodge-podge of small, bankrupt, squabbling and landlocked nation- and city-states. Prussia, the largest, wealthiest and most militaristic of those nation-states, was the lynch-pin of German unification, and Bismarck, the long-time Prussian Chancellor, had made it his life's work to complete the unification process which began after the revolutionary year of 1848. He had to fight three wars to achieve the end result, which was the nation of Germany. The last of these wars was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and it achieved Bismarck's real war aim - to encourage the dithering trans-Rhenish states to cleave unto Prussia/Germany's benevolent bosom.
In 1888, Bismarck had had to deal with two new Kaisers in one year. The first, Frederick III died of throat cancer. Kaiser Wilhelm II succeeded his father in the normal course of events royal. Bismarck had an immediate problem and opportunity presented to him, all at once. Willy was unstable, insecure and very conscious of his physical infirmities, which made him tricky to deal with. On the other hand, he was quite pliable if you knew how to tweak him. He was also irrationally patriotic, having been brought up during the final years of unification and the heady delights of forging a new nation. It was that irrational streak of nationalism which Bismarck sought to exploit, and he succeeded in spades, even though it quickly led to his own downfall in 1890, barely three years after Willy made the top job.
Cut to the 1890s. Nearly 20 years after unification, Germany had the largest standing army in Europe and not a lot for the General Staff to do. There hadn't been any general conflicts since 1870 and apart from the occasional colonisation project, there was no more unifying to be done. What's more, there was no prospect of any reasonable cause for war in sight. The Franco-Prussian War had been a feat of realpolitik which you have to admire, since France had presented no real threat to Germany at all but was manoeuvred into declaring war in any case, not exactly unwillingly. It had been an act of naked Prussian aggression justified by a lie. But there was no realistic prospect of a repeat performance, since someone had blabbed and the facts behind it were generally known, at least at governmental level, throughout Europe. Bismarck, now both German Chancellor and Prime Minister, tried to be pragmatic and to build Germany as a stable and increasingly prosperous nation. But Willy wasn't having any of that civil prosperity malarky when there were more exciting diplomatic games to play, and he fired Bismarck. And, after a fashion it was all Bismarck's own fault, because Willy had watched him at his Machiavellian best during the unification period, and decided that he could play, too.
Willy's nationalism, fuelled initially by Bismarck and kept stoked up to a red-hot pitch by the sycophantic German Imperial Court after Bismarck's departure, led him to continually look for opportunities to expand German influence, and preferably, Germany's borders. The concept of Germany having "her place in the sun" was coined about this time, and became rather a catch-cry. Even Belgium had colonies, for pete's sake, so why not Germany, even though she was rather late to the table, and most of the good cuts had already been divided up? The "place in the sun" concept was therefore used to justify some fairly nasty colonisation, mostly in bits of Africa that no one else wanted, but also in the Pacific. Samoa was a German possession for about 20 years, for instance. And that large, standing army, the finest in all Europe (which didn't include Great Britain at that time), was like having lots of money - it rather burned a hole in Willy's pockets.
Politically, Germany was as wacky as all get-out. There was a parliament, which looked after minor matters like the police and economic matters. But the Kaiser still had the main diplomatic strings in his hands, and there was little or nothing that the parliament could do to stop him pulling them however he chose. But at every turn he was blocked by his dear old granny. Or, at least, by her ministers.
Somehow, and it's not clear exactly how it came about, Germany, in the form of Willy, came to believe that Germany was Britain's equal in all things. Further, it was understood - by Germany alone, you understand - that there had been some arrangement, never discussed or agreed to in any way, shape or form, whereby Germany was to have unfettered influence in Europe and Britain was to continue to dominate the rest of the world. This was Britain's era of "splendid isolation", a deliberate policy staying above sordid affairs in Europe.
Willy already had his army, but the Imperial German Navy was a joke - a few gunboats and some very, very old ships. Prussia had only ever had a Baltic coastline, and her face had been turned firmly towards the land. Germany, on the other hand, had access, albeit crappy access through sandbars and very shallow water, to the North Sea which, never let it be forgotten, had once been called the German Sea. To a nationalist like Willy, it was like a red rag to a bull. It should be called the German Sea again. If he couldn't change the maps themselves, he could surely exert German influence over it. He began to build ships, and used the Keil Kanal, completed in 1895, to move them between the Baltic where most of them had been built, to their North Sea home ports. But the German shipbuilding programme was desultory.
Back to 1897 and the Spithead Review. Willy, whose inferiority complex was never far below the surface, turned up wearing a ridiculous military uniform and pickelhaube helmet (the one with the spike on top), covered in medals and ribbons he'd awarded himself. His gran, who, I guess, must have loved him as she would have all of her grandchildren, said nothing. But his uncle the Prince of Wales and various other cousins, second cousins and forty-second cousins at the event rather ribbed him about it. His pomposity was also a subject of fairly open amusement in the family, and he would have been hypersensitive to anything remotely resembling criticism. We don't know it for sure, but it would appear that his detestation of all things English probably stemmed from this time. Before that, it would seem unlikely that he would have considered war with Britain because of the family connections. But at some point, and this one seems the most likely from what is known, that stopped being a consideration. The brakes were, in effect, off.
Note: I'm leaving an awful lot of interesting stuff out of this, Faldo. Don't you wish you'd asked for the standard edition?
Anyway, back home in Germany, there were problems. The army was eating its head off and not doing very much, something which didn't pass unnoticed by the civil government. The pressure was going on to reduce the size of the force, but Willy resisted with all his might. His belief was that the army was his bailiwick, and the commons should just butt out. This was not forgotten. But, by and large, for the next few years Germany built a few ships and generally prospered. But something happened in 1906 to change all that.
That year, the British Navy launched HMS Dreadnought. The technical innovations incorporated into her 17,000-ton design meant that every other naval ship in the world was instantly obsolete. Although the British had built her simply because they could, Willy saw it as a challenge, and one that he couldn't ignore for Germany's sake. Germany had to have her own dreadnoughts, as the type of ship became generally known. A building programme began which saw Germany playing catch-up, but never actually catching up. She launched four dreadnought-type battleships in 1908. Britain had five in 1908. The British Admiralty used the German build-up as an excuse to hit up Parliament for funds to build more, and the "naval race" began. By 1914, Britain had some 29 dreadnoughts. Germany had seventeen. And everyone had forgotten that the reason for the naval build up, on both sides, was largely a figment of naval planners' imaginations.
The two countries, thanks in large part to an hysterical press, were now - for no real discernible reason - bitter foes, if peaceful ones. Both countries were very much financially much worse off for having built so many ships to so little purpose. It probably occurred to the admiralties on both sides that they had better find one. Britain had her empire, and the dreadnoughts duly went walkabout to show the flag, but not all of them at any given time. The German ships sat in harbours around the German coasts on the North Sea and the Baltic and didn't do very much. The British built facilities to manage the new ships at Rosyth and Moray Firth and established coaling stations in the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Germany saw this as a provocation which couldn't be ignored and gradually moved most of the dreadnoughts and other, lighter, ships to the North Sea.
By 1914 a number of other factors on the home front had also crept into German political thinking. The new chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, had economic problems to contend with. The worst of these was growing unemployment, although the cost of building battleships wasn't far behind. He was also uncomfortably aware that political activity, although in theory suppressed, was busy, busy, busy, and that nearly 100 socialist members of the German Parliament, called deputies, had been elected at the 1913 elections. There was unrest in Berlin and other northern cities and there appeared to be nothing which could be done, domestically, to quell it.
Bethmann-Hollweg, like many political leaders before him as well as since, came to the conclusion that a short, sharp war would pull the country together and would perhaps stimulate the flagging industrial base in the process. He would have preferred something local - but unspecified - although the prospect of a general European war did not faze him in the slightest, since he knew that the German armed forces were the strongest in Europe. It may also have crossed his mind that war reparations paid to Germany by the conquered nation(s) would help the treasury problems he was facing. That doing this was essentially an act of piracy would not have bothered him in the slightest. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France had paid Prussia an amount equivalent to US$1 billion in today's terms. Tasty, B-H thought, very tasty.
Willy, of course, agreed, although, perversely given his posturing, he emphasised that he wanted extremely limited war aims. It was thought at Court that Denmark or Holland might make a nice addition to the German collection of federated states. But this was really the limit of Willy's thirst for military adventurism. A general war, he thought, might have longer-term consequences which may not prove all that desirable. He was of course proven right, which may have been some slight balm to his wounded ego when he fled to Holland in November, 1918. However, B-H begged to differ, as did the German High Command, headed by Helmuth von Moltke since 1906. Willy's direct influence over political events had been rapidly eroding since the turn of the century as the political landscape in Germany shifted. Moltke was something of a fool, as subsequent events were to show, but he and the Chancellor were firmly agreed that a general conflict may not be such a bad thing.
But what to do, what to do? Germany could not appear to be the aggressor and another Ems Telegram event was unwise. Somehow, Germany had to get into a war that she didn't start. But then she would win it.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a loose collection of "conquered" but nominally self-governing territories. Austria effectively ruled the roost from Vienna, and the current rooster was Emperor Franz Josef from the House of Habsburg who, by 1914, was a doddering old fool, as opposed to the non-doddering young fool he had previously been. From 1867, the various territories of the empire were largely self-managed, with only foreign policy, the armed forces and the monarchy itself centralised. It incorporated a chunk of the Balkans and Italy as well as parts of what is today Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
The empire was a mixture of the ruling elite, the bureaucracy (for whom Alois Hitler, Adolf's daddy, worked as a customs official) and the peasantry. There was a small and well-controlled middle class, but in general the empire was run autocratically and innovation was frowned upon. Well, banned, really. The empire made a habit of losing its wars, having been soundly thrashed by Germany on a regular basis for centuries, whether it needed it or not.
The empire's soldiers had comic-opera uniforms, rode nice horses, wore shiny swords, carried well-polished but obsolete firearms, and generally rather despised the German propensity for efficiency and mechanisation. It should be noted that this attitude was also very much prevalent in the British army. Although the empire was a German ally, the German General Staff knew very well that it couldn't be relied on under stress. In 1914, the empire had a large army of dubious quality and value, ill-equipped and ill-led. The consequences of this were to be felt throughout the Great War. But, it should be noted, the empire also built dreadnoughts despite being almost completely landlocked except for a small area along the Italian/Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. The ships were a status symbol and presented no possible real threat to the rulers in Vienna.
By the early years of the twentieth century, the empire was really on its last legs. Resurgent nationalism in nearly all of the countries which comprised the empire, largely kept quiet, if not eradicated, since 1848, was destabilising the polity. Savage reprisals by the central government against the disaffected had the opposite effect to that intended, and even the non-politically minded citizens of the empire had little time or taste for it. Inertia carried it along. But then came the two Balkans Wars which resulted in - well, I guess, balkanisation of the Balkans after a lengthy period of at least administrative unity under the Turks. At the end of the second Balkans War in 1913, Serbia had grabbed Kosovo in the name of pan-Slavism. This established its "historical" claim to the area, something which, as we well know, has come back to haunt us. The empire didn't like it, but it wasn't a basis for war, but it realised that it would probably have to deal with its southern neighbour sooner or later. Various schemes to bring it into line were hatched and discarded in rapid succession. Ultimately it was decided to sent the rather unloved son and heir of the emperor, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, down to the area for a State visit to try to patch things up, or at least to smooth them over. Instead, the jaunt ultimately led to the end of the empire. Oh, well, the best laid plans of mice and men, etc.
The Russian Empire was more unified, but in even worse shape militarily and politically than the Austro-Hungarians. Czar after czar had sought safety in repression of the military. Competence was frowned upon. That attitude had disastrously and embarrassingly cost Russian the war with Japan in 1905 when the Japanese fleet destroyed the Russian fleet in detail at the Battle of Tsushima, and had directly resulted in the abortive 1905 revolution.
That Russia could be defeated at all did not past unnoticed in, for instance, oh, I dunno, how about Germany? If Russia could be defeated, then perhaps that "place in the sun" might be achievable after all.
The czars still considered it preferable to lose territory than to have an efficient, well-trained, well-provisioned and potentially dangerous army. You could always get territory back later on when you had a sufficient depth of it to stretch and break an enemy's supply lines. This approach had worked well for centuries, most notably during Napoleon's little foray to Moscow in 1812 and most recently in the Crimean War in 1856. Like the Austro-Hungarians, the Russian Empire completely ignored the advances in military technology during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. However, what the Russian army lacked in efficiency, equipment and training, it made up for in sheer numbers. This, too, had always been the basis of Russian strategic thinking since time immemorial. They found out in 1916 that this was no longer enough, but by that time events were well past recovery.
Czar Nicholas II, yet another of Queen Victoria's grandchildren, was more than usually politically na´ve. For instance, he believed that the Dreikaiserbund, the three-way treaty created between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary in 1879, actually meant something. Mind you, he wasn't the last Russian ruler to think that about treaties with Germany. "Cousin Nicky", as the British Royal Family called him, was a literalist, and wherever possible kept his word, something that the more cynical Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary and cynical realpolitikers in Berlin were about to find out the hard way.
Russia saw itself as the natural leader of the Slavs, and concluded a treaty with Serbia which guaranteed Serbian sovereignty on that basis, to the absolute fury of Vienna. The significance of this and the Czar's view of such treaties will become clear later on.
Things in Russia had not really settled down since 1905, with constant rumblings from the peasantry and, worse still, the nobility. The country was as near to bankruptcy as made no difference, and despite the freeing of the serfs in 1867 and a flood of people to the cities, industrial production was low and outbreaks of famine occurred nearly every year. This affected everybody, and everybody wanted someone else to blame. The Russian royal family itself was now under attack for its lethargy in managing the country, something that had been unthinkable only a decade before. The Rasputin scandal was, in a sense, a nail in the Romanov coffin. Things in Russia were not great in 1914.
Contrast the situation on the Continent with that in England. The empire was intact and generally peaceful, and prosperity and the spectre of more of it stalked the land. There had been a few nasty things happening, such as brushfire wars and gunboat diplomacy in foreign parts, but the only real blight in the Sceptred Isle itself was those damned suffragettes. The national treasury was a bit emptier for the naval arms race, but taxes and tribute (which is the same thing, only from foreign countries one has overrun, doncha know?) were keeping things financial on a reasonably even keel. England embraced new technologies almost as enthusiastically the United States and had been in the habit of actually producing them, although the US was taking over this mantle by the turn of the century. Nonetheless, Edwardian England was doing very well, thank you.
Victoria had died in 1903. Edward VII, the hard-living uncle of both the Czar and Willy, was loved almost everywhere and proved a rather competent king, much to the surprise of the government. Since the completion of the Entente Cordiale treaty between England and France, even the French had nearly forgotten their ingrained dislike of the British, and wildly cheered him when he visited France on an official basis, and pretended not to notice when he popped over privately for a bit of illicit R & R.
Britain had a policy of indifference to Europe, known as the doctrine of "splendid isolation". Britain didn't need Europe, and all Europeans were passing strange, don't you know, old boy? Most Britons didn't understand Europe, apart from the French to some extent, maybe. The Germans, the Austrians, and even the Dutch and Belgians, may as well have lived on the moon for all they knew or cared. At the diplomatic level, it was something of a different story. Britain was actually quite deeply involved with Europe, but quietly. But since the official attitude was one of studied ignorance, Europhiles kept a low profile. The empire was what mattered, and those blighters across the Atlantic, who bore watching. England's indifference was feigned, however. The treaty with Japan, completed in 1902, was designed specifically to prevent further German expansion in the Pacific. Britain didn't want to extend her domains, but neither did she want any other johnny-come-lately nascent colonial power to spread its wings in Britain's backyard which was, as far as Britain was concerned, most of the rest of the world. The other old-time colonial powers understood this instinctively. France and Belgium, both of which held fairly large swathes of Africa in thrall, plus Holland, made very sure that they posed no threat to Britain.
Apart from the Entente Cordial, Britain had one other treaty with a European power that actually mattered. This was the Treaty of London, arranged in the late 1820s, which promised Belgium direct support from Britain in the event that Belgium was attacked. It worked both ways, of course, but the Belgians were clearly the most likely to benefit from it. If, of course, Britain were to honour the agreement. This was, I'm sure, not seen as anything like a sure thing in Brussels. It was regarded as "that scrap of paper" in Berlin.
As a result of Britain's outward focus, the army had mostly been overseas doing things colonial for the latter part of the nineteenth century, but by chance, a number of experienced regiments had returned to their cobwebbed barracks in England in recent times, and in early 1914 a good part of the army was actually to hand.
French society by 1914 was still coming to terms with the end of the belle epoque. For one shining moment, France had been a world cultural leader which eclipsed the dreary realities of French society - France was, and remained, an agrarian country with a limited industrial capacity despite a generous helping of indigenous raw resources - if one could include Alsace-Lorraine, which at that point France could most definitely not, having lost the province to Prussia, now Germany, as part of the settlement over the 1870-71 war.
Still, life wasn't too bad for the French. There was little radical political activity, the harvests had been more than adequate for a number of years (and 1914 looked to be no exception). Good relations with Britain meant lots of English visitors with money pouring across the Channel and heading for various parts of Provence to spend it.
Militarily, the French were at their usual sixes and sevens. Joffre, the commander of French forces, had developed the infamous (and very secret at the time) Plan XVII, the masterplan for how France was going to fight and defeat Germany to win back Alsace-Lorraine. There were a few small errors or flaws in it, such as badly underestimating the German forces' capabilities and sadly overestimating those of France. It also kind of forgot to have a military goal in it apart from "beating Germany". But that was okay, c'est la vie franšais, n'est-ce pas?
French troops were poorly paid and were still dressed in the same basic uniform that they had worn at Waterloo and the Crimea, albeit with a few refinements, such as the fireman's helmet. There was a large standing army, but their quality was questionable, plus even more reservists, whose quality was known to be abysmal. The last thing France needed or wanted, in 1914, was war.
The Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was, depending on who you believe, a nice guy or a total waste of space. He and his wife visited Serbia to wave the flag and presented a nice, easy target for the Black Hand, a secret society almost as insidious as PNAC, and even more right-wing, as you would expect from the Serbs.
They drove through the streets in a landau, an open car, and apart from some outriders there was absolutely no security. There were several potential assassins from the Black Hand in the crowds lining the streets in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The first attempt was made at a bridge, but the bomb bounced off the car. In the following confusion the Archduke's car stopped dead, more or less in from of Princips, who did the job successfully.
We can now leave the dying Archduke, his wife and their assassin, because they really don't matter any more. I believe that the Archduke didn't much matter to his father, either. The Habsburgs were a bit that way inclined, and for some time Viennese complicity in the murder was suspected, although that has since been shown to be highly unlikely.
For three whole weeks, Austria-Hungary did nothing about it, despite German offering Austria the famous "blank cheque", i.e. saying that whatever Austria did, Germany would support her. In truth, there was little real reason for Austria to do anything, since Serbia had acted with commendable speed following the assassination. Princips had been arrested on the spot and the police investigation was well underway. But there was no rapid trial followed by an equally rapid hanging which was what Austria seemed to expect.
By mid-July Austria had decided that it wanted war with Serbia, but only after three weeks of political infighting in Vienna. It was agreed that a show of strength might well dampen the fires of nationalism which were being so distressingly stoked in the Balkans, and particularly by Serbia.
On July 24 an ultimatum that was worded, shall we say, less than diplomatically and containing some unreasonable demands was issued to Belgrade from Vienna. Serbia was caught out, and knew it. She agreed almost immediately to all of the demands except for a couple of the minor ones in an effort to forestall drastic Austrian action. But in the event, her rejection of the minor clauses was all the pretext required for Austria to declare war, and on July 28 she did so. On July 29 Belgrade was shelled by the Austrians.
Events then followed each other swiftly. Russia, in her role as guardian of the Slavic people, immediately declared war on Austria on the same day. Russia began full mobilisation on July 30.
On July 31, Germany demanded that Russia cease and desist, and at the same time demanded that the French should declare neutrality in the matter. France chose not to do this, but withdrew all her troops 10km back from the Franco-German border to avoid any display of potential aggression. Nevertheless, she began mobilisation on the following day, August 1, as a precautionary measure.
Germany formally declared war on Russia the same day, despite Willy's last-ditch attempts to prevent it. These were completely ignored by the German High Command, which by then had the bit between its teeth, and from that point on Willy had very little influence over the course of the war until close to the end of it.
France was hopeful that Britain would offer support in the event of a German attack, but British politicians knew that a better reason than a vague understanding between the countries would be required to convince the British public that the country should become involved. The Germans obliged by providing that reason the very next day.
On August 2, the German High Command demanded Belgian neutrality in the face of German occupation of the country as a prelude to an push on Paris. The Belgians rejected this unreasonable demand on August 3 and on August 4, German troops invaded Belgium.
Britain reacted by demanding what was charming described as a "satisfactory explanation" for Germany's actions, reply required by 11 p.m. at the latest, old boy. When this failed to arrive, Britain declared war on Germany. The die was cast.
Italy later declared neutrality, and Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, as a result of the 1902 treaty between Britain and Japan.
A complicated web of treaties had alternatively joined and unjoined the major European powers, as well as some of the minor ones, since the turn of the century.
The important ones were the Dreikaiserbund, the "Three Emperors' League" between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia which was later whittled down the the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria when Russia withdrew from it; the Entente Cordiale between England and France; an alliance between France and Russia; and the treaties between Britain and Belgium and Serbia and Russia.
These were all mutual support treaties which, if honoured, virtually guaranteed a general conflict if a war started between any two countries in Europe.
And yet it may still not have come that except for German paranoia about having to fight a war on two fronts.
Germany had a strict plan to follow in the event of a war with Russia because of the treaty between France and Russia. This was called the Schlieffen Plan and it was based on Germany's knowledge that Russia could not fully mobilise in less than six weeks, and her belief that she could defeat France within five weeks. The plan called for a lightning invasion of France through Belgium which would result in the capture of Paris. The original plan called for the invasion of Holland as well, but von Moltke scrapped that part of the plan because, politically, it suited Germany to have Holland remain neutral. The Germans believed that the Treaty of London between Britain and Belgium, now some 75 years old, would never be honoured and that Britain would therefore not enter the war. Once France was defeated, the Schlieffen Plan called for most of the German army to be transported back across Germany to confront Russia towards the end of Russia's six-week mobilisation period.
The rigorous timetable of the Schlieffen Plan was never going to work, although it did come close to success.
Once the invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France started, the Germans found that French resistance was much stronger than expected. They also found that the logistical problems that such a rapid movement generated were insuperable. In the event, the two German armies were separated when the southern army was forced to try to flank the French army on the Marne. This left a 50km gap between the two armies, into which the French threw their troops, forcing a temporary slowdown and then a halt in the advance.
This gave Britain time to throw her seasoned troops into the fray. The Battle of the Aisne completely stopped the German advance. The Germans, British and French troops then began a race to the sea in a vain attempt to outflank each other, using trenches as fixed defences to protect their flanks and rear.
By the end of November, 1914, trenches had been dug from the Channel Coast to the Swiss border and the war of movement in the west stopped.