Chapter one: Antebellum
The route which led to war in 1914 was long and tortuous, with many complex and related factors eventually combining to drive them into a protracted and cataclysmic struggle. Among these factors were new naval and military technology, colonial rivalries, economic competition and irreconcilable national ambitions. However, perhaps the most important and obvious turning point towards a general European conflict was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, which gave rise to a new power, Germany, brought about a fundamental shift in the European balance of power. Germany's subsequent and accelerating progress towards economic ascendancy only intensified the anxieties of her neighbours and competitors.
For the best part of two decades, between 1871 and 1890, the new European status quo was not seriously challenged. Bismarck was a relatively benign influence on Europe, and kept the continent in check through his diplomatic dexterity and deviousness by entangling intrigues that ensured that France, eager for revanche after the defeat 1870, remained isolated. The defeat at Sedan and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine poisoned the soul of France, and as malady that poisoned his spirit. "N'en parlez jamais; pensez-y toujours", Leon Gambetta had said and Victor Hugo stated:
France has only to think about rebuilding his army, to concentrate his strenght, to nurture his holy anger, to call to arms the young generations to create a popular army, to work without rest, to study the methods and weakest points of the enemy. Once she has become the great France, the one of 1792, she will expose her ideas through the sword. Some day she will be irresistible. And that day she will recover Alsace and Lorraine.The poison was there. War would come, sooner or later. Meanwhile, Britain was happy to acquiesce in Bismarck’s new system in the realisation that his diplomacy worked for the preservation – not expansion – of Germany.
His Imperial and Royal Majesty, The German Emperor, King of Prussia, Wilhelm II
However, the ascension of Wilhelm II to the throne in 1889 and the sacking of Bismarck in 1890 resulted in an unpredictable flood of events that began to erode the foundations of his carefully constructed Continental system. The new agenda of the Kaiser set out to expand the power and influence of Germany, firstly by expanding its colonial possessions and by building of a large navy. However, he soon run into troubles.
Wilhelm caused a rapid deterioration in Russo-German relations that led to a rapprochement between Tsarist Russia and Republican France. Paris jumped at the oportunity to begin his vendetta. In 1892 both countries concluded a military agreement - reinforced by additional talks in 1893 and 1894 - under which each promised to come to the other's aid if either were attacked by Germany. This agreement compelled Germany to strengthen her existing links with the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, linking Germany to a dilapidated empire that was itself finding it increasingly difficult to curb the nationalist aspirations of its diverse subject peoples in south-eastern Europe. Thus Germany was embroilled in the troubles at the Balkans, where the decline of Turkish influence caused a void of power which Austria and Russia rushed to fill, tempted by the territorial and political prizes in the region. In seeking to exploit such opportunities, Austria and Russia each embarked upon a course which could only end in confrontation. The rise of Serbia added yet another hazardous element to an unstable regional mixture. Serbia had been infuriated by Austria's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 but had herself gained influence and territory as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, giving Austria, in turn, mounting cause for disquiet and irritation.
Illustration from the French magazine Le Petit Journal on the Bosnian Crisis: Bulgaria declares its independence and its prince Ferdinand is named Tsar, Austria-Hungary, in the person of Emperor Francis Joseph, annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II looks on.
Those changes ultimately forced Britain to review her relations with other leading players on the European and world stage. Admittedly, Germany was not the only power that made Britain uneasy. Recurrent tension in her relations with France and Russia, previously her chief naval competitors, had caused Britain to pass the Naval Defence Act in 1889 in order to safeguard the supremacy on which her national security and prosperity rested. The Act embraced the doctrine that the Royal Navy's establishment should, at any given time, match the combined naval strength of any two other countries. The maintenance of this 'Two Power Standard' became more difficult as the United States and Japan also began to overhaul Britain industrially and to build ocean-going fleets.
To secure her possessions in the Far East from the possibility of French or Russian attack – or more worryingly – a Japanese attack, Britain secured an alliance with Japan. To the relief of British strategists, the Japanese alliance considerably reduced British anxieties in the Far East and enabling Britain to concentrate more warships in home waters.
Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary
In finding support in Europe, Britain’s first attempt was to seek the friendship of Germany. Britain was, in fact, relatively friendly with Germany for much of the last quarter of the 19th century. It was the German Navy Laws of 1898 and 1900 that did most to alienate Britain. When France and Russia appeared to remain antagonistic towards Britain, Britain approached Germany and began negotiations for a formal alliance. The British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, went as far as to suggest an Anglo-German alliance which would be eventually extended to the United States of America. However, German Chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, misunderstood the British bargaining position: he correctly assumed that Britain yearned friendship, but he was wrong when he supposed that she would never seek it with France or Russia. Von Bülow concluded that if Britain could only find friendship with Germany, then she should be put off until a later date when Germany had more influence. Negotiations broke down. It was effectively necessary for Britain to neutralise the threat of Germany, not by aligning with her, but by lending support to the two weaker powers who already opposed her: France and Russia.
Negotiations between Chamberlain and Paul Cambon began almost as soon as the talks with Germany broke down, putting aside petty differences for the sake of self-preservation. By April 1904, the Entente Cordiale had been signed by Britain and France – an understanding, not an alliance – that put aside the two powers’ differences in Egypt, Siam, Morocco and Newfoundland. A similar understanding was reached with Russia in 1907, once Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/5 had all but removed the long-standing Russian threat to India. Thus before the end of the first decade of the 20th century Britain had swung noticeably towards the Franco-Russian alliance.
The understandings with France and Russia did not constitute formal agreements and neither did they commit Britain irrevocably to go to war in support of either power, but she was now at least morally bound to France and Russia in opposition to the Central Powers, Germany and Austria. Any unforeseen incident involving one or more of these countries might well ignite a general conflagration which, because of the rival alliance systems, could engulf them all. In these circumstances it would certainly not have served Britain's interests to stand aside and allow Germany to conquer France and occupy the Channel ports. Therefore, despite all the contradictions in Britain's new international stance, the possibility of her participation in a European war on the side of France and Russia was - as Germany should have been well aware - far from remote.
The Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought, the world's first moder battleship.
Diplomatic manoeuvres, opposing alliances and naval rivalry were not the only ingredients which rendered the European powder keg more explosive and conditioned nations and peoples for armed conflict. The decades before 1914 also saw the rise of a popular press ready to glorify deeds of military valour or take an unashamed Jingoistic line when reporting foreign affairs. Chauvinism and aggressive imperialism were similarly encouraged by capitalism. Fashionable ideas about 'national efficiency' and concepts such as 'Social Darwinism' emphasised the survival of the fittest and fostered the belief that war was a purifying ordeal necessary to counter any signs of national decadence and moral degeneration. As most political and military leaders erroneously thought that should war come, it would be short, statesmen were generally more willing to solve international disputes by military rather than diplomatic means.