The World War I Begins

French soldiers moving into attack from their trench during the Verdun battle, 1916.

The outbreak of World War I, also known as the Great War, was a cataclysmic global conflict that reshaped the course of history. It began on July 28, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo. This event served as the spark that ignited a powder keg of political tensions and rivalries among European powers. Through a complex web of alliances and escalating diplomatic disputes, the conflict swiftly engulfed much of the world, involving major powers such as Germany, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, among others. The war would ultimately claim millions of lives and leave a lasting legacy of destruction and upheaval across the globe.

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, by Gavrilo Princip, a member of a Yugoslav nationalist organization with ties to Serbian intelligence, indeed marked the spark that ignited the powder keg of Europe, leading to the outbreak of World War I. This event did not occur in isolation but was the culmination of longstanding tensions and rivalries among the great powers of Europe.

Austria-Hungary’s reaction to the assassination was one of outrage and determination to use the incident as a pretext to crush the perceived threat of Serbian nationalism and its potential to destabilize the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s control over its Slavic populations. On July 23, 1914, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia, containing demands that were intentionally almost impossible to fully accept. Serbia’s response, while conciliatory, did not meet all the demands, giving Austria-Hungary the cause it sought to declare war on July 28, 1914.

The intricate system of alliances and treaties that had developed in Europe played a crucial role in the escalation that followed. Russia, bound by Slavic ties and alliances to Serbia, began to mobilize its forces. Germany, allied with Austria-Hungary through the Dual Alliance, declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, and on Russia’s ally France on August 3, 1914. Germany’s invasion of Belgium to outflank the French army brought Britain into the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary by August 4, 1914, due to treaties guaranteeing Belgian neutrality.

Thus, what began as a regional conflict quickly escalated into a global war that would involve many of the world’s great powers and span multiple continents. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand exposed the fragility of the international system and set off a chain of military mobilizations and declarations of war, driven by a complex web of alliances, rivalries, and nationalistic fervor. The ensuing conflict, World War I, would become one of the deadliest and most destructive wars in history, fundamentally altering the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century and setting the stage for future conflicts.

Declaration of War

Cheering crowds in London and Paris on the day war was declared.

The declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia on July 28, 1914, indeed set off a domino effect, drawing the major European powers into a conflict that expanded far beyond the initial dispute. The intricate network of alliances and treaties that had been established in the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand meant that the Austro-Serbian conflict quickly escalated into a wider European war.

The Alliance System

Europe before World War I was characterized by a complex web of alliances. The two major alliances were:

The Triple Entente: Comprising France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, this alliance was formed in response to the perceived threat from the Central Powers. The entente was not a formal alliance but rather a series of agreements between these three powers, which had come to view Germany’s growing military and industrial power as a common threat.

The Triple Alliance: Comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, this alliance was intended to serve as a counterweight to the Triple Entente. However, when the war broke out, Italy opted for neutrality initially, citing that the Triple Alliance was defensive in nature and that Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war was an act of aggression.

Mobilization and Escalation

Russian Mobilization: Russia, considering itself the protector of Slavic peoples and bound by treaty obligations to Serbia, began mobilizing its vast army in support of Serbia. This mobilization was viewed by Germany as an act of aggression against Austria-Hungary, its ally.

German Declaration of War: Germany, operating under the Schlieffen Plan, which called for a quick victory in France to avoid a two-front war, declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, and on France on August 3, 1914. Germany’s invasion of Belgium to outflank the French army led Britain to declare war on Germany on August 4, 1914, due to its obligations to protect Belgian neutrality.

The Wider Conflict

The declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia thus acted as the catalyst for a wider European conflict. The system of alliances ensured that once one power was drawn into the conflict, its allies, and subsequently their allies, would also be compelled to enter the fray. The rapid escalation from a regional dispute to a full-scale European war underscored the fragility of peace in an era marked by nationalism, militarism, and imperial rivalry.

This outbreak of World War I marked the beginning of a devastating conflict that would engulf much of the world, leading to unprecedented levels of destruction and loss of life. The war would ultimately reshape the political landscape of Europe, dismantle empires, and set the stage for further geopolitical tensions in the 20th century.

The expansion of the conflict

Japanese soldiers occupy an abandoned German trench during the Siege of Tsingtao, 1914

The expansion of the conflict from a localized skirmish between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a full-scale global war is a stark illustration of how tightly interwoven alliances and military strategies can escalate a regional dispute into a worldwide catastrophe. The mobilization of Russian forces in support of Serbia was seen by Germany as an act of aggression against Austria-Hungary, its ally, under the terms of the Dual Alliance. This prompted Germany to execute the Schlieffen Plan, a pre-existing military strategy designed to avoid a two-front war by quickly defeating France before turning to fight Russia.

Germany’s declaration of war on Russia on August 1, 1914, was quickly followed by a declaration of war on France on August 3, 1914. The German invasion of Belgium was a critical move intended to bypass the strong fortifications along the Franco-German border. However, this invasion violated Belgian neutrality, a status guaranteed by international treaty, to which Britain was a signatory. Britain’s entry into the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, 1914, was a direct response to the German violation of Belgian neutrality, but it also reflected deeper concerns about maintaining the balance of power in Europe and protecting British interests abroad.

As the conflict expanded, other nations were drawn into the fray due to their own alliances and interests. Italy, initially allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, declared neutrality at the outset of the war but later entered on the side of the Allies in 1915, swayed by promises of territorial gains. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in 1914, further extending the conflict’s geographic scope. Similarly, Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1914, seizing the opportunity to expand its influence in Asia.

The web of alliances, combined with nationalistic fervor and imperial ambitions, ensured that the war would not be contained to the Balkans. Instead, it rapidly morphed into a global conflict, drawing in the world’s great powers and extending to fronts far beyond Europe, including the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The war’s scale and the introduction of new military technologies led to unprecedented levels of destruction and loss of life, marking World War I as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history and reshaping the world order for generations to come.

Global Conflict

Crowds on the streets in the aftermath of the anti-Serb riots in Sarajevo, 29 June 1914

The transformation of World War I into a global conflict was a direct result of the imperial reach and colonial possessions of the belligerent powers. The vast empires of Britain, France, Germany, and others meant that the war extended far beyond the battlefields of Europe, affecting regions across the world and drawing soldiers and resources from every corner of the globe.

African Fronts

In Africa, the war saw battles across the continent as Allied and Central Powers vied for control of colonies and territories. British and French forces, along with troops from their colonies, engaged German colonial forces in places like German East Africa (present-day Tanzania), Cameroon, and Southwest Africa (Namibia). These campaigns were characterized by guerrilla warfare, especially in East Africa under the leadership of the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who managed to elude capture and keep his forces in the field for the duration of the war.

Asia and the Pacific

In Asia, Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies, seizing the opportunity to capture German possessions in China and the Pacific islands. The Siege of Tsingtao in China was a notable conflict, where Japanese and British forces captured a key German base. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, German territories like Samoa and New Guinea quickly fell to forces from New Zealand and Australia.

The Middle East

The Middle East emerged as a significant theater of war, particularly with the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the conflict on the side of the Central Powers. The British sought to undermine Ottoman control by supporting Arab revolts against Ottoman rule and launching military campaigns in regions such as the Gallipoli Peninsula, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and Palestine. These campaigns had lasting impacts on the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

The Global Impact

The global nature of World War I had profound implications. It led to the mobilization of troops and laborers from across the British and French empires, including Indians, Africans, and Asians, who served in various capacities on and off the battlefields. The war facilitated the spread of ideas about independence and self-determination, planting the seeds for future movements against colonial rule.

Moreover, the global conflict disrupted economies and societies around the world. Trade routes were blocked, resources were diverted to the war effort, and economies were put under strain. The involvement of empires ensured that the consequences of the war were felt worldwide, leading to political, social, and economic changes far beyond Europe.

The global reach of World War I highlighted the interconnectedness of the world and set the stage for an even more devastating conflict in World War II. It also marked the beginning of the end for many of the great empires, as the war’s aftermath led to a reevaluation of colonialism and the eventual push for decolonization in the mid-20th century.