Feature Articles - The Most Popular War in History - Introduction

War memorial in Grove Park, Weston-super-Mare for the Great War


Many people are familiar with the political run-up to the Great War where between the mid-1890's and 1914, Europe gradually split into two main camps.  On one side were the Central Powers of whom the main players were Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.  (Italy was originally also allied to the Central Powers.  However the Italians managed to stay neutral in 1914 on a technicality, and in May 1915 came in on the Allied side).

On the other side were ranged France and Russia who had signed a mutual protection treaty (the Franco-Russian Military Convention) in 1892.  This eventually developed into the 'Triple Entente' consisting of France, Russia and the UK.  A further tie between the UK and the Continent was a long-standing agreement on the part of the UK to protect Belgian neutrality, and it was this treaty which actually pitched the UK into the war.

Amongst other players, Serbia was linked by treaty to Russia (the original trigger after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914) and Bulgaria came in with the Central Powers in 1915.  Interestingly, Japan came in on the Allied side about a fortnight after Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 1914.  Japan had been linked with Britain by treaty, possibly drawn up with the idea of keeping at bay a potential threat to Britain's Eastern Empire.

In 1905 Japan annihilated Russia's navy, and in 1912 the Japanese took over Korea.  In 1941 the cost of Japanese hostility would become rapidly and painfully obvious (although given the nature of the Japanese regime by then, the options open to the UK were limited.  An alliance with Japan whilst preserving any sort of liberal Western integrity would have been impossible).

Arguably, the causes of the war can be traced back as far as the Prussian victories of the 1860's, culminating in the defeat of France in 1871 (see The Causes of World War One).  This event saw the foundation of the German Empire and also established long-standing resentment in France over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.  (An atlas will show that this is a very substantial slice of territory - about 3 or 4 'Departments').

During the intervening years the two opposing camps of 1914 gradually defined themselves.  This was helped further by events such as Russia allowing a treaty with Germany and Austria (the 'Dreikaisersbund' or 'Three Emperors' League') to lapse prior to drawing up the Franco-Russian Military Convention, and a slowly growing hostility between the German Empire and Great Britain.

A turning-point in Anglo-German relations was probably the German Naval Law of 1898 which committed resources to the substantial expansion (an extra 16 ships) of the German fleet.  This and later Acts were seen as a direct threat to Britain's command of the sea.

War memorial in Grove Park, Weston-super-Mare for the Second World WarSubsequent German moral support for the Boers and events such as the Agadir crisis of 1911 (which had the interesting effect of causing the collapse of a major transport strike in the UK) served to drive these two key Powers ever further apart.  Interestingly however they still remained good trading partners, and in fact when war came in 1914 it was difficult to source sufficient dyestuffs for British Army uniforms as much of this had been purchased from the German firm IG-Farben!

In 1914 itself the ball started rolling with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary at the hands of Gavrilo Princip on June 26th.  At the time the Archduke and his wife were on an official tour of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovena, a recent Hapsburg acquisition.  Princip was a member of the Serbian Black Hand group, one of whose aims was the destabilisation of Austria-Hungary.

The Austrians' response was an ultimatum to Serbia to root out the Black Hand or face invasion.  This ultimatum included a number of clauses unacceptable to any self-respecting independent state, such as a demand (Clause 5) that Austrian representatives enter Serbia to help root out the Black Hand.  It reads thus: 'To accept the collaboration in Serbia of representatives of the Austro-Hungarian Government for the suppression of the subversive movement directed against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy.'

It was probably this clause as much as anything which provided the immediate trigger for war.  The Serbians stood firm against the ultimatum and as a result Russia felt obliged to offer support to Serbia.  This alarmed the Austrians, who turned to Germany for help against Russia.  The German threat to Russia brought in the French, who were allied to Russia, prompting the German pre-emptive strike against France according to the Schlieffen Plan, which entailed the violation of Belgian neutrality.

German strategy relied on managing a war on two fronts by delivering a swift knock-out blow to France via the Schlieffen Plan before Russia could properly mobilise.  It was the invasion of neutral Belgium resulting from this which finally brought the UK into the war on August 4th 1914.

This is a very brief sketch of the international political developments leading to the Great War and the immediate run-up in June-August 1914.  It is covered in far more detail in various other articles on this site and if you wish to follow this up I suggest that you return to the home page page and link on from there.

War memorial in Grove Park, Weston-super-Mare for the Great WarMy interest in the Great War lies in its extraordinary popularity in England.  The fact that there was something special about the 1914-18 conflict as opposed to, say, World War Two is indicated by the two war memorials above.  The one on the left, dedicated to those who died in the Great War is a tall column adorned with an allegorical female figure atop a globe.

'The one for World War Two is in contrast far plainer.  Certainly the numbers killed in the Great War was far greater, but this may not account for everything.  Not only was it supposed to be the 'war to end all wars', but it also seems to have been the apex, if you like, of a romanticisation of duty, sacrifice and military glory which had been building up for perhaps fifty years before 1914.  This age believed in moral absolutes and patriotism to a degree inconceivable in our 'post-modern' and more cynical age.  To be fair, one could also say 'more realistic', and also now is not perhaps the time to encourage the glorification of death for a cause, however noble.

This topic of recruitment for the Great War, and what lay behind it, was covered by my late father in 1988 in At Duty's Call (Manchester University Press, now out of print), but to the best of my knowledge nowhere else.  It has been called 'the most popular war in history', and with good reason.  Up until January 1916 no conscription was necessary - the army was almost entirely a volunteer one, apart from a professional core, the British Expeditionary Force, which crossed to France in August 1914.

In all, just over 2.5 million men joined up voluntarily (on my father's figures) before conscription was introduced (or almost voluntarily: about 300,000 joined up at the end of 1915 under the 'Derby Scheme', half-way to conscription).  Neither the Second World War nor more recent conflicts (up to and including the latest war with Iraq) have generated anything like this degree of enthusiasm.  In fact recent conflicts have been conspicuous by the amount of questioning and even cynicism generated.

The Great War as far as most of the population was concerned was fought over a matter of honour (the treaty with Belgium).  The new Gulf war, in a lot of peoples' eyes, is in contrast being fought for George Bush's friends' oil concessions, and at all events it is almost automatically assumed that the Government is lying, or is guilty of double standards (this country having supported Saddam Hussein in the past).

Interestingly however, the Prime Minister himself has always regarded the Iraq conflict as a matter of principle.  Even more interestingly, Mr Blair attended the type of institution (Fettes College, a 'public' school, of which more later) whose alumni articulated much of the idealism which motivated this country's role in the Great War of 1914-1918.

Next - Setting the Scene

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

'Case-Shot' was the name for a short-range artillery anti-personnel shell filled with pellets, chain-links, etc.

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Minor Powers