Causes of World War 1 (Under construction)

In the story of human history, World War 1 claims the unfortunate privilege of being the "War to end All Wars." While the monnicker has certainly proven false, World War 1 has been immortalized as the first truly "modern war,' characterized by a battlefield dominated by technological advances and carnage beyond previous human comprehension.

Factors Leading to the War


To say that conflict between Great Britain and Germany was inevitable would be, at best, false. Likewise, to say that the British had nothing to gain from intervening on the side of "Little Belgium" owing to an obsolete treaty from 1839 would be false as well. The story of Britain's participation shares many features with those of the other great European nations; nationalistic fervor, coupled with disastrous miscalculation followed by unprecedented loss.

Britain's contributions to continental European affairs has generally been limited. Save for the notable British presence in the the battle of Waterloo during Napoleon's rampages across Europe, Great Britain has rarely has the same brand of influence on European affairs that the great States of France, Austria or Spain had. This is due in part to the Great Britain's geographic location, being separated from the continent by the English Channel. Thus, British foreign policy has always relied on two key ideas:

1. Britain's Navy must always be the single greatest naval power in order to protect the British isles and her colonies from foreign influence.
2. The balance of power in Europe must always be maintained

Following the unification of Germany following the Franco-Prussian war, however, both of these objectives were put in jeopardy. Germany, under Otto Von Bismark, had exercised the cutthroat doctrine of RealPolitik with impressive results. The shift to Weltpolitik (World Politics) after the chancellorship of Bismark made Germany's ambitions apparent to all the European nations. Germany had clear intentions to follow the other European powers in the quest for colonies and natural resources around the world. This required a first-rate navy, something that the German government, especially under Wilhelm II, was willing to pursue. Germany's rapid industrialization and the build up of her navy caused Great Britain to review her relations with the other leading players on the world stage, eventually putting into motion a naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany that could characterize the years leading up to World War 1.

While not an immediate factor to the start of World War 1 (Such as the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand), one cannot underestimate the influence the naval arms race had on British participation in the first World War. Owing to its geographical location, British foreign policy was dominated by the strength and maintenance of her naval superiority, culminating in the Naval Defence Act of 1889. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 comprised of one underlying principle, being that the strength of the British Royal Navy was required to meet or surpass the strength of any other two navies in the world.

While it is easy to oversimplify and state "British and German animosity intensified due to this buildup of navies," one must bear in mind other nations of the world were rapidly expanding their naval capabilities. the 'Two Power Standard' was beginning to become more and more difficult to achieve. Russia, Japan and the United States were all in the process of expanding their navies in the late 19th century. Still, these were set apart from the German naval expansion for several reasons:

1. Russia, which had previously posed a threat to British interests in the Mediterranean, India, Tibet and the Caucasus, had effectively been neutered by Japan following the Russo-Japanese war. Additionally, agreements between Great Britain and Russia regarding their Asian possessions and spheres of influence did much to stem the tide of any potential conflict between the two nations. Finally, both Russia and Great Britain had a common interest in keeping Germany reasonably weakened.

2. Japan and the United Kingdom had come to an agreement concerning pacific territories and, in 1902, signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (Which, in fact, was an agreement to help curb Russian expansion).

3. In spite of the United State's hyperactive participation in imperialism in the pacific, American foreign policy did not seem to violate or interfere in British interests.

Thus, while Great Britain was sure to try to curb potential German naval superiority, it disregarded the notable expansion of several other navies throughout the world. Thus, one can possibly conclude that the Naval Defence Act of 1889 and the subsequent focus on the British Navy was leveled specifically against Germany. It was Germany that had seized the initiative in European affairs and it was Germany the most likely cause for any shift in the balance of power in Europe. Additionally, British opinion of Germany was none too high. German backing for the Boers during South Africa's war of 1899-1902 did much to coax the British mindset out of one of isolationism (In fact notable about the literature of the time is the genre of "Invasion literature" which constituted novels revolving around a speculative invasion of the British isles by a foreign power, usually Germany.) Finally, following the Entente Cordiale, Franco-British relations were significantly strengthened. While not a vow to go to war if either nation was attacked, it put British diplomatic and military commitments with France at a point that had previously not existed.


The story of French involvement in World War 1 can arguably stretch back to the French defeat during the Franco-Prussian war. In fact, some might even argue that the seeds for a great European conflict involving France and Germany has its roots in the conclusion of the Napoleonic war and the Congress of Vienna. Still, the most conclusive early date for French participation in World War 1 comes with the collapse of the crowning edifice of Bismarckian Diplomacy, being the isolation of France. France, after her defeat in World War 1, had become all but isolated from the other great European powers through the shrewd genius of the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark, who believed a resurgent France would play the biggest threat to German security. In many ways, Bismark was right. German and French interests clashed in several ways:

1. Possessions in North and West Africa, such as Morocco, were both subject to conflicting interests between the French and Germans.
2. France desired the two provinces lost in the Franco-Prussian War, being Alsace and Lorraine.
3. The French people were humiliated by their defeat in the aforementioned war, and were perhaps more than a bit eager to get revenge on the Germans. The occasionally harsh treatment during the German occupation following the French defeat, in addition to memories of such horrors as the Paris Commune were enough to vilify the Germans in the eyes of many French people.

In 1892, the cornerstone of Bismark's master achievement was removed, with Russia and France concluding a military agreement that play a key role in the outcome of future conflict. This agreement was reinforced by subsequent talks in the years 1893 and 1894, under which both nations agreed to come to each other's aid should Germany attack. By effectively establishing a military alliance, Germany found itself situated between two potentially hostile nations.

Lowe, Norman. The World in 1914: Outbreak of the First World War. Modern World History, Third Edition.