The Alliance system was contrived by Bismarck in an effort to ensure that France, after the Franco-Prussian war, remained isolated and without allies on the European continent.
Bismarck sought to befriend and form formal alliances with Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Britain to make sure they did not side with France. These alliances were non-aggressive and worked well to keep the peace for twenty years.
On June 15 1888 Prince Wilhelm succeeded as German Emperor and King of Prussia. Relations between the young new Emperor and Bismarck became strained and eventually Bismarck was forced to retire. Wilhelm adopted a different policy from Bismarck, disregarded the alliance with Russia and actively sought to establish an overseas empire, aggravating the British. The character of the alliances also changed from a defensive one to an aggressive one.
In the absence of Prussian influence France took the opportunity to establish her own alliances with these countries.
1879 Dual Alliance - Prussia Austria-Hungary
1882 Triple Alliance
1893 Franco-Russian Alliance
1904 Entente Cordiale
1907 Anglo-Russian Entente
The Dual Alliance was the result of a treaty signed between Germany and Austria-Hungary on October 7 1879.
After Russia defeated the Ottoman empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1878 Russia became a major influence in the Balkans. This was unacceptable to Austria-Hungary and Bismarck took advantage of the situation to get Austria-Hungary to commit to a mutual defensive agreement by which either party would support the other if attacked by Russia.
It also specified that either party would remain neutral should the other be attacked by any other European state; this was essentially to protect Germany from attack by France.
This created a central alliance that protected the German speaking nations from attack by Russia in the east and France in the west.
The Triple Alliance was a treaty between Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy that was agreed in 1882 and lasted until the outbreak of war in 1914. It called for each member of the Alliance to support any other if attacked by any two of the other Great Powers or if Germany or Italy were attacked by France alone.
The alliance was renewed in 1902 but shortly afterwards Italy signed a similar treaty secretly with France. Italy were also keen to make it clear that they would not take sides against Great Britain.
When war broke out in 1914, and Germany and Austro-Hungary were at war with Britain, France and Russia. Italy, despite promising to honour the Triple alliance, actually entered the war against Austro-Hungary, and in 1916 also went to war against Germany.
Italy was a very doubtful member of this alliance:
When the secret Reinsurance Treaty between Prussia and Russia was allowed to expire in 1890 France saw this as an opportunity to break the period of isolation that Bismarck's foreign policies had enforced upon her since the defeat of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.
The draft version of the Franco-Russian alliance was completed on August 17th, 1892 and became approved on the 4th of January, 1894. It lasted until Russia was forced out of the war by the events of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
Germany now faced the prospect of a war on two fronts in any conflict with either Russia and France. This had dramatic consequences on the strategic thinking of the German High Command.
France and England had been in a state of intermittent conflict for around 800 years. With the ascent of Germany, and in particular Germany's desire to expand and build an overseas empire, it gave these two traditional enemies cause to cease their mutual distrust and competition, and establish an agreement that would benefit both parties. The result came to be known as the Entente Cordial and was signed on the 8th April 1904.
Great Britain and France both had substantial colonies abroad and wanted to ensure that, if conflict with Germany arose, then they would be sure that they could count on the other party not to take advantage of the situation and try to occupy their colonies.
France was looking to establish alliances with other nations to counter the alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. To protect its overseas interests Great Britain had a large powerful navy but couldn't hope to achieve numerical superiority against both France and Germany; and Germany was actively seeking to establish a navy to rival that of Great Britain's.
The Entente Cordial was not an alliance, it was more an agreement about how each nation would respect the others interests abroad. If it came to war neither side would be bound to support the other militarily or otherwise. France however took it to mean something like an alliance and felt confident to challenge Germany in a more aggresivet manner.
The Anglo-Russian entente was signed on 31st August 1907.
Like the Entente Cordial it represented the cessation of competition between these two nations and the establishment of an agreement that was intended to respect each others interests abroad, especially in the Middle East and Far East, like Persia, Afghanistan and India.
Again like the Entente Cordial this was an agreement intended to define the limits of each others ambitions abroad and was not intended as a military alliance. Neither country were obliged to support each other in times of war.
The Anglo-Russian entente, the Franco-Russian alliance and the Entente Cordial became collectively known as the Triple Entente.
Great Britain was now free to focus on consolidating its overseas empire. Russia could feel secure with respect to her common borders with France and Britain, and could focus on the threat from Germany and Austria-Hungary.
It forced the Great European States into to two opposing camps.
It promoted distrust between the Great European powers.
It meant that if one Great European power went to war then all of them would.