World War One has its origins over 40 years after the end of the Napoleonic wars out of which Prussia emerged on the winning side as a significant European state. Around 1860 Prussia was the hub around which the unification of Germany was revolving. Otto Bismarck, the Prussian Prime Minister, was a skilled statesman and politician who was determined to bring all the German states together into an Empire that would be safe amongst the neighbouring imperial super-powers of Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia. To do this Bismarck engineered several wars in the 1860's that resulted in the Unification of Germany in 1871 with the Prussian King Wilhelm I as its Kaiser, the German word for Emperor. To protect the new born German Empire Bismarck arranged treaties with Russia and Austria-Hungary on the basis that neither would want to threaten Germany for fear of Germany leaning more favorably towards the other party.
In 1882 Kaiser Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by his son Kaiser Wilhelm II. Bismarck had made political enemies within Germany over the years and they used the opportunity to have Bismarck removed from power. Wilhelm II was ambitious and wanted an overseas empire for Germany, his 'Place in the Sun'. Wilhelm did not appreciate the balancing of power that Bismarck had achieved and dropped the treaty with Russia, favoring Austria-Hungary, which he thought to be weak and easily dominated.
Wilhelm wanted a powerful Navy to protect his new overseas colonies and in building one presented a challenge to Great Britain, who had the largest Empire and fleet in the world. This ambition simply drove Russia, Great Britain and France together to form an agreement known as the Triple Entente; France was still smarting after being defeated by Prussia in 1870 and having to give up Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.
The result was two opposing alliances: the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and Italy against the Dual Alliance of France and Russia. The Franco-Russian Treaty of 1894 ensured that Russia and France provide each other with military assistance should either be attacked by Germany.
In 1889 Britain was so alarmed at Wilhelm II's desire to compete around the world that the Naval Defense Act was proposed and accepted. This law required that the British Navy would be at least equal to the next two most powerful navies combined. At the time this was considered to be Russia and France. Britain also negotiated a treaty with Japan in 1902 to protect her interest in the Far East.
In 1904 Britain was so concerned about German ambition that she settled her disputes with her old enemy France, by entering into an agreement called the Entente Cordiale. In 1907 Britain came to a similar arrangement with Russia, called the Anglo-Russian Entente. These two agreements were not military pacts designed to give military aid, they were agreements to limit their individual colonial ambitions to certain territories. These Ententes combined with the Dual Alliance linked Russia, France and Britain in what was known as the Triple Entente.
The Triple Entente was really a mutual agreement to avoid competition in the various colonies that they had established, it did not provide for mutual military support. What linked Britain militarily with its European allies was the 70 year old Treaty of London that guaranteed Belgium neutrality and independence. Britain was conscious of Germany's rising power and was keen to avoid the Belgium coast being controlled by the German Navy.
In 1905 the Entente Cordiale was tested during the First Moroccan Crisis when Germany objected to France extending her control of Morroco. Kaiser Wilhelm II made a personal visit to the Sultan of Morocco to offer support against French control. France, backed by Britain, and Germany came close to war over the issue and an international conference was agreed to sort out the differences. The following year, at the Conference of Algeciras, the Germans were outvoted by a majority, the only supporter of Germany being Austria-Hungary, leaving Kaiser Wilhelm II feeling humiliated. Russia had backed France and Britain at the conference and in 1907 Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Entente, cementing the friendship between the two powers and forming the Triple Entente. In 1911 France broke the terms of the Algeciras conference when she deployed troops in Morocco. Germany reacted by sending the gunboat Panther to Agadir on July 1 supposedly to protect German trade. The British viewed this as a threat to Gibraltar and sent battleships there immediately. The outcome was the German acceptance of the French claim to Morocco in exchange for a portion of the Congo territory in Africa. The Triple Entente was strengthened by these events but tensions between the Central Powers and the Entente increased.
In 1865 Austria-Hungary had lost its position as the dominant power amongst the north German states to Prussia. In 1871 the southern German states joined Prussia to create the German Empire and Austria-Hungary found its presence amongst the European states dwindling. Austria-Hungary looked to expand its influence south into the Balkans and in 1908 annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia, another Balkan state, protested at this blatant act of Imperialism and Russia backed them. Germany intervened, Russia backed down and Serbia was forced to accept the move by Austria-Hungary. The Balkans had historically been ruled by the Ottoman Empire but growing nationalism had created unrest in the area and in 1912 the Balkan League, consisting of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro, took up arms and defeated the Ottoman Empire, extending their territories significantly. This became known as the First Balkan War. Bulgaria wasn't happy with what it had received and tensions grew between the members of the Balkan League. In 1913 this erupted into open conflict, known as the Second Balkan War, with Bulgaria being defeated by Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and the Ottoman Empire. Serbia acquired more territory from Bulgaria and became more powerful. But Serbia was not content and looked to expand its power even further, worrying its neighbor, Austria-Hungary, to the north.
On June 28 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, and his wife Sophie were visiting Sarajevo when Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serbian Black Hand terrorist group, stepped up to his open car and shot Franz and Sophie. Austria-Hungary had been looking for an excuse to settle their disputes with Serbia and, on July 5, obtained from Germany a declaration of support known as the 'blank cheque'. On July 23 Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia demanding that they have full access to investigate the Serbian Government's involvement in the assassination and the arrest of Black Hand leaders. On July 24, with the threat of a possible invasion by Austro-Hungary, Nikola Pasic, leader of the Serbian government, asked Russia for support. On July 25 Nikola Pasic informed the Austro-Hungarian government that they would accept every demand except the arrest and trial in Austria of the Black Hand leaders, which was deemed unacceptable as it would violate Serbian laws. On July 26 Russia promised its support. On July 28 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and on July 31 Russia mobilised its army in support of Serbia. Russian troops started to assemble on the borders of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
On Augusty 1 Germany declared war on Russia and on August 3, in accordance with a pre-arranged plan, declared war on France and executed the Schlieffen Plan, which routed troops through Belgium to attack northern France. Britain had guaranteed Belgium neutrality and on August 4 declared war on Germany. On August 5 Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia, On August 10 France declared war on Austria-Hungary. On August 12 Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary. Italy remained neutral on the basis that the Triple Alliance was a defensive agreement, and as Germany had been the aggressor, it didn't apply.
|1839||Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgium neutrality and independence.|
|1863||Prussia and Austria defeats Denmark|
|1865||Prussia defeats Austria.|
|1870||Prussia defeats France.|
|1871||The unification of the independent German states into the German Empire with Prussian King Wilhelm I elected as the Emperor. The French territory of Alsace-Lorraine is claimed by the new German Empire and France is forced to pay reparations..|
|1872||Bismarck, the German Chancellor, engineers the League of the Three Emperors between the emperors of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary.|
|1879||Germany and Austria form the Dual Alliance|
|1887||Reinsurance Treaty renews the League of the Three Emperors|
|1882||Triple Alliance signed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy|
|1888||Kaiser Wilhelm I dies. Bismarck is sacked. Relations between Germany and Russia chill significantly.|
|1889||British Naval Defense Act - The Royal Navy was to be equal to the top two other world navies - France and Russia at the time.|
|1894||Franco-Russian Alliance signed|
|1897||German First Navy Law authorised the building of 16 battleships in three years and starts the Naval Race between Germany and Britain. Further laws eventually extend the fleet to 41 battleships.|
|1902||Britain forms an alliance with Japan to protect British colonial interest in the the Far East.|
|1904||Britain and France sign the Entente Cordiale|
|1905||The first Moroccan Crisis|
|1906||Algeciras Conference - Germany denied access to Morocco by Britain and France|
|1906||HMS Dreadnought completed. Naval Race between Germany and Britain accelerates|
|1907||Triple Entente created when Britain and Russia settle their colonial disputes.|
|1908||Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia protests backed by Russia. Germany intervenes and Russia backs down.|
|1908||Kaiser Wilhelm's letter to the Daily Telegraph|
|1911||Second Moroccan Crisis|
|1912||First Balkan Wars (1912-1913) Balkan League (Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro) defeat the Ottoman Empire and partition the Ottoman territories in the Balkan region between them.|
|1913||Second Balkan War - Bulgaria is defeated by Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and the Ottoman Empire.|
|28th June, 1914||Gavrilo Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie von Chotkova at Sarajevo. Austro-Hungarian investigations reveal the the Serbian Black Hand group were behind the action.|
|5th July, 1914||The Austrian government sought support from Germany and received the so called 'blank cheque', a promise of full support should Austria-Hungary decide to take action against Serbia.|
|23rd July, 1914||The Austro-Hungarian government issues fifteen demands to the Serbian government; including the arrest of the leaders of the Black Hand for trial in Vienna. The demands are deliberately considered to make Serbia reject them.|
|24th July, 1914||With the threat of a possible invasion by Austro-Hungary the Serbian government asks Russia for support.|
|25th July, 1914||Nikola Pasic informs the Austro-Hungarian government that they would accept every demand except the arrest and trial in Austria of the Black Hand leaders, which was deemed unacceptable as it would violate Serbian laws.|
|26th July, 1914||Russia promises that it will support Serbia if it is invaded by Austro-Hungary.|
|28th July, 1914||Austro-Hungarian declares war on Serbia.|
|31st July, 1914||Russia mobilizes its armed forces in support of Serbia. This includes the sending of troops to its borders with Germany and Austro-Hungary.|
|1st August, 1914||Germany declares war on Russia.|
|2nd August, 1914||Italy declares that it will remain neutral. The terms of the Triple Alliance are defensive in nature and, as Germany is the aggressor, Italy is not required to support its allies.|
|3rd August, 1914||Germany declares war on France.|
|4th August, 1914||The German Army marches into Belgium. Britain was obliged to declare war on Germany in accordance with the Treaty of London, signed in 1839, that guaranteed Belgium military support in the event of an invasion.|
|5th August, 1914||Austro-Hungary declares war on Russia.|
|10th August, 1914||France declares war on Austro-Hungary.|
|12th August, 1914||Britain declares war on Austro-Hungary.|
|14th August, 1914||France executes Plan 17 and invades Lorraine.|