How the Dominoes Fell – The Lead Up to World War One

The centenary of the end of the First World War is approaching. This war saw a change in warfare, from the hand-to-hand style of older wars to the inclusion of weapons that used recent technological advances and removed the individual from close combat. The first war to involve tanks, barbed wire, aeroplanes and machine guns in great quantities. Industrial slaughter for an industrial age. The war had extremely high casualty rates – over 15,000,000 dead and 20,000,000 injured.

One of the great tragedies of human history, the First World War could have been avoided… but, as is the case with so many things, hindsight is always 20/20. Perhaps the dominoes that fell were just too heavy to be stopped by the next… Such waste.

There were five main causes for the war: Mutual Defence Pacts; Imperialism; Militarism; Nationalism; and the immediate cause which was the assassination of an Archduke in the Balkans. We will have a look at each one in turn but before we can do that, we must first understand the transformation that was taking place in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Rise of Germany

Prior to 1870, Germany consisted of several small kingdoms, duchies and principalities rather than one unified nation. During the 1860s, Prussia, led by King Wilhelm I and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, began a series of conflicts with the aim of unifying the German states under Prussian influence. The first of these wars was the Second Schleswig War fought in1864 between the German Confederation, headed by Prussia and the Austrian Empire, and Denmark. The Germans won the war and the territory of Schleswig-Holstein was ceded by the Danes. Following this, Bismarck turned on his former Austrian allies to eliminate their influence over the southern German states of the Confederation. The Austro-Prussian War was a swift and bloody victory for the Prussians, lasting only 6 weeks in the summer of 1866. The well-trained Prussian military (with the help of the Italians) quickly defeated their larger neighbour. Prussia annexed parts of other German states and dissolved the German Confederation and formed the North German Confederation in its stead with the exclusion of Austria from Germany.

Bismarck’s new state included Prussia’s German allies, while the states that had sided with the Austrians were pulled into its sphere of influence. All that was left for Bismarck’s grand vision of a united Germany was to unify these states into one country.

But he needed an excuse, a common enemy.

In 1870, opportunity knocked on his door after the new North German Confederation entered into a war with France after Bismarck had attempted to place a German prince upon the Spanish throne.  The Franco-Prussian War saw the Germans utilise their superior numbers, better training and leadership more efficiently than the French. They also made more efficient use of modern technological advances, particularly railroads and artillery. Basically, the French did not really stand a chance against this new juggernaut of Europe and within seven months the Germans had routed the French forces, captured Napoleon III and occupied Paris.

The kings, princes and representatives of the German states met in the Palace of Versailles on 18 January to proclaim their union as the German Empire under the Prussian King, uniting Germany as a nation-state. France was also forced to cede the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany which badly stung the French and was a motivating factor for war in 1914.

The Tangled Web of Mutual Defence Pacts

Chancellor Bismarck of the newly unified German Empire set about protecting his new home from foreign attack. Very aware that Germany’s position in central Europe made her vulnerable, he began seeking alliances to ensure that her enemies remained isolated and that a two-front war would be avoided. The first of these was with his frenemy, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Russia, known as the League of the Three Emperors. This did not last long, however, due to disagreements over the Balkans between Austria-Hungary and Russia and was replaced by the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary which called for mutual assistance if either of them was attacked by Russia.

In 1881, the Dual Alliance became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined the signatories to aid one another in the case of an attack from France. This was soon weakened after the Italians signed a secret pact with France stating that they would assist the French in the case of a German attack! Still concerned with Russia, Bismarck concluded the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia, in which both countries agreed to remain neutral in the event of an attack by a third party.

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by his more pompous and impulsive grandson (after a brief ninety-nine day rule by his son Frederick III), Wilhelm II. He and the aged Bismarck did not see eye to eye on much and so the latter resigned. As a result, the carefully constructed web of delicate treaties that Bismarck had built to ensure Germany’s protection began to unravel. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapsed in 1890 and France jumped at the chance to encircle its old enemy. In 1892, France and Russia concluded a military alliance.


Wilhelm II began construction of a navy to rival that of Britain’s Royal Navy which Britain, naturally, did not like. They moved to form an alliance with the burgeoning power in the Far East, Japan, in 1902 to restrain German ambitions in the Pacific. This was followed in 1904 by the Entente Cordiale with France. Although not a military alliance, this agreement resolved many of the colonial differences between Great Britain and France. Due to further German militarism, Britain concluded an Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 which tied British and Russian interest together and effectively formed the Triple Entente of Great Britain, Russia and France which was opposed by the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (if they could decide who their friends were).

So, that is how we got the unlikely friendship between Britain, France and Russia and the delicate partnership of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Web Alliance


Imperialism is when a country increases its power and wealth by bringing additional territories under their control. Come the outbreak of war in 1914, no one was as accomplished at empire building than the British with the French in second place. Kaiser Wilhelm II, jealous of his rivals, wanted a slice of this glory and wealth and for Germany to have her “place in the sun”.

Before World War One, Africa and parts of Asia proved to be points of contention among the European powers because of the raw materials that they could provide and tensions around these areas ran high.

Once Bismarck had left the scene in 1890, Germany adopted an aggressive imperialist foreign policy called Weltpolitik. The aim was to transform Germany into a global power through aggressive diplomacy, the acquisition of overseas territories, and the expansion of its navy. This marked a decisive break with the defensive Realpolitik practised by Otto von Bismarck who saw no real value in an overseas German Empire.

This new foreign policy of aggressive diplomacy nearly saw war with France on two occasions over Morocco and isolated Germany even further on the world stage. The ambitious Germans wanted influence in northern Africa and were ready to use force against the French if needs be. They acted aggressively and foolishly by sending a gun boat to protect German interests in Morocco during a local conflict involving French forces.

There were also land disputes in the Balkans in south-east Europe causing rivalry between the great powers of Europe. Without these land disputes and worry over German bellicosity, it is unlikely that France and Britain would have formed the Entente Cordiale.

All of the countries sought to better one another and be the most powerful. However, powers seeking greater empires would not have been such a big problem for European stability if it had not been for militarism.

The increasing competition and desire for greater empires led to an increase in confrontation and helped push the world closer to war.


As the world entered the 20th century, an arms race was already well under way.

An ambitious leader, Wilhelm II sought to elevate Germany to equal status with the other great powers of Europe. As a result, Germany entered the race for overseas territories, as mentioned above, with the goal of becoming an imperial power. To become an overseas empire though, Germany would first need a top-rate navy.

Wilhelm II began a massive program of naval construction after he was embarrassed by the German fleet’s poor showing at his grandmother’s, Queen Victoria, Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. This sudden expansion in naval construction shocked Britain, who possessed the world’s largest navy. In 1906, Britain completed HMS Dreadnought, a battleship of such ferocity that it made existing battleships all but obsolete overnight. This only accelerated the naval arms race between the two, with each striving to build more tonnage than the other. A direct challenge to the Royal Navy, the Kaiser saw his fleet as a way to increase German influence and force Britain to meet his demands.


By 1914, Germany had the greatest increase in military accumulation, with the largest standing army in Europe and the second largest navy. Further, in Germany and Russia, particularly, the military establishment began to have a greater influence on public policy, which is never a good thing – just see the military-industrial complex of the United States and their endless quests for war currently!


While the European powers were posturing for colonies and greater arms, the Ottoman Empire was in deep decline. Once a powerful state that had, in centuries past, threatened European Christendom itself, by the early 20th century it had been labelled as the “sick man of Europe”. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, many of the ethnic minorities trapped within the empire’s boundaries began demanding independence. As a result, several new states, such as Montenegro, Romania and Serbia began to secede and emerge on the periphery of the receding Ottoman Empire. Sensing weakness, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia in 1878, officially annexing the territory in 1908.

This annexation of fellow Slavs sparked outrage in Serbia and Russia, permanently and irreparably damaging already tense relations between the countries. The Austro-Hungarians viewed Serbia as a threat, and for good reason: Serbia desired to unite all Slavic peoples, including those living in the southern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This pan-Slavic sentiment was backed by the Russians who signed a military agreement to aid Serbia if the nation was invaded by their larger neighbours.

And the web entangles even further (palm, meet forehead)!

The Spark that set the World Alight!

It may come as no surprise to anyone to learn that the final spark that ignited this huge powder keg occurred in the Balkans. With the situation in the area already exceedingly tense, a plan was hatched by Serbian military intelligence to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He and his wife, Sophie, planned to make an inspection tour in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28 June 1914.

While the first two assassins failed to act when the Archduke’s car passed by, the third threw a bomb which bounced off the car, exploding and injuring those in an accompanying vehicle. The Archduke wanted to visit the injured men at the hospital and as he did so, his car crossed paths with Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins, who shot both Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Both died soon after.


The July Crisis – As shocking as the assassination of the heir to Austria-Hungary was, few in Europe thought that it would lead to a continental war. The Austro-Hungarians quickly learned of the details of the plot and used the assassination as an opportunity to deal with Serbia. Although desperate to take military action, the government in Vienna was hesitant due to concerns that any action would lead to Russian intervention. They turned to their allies and asked the Germans for their take on the situation. On 5 July, Kaiser Wilhelm downplayed the Russian threat and informed the Austrian ambassador that his country could count on full German support regardless of the outcome. This carte blanche assurance from the Germans shaped the Austro-Hungarians next moves.

With the backing of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarians undertook a campaign of intimidating diplomacy designed to bring about war between themselves and their smaller neighbour. The emphasis of this diplomacy was on an ultimatum presented to Serbia at 04:30 PM on 23 July. Ten demands, ranging from the arrest of the conspirators to allowing Austrian participation in the investigation. Failure to comply with all ten demands within forty-eight hours would result in war. Desperate to avoid conflict, the Serbian government sought aid from Russia. Tsar Nicholas II, feckless as ever, told them that they should accept the ultimatum and hope for the best.

On 24 July, with the deadline approaching, most of Europe began to awaken to the severity of the situation. Russia, looking out for their Slavic allies, asked for an extension to the deadline or the terms altered, whilst the British suggested a conference be held to prevent war. Shortly before the deadline was due, Serbia announced that it could accept nine of the ten terms but that it would not allow Austrian authorities to operate in their territory. The Austrians immediately broke off relations and the army began to mobilise for war. The Russians began to mobilise too.

At 11:00 AM on 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As Europe began lurching towards a greater conflict, Nicholas of Russia opened communications with Wilhelm in an effort to prevent further escalation. German military officials secretly wanted war with Russia but were restrained as they wanted Russia to appear as the aggressors.

While the German military clamoured for war, the countries diplomats anxiously worked to keep Britain neutral. On 29 July German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg told the British ambassador that he believed his country would soon be at war with France and Russia. He also implied that German forces may violate Belgian neutrality. The 1839 Treaty of London bound Great Britain to protect Belgium and this meeting between the ambassador and the chancellor pushed the British government’s position to further support their entente partners.

In the small hours of 31 July, Russia began a full mobilisation of its forces in preparation for war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Germans used this as an excuse to mobilise its own forces even though it was scheduled to do so anyway (cheeky!). Concerned about the intensifying situation, the French President Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to back down and not provoke war with Germany. Shortly thereafter, the French government was informed that if the Russian mobilisation did not cease then Germany would attack France! That seems a tad ridiculous!

The following day, 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and began moving troops into Luxembourg in preparation for invading Belgium and France. In response, the French began mobilizing its military that day. On 2 August, Germany contacted the Belgian government requesting free passage through Belgium for its soldiers. This was refused by Belgian King Albert I as it would be a violation of their neutrality. In response Germany declared war on both Belgium and France on 3 August. Although it was unlikely that Britain would or could have remained neutral in the event of a German attack on France, its hand was forced when German troops invaded neutral Belgium. On 6 August, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and six days later Britain and France declared war on them. By 12 August 1914, the Great powers of Europe were at war and over four years of bloody warfare that would see fighting all over the globe and eventually drag over 30 countries and their colonies into conflict was to follow.

To quote the English military historian, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, who served in the First World War himself:

Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it.

The Rest is History

3 thoughts on “How the Dominoes Fell – The Lead Up to World War One”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s