Tank Vs Tank

For thousands of years the battlefield was dominated by cavalry. With the industrial advances of the 19th century came death and destruction on an unprecedented scale and the advent of flight in the early years of the 20th century only added to the dangers faced by land-based forces.

In an effort to avoid the machine gunfire, high explosive artillery shells and airplanes, the soldiers dug in to the earth during World War One. The pockmarked, scorched, muddy no-man’s land filled with razor wire between the opposing trenches spewing thousands of bullets a minute did not make an ideal field for cavalry to sprint across. Something new was required to fight this war. Enter the tank – the metal cavalry.

Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux – 1918

Unsurprisingly, the first tank-on-tank engagement occurred during the first conflict that saw the new weapon take to the field: the First World War.

By early 1918, the Russians had been knocked out of the war freeing up large numbers of German men and equipment to fight on the Western Front. Buoyed by these newly accessible resources but concerned that the entry of the United States into the war would negate their numerical advantage if they did not attack quickly, the German commander, Erich Ludendorff, chose to punch through the allied front line and wheel north to the sea hoping that the French would seek armistice terms. In March, the German Army launched the Spring Offensive in North-West France, focusing their forces against the under strength British Third and Fifth Armies in the Somme area.

Within a month the Germans had advanced to the town of Villers-Bretonneux and on the evening of 23/24 April began bombarding the area before attacking the town with four divisions. The German infantry, supported by thirteen tanks broke through the Allied lines creating a 4.8km wide gap. The town fell to the Germans and the vital railway junction of Amiens became vulnerable to capture.

British_Mark_IV_Tadpole_tank

Three British Mark IV tanks were quickly dispatched to the Cachy switch line at the first reports of the German advance through the town and ordered to hold it against the enemy. Two of the tanks were “female” variants armed with 0.303 inch machine guns whilst the other machine was “male” and armed with two 6-pounder guns and machine guns. The male was commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and only manned by four of the usual eight crewmen as the others had been gassed. The three tanks were advancing when they encountered a German A7V tank nicknamed “Nixe” and commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Wilhelm Biltz.

Nixe fired on the two female tanks, damaging them and exposing the crews. Both retreated as their machine guns were useless against the armour of the hulking A7V and its eighteen man crew. Lieutenant Mitchell’s tank continued to fire at Nixe while on the move to avoid German artillery fire as well as the gun of the tank. The movement meant that Mitchell’s gunner found it difficult to properly aim the 6-pounders until the Mark IV stopped to allow for a clean shot. The gunner scored three direct hits (six shells in all). The Nixe heeled over onto its side, probably as a result of crossing an incline at the wrong angle. The surviving German crew, including Biltz, fled from the vehicle and the British fired at them as they fled, killing nine.

And so ended the first ever engagement between tanks. But the battle was not over!

A7V_Tank_Villers-Bretonneux_1918

Two more A7V tanks, supported by infantry, appeared and were driven off by the Mark IV gunner’s accuracy. Mitchell’s tank continued to attack the German infantry using canister shot (think massive shotgun shell). Seven of the new British Whippet medium tanks arrived to support the Mark IV and encountered several German battalions “forming up in the open” and killed many infantrymen with their machine guns and by running them over.

The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux was a great success for the Allies, who defeated the German attempt to capture the strategically important French city of Amiens and  recaptured Villers-Bretonneux while outnumbered. Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and his crew’s defence of the Cachy switch line played no small part in this victory and the engagement they had with Nixe will forever be remembered as the first firefight between tanks.

Battle of Kursk – 1943

The Eastern Front of the Second World War saw some unbelievably massive battles of envelopment and re-envelopment involving millions of men across hundreds of miles of front. The Battle of Kursk was one such engagement which occurred 450km south-west of Moscow during the Soviet push-back on Nazi Germany.

The battle began when the Germans launched Operation Citadel on 5 July with the objective of pinching off the Kursk salient (a bulge that protrudes into enemy territory) with attacks on the base of the salient from north and south simultaneously. For this attack the Germans had amassed nearly 800,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks and 10,000 artillery pieces.

However, the Russian military leaders had not been idly sitting by and their intelligence had alerted them to this massive enemy buildup. They were aware of the numbers facing them, the location of the attacks, and thanks to captured Germans they even knew when the attack was coming. The Russian leaders decided on a grand defensive strategy, committing 1.9 million men, over 5,000 tanks and 25,000 artillery pieces to the area. Large numbers of anti-tank artillery were placed in the locations most likely to see German tanks used in depth. 400,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were laid and 300,000 civilians helped the army dig thousands of miles of trenches, repair roads and construct defences around the salient.

Germany started the attack at 04:30 on 5 July with an artillery barrage followed by a combined armour and infantry attack beginning an hour later: heavy tanks at the front, followed by the medium tanks with the infantry bringing up the rear. Within the first 24 hours of fighting they had gained 10km of territory but at a huge cost: 25,000 casualties. The next few days saw a similar pattern and by 10 July the German IX Army had lost 2/3 of its tank force.

Destroyed_German_tanks_at_Kursk.gif

After the German offensive stalled on the northern side of the salient, on 12 July the Soviets commenced Operation Kutuzov against the rear of the German forces whilst simultaneously launching powerful counterattacks the same day on the southern side which led to the largest single armoured action of the war at the Battle of Prokhorovka. On 12 July, 87km southeast of Kursk, 600 Soviet tanks engaged 300 German tanks with neither side gaining the upper hand.

In all areas the Russians now outnumbered their German opponents by 2:1. Unable to call on reinforcements from the southern sector the Germans were unable to hold off the Russian onslaught in the north and by 19 July the Russians had pushed 70km forward. The Russian air force ensured that the Luftwaffe were incapable of supplying the army with the supplies it desperately needed. Faced with the collapse of its forces in the northern sector of the battle, General Model asked for Hitler’s permission to withdraw, warning that the Wehrmacht faced another Stalingrad if the withdrawal was not permitted. Hitler allowed the request and the German forces to the north withdrew nearly 100km.

A similar situation was occurring in the southern sector of the salient. Here the Germans had around 300,000 men and about 600 tanks whilst the Russians had nearly 1 million men and many more tanks. The Soviet counter-offensive in this sector began on 3 August and the partisans operating behind German lines here derailed more than 1,000 train loads of troops which massively hindered the Wehrmacht’s ability to easily move troops around the area. German morale plummeted and the Russians captured the city of Kharkov by 23 August. The liberation of Kharkov is usually seen as the end of the Battle of Kursk.

By the end of the battle nearly 1 million German soldiers and 2.5 million Russians had been committed to the fight as well as 5,000 Soviet and 3,000 German tanks. The Germans suffered 250,000 casualties whilst the Russians suffered 250,000 deaths and a staggering 600,000 wounded! It is alleged that one SS commander immobolised 22 Soviet tanks in under one hour! Despite the horrific costs to the Soviet armies, the Battle of Kursk was hailed as a great Russian victory as the Axis forces lost the ability to initiate any future strategic offensive operations for the duration of the war. From this point on until the remainder of the war the Soviet Army held the initiative over the Germans in the Eastern Front and reclaimed 2,000km of territory.

The vast flat steppes of western Russia provided the ideal grounds for these grand maneuvering battles utilising huge numbers of armoured vehicles. The Battle of Kursk was the largest example of this and to this day remains the largest tank battle in history.

Battle of 73 Easting – 1991

We looked at the first tank-on-tank engagement and the largest tank battle in history so its only fitting that we end with “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” This battle occurred in the deserts of southern Iraq during the last major conflict of the century: the Gulf War, fought between Iraq and a coalition of over 30 countries led by the United States.

Following an extensive bombing campaign Coalition forces launched their invasion of Iraq on 24 February 1991. One of the main fronts of the attack was the US VII Corps whose aim it was to get in behind Iraqi forces, prevent a retreat from Kuwait and destroy five divisions of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard. The US 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) spearheaded the advance of VII Corps. 2ACR was a reconnaissance division whose principal mission was to identify enemy positions and strip away security forces in preparation for other troops to move up for the full attack.

The regiment consisted of 4,500 men divided into five squadrons, three of which were ground squadrons made up mostly of M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Their main opponents were the Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard who were tasked with defending the supply route along the IPSA Pipeline Road. The Division had committed a mechanised brigade and an armoured brigade to the area, focusing on the road as they did not believe an advance from the featureless desert was possible… the Iraqis failed to realise that the American forces were in possession of GPS.

On the afternoon of 26 February, much of VII Corps was between the 50 and 60 Easting lines (geographic coordinate lines running eastward). 2 ACR was ordered to advance as far as 70 Easting. They were to engage with the Republican Guard without becoming decisively engaged so as to maintain manoeuvrability while preventing the enemy from moving.

73 Easting was not one single, isolated engagement but rather part of a wider line of fighting spread across the Iraqi desert. As with many of the battles of the First World War, it was the intensity and significance of the fighting that made 73 Easting worthy of the identification as a battle in its own right.

After meeting and eliminating several isolated outposts, the troops of 2 ACR occupied a village but it was at 73 Easting that the heaviest fighting took place. Around 16:40, E Troop of 2ACR, led by Captain HR McMaster (future US National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump), surprised an Iraqi company of eight tanks locked into defensive positions on a slope at the 70 Easting. After clearing this threat, McMaster saw an Iraqi company in Soviet-produced T-72 tanks three kilometres to the east. He made the call to pass the original 70 Easting limit and fought through an infantry position and onto the high ground. A unit of eighteen T-72s stood their ground against the American forces but surprise, superior equipment and better training provided the Americans with a significant advantage. McMaster and his tanks destroyed yet another enemy tank unit.

Destroyed_Iraqi_T-72_tank_during_the_Gulf_War.jpg

A platoon was sent north from E Troop to regain contact with other coalition forces. Instead they ran into another Iraqi position, this one occupied by a further thirteen T-72s, which they destroyed.

More of 2ACR began to arrive and the unit took up positions overlooking a wadi (a dried up river valley) near 73 Easting. By 18:30, Iraqi tanks and infantry began to stream up the wadi with the aim of driving back the Americans and creating a safe line of retreat. For the next several hours, the Iraqis tried to drive off their opposite number but were held off. By the time that the fighting began to slacken off around 22:00, dozens of Iraqi tanks had been destroyed.

Sporadic fighting continued throughout the night and another fierce firefight was fought the following day around a nearby objective but the Battle of 73 Easting was over. 73 Easting had a been a huge tank battle, in which the Coalition forces destroyed 160 tanks and 180 personnel carriers – the 2nd squadron of 2ACR alone contributed 55 tanks and 45 armoured vehicles. 2ACR captured 2,000 Iraqi soldiers at a loss of 6 KIA and 19 wounded and advanced 250 kilometres.

Strategically, the battle kept the Iraqis occupied while other advances around the country took place. The war ended with a total Coalition victory on 28 February.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

The Final Few

World War One ended on 11th November 1918. Of the war’s forty million casualties, a staggering 11,000 of them occurred on the final morning of the fighting. The US Marines alone sustained 10% of that number, sustaining 1,100 casualties.

When the German peace delegation arrived at Compiegne Forest to negotiate the terms for an armistice on 8th November, they found that the Allies were in no mood to negotiate. The Allied Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch, believed that there was no reason to negotiate and that the Germans should sign anything that was put in front of them. In this, Foch was ironically supported by the German government; the situation in Germany was such that the government feared civil unrest due to chronic food shortages caused by the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports. The government ordered the delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, to sign whatever was placed in front of him. At 05:10 AM, he signed the thirty-four terms of the armistice, as harsh as he may have believed them to be.

The war would officially cease at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Even though the commanders on both sides knew as early as 05:30 AM that the war would end in less than six hours, many of the generals ordered their troops to continue fighting. Some hoped to secure additional ground in case the armistice collapsed, and the fighting resumed. Other leaders simply wanted to land a few final blows on the enemy. Some artillery units ordered final barrages for no other reason than to avoid having to haul crates of unused ammunition to the rear once the guns fell silent.

One example of the determination of the Allies to maintain pressure on the Germans until the very last moment, whilst also strictly adhering to the Armistice terms, was Battery 4 of the US Navy’s long-range 14-inch railway guns. It fired its last shot of the war at 10:57:30 AM from the Verdun area. The gun crew had timed it so that the shell would land far behind the German front line only seconds before the scheduled Armistice.

George Edwin Ellison

Of the millions of heart-rending stories of sacrifice and loss to come from the Great War, perhaps that of the last British soldier killed during the fighting, Private George Edwin Ellis is the most moving.

By the autumn of 1918, Ellison of Leeds, England had become something of a legend amongst his squad. The 40-year-old career soldier was still alive and kicking after four gruelling years of trench warfare; this was practically unheard of. This was no small feat for a British Tommy on the Western Front. The British army had effectively been wiped out and reconstituted with fresh volunteers and conscripts several times over since the beginning of the conflict.

Ellison had fought in the British Expeditionary Force’s first actions in 1914 and would go onto surveive the bloody slaughter of the Battles of: Mons; First Battle of Ypres; Armentières; La Bassée; Loos; and Cambrai.

Tragically, it was on the very final day of fighting that the veteran’s luck finally ran out. At 09:30 AM George Edwin Ellison was shot dead in a firefight while on patrol in western Belgium. His death came only four hours after the war-ending Armistice was signed but ninety minutes before the 11:00 AM ceasefire was to take effect.

Ironically, the ill-fated soldier fell near Mons, the site of his very first battle four years and three months earlier. The British generals had ordered an assault on the town knowing full well that the war’s end was at hand. They believed that depriving the enemy of the ground upon which Britain had suffered its first defeat of the war was a symbolic victory too great to pass up. Donkeys leading lions, indeed.

Private George Edwin Ellison was laid to rest in a small cemetery near the town of Mons. By a strange coincidence, his plot faces the grave of the very first British soldier killed in the war – 17-year-old Private John Parr. The fact that the first soldier and the last soldier killed in the war lie facing one another shows the futility of the whole conflict and is a tragic example of the stalemate nature of the Great War.

Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon

Private First Class Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon was the final Frenchman to be killed in action during World War One. With the Armistice only fifteen minutes away, the former shepherd was making for the Allied lines along the Meuse River clutching what he believed to be a vital communiqué. At 10:45 AM, a sniper’s bullet found its mark, killing the 40-year-old Trébuchon instantly. This important message that he carried called for his comrades to muster for hot soup at 11:30 AM.

The French Army was embarrassed that it had sent men into battle after the Armistice had been signed. In their embarrassment, the French government recorded the deaths of all their soldiers on 11th November as occurring on 10th November.

Trébuchon

Trébuchon was the last of 91 Frenchmen killed that morning on his part of the front.

George Price

The final man to fall from the British Empire was 25-year-old Private George Lawrence Price. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Price moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan as a young man. He was conscripted in Moose Jaw in October 1917.

On the morning of 11th November 1918, Price’s battalion had driven the enemy across the bank of a canal in the Belgian village of Ville-Sure-Haine and at 09:00 AM they learned that the fighting would end. Acting on their own initiative, Price and a small group of soldiers crossed the canal to clear the houses on the opposite bank from the battalion. The group discovered a German machine gun crew who opened fire on them, but they took cover behind a wall. The Germans, aware that they had been outflanked, began to retreat. Private Price darted out onto the road in pursuit of the enemy and was struck in the chest by a rifle round. It was 10:58 AM.

Henry Gunther

At almost the same moment as George Price fell, 230 Km to the south in the Meuse Argonne sector, a 23-year-old American private named Henry Gunther was single-handedly charging a machine gun nest.

H. Gunther

The Baltimore native and son of German immigrants had been drafted into the US Army in September 1917. After serving as a supply sergeant, Gunther was busted down to private when a military censor reported him for criticizing the war in a letter home. Determined to win his stripes back, Gunther spent the final weeks of the war volunteering for dangerous assignments. With the war’s end just seconds away, the former bookkeeper fixed his bayonet and charged towards an enemy position as his comrades stayed in their foxholes. The Germans, realising that peace was imminent, frantically attempted to wave the American off but when he was within grenade-throwing range they were forced to open fire. Henry Gunther died at 10:59 AM. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the US military’s second highest award for valour, and restored to the rank of sergeant.

The Germans 

Information about the German casualties is more difficult to ascertain. In all, there were more than 4,000 German casualties in the war’s final morning. There seems to be no clear indication of which of them was the last to fall but some speculate that it may have been a junior officer called Tomas. According to one account, the young officer was struck down in a hail of gunfire by US troops several minutes after the truce while attempting to surrender the house he and his men were in the process of vacating. His killers were supposedly unaware that it was after 11:00 AM when he approached them.

The War to End All, Oh Wait!

Sadly, for millions, the unprecedented bloodletting of the First World War would continue long after November 1918.

Fighting would rage on in Russia between the Bolsheviks and counter revolutionary forces for another four years in the Russian Civil War. A multi-national expeditionary force consisting of British, American, French, Canadian, Italian and even Japanese forces formed part of the White Army which fought against the Red Army of the Bolsheviks.

The collapse of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked years of bloody nationalist unrest. The newly reformed country of Poland, for its part, would fight in five different wars with its neighbours in as many years.

Germany, too, was racked with civil unrest and political violence well into 1919.

Although the fighting stopped in November 1918, the First World War did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919. The treaty imposed such harsh and crippling terms on the vanquished Germans that it allowed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazis) to take advantage of discontent in the country and eventually seize power. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch actually believed that the Treaty did not go nearly far enough and predicted that, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” He was off by sixty-five days.

The Rest is History

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.

Kaiser

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

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.

Militarism

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.

Dreadnought

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!

Nationalism

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.

Princip

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