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Experiences of the Great War

The steps to war

Background to the First World War

In the early years of the 20th century, the pre-war world was opening up as never before, driven by industrial development, technological advancements, scientific discoveries and exploration.

Cinema, the popular press, and increased leisure time generated a thirst for travel and adventure.

Social reform and nationalism

This golden age for the wealthy contrasted starkly with the living conditions of the poor.

Strikes, riots, and anarchists' bombs marked a struggle for social reform which also witnessed the rise of the Labour Party and the suffragette movement.

Agitation for Home Rule in Ireland and Scotland mirrored the growth of nationalist sentiments across the European empires and dominions.

These simmering threats to the old order, and fears of Germany's military ambitions, led to shifts in geopolitical alliances.

Tension across Europe

Despite apparent stability, there was an undercurrent of tension across Europe caused by colonial ambitions, diplomatic spats and shifting allegiances.

Europe was readying itself for war.

Conscription was part of life in France, Germany and Russia, separated as they were by land borders and with a history of conflict between them. In contrast, Britain's standing army was small, though, as an island nation, its navy was the largest in the world.

Archduke assassinated

Among the increasing social unrest and acts of violence across continental Europe, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on 28 June 1914 by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip had the most significant repercussions.

Princip was a member of the Black Hand gang, a militaristic organisation dedicated to unifying the Slavic population. His actions threw a tangled web of alliances and diplomatic agreements into sharp focus and set in train diplomatic and military manoeuvres across continental Europe.

Germany declares war

An uncompromising Austrian ultimatum to Serbia precipitated Germany's backing of Austria in any action against Serbia — the so-called 'blank cheque'.

Russia's support for Serbia resulted in Germany declaring war on Russia and their old enemy, France, putting into place the Schlieffen Plan, which meant invading France before tackling Russia.

Invasion of Belgium

The British Government — although increasingly nervous about Germany's ambitions of empire — held back from any involvement. However, the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France meant it was morally obliged to support its ally in the event of war.

Germany then severely compromised the Treaty of London 1839, in which several European signatories, including Germany and Britain, had agreed to protect Belgian neutrality.

Germany had demanded entry through Belgium to attack France — Belgium refused, but Germany went ahead and invaded anyway.

First World War begins

The weight of Britain's obligation to protect Belgian neutrality tipped the balance. On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

The repercussions from the fatal shots in Sarajevo had gathered an unstoppable momentum.

Sequence of events in 1914

The sequence of events from the assassination in Sarajevo until Britain joined the war was as follows:

  • 28 June 1914 — Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary is assassinated in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo

  • 3 July 1914 — Germany pledges support to Austria for action against Serbia

  • 23 July 1914 — Austria-Hungary issues a threatening ultimatum to Serbia

  • 28 July 1914 — Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia

  • 29 July 1914 — Russia mobilises her forces

  • 1 August 1914 — Germany declares war on Russia

  • 3 August 1914 — Germany declares war on France

  • 4 August 1914 — Britain declares war on Germany.

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