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1871-1914 - Origins of the Great War


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Political cartoon depicting the tangled web of European alliances.

Contributed by Peter Kauffner (

Origins of the Great War


A prolonged two-front war was a nightmare scenario for German military strategists in 1914. Yet policies formulated by Bismarck in the 1870s ensured that Germany did face threats on both its eastern and western frontiers. Bismarck's annexation of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 created a France that seemed incorrigibly hostile, at least to German policymakers. In addition, his alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879 ultimately led to a hostile Russia and thus to the Franco-Russian alliance. This essay examines why Germany adopted and kept these policies and also details what results they had in military campaign of 1914. 

 The Austro-German alliance (1879-1918) 

While in opposition, Bismarck noted that Prussia's 1854 alliance with Austria, "Bound our spruce and seaworthy frigate to the wormy old warship of Austria." With five major religions, 11 nationalities, and 16 languages, the Habsburg Empire was an anachronism in an age of nationalism. 

Defeated in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Austrians were forced to acknowledge Hungarian autonomy in 1867, when the country's name was officially changed to Austria-Hungary. The unification of Germany under Prussian leadership in 1871 made Bismarck chancellor and chief policy arbitrator for all Germany. 

Conservative Prussians like Bismarck looked back nostalgically to Metternich's anti-British "Holy Alliance" (1815-48) consisting of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. An alliance with Russia was thus an affair of the heart. But when Russia was humbled in the Eastern Crisis of 1878, the practical value of such an alliance was reduced, in Bismarck's eyes at least. 

Adopting the same policy that he had denounced while in opposition, Bismarck negotiated a bilateral treaty of alliance with the Habsburg Empire in 1879. German Emperor Wilhelm I signed his chancellor's latest creation with great reluctance. "Thinking of what it means I feel like a traitor," he said. To Wilhelm, the tsar was an old friend while the Habsburgs were a dynastic rival. 

The actual provisions of the treaty applied only in the event of an unprovoked Russian attack. But the treaty demonstrated that when push came to shove, Germany would choose Austria-Hungary over Russia. The stage was thus set for the eventual break with Russia and for the Franco-Russian alliance. 

Choosing a weaker partner over a stronger one might seem self-defeating, but the Iron Chancellor had his reasons. Doubters were told that the weakened Habsburg empire was in danger of collapse. If that occurred, the ethnic Germans of Austria-Hungary would asked to be annexed by Germany. Bismarck certainly didn't want his Reich contaminated by any more of that, "putrid south German sentimentality," as he put it. After all, those putrid south Germans were likely to elect a Reichstag dominated by Liberals, Social Democrats, and Catholics -- all opponents of Bismarck's junker state. 

Worse yet, the breakup of the Habsburg Empire would open what Bismarck referred to as the "insoluble problem" of Bohemia. German nationalists would be outraged if the large ethnic German minority in this region was left outside the Reich. But growing German nationalism was already awakening a nationalistic backlash among Bohemia's Czech majority. 

The central question of Germany foreign policy in this period was, should Germans look west to liberal Britain or east to reactionary Russia? Committing to one or the other would necessarily alienate a segment of German society. The alliance with Austria-Hungary had no such divisive consequences. It was a substitute for unification and thus a sop to the "Pan-German" nationalists on both sides of the border were who were never reconciled to Bismarck's Kleindeutchland (small Germany). 

Bismarck was perhaps a bit premature in anticipating Austria-Hungary's breakup in 1879. But by 1914, with riots and police crackdowns mounting, the view that the Habsburg Empire was on the the verge of disintegration was a widely held one. 

The empire now had seven major separatist movements. The two dominant nationalities, the Germans (23 percent) and the Magyars (19 percent) were together only a minority of Austria-Hungary's population -- and even these two favored nationalities toyed with separatism. The imperial diet was scene of chaotic demonstrations and debilitating national rivalries. The government routinely resorted to rule by decree, in theory an emergency procedure. Only the Poles in Galicia remained the emperor's loyal subjects, since for them the alternative to Habsburg rule was Russian rule. 

"We were bound to die," said Czernin, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister from 1916-18. "We were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we choose the most terrible." 

Russia: the colossus in the east (1872-1887) 

Just as the breakup of Austria-Hungary would open the question of Bohemia, the breakup of the Russian Empire would open the question of Poland. If an independent Poland was carved out of the Russian Empire, the ethnic Poles of eastern Germany would agitate to join such a state. It was for this reason that the anti-Polish alliance between Prussia/Germany and Russia was one of Europe's most enduring diplomatic alignments. 

Russia's population, already Europe's largest at the beginning of the 19th century, expanded dramatically from 70 million in 1848 to 174 million in 1914. Although still overwhelmingly rural, Russia experienced a rapid industrialization starting around 1890. By 1910, its iron and steel production was half that of Britain's. 

Russia's self-image as a champion of the Slavs and her longstanding ambition to control the outlet of the Black Sea brought her into conflict with Austria-Hungary. Thus, the Austro-German alliance inevitably led to a rift between Germany and Russia. 

If Germany was looking for allies against Russia, Britain would seem a logical first choice. Britain was Austria-Hungary's self-proclaimed "natural ally" and was also a traditional rival of Russia's. 

When the possibility of an Anglo-German alliance directed at Russia was considered in 1879, it was feared that the French would try to take advantage of any Russo-German conflict to get révanche (revenge) against Germany for the humiliation of 1871. So Bismarck asked what Britain would do in the event of a conflict between Germany and Russia over the Balkans. "We will in that case keep France quiet," said Disraeli, then the British prime minister. 

"Is that all?," was Bismarck's response. But if Germany had accepted this British proposal, the German army would have made short work of Russia in the event of Russo-German war. 

As a master diplomat, Bismarck could keep all the balls in the air, his options always open. He made both a "Three Emperor's League" (1872-1887) with Austria-Hungary and Russia, as well as a seemly incompatible "Triple Alliance" (1882-1914) with Austria-Hungary and Italy. 

The Three Emperor's League was a conservative coalition against Britain, a revival of the old Holy Alliance. Yet Britain was an ally of Italy at this time, and thus indirectly a German ally through the Triple Alliance. In 1887, Russia refused renew the League, so a secret "Reinsurance Treaty" was signed between Germany and Russia. 

The formation of the Franco-Russian alliance (1890-1892) 

In 1890, Emperor Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck as chancellor and appointed the pro-British Caprivi instead. "Bismarck was able to juggle with three balls [Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Russia]," said Caprivi. "I can juggle with only two." He refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty on the grounds that the alliance with Austria-Hungary would be damaged if word of it leaked out. 

Although Bismarck would later use this refusal to discredit his successors, the decisive break with Russia had in fact occurred years earlier. As a treaty of alliance, the Reinsurance Treaty was a fraud. Even while it was in effect, the German general staff had secretly advised the Austro-Hungarians on how to improve their striking ability against Russia. 

Although the Franco-Russian treaty of alliance was not signed until 1892, it was merely the logical conclusion of the policy Russia initiated in 1887 when it refused to renew the Three Emperor's League. The five year delay was primarily due to France's reluctance to grant Russia a free hand with respect to Turkey. 

The 1892 alliance marked the end of France's long diplomatic isolation. For autocratic Russia to joined hands with republican France was a triumph of realpolitik over ideology. Fear of Germany's growing industrial strength had at last trumped "monarchical solidarity," a guiding principle of Russian foreign policy since the French Revolution. 

Britain pulls away from Germany (1897-1909) 

Wilhelm could never bring himself to sacrifice his enthusiasm for projecting German power beyond Europe (Weltmacht) in order to forge the alliance with Britain that he desired. Frustrated by his inability to intervene effectively in the Anglo-Boer War (1897), Wilhelm threw his support behind the idea of a German naval buildup. As the British felt more and more threatened by this buildup, they began to look elsewhere for allies. 

An "Entente Cordial," resolving various colonial disputes, was concluded between Britain and France in 1904. Russia's defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905 eased British Russophobia and left Germany as Britain's primary rival. The British and French to began joint military planning in 1906, thus upgrading their entente into an informal alliance. The Anglo-Russian entente of 1907 created the "Triple Entente" consisting of Britain, France, and Russia. Germany's Triple Alliance had a rival. 

Although Britain's official policy was now to gather allies against Germany, the British public saw little need for such continental entanglements until Mulliner Panic of 1909. In this episode, it was revealed that Germany had secretly contracted to build two battleships ahead of the published schedule. The Germans claimed that the contracts were awarded early for economic reasons, but the British feared a stealth buildup. They responded with an accelerated naval buildup of their own under the slogan, "We want eight [new battleships] and we won't wait." 

The rivalry of the armed leagues (1905-11) 

Germany and Austria-Hungary decided to take full advantage of Russia's post-1905 weakness by pressing for concessions from both France and Russia in in the First Moroccan Crisis (1905-06) and in Bosnia (1908-09). 

As Russia began to recover, the entente powers became less and less willing to back down before German threats. The Germans, meanwhile, became increasingly anxious to prove themselves as they felt the balance of power turn against them. 

The dispatch of a German gunboat to the port of Agadir in Morocco provoked a prolonged and bitter crisis with France in 1911. This crisis was finally resolved when France agreed to give Germany a slice of the Congo in exchange for German acquiescence in a French protectorate over Morocco. 

In 1906, "the German people would not understand a war for Morocco," as German Chancellor Bülow said at the time. But public opinion on both sides was outraged during the 1911 crisis. In the interim, the German people had come to believe that their country was being "encircled" and that measures once thought unthinkable were now necessary. 

The Balkan Wars (1912-13) 

Serbia's victory in the Balkan Wars (1912-13) caused many south Slavs to begin to look to Belgrade as their champion against the Habsburgs -- something the Serbs enthusiastically encouraged with agitation and subversion. 

Determined to eliminate the Serb threat, Vienna was now convinced that war was the only solution to the problem posed by her southern neighbor. A minor border dispute between Serbia and Albania provided the pretext for a Habsburg ultimatum to Serbia which was delivered in October 1913. On the advice of Russia, the Serbs withdraw from the disputed villages. 

Vienna was now a second tier power. its eagerness for war counted for little. But the Balkans Wars also triggered a second, penultimate crisis of far reaching implications. 

Turkey's defeat had weakened the country to such an extent that Germany could no longer resist the temptation to establish a military presence at the Bosphorous, the outlet of the Black Sea through which half of Russia's exports flowed. 

Liman von Sanders, a German general, was assigned to help reorganized the Turkish army. In November, he was put in command of Turkish troops at the straits. Russia was outraged and Germany suddenly found itself in the midst of yet another diplomatic crisis, this time by accident. The crisis was resolved in January, 1914, when Sanders became a marshall in the Turkish army and was thus placed above day-to-day command responsibilities. 

The Russians had been the most disinterested members of the Triple Entente up to this point. Now they became its most vigorous partisans. They began arguing for more explicit guarantees and shoring up potential allies in the Balkans. The Germans, for their part, observed Russia's preparations and concluded that the long predicted final showdown between Teuton and Slav was at last imminent. 

France prepares an offensive (1912-14) 

Back in the days of Louis XIV, France was Europe's most powerful and most populous state, able to take on all comers. Even in 1848, France still had the second largest population in Europe (after Russia). But while other European nations experienced dramatic population growth in the late 19th century, French growth for the period 1848-1914 was a paltry eleven percent. (In the same period, Russia's population grew by 149 percent and Germany's by 109 percent.) By 1914 France, with 40 million people, was only Europe's fifth most populous nation, behind Russia (174 million), Germany (68 million), Austria-Hungary (51 million), and Britain (45 million). 

At the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, France and Germany were equals economically. Britain, meanwhile, overshadowed both as the world's number one industrial power. By 1900, Germany had zoomed ahead of both France and Britain. The United States, which hardly rated as an industrial power in 1870, had by 1910 a larger industrial output than that of both Germany and Britain combined. 

The Agadir Crisis of 1911 left France alarmed and outraged by what was now seen the growing menace of Germany. The militantly anti-German Poincaré replaced the pacific Caillaux as premier in 1912 and was elected president in 1913. 

Determined that France would not be left dangling in a future crisis, Poincaré was eager to transform the Triple Entente into a united front against Germany. The French had failed to support the Russians in the Bosnian crisis of 1908. Poincaré eagerly assured Russia that she could count on French support in any future confrontation with Germany. 

The centerpiece of Poincaré's policy was the Three Year Service Law, which extended the service requirement for conscripts was extended from two years to three years. When war broke out in 1914, the French army had a mobilized strength of 3.5 million, nearly matching Germany's 3.8 million. (This compares to 4.4 million for Russia.) 

For France, with its much smaller population, to field such an army required great sacrifice from the French people. The Three Year Service Law turned France into Europe's most militarized society with 80 percent of its draft age men in military service compared to 50 percent for Germany. 

While the Three Years Service Law supplied the French military with the manpower it needed to defy Germany, the law also gave the French High Command an intoxicating and unwarranted measure of confidence. Defensive plans were abandoned in favor of the highly aggressive "Plan XVII," which contemplated an all-out offensive in Lorraine. 

A gathering storm (1913-14) 

The confrontations over Serbia and the Bosphorous left a mood a deep pessimism in their wake. "All Europe, uncertain and troubled, prepares for an inevitable war, the immediate cause of which is uncertain to us," opined the Echo de Paris in 1913. In April 1914, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg told the Reichstag that, "Statesmen in every country have begun to despair of averting the final crisis." 

No one was more pessimistic than German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, or "sad Julius" as the kaiser called him. "I am of the the persuasion that a European war must come sooner or later," he wrote to Conrad, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, in 1913. Moltke had no romantic illusions about such a war. It would be, he told Bethmann, "the mutual butchery of the civilized nations of Europe." 

Such views resonated with the German public, judging from the popularity of the book Hour of Destiny (1914) by Colonel Frobenius. Frobenius advocated that a preventative war be launched against France and Russia. The case for French militarism, meanwhile, was made in La Fin de la Prusse et le Démembrement de L'Allemagne

Russia's military preparations had an even greater impact on Germany's sense of vulnerability than did those of France. It was projected that by 1917 French-financed improvements in the Russian railway system would allow Russia reduce the time required to mobilize its entire army from 30 days to 18 days. Such an improvement would undermine the basic assumption of Germany's secret war plan, known as the Schlieffen Plan. This plan, named after German Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen, counted on slow Russian mobilization to allow the German army to focus entirely on France before turning its attention to Russia. 

Moltke, who had succeeded Schlieffen as chief of staff in 1906, took a worst case view of the threat his country faced and thus turned his fears into self-fulfilling prophesies. "We are ready [for war] and the sooner the better for us," he said in June 1914. 

In fact, the Three Years Service Law was highly unpopular in France and was therefore likely to be repealed at any time. Russia's notorious inefficiency meant that while the country could make ambitious plans, it was a leap of faith to expect that these plans would be implemented as proposed. 

Although Wilhelm had waxed bombastic at the time of the Balkan Crisis, the mercurial monarch was soon in a more pacific mood. In March 1914, he told Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor, that he no longer expected a general European war. In April, Wilhelm rejected an Austro-Hungarian proposal that Habsburg forces occupy the ministate of Montenegro, an ally of Serbia. 

Nor was Wilhelm the only one in the mood to give peace a chance in the spring of 1914. French voters gave the new three-year conscription law a thumbs down by electing an anti-militarist, left-of-center majority to the Chamber of Deputies. Anglo-German accords over a railway line to Bagdad and a proposed partition of Portugal's colonies inspired Lloyd George, the British chancellor of the exchequer, to proclaim that Anglo-German hostility was at an end. 

A murder in Sarajevo (June 28, 1914) 

This Indian summer was cut short by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Sarajevo was the capital of Bosnia, an Austrian province with a large Serb minority. Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and the leader of a ring of seven assassins, shot the archduke in the neck as his car drove by. 

The plot was amateurish in the extreme and succeeded only because the Franz Ferdinand, although heir apparent to the Habsburg throne, was traveling virtually without security. When Franz Joseph had visited Sarajevo in 1910, hundreds of political suspects were imprisoned for the day and thousands of police were brought in. But the archduke's visit was organized by the military, so this time the civil authorities sulked. There were only a 120 policemen in all of Sarajevo, then a city of 50,000. 

The archduke had few friends at court because of his venomous temper and because he had married a Czech countess in defiance of the emperor's wishes. He was in Sarajevo to celebrate his fourteenth wedding anniversary as the emperor forbade him from appearing in public with his wife in Vienna. Franz Ferdinand was probably not aware that June 28 was also the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje (1389) and thus Serbia's national day. 

The archduke's assassination was the first and only conspiracy that the seven plotters conducted together. Only one of the seven even had a criminal record, and that was for striking his teacher. However, all seven were tubercular, a diagnosis that may have spurred their interest in a heroic death. 

Princip told investigators that the plot had been, "Born in our hearts." But the group did received arms and other assistance from the "Black Hand," a secret society of Serbian officers and a powerful faction in Serb politics. Princip was a "Pan-Slav" who favored a united south Slav state. The Black Hand was Serb expansionist, or "Great Serb." 

When arrested, Tankosic, a Black Hand member and Serbian army major, was asked why he provided Princip with weapons. "To spite [Serb Prime Minister] Pašic," he replied. 

Vienna sends an ultimatum (July 23, 1914) 

Vienna naturally favored strong action to restore Austro-Hungarian prestige. But Serbia was an ally of Russia and Austria-Hungary needed German support if it was to resist Russian pressure. Foreign Minister Berchtold therefore send a note to Berlin stating that, Serbia "must be eliminated as a power factor in the Balkans." On July 5, Wilhelm responded by assuring Berchtold of his support. This was the famous "blank check." 

"Now we can no longer hold back," said Franz Joseph when told of the blank check. "It will be a terrible war." 

Over the next several weeks, the German government repeatedly prodded the Austro-Hungarians to take strong action quickly, before the outrage over Franz Ferdinand's murder subsided. To lull Europe while the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia was being prepared, Wilhelm and other top members of the German and Austrian government took their summer vacations as usual. 

Austria-Hungary wanted no repeat of the Balkan Crisis of the previous year. This time, it wanted to make sure the terms of its ultimatum were harsh enough to ensure that Serbia would be forced to reject them. Among its ten points, the ultimatum, delivered on July 23, demanded that agents of the Dual Monarchy be allowed to suppress anti-Habsburg publications in Serbia. 

The tsar mobilizes his army (July 23-31) 

The Russians began preliminary steps toward mobilization immediately after they learned of Vienna's ultimatum to Serbia. This decision was secret, but the Serbs did receive reports of Russian troops movements and this strengthened their resolve in their dealings with Austria-Hungary. 

The Serb reply, sent on July 25, took a conciliatory tone, but did not concede on the crucial point of allowing Habsburg security agents to enter Serbia. Serbia ordered a general mobilization even before sending its reply. Austria-Hungary, expecting a qualified reply, broke off diplomatic relations as soon as the Serb note was received. 

When told of this latest turn of events, Franz Joseph's untranslatable response was, "Also doch" (literally "so indeed"). But the emperor was no longer as pessimistic as he had been a fortnight earlier. "Breaking off diplomatic relations does not necessarily mean war," he said. 

Berchtold presented a declaration of war to Franz Joseph for his signature on July 28. When Franz Joseph read in the proposed declaration that the Serbs had already attacked Austro-Hungarian forces, he could not refuse to sign. Once the emperor's signature safely on the document, Berchtold scratched out the untrue reference to Serbian aggression. 

Berchtold withheld the Serb reply from Berlin for two days and did not even notify Germany when war was declared. So when Wilhelm in Berlin read the reply, he had no idea that war was already in progress, at least on paper. In his view, Serbia's temperate reply meant that, "Every reason for war disappears." 

To the British, Serbia was hardly a respectable state at all. It was "the least worthy member of the European family," as one British newspaper put it. "To hell with Servia," was headline of newspaper magnate Horatio Bottomley. The British were only too happy to sacrifice Serbian interests for the sake of European peace. Britain's King George therefore proposed that Austria-Hungary first occupy Belgrade and then allow its grievances to be addressed through British mediation. 

While Wilhelm welcomed the Serb reply, for Bethmann it was an obstacle to be overcome. He urged Vienna to accept George's "Halt in Belgrade" proposal. The purpose of this maneuver was to, "place the guilt of the outbreak of a European conflagration upon Russia's shoulders," as Bethmann wired to the German ambassador in Vienna. Berchtold rejected the proposal; Vienna already had its pretext for war. 

Russia, convinced that its prestige could not withstand another Balkan climb down, publicly announced a partial mobilization on July 29 against Austria-Hungary alone. Yanushkevich, the Russian army chief of staff, insisted that any mobilization had to be directed against the country's main antagonist, Germany. 

Russian military leaders had repeatedly promised the French that they would attack in East Prussia as quickly as possible if war ever broke out. Yanushkevich feared that if Russia diluted this commitment by mobilizing against Austria-Hungary alone, France might feel free to disregard its own military commitment to Russia. 

Paleacute;ologue, the bellicose French ambassador in St. Petersburg, encouraged such fears. French Premier Viviani instructed Paleacute;ologue on July 30 to ask that Russia to refrain from doing anything that might provoke Germany. There is no indication that Paleacute;ologue acted on this instruction. The Russians remained convinced that only by mobilizing quickly could they prove their worth as an ally. What's more, Paleacute;ologue did not inform Paris that Russia was contemplating general mobilization. 

Later that afternoon, Tsar Nicholas received Foreign Minister Sazonov and General Tatistchev, his personal envoy to the German emperor. "Without blinking the fact that our preparations may bring on a war, it is nonetheless better to proceed carefully with them rather than be caught unprepared out of fear that they may offer a pretext for war," Sazonov told the tsar. 

Nicholas vacillated for nearly an hour on the issue of whether to authorized a general mobilization. "Yes, it is hard to decide," commiserated Tatistchev. The tsar was a weak man anxious to prove his strength of character. This was the wrong thing to say to him at such a time. "I will decide!" Nicholas responded forcefully. He then gave Sazonov permission to authorize general mobilization. 

"Mobilization means war," was a popular catch phrase in the pre-war years. Yet the Russian leaders saw their mobilization as "merely...a precautionary measure," as Sazonov told the German ambassador. Russia actually conducted a round of negotiations with Austria-Hungary immediately after mobilizing. After all, Austria-Hungary itself had mobilized against Serbia in 1909 and again in 1912 without provoking war. Russian public opinion had reacted explosively to Austria-Hungary's declaration of war on Serbia. To remain a Great Power, the Russians felt that they had to counter this threat to their interests. 

Germany chooses war (July 31 -- Aug. 1) 

Upon learning of the Russian mobilization, Bethmann told the German ambassador in Vienna to withdraw his support for the British mediation proposal. Once Russia had been provoked into mobilizing first, he could rest assured that the war effort would have the support of Germans across the political spectrum, including the kaiser and a united Reichstag. 

Unaware of Bethmann's about face, Wilhelm continued to assure the British that their proposal had his support. It was easy enough for Bethmann to keep the All-Highest in the dark. Wilhelm was at Potsdam and had no telephone link to Berlin. Every message had to be hand delivered to him, so Europe's most powerful ruler was always a day behind in a crisis in which every minute counted. 

A final opportunity to limit the expanding war presented itself on Aug. 1. Lichnowsky, the German ambassador to Britain, reported to Berlin on a conversation he had earlier that day with British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey. Grey had reportedly assured Lichnowsky that in the event of a Russo-German war, "Britain will remain neutral and would guarantee French neutrality." Grey would later claim that he had been misunderstood. 

Wilhelm and Bethmann were overjoyed at this news. "We march then, with all our forces, but only to the east," said the kaiser, throwing one last monkey wrench into the plans of the militarists. 

Moltke assured the kaiser that this was impossible. "The deployment of an army of a million men was not a matter of improvisation," he said. "It was the product of a whole heavy year's work." This work mainly involved the precise coordination of railway timetables. 

Following Schlieffen, the German military leaders took the "mobilization means war" credo literally. The Schlieffen Plan called for the German army to cross the border into Belgium within days after mobilization was declared. Speed of mobilization, the generals thought, was an advantage that Germany could not sacrifice. Thus it was that Alfred von Schlieffen's dead hand pulled the trigger that started World War I. 

Cowed by Moltke's arguments, Wilhelm approved an immediate mobilization. But it turns out that Moltke was not telling the whole truth. Until 1913, Germany did have an annually updated plan for an offensive in the east. When General von Staab, the head of German army's Railway Division, learned of Moltke's comments after the war, he was so infuriated by the perceived reproach that he wrote a book detailing how the suggested changes in deployment could have been made. 

Since Alsace-Lorraine was heavily fortified, the prospect of a French offensive should not have concerned the Germans unduly. A relativity small contingent could have held off any French attack. 

War begins (Aug. 1-4) 

Also on Aug 1, Germany declared war on Russia and demanded that France provide a guarantee of neutrality. "France will act according to her interests," replied Viviani. France was in fact committed by secret treaty to come to Russia's defense in the event of an attack by Germany. If Viviani had given a guarantee of neutrality, the Germans would have demanded the forts of Toul and Verdun as security. Germany declared war two days later. 

In London, meanwhile, the British cabinet wrestled with the issue of how deeply their country should commit itself. Grey, along with Prime Minister Asquith, regarded the entente with France as an alliance and wanted to back the French militarily as soon as German mobilization was announced. But most of the British public, especially the portion which supported the ruling Liberal Party, wanted to stay out of a continental war if at all possible. A proposal for military assistance to France was rejected by the cabinet by a vote of 11 to 8. 

As good Liberals, the cabinet ministers of 1914 looked for guidance to the behavior of the Gladstone government during Franco-Prussian War of 1870. They therefore resolved that, "A substantial violation of Belgian neutrality would compel us to take action" (Aug. 2). Belgium was the gateway for British trade with the continent and its status as a "permanently neutral state" was internationally guaranteed by an 1839 treaty. 

Although Belgium had mobilized on July 31, the country was still confident that it could escape the clash of the great powers. On August 2, Below, the German ambassador to Belgium, arrived at the office of Belgian Foreign Minister Davignon, pale and trembling. "Are you well?" asked the Belgian. "I climb the stairs too quickly," the German replied. Below then read aloud an ultimatum demanding free passage for German troops through Belgium. The note fell to the floor between the two diplomats. "No, no, it is not possible," said Davignon. But it was all too possible. German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium two days later. 

This action ensured that Britain entered the war a united nation. On August 4, Britain declared war and thus became the only major European power to initiate war against Germany, instead of the other way around. 

Although paper declarations of war had been issued earlier and a flotilla of Austro-Hungarian monitors had bombarded Belgrade on July 29, the crossing of the Belgian frontier marks the true beginning of World War I, the point of no return. Since this action was an integral part of German mobilization plans, Germany's decision to mobilize on July 31 was in effect a decision to initiate general war. 

The Schlieffen plan in action (Aug. 1914) 

The myth of the Schlieffen plan, created by Schlieffen's admirers after the war, is the master's brilliant plan was compromised and bungled in execution by Moltke. 

Both versions of the plan contemplated a massive German offensive that would reach the plains of northern France by going through Belgium, thus bypassing the heavily fortified Franco-German border. 

Schlieffen emphasized the importance of a placing every available division on the right flank. This portion of the army was assigned to capture the channel ports and to envelope Paris from the west and south. Moltke, a compromiser, toned down the plan by moving forces from the right flank to center and left, and also to the eastern front. 

Whereas Schlieffen had proposed invading the Netherlands as well as Belgium, Moltke hoped to use Dutch neutrality as Germany's "windpipe" through Britain's anticipated naval blockade. (Since a blockade would become an issue only if the war was of considerable duration, the windpipe analogy suggests that Moltke did not really expect the Schlieffen Plan to work.) 

But by steering clear of Dutch territory, the Germans denied themselves the use of the railways along the southern border of the Netherlands. These would have been helpful in transporting supplies to the front lines. 

The truth is that both versions of the plan are fatally flawed. Of course, the Germans successfully used a similar plan in WWII, so perhaps the plan's unworkability is not immediately apparent. But in WWII, the Germans used mechanized forces. In WWI, they marched on foot, which meant that the French defenders could out pace them by using rail transport. 

As historian A. J. P. Taylor put it, "The surprising thing in retrospect is that the Germans were allowed to succeed at all. They had been moving on the outside of a circle by foot, while the French could send troops straight across the circle by train." The French were always in a position regain the initiative by concentrating their forces at an unfortified point on the German line and then holding their ground. 

At the beginning of the campaign the German and allied armies in the west were about equal in size. A rule of thumb among military strategists is that the attacker must have a three to one firepower advantage over the defender to have reasonable chance of victory. 

Since the Belgians had destroyed their railway lines before retreating, the Germans were not able to keep their forces resupplied in the way the Schlieffen Plan anticipated. By the time the allies made a stand at the Marne, the Germans were nearly exhausted and running out of supplies. Schlieffen's idea of putting a strong force on the extreme right wing would have meant even longer marching distances and greater supply problems. 

What saved the German army from being annihilated at the beginning of the war was that Joffre, the French commander, had a battle plan that was even less realistic than Schlieffen's. Because French intelligence did not think that the Germans could use reserve divisions as combat formations, they underestimated German strength by a third. This convinced Joffre that he had superior forces "at every point along the line." 

Counterattack in Lorraine and on the Marne (Aug. -- Sept.) 

Obsessed with recovering Alsace-Lorraine and convinced that the attacker always had the advantage, Joffre, following France's pre-war "Plan XVII," threw his forces into a suicidal offensive in Lorraine. This was the most heavily fortified section of the German line and the resulting casualties were even higher than those France suffered at Verdun later in the war. 

The irony is that if Plan XVII had been more successful, the Schlieffen Plan might actually have worked. If the Germans had retreated and ripped up the railway lines as they went, the main French force could have wound up stranded on the Rhine -- a WWI army that strayed more than 80 miles from the nearest railhead was a beached whale. This would leave them cut off from the decisive theater of action, which was around Paris. 

The German commanders in Lorraine were Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany. These glory-seeking princes had no intention of taking a dive. Rupprecht was even able to convince Moltke to authorize a counterattack. This concession foreshadowed the nightmare Battle of Verdun, when the plans of the high command were again wreaked by princely political clout. 

In Joffre's mind, the only alternative to attack was retreat. So for over a week (8/24-9/5), the Germans advanced without resistance. Not only Belgium, but a large portion of northeastern France was now under German occupation. 

Rapid conquest on such a scale might have intoxicated another man, but it left Moltke as pessimistic as ever. "Where are the prisoners? Where are the captured guns?" he would ask. There were few. 

While Moltke teetered on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Joffre showed an admirable degree of calm in adversity. He never missed his two well-cooked meals a day and demonstrated his control by dismissing subordinate generals right and left. 

As the Germans approached Paris, the French government fled to Bordeaux. Adolphe Messimy, the French war minister, understood that the French public would be outraged if Paris was abandoned without a fight. Over Joffre's objections, he ordered the Paris garrison to stay put. 

When Joffre finally decided make a stand on the Marne River, the Paris garrison was behind the German line. Rather than leave themselves in this exposed position, the German commanders authorized a retreat. Such was the allied victory in the Battle of the Marne. 

If the original Schlieffen Plan had been followed there would have been a large German force west of Paris at the time of the Marne. This force would have been cut off from the rest of the German army by the Paris garrison and thus in a highly precarious position. 

Like the French, the Germans, too, imagined that retreat was the only logical response to a defeat. But after retreating for five days (9/9-9/14), the German troops were too exhausted to march any further, so they dug in along the Aisne river. The French, meanwhile, had temporarily run out of artillery rounds, so they too dug in. This was the beginning of trench warfare. By mid-October, both sides had trench lines extending from the English Channel to Switzerland. 

Results of the campaign of 1914 

Entrenchment marked the end of the war of movement and the beginning of a long war of attrition. Since the allies had greater resources, Germany was at a disadvantage in such a war. Moreover, the British blockade would inevitably bite harder and harder as time went on. 

When the campaign was over, 90 percent of France's iron mines and 83 percent of its heavy industry was in German hands. Joffre, the man who lost northeastern France, became a French national hero. Meanwhile, Messimy, who had saved Paris, had to resign as war minister and join up as an ordinary soldier. Ferdinand Foch, author of the doctrine that the offensive always wins and a commander in the disastrous Lorraine offensive, would go on to become the overall allied commander. On the German side, Moltke was discredited and replaced by Falkenhayn. 


  • Flemming, D.F., The Origins and Legacies of World War I (1968). 
  • Jannen, William, Jr. The Lions of July: Prelude to War, 1914 (1996). 
  • Marshall, S.L.A., World War I (1971). 
  • Taylor, A.J.P., The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954). 
  • Taylor, A.J.P. (ed.), The Illustrated History of the World Wars (1978). 
  • Taylor, A.J.P. War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began (1969). 
  • Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August (1962). 
  • Turner, L.C.F., Origins of the First World War (1970). 
© 1998 Peter Kauffner - All rights reserved 

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