The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Paul Kilmartin

The speaker for our main talk in October 2009 was Paul Kilmartin who had travelled up from Durban to speak to the Society on the causes of World War 1. The full title of the talk was:

"How events developed in Europe over time to cause the outbreak of war in 1914 and how the fighting evolved in the first 5 months of the war, with particular reference to Germany and the Western Front".

The opening quote of the talk was from the diaries of Sir Henry "Chips" Channon who described the amazing events in the 7 weeks from early May 1940 as a time when:"Every day was a document and every hour was history" and this same quote was used to describe, not just a few weeks in 1940 but the whole year of 1914. This particular year was an uneven split between 7 months of peace and 5 months of war but what happened in both peace and war created almost all the history, particularly the military history, as we now know it, from that time to the present day. 1914 was the single most dominant, important and influential year of the 20th century and as Fritz Stern, the German historian has written: "The first calamity of the 20th century was the Great War - from which all other calamities sprang".

Although the war started 95 years ago, eminent military historians still have to agree to disagree as quotes from Sir John Keegan ("A tragic and unnecessary war") and Professor Gary Sheffield ("A just and necessary war") proved. Our speaker summed up his own view with a single word "Inevitable" and then set out to show why he felt that a major European war was to be inevitable at some time. References were made to the words of highly distinguished and powerful people who not only warned about the tragedy of a major war but also accurately forecast the damaging impact of such a war. Those quoted included Friedrich Engels (1887) Otto von Bismarck (1888) Winston Churchill (1901) General Helmuth von Moltke (1906) and Major-General Douglas Haig (1907 - 1909).

It was not only the leaders who were keen to fight a war but the ordinary people of most major countries were equally keen and a quote from a pro-war speech in 1898 by a future President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt, and its acceptance as a speech of major importance around the world, confirmed this. It helped to explain all the cheering crowds around the world who celebrated the outbreak of war in end July/early August 1914, This attitude was best summed up by the concise words of a leading World War 1 scholar, Professor Hew Strachen who wrote that all the peoples of the major powers went: "Willingly to war"

There were many reasons why so many countries were keen on fighting a European war and these included:
Nationalism (the demand for ethnic independence strongly supported and urged on by Russia, in the Balkans and Hungary in particular)
Religious hatred (strong enmity between Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox churches - between Christians and Moslems and a high degree of anti-Semitism)
Colonialism (envy of the colonial empires of other countries, particularly by the newly unified German Empire)
Socialism (the end result of the industrial revolution and the spread of workers power and the beginning of the communist doctrine)
Rich and poor (at both individual and country level)

All these issues led to an undercurrent of seething unrest between countries, their leaders and their peoples, none of which was helped by the planning for war by France (starting in 1878) by Germany (1899) and by Great Britain (1907).

1914 was not a year that stood on its own in starting the process that led to war. This process accelerated as a result of many events over many years that led finally to the explosion of war in 1914. These events were described to the meeting as "fuses" as the actions and inactions of countries and their leaders over nearly 50 years caused these fuses to be lit and left to smolder gently - some over many years - until they combined to cause the final outbreak of war from 28 July 1914 onwards.

The first fuse was lit in 1866 with the Austrian-Prussian War, when Prussia defeated any attempt by Austria to gain control of the German states, which were due to be amalgamated under Prussian control. After that war Prussia and Austria, under their common language - German - became close allies and in 1878 they signed a dual country alliance that dominated central Europe and formed the heart of the Central forces that went to war together in 1914.

1870, however, was a dominant moment in the build up to the war. Due to a dispute between Prussia and France over who should succeed to the Spanish throne, France declared war on Prussia. This was a dramatic disaster for France, as they were unprepared for the war they started and an unexpected invasion by Prussian forces led to a humiliating series of defeats for France, particularly at Metz, and more importantly, at Sedan.

The French Second Republic was dissolved, Paris was held under siege for over 4 months until France agreed to enter into peace treaty negotiations. After a German parade through Paris, the unification of all German states into a single German Empire was announced in Versailles and the final humiliation for France came with the terms imposed by the new Germany. A huge financial penalty was demanded (and paid) but in terms of the outbreak of war in 1914, the most notable issue was the amalgamation of the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine into the new German Empire. From that moment the French plotted "revenge" and started to plan for a war against Germany from 1878 onwards in order to regain what they regarded as their own territory.

On the German side they treated the French with great disrespect and this convinced them that by 1914 they could defeat an inferior France and its army in just 6 weeks. This lack of respect for their enemy was to cost Germany dear once the war started.

The newly created German Empire, under the aged Kaiser Wilhelm 1, was dominated by the policies of the first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. He wanted Germany to be the strongest, most powerful and the wealthiest country in Europe with all this achieved without going to war.

Germany had identified Russia as its main enemy, both from the danger of possible attack on its eastern borders and for the Russian campaign to de-stabilise the Balkans and Germany's main ally, Austria-Hungary. To counter this threat, Bismarck, in a brilliant diplomatic coup, negotiated an alliance of mutual support with Russia. This gave his diplomats every chance to stay close to all Russian aggressive intent in Eastern Europe.

Before that alliance Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) in an attempt to dominate the whole Balkan region. Turkey was defeated quickly but the end result had all European countries lined up against Russian plans and the Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 at which major issues were resolved. Two of these issues lit powerful 'fuses" that would help create the outbreak of war 36 years later. One was the independence given to Serbia after 500 years of Ottoman rule and the other was not to give independence to Bosnia and Herzegovina but to place it under Austrian administration.

Then, in 1888 Wilhelm 1 died and was succeeded by his son, the very pro-British Kaiser Frederick III. European history may well have taken a different route if he had lived longer but due to serious health problems he reigned for only 99 days. He in turn was succeeded by his 27 year old son Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria's fist grandson, who was a vain, neurotic and autocratic leader who was convinced that he had a divine right to total authority over his country and its people. He quickly retired Bismarck and then when the alliance with Russia was due for re-negotiation, he decided not to proceed and let it slide into disuse. This created a major and powerful "fuse" as France stepped into the vacuum left by Germany and they signed an alliance which would have serious repercussions for Germany when World War 1 started.

During this time Great Britain had stayed aloof from the potentially serious repercussions of the clashing politics of the major European countries. Britain's interest was a world-wide one and concentrated on the British Empire and the trade that created, and as Lord Salisbury put it, Britain was in "Splendid Isolation" from European affairs. For centuries, Britain had held a European strategy based on what they called "The Balance of Power" and only became involved if they thought one country or another (e.g. Spain, then France) were taking strides to dominate the continent.

Just when they thought they could remain aloof to events in Europe they suddenly realised that once again decisions had to be made.

The alliance between Russia and France made a future war between Germany and France a high probability due to the dispute over Alsace and Lorraine and the thought of northern France and its ports being taken over by Germany could not be tolerated. Then Kaiser Wilhelm II lit another powerful "fuse" by ordering Admiral von Tirpitz to create a German navy to equal the power of the Royal Navy. With the Kaiser's envy of the British colonies, this development could only be to challenge British rights over many overseas possessions and just as importantly it would put British trade at high risk.

To counter this danger, and to apply its strategy based on The Balance of Power, in 1904 Britain signed what was called The Entente Cordial with its centuries old enemy, France. Britain's "Splendid Isolation" was over and the line-up for war was almost complete. Britain, under Minister of War Richard Haldane then re-organised the British army from 1907 onwards, in readiness to send a BEF to France to provide support for France when, now not "if", Germany attacked.

Shortly after the signing Russia and Japan were at war and it ended with heavy defeat for Russia. Austria took advantage of what they considered to be Russian weakness and annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina to make then fully part of Austria. This caused great friction with Serbia, who wanted to create a greater Serbia with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and another powerful "fuse" was lit.

There were many potentially dangerous clashes and disputes among the European countries in the 10 years before 1914, most of which could have led to war, but all were resolved by diplomatic means. The one event that could not be saved by diplomatic pressure was the assassination in Sarajevo (Bosnia) on 28 June 1914, of the heir to The Throne of Austria-Hungary - Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia. It is generally felt that if Austria-Hungary had invaded Serbia within a few days the Great War could have been avoided, but that did not happen. Austria took over 3 weeks to make impossible demands on Serbia, and with Russia ready to come to the aid of Serbian, the war became inevitable as soon as Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914.

The question that was now posed and answered was - who was to blame? History has blamed Germany and clause 231 of the (Peace) Treaty of Versailles states not only that Germany was to blame but that Germany accepted that blame, which they most definitely did not. Blame could be put on Serbia (for their terrorist activities against Austria-Hungary), Russia (who as early as 1909 were talking about the need for a positive war against Germany and Austria-Hungary and took Serbia's side as the opportune moment for that war) Austria (for threatening all Balkan moves to independence) France (for lengthy planning for war to regain Alsace and Lorraine despite the consequences) and Britain (who did not make it clear that they would fight in support of France if Germany attacked France. The answer given was all countries had a share of the blame.

The talk ended with a summary of the way that the German high command changed the Schlieffen Plan to their detriment and that as a result Germany - who could so easily have defeated France and British forces in the opening months of the war - lost it before the war even started.

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