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Why World War I?

Why Did Australia Get Involved?

Our soldiers .. defending democratic rights and freedoms (The Age letters 27.4.2015)

It is comforting to believe that the war that cost so many lives through death, through irreparable injury and through the loss of loved ones, was fought in a noble cause. It is devastating, even to us 100 years later, to face the possibility that it was a war commenced as an exercise in power politics, economic control and in the defence of the territorial boundaries of European nations and empires. Perhaps it is even worse to think it happened as the result of a series of diplomatic blunders, it could even be suggested that it was an accidental outcome of the uncertainty and indecision of leaders in a number of countries.

It has sometimes been implied, or even openly stated, that the nation responsible for the commencement of the war was Germany. This is still put forward by some historians in 2015. The matter is far too complicated for such a simple statement. I am convinced that all the nations involved in the war had a part in launching the fighting that commenced in August 1914 and that we must acknowledge this fact. It also seems to me that there were several opportunities for initiatives that would have averted it.

The event that triggered the chain of events culminating in World War I was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand the heir to the Austrian throne, who was shot by a Serbian nationalist on June 28 1914, while he was on an official visit to the Serbian city of Sarajevo then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The ensuing crisis in relations between Austria, Serbia and Russia drew in the other European nations until all were involved in war from August 4.

The underlying rivalries and tensions that led from the assassination to the war can be listed as:

  1. Alliances
  2. Nationalism
  3. Territorial Disputes
  4. Military Build Up in Europe
  5. Economic Competition

In each of the nations involved there were also domestic issues that contributed to their response to the events between June 28 and August 4 1914.


There were two blocs in Europe in 1914:

The Triple Entente: France and Russia had a formal agreement to assist each other if either were subject to a military threat. Both believed they had cause to worry about their respective border with Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary. Britain had engaged in various diplomatic discussions with both France and Russia resulting in a somewhat less formal understanding that these two could rely on British support.

Triple Alliance: Germany and Austria had an alliance that included Italy. This grouping also had offered support to the moribund Ottoman (Turkish) Empire that they saw as a barrier to Russia’s ambition to have a strong influence in the Balkans.


The period 1850-1914 was marked by a powerful growth of nationalist sentiment. The German states united to form Germany and the Italian states to make the nation of Italy. In England, in spite of the dissatisfaction of the public to the person of Queen Victoria, pride in being British was a strong sentiment expressed in literature and music. In France the memory of the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 was kept alive and many Frenchmen were aggressively campaigning for revenge to restore the prestige of France.

It was the growing sense of national identity that united the Serbians and motivated the young man who murdered the Archduke.

Although not a contributing factor to the events that culminated in the commencement of the war, the surge of national Australian feeling in the 1890s and the federation of the colonies in 1901, certainly fueled an enthusiasm for supporting the war once it did begin.

Territorial Disputes

In 1914 the Balkan states of Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hercegovnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria had once been part of the Ottoman Empire. By 1914 the power of the Ottoman was waning and its grip on its diverse territories had weakened. There were several European powers that saw the Balkans as an area of influence just there for the taking. Since the Austro-Hungarian Empire surrounded the area of the Balkans they had a vested interest in ensuring that their influence, already economic, would also be political.

In 1815 Serbia had rebelled against the Turkish rule and in 1876 conquered Bosnia but was forced by international pressure led by Austria-Hungary to return it to Turkey. The ill feeling between Serbia and Austria had never subsided, further fuelled by Serbia’s victory over Bulgaria and Serbia’s friendly trading relations with France. Some Serbians were spoiling for a war with Austria and some Austrians for a war against Serbia. When the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian, the Austrians saw it as a pretext to plan an attack on Serbia.

Although there was no formal alliance between Serbia and Russia, the Russian government saw itself as the defender of the Slavs and the natural ally of Serbia. Russian and Serbian religious and ethnic affinities reinforced this.

The territorial ambitions of England and Germany have also been offered as a contributory cause although the two places where this might have been played out: Africa and New Guinea, were not locations in dispute in 1914.

Military Build Up

In an article on the causes of the war ( Michael Duffy tabulates the percentage increase in military spending of the main European countries between 1890 and 1913:

Britain 117%
France 92%
Russia 19%
Germany 158%
Austria Hungary 160%

The armies of both France and Germany had doubled in that time. In addition rivalry between Britain and Germany over control of sea trade, particularly with their colonies, led to a naval arms race between them. The British launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 gave Britain an edge in this rivalry. In 1914 Winston Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty. He ordered the fleet movements in July 1914 without any cabinet discussion or approval and played a crucial role in the events leading up to Britain declaring war.

In the previous century the foreign policies of the European powers had been directed to the concept of balance of power, the idea that no nation should be more powerful than another nor should one bloc of nations be more powerful than another bloc. In the first decade of the 20th century this idea had not been abandoned and it contributed to the competitive build up of armaments between the two major power groups.

Economic Pressures

The industrialised nations of Europe were in competition for the markets of Africa and Asia as well as competing with each other for a larger share of the European markets. Russia, rather later in entering the modern industrial age, had become also a competitor. There was a belief that economic progress would continue to raise living standards, at least for the middle classes, as long as the industrial economy of the country flourished.

The Cambridge historian, Christopher Clark writes:

It was not just the naval race but the entire spectacle of Germany’s titanic industrial and commercial expansion that triggered British anxieties and suspicions. The naval chief of staff Albrecht von Stasch was not far off the mark when he observed in February 1896 that the fury of the English against [Germany] had its real explanation in Germany’s competition in the world market. (“Kaiser Willhelm II” page 215)

However such suspicions and anxieties would not themselves have led to a war but rather, once war became a possibility for other reasons, these antagonisms led some British people to think a short, sharp war against Germany would be to British economic advantage.

Domestic Factors

In Russia the internal pressures on the regime of the czar were very strong. He was an unpopular ruler and some of his advisers did see winning a war with Germany as one way to make the regime more popular.

There is some controversy about the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II who certainly liked to take an active role in foreign policy and whose impetuous personality led him into some confusing situations. In fact he was not even consistently in favour of German military support for Austria against Serbia so it is hard to see his role as decisive in bringing about the war.

In France there was a strong public feeling against Germany, a desire for revenge for the defeat of 1870 and for the return of the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. The French President, Raymond Poincaré, was very influential in Foreign policy and a supporter of Russia.

In Britain political energy in 1913-14 was concentrated on the Irish Home Rule debate. There seemed to be relatively little interest in events in the Balkans until the crisis occurred. It is difficult to see that there was any domestic pressure in Britain for participation in a European war, although some said that the Balkan crisis gave an opportunity to forget about Ireland.


It seems to me that listing underlying causes can make the outbreak of World War I seem to be the inevitable result of the build up of arms and the tensions caused by the crisis in relations between Austria, Russia and Serbia caused by the assassination. Yet the inevitability idea is not born out by the actual events in Europe after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Over the six weeks between the June 28 and August 4 there were a number of occasions on which a negotiated settlement could have been reached. Had the opportunity been grasped the whole bloody war would not have happened. There might have been some more limited fighting but the participation of neither Britain nor her colonies was inevitable. Each of the nations about to be involved in war had opportunities to avert it and various leaders stated their desire to do so.

Austria and Russia

Immediately after the assassination the Austrians blamed the Serbian government and enlisted the diplomatic support of Germany to bring them to account. Russia in its turn warned Austria and Germany that they would defend the integrity of Serbia. The British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, recognising the key role of Russia in the build up to any conflict wrote that British diplomacy must encourage patience in St Petersburg (“Darkest Days” page 17) and later explained to the British cabinet that he had asked Cambon (French Ambassador to Berlin), and would shortly ask Lichnowsky (German Ambassador to Britain), for support in ensuring that Germany, France, Italy and Britain would jointly press Austria and Russia to abstain from action. Newton goes on to say Grey had discerned that the initial danger of escalation might well arise from Russia. (“Darkest Days” page 19)

After a month of intense diplomatic activity Austria delivered an ultimatum to Serbia on 22 July, demanding in effect that Serbia prevent all public criticism of Austria and arrest certain people whom the Austrian government believed were behind the assassination. The delivery of this series of demands triggered a chain of events that culminated in the general European war. The Austrian government hoped they could win control over Serbia either without fighting or with a limited military action. Russia however saw itself as the champion of the Slav people and was very quick to assert its total support for Serbia. The idea that, if there was war it would only be a short sharp burst of fighting and be over in a few months, was one widely expressed in most European nations.


The British Liberal government was deeply involved in the diplomatic activity between June 28 and July 22 and there is evidence that at this later date Grey, as Foreign Secretary, believed Britain would not be part of any wider conflict between the four Great Powers, that is Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and France. A few days later the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wrote that in the event of a war involving Russia and France against Austria-Hungary and Germany: Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators. (“Darkest Days” pages 18-19).

Not all Liberal politicians regarded the prospect of war in Europe with this deep aversion. Winston Churchill admitted to his wife that he was pleased to have ordered the First Fleet to battle stations before news came to London of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, even though at the same time he hoped there would not be any need for the fleet to go into action. However it might have contributed to the final outcome, for example one newspaper reported that the Russian government saw this British action as reinforcing their determination to stand up for Serbia against Austria, by force of arms if necessary.

On July 28 Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, in spite of Serbia having agreed to most of the conditions imposed on it in the Austrian Memorandum, and a day later Russia mobilised on its eastern frontier. At the same time Germany warned that it too would mobilise if Russia did the same on its western border.

The news of these events led to an intense debate in the British cabinet and among Liberal parliamentarians about exactly what were the British obligations to France and Russia under the terms of the Triple Entente. Some argued that Britain had no obligation to send troops to the continent; some argued for naval intervention only and others for Britain to have no part in it at all. Neither Prime Minister Asquith nor the Foreign Secretary Grey acted decisively at that moment when they might have halted the Russian aggression by a firm refusal to give any British support and by countermanding Churchill’s order for the First Fleet to proceed to battle alert.

In the newspapers there was a very wide diversity of opinion and certainly many articles strongly opposing British involvement. One of the most outspoken was J.A. Spender who favoured neutrality and spoke of Russia’s over reaction to the Austro-Hungarian threat to Serbia. He urged the British government to act as a mediator to avoid all out war. In the Manchester Guardian the editorial on 25 July expressed sympathy with the Austro-Hungarian case against Serbia and denounced Russia’s threats on Serbia’s behalf as a piece of sheer brutality. (“Darkest Days” page 77). Britain, this newspaper argued, should rule out military intervention in the Russian cause, and denied there was any British obligation under any treaty.

There was no general debate in the House of Commons but when events had moved further toward British military participation and a declaration of war seemed almost inevitable the situation was raised in the adjournment debate on 3rd August by Mr Percy Molteno, Member for Dumfrieshire and one of the Radical faction in the Liberal Party. Molteno, like others, believed that the House of Commons had been kept in the dark and that an open debate must occur before Britain committed itself to a war:

I wish to ask whether we are to have a fair and straight opportunity of considering, discussing, and deciding on this question. But they have brought us to the brink of disaster without us knowing, and without our being warned. I say that at the last moment, they should give the people of this country a chance to decide. This is a continuation of that old and disastrous system where a few men in charge of the State, wielding the whole force of the State, make secret engagements and secret arrangements, carefully veiled from the knowledge of the people, who are as dumb cattle driven without a voice on the question. (HANSARD, commons sitting 03 August 1914 vol 65 cc1848-84)


As the crisis in Europe became more serious Australia was in the midst of a Federal election. Parliament was already prorogued and the campaign in full swing. Even before the British government had decided to make a declaration of war the Australian cabinet sent a cable offering an expeditionary force to support Britain. In part this was sent because both Canada and New Zealand had already made such a pledge and Australia did not want to appear less loyal.

It is surprising to a present day Australian just how involved was the Australian Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, in the decision making of the Prime Minister, Joseph Cook and the Cabinet. Public opinion was a little more divided, although Munro Ferguson sent repeated cables to London assuring them that all Australians agreed with the necessity for Australia to support Britain in every way possible.

The words of the Labor Party opposition leader, Andrew Fisher, to an election meeting in Colac were very widely reported when he said: we stand united against the common foe … our last man and our last shilling will be offered and supplied to the mother country … if we should happen to come into conflict. (Quoted in “Hell Bent” page 175)

When war was declared Prime Minister Cook and Andrew Fisher, both responded with support for British action and the intention to send Australian expeditionary force. There was Australian opposition to the war even before it was declared but politicians even, Frank Anstey the leading anti-militarist in the Labor party, did not make public their opposition.


There was a very strong tie between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany in the early 20th century; a tie built around language, culture and governing class. Inevitably this meant that Germany was involved in the heightened tension between Serbia and Austria after the assassination. As this transformed into a confrontation between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires the various diplomatic statements from German government people became very significant.

This was an occasion when Kaiser Wilhelm II can be seen to have an influence on German foreign policy. When Austria issued its memorandum to Serbia the Kaiser wrote that they could expect German support for action against Serbia. It appears that he and at least some of his government ministers took this to mean there could be a limited and contained military activity. However when the Serbian government gave in to most of the Austrian demands the Kaiser said of it, An excellent result for a forty-eight hour [ultimatum]. This is more than we could have expected! A great moral victory for Vienna; but this does away with any need for war. (“Kaiser Wilhem II”, page 290)

There were others in Germany who saw it as an opportunity to teach Serbia a lesson. Possibly it would be a mistake to see Wilhelm II as having a decisive influence on German policy on this week at the end of July 1914 when Russia ordered a full mobilisation and Austria declared war on Serbia. The German Chancellor Hert von Bethmann Hallwerg, sent further conciliatory messages to Austria but Russian preparations were made with such rapidity that German counter measures against Russia really became inevitable. On July 31, it was confirmed that Russia had ordered a full mobilisation.

In view of developments in Russia, Wilhelm could hardly continue to block declaration of [general mobilisation], but it is interesting to note that, according to the testimony of the Bavarian military plenipotentiary von Wenninger, this decision had to be ‘wrung out of him’ by Falkrenhayn. [Minister for War]. (“Kaiser Wilhelm II”, page 295)


In 1914 a quarter of the population of Europe were in the Russian Empire. Although there had been various reforms in land holding and in freeing the serfs, in 1914 the largely rural population lived close to the edge of starvation and internal tensions posed a serious threat to the Russian Empire in. Only ten days before the war commenced street barricades had been put up by workers in St Petersburg. Possibly some Russian leaders saw the war as an opportunity for a major distraction. However the main reason for Russian intervention was as the defender of the Slavic people of Serbia.

Although the Russian parliament had some powers the czar was responsible for foreign affairs. Nicholas wanted neither to abandon Serbia to Austria-Hungary, nor to provoke a general war. In a series of letters exchanged with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany the two proclaimed their desire for peace, and each attempted to get the other to back down. Nicholas desired that Russia’s mobilisation be only against the Austrian border, in the hopes of preventing war with Germany. The czar however put Russian forces on alert, a move that must have appeared to Austria as aimed directly at them. The French government urged Russian caution but to no avail. When Austria declared war against Serbia the Czar at once ordered a general mobilisation.


France viewed the rapid economic growth of Germany with trepidation especially since the French economy was stagnating. Much more importantly, the French could never forget that German troops had blockaded Paris in 1870 and that at the end of the Franco-Prussian war France had lost 93% of the border territory of Alsace and 25% of the territory of Lorraine to Germany. There was some rather fatalistic belief that eventually there would be another war with Germany so why delay the inevitable.

French diplomacy aimed to counterbalance German influence in Europe. The alliance with Russia was very important to this goal. During the crisis of June-July 1914 the French government did not want to risk losing this close relationship with Russia.


So it was that war commenced. First of all on the eastern border of Germany between Russia and Germany, then Germany advancing on Russia’s ally France via Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany ostensibly in defence of Belgian neutrality and Australia, as a British Colony being automatically at war once the British declaration was made.

Each European nation in the month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand stated that they wished to avoid war but total war was the outcome. Far from being a short, sharp and decisive war it was a protracted conflict in which over 17 million died, about 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. Another 20 million were wounded. About a third of military deaths were due to disease.

In 2013 in an address on Remembrance Day at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra Paul Keating summed up the whole disaster when he said:

The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority with racism.

The First World War not only destroyed European civilization and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.

Margaret Bride

Christopher Clark, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Penguin Books, London, 2009
Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days, The truth behind Britain’s rush to war 1914, Verso, London 2014
Douglas Newton, Hell-Bent, Australia’s leap into the Great War, Scribe, Melbourne 2014

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