Tuesday, 14 January 2014

But why did the First World War begin?

The First World War is going to be all over the news for the next five years at least. I imagine that thousands of children are going to be asking how it started. What I have tried to do in this blog-post is provide an honest and reasonably accurate explanation of how the War started in a way that will be accessible to interested children of, say, nine to twelve years of age. I like to think that it will be useful to many parents and primary school teachers, especially at a time when an awful lot of myths are flying around.

It is, of course, a simplification of a very complex topic, but I do not think it is simplified to the point of inaccuracy. I shall be very pleased to hear comments. And I shall be pleased if teachers use it as a basis, and make what changes they think are needed.

I have written a much longer piece about the causes of the First World War, but that is only available if you pay for it on Kindle.

I have decided not to say how Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Italy, the USA and many other countries became involved, except for one general sentence. Apologies for that; but that would have made this post too long for my purpose.

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The First World War began in 1914. It was a really dreadful event. Millions of people were killed and millions more were wounded so badly that they never recovered. At the same time four of the powerful countries that had got involved in the war – the Russian Empire, the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Turkish Empire – were completely wrecked by the war and by the revolutions that it caused. Ever since the war started people have been asking “How on earth could governments have been so stupid and wicked as to let this happen?” The problem becomes even more complicated when you study the history and discover that most of the people who took the decisions that caused the War were not very stupid, nor very wicked. But I am going to try and explain why the First World War started. Here goes.

A hundred years ago an awful lot of Europeans did have an idea that we can now see was pretty stupid and wicked: they thought that they were somehow cleverer and better than everyone else in the world. Some European countries were very strong and rich, and they had built up big Empires all over the world. The Germans ruled over parts of Africa. So did the French, who also ruled over parts of Asia. The Russians had recently conquered the countries to their south and east and made them into a Russian Empire. The British had the biggest Empire of all, ruling over parts of every continent except Antarctica. The Italians ruled over Libya and the Belgians ruled over the Congo.

Some Europeans did their best to use these Empires to help make the world into a better place by building schools and roads and hospitals. But most were either greedy, and trying to make money out of them, or were bossy and liked having power over other people. There are some dreadful true stories about the cruelty and nastiness of all these Empires.

The First World War was not caused directly by quarrels about these empires, but this imperialism, as it is called, caused all European governments to think that using force to make your country stronger and richer was all right.

A second problem a hundred years ago that helped to cause the war was that adventure stories of all sorts created the idea that war and fighting were brave and noble and heroic. People forgot that War is about cruelty and misery and squalor and terror. Individual soldiers may often be heroic and noble, but war in general means death and destruction and horror. There is an important lesson here. There is nothing wrong with enjoying adventure stories about King Arthur and the Round Table, or the Robin Hood, or Hornblower, or whoever it happens to be. But remember that real life is not the same as stories. In 1914 far too many people all over Europe thought that the War would be fun, daring, and an adventure during which they could show off their courage. They should have known better; the recent American Civil War ought to have shown everybody how utterly dreadful war is.

A third problem in 1914 was that modern improvements in science, technology and industry had made it possible for rich and powerful countries to have bigger and better armies and navies than ever before. The Russian army was becoming bigger and more efficient all the time. The German Army was probably the best in the world, of terrifying size and power. Germany had a big modern navy too, but nothing like the enormous British navy. With all these dangerous armies and navies in Europe people naturally became very nervous about how they were going to be used. By 1914 the most powerful countries in Europe had organised themselves into two groups, for support. The Russians, British and French were very nervous about what the Germans and Austrians might be planning. The Germans and Austrians were very worried about what the British, Russians and French might be planning. All the countries made detailed plans for what they would do if there was a war.

The final and most difficult problem was that two great countries were on the point of collapsing. Way back in history the Turks had become rulers of several European countries (modern Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Romania among others). Way back in history the Austrians had become rulers of several European countries (Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia among others). As 1914 approached the Turkish Empire in Europe had already started to fall apart and the Austria knew that their Empire was soon going to do the same. This made all the governments of Europe very nervous and jumpy. What would happen next? Who would get which bits of land? Who would get stronger and who would get weaker? When people are frightened they do not always take sensible decisions. In 1914 governments were frightened, and they took the foolish, easy decision to go to war rather than the difficult decision to keep working for peace. (It was an “easy decision” because of the second problem I explained above. Going to war was popular.)

The problems I have explained so far seem to me to do away with any notion that one side in the War was much more wicked and stupid than any other in 1914. However, 1914 was when the actual decisions were made, and some governments made worse decisions than others. We can go through them step by step.

In the summer of 1914 this was the situation. The Austrian government was afraid of its empire collapsing. The French and Russian governments were afraid of the mighty German army. The German government was afraid of the growing Russian army and of the mighty British navy. The German government also knew that the French hated them because of a different war fifty years earlier, when Germany had won and had taken some French territory. The British were afraid of the growing German navy. Meanwhile newspapers talked about war as though it was all a matter of honour and glory and national pride.

Then, in midsummer, a gang of terrorists who called themselves The Black Hand murdered the heir to the throne of Austria. It was fairly certain that the Serbian government knew about this plot, even though it may not have had much to do with it officially. Naturally the Austrians were outraged, and so was the German Emperor. The murdered man – and his wife had been murdered too – had been a friend of his. The German government at once promised to support Austria.

The Austrians, knowing they had German support gave the Serbian government a set of very severe demands (called an ultimatum). When the Serbian government delayed and refused to give way to all of them, the Austrians declared war and invaded Serbia.

The Russian government was very worried abut this. They had traditionally been friends with Serbia and, if they did nothing, they would look very weak and feeble. So the Russian army began to get itself ready for war (which is called “mobilising”). They knew that their army would take longer than the others to get ready, so they thought they had better get started, just in case.

The German government saw that the Russians were mobilising, so they decided they had to mobilise too. Otherwise the Russians would be ready to fight and the Germans would not. War is not like a football match, where you wait for the referee’s whistle; the side that is not ready at the start is going to do badly. So the German government quickly ordered their army to mobilise.

At this point historians argue about why the next thing happened. Some say that the German government wanted a war anyway, believing they could win quickly. Others say that it was just bad luck (or rather, bad planning) that the German mobilisation plans, designed to be as fast as possible, had no delay built in to them. They swept straight from getting mobilised to invading France, Russia’s ally. Germany had already declared war on Russia. Anyhow, that is what happened. Suddenly France found itself invaded, and Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary and France were all at war.

The British government were not sure what to do. Many members of the government were strongly against joining the war; others were in favour of joining in. They already had some general agreements (not absolute promises) to support the French. They were afraid that a quick German victory would make Germany much too powerful. But then the German plans for winning quickly caused the German armies to attack Belgium as well, on their way to France.

As far as Britain was concerned this swept away all doubts. There was a definite promise to defend Belgium. Belgium seemed like a completely innocent little country attacked for purely selfish reasons. Many of the politicians who were in doubt became firm supporters of going to war. The newspapers and the public called for war. The government was bound to join in to support France and Belgium.

So the war began. Russian soldiers thought they were fighting to protect Serbia and France from invasion. German soldiers thought they were defending their country against planned invasions by Russia, France and Britain. French and Belgian soldiers knew that their countries had been invaded. British soldiers were sure that they were fighting to drive the German armies out of France and Belgium. Everyone thought that God was on their side.

Soon lots of other countries joined in, either to support their friends or because they thought they would gain some advantage from being on the winning side. The dreadful First World War was under way.


  1. Thank you very much for your concise and enjoyable introduction to the First World War. I am not a child (34 years); still, your post helped me to understand better why the War escalated in the way it did - even though I was aware of most of the facts presented.

    There should be more historians (and/or academics from the humanities) who communicate research and academic knowledge to the general public (and children) in such an accessible way.

  2. What a nice comment. Thank you. After years of school teaching you learn how hard it is to get a balance between clarity and thoroughness on a highly complex topic. I'm expecting some comments explaining where I've gone wrong, too.