Forgotten causes of the First World War
Forgotten causes of the First World War. There are lots of well known causes of the First World War. A raft of things that ‘always’ get taught or covered in documentaries. You can find an account of the main causes of the first world war here. In an amongst these there are a number of crucial factors that often get overlooked or given little time. Here’s a short selection of ’causes’ that perhaps are worthy of a bit more of a mention.
Whilst most studies of the causes of the war will look at relationships between the Great Powers and the way that the Alliance system led to an inexorable march to war, little is made of the reasons why diplomacy wasn’t given much of a chance. Of course that is a rather complex issue. There’s an argument that diplomacy simply wasn’t wanted, that one or more of the great powers was hell bent on having a war – and not wanting to wait – but there are also domestic issues that need to be considered. Of course there had been a build up of tensions over the years; clashes over territories; an arms race and, perhaps most notably; conflicts in the Balkans. None of these had led to a continental war though. One of the key differences in 1914, as opposed to earlier issues in the Balkans, was the state of Domestic affairs in some of the Great Nations of Europe.
The British were so busy contending with a triple crisis (potential Civil War in Ireland, The increasing violence of the Suffragette Movement and Industrial Unrest) that there was little time given to assessments of the situation in the Balkans. The Cabinet was faced with the very real prospect of violence in its own backyard. Consequently the time given over to assessing the situation following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was limited. Even in the week before the war started the issues, particularly of Home Rule, dominated. Had the Cabinet been less pressured, remembering that Asquith was both Prime Minister and Minister for War at this critical point, they may have been better placed to assess the situation and make the British position on issues clear to the Germans in particular. Those same Germans, and the Russians, had serious domestic issues of their own to contend with.
There’s something rather Machiavellian about the timing of many events and decisions in the build up to the war. The lack of time allowed for the Serbs to consider the ultimatum is well documented. The German assessment of the time scale for Russian arms development; the timing of communications relating to diplomacy (just as Poincare is unobtainable at sea) are less well mentioned. The first leads to a ‘now is better than later’ attitude to war; the latter makes diplomacy and a more resolute French response to the issues difficult, if not impossible. Of course the timings, if deliberate rather than simply coincidence, add to the argument that warmongering made the whole thing inevitable.
There’s mention of rapidly developing rail networks throughout Europe, of transatlantic transport, of new inventions that are transforming the Industrial Age into one more closely associated with the modern world. Often ignored is the fact that most of the people who could have made a difference were reliant on a communications network that was far from ideal. As already noted, Poincare was virtually unobtainable at a critical time. Attaches and Ambassadors relied on telegraph networks that were often not based close to their residences or offices. In the final days of peace the ability to communicate was further hindered by jamming of communications. Principally designed to hinder mobilisation and with war seen as almost inevitable, it also hinders those who sought to seek last minute resolutions: telegraph operators are inundated and messages, even from the most powerful men of Europe, could be left unattended for some time. All in all, not the best way of trying to avert a conflict at the last minute.
The Printed Press
Put bluntly the governments of the warring parties needed to have the public behind them. Especially so at a time when there was civil unrest in large parts of Europe and the fear of revolution. The handling of the printed press by the leaders of the Great Powers in the build up to the war is often overlooked. In Britain it is generally the case that the build up of tensions was hardly reported until the final days of peace. Leader columns had concentrated, in most papers, on Domestic issues. However there were some British press magnates who spoke out. Lord Rothschild, owner of the Daily Mail, was outspoken at times. The ability, or lack of, for a Government to influence how things were reported were of great consequence in affecting public mood. A case in point being the reporting of the ultimatum given by the Kaiser to the Belgians. Whilst it was a huge misunderstanding, to say the least, on the part of the Kaiser, the reporting of the ultimatum can be seen as one of the major reasons for public opinion changing – even at that late stage.
The Ottoman Empire
Lets be honest now… how many teachers make more than a passing comment about the Ottoman Empire when discussing the causes of the First World War? Not many could based on lessons I’ve observed. Yet the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire contributed greatly to the instability in the Balkans, the arrival of the Young Turks altered things in relation to control of the Bosphorus and the eastern Mediterranean. Surely, worthy of a mention?
Our timeline of causes of the first world war illustrates that it was a combination of events, beliefs and factors that led to the outbreak of conflict in the summer of 1914. It is a complex set of small incidents that we can categorise as being militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism. It’s easy to forget that it was a world war. The focus upon the Western Front lends itself to looking at western actions: the war was reliant from it’s outset on global support.