Share The Blame For The Great War?

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies. Treaty of Versailles Article 321: The War Guilt Clause

Let’s be beastly to the Germans

 By Roger Childs

WW1 damageHistorians cannot agree on who was to blame for starting the war. The “winners” – Britain, France, Italy, the USA and their allies and empires – blamed the defeated Germany (and its allies). The war guilt clause in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles reflected this. Consequently Germany was made to pay heavily in the Treaty especially to compensate the country that suffered the most damage: France. (See the photo alongside.)  British Prime Minister David Lloyd George expressed the view that we must have from Germany the uttermost farthing, and shall search their pockets for it. Emotions were running high at the time and there was a strong desire for revenge, especially amongst the French.

How did the major powers line up at the start of the war?

In 1914 Europe was split into what are sometimes referred to as two armed camps:

  • The Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary (later joined by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire)
  • The Triple Entente: France, Russia and Britain

(Italy was also officially allied to the Central Powers in the Triple Alliance, but was not regarded as a reliable partner. In fact in 1915 she joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente.)

Europe at peaceHowever in June 1914 there was no inevitability of war occurring. All the powers had ambassadors in every other capital and the political leaders generally got on well with one another.

There had been some rivalries over colonies, spheres of influence and strengthening military capacity, and all were well prepared for war if it did occur. However in June there was no desire for, or likelihood of, conflict breaking out. Daily life across Europe went on as normal.

In the previous 10 years the major powers had met together in what is sometimes called the Concert of Europe, to successfully deal with crises in

  • Morocco
  • The Balkans.

Share the blame?

So when war did occur and the guns of August boomed out, it was not just because of the actions of one country. The reality was that all the European powers needed to take the blame, to a greater or lesser extent, for starting the catastrophic world war that would last more than four years.

  • Austria-Hungary fired the first shots.
  • Russia was the first to start mobilising.
  • Germany threatened its neighbours.
  • France supported the mobilisation of its ally Russia.
  • Britain was obsessed with protecting Belgium.

And nobody made any serious diplomatic initiatives to stop the unfolding crisis.

Let’s look at each of powers in turn and analyze their role in the outbreak of war.

Germany: potential enemies on either side

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II

The German Empire was located in the centre of Europe and until the 1890s this was a position of strength. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had worked hard to keep France isolated and had formed alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy and also had a friendship agreement with Russia.

However after coming to power as the emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II (pictured alongside), dismissed Bismarck and did not renew the agreement with Russia. France seized the opportunity to form an alliance with the Russians and Germany now faced potential enemies on its western and eastern frontiers.

As mentioned above, Italy was not a reliable friend of Germany, so the latter’s one dependable ally, was Austria-Hungary. When the assassination of Franz Ferdinand occurred in late June 1914, Germany gave its Dual Alliance ally a blank cheque to take what action it wished against Serbia. (See

The confident Germans march off to  war in early August 1914
The confident Germans march off to war in early August 1914

The Kaiser did urge Austria-Hungary to act with caution, however the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, and the Austrian Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hotzendorff, were determined to teach Serbia a lesson.

When Russia unexpectedly mobilised in support of Serbia, backed by France, the Germans realised that they were about to face a war on two fronts. The Kaiser warned the Russian Czar Nicholas II of the dangers of mobilising to no avail. So the Germans mobilised too (see picture above), so as not to give their enemies an advantage.

Austria-Hungary: turning a Balkan dispute into a European war

Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans. Bismarck’s prediction on how a European war would start.

The Balkans in 1914Some weeks after the assassination of its heir to the throne, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia a harsh ultimatum. Serbia accepted most of it and the Kaiser felt that war could be avoided.

However, foolishly, the Austrians declared war on Serbia on July 28 and next day shelled the capital Belgrade. Austria-Hungary was confident that its ally Germany would stand by them.

These  first shots fired in anger, triggered the Russian mobilisation and started an inexorable succession of ultimatums, mobilisations and war declarations across Europe.

Russia: mobilising in defence of Serbia

Serbia was a Slav nation like Russia. The latter was seen by small Balkan nations as The Protector of the Slavs who would assist them in time of need. Back in 1908 Austria-Hungary had annexed the Balkan territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina – a Slav territory once controlled by Turkey. Neighbouring Serbia wanted this area itself to make a larger Slav nation: Yugoslavia.

Russia at the time was recovering from an unexpected defeat in the 1904-05 war with Japan and was not strong enough to provide military support to the Serbs. However by 1914, they had recovered and vowed not to let their Slav ally down again.

Once Austria-Hungary declared war and shelled their capital, the Serbian government asked for help from the Protector. Russian Foreign Minister Sasanov told the Austrian ambassador in St Petersburg You want war and have burnt your bridges behind you.

Russia started mobilising its forces from across its huge land area, but there was no plan to just move against Austria-Hungary. The latter’s ally, Germany, was in the firing line too.

France: supporting its one military ally

The confident French march off to war
The confident French march off to war

The French had a military alliance with the Russians which obliged them to provide support if their ally was attacked. So they supported the Russian mobilisation. If France also mobilised, Germany was faced with a war on two fronts.

So on 31 July the Germans sent an ultimatum requiring France:

~ to declare its neutrality in a war between Germany and Russia
 ~ hand over key border fortresses to Germany.

If the French had agreed, there might not have been a European-wide war.

However accepting the ultimatum would mean losing the support of its ally and weakening its own defences. France understandably refused the terms of the ultimatum and started mobilisation. (See the picture above.)

Britain: standing up for little Belgium

Belgium objects to being treated as a transit zone
Belgium objects to being treated as a transit zone

So on 1 August war between Germany and France was now a reality. What would Britain do? It was not committed to provide military aid to France, but had undertaken to provide some naval support in the event of war.

However it was Belgium that was the catalyst for Britain coming into the war. The British were  concerned that the ports across the English Channel in Belgium and Northern France, might fall into enemy hands.

To carry out its Schlieffen Plan against France, Germany needed to roll its forces through Belgium. But a 1839 treaty obliged all the major powers to respect Belgium’s neutrality.

This didn’t stop the Germans and on August 4 Britain sent an ultimatum demanding that the Germans withdraw from Belgium. It didn’t happen.

Could Britain have done more to initiate a diplomatic solution to stop the war spreading? This would have required all the powers to come to the party. Tragically nationalistic pride and an obsession with their security, led to a process of threats and demands which brought the major powers into conflict.

On 28 July all the great European powers were at peace. A week later they were at war.

A long fuse is allowed to burn

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

A month earlier an assassination had occurred in Sarajevo, a place which most people in Europe would not have been able to locate on a map.

Surely this was a local dispute in the far away Balkans, which Austria-Hungary and Serbia could sort out.

At a higher level, the great powers should have been able to prevent a Balkan incident from turning into a world war. They all failed to use diplomatic means to stop the spread of conflict.

So the long fuse lit by the action of Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip (see the sketch above), was not stamped out and the consequences were disastrous.

A missed turn, a stalled car and an amateurish assassin brought about four of history’s most dismal years and changed the world forever. Historian Colin Campbell