TOM ARNOTT

Soldier 214384 - France and Flanders

Background to the Great War

On 28 June 1914, in Sarajevo, capital of Austrian Bosnia, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated. These two deaths triggered a chain of events that, by August 4th, brought war to Europe.

Why did these deaths lead to a war of global dimensions? The answer can be found in a summary of European events at the time, beginning with the pivotal Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In this war, France suffered a humiliating defeat, losing the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Revenge and recovering these two areas became a French obsession in the coming decades.

Only through alliances with other European powers could the French be successful. In 1894, France formed an alliance with Russia, an important ally since it has a common border in the East with both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Europe was now divided in two - the new alliance and Austro-German Alliance of 1879.

As the new century started, Great Britain began to regard Germany and its ambitious Kaiser, William II, with growing suspicion. Germany had been challenging Britain in three key areas - imperial ambitions, naval power and commercial influence.

Russia's defeat by Japan in 1904-05, forced France (Russia's ally) to seek additional security.

The "Ententes" of 1904 and 1907 were the result. Even though they were not formal alliances, Russia, France and Britain would stand together in 1914.

In 1912, Serbia gained independence from Turkey. Serbia, then eyed the two adjacent Austrian provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to hundreds of thousands of fellow Slavs. Serbia's ambitions were supported by the large Slavic power to the east, Russia.

Then came the assassination of June 28, 1914. On July 28, 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia, hoping that Russia would not intervene. The Russians looking for success in foreign policy, would back their "little Slavic brother" to the limit and began to mobilize. Thus alarmed, Kaiser William II of Germany gave Russia 12 hours to cease mobilization. On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia and two days later on France.

Would Britain remain neutral? When Germany invaded "neutral" Belgium to get at France, Britain honoured a treaty of 1839 and rushed to the aid of Belgium.

Britain was at war, as was the rest of the British Empire, including Canada.

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Copyright © Tom Arnott, September, 1997.

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