The Coming of the Great War was Avoidable and Preventable
Entangling alliances in 1914 ensured that any provocation would set into motion the intricate military mobilization schedules dragging the Great Powers into World War.
The start of World War I in August 1914 was, in many ways, the result of long-term failed diplomatic policies, a series of alliances between the Great Powers that would inevitably lead to a general war, and the various military General Staffs that had devised elaborate mobilization schedules, each determined to gain valuable time against their adversary’s.
Although the war began with the assassination of the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo at the hands of Serbian nationalists, any minor disturbance between any of the Great Powers could have set in motion the machinery of total war.
The Myth of the Russian “Steamroller”
At the outbreak of war, Russian military and naval personnel comprised 1,352,000, by far the largest number in Europe. Its ally, France, had 910,000 men. Against these numbers, Germany with 891,000 men and Austria-Hungary with 444,000 would have to fight a two-front war, the nightmare Otto von Bismarck had sought to avoid.
But Bismarck had been retired in 1890 by the youthful and impetuous Kaiser William II, the same year Germany allowed the Reinsurance Treaty to lapse. This treaty, first signed between Germany and Russia, bound each party to neutrality in the event of a war that involved one of the parties against another European Power, as long as the party going to war was not the aggressor.
The lapse of this treaty left Russia isolated and gave France an opportunity that would dramatically alter pre-war diplomacy. A Franco-Russian alliance ensured that Germany would be bound to fight a two-front war. What was not apparent to German planners, nor to the other Great Powers, was the immensity of Russia. Full mobilization could take, at best six-weeks, and once ordered could not be rescinded.
Russian railroads were unreliable and had to cover great distances. For these reasons, German military planner Alfred von Schlieffen developed the plan that bears his name, a plan that replaced von Moltke’s earlier plan of dividing the armies between the two fronts. Von Schlieffen’s plan called for a swift march through neutral Belgium, encircling the French and capturing Paris before confronting Russia.
Germany and Great Britain
In the latter decades of the 19th Century, Germany missed at least three opportunities to develop warmer relations with Britain and cement the English into an understanding against Russia and France. Instead, Germany charted a course that was destined to unite Britain with those two powers.
The building of a German navy directly threatened British naval superiority. In pursuit of colonies, Germany used every opportunity to meddle in global colonial affairs, whether in Morocco, Samoa, or supporting the Boers in South Africa.
Austria-Hungary and the Balkans
Ever since Austrian defeat in the Austro-Prussian War, the Austrian Empire had concentrated its focus on the Balkans, thwarting similar Russian interests in that region. Although Austria’s alliance with Germany implied restraint, in the year before Sarajevo, Kaiser William II had given Austria a blank check: Germany would support Austria unconditionally if war broke out due to another Balkan crisis.
In July 1914, Austria sent a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia, blaming the country for the death of the archduke. Serbia relied on its long alliance with Russia that dated to 1830. Although Russia had been cautious in prior regional crises, the humiliation of acquiescence in July 1914 might have imperiled the alliance with France. After Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized.
Mobilization and World War One
Mobilization by a Great Power was tantamount to a declaration of war. When Tsar Nicholas II ordered a partial mobilization, he was told this could not be done. The only operational plan called for full mobilization. Russian mobilization resulted in a declaration of war by Germany, which then used a border provocation to declare war on France. There was no turning back.