The Great War. Part I.

On the highway to hell: The reasons behind the First World War (Part 1).


The 28th of June 1914. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand is in Sarajevo on a visit to the then dominated Austrian provinces in the north of Serbia. It is a troublesome area that had become more than a problem for just Austria but also for Russia and the other Great Powers. As the Archduke’s motorcade passes Schiller’s delicatessen, having already survived the first assassination attempt by Vaso Čubrilović, Gavrilo Princip takes his chance, shooting at the Archduke and his wife killing both. It was an action that 100 years ago today was the spark that ignited the infamous ‘powder keg’ leading to the First World War.

But just how did the world reach such a precarious situation after the certain period of stability from 1815 onwards? How could such a disaster have taken place in a world that saw itself as an almost stable, peaceful and advanced one?

The simple explanation is that world had been marching towards the inferno unconsciously since 1815 and after the Prussian victory over France in 1870 – 1871. The world at large was simply deceiving itself in thinking that it was stable and peaceful. The path to the First World War can be divided into three periods. The first is defined as between 1815 – to 1871 in which time France was defeated by Prussia and the Concert of Nations began to seek a stable equilibrium in Europe. The second period is between 1871 and 1890, when Otto von Bismarck was removed as Kanzler by Kaiser Wilhelm II, setting a strong change of course in the foreign policy of the new-born country of Germany. The third and most crucial period is between 1890 and 1914; the run up to the outbreak of war. The idea of this series is not only to review the political factors – both national and international – that led to such a devastating war but also the mentality and the military strategy employed at the time to help explain why the Great War was so destructive.

The First Stage: 1815 – 1871

1815 saw a world that was changing at different paces and 20 years of conflict between France and Great Britain had just ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. But why does this period matter? Simply because of three important factors.

The first is that the French Revolution had set the ideals of nationalism that later on would be the weapon of choice for every Great Power and small nation and ethnic group within the territories of some Great Powers in their quest for a nation of their own. This aspect of the strengthening of national identity and the “national consciousness” was exacerbated by the European revolutions of 1848-49, as Segesser (2013) remarks, with the Austrian Empire feeling the greatest impact.

The second factor is that from 1815 onwards, the United Kingdom emerged as the top Great Power whose mastery of the seas was unbeatable (Kennedy, 2004). This naval aspect would play a key role for the following periods.

The third factor, almost unnoticed but one that was taking place even during the Napoleonic wars, according to Kennedy (2004), was the one that gave way to the deadly weapons of the Great War: the Industrial Revolution. It even had an impact, on the European conquest of certain regions of the world such as Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. These conquests in turn sparked a competition between the different Great Powers to secure their dominance among those areas.

It was this competition that brought a sort of “second wave” of colonization and a renewed clash for overseas territories between the British Empire, France and Russia. Later on, new players like Germany and Italy increased a competition that, in turn, increased the instability and the clashes between the different Great Powers which fuelled the Alliances policies.

From 1815 to 1871, economy began to be more integrated with trade as a result of the desire to avoid a situation like the Napoleonic Wars and the aforementioned Concert of Nations, which at a certain point decreased, although did not eliminate, all the tensions among the Great Powers[i]. This situation led to a mentality in which a blind faith in economics and interdependence was seen as the way to eliminate once and for all the competition between the Great Powers by making a conflict a high-cost and irrational decision (Kennedy, 2004)[ii]. Worse still, this hope was perceived as foreseeable in the future.

The unfortunate role played by this mentality is that it made the idea of a Great War so inconceivable, at least for the common citizens of the British Empire, that it made the UK unprepared to face a big conflict that was just waiting at the end of the road. This reliance on liberalism had also another catastrophic effect on military strategy and planning because Great Britain had decided to concentrate more on its colonial businesses and to keep its hands off European problems, with the exception of the Crimean War in which it fought side by side with France against Russia. As a result it had a small army that was designed to deal more with keeping the order in the colonies (Kennedy 2004), rather than preparing an army for a large scale conflict in both material, tactical, and strategic matters[iii].

Besides the mastery in economics, trade and finances, another element kept the British Empire as the world’s most powerful nation and also served as one of the political reasons behind the Great War later on: its uncontested naval power. Britain’s navy was the main military asset used to expand and protect its colonies, the commercial lines between them and the Empire’s interests. However, as a consequence of its strategic reliance on naval power as protection, Britain always feared to see its mastery of the seas challenges by another power. Indeed it was the naval race between the German Empire and the British Empire that helped to accelerate the world towards the Great War (Kennedy, 2004).

But it was France that was the definitive target of both the preservation of the equilibrium and of the British fears of competition in the naval and colonial aspects, according to Kennedy (2004). France could not have made any expansionist move without triggering an alliance between the British Empire and Prussia, or even Austria, against its intentions. Indeed, France waged a sort of naval race with Great Britain but it was a race that was doomed to fail and often gave the Britons reason to suspect French intentions. France was not able, nor did not want, to change the equilibrium after 1815, but it was an important nation with ambitions in Germany and Italy.

It was the ambitions on the former that gave the way to the later strong rivalry between Germany and France when Prussia managed to unify all of the small German states in 1871. Prussia was facing similar problems; there was the issue of national identity, the possible unification of Germany and numerous internal conflicts. But the main problem it faced was being weakest power in Europe which caused Prussia to avoid any move against the interests of any other power, mainly Austria and Russia (Kennedy, 1987). But it was the Austrian Empire, the one that, besides being the most affected by the emergence of strong national identities, was also the real source of equilibrium for at least most of the decades after 1815. Not only its geographic situation made the Empire to be so, but the fact that it was in the sake of every Great Power’s interest to keep alive an empire that was decadent: the Austrian Empire was useful to check France, the nationalist desires in the German States and the Russian influence in the Balkans (Kennedy, 2004).

Last but not least, there were three moments that marked the transition from the first stage to the second one. The first is the Crimean War, which triggered the decline of the Russian Power. The second is the US Civil War. And the Third, are the wars of Unification waged by Prussia and Austria[iv].

In the case of the first event, Russia ceased to be a guarantee of stability in Europe, intervening as it did sometimes for the sake of the Austrian interests while keeping Prussia at bay. But the Crimean War evidenced the inherent Russian military and strategic weaknesses and the war ended capitulation to France and Great Britain. This weakness would lead to the later instability in Russia, the defeat to Japan in 1905, the lack of capacities to wage a successful war against Germany, and finally its definitive collapse in 1917 (Kennedy, 2004). In turn this conflict put an end to the old diplomacy of the equilibrium, forcing Russia to a partial retreat and the British Empire to focus mostly on its colonial affairs, opening the way to the core dynamic of France – Prussia/Germany. This is strongly related to the German Wars of Unification that will be reviewed in the next part of this series.

The US Civil War, in turn, should have been taken into account by many European leaders as a warning on how a great conflict under the influence of the industrial revolution could be (Kennedy, 2004). It was the first time in which ironclads were used in combat, the telegraph and railways were used for communication, not to mention that some of the first machine guns were conceived during the conflict (although they only went into service after the end of the civil war) (Grant, 2006, pp. 224 – 239)[v]. Needless to say, it was a war in which the industry and the resources of both contenders were used to support, in a much more organized and systemized way and for a longer period of time, the war efforts and the production of the armaments – from the bullets to the ironclads – along with their respective logistics. (Kennedy, 2004; Keegan, 2012). This was a fact that, again, was dismissed by the European observers. Many young men would pay a terrible price for that at the fields of La Somme, Verdun and other battlefields.

Why looking so far back matters

For the reader it might seem that looking so far back – nearly 100 years before the Great War – is perhaps too much information and is not much connected to what drove to the Great War of 1914 – 1918. But the main message of this part is that the general conditions were simply shaped (and given) during this period, paving the way to the War: the systemic structure of International Politics; the colonization that led to clashes, competitions and even frustrations and resentments; colonization affected in turn by the influence of the Industrial Revolution; the wishful mind-set (at least in the British Empire) of economics and interdependence as tools to decrease the chance of another great conflict; its over-focusing on colonial armies, the naval supremacy and the inevitable challenges to it; not to mention the lack of attention given to the US civil war and its ominous characteristics, the effects of Austrian decadence, and the role played by the French Revolution in the development of nationalism and desires for autonomy by certain communities. All of these factors evolved during this era, setting the path to the Great War of 1914 – 1918; a tragic, yet almost inevitable crisis that was just waiting to happen.

The period of the next part (1871 – 1890) is one where the speed towards war is gathering, a time when, curiously enough, the anxieties to keep the equilibrium and the peace simply accelerated the way to the War, despite the efforts of many statesmen and diplomats.



Grant, R., G (2006). Kriegeund Schlachten. Augsburg, Deutschland: Weltbild. (Original work published in 2005).

Keegan, J (2012). Der Amerikanische Bürgerkrieg. Hamburg, Deutschland: Rowohlt Taschenbuch. (Original work published in 2009).

Kennedy, P. (2004). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1897).

Segesser, D. M (2013). Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive. Stuttgart, Deutschland: Marixverlag. Weaver, M (2014). Civil War Weapons. Retrieved from: on 27.06.2014



[i] For instance, some military actions were made for the sake of preserving the old order and to keep away from waging a great external conflict, as well as taking part in any. Another fact is that many governments had to deal with inner problems that required their attention. See: Kennedy, 1987, pp.262 – 263.

[ii] Sounds familiar, anyone?

[iii] At this point it is irresistible to draw a similarity between the then British Empire and the current European Union, in the sense that both were having as main strategic mind-set a focus on what it could be called now “low intensity conflicts”. In the 19th century, the keeping of a colonial order and the current execution of peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions both require less military power. Plus the fact that both political entities rely on cooperation, interdependence and economics as sources for the non-existence of a conflict. Could Europe then find its own Hell at the end of a similar highway?

[iv] With these wars the analysis of the next stage will be opened. \

[v] Even the first submarines for combat operations were conceived and utilized during the conflict. Grenades were also utilized. See: Weaver, M (2014). Civil War Weapons. Retrieved from: on 27.06.2014


*Cover image ‘Cavalry Troops at Southampton Docks’ by Hampshire and Solent Museums

2 responses to “The Great War. Part I.

  1. Pingback: The Great War V | Global Public Policy Watch·

  2. Pingback: WWI Series. THE GREAT WAR. PART I. | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security·

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