The Great War. Part IV – The Outbreak of War

The Outbreak of the War

After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Great Powers answered to the crisis in varied ways: Being the predominantly blamed nations for the outbreak of war, Germany and Austria had to bear at least some of the blame for the war. Germany was keen to support any Austrian policy regarding the Balkans and Serbia, while also performing some questionable policies in regards to Russia, the British Empire and France. Both Austria and Germany saw war as an inevitable event due to their delicate and disadvantaged position in the international system, so the earlier a conflict would start, the better. However, the type of conflict the two allies had in mind was a more localized, small war, or a punitive expedition in order to forego any intervention by other powers (Segesser, 2013).

After the issuing of the infamous ultimatum to Serbia by Austria, the localized conflict Germany and Austria had hoped for was no more, and Russia began to execute its response when Austria declared war on Serbia. Austria in principle wanted Serbia to clarify its role on the Archduke assassination without any condition, but right after Serbia mobilized its troops, Russia began its war preparations and called for a partial mobilization. Germany in turn mobilized and later declared war on Russia, after the Tsardom had rejected a German ultimatum and moved to a full mobilization. The reasons behind the German declaration of war had been its perception of Russia as an immediate threat, mostly after its mobilization, viewing it as a casus belli (Segesser, 2013)[1].

France then declared war to Germany – honouring its alliance with Russia – and prompting Germany to deliver an ultimatum to Belgium, in order to execute the Schlieffen Plan, its main war plan against France. Meanwhile, the British Empire was less inclined to join the war, as it preferred to concentrate on the defense of its naval superamcy and its colonial Empire (Kennedy, 2004). Yet, it perceived an eventual German victory as the path towards a strong continental Germany that would threaten its global dominance. Only the German breaching of Belgian neutrality and territorial integrity eventually tipped the balance for the Empire to join the war on the Allies’ side (Segesser, 2013)[2].

The British colonies, mainly Australia, Canada, New Zealand and British Africa watched the crisis closely. Australia was undergoing an elections campaign at this time and despite the outcome of those elections, it showed its loyalty and willingness to support and contribute to London’s efforts in the war, as did Canada and New Zealand. The African dominions, in addition, had as a main question the influence the course of the war would have on their own situation (Segesser, 2013).

Regarding the rising powers of Japan and the United States, Japan at first questioned its own role in the light of the alliance it held with the British Empire, but eventually saw the outbreak of widespread war as a chance to advance and enhance its position in China and the Pacific, while the United States simply made a call for the belligerents to respect the rights at sea while proclaiming and sustaining initially a neutral position (Segesser, 2013).

In for a Fight: Plans and Strategies

The plans of every European Great Power, however and despite the long-time their preparations took, were based in and designed for short/regional conflicts, rather than full-scale worldwide war (Segesser, 2013). In the case of Germany, the main plan was the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, which had a peculiar nature: it was at the same time offensive and defensive. This specific trait can be explained by the fact that, due to the Franco-Russian alliance and the German-Russian rupture, Germany had two strategic fronts to worry about[3]. The plan assumed that Russia was unable to respond and mobilize fully within six weeks. That time was to be used in waging a fast war against France, using the better part of the German army to take Paris, while the rest would carry out a defensive campaign against Russian forces in Eastern Prussia. Once France was defeated, Russia would suffer the concentrated blow of the whole of the German army. Speed was the key and a war of attrition not desirable (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

The only perilous part of the plan was that France would have to be attacked via Belgium, since a Dutch neutrality was deemed beneficiary and Switzerland too strong to be invaded. The French army, in any case, was to be outflanked and later destroyed by a rear attack, while a small German force at the border was holding it at bay, thus the importance of Belgium for the effectiveness of the plan[4]. Consequently, the war was mostly waged in Eastern France (Godl, 2009). There was also a naval side of German plans; Kennedy (2004) summarizes it as a concentration on the British naval power and the plans to wage a war against it; Segesser (2013) describes it as the German aims to disrupt the British naval supremacy[5]. The main plan then, was to concentrate the dominant part of the Imperial fleet in the North Sea, so the German fleet could wage a defensive war while also threatening the Royal Navy, and tying it to one area of sea. Raid attacks against the Royal Navy were stipulated as well as to serve as the protection for the German army’s right flank (Scheer, 2003).

One small part of the German naval plans were to wage an attrition war against the Royal Navy, taking advantage of an arsenal of torpedoes, mines and light units (i.e: Torpedoboots, minelayers, light cruisers and destroyers). The trans-continental commerce was also to be attacked (Vest, n.a). It is for this reason that small German flotillas and even single units saw action in the southern Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Falkland Islands. The most prolific example is the famous S.M.S Emdem, which raided and sunk more than 30 enemy ships, paralized the trade and inflicted terror in the sea lines communication of the Indian and Pacific Oceans for 3 months (Mallett, 2013).

The other small part of the German plans were to face and contest both the British naval supremacy and blockade by use of submarines. For instance, the Imperial operation plans contemplated the utilization of the famous U-Boote for both purposes and also as a way, along with the mentioned weapons and units, to counterbalance the British naval supremacy. In addition, the specified assets would be used in implemented a counter-blockade (Schulze-Wegener, 2010)[6].

Austria was mainly focused on – and predominantly worried about –Italian moves in the Balkans, where its first main operations were executed. Russia was a factor of importance within the Austrian military calculation, due to the vulnerability of the region of Galicia. Thus, two main plans were developed, the first of them, Plan R, was designed for an attack against either Russia or Italy, while the second, Plan B, had Serbia-Montenegro as its focal area. Plan R foresaw the amassment of a considerable number of troops to guard against any strategic Russian assistance to the Serbs, counting on an active Germany in the north[7]. Plan B incorporated the use of six armies: three to invade Serbia and three to guard against any Russian attack. In the end plan R was implemented (Godl, 2009; Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

Russia in turn faced huge dilemmas of its own in the planning and wake of the war. The communication problems between the General Staff and the politicians meant that any decision would be hard to reach, and the defeat of 1905 still cast a considerable shadow[8]. Similar to the other powers involved, the Russian plans also had the objective of a “brief and local war”, where the most crucial decisions would be made through diplomacy. There were three main plans for war: plans G, A and 19. Plan G was designed to respond to a German full-scale war against Russia and included temporarily giving up stretches of terrain as a means to win time, so Russia could reach combat efficiency. The Russian military leaders assumed that Russia could absorb such impact thanks to its numerical superiority, which would bring a similar victory as the one achieved in 1812 (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

The plan A included in its first incarnation anything but the reliance on the vast terrain and number of troops, thus plan 19 came into place after French pressure for a more offensive strategy[9]. This plan, tested in manoeuvres against Austria and modified in 1912, took as a basis a German focusing on France instead of Russia. In consequence, two Russian armies would advance towards Eastern Prussia and Silesia to take the central part of the country, relying on the fortifications in Poland and Belarus as a defensive measure against invading forces (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

France had as a first plan the plan XVI, consisting on a mere concentration of troops in the north of the country. The final plan, however, had origins dating back to the aftermath of the 1871 defeat. Offensive in nature, this plan XVII relied firstly on the fighting spirit of the French soldiers and aimed at the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine[10]. An advance towards Alsace and Lorraine had two main routes: one direct attack against Lorraine and another through Luxemburg and Belgium or the Ardennes)[11]. The plan also depended on Russian actions as an important factor, as well as the British Empire’s stance, forcing France to consider the violation of Belgian and Luxembourgian neutrality. In general, this plan, too, was based on the assumption of the war being a short rather than a long one (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

The French military was fully aware that France would be the first target of any German movement, although it was not clear as to how where and when the attack would come. All the while, hints such as German railroads and fortresses being build-up near the border and in Lorraine indicated a possible attack via Belgium and were plainly visible. Yet, those signs were ignored until the war broke out, assuming that the British commitment to Belgium’s neutrality would deter Germany. Therefore the ‘panic’ deployment of French troops in Belgium proved fruitless. In addition, France underestimated the German plan itself and its extensive use of reserve troops to push forward (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

The British Empire also faced a number of questions and challenges: The main one was about sending troops to continental Europe (or not) in case of another Franco-German war. The second one was about how to protect its empire in such a case, and how to mobilize the dominions to that European war while – again – securing its global influence and on keeping its naval supremacy. All in all, the British Empire had no plan devised, as it did not desire a large-scale war, nor had any intentions to expand its own territory (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

The Empire initially placed a major focus on its extra-European interests. Therefore, the Royal Navy intended to play an important role in a European war by exerting a naval blockade against Germany in order to disrupt its commercial lines and supplies aiming at provoking a fast capitulation following the German attack against France. Similarly, attacks against the German coastline were planned to ensure British naval supremacy. The British Army, however, was immersed in discussions about the sense of intervening in a European War, and when the war broke out, the only solution was confirming the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force. This force was sent in after the German violation of the Belgian neutrality, and was the main continental aid by the British Empire to Belgium and France (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

The United States, meanwhile, declared a policy of neutrality. Yet, the United States increased its exports to the Allied Powers, and even in the first phases of the war and after the German occupation of Belgium, the public opinion was less favourable to a neutrality policy and was shifting towards a support for an intervention (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013).

This concludes this overview of the initial objectives and strategies of the powers involved in WWI. These objectives and strategies, however, cannot be but a mere few of the many reasons that lead to the horrors to come in this conflict that shaped Europe and the global politics as none had before.


[1] Noteworthy to remind the reader that Russia was an important concern even after the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, and its alliance with France increased such concern.

[2] The same reasons were given to the British Empire to wage a war against the Napoleonic France. In fact, for the British Empire the possibility of a European continental hegemon was a main strategic concern for the Empire, see: Kennedy (2004).

[3] And in the context of “short or regional wars” separate wars were initially estimated.

[4] And also keeping the defensive-offensive combination while executing the operations.

[5] For this reason the plans were to concentrate the most of the fleet back to home bases and, in case of a give opportunity, to confront the Royal Navy (Segesser, 2013; Vest, n.a).

[6] A sort of asymmetrical warfare in the seas.

[7] This plan, according to Godl (2009), was the final one yet it was not fully implemented due to the German concentration on France.

[8] After the defeat, some reforms aimed at reorganizing the General Staff and the officers’ corps, as well as a major concentration in efficiency and mobilization, were implemented (Segesser, 2013).

[9] This particular plan put an end to the defensive trend, and also a more offensive plan came as a result of the French alliance – and pressures – as well as the 1908 Austrian annexation of Bosnia (Segesser, 2013).

[10] It was the French revenge plan, to put it short.

[11] The northern advance would depend of any German movement.



Godl, J (2009). The Planning of War. In: Retrieved from:

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 1987).

Mallet, N. H (2013). The Kaiser’s Pirate Ship – The Astounding Voyage of SMS Emden. Retrieved from:

Admiral Scheer, R (2003). Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War. In: The War Times Journal. Retrieved from:

Schulze-Wegener, G (2010). Deutschland zur See. Hamburg, Germany: Mittler Verlag.

Segesser, D. M. (2013). Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive. Stuttgart, Deutschland: Marixverlag.

Vest, W (n.a). Other War Plans. In: 1905-1914 – War Plans. Retrieved from:


Image: ‘Men in the trenches‘ by State Library of South Australia, released under Creative Commons 2.0 (CC BY 2.0) License. Some rights reserved.

2 responses to “The Great War. Part IV – The Outbreak of War

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

  2. Pingback: WWI Series. THE GREAT WAR. PART IV – THE OUTBREAK OF WAR | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security·

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