The Great War, as World War I came to be known started in 1914. It was to become a conflict unlike that the world had ever seen before. It involved greater armies, more destructive firepower and greater casualties than had ever been the case. The question that many people ask is ‘what caused this conflict?’ The answer is by no means simple. Rather than having a single cause it was a series of interlocking and cascading events that finally led Germany, Austria-Hungary and it’s allies and the so-called ‘Triple Entente’ made up of Great Britain, Russia, and France to finally become embroiled in this unprecedented conflict.
One of the driving forces behind the distrust and eventual enmity between the two camps was the issue of Empire. Many of the players such as Germany and the United Kingdom had extensive imperial holdings across the globe. The battle for resources had begun – and any country that was seen to be aggressively intent on expanding its imperial sphere of influence. Such was the case when Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary seized control of weaker countries such as Bosnia and Morocco. They were viewed with suspicion.
The cross-hatching of alliances also guaranteed that when war broke out mutual defense and aggression pacts would quickly suck in both the greater and lesser powers around the globe. This would be a true ‘World War’.
However, the spark that was to set the entirety of Europe burning occurred on 28 June 1914. In that infamous day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was next in line for the throne of Austria-Hungary was shot in Sarajevo, Bosnia. His killer was a Serbian who was militantly opposed to Austrian control of Bosnia (he thought Serbia should be in control). Austria-Hungary quickly declared war on Serbia.
It was then that the complex agreements between nations began to draw country after country into the conflict. The cascade effect was in full motion. After a certain point de-escalation proved an impossible task.
Russia quickly leaped to the aid of Serbia due to its defense pact with the country. Germany then declared war on Russia due to its agreements with Austria-Hungary. Britain declared war on Germany after it invaded the then neutral Belgium due to its mutual defense obligations (it also had a duty to come to Frances aid in the event of hostilities).
The conflict would rage until the 11th of November 1918. It would be the bloodiest war in history. By the time peace returned it has been estimated that 19 million combatants had been killed and 23 million had been injured. The ‘Great War’ as it came to be known would change the face of society forever. New technologies had become reality, aerial combat had advanced, tanks had appeared on battlefields, medicine saw enormous innovation (for instance blood transfusion). However, the cost in human life and in resources had extremely negative effects on the countries that were involved – and the ripple effect was felt across the globe.
World War I was not the war to end all wars. It would be overshadowed by the horrors of WWII. However, it did provide a foretaste of what ‘total war’ would be like. Unfortunately, it would take an even greater conflict to reveal the reality of a truly global war.