It’s possibly the single most pondered question in history – what caused the unbound, senseless slaughter that was the First World War? It wasn’t, like in World War Two, a case of a single belligerent pushing others to take a military stand. It didn’t have the moral vindication of a resisting a tyrant. Rather, a delicate but toxic balance of structural forces created a dry tinder that was lit by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That event precipitated the July Crisis, which saw the major European powers hurtle toward open conflict.
Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Vienna on June 28th 1914
The M-A-I-N acronym is often used to analyse the war – militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism. It’s simplistic but provides a useful framework.
The late nineteenth century was an era of military competition, particularly between the major European powers. The policy of building a stronger military was judged relative to neighbours, creating a culture of paranoia that heightened the search for alliances. It was fed by the cultural belief that war is good for nations.
A British dreadnought – the building of these ships was a source of tension between Great Britain and Germany.
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Germany in particular looked to expand its navy. However, the ‘naval race’ was never a real contest – the British always s maintained naval superiority. But the British obsession with naval dominance was strong. Government rhetoric exaggerated military expansionism. A simple naivety in the potential scale and bloodshed of a European war prevented several governments from checking their aggression.
A web of alliances developed in Europe between 1870 and 1914, effectively creating two camps bound by commitments to maintain sovereignty or intervene militarily – The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.
- The Triple Alliance of 1882 linked Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
- The Triple Entente of 1907 linked France, Britain and Russia.
A historic point of conflict between Austria Hungary and Russia was over their incompatible Balkan interests, and France had a deep suspicion of Germany rooted in their defeat in the 1870 war.
A British cartoon of Europe in 1914
The alliance system primarily came about because after 1870 Germany, under Bismarck, set a precedent by playing its neighbours’ imperial endeavours off one another, in order to maintain a balance of power within Europe
Imperial Competition also pushed the countries towards adopting alliances. Colonies were units of exchange that could be bargained without significantly affecting the metro-pole. They also brought nations who would otherwise not interact into conflict and agreement. For example, the Russo-Japanese War (1905) over aspirations in China, helped bring the Triple Entente into being.
The Russo-Japanese War was fought over colonial aspirations in China – with the Russians suffering a heavy defeat.
It has been suggested that Germany was motivated by imperial ambitions to invade Belgium and France. Certainly the expansion of the British and French empires, fired by the rise of industrialism and the pursuit of new markets, caused some resentment in Germany, and the pursuit of a short, aborted imperial policy in the late nineteenth century. However the suggestion that Germany wanted to create a European empire in 1914 is not supported by the pre-war rhetoric and strategy.
Nationalism was also a new and powerful source of tension in Europe. It was tied to militarism, and clashed with the interests of the imperial powers in Europe. Nationalism created new areas of interest over which nations could compete.
Austria Hungary was really a conglomerate of countries under a dual monarchy.
For example, The Habsburg empire was tottering agglomeration of 11 different nationalities, with large slavic populations in Galicia and the Balkans whose nationalist aspirations ran counter to imperial cohesion. Nationalism in the Balkan’s also piqued Russia’s historic interest in the region. Indeed, Serbian nationalism created the trigger cause of the conflict – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The Spark: The Assassination
Ferdinand and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Bosnian Serbian nationalist terrorist organization the ‘Black Hand Gang.’ Ferdinand’s death, which was interpreted as a product of official Serbian policy, created the July Crisis – a month of diplomatic and governmental miscalculations that saw a domino effect of war declarations initiated.
The historical dialogue on this issue is vast and distorted by substantial biases. Vague and undefined schemes of reckless expansion were imputed to the German leadership in the immediate aftermath of the war with the ‘war-guilt’ clause. The notion that Germany was bursting with newfound strength, proud of her abilities and eager to showcase them, was overplayed.
The almost laughable rationalization of British imperial power as ‘necessary’ or ‘civilizing’ didn’t translate to German imperialism, which was ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist.’ There is an on-going historical discussion on who if anyone was most culpable. Blame has been directed at every single combatant at one point or another, and some have said that all the major governments considered a golden opportunity for increasing popularity at home.
The Schlieffen plan could be blamed for bringing Britain into the war, the scale of the war could be blamed on Russia as the first big country to mobilise, inherent rivalries between imperialism and capitalism could be blamed for polarising the combatants. AJP Taylor’s ‘timetable theory’ emphasises the delicate, highly complex plans involved in mobilization which prompted ostensibly aggressive military preparations.
The German Schlieffen Plan required Germany to defeat France quickly to avoid a two front war.
Every point has some merit, but in the end what proved most devastating was the combination of an alliance network with the widespread, misguided belief that war is good for nations, and that the best way to fight a modern war was to attack. That the war was inevitable is questionable, but certainly the notion of glorious war, of war as a good for nation-building, was strong pre-1914. By the end of the war, it was dead.
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Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.
This collection of World War I essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. These questions can also be used for short answer responses, research tasks, homework and revision activities. If you would like to suggest a question for this page, please contact Alpha History.
The world before 1914
2. How did the leadership of Otto von Bismarck shape the future of Germany to 1914?
3. What were the outcomes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71? How did these outcomes shape late 19th and early 20th century European relations?
4. Explain how the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ethnic, cultural and language diversity created problems for the ruling Hapsburg dynasty.
5. Why was the Ottoman Empire considered the ‘sick man of Europe’? How did its problems affect or concern major European powers?
6. Compare and contrast the British, French and German Empires at the beginning of the 20th century.
7. Explain how militarism shaped and affected politics, economics and society in Germany to 1914. How democratic and representative was German government during this period?
8. How did imperialism and imperial rivalry contribute to European tensions between 1871 and 1914?
9. Discuss three alliances of the 19th and early 20th centuries, describing how each alliance affected European relations.
10. Bismarck famously said that a European war would start from “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”. What “foolish things” happened in this region in the decade before World War I – and how did they affect European relations?
The road to war
1. Identify and discuss the three most significant factors leading to the outbreak of World War I.
2. Investigate and discuss the ‘war readiness’ and military strengths and weaknesses of Europe’s major powers in 1914.
3. What was Weltpolitik and how did it contribute to European tensions to 1914?
4. “Kaiser Wilhelm II was more responsible for the outbreak of World War I than any other individual leader.” To what extent is this statement true?
5. In the early 1900s many believed England and Germany had much in common and should have been allies, not antagonists. What were the sources or reasons for Anglo-German tension prior to 1914?
6. Investigate the relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the years prior to 1914. Why was Serbian nationalism worrying for Austro-Hungarian leaders?
7. Austria considered Serbia wholly responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. To what extent was the Serbian government truly responsible?
8. It is often said that the alliance system made a major war inevitable. Did alliances alone compel European nations to war after June 1914 – or were other factors involved?
9. Many historians suggest that the ‘failure of diplomacy’ led to war in 1914. What attempts did European diplomats make to negotiate and avoid war, and why did these attempts fail?
10. What do the ‘Nicky and Willy telegrams’ (between the Russian tsar and German kaiser) reveal about the character and leadership of both men?
11. Were the Kaiser and his advisors anticipating a European war that involved Britain? Explain how Britain became entangled in the road to war in mid 1914.
12. Focusing on three different countries, describe how the press and the public responded to declarations of war in August 1914.
13. Investigate anti-war sentiment in 1914. Which groups and individuals wrote, spoke or campaigned against war? What arguments did they put forward?
14. Explain why the small nation of Belgium became so crucial, both in July and August 1914.
15. Why did the Ottoman Empire enter World War I? What were its objectives and how prepared was it for a major war?
Battles and battle fronts
2. What were the outcomes of the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914? What did these battles reveal about the Russian military?
3. What happened at the first Battle of the Marne in 1914? What were the outcomes of this battle and what influence did it have on the rest of the war?
4. Compare the Western Front and Eastern Front as theatres of war. What were the similarities and differences in warfare on these two fronts?
5. How did naval power and the war on the seas shape the course of World War I? Refer to at least three major battles or incidents in your answer.
6. Why did the Allies consider the Dardanelles of strategic importance? Explain why the Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was a failure for the Allies.
7. What were the main objectives of the war in the Middle East? Discuss at least three significant locations or battles in your answer.
8. Why did Italy enter World War I in 1915? Where did most Italian troops fight and what impact did the war have on Italy?
9. Explain why the Battle of the Somme was such a significant operation, particularly for British forces.
10. Germany’s strategy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ was largely responsible for bringing the United States into the war. Was it a reasonable or justifiable policy? Why was it adopted?
Methods of warfare
2. It is often said that British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”. To what extent was this really true?
3. Explain why trench warfare became the dominant form of warfare on the Western Front.
4. What was life like for the average trench soldier? What were the duties, routines and rotations for those who served in the trenches?
5. Evaluate the use and impact of chemical weapons in World War I. Were they an important weapon of war – or were they used for terror and shock value?
6. Prior to 1914 cavalry (horse-mounted soldiers) were an important feature of most armies. Did cavalry regiments play any significant role in World War I?
7. Using evidence and referring to specific battles or events, explain which three weapons had the greatest impact on the battlefields of the Western Front.
8. How were aircraft like planes and airships used in World War I? Did these machines have any impact on the war and its outcomes – or were they a sideshow to the real fighting on the ground?
9. Tanks are one of the most significant weapons to emerge from World War I. Investigate and discuss the development, early use and effectiveness of tanks in the war.
10. The Hague Convention outlined the ‘rules of war’ that were in place during World War I. Referring to specific examples, discuss where and how these ‘rules of war’ were breached.
1. How did the public in Britain and other nations respond to the outbreak of war in August 1914? Was there unanimous support for the war?
2. What impact did Kaiser Wilhelm II have on military strategy and domestic policy after August 1914? How effective was the Kaiser as a wartime leader?
3. What powers did the Defence of the Realm Act give the British government? How did the Act affect life and work in wartime Britain?
4. Referring to either Britain, France or Germany, discuss how one national government managed and coordinated the war effort.
5. Investigate voluntary enlistment figures in one nation after August 1914. When and why did voluntary enlistment fall? What steps did the government take to encourage volunteers to enlist?
6. Focusing on three different nations, discuss when and why conscription was introduced – and whether this attracted any criticism or opposition.
7. What was the Shell Crisis of 1915? What impact did this crisis have on the British government and its wartime strategy?
8. Using specific examples, explain how wartime governments used censorship and propaganda to strengthen the war effort.
9. Why was there a change of wartime government in Britain in late 1916?
10. What was the ‘Silent Dictatorship’ in wartime Germany? How effective was this regime in managing both the war effort and the domestic situation?
Towards a conclusion
2. How did the leadership of Lloyd George (Britain) and Clemenceau (France) invigorate the war effort in their countries?
3. Discuss the issues and problems raised by conscription in Australia and Canada. Why was compulsory military service accepted in Europe but not in those two countries?
4. Why did the government of Tsar Nicholas II collapse in February and March 1917? How did the war help bring about revolution in Russia?
5. To what extent was the United States able to honour its pledge of neutrality in 1914-16?
6. Was the entry of the United States into World War I inevitable? Or was it a consequence of unforeseen factors?
7. What happened in the German Reichstag in July 1917? What did this reveal about German attitudes to the war?
8. What impact did the Allied naval blockade have on German society and the German war effort?
9. Explain the terms and effects of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918. What implications did this treaty have, both for Russia and the war in general?
10. What did German commanders hope to achieve by launching the Spring Offensive? What problems or obstacles did they face?
Treaties and post-war Europe
2. Describe how the map of Europe was changed as a consequence of World War I and post-war treaties. What grievances might have arisen from these changes?
3. Explain the fate of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the conclusion of World War I.
4. What happened to the Ottoman Empire and its territories after World War I? Describe its transition from a 19th century empire to the modern nation-state of Turkey.
5. A French general said of the Treaty of Versailles that was not a peace but a “20 year armistice”. Was he correct and, if so, why?
6. Why was Article 231 included in the Treaty of Versailles? What was the response to this particular clause, both in Germany and around the world?
7. Discuss what happened to European colonial possessions after World War I. Were colonies retained, seized by other nations or liberated?
8. How did the United States respond to the Treaty of Versailles? What were the global implications of this American response?
9. How effective was the newly formed League of Nations at resolving conflict and securing world peace?
10. Investigate and discuss the social effects of World War I in at least two countries. How did ordinary people live, during and after the war?
11. How did World War I affect the social, political and economic status of women?