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World War I

What Caused WWI?

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Imperialsim, Alliances, Terrorism,
and the Outbreak of War

Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

 

      Since the late 1800s the major nations of the world had been engaged in a competition for control of land in Asia and Africa.  Known as Imperialism, this competition was based on an agenda to gain “spheres of influence” or colonies that would in turn provide economic gains for the countries controlling them.  The competition for spheres of influence created tensions between nations vying for land that carried over into the twentieth century.  These tensions were translated into the eruption of World War I.  With tensions between nations also came alliances with others.  These alliances were also the cause of most of the world becoming involved in the Great War.  The assassination of the heir for the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serbian terrorist was the last straw that broke into conflict from the already bitter relations between Austro-Hungary and the Balkans.  From that point forward European nations began to take sides based on previous alliances, and join in the conflict that quickly erupted into a full-scale war.  The triple alliance consisted of Austro-Hungary, Germany, and Italy, and all the other nations, Great Britain, France, and Russia fought against the triple alliance.  After months of fighting, the United States, which had been divided on the issue of the war, entered into the war against the triple alliance after Wilson declared there must be consequences for the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines.  The war was the bloodiest and devastating that the world had ever seen, and finally ended with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. 

            In the 1880s many nations began vying for control of land in China.  China was considered to be a great asset in a nation’s interest because of its economic value in trade.  Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan all controlled some part of China.  Of course no one country was satisfied with their territory, and continually tried to gain more control of land.   Conflicts between the imperialist nations broke out, and created permanent enemies such as the Russo-Japanese war between Russia and Japan.  This situation was also occurring in South Africa, as more European nations built colonies.  The goal of these territories was of course commercial and economic.  The cause of the colonies was to control the profitable trade that would arise out of the territories.  This agenda of controlling land in order to gain wealth, led to strife between the European nations, but not all of the nations feuded over the land.  In fact the Europeans nations made alliances in order to further their goals. 

            In the 1860s, Bismarck, first Prime Minister of Prussia, who also had unified Germany through a series of wars with Austria and France, had gained control of Alsace and Lorraine from France after defeating Napoleon III in the Seven Week’s war. Photo France never truly recovered from the loss of the rich coal areas of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia, and had always wished to restore their control of the territory, and from that point forward Prussia and France were destined enemies.  Bismark, however, busied himself by entering into treaties and alliances with other European nations. In 1873, the Three Emperors League, which tied Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia to each other's aid in time of war.  (“World War 1: Trenches on the Web Library”)  This treaty only lasted until Russia's withdrawal five years later in 1878, leaving Bismarck with a new Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. In 1881, two years after Germany and Austria-Hungary signed their agreement, Italy was brought into the fold with the signing of the Triple Alliance.  However, in the event the Triple Alliance became null and void, Italy then negotiated a secret treaty with France, and Austria-Hungary signed another alliance with Romania in 1883.  In 1887, Bismark agreed to sign the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, however, this treaty was allowed in lapse in 1890, and therefore allowed for Russia to enter an alliance with France in 1892 with the Franco-Russian Military Convention.  As the race to arms began with Germany’s, Wilhelm II, amassing a navy equal in size Britain’s, Great Britain arose out of isolationism, and joined the tangled web of alliances.  In 1902, Britain agreed to a military alliance with Japan, and then signed the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904.  Three years later in 1907, Russia formed the Triple Entente by signing an agreement with Britain, known as the Anglo-Russian Entente.  Britain and France did also conclude a military agreement with the Anglo-French Naval Convention of 1912.  Britain was also morally obligated to protect Belgium’s neutrality by the 1839 Treaty of London, just as Russia had pledged to protect Serbia.    This web of treaties and alliances led to the worldwide outbreak of World War I, when the spark of the war, the heir of Austria-Hungary’s empire assassination, was ignited. 

            The Balkans had proved to be a troubled area in Europe.  With two wars in 1912 and 1913, peace was finally established, but many of the small nations found themselves under Turkish or Austro-Hungarian rule, which stirred them into a national fever.  Some of the Balkan nations sought their own individual voice and self-determination, but they continually identified themselves as pan-Slavic peoples, with Russia as their chief ally (“Causes of World War One”).  In 1914, Austria-Hungary was being directly impacted by the troubles of the Balkans, and the aging Emperor Franz Josef was struggling to keep order between the diverse ethnicities.  With the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 by the Serbian nationalist secret society, the Black Hand, the Austro-Hungarian government decided to declare its authority in the region with war.  Russia, being and ally of Serbia, declared war back on Austria-Hungary, not just by moral duty, but also as a way to restore order in Russia.  Germany, who had allied themselves with Austria-Hungary, also declared war on Serbia and Russia, as did Italy. Kaiser Wilhelm II saw the war as an opportunity through the war for Germany to become a world power.  After Germany’s entrance into the war, France saw its opportunity to gain back the territory of Alsace and Lorraine.  Many believe that Germany would have back out of the war if Britain had declared its intentions sooner, but being under no strict military obligations with any of the nations, Britain took the opinion that the war would be primarily fought between France and Russia.  Great Britain’s foreign minister even attempted to mediate the belligerent nations.  However, when Germany invaded Belgium, and violated Belgium’s declared neutrality, Britain was prompted to enter the war against Germany.  At this point World War I had officially begun. 

            The war in Europe seemed a world away to Americans in the United States, but the war would soon come to them sooner then they thought.  The majority of Americans believed that the war was a matter between European nations only, and that the United States should not become involved in any way.  Although the majority of opinion was to avoid war, many people took sides concerning the way based on their ethnicities.  (“Woodrow Wilson’s Administration”)  Therefore most Germans believed that Germany was fighting righteously, or many French believed that the French were correct in fighting the war.  However, most Americans felt more connected to the British, and therefore gave their support to Great Britain.  Along with other the British supporters was President Wilson.  Photo

He believed that the United States should support Britain, but because of the national anti-war sentiment, he did not act openly in supporting the war against Germany. (“President Wilson’s Declaration of Neutrality “)  Instead, the United States began to ship military supplies to Great Britain and France.  German submarines had stopped the shipment of supplies to the allied nations for quite some time, but in courtesy to the Unites States they permitted the passage of American ships until it was clear the U.S. was shipping arms and other military supplies to Britain and France. (Dean 3).  In April of 1915, the German government issued a note in a New York newspaper warning American not to travel on ships bound to Britain that might be carrying military supplies.  However, days later about a thousand Americans boarded the Lusitania, a passenger ship, bound for Great Britain.   En route to its destination the Lusitania was suspected of carrying military supplies in its hull, and fired upon by German submarines.  On April 15, 1915, the Lusitania was sunk, and all of its passengers killed.  RMS Mauretania, the Lusitania's sister ship. The artist was known to have occasionally switched the names used in publicity pictures. One can tell because the Mauretania had cowl vents, as seen in the image, and Lusitania had oil drum vents.  This tragedy was exactly what President Wilson needed to incite a fever of patriotism and war.  With the Wilson’s decree that Germany must not go unpunished, the American opinion of the war quickly changed to favor entering the war as allies of Great Britain and France.  Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, and the United States had finally entered into World War I. 

            What was first known as the Great War, World War I was the bloodiest and most devastating war the world had ever seen.  With hundreds of thousands of casualties and ruin among European nations, the consequences of such a conflict had never been seen before.  World War I changed the war the world fought wars, and it certainly changed the American sentiment of war to air on the side of caution and defense when European nations are emerged in conflict. 

 

 

Works Cited

Dean, Paul. “Woodrow Wilson’s Administration”.  Trenches on the Web.  5 pages. Online.  Internet.  May 28, 2006.  Available at www.worldwar1.com/biowil.html.

Strict Accountability: President Wilson’s First Warning to the Germans”.  Official Documents of WWI.  1 page.  Online.  Internet.  May, 28 2006.  Available at www.lib.byu.edu/rdh/wwi.

“President Wilson’s Declaration of Neutrality”.  Official Documents of WWI.  1 page.  Online.  Internet.  May 28, 2006.  Available at www.lib.byu.edu/rdh/wwi.

“Causes of World War One”.  History on the Net.  1 page.  Online.  Intenet.  May 28, 2006.  Available at www.historyonthenet.com/WW1/causes.html.

“World War 1: Trenches on the Web Library”.  World War 1: Trenches on the Web.  1 page.  Online.  Internet.  May 28, 2006.  Available at www.worldwar1.com/reflib.html.

Rms Lusitania: the Fateful Voyage”.  First World War.  1 page.  Online.  Internet.  May 28, 2006.  Available at www.firstworldwar.com/features/lusitania.html.

WWI Media Songs

"It's A Long Way to Berlin, But We'll Get There"

AP US History 2006