USS Texas: The last floating Dreadnought

USS Texas: The last floating Dreadnought: Image by Wiki-commons.

Causes of the First World War 1914-1918


Although not necessarily part of the ZIMSEC Ordinary Level History syllabus, it is nevertheless important to read up on the History of Europe from about 1850 so that you will better appreciate the factors that led to the outbreak of World War I which is otherwise known as The Great War or the First World War. Important to note are things like the relationship between certain countries e.g. Germany and Britain, France and Britain, Germany and France, Industrial Revolution and Competition in World Trade, Arms race, Alliances, Clashing of interests in the Balkans and colonial rivalry.

From the late nineteenth century newspapers and magazines (the media) became an intergral part of everyday lives and more and more vocal in analyzing everyday issues. Most notable among the publications that documentation this period is the Punch Magazine which was established in 1842 went out of business in 2002. You will see their cartoonish depiction of Historical events in most History textbooks and they are an invariable part of source questions in the exam. It will be useful for you to take a glance of their cartoon archive here.


  • A world war is a war which is fought between many countries of the world and is geographically spread across the borders of multiple countries. The participation of these countries has to be overt and involve actually involve the engagement of military troops thus World War I is a world war while the fight in Afghanistan is not because the war is in one country against a movement and not a country. It would seem therefore in a world war there has to be multiple countries on both sides and the battlefield span multiple countries.
  • World War I was unlike any other wars recorded in history because advanced machinery and technology such as tanks, heavy ships and artillery were used.
  • A great number of people were killed (estimated at around 20 million civilians and military personnel) and many were wounded.
  • The war was fought between the Allied forces made up of Britain, France, Italy and Japan and the Central Powers: Germany, Austria and Turkey.
  • Because most of these countries had colonies and oversea empires there were a lot of battles and skirmishes were fought in other countries and even on separate continents for example Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa (Which were both British colonies) attacked Germany West Africa (now Namibia) a Germany colony.


The causes of World War I can be divided into two broad categories viz:

  1. Long term causes- these are causes that build up over a period of years sometimes decades before they transform into actual fighting between the parties involved.
  2. Short term causes-this is the immediate cause of the conflict in other words the actual trigger.

Long term causes

  • The arms race and militarism (brinkmanship).
  • The alliance system.
  • Imperialism and colonial rivalry.
  • The shifting balance of power.
  • The Balkan nationalism (crisis).
  • Mounting social crisis.
  • The Franco-Prussian hostility.

Short term causes

  • The Sarajevo assassination or incident.

1. The arms race and militarism (Brinkmanship)

  • Various European powers (notably Britain and Germany) competed to build strong armies, navies and to manufacture weapons.
  • The race was mostly between Germany and Britain a race which Britain was keen to win.
  • However, Germany did her best to catch up with Britain( Britain had become the undisputed leading Naval power when they had displaced the Spanish Armada centuries before) by expanding her own warship production.
  • In 1906 Britain designed the Dreadnought, a battleship which was touted as the most powerful in existence at the time.
  • A year later Germany developed a ship with similar capabilities to match Britain.
  • The race continued up to 1914 and during this period both Britain and Germany increased their navies significantly.
  • Germany also increased her army to 5 million men during the same period.
  • Other countries were also doing the same (increasing their armies) for example Russia had increased her to 50 000 soldiers by 1913, France lengthened her military service from 2 to 3 years during the same period.
  • All major European countries had adopted the conscription (compulsory enlistment) system by 1874.
  • There was a significant increase in military budgets during this period as well.
  • Such developments in militarism meant that when the conflict reached its height in 1914 the countries readily declared war on one another especially since the leaders of the various countries had become more emboldened and practiced brinkmanship as a result of their belief in their military prowess.

The alliance system

  • After 1870 Europe was left divided into two major opposing camps or alliances.
  • The European powers recognized the fact that there is strength in numbers and thus began making treaties with another based on the alignment of interests.
  • From 1870 a number of treaties were signed by major powers.
  • Eventually Europe was divided up into two major camps/alliances.

Triple Alliance (Formerly the Dual Alliance)

This was made among Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. It was a follow up to the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria in which they had promised to assist each other in case either was attacked by Russia.It was signed in 1882. Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed to help Italy if she was attacked by France. Italy also agreed to help Germany if she was attacked by France and Austria-Hungary and Germany agreed to help each other if either was attacked by Russia. Italy viewed the treaty as a guarantee that she would not be attacked by Austria-Hungary rather than a military pact. In 1914 Italy later shifted her allegiance when war broke out in 1914 and joined the Allied powers.

Triple Entente ( Formerly Entente Cordiale)

Was made between Britain, France and Russia. In 1894 Russia and France made an agreement to help each other if Germany attacked either of them. . Russia would also support France if she was attacked by Austria-Hungary.In 1904 an agreement was singed between France and Britain.This agreement was known as the Entente Cordiale ( French for “cordial agreement”). This agreement did not specify any enemies and it was not a military alliance but meant as a means to foster cooperation between France and Britain. The Cordiale was followed with the signing of the Triple Entente in 1907. It was also not a military alliance but an agreement to work together. However by 1912 the members of the Entente had become so close that if any of them were attacked they would help.

  • Although the Cordiale was not a military pact de jure it evolved into one and later when war broke out it became a de facto military alliance.
  • On the other hand the triple alliance was a military from the beginning.
  • The alliance also agreed that members should remain neutral if a member went to war with only one power.

Mounting social crisis

  • European governments encouraged aggressive nationalism as a way of keeping power for example the unification of Germany.
  • Some people in Europe were not aware of what a war would be like since there had been no major war since Prussia had fought with France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871.
  • This war gave leaders and generals the false impression that war could be swiftly fought and bring about a glorious end to hostilities.
  • This romantic view of war encouraged leaders to adopt a brinkmanship stance and act hastily and aggressively as happened on the day the war broke out.

Mobilisation plans of various armies.

  • Almost all the major European powers thought they had the ideal plan in case of hostilities.
  • France had a plan called Plan XVII (Plan 17) (known in French as Plan dix-sept) drafted in 1913 to be put into effect in the event of war between Germany and France.
  • The most famous was Germany’s Schlieffen plan drafted by General Alfred Gra Von Shclieffen who retired in 1906 and died in 1913.
  • The plan was later modified by Von Moltke the Younger.
  • According to the plan Germany would immediately launch a war against France and knock it out before turning east to attack Russia all in a space of six weeks.
  • These plans clearly show that all the major powers in Europe were itching for a fight and only waiting for the slightest provocation to justify themselves.

The Franco-Prussian hostility

  • The hostility stemmed from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and remained the most constant factor in international relations up to the outbreak of the war in 1914.
  • After the war France lost Alsace and Lorraine in a humiliating peace treaty which caused her to view and deal with Germany with both hatred and hostility. France and Germany became permanent enemies as a result.
  • In 1885 and 1886 there was danger of war breaking out between Germany and France as French nationalism was whipped up for a revenge war by General Georges Ernest Boulanger whose influence was so profound he started a movement called Boulangerism during his apogee.
  • In 1905 and 1911 the continued hostility between France and Germany nearly precipitated into war over Morrocco.
  • Although on these occasions war was avoided the tension between the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente powers increased.
  • The tensions drew the alliances into a habit as Austria-Hungary found itself on the side of Germany while Britain and Russia supported France.
  • When Germany learnt of the friendship between France and Russia in 1895 she concluded that it was aggressive and meant to create two fronts against her in the event of a war breaking out i.e. the western front of France and the eastern front of Russia.
  • Germany’s Schlieffen plan was based on the presumption that Russia would automatically come to the aide of France in the event of a war thus necessitating the need to defeat France quickly before turning to a much bigger Russia.
  • The plan was based on the premise that France was smaller and thus could be defeated quickly while Russia is much bigger such that it would take longer fore her to mobilise her forces in the event of war.
  • When war did eventually broke out Germany acted to this plan and she invaded France via the Belgium (Belgium was neutral) route which made Britain to enter the war.

The shifting balance of power.

  • Germany was a great emerging economic power but was not recognized by the other powers such as Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary and France who had hitherto dominated the world’s diplomatic affairs.
  • Germany’s desire to gain her rightful status upset the balance of power thus threatening stability and the pre-established order.
  • Germany built her army and navy as she protested that she was surrounded by the Triple Entente powers who constantly sought to prevent her expansion.
  • Such activities exacerbated the hostilities existing amongst Europe’s nations.

Colonial rivalry.

  • There were clashes between European powers over colonies for example France and Britain over Egypt, France and Germany over Morocco and France and Italy over Tunisia.
  • However almost all these disputes were solved peacefully.
  • A few of these disputes however nearly caused war and increased the tensions between the two camps.
  • Also Russia and Japan were fighting over China.
  • In 1902 Japan and Britain had signed The Anglo-Japanese treaty, a military agreement in which each member assistance in the event of war.
  • This could have caused war had Britain who supported Japan or France who supported Russia had become involved in this war.
  • Other European powers with interests in China would likely had joined in this war.

The First Moroccan crisis (1905)

[ Crisis of Tangier]

  • Britain recognized French claim in Morocco when they signed the Entente Cordiale.
  • France had interests in Morocco and desired to make it part of her empire while Germany was also interested in Morocco resulting in conflict between the two.
  • In March 1905 Kaiser Wilhelm II (William II) of Germany  visited Tangier in Morocco.
  • He made speeches which undermined and challenged French interests:
  1. He proclaimed that he supported Sultan of Morocco’s sovereignty meaning he deemed Morocco free and Independent.
  2. He said that all European powers had equal rights in Morocco but under the Sultan.
  3. He asserted that Germany had growing interests in Morocco and she was prepared to protect them.
  4. He declared that he was going to maintain the independence of the Sultan.
  • This resulted in a confrontation with France who had Russia and Britain as her allies under the Triple Entente who came to her aide.
  • Germany on the other hand had Austria-Hungary and Italy as its allies under the Triple Alliance who came to her aide.
  • Germany’s aggression was calculated since she knew Russia would not come to the aide of France as Russia was still recovering from her defeat at the hands of Japan in the Russo-Japanese war.
  • Germany also wanted to test the strength of the Triple Entente.
  • The crisis was settled by a conference  in Algeciras in Spain in 1906.

Algeciras conference.

  • It was agreed that the state bank of Morocco was to be controlled by France, Germany, Spain and Britain.
  • The policing of Morocco was shared between France and Spain.
  • The interests of all powers in Morocco were guaranteed.
  • France was left to proceed with its peaceful penetration and Germany was given trading rights.

N.B The aggression by Germany that brought about the crisis cemented the Triple Entente resulting in the members being closer with one another than ever before and even more ready for war.

The crisis also increased tensions amongst the major powers as it completed the diplomatic division of Europe into two hostile camps.

The second Moroccan crisis (1911) [Agadir crisis]

  • In April 1911 a revolt broke out against the Sultan and foreign nationals.
  • The French with its policing powers marched to Fez to protect European residents.
  • The French capitalized on the incident to annex Morocco.
  • Other powers like Britain accepted the move but Germany warned France that the move was against the agreement reached at the Algeciras conference.
  • Germany send a gun boat, the SMS Panther to Agadir.
  • The Kaiser demanded compensation for growing French influence in Morocco.
  • Britain did not want to annex Morocco because this threatened her shipping interests and she was supported by Russia.
  • In November Germany and France signed the treaty of Paris.

Treaty of Paris

  • France was given Morocco and Germany was given Guinea and Cameroon.
  • Germany’s aggression frightened other powers who became closer and the crisis further strained the relations between the Entente and Alliance camps.