The Outbreak of the Great War
Cultural Trends at the Dawn of the 20th Century
Assassination has never changed the history of the world.
- Benjamin Disraeli
I don't believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents.
- Pablo Picasso
Just prior to WWI, the Titanic sank. (James Dawson, now buried in Canada, was a boiler room crewman who was confused by fans with Jack Dawson, the character played by Leonardo di Caprio in a movie named after the boat.) The Titanic had been the pride and joy of the British White Star Line of passenger ships. The Cunard Line was the White Star Line’s biggest competitor and the White Star Line, to try and get ahead of its competition, made both the Titanic and the Olympic - two identical sister ships that were supposed to represent the remarkable technology of the New Age. The Titanic was launched in 1911 - technology had increased dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, however the technology relating to passenger transportation had been seen as “good enough,” and had not been improved in some time, mostly because the biggest source of immigration was from the working class (this had led to cheap-to-operate “coffin ships”).
Big ships enabled more immigration – in the 1880, about 10,000 tonnes was the most a ship could carry, and steerage class was still hazardous and rough. In addition, it was still dangerous. The Titanic, however, was roughly 5 times bigger than the other ships that crossed the Atlantic. At 50,000 tonnes, the idea was that it would be a floating city at sea for the first-class passengers: it had an indoor swimming pool, a squash deck, a sidewalk café and other amenities.
Luxury liners were amazing new innovations, but not exclusive to the White Star line - their competitors had their own versions of luxury liners - the Titanic and the Olympic were just the largest. Cunard had the Mauritania and the Lusitania. Germany, France, and Italy had cruise-ships as well. All were more luxurious and safer than earlier ships. The idea was to get travel to be as comfortable and as safe as possible, to try and persuade the rich to take pleasure cruises.
One of the ideas that started the development of luxury liners was the wireless radio, developed by Guglielmo Marconi. This made travel safer, in that it allowed communication that was just not feasible before, and was as amazing at the time as cellphones - ships could talk to each other for the first time. Their use was proven in 1908 when the White Star ship The Republic sank off New England, and the radio operator got help there in time to rescue all the passengers. It was also thought that bigger was safer.
Another idea that was supposed to make travel safer was the idea of watertight compartments. The idea was that a one and sometimes even two compartments could be completely flooded, and the ship could still float. The Titanic was amazing in that it could have up to four compartments flooded, making it the safest made so far. On 10 April 1912, the Titanic left Southampton. A passenger was told “God himself could not sink this ship.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was an amazing faith in science and technology and the idea that with technology, man could survive anything that was thrown at him. This positive feeling about science was known as Positivism (developed by sociologist Auguste Comte) and the Titanic was a good example of this. The Titanic was built on a scale that had never been done before, and everyone was sure it would work. Auguste Comte felt that man had moved past theology and could be satisfied with the material world, no longer needing metaphysical things. He no longer needed to fear God, as he could handle anything with technology. Man was self-sufficient. There was an optimistic faith in progress, a fascination with wealth and those who represented it.
This was a time of transition, as the (silent) motion picture camera had been invented, but the actors were not actually famous yet, and sports were more the pastime of the wealthy. Sports players, actresses and actors were not yet looked upon as heroes – simply as peers who were not that well paid. Mostly, heroes were the rich, and many of them were aboard the Titanic. Rather than looking for their favourite baseball player, people looked for their favourite wealthy person. They worshipped power, and money was power.
There were over 2200 passengers and crew aboard the Titanic. On its way, the ship stopped at Cherbourg, France, and then again in Ireland. It would have taken 18 years salary for a lowly crewman to buy a first-class ticket.
During the disaster, 5 watertight compartments were breached. How many lifeboats were needed? The Titanic was owned by the British White Star Line, flew the British flag, and thus was under the rules and regulations of the British government. Although she was originally designed to carry 42 lifeboats, the ship carried only 20 lifeboats (four more than were required at the time by British regulations) for the 2,228 passengers and crew. (That number could supposedly hold 1,178 people.) The original designer of the Titanic had proposed 50 lifeboats, but the British owners of the White Star Line had decided against it. (If it had been under US Government regulation at the time, 42 lifeboats, enough to accommodate 2,367 persons would have been required for a ship that size.) Only 705 people were rescued; 1,523 drowned or froze to death in the icy water. Ironically, most of those who drowned were Americans.
Each lifeboat could hold 65 people. Unfortunately, the 20 lifeboats on board were launched in panic before they were filled to capacity, so the number of people rescued was even fewer than could have been accommodated. Only 705 of 2,227 people on board survived.
Analyze these statistics. These figures indict that there was a policy of saving women and children first, that social standing and wealth influenced who was rescued, and that the tradition that the crew did not always go down with the ship. Many of the poorest people were not aware of the seriousness of the damage to the Titanic until shortly before it sank. (Chart source: The Titanic: End of a Dream.)
The reason for the reduced lifeboats is that the British Board of Regulations had not been changed – ships over 10,000 tons only had to have 16 lifeboats, regardless of actual carrying capacity.
When the Titanic began to sink, she tried to get help, but the nearest ship to answer was the Carpathia, which was 58 miles (4 hours) away when it answered the radio signal for help. There was another ship only 10 miles away, but the Californian was smaller and no one was operating the radio at the time due to budgetary constraints which allowed them to afford only one radio operator. Her crew saw the distress rockets, but they didn't really realise what they were – they assumed the people aboard the Titanic were shooting off fireworks. The Carpathia, however, did operate as a rescue ship, and picket up the survivors that were in boats – the rest died in the frigid water.
At the time of the accident, the Titanic had been going too fast, the ice was unusually far south, and warnings about ice were ignored. Now, it is mandatory for all ships to have 24-hour radio, and enough lifeboats for all. Also, the International Ice Patrol keeps icebergs out of the North Atlantic shipping lanes.
The heroism of first-class men, who let second-class women and children get into the lifeboats, is legendary. (The treatment of steerage class showed contempt for Immigrants, as many steerage women and children were allowed to drown.) This really epitomised the idea of inequality between the sexes, and was used as an example for many women's suffrage movements. One activist of these movements in America was Susan B Anthony - a women so devoted that she was willing to go to jail for equality. America had abolished slavery, and had begun to let black men vote, but not American women! This was seen as a major injustice, which inspired some women to action. By 1906, when Anthony died, 6 states had finally allowed women to vote, however women did not vote in presidential elections until 1920. (Anthony is now memorialised on the US $1 coin.)
In England, Emmeline Pankhurst (left) was Susan B Anthony's counterpart. After the death of her lawyer husband, Emmeline and her two grown daughters Christabel and Sylvia, founded and were active in the Women's Social and Political Union which attempted to gain women the vote which they felt would help alleviate intolerable conditions for poor women. The three of them were imprisoned repeatedly because they found that was the best way to get attention and - consequently - new members. When war came, however, they devoted their complete attention to aid the war effort, including organising women to support drastic food rationing, creating communal kitchens to reduce waste, and helping to close down nonessential industries to release labour for work on the land and in the factories. Pankhurst's youngest daughter, Sylvia, became more and more of a socialist, however. Sylvia went to Russia to meet with Lenin and ended up arguing with him over censorship. In the 1930s she supported the republicans in Spain, helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and led the campaign against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. After the Second World War she moved to Ethiopia where she lived until her death in 1960.
By 1919, women had gained the right to vote in America. By 1928, women had earned the right to vote in Britain as well.
World War I
Central Europe - 1914
1914 saw the outbreak of WWI. It was the first major war after the Peace of Vienna and the advent of the industrial age. It made use of submarines, flamethrowers, and poison gas – the Industrial Revolution at its worst. The major powers were England, Germany, and France. Russia was in decline, as she had fought with Japan and been beaten. Tsar Nicholas II was on the throne.
Schemes of alliance systems were built up with secret treaties, and these sowed the first seeds of the war, as Germany and others were engaged in these alliance treaties. It was thought that as long as you were allied with someone, then even those that were allied with your ally were unlikely to go to war with you. Bismarck hammered out an alliance scheme with Russia and Austria, called the Three Emperors’ League but after the Congress of Berlin, angered by the Germans’ actions, Russia terminated the alliance. So Bismarck made a new Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary. Later, Italy was brought into the fold with the signing of the Triple Alliance of 1882, which committed the three to support the existing political order while providing a defensive alliance against France or “two or more great powers not members of the alliance.” Bismarck signed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia (both powers would remain neutral if either was involved in a war with a third), trying to keep her from entering an alliance with France (thus presenting Germany with a two-front war).
When Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Bismarck, Wilhelm then dropped the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia because he thought it was at odds with Germany’s alliance with Austria (or some say Tsar Nicholas II let it lapse so Russia could ally with France). France leapt at the chance to form an alliance with her. Now, it all came down to England – which way would she tilt? In the event, she remained unallied, causing the balance of power to continue roughly equal.
Imperialism in Africa 1913
Germany and Britain had animosity toward each other, even though Kaiser Wilhelm II was a grandson of Queen Victoria. The Kaiser played a major role in Africa. Under Bismarck, Germany had established colonies in South-West Africa, the Cameroons, Togoland, and Tanganyika in East Africa. Liberia was set up by the Americans as a country where freed slaves could go to live. Britain fought the Boers (descendents of the Dutch settlers) over the South African Republic and won, but the terms of peace were conciliatory. Thus Britain was surprised at the animosity many European countries seemed to show over it. They feared an anti-British Continental alliance. But neither Russia nor France seemed a logical choice. Germany seemed most likely.
Germany had caught up to England in the economic realm and the British were getting worried, as they could not afford the loss of their precious naval superiority. Britain responded by commissioning a build-up in her own naval strength, determined to outstrip Germany. In this she succeeded, building in just 14 months - a record - the enormous Dreadnought battleship, completed in December 1906. (By the time war was declared in 1914, Germany could muster 29 battleships, Britain 49.) Industrial and commercial rivalry had created much ill-feeling. Due to this, the British decided in 1902 to ally themselves with the French through the Entente Cordiale, though not militarily yet. Germany’s response was swift. In 1905, Germany opposed French designs on Morocco. The Germans thought that supporting Moroccan independence would drive a wedge between England and France, but it did not. Instead, Russia, France and Great Britain formed the Triple Entente – not militarily binding, but with a “moral obligation” to aid each other in time of war.
The Moroccan Crisis passed, but 1911 brought another crisis – sooner or later, alliances were going to hit a flash point. This finally took place in the Balkans.
The Congress of Berlin in 1878 had recognised Serbia along with Montenegro and Romania as an independent states. Another Balkan state, Bosnia, was placed under Austrian protection, as was Herzegovina. In 1908, Austria annexed these two Slavic-speaking territories. Serbia became outraged because they had hoped to join with them to create a Serbian kingdom. But Austria had seen that as a threat. Backed by Russia, Serbia prepared for war, but Germany intervened; Russia backed down but vowed revenge.
Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece organised the Balkan League and defeated the Ottomans in the First Balkan War in 1912. When they couldn’t agree on how to divide Macedonia and Albania, a second Balkan War erupted in 1913, and this time Greece, Serbia, Romania and the Ottoman Empire fought and defeated Bulgaria. However, Serbia didn’t get the port on the Adriatic she sought. She saw Austria as an evil monster that, being primarily responsible for Serbia’s land-locked condition, was keeping Serbia from becoming a great nation. The “Age of Progress” was all set to come to a bloody end.
On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian member of a secret society, the Black Hand; this caused Austria to crack down on the Serbs with German backing (even though Ferdinand was not greatly beloved by the Emperor, Franz Josef, or his government). Germany thought a war would solve its own internal problems of civil unrest and so she encouraged Austria’s militancy. Austria issued an ultimatum, moved in, and shelled Belgrade – the capital of Serbia.
It has been suggested that Germany may have backed away from war if Britain had declared her intentions sooner. Thinking Britain would stay out of the conflict and limit herself to diplomatic protests - after all, Britain was under no strict military obligation to France - Germany and Austria-Hungary proceeded under the belief that war would be solely with France and Russia.
The British monarch George V's predecessor, Edward VII, was the German Kaiser's uncle and, via his wife's sister, uncle of the Russian Tsar as well as his niece, Alexandra, was the Tsar's wife. Edward's daughter, Maud, was the Norwegian Queen, and his niece, Ena, Queen of Spain; Marie, a further niece, was to become Queen of Romania.
Russia, wanting to reassert herself as champion of the Slavic people, was determined to support Serbia’s cause. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II were cousins, but that didn’t help much. Germany and Russia went to war, and, as the French were Russia’s allies, they jumped in eagerly to help – because they wanted to get even for the Franco-Prussian war, and wanted to reclaim the coal-rich territories of Alsace and Lorraine.
Germany swept through the neutral country of Belgium, and on into France. Due to this, Britain decided to enter the fray – Germany was getting too powerful and Britain also gave as a reason that she had committed herself to Belgium’s defense in the 75-year-old Treaty of London. H G Wells, a leading British socialist, was perfectly happy to go to war to put the aggressive Germans in their place. ("Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe," he said.) Kaiser Wilhelm II was appalled to find his country, largely through his own miscalculations, at war with Britain. He was, after all, Queen Victoria's eldest grandson and many of his top officers had relations or friends in the British navy.
With Britain's entry into the war, her colonies and dominions abroad variously offered military and financial assistance, and included Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa. Japan, honouring a military agreement with Britain, declared war on Germany. Two days later Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Japan. The following year, Italy joined the war - by siding with the Entente against he former Allies.
What kind of war could be expected in the modern Industrial age? Russia was knocked out early because of her internal communist revolution, so America, thanks to Woodrow Wilson, decided to enter on 6 April 1917.
European civilisation was at its pinnacle, at a height never again to be attained. In almost all fields of human endeavour, the Europeans were in the forefront. The war would slowly grind this position down and leave behind a multitude of problems, many of which were never solved. The complacency of the age was in its own greatness and in a disinclination to believe seriously that one war could possibly destroy it all. The guns that opened fire on the western front in August 1914 shattered all dreams and all delusions.
Concise Enumeration of the Causes of World War I
History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.
- Ronald Reagan
World War I was the result of leaders' aggression towards other countries which was supported by the rising nationalism of the European nations. Economic and imperial competition and fear of war prompted military alliances and an arms race, which further escalated the tension contributing to the outbreak of war.
Nationalism - At the settlement of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the principle of nationalism was ignored in favour of preserving the peace. Germany and Italy were left as divided states, but strong nationalist movements and revolutions led to the unification of Italy in 1861 and that of Germany in 1871. Another result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 - 1871 was that France was left seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany and Revanche was a major goal of the French. Nationalism posed a problem for Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, areas comprised of many conflicting national groups. The ardent Panslavism of Serbia and Russia's willingness to support its Slavic brother conflicted with Austria-Hungary's Pan-Germanism.
Imperialism - Another factor which contributed to the increase in rivalry in Europe was imperialism. Great Britain, Germany and France needed foreign markets after the increase in manufacturing caused by the Industrial Revolution. These countries competed for economic expansion in Africa. Although Britain and France resolved their differences in Africa, several crises foreshadowing the war involved the clash of Germany against Britain and France in North Africa. In the Middle East, the crumbling Ottoman Empire was alluring to Austria-Hungary, the Balkans and Russia.
Bismarck and Alliances - World War I was caused in part by the two opposing alliances developed by Bismarckian diplomacy after the Franco-Prussian War. In order to diplomatically isolate France, Bismarck formed the Three Emperor's League in 1872, an alliance between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. When the French occupied Tunisia, Bismarck took advantage of Italian resentment towards France and created the Triple Alliance between Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary in 1882. In exchange for Italy's agreement to stay neutral if war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary would protect Italy from France. Russia and Austria-Hungary grew suspicious of each other over conflicts in the Balkans in 1887, but Bismarck repaired the damage to his alliances with a Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, allowing both powers to stay neutral if the other was at war.
Collapse of Bismarckian Alliances - However, after Bismarck was fired by Kaiser William II in 1890, the traditional dislike of Slavs kept Bismarck's successors from renewing the understanding with Russia. France took advantage of this opportunity to get an ally, and the Franco- Russian Entente was formed in 1891, which became a formal alliance in 1894. The Kruger telegram William II sent to congratulate the leader of the Boers for defeating the British in 1896, his instructions to the German soldiers to behave like Huns in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and particularly the large-scale navy he was building all contributed to British distrust of Germany. As a result, Britain and France overlooked all major imperialistic conflict between themseves and formed the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Russia formed an Entente with Britain in 1907 after they had reached an understanding with Britain's ally Japan and William II had further alienated Russia by supporting Austrian ambitions in the Balkans. The Triple Entente, an informal coalition between Great Britain, France and Russia, now countered the Triple Alliance. International tension was greatly increased by the division of Europe into two armed camps.
Arms Race - The menace of the hostile division led to an arms race, another cause of World War I. Acknowledging that Germany was the leader in military organization and efficiency, the great powers of Europe copied the universal conscription, large reserves and detailed planning of the Prussian system. Technological and organisational developments led to the formation of general staffs with precise plans for mobilisation and attack that often could not be reversed once they were begun. The German von Schlieffen Plan to attack France before Russia in the event of war with Russia was one such complicated plan that drew more countries into war than necessary.
Armies and navies were greatly expanded. The standing armies of France and Germany doubled in size between 1870 and 1914. Naval expansion was also extremely competitive, particularly between Germany and Great Britain. By 1889, the British had established the principle that in order to maintain naval superiority in the event of war they would have to have a navy 2½ times as large as the second-largest navy. This motivated the British to launch the Dreadnought, invented by Admiral Sir John Fisher, in 1906. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 1905 had demonstrated how effective these battleships were. As Britain increased her output of battleships, Germany correspondingly stepped up her naval production, including the Dreadnought. Although efforts for worldwide disarmament were made at the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, international rivalry caused the arms race to continue to feed on itself.
Crises in Africa - The friction of an armed and divided Europe escalated into several crises in Morocco and the Balkans which nearly ended in war. In 1905, Germany announced its support of independence for Morocco, the African colony which Britain had given France in 1904. The British defended the French, and war was avoided by a international conference in Algeciras in 1906 which allowed France to make Morocco a French protectorate.
Bosnian Crisis of 1908 - Another conflict was incited by the Austria-Hungarian annexation of the former Turkish province of Bosnia in 1908. The Greater Serbian movement had as an object the acquisition of Slavic Bosnia, so Serbia threatened war on Austria-Hungary. Russia had pledged their support to Serbia, so they began to mobilise, which caused Germany, allied with Austria-Hungary, to threaten war on Russia. The beginning of World War I was postponed when Russia backed down, but relations between Austria- Hungary and Serbia were greatly strained.
Morocco II - A second Moroccan crisis occurred in 1911 when Germany sent a warship to Agadir in protest of French supremacy in Morocco, claiming the French had violated the agreement at Algeciras. Britain again rose to France's defense and gave the Germans stern warnings. Germany agreed to allow France a free hand in Morocco in exchange for part of the French Congo. In the Balkan Wars of 1912 - 1913, the Balkan States drove the Turks back to Constantinople and fought among themselves over territory. Tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary increased when Austria-Hungary forced Serbia to abandon some of its gains.
Assassination in Sarajevo - Europe had reached its breaking point when on 28 June 28 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian nationalist belonging to an organisation known as the Black Hand (Narodna Obrana). Immediately following the assassination Germany pledged its full support (blank cheque) to Austria-Hungary, pressuring them to declare war on Serbia, while France strengthened its backing of Russia. Convinced that the Serbian government had conspired against them, Austria-Hungary issued Serbia an unacceptable ultimatum, to which Serbia consented almost entirely.
Falling Dominoes - Unsatisfied, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. On 29 July, Russia ordered a partial mobilisation only against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia, which escalated into a general mobilisation. The Germans threatened war on 31 July if the Russians did not demobilise. Upon being asked by Germany what it would do in the event of a Russo-German War, France responded that it would act in its own interests and mobilised. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, and two days later, on France. The German invasion of Belgium to attack France, which violated Belgium's official neutrality, prompted Britain to declare war on Germany. World War I had arrived.
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