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First World War home page The First World War, 1914 - 1918
Origins of the conflict
Over by Christmas
Britain and the outbreak of the war
German ascendancy
Stalemate and change : the war 1916 -18
Final stages of the war
Read on

Origins of the conflict

When general war broke out in August 1914, few people shared Glossary - opens new windowAlbert Einstein's gloomy assessment that 'Europe, in her insanity, has started something almost unbelievable'. In towns and cities across the continent, the various declarations of war in late July and early August were greeted with displays of patriotic euphoria. Generals and politicians commonly believed that this would be a short conflict, bringing in its wake opportunities to settle old scores and to acquire new territories.

The mood of bellicose optimism did not last long. The First World War was to last for more than four years. It cost more than nine million lives and left behind a devastating legacy of political change, economic hardship and social dislocation.

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Trigger for war

Few topics in 20th-century history have caused as much controversy as the debate surrounding the Document packorigins of the First World War. The eventual Allied victory in 1918, and the subsequent move to blame Germany for the outbreak of the conflict through the Glossary - opens new window'war guilt clause', laid the foundations for a bitter and enduring debate that still fascinates historians today.

The immediate trigger for war in the summer of 1914 was the assassination of the heir to the Glossary - opens new windowHabsburg throne, Glossary - opens new windowArchduke Franz Ferdinand, by the Bosnian-Serb nationalist Glossary - opens new windowGavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on 28 June. This event led directly to Austria-Hungary's declaration of war on Serbia a month later and the subsequent entanglement of Europe's other Glossary - opens new windowGreat Powers in a general war by 4 August.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - opens new window
Assassination of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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Great Power rivalries

However, the root causes of this conflict were to be found in the many and varied Great Power rivalries of the late 19th and early 20th century. They found expression both inside Europe - where a delicate series of alliances maintained the 'balance of power' - and elsewhere in the world, as the era of empire-building reached its peak.

Germany, a latecomer to Great Power status, feared encirclement by France and Russia and resented Britain's naval supremacy. French enmity towards Germany was forged by the humiliating territorial losses of Alsace and Lorraine during the Glossary - opens new windowFranco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

Russia and Austria-Hungary, both multinational empires with severe domestic problems, were at loggerheads in the Balkans, where Russia's pro-Slav tendencies clashed with Austria-Hungary's desire to curb demands for Slav autonomy within its borders. Finally, there was Britain, whose pre-eminent position as a colonial, naval and commercial power in 1914 encouraged intermittently tense relations with France, Russia and Germany.

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Declarations of war
German ultimatum to Belgium - opens new window
German ultimatum
to Belgium(121k)

These competing interests and rivalries came to a head with disastrous consequences in late July and early August 1914. One week after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, five European empires were at war. Germany, Austria's closest ally, quickly declared war on both Russia and its long-time ally France.

On 4 August, the Germans launched their attack on France by invading Belgium, thus breaking the 1839 Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of London, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality. Later on the same day, Britain - one of the original guarantors of Belgian neutrality and the ally of both Russia and France - declared war on Germany. The European war that so many had predicted was now a reality.


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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 41/35/20-25: Copies of Cabinet letters in the Royal Archive, 25 Jul-3 Aug 1914.
FO 371/2096: Russian Orange Book of diplomatic correspondence on the outbreak of the war, 1914.
FO 371/1910: Belgian Grey Book of diplomatic correspondence on the outbreak of the war, 1914.
GFM 33/4186: Bethmann-Hollweg files, 1909-22.
GFM 33/3239 3244: German documents relating to the origins of the war, 1918-26.

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