In 1890 there was the Triple Alliance which was an agreement among Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy to help each other under certain circumstances. The Germans also had a secret Re-Insurance Treaty with Russia to ensure that they never had to fight a war on two fronts. Neither France nor Britain were members of these agreements.
In 1893 the Germans refused to renew the Re-Insurance Treaty with Russia, preferring closer links with Austria-Hungary.
In 1894 Russia and France came together in an alliance backed up by financial, industrial and military help. Germany now found herself surrounded by potential enemies and having to face the real possibility of fighting a war on two fronts.
Faced with this threat the German General Staff began to plan for a war against both France and Russia and this eventually became the Schlieffen Plan with its emphasis on speed and the need to invade neutral Belgium.
France and Germany were bitter enemies because of France's defeat in the war of 1870-71 and the resulting loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. Their bitterness was worsened by the actual defeat of 1870, the Siege of Paris and the German march down the Champs Elysee.
Britain was isolated in 1890. She had no allies or even friends on the continent. She had quarrelled with France over colonies in Africa and with Russia over a possible Russian threat to Persia and India.
The Boer War of 1899-1902 showed how dangerous it was for Britain to have to friends on the continent. The Germans refused to sign an agreement with Britain and so Britain settled her differences with France in the Entente Cordiale of 1904
This agreement was not an alliance but simply an agreement not to quarrel any more about colonies in Africa and North America but growing tension with Germany especially after two crises in Morocco in 1905 and 1911 led to a secret military agreement in 1909 and a secret military agreement in 1912. These agreements which were only known to very few senior members of the government committed Britain to sending an army to France (BEF) in the event of war with Germany and after 1912 the Royal Navy agreed to defend Calais and the other French Channel ports from a German attack.
In 1906 the new British super battleship, HMS Dreadnought, was launched. This had more and bigger guns than any other ship in the world and it was faster and better armoured as well. It encouraged the Germans to try to build more ships than the British so that the Royal Navy was no longer larger than the next two navies combined. This was the Anglo-German Naval Race which did much to poison relations between the two countries. The UK saw this as a major threat to Britain since the Royal navy was seen as absolutely essential to the safety of Britain - an island, with an Empire to defend, as well as trade routes to America, and the Pacific. On the other hand Germany already had the largest army in Europe and had a very small Empire, mainly African desert. To Britain it seemed clear that the German intention was to prepare for a Naval attack on Britain. This was a major influence pushing Britain closer to France and her ally Russia. In 1907 the British extended the Entente to include Russia.
The growing strength of Serbia worried and angered the Austrians. The Austrians were afraid that nationalism would destroy the Empire which was made up of nearly a dozen different national groups - Germans, Poles, Czechs, Ruthenes, Bosnians etc. The Austrians were keen to see the power of Serbia curbed. In 1908 the Austrians held secret talks with the Russians and agreement was reached that the Austrians should take over Bosnia and Herzegovina completely and in return the Russian should get the right to sail its warships out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. The Austrians announced that they had completely taken over Bosnia and Herzegovina but then refused to accept the other part of the bargain. The Serbs and the Russians were furious and both prepared for war. But the Germans came to the aid of the Austrians and threatened to join the war against Serbia and Russia. The Russians and the Serbs backed down but they were bitterly angry with the Austrians and the Germans and determined that the next time they would not back down.
Meanwhile the Germans were drawing up plans to fight a war
on two fronts, against both France and Russia - The Schlieffen
Plan. This would involve the German army attacking France
first through neutral Belgium and defeating her
within six weeks. The German army would then be rushed eastward
to meet the Russian attack which was expected to take 6 weeks
to organise. Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by the Treaty
of London which had been signed by Britain, France and
On June 28th, 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife visited Sarajevo and were murdered. The Austrians blamed the Serbs for this outrage and on July 26th an Austrian ultimatum (agreed to by Germany) was delivered to the Serbs. Its aim was to ensure either that the Serbs accepted it and Serb independence would be curbed or it would be rejected and the Austrians would have the necessary excuse for war. On July 28th the Serbs accepted all but two of the Austrian demands but this was enough for the Austrians who promptly declared war.
On July 29th the Russians came to the aid of Serbia and ordered partial mobilisation which was upgraded to full mobilisation on the 31st July. The Germans sent an ultimatum to the Russians on the 31st calling for an end to these preparations. The Russians refused and on 2nd August the Germans declared war on Russia. On the 3rd of August the Germans declared war on France and the Schlieffen Plan was put into operation. The Germans now invaded Belgium and on the 4th Britain declared war on Germany. The British declared war because a. the Germans had broken the Treaty of London by invading Belgium. b. to protect France since the French were expecting the BEF to come to France and the RN to protect Calais and Boulogne as part of the secret agreements. c. the feeling that German intentions were more aggressive and wider ranging than just helping Austria
At first the German attack went according to plan and Paris seemed likely to be captured once more by the Germans but the successful German invasion was stopped at the Battle of the Marne. At the same time the Russians invaded Germany earlier than expected and German troops had to be transferred to the east to meet this attack before France was defeated. At Ypres in October and November the last battle was fought to bring victory before Christmas 1914. It was a desperate struggle but ended in stalemate. For the next three and a half years trench warfare was to be the norm.
The initial reaction to the war was enthusiasm and some fear of spies and saboteurs. The general belief in all countries was that the war would be over by Christmas since the governments could not afford to pay for the war beyond that date. In Britain only Field Marshal Kitchener argued that the war would be at least three years and that 100,000 new recruits were needed immediately. A highly successful campaign was launched and thousands flocked to the colours, many in Pals battalions and many under age, under height and generally unfit for battle.
Christmas came and went but the war went on.