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Two Armed Camps

By 1908, tensions in Europe were undoubtedly high. There was increasing friction in the Balkans with Austria-Hungary and Russia vying for influence and the newly formed Serbian state instigating plans for a southern Slavic state, bringing into Serbia all Slavs living in the south of Austria-Hungary1. To this end, Austria-Hungary was keen to express its authority over the region whilst Russia, wary of the considerable power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was keen to back Serbia in any attack against it. Germany too had an interest in this age of Empire-building and could see the might and prestige that Britain had built up through Her over-seas Empire. With Germany’s emergence on the World scene so rapid and with such strong nationalistic tendencies, the French became increasingly worried by her apparently volatile neighbour, and looked across the Channel for an ally.

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German support of Austria-Hungary and its rapid naval project gave Britain cause for concern, which put Her in alliance with Russia, completing a historically unusual alliance: the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia. Italy emerged as a partner for the German, Austria-Hungary camp2, which completed the two sides. But this was not necessarily set in stone. By 1908, whilst the two sides could well have been sketched, they were by no means definite or final as Europe was still in terms of policy and material readiness, a long way from war. Therefore although by 1908 some of the longer-term causes may well have been established, the short-term triggers that finally cemented the onset of war were yet to occur.

However, whilst in 1914 Europe seemed divided and edging ever closer to an inevitable showdown, the same cannot necessarily be said by 1908. Indeed many of the ultimate powers were not ready for a war in 1908 and crucially, at this time war was still trying to be avoided. However there were undeniable events and circumstances prior to 1908, which meant that Europe was looking like it would eventually become divided between two or more camps.

In 1905-6 German intervention in Morocco to support Moroccan independence against French encroachment meant that any existing bitterness between the two nations was now compounded and war was only averted by a conference in Algeciras, Spain in 1906. In 1908 the annexation by Austria-Hungary of Bosnia and Herzegovina caused the Serbs to threaten war against Austria-Hungary. War was averted on this occasion by Serbia’s reliance on Russia who, at the time was not sufficiently ready for war.

Events leading up to 1908 that could be seen as triggers or rather more, causes of the Great War are numerous. This is largely due to the vast number of nations involved and their very different interests. One thing that is clear, however, is that Germany and Austria-Hungary are central throughout the period from 1871 – 1908. In my mind, the tensions that led up to the Great War started with German unification in 1871. Bismarck’s formation of the Three Emperor’s League, an alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia was designed to diplomatically isolate France after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. This served the purpose of angering France still further after they had already had to suffer the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. It also gave Germany a base with which She could influence smaller countries.

So when France occupied Tunisia, Bismarck took advantage of Italy’s bitterness towards France and created the Triple Alliance in 1882. As has already been discussed this alliance may have been predominantly one sided, but it did add at least superficial weight to the German side giving France genuine cause for concern. However something that was under-pinning the alliance and giving Germany something of a political headache was Russia and Austria-Hungary’s suspicion of each other due to their individual interests in the Balkans. ‘Slav nationalism was gathering momentum in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and this drove a wedge between Austria-Hungary and Russia and endangered their agreement of 1897 to put the Balkans on ice.’

Although this was partly ratified by Bismarck in his Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, which allowed both powers to stay neutral if the other was at war, there were still underlying tensions between the two powers that would eventually lead to Russia breaking away from the alliance. This occurred in 1891, when a year after Kaiser Wilhelm II had fired Bismarck, his successors (due to their distrust towards Slavs) failed to renew the alliance with Russia.

France, seizing the opportunity began negotiations with Russia, sensing her need and the opportunity of an ally of some weight. It became formal in 1894. All the while, German support of the Boers in Africa and her large-scale naval development gave Britain cause for concern and prompted her to turn towards the French and the Russians. In doing so, it did appear as if Europe was becoming increasingly divided.

Imperialism was also a major cause of the tensions that dominated Europe in the early (19th. With France, Britain and Germany competing in Africa as well as the Middle or Near East for territories in which to expand and develop new markets, tension between nations was bound to arise. Indeed the story of the (19th was one of rivalries between European powers for influence in colonial countries in order to tap into new markets.

The fact that ‘by the middle of the (19th, all India south of the Himalayas, except a few outposts… retained by the French and Portuguese, had come under British rule’4 is evidence that with such a strong foreign policy and with so many states striving for their own new markets, European powers were treading a fine line between healthy competition and more aggressive rivalry. Whilst for the most part, Britain and France resolved their differences there remained an awareness if not a suspicion of Germany, not least on the French part.

This was also true in the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, which saw Austria-Hungary and Russia vying for authority. Germany’s plans to extend the Berlin to Constantinople railway through Mesopotamia to Baghdad worried Britain, as she was ‘opposed to a route eastwards that would outflank its own sea-passage through the Suez Canal and Red Sea.’5 The notion of imperialism that intoxicated the major European powers during this period was as much about competition with each other as a means of gaining greater world markets. In 1905 when Germany announced her support for an independent Morocco, this upset both Britain and France.

Britain had given France Morocco only the year before, and subsequently gave France her backing. Therefore this otherwise insignificant act of imperial rivalry necessarily meant that ‘the Morocco crisis and the Balkan Wars increased the sense of international insecurity and intensified the pressure on states to rearm.’6 War was only averted at this juncture with an international conference in Algeciras in 1906, which allowed France to make Morocco a French protectorate. Therefore it inevitably followed that with this competition would come bitterness and rivalry, two of the major forerunners of the Great War.

However, even with the imperial competition, Britain was unlikely to have gone to war purely on this pretext. Therefore it follows that the major trigger that brought about Britain’s interest was Germany’s massive programme of naval development and the following arms race. Given that Germany had one of the most efficient and well-organised militaries in Europe7, the navy was of major British importance; it’s geographic location adding to this.

It was decided by 1889 that in order to maintain her supremacy on the seas, Britain must have a navy two and a half times the size of the next largest navy. Hence the arms race ensured Britain’s path into the Great War. The arms race was not confined to Britain and Germany alone however, as throughout Europe the size of standing armies grew rapidly as the distrust of nations neared boiling point and each country strove for a bigger and better army than its neighbour.

Further to the already unsettled European picture came another twist that brought war that little bit closer. When in 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed the former Turkish province of Bosnia, she was threatened war on by Serbia whose Greater Serbian movement saw as a primary objective the acquisition of Slavic Bosnia. With Russia pledging their support to Serbia, they began to mobilise and in doing so unsettled Germany who allied with Austria-Hungary threatened war on Russia. Russia eventually backed down, but relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia were irreparably strained, thus only delaying the start of the Great War.

Therefore although Europe was not specifically divided into two camps by 1908, whilst war was trying to be avoided it did seem relatively clear that should war break out at some point in the near future, the two sides were established. The Russian and Austro-Hungarian distrust and the German-British arms race together with France’s anti-German position following the Franco-Prussian War and events succeeding it, meant that if needs be the two sides could be defined. That is not to say however, that by 1908 Europe was settled into two camps digging in and preparing for war, as for most, at this time, full blown war seemed a long way off.


Easton, Stewart C, The Rise and Fall of Western Colonialism, (Frederick A. Praeger, 1964)

Gildea, Robert, Barricades and Borders Europe 1800 – 1914, (Oxford University Press, 1987)


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