The Beginnings of World War 1

Published 19 Aug 2017

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, in Sarajevo. In the last week of July and the first week of August of that year, the First World War broke out, with Austria declaring war on Serbia, and Germany declaring war against Russia and France. It was a war that took the lives of 9 million soldiers and many more millions of innocent civilians. France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, with Italy and the United States joining them much later, fought the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey (then Ottoman Empire), in ‘a war to end all wars’, as the First World War is called sometimes. The assassination in Sarajevo acted as a catalyst that set off the biggest war in the history until that time. In 1966, Vladimir Dedijer, a leading expert on the Sarajevo assassination, claimed that already over 3,000 books had been published what studied that fateful day (Hamilton & Herwig 2003). It was a tragic murder because of the consequences it led to. But the war had indeed long been building up, and most probably would have happened anyway even without any such assassination ever happening.

Just before the outbreak of World War I, the balance of power in Europe existed in two major political and military groups, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. The Triple Alliance contained Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy (Chant 2002). The Triple entente consisted of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. There was a strong element of militarism on both sides of the war. All the member countries on both sides had been building large armies and navies in the years before the war itself. They were eagerly preparing for the war, making perfect plans for army mobilization. This military build-up and preparedness existed in a climate of hatred that is based on nationalistic emotions. French were opposed to Germans, and Russians were opposed to the Austrians. Mainly in Germany, but elsewhere too, there were many nationalistic speeches and writings which talked about fighting a war in order to assert national superiority.

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For about three weeks after the Sarajevo assassination, nothing much happened. But then Austria-Hungary started reacting (Duffy 2004). It thought that there was the hand of Serbian government behind the assassination and demanded Serbia the assassins and their groups be given over to it for punishment. Serbia did not like to be issued an ultimatum in that way, and went for the support of its ally Russia. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary asked the support of Germany, in case Russia comes into picture. Germany wanted Austira-Hungary to go out on a war. Austria-Hungary then declared war on Serbia. And Russia started sending its huge army to support Serbia. For Germany it was an opportunity that it was waiting for, and it declared war on Russia on Aug 1. Since France was a close ally of Russia, it was brought in the war too. Germany declared war on France, and invaded Belgium in order to quickly reach Paris. Britain was on the side of France, and it declared war on Germany on August 4. The Belgian King also appealed Britain for help. With Britain coming into the war, its several major colonies, like Australia, Canada, India, offered their full support to it. But the United States wanted to keep itself out of war, and did not take sides. It would remain neutral until almost the last year of the war. Japan had an agreement with Britain, and therefore it joined the side of Britain. Italy was the ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. But it did not join the war until after several months. However, it joined the Allied forces of France and England against Germany. In the August of 1914 itself, the situation was quickly escalating beyond the worst expectations of anyone. In order to explain the complex deeper causes and roots of the Great War, historians have always looked into the European history of the 19th century. What began as a Balkan war exactly after one month after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand became the First World War, within just a week (Williamson 1998).

In 1914, Europe was a civilized, prosperous, mostly content place. Then, following an assassination in an obscure capital of an obscure Balkan province, it suddenly started blowing itself up and tearing itself down…. It is a story of international politics crossing the line into world madness and collective suicide. (Axelrod 2000)

One year on, in Aug 1 1915, the war was being fought on all Western, Eastern, and Southern with full intensity. The first major event to happen in the twentieth century, the First World War was crucial in shaping many fundamental aspects of the 20th century history. The international political scene after the war became completely different from the one before the war. Britain, which was the world’s foremost superpower until then, started to decline, and America began to rise (, 2004). Also, the road to Second World War started in the First World War.


  • Axelrod. A. (2000). Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War I. Indianapolis, IN : Alpha Books
  • Chant, C. (2002). Austro Hungarian Aces of World War 1. Oxford : Osprey Publishing.
  • Duffy, M. (2004). The Causes of World War One. Retrieved Nov 14 2006 from
  • Hamilton, R. F. & Herwig H. H. (2003). The Origins of World War I. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press
  • (2004). The Great War.
  • Williamson, S.R. (1998). The Origins of the War. In, World War 1: A History, by H. Strachan. pp.9-25. Oxford University Press.
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