Key questions about the First World War answered

What were the key issues underpinning the conflict?

Press Association
Last updated: 28 October 2018 - 1.30pm

Why were tensions between major European powers running so high before the outbreak of war?

At the beginning of the 20th Century there was diplomatic disarray in Europe fuelled by the competing economic, military and colonial ambitions of the major powers. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm was determined his country, which had not yet asserted itself as a colonial superpower having only recently been unified, should compete on the world stage. They sought to build an army to match the vast land forces of Russia and France and a battleship fleet to challenge the Royal Navy. Most historians agree conflicting imperial ambitions and widespread nationalism made war all but inevitable.

Kaiser Wilhelm II as a Sea Lord.
Kaiser Wilhelm II as a German Navy Sea Lord.

What triggered the conflict?

The spark that ignited the international conflict was the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by pro-Serb political dissidents in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. After the assassination Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, made stringent demands on Serbia and, when these were not met, sent troops to the Serbian border. Serbia and ally Russia then mobilised their armies in preparation for an invasion, causing Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia and Germany to declare war on Russia. However it was the web of alliances across Europe that meant conflict quickly spread, dragging in countries including Britain and France.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo
Archduke Franz Ferdinand (obscured) moments before he was shot in Sarajevo in 1914.

Why was it a World War?

It was a dispute between European states that started the war, but the global reach of the colonial European superpowers meant conflict quickly spread between continents. British soldiers fought in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire, for example, and conflicts sprung up around the globe. America and Canada joined the war effort and vast numbers of soldiers were brought in from the colonies to bolster the ranks in European trenches.

Australian soldier in Giza
An Australian sentry guards a military camp near the pyramids in Giza in 1915.

Why was the death toll so high?

War had never before been fought on such an industrialised scale. Both sides initially thought conflict would be brisk and decisive but the Allies and Central Powers eventually settled into the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. Around 8.5 million soldiers, including 700,000 Brits, died after countries on both sides geared their economies for total war by drafting unprecedented numbers of civilians into either active military service or the mass production of weapons. Innovations in chemical weapons and explosives meant the warring powers could inflict untold damage on each other in a war of attrition.

An artillery gun being fired at the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
British soldiers using a heavy artillery gun at the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Why did the Allies win?

America ending its policy of isolation to enter the war played a key role in the eventual Allied victory. When Germany eventually agreed to surrender they expected to be offered a generous peace deal brokered by the Americans. The Central Powers were firmly on the back foot by the end of the war and had been unable to break Britain by targeting ships bringing essential food supplies into the country. The arrival of vast amounts of American resources meant the Allies finished the war in a substantially stronger position than their enemies.

Armistice Celebrations in London. King George V's carriage driving to Armistice celebrations.
King George V and Queen Mary talking to a girl at their carriage as they drive through London during the Armistice celebrations.

It was described at the time as ‘the war to end all wars’. What went wrong?

A new generation had been exposed to the horrors of war and when the fighting finally stopped many thought conflict on that scale would never return. The European victors were keen to make Germany pay for their perceived role in triggering the conflict and the trail of destruction that had been left across Europe. As well as being forced to accept punitive reparations as part of the Versailles Treaty, which brought the war to an end, Germany was also forced into an admission of guilt for starting the conflict in the first place. Germany’s ritual humiliation and resulting economic troubles caused mass public disquiet which would later be ruthlessly exploited by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, eventually leading to the Second World War.

World leaders at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles
Left to right, prime minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, prime minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America, after the signing of the Official Peace Treaty at the Palace of Versailles in 1919.

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