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COUNTDOWN TO THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918

By Cheadle Post and Times  |  Posted: June 20, 2014

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John Alcock, a member of the Cheadle Branch, Royal British Legion, in conjunction with Cheadle Discovery Centre, has prepared a study of the who, the why, the where, the when and the how of Great Britain's involvement in World War One. The Countdown to War will be published in serial form beginning on Wednesday 18th June and running up to and including Wednesday 6th August, each article reflecting the events during that particular week 100 years ago, culminating in the first time the British Army engaged the German Army at Mons in Belgium in late August 2014. Please see the first submission below. 

IT has long been a misconception that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28th, 1914, was the cause of the Great War of 1914-1918.

The assassination was certainly the spark that lit the powder keg, but why was Europe a powder keg in the first place?

During the last quarter of the 19th Century and up to 1914, Germany's expansion and dreams of empire under Kaiser Wilhelm and its alliance with neighbouring Austria–Hungary under Emperor Franz Josef (fellow German speakers) and Italy, known as the Triple Alliance, sought to protect their borders and defend against any attack by their rivals. They all had large standing armies and substantial numbers of trained reservists; Germany envied the Royal Navy and began to increase its fleet in numbers and the size of its battleships. All had prepared contingency plans in the event of attack and to mount pre-emptive strikes should they feel threatened. The principal German strategy was the Schlieffen Plan which envisaged an attack on France through Belgium, avoiding the frontier fortresses, destroying the French Army before turning to deal with Russia.

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France, still smarting from its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the seizure of Alsace, considered Germany (only recently emerged as a nation dominated by Prussia following Bismark's drawing together the patchwork of all the other kingdoms and duchies), to be an ongoing threat and built fortresses along its eastern border.

In 1894 France entered an alliance with Russia, who viewed Austria-Hungary's domination of the Balkans as a threat to their South Slav cousins. Serbia was an independent kingdom and neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina under Austrian rule was home to many ethnic Serbs.

In 1904 Britain signed an entente with France, effectively aligning itself with France and Russia in the event of an attack. This became known as the Triple Entente.

France had a large standing army and numerous trained reservists; Russia similarly had millions to call upon, although not so technologically advanced. Britain had a small volunteer army, supported by the Territorial Force for home defence.

Half of the army was overseas in the outposts of Empire, and was still smarting from the effects of the Boer War during which the German Kaiser Wilhelm had offered support to the Boer leader Kruger.

Britain also had problems over Irish Home Rule and was not looking for involvement in Europe but was ever conscious of its treaty obligations, not least its role as a guarantor of Belgium's independence and neutrality since its secession from Dutch rule and its formation as a sovereign state in 1839.

Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nikolas 11 were grandsons of Queen Victoria, nephews of King Edward V11 and cousins to King George V. Kaiser Wilhelm had little love for Britain, although attending State Funerals and Coronations. Italy although nominally a member of the Triple Alliance was constantly re-examining its position and was mistrustful of Austria with whom it had long standing territorial difficulties. Germany was constantly reminding Austria of the threat from Russia and potential trouble in the Balkans.

So, the powder keg was prepared and could well have stayed dormant had not the events in Sarajevo lit the fatal fuse. Next week:- The ultimate student protest.

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