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One Hundred Years On - How the First World War Began

On 28th June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was in Sarajevo with his wife Sophie to inspect the troops. This happened to coincide with Vivovdan, an important Serbian religious holiday. As a representative of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had, to the fury of Serbia, annexed the province of Bosnia in 1908, the Archduke’s presence in the city on that day was seen as a direct insult to the large ethnic Serb population. 

The Archduke had been made aware that the political unrest in Sarajevo would pose a threat to him and this was confirmed when a young Serb threw a bomb at the convoy. No-one was killed, although several people were wounded, including one of the soldiers accompanying the party. The Archduke concluded his visit and requested that the planned return route be changed so that he could visit the soldier in hospital. On the way, the driver made an error, following the original route and, when informed of this, stopped the car to reverse back on to the modified route. Unfortunately, the car had stopped directly in front of Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators whose assassination attempt had earlier failed. At point-blank range, Princip shot and killed the Archduke and his wife.

The political fallout from this would go on to shape the course of 20th century Europe. Already a hotbed of suspicion and mistrust, Europe would change completely in the four years that were to follow.

Austria-Hungary was infuriated by the assassination of its heir and blamed the Serbian government. Serbia had the backing of its old ally, Russia, whilst the Tsar’s cousin, the German Kaiser, supported Austria-Hungary. When the latter issued an ultimatum to Serbia, it proved impossible for the Serbian government to accept, as one of the key points requested that Austria-Hungary have the right to direct judicial proceedings within Serbia. This was described by British Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, as “a bullying and humiliating ultimatum…we are within distance of a real Armageddon”.

Just one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia began to mobilise her troops on 30th July, after some indecision on the part of the Tsar. Extremely concerned about the scale of destruction that he realised was about to be unleashed on Europe, the Tsar had made the difficult decision to stick by Russia’s ally and support Serbia.

In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II was becoming increasingly paranoid about Britain, France and Russia’s intentions. In 1907, the three had formed an alliance, dubbed the ‘Triple Entente’, to counter the ‘Triple Alliance’ of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Now, the Kaiser feared that the three would use the situation in Europe as a pretext to conquer Germany. He felt that he had to pre-empt this, and so prepared his forces to fight a war on two fronts.

The Kaiser believed he would need to defeat France, before turning his attentions to the East and Russia. He would deal with France by attacking through Belgium, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by Britain. Germany issued ultimatums to Russia, France and Belgium, all of which were rejected. On 1st August, Germany declared war on Russia. Two days later, she declared war on France.

On 4th August 1914, Britain issued an ultimatum to Germany to halt her invasion of Belgium. By 11pm that evening, Britain and Germany were at war.

Europe’s powers were now embroiled in a terrible war that would last four long years and would lead to the deaths of millions. What had started in Europe spread across the world, as European empires brought in forces from their colonies across the globe. 

The commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is an incredibly important event. Educating the next generation about the causes and effects of the Great War is an important step in ensuring such devastation never again touches our continent. Our WW1 battlefield tours are always popular but, particularly in this significant year, we are sending more and more groups to northern France and Belgium. Why not bring your students closer to the First World War by encouraging them to research relatives who were involved in the fighting? Many pupils have been able to do just that, allowing them to visit the graves of ancestors who gave their lives to ensure their freedom.

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