The causes of World War One are complicated and numerous, unlike the causes of the Second World War, which was down mainly to Hitler’s fanatical obsession with establishing “living space” for his people. However, there are a few main causes that built up over time to contribute the outbreak of war
By 1914, Europe had been divided into two distinct groups, as a result of alliances that had built up over the past century:
The Triple Alliance was Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary.
The Triple Entente was Britain, France and Russia.
The alliance between Germany and Austria was very understandable; both nations spoke the same language, had a similar culture and were central European powers at the time.
Austria was embroiled in disputes in the south-east of Europe, an area known as the Balkans. She needed the might of Germany to augment her own strength if the situation deteriorated towards war. Italy had joined these countries as she feared their power on her northern border. Germany was mainland Europe's most powerful country - so from Italy's point of view, being an ally of Germany was an obvious move. Each member of this Triple Alliance was bound to help the others in the event of one of them being attacked by another nation.
The Triple Entente was less concrete than the Triple Alliance. The members of the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) were not bound to support one another in the event of an attack, but it was expected that they would do so.
France was suspicious of Germany as France had a powerful army but lacked a strong navy. Britain had the world's most powerful navy but a small army. France and Britain joining together in an understanding was natural.
Britain was also concerned about Germany because she was building up a new and powerful navy, which Britain saw as a direct challenge to its own, especially when Germany had only a small amount of coastline, compared to the island of Britain.. The inclusion of Russia down mainly to Russia's royal family, the Romanovs, being closely related to the British Royal Family. Russia also had a huge army and with France on the west of Europe and Russia on the east, the idea was that Germany would fear fighting a war on two fronts, the West and East and would not risk provoking war.
By 1900, Britain owned a quarter of the world. Huge amounts of money were made from these colonies and Britain had a powerful military presence in all parts of the world. The Empire was seen as the status symbol of a country that was the most powerful in the world at that time.
In contrast, the relatively new nation of Germany lacked an overseas Empire and was essentially jealous of Britain’s vast Empire. This led Germany to look for opportunities to expand its own territory overseas, which caused friction between the two nations.
Another issue that stirred the trouble up between Britain and Germany was Germany's desire to increase the size of her navy.
Britain concluded that Germany's desire to increase the size of her navy was to threaten Britain's naval might in the North Sea. The British government concluded that as an island she needed a large navy to protect itself and to establish trade with the vast British Empire. As a result, a naval race took place. Both countries spent vast sums of money building new warships and the cost soared when Britain launched a new type of battleship - the Dreadnought, which was a huge leap forward in naval warfare. Germany immediately responded by building her equivalent. Such a move did little to improve relations between Britain and Germany. All it did was to increase tension between the two nations.
This spark was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, by a Serbian nationalist group, the Black Hand. Outraged at this, Austria blamed Serbia and demanded that Serbia essentially surrender itself to become part of Austria. Serbia, despite being far weaker than Austria, declined, as she was protected by Russia.
Austria then declared war on Serbia, meaning Russia declared war on Austria. The alliance system then swung into action as Germany declared war on Russia and by extension, France, invading neutral Belgium in order to secure Paris quickly. Britain, who had not quite been drawn into the war due to the nebulous nature of the Triple Entente, was then forced to declare war on Germany and Austria by an old treaty with Belgium that declared Britain would defend her if she was invaded.
The First World War, the bloodiest conflict ever seen at the time, was underway.