Path to World War One in the West
The unpaid debts of the 19th century
author Paul Boșcu, October 2017
Naval and military technology, colonial rivalries, economic competition and irreconcilable national ambitions were some of the factors that led to the outbreak of the Great War.
The route which led the major powers of Europe to war was long and tortuous, with many complex and interwoven factors eventually combining to drive them into a protracted and cataclysmic struggle. Among these factors were new naval and military technology, colonial rivalries, economic competition and irreconcilable national ambitions.

Germany was a creation of the late nineteenth century, a federation of German states, pulled together and then dominated by the Kingdom of Prussia. The guiding hand during the crucial period had been Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had proved an exceptionally astute pilot through some remarkably choppy waters.

The instrument chosen to effect the rallying of Germany was one that lay specifically within the Kaiser's competence: a more nationalist and imperialist foreign policy. It was Wilhelm who appointed the main architect of this policy, Bernhard von Bülow, first as foreign minister and then as chancellor.

Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck, as the chancellor was increasingly dominated by his own vanities and becoming less able to manage the Reichstag. The situation which Bismarck left was in large measure the legacy of the settlement which he had achieved in 1871.

The German alliance with Austria-Hungary, guaranteeing mutual support in the event of an attack by Russia, had stability as its primary objective. Bismarck hoped to restrain Austria in its dealings with Russia, and to persuade Russia that, rather than war with Germany, it should seek better relations. Italy joined Germany and Austria-Hungary, and thus the Triple Alliance came into being.

At the turn of the century, France, driven by revanchism and colonial ambitions, negotiated a treaty with Russia, who had ambitions in Eastern Europe. Britain could no longer stand on the sidelines, and it joined Russia and France. Thus the Entente Cordiale was formed. In the last ten years before the war there were a number of international crises which could just as easily have provoked war between the two sides.

For Germany the danger of a revivified France, anxious to revenge the defeat of 1870-1 and to regain the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, was real enough: the memory of Napoleon's victories and the subsequent French occupation of Germany colored Bismarck's determination that France should be weak and isolated as long as possible. But at the same time Bismarck sought to reassure the states of Europe, to accustom them to the presence of a united and powerful Germany.

Germany's position in Europe after 1871 was at once threatening and vulnerable: threatening because central Europe was now dominated by a major power, casting shadows over Russia to the east and France to the west, and vulnerable because the new state had long, exposed land frontiers in the same directions.

Perhaps the most important and obvious turning point towards a general European conflict was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. That limited confrontation saw the humiliating defeat of France and the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. The sudden emergence of the German Empire, which took the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from France as part of the spoils of victory, brought about a fundamental shift in the European balance of power. Germany's subsequent and accelerating progress towards economic ascendancy only intensified the anxieties of her neighbors and competitors.

For the best part of two decades the new European status quo was not seriously challenged, thanks to the diplomatic dexterity and deviousness of Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor, in keeping France isolated. After Bismarck left office it did not take long for a fresh series of unpredictable currents to begin to erode the foundations of his carefully constructed Continental system.

The Franco-Prussian War resulted in a humiliating defeat for the French, leaving a unified Germany as the dominant power in Europe, a moment cruelly symbolised when Kaiser Wilhelm I was crowned German Emperor at Versailles.

Taking advantage of the temporarily fractured balance of power between Russia, France, Turkey and Britain in the aftermath of the Crimean War, Prussia provoked, fought and won the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, thereby ending any chance of an Austrian-based unification of the German states.

Bismarck devoted himself to avoiding any further wars and trying to maintain the international isolation of France. This policy reached its peak with the formation of the League of the Three Emperors between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. This inherently unstable alliance soon collapsed.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia fell out over Russian activities in the Balkans, which the Austrians considered to be within their sphere of interest. Although the alliance was briefly reincarnated in 1881, the Balkan pressures were not resolved, so the partnership finally ended.

Bismarck secured the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary, a defensive arrangement which promised support should either be attacked by Russia, or a benevolent neutrality if one was attacked by another European power – which at that stage clearly meant France. This alliance was augmented by the newly unified Italy to form the Triple Alliance. As a further precaution Bismarck also signed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, guaranteeing neutrality unless Russia attacked Austria-Hungary. The accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II led quickly to Bismarck’s downfall.

The new Kaiser had a very different vision for Germany, concerned with the possibilities of new territorial gains and becoming a leading voice on the world stage, whereas Bismarck concentrated on the more mundane business of securing what had already been achieved. Wilhelm II grew increasingly impatient with the cautious foreign policy and conservative social policies of his 75-year-old Chancellor.

A rapid deterioration in Russo-German relations and a rapprochement between Tsarist Russia and Republican France compelled Germany to strengthen her existing links with the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, thus ensuring that she possessed an ally to the East. With the departure of Bismarck, the belligerent and erratic Wilhelm II soon spurred Germany to follow a more aggressive path in international relations.

While Germany was undeniably the dominant partner in the alliance with Austria-Hungary, she would pay a heavy price for a policy that tied her close to a dilapidated empire that was finding it increasingly difficult to curb the nationalist aspirations of its diverse subject peoples in southeastern Europe.

For all its strengths, Germany also had fundamental problems. Political modernisation had not kept pace with economic progress, and an imperfect system of universal suffrage was undermined further by the opaque nature of the fragmented constitution which left a great deal of power in the hands of the Kaiser. The accession of Wilhelm II only exacerbated this situation. Unpredictability and a love of dramatic gestures proved to be his defining characteristics. Yet he had direct control of the Army and of foreign policy.

France, already determined to avenge the disaster of 1870/71 and win back her lost provinces, was further alarmed by Germany's developing industrial and military muscle.

The new German chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, subscribed to the feeling of inevitability associated with German overseas expansion, the product of Germany's status as a major power and of the need for markets to satisfy its burgeoning manufacturing industry.

France was Germany’s most committed adversary, still smarting from her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and bitterly resenting the loss of the province of Alsace-Lorraine. Recently defeated countries are rarely content with their lot and violent conflicts thrived in the Third Republic established after the fall of Napoleon III.

Despite strong pressures, a system of parliamentary democracy survived with a Chamber of Deputies, a Senate and a President acting as the head of state. Despite all the internal political turmoil, France still yearned to maintain her position as a strong imperial power. Unsurprisingly, the one area of near-total national consensus was over the necessity to rebuild the Army for the challenges ahead.

The French determination to exact revenge was demonstrated by their vigorous attempts to match German military strength. France had faced the might of Prussia alone and had been found wanting. After this chastening experience she sought the active acquisition of allies and their military support wherever they could be found.

The first, and probably the most significant crack in the edifice erected by Bismarckian diplomacy came in 1892 with the removal of its cornerstone - the isolation of France. That year, Russia and France concluded a military agreement under which each promised to come to the other's aid if attacked by Germany.

Germany’s failure to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia gave France a chance to move into the vacuum, and the Franco-Russian Alliance was duly signed. Although this alliance was essentially defensive in its nature, guaranteeing mutual support in the event of an attack by Germany, the military negotiations that ensued emphasised the importance of securing an early concentration of forces with the express aim of committing Germany to a simultaneous war on two frontiers: east and west. This scenario would form the defining narrative of the first years of the Great War.

The Franco-Russian agreement would define pre-World War I European diplomacy, as it set the stage for the subsequent Triple Entente agreement between Russia, France and Great Britain.

France did have a second powerful motivating force in determining her foreign policy. This was an unwavering desire to maintain and expand her large global empire. It is worth reflecting, then, that France was still an aggressive colonial power; Germany was not the only country seeking its place in the sun.

The French had kept a few scattered dominions after 1815, but in the nineteenth century had begun a major thrust into North Africa with the acquisition or control of Algeria and Tunisia. Afterwards France expanded with considerable effect into northern, western and central Africa, seeking a band of possessions right across the continent.

France also had her beady eye on the longer-term future of both Syria and the Lebanon in the Middle East, and had been assiduously acquiring numerous territories in China and the Far East.

The change from Bismarck's Realpolitik–politics of realism–to the Weltpolitik–world policy or politics–of Kaiser Wilhelm II ultimately forced Britain to review her relations with other leading players on the European and world stage. Germany was not the only power that made Britain uneasy. Recurrent tension in her relations with France and Russia, previously her chief naval competitors, had caused Britain to pass the Naval Defence Act in order to safeguard the supremacy on which her national security and prosperity rested.

The Act embraced the doctrine that the Royal Navy's establishment should, at any given time, match the combined naval strength of any two other countries. The maintenance of this 'Two Power Standard' became more difficult as the United States and Japan also began to overtake Britain industrially and to build ocean-going fleets.

That Germany should wish to obtain colonies did not in itself surprise or especially alarm the power most likely to be affected by that decision, Great Britain. The two countries collaborated to the extent of exchanging Heligoland and Zanzibar. But as the disparate threads of domestic, colonial and naval policy were woven together, so the whole acquired a vocabulary that was much more threatening to the status quo.

The British Empire was huge and slightly ramshackle, but by no means a spent force. A colonial empire founded on conquest and commercial exploitation, it truly spanned the globe and ruled a quarter of the world’s population. Britain was determined not only to maintain her global position but also to expand – particularly in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia.

Britain was, however, content to stick largely to her policy of 'splendid isolation' so long as the balance of power in Europe was not imperilled and no single nation became too dominant or threatened Britain's security by making a hostile move into the Low Countries towards the Channel ports. Britain was, in fact, relatively friendly with Germany for much of the last quarter of the 19th century. The end of British isolation in relation to Europe was determined by the relative position of the European powers in Africa and Asia, not within Europe itself.

Queen Victoria's eldest daughter was married to the German Crown Prince, Frederik, who succeeded to the imperial throne in 1888. Frederick died from cancer after reigning for barely three months, and the accession of his estranged and impulsive son, Wilhelm II, heralded fresh competition with Britain for colonies and overseas markets as the new Kaiser sought world power status for Germany.

Sentimentalists will often state that Britain was a country at peace with itself before the Great War. In fact, it was a society under severe stress. In the colonies, nationalism was a potent threat, with issues of self-governance and independence stirring all over the Empire. Closer at hand, Home Rule for Ireland dramatically polarised opinion, not just in Ireland but also in the Army, which was required to enforce any punitive measures. The home of the Industrial Revolution was also suffering from a legacy of ageing factories, terrible working conditions, problematic labor relations and a declining industrial base.

Plagued by her own problems, Britain would have preferred to remain on the sidelines of any European disputes. But this was not possible. Not only was the supremacy of the Royal Navy under threat from the German Navy, but there was no doubt that if Germany beat France and Russia, she would then achieve total control of Europe. This was contrary to the prime maxim of British foreign policy: always seek a balance between the Great Powers.

Improved relations with France and Russia, the former aspiring to gain control of North Africa and the Mediterranean, and thus challenge British control of Egypt and the Suez route to India, and the latter expanding south and east, also towards India, were the keys of future imperial policy.

At the turn of the century it was the German Naval Laws that did most to alienate Britain. Shaped by the German Naval Secretary, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, with the Kaiser's enthusiastic support, these measures disclosed Germany's intention to construct a fleet, including 38 battleships, within 20 years. Regarding Britain as Germany's 'most dangerous naval enemy', Tirpitz envisaged the German fleet as a political pawn which would strengthen his country's hand in world affairs.

Tirpitz wished to provide Germany with sufficient capital ships to mount a genuine challenge in the North Sea and give her the capability of inflicting such damage on the Royal Navy that the latter would fall below the 'Two Power Standard'.

The launching of 14 battleships in Germany between 1900 and 1905 inaugurated a naval arms race that would enter an even more menacing phase when Britain launched the revolutionary turbine-driven 'all-big-gun' battleship HMS Dreadnought.

Seeing Germany as a potential colonial power, Wilhelm at first advocated the construction of cruisers, but the naval high command recommended the creation of a battlefleet able to meet the French or the Russians in a major action in home waters. It argued that Germany's ability to flex its oceanic muscles was entirely dependent on its capacity to break out of the North Sea, and thus cruisers could not be effective in isolation but only as adjuncts to battleships.

The domestic functions of the naval laws were conciliatory. The navy was above all a creature of the new Germany, not of the old Prussia: unlike the army, it was a product of unification, an armed service that belonged to all the nation, and particularly to the industrialized middle class. Its officer corps was more bourgeois than that of the army. Tirpitz planned that Germany should possess sixty capital ships by 1920.

German backing for the Boers during the South African War of 1899-1902 hastened the demise of Britain's earlier isolationist policy.

Seeking to gain political and economic spheres of influence across the world, Germany was very active in the last scramble for colonies in Africa, while gazing eagerly at vast possibilities offered in China. But as the Kaiser and his ministers struggled to gain global recognition, their enemies stood ready to pounce on their perceived aggression.

Since the US Navy was not obviously aimed directly at her interests, Britain deliberately abandoned any attempts to compete with growing American naval power. An Anglo-Japanese treaty was signed, considerably reducing British anxieties in the Far East and enabling Britain to concentrate more warships in home waters.

Britain eased its problems in the western hemisphere with an agreement with the United States. It followed this up with a treaty with Japan, which like America was a rising naval power. The purpose of the treaty was limited and local, to help Britain balance Russia in the Far East and to ease the Royal Navy of its burdens in Chinese waters.

The treaty contained 6 articles and acknowledged Japanese interests in Korea, without obligating the Japanese to acknowledge British interests in India. At the same time, the British government was not obligated to take sides in the Russo-Japanese conflict.

The Entente Cordiale greatly strengthened British diplomatic and later military ties with her traditional rival, France. A similar understanding was reached with Russia once Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War had all but removed the long-standing Russian threat to India. Thus, before the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Britain had swung noticeably towards the Franco-Russian alliance.

The understandings with France and Russia did not constitute formal agreements and neither did they commit Britain irrevocably to go to war in support of either power, but she was now at least morally bound to France and Russia in opposition to the Central Powers, Germany and Austria.

Any unforeseen incident involving one or more of these countries might well ignite a general conflagration which, because of the rival alliance systems, could engulf them all. In these circumstances it would certainly not have served Britain's interests to stand aside and allow Germany to conquer France and occupy the Channel ports. Therefore, despite all the contradictions in Britain's new international stance, the possibility of her participation in a European war on the side of France and Russia was far from remote.

In the absence of conciliatory moves from Germany and tormented by the naval threat, Britain was pushed towards France. There was still suspicion there – indeed, in the early stages neither side was a faithful suitor – but they had a common enemy in Germany.

Establishing relations with Russia was not such an easy matter. Britain and Russia had been competing for power across Central Asia in the strategic rivalry famously depicted by Rudyard Kipling as ‘The Great Game’, with the British long concerned over a latent Russian threat to India. Much of the tension emanated from the struggle to control Afghanistan, variously seen as a buffer zone or staging post, depending on perspective. But with the threat of Germany much more immediate and far closer to home, such differences had to be laid aside, with the result that the Anglo-Russian Convention was signed.

The years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War were characterized by a series of diplomatic incidents and general sabre-rattling between the Great Powers as they tested the limits of what they could achieve without actually resorting to war. The tensions originating in German jealousy of French influence in North Africa were most evident in the First Moroccan Crisis. France was determined to acquire Morocco to complement her existing North African colonies. The Kaiser opposed such a move. An international conference resolved the situation with a compromise which left France in de facto control of Morocco.

Bismarck, who regarded colonies with scepticism, would surely have stepped back to allow imperial rivalries to fester between France and Britain. But the Kaiser paid a visit to Tangier and gave an inflammatory speech in which he directly opposed the French moves, thus triggering a great deal of anxiety across Europe.

The Kaiser visited Morocco in support of the Moroccan Sultan. The main purpose of the Kaiser’s actions was to disrupt the newly formed Entente by driving a rift between France and Britain regarding Morocco. This strategy did not work, as Britain and France reached an agreement regarding North Africa.

The Second Moroccan Crisis broke out when the French sent a small military force to ‘defend French citizens’ in Morocco during a revolt by the indigenous population against the rule of the Sultan. Germany believed that this was merely a step on the road to French annexation. Germany therefore despatched a gunboat, the Agadir. This action in turn exacerbated the anxiety of the British, who sought to deny Germany an Atlantic port. For a while the diplomatic temperature was dramatically raised, but gradually fell away as none of the protagonists took further provocative action.

Eventually Germany was bought off with a worthless parcel of territory in the African Congo, while France finally made Morocco a protectorate. The whole imbroglio left Germany publicly humiliated, but there was little she could do.

As in the first Moroccan crisis, Germany counted on the fact that France would be diplomatically isolated enough that it would eventually submit to German demands. This did not prove true, as both the British and Russians supported France. Under those circumstances, Germany was forced to back down.

The next big threat to the status quo came when the Italians declared war on Turkey and tried to seize Tripolitania and the Dodecanese Islands in a blatant attempt to take advantage of the fast-decaying Ottoman Empire. However, this action was in turn swallowed up by the outbreak of the Balkan Wars.

During this war, Italy captured Ottoman Tripolitania, which would become the Italian Libya. The Italians also captured the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. At the conclusion of the war Italy agreed to return the islands to the Ottomans, but the vagueness of the agreement allowed for a provisional Italian administration of the islands. At the end of the Great War, Turkey renounced all claims on the islands.

Germany’s ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a rather ancient institution that had grown up over hundreds of years of strife and miscellaneous dynastic marriage settlements. The latest incarnation was the Dual Monarchy created by an agreement whereby the Austrian Empire and the neighbouring Hungarian Kingdom would share the same monarch – Emperor Franz Joseph I, who had ruled the Austrian Empire and who also became King of Hungary.

More a historical curiosity than a vibrant modern nation state, the Empire was a mosaic of different nationalities in which indigenous Austrians and Hungarians were comfortably outnumbered by other ethnic groups swept up into the Empire over the years.

The political system was complex, with separate Austrian and Hungarian parliaments and governments claiming a variety of powers, while Emperor Franz Josef and his ministers exercised control of foreign policy and the armed forces. Inefficiency was rife and the national parliaments were, not unnaturally, unwilling to finance anything but the bare minimum of military expenditure for an army which they did not themselves control.

There was a widespread yearning among the Slavs within the Austro-Hungarian Empire for separatism and unification, although in truth few among them could agree as to what this was or how it was to be achieved. This craving was given a powerful external stimulus by Serbia, which both overtly and covertly supported Slavic groupings within the Empire. Serbia was increasingly symptomatic of everything that grated on Austro-Hungarian sensibilities.

Germany’s other ally in the Central Powers was Italy, but this was a far more dubious relationship. Desperate for allies to guarantee safety in a dangerous world, Italy had joined the Triple Alliance in 1882. Yet they were always unlikely bedfellows, for Italy had fought several wars against the Austro-Hungarian Empire during her tortuous process of unification and there remained serious outstanding border disputes relating to the Austrian occupation of the Trentino, Istria and Trieste regions.

Italy was made up of formerly independent states that had been only been unified during the nineteenth century from the springboard provided by the north-western province of Piedmont. Blocked from further expansion by France and Austria-Hungary on the European mainland, Italy looked to North Africa to establish colonies, but had been frustrated by competition with France in the same region, as evidenced in the French annexation of Tunisia.

It was clear that an alliance with Austria could never really be accepted by the Italian people. Few believed that their government would honor the treaty, even if Germany or Austria-Hungary were the innocent victims of an unprovoked assault by France or Russia. In essence, this was a one-way alliance.

Diplomatic manoeuvres, opposing alliances and naval rivalry were not the only ingredients which rendered the European powder keg more explosive and conditioned nations and peoples for armed conflict. The spread of education and adult literacy in the decades before 1914 also saw the rise of a popular press ready to glamorise deeds of military valour. Since most political and military leaders erroneously thought that should war come, it would be short, statesmen were generally more willing to solve international disputes by military rather than diplomatic means.

Chauvinism and aggressive imperialism were similarly encouraged by capitalism. Fashionable ideas about 'national efficiency' and concepts such as 'Social Darwinism' emphasised the survival of the fittest and fostered the belief that war was a purifying ordeal necessary to counter any signs of national decadence and moral degeneration.

As Europe slowly evolved into two gigantic armed camps, the years leading up to war were marked by an upsurge in the arms race which came to dominate the economies of the Great Powers. Each had their own gigantic arms manufacturers churning out weapons of war at an unprecedented rate. Nobody could afford to be left behind; but it wasn’t just about weapons. Huge conscript armies had to be raised, fed and clothed, armed, accommodated in barracks, trained and regularly exercised in field manoeuvres.

Each step forwards in the fields of small arms, machine guns or artillery was mimicked, countered, then trumped by the other powers. Constant experimentation was going on to develop the best, the most reliable, the most deadly weapons possible. Already they were looking to aircraft and airships as future weapons of war, while at sea there was steady progress in the development of submarines.

In the often savage debate that has raged since the work of Professor Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, historians have disagreed about the extent to which Germany positively sought and planned the conflict in advance. For Prussian aristocrats, the officer class and industrialists, war held great attraction as a means of negating or diverting attention from the increasing internal influence of the Social Democratic Party. However, Britain and France were all too eager to wage war on Germany.

Since Germany's impressive economic expansion had not yet been rewarded by world power status, a successful war would simultaneously end her diplomatic and military encirclement and bring her the geopolitical influence she felt she deserved.

In the United States, Sidney B. Fay, professor of history at Harvard, wrote in The origins of the world war, first published in the interwar period, that 'all the powers were more or less responsible', and that 'the War was caused by the system of international anarchy involved in alliances, armaments and secret diplomacy'.

Only by re-emphasizing the immediate causes of the war, by stating that it was the resolve of Germany and Austria-Hungary during the crisis of July 1914 that enabled the war to occur, could the doyen of France's war historians, Pierre Renouvin, put across a Germanophobe perspective.

The end of the Second World War changed the ‘Germany to blame’ perspective, albeit gradually rather than immediately. From the vantage point of the second half of the century, the two world wars could be seen as part of a whole, with the years 1918 to 1939 representing a truce rather than a definitive break. Furthermore, given the relative lack of controversy about the origins of the second war, that it was caused by German aggression, it became possible to project back onto Germany before 1933 the insights and continuities derived from a study of Nazi Germany. In particular, the causes of the First World War could be re-examined in the light of those of the Second.

After World War II, the debate was also set in a general context: that of the peculiarities of German history, of Germany's Sonderweg or special path. Simply put, Germany was portrayed as a state where militarism and authoritarianism—partly owing to its Prussian origins, partly to its strategically vulnerable position—had been more easily exploited by leaders of a conservative and expansionist bent.

In the 1960s, the more specific controversy over the origins of the First World War was renewed. The key works, Germany's aims in the First World War and The war of illusions, both by Fritz Fischer, placed the burden of war guilt once again at the feet of Germany. Despite their opaque and dense presentation and despite the lack of a succinct argument, Fischer's books divided German historians into deeply entrenched camps. Fischer's opponents, who constituted the majority, had to accept combat on Fischer's terms: they had to address the question of German expansionism before 1914.

On the 8th of December 1912, the Kaiser summoned his senior military advisers to a war council. The fact that some of the conclusions reached on this occasion coincided with the actual events of 1914 has caused historians to view the meeting as evidence that Germany's leaders took a conscious decision there and then to go to war within 18 months. The importance of the meeting in this respect may have been exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the Kaiser and the military-political-industrial elite wanted hegemony in Europe and were fully prepared to contemplate war as the quickest way of realising their ambitions.

The situation was made infinitely more hazardous by the iron grip which the Kaiser and his circle maintained on the reins of power in Germany. The German Army was essentially beyond civilian control. Its senior officers were directly responsible to the Kaiser, and neither the Chancellor nor the state secretaries were ultimately answerable to the Reichstag, the German parliament. In other words, those in Germany who were most willing to plunge Europe into war in order to deal with their own internal and external difficulties, and to assure Germany's standing in the world, were subject to the fewest effective restraints.

As the Central Powers and Triple Alliance became more deeply established competing entities, so their respective military establishments constantly updated their plans for war. That, after all, was their function: they could not allow themselves to be taken by surprise by the vagaries of international politics.

The incompetence of German diplomacy following the departure of Bismarck caused severe problems for the German Army. German Chief of General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, was all too aware that France would no longer fall an easy victim: ‘If war should break out, no one can estimate its duration or see when it will end. The greatest powers of Europe, which are armed as never before, will fight each other. None can be annihilated so completely in one or two campaigns that it would declare itself vanquished and be compelled to accept hard conditions for peace without any chance, even after a year’s time, to renew the fight. Gentlemen, it might be a seven, or even a thirty years’ war – but woe to him who sets Europe alight and first throws the match into the powder-barrel!’

Moltke the Elder was well aware that Germany might have to fight France and Russia at the same time. It would clearly be difficult to defeat one before reserves had to be transferred to counter the offensive operations of the other. His war plans, with their emphasis on the strategic defensive, reflected this pessimistic approach, although he also planned for savage thrusts to weaken the early resolve of his opponents and bring them to the peace table.

The French plans immediately following the debacle of 1871 were essentially defensive in character. A formal system of conscription was introduced to create a truly national army, while to safeguard their borders the French constructed an expensive chain of modern fortresses inside the new Franco-German frontier. The French Army also at least partially embraced modernization, with the introduction of much of the burgeoning paraphernalia of war to enable it to try to match the German advances. There was a long-term improvement of the logistical infrastructure of war.

The French did not have enough troops to be present in strength everywhere from Switzerland to the North Sea, so hard choices would have to be made. The man they chose to make them was General Joseph Joffre. He immediately began a thorough re-evaluation of strategy, taking into account the prevailing view that Britain would join the French in war with Germany and expressing a firm resolve to crush Germany and regain the lost provinces.

The alliance formed with Russia in 1892 opened up more offensive opportunities, and French military strategy soon began to reflect the possibility of launching an offensive into the lost province of Alsace-Lorraine. The French staff officers worked through a wide selection of plans distinguished by a sequence of Roman numerals. Although many of the French high command could not readily countenance the concept of the Germans so brutally violating Belgian neutrality, their plans began to reflect that possibility; indeed, from 1906 they began to deploy more troops in the north.

General Joffre created Plan XVII, the last revision of French strategy for what would be the Great War. This was not quite such a blind lunge for Alsace-Lorraine as has often been caricatured. Joffre had become convinced that the Germans would attack through Belgium, and indeed came to see it as a future battleground. But his civilian politician masters – mindful of the attitude of the British – wisely insisted on the proviso that Germany must have violated Belgian neutrality first. This uncertainty rather precluded the possibility of the main French offensive driving into Belgium, and left Alsace-Lorraine as the main option.

When Britain joined the Triple Entente, the exigencies of alliance warfare meant that not only would she be required to shoulder most of its naval burdens, but she would also be expected to contribute a significant land force. The Royal Navy would secure the North Sea, English Channel and Atlantic, while the French Navy would take on the main role in the Mediterranean. But the French were also desperate for a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to take its place in the line.

When German General Alfred von Schlieffen took over as Chief of General Staff he commissioned plans for every conceivable eventuality: war with France, war with Russia, or war with both – a situation rendered a probability, rather than a possibility, by the removal of Bismarck. As Schlieffen estimated that in a war with both France and Russia the German forces would be outnumbered, he sought to avoid a lengthy war. This meant that, despite all the difficulties, Schlieffen was determined to seek a quick decision, or risk destroying Germany both militarily and economically. The Schlieffen Plan was above all of its time.

The temptation was to strike first at the far weaker Russian Army, which was still in the process of modernization. But the difficulty of forcing victory against the Russian hordes who could simply withdraw deep into Russia was acutely worrying – as Napoleon’s catastrophic retreat from Moscow in 1812 still attested. Hence Schlieffen took the view that it was not possible to overwhelm Russia quickly. He was gradually edging towards the idea of holding Russia to the east with a relatively small force while Germany launched a knockout blow against France in the west.

Schlieffen’s solution was simple: he would go around the French fortress line. He would violate the neutrality of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg to drive into northern France and envelop the French armies, seeking a quick decisive battle to shatter the resistance of the French and allow Germany to dictate terms or to turn on Russia as required. At first this was a contingency plan, but as the German Army gained in strength it was gradually adopted as the main war plan.

The origins of the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ have been clouded by those who have rightly pointed out that it was trialled in many versions and constantly retweaked in the light of the latest intelligence and availability of troops. However, it was certainly never the static entity of popular imagination, but rather a mutating plan that had its origins in only one powerful strand of Schlieffen’s overall planning activities.

In his last war game before his retirement in 1906, Schlieffen himself stood on the defensive and eschewed the kind of offensive manoeuvres which have been attributed to him; it is apparent that even at that late stage of his career, Schlieffen was still thinking, still experimenting with solutions to the dilemma inflicted on the German Army by the failures of German foreign policy.

A theoretical memorandum or position paper is not the same as a practicable plan. It was Helmuth von Moltke the Younger who drew up all the operational war plans. Moltke also made some important adjustments to reflect some of the changes in the tactical and political situation. He was forced to strengthen the German forces held on the Franco-German border to counter the near inevitable French invasion of Alsace-Lorraine. Unwilling to add to the roster of Germany’s enemies, he decided to avoid invading Holland. He timetabled an early surprise attack on the strong Belgian Liège forts to ensure that they did not hold up the thrust through Belgium.