World War One was debatably one of the significant events of the 20th Century, the root cause of the Treaty of Versailles, rise of Nazism and the Second World War. But how did it all come about?

Nationalism and Imperialism

Europe, leading up to 1914, was an incredibly unstable place to live, and amongst other reasons, nationalism and imperialism were incredibly large factors towards the war. Nationalism is the idea you’re your country is better than another. Imperialism is increasing size of your empire. Britain had an empire than spanned more than 11,400,000 square miles of territory, and was industrially one of the strongest nations in the world, but was closely pursued by Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the leader of Germany, wanted to expand its own empire, but Britain (and France) was not a fan of another country challenging its empire, or its industrial strength.

Naval Arms Race

This was all underlying though, the thing which made Germany and Britain at edge with another was the Naval Arms Race. Germany was expanding its fleet of ships with state of the art machinery and guns – Britain, an island surrounded by water, felt threatened by the new power of Germany on the sea and so it began to build its navy up too. The dreadnought, designed in 1906 by Britain, was the most powerful ship ever made, and so Germany decided to copy Britain. This caused tension between Britain and Germany to brew.

Before the arms race, Britain had disputed with Germany during the Boer War (1899-1902), when Germany opposed the British occupation of parts of South Africa. It also didn’t help that in 1908, the Kaiser decided to say in the Daily Telegraph that the

English were mad and the Germans hated them.’

Even Worse Relations

Germany was formed in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war. France had lost miserably, and lost some territory as a result. The best known loss of territory was Alsace-Lorraine, which angered many Frenchmen. Relations between France and Germany were already poor, as both felt the possibility of another war was significant. Into the 20th Century, the 1905-1906 Moroccan Crisis created resentment because Kaiser Wilhelm promised to support the sultan of Morocco against France's attempts to take over the country. This was even worse in 1911, when Agadir was facing a revolution. The Kaiser wanted to send in a battleship called the ‘Panther’ but British and French forces forced him to back down.


The nations of Europe were always fearful of each other; throughout the 1800’s there were many treaties and pacts and discussions upon who would help who if someone invaded someone else’s country. The most famous and most important of these agreements was the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. In 1879 Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed to form a Dual Alliance. This became the Triple Alliance when in 1882 it was expanded to include Italy Entente in 1907 by Britain, France and Russia, reinforced the need for the alliance. This became the Triple Alliance when in 1882 it was expanded to include Italy. The three countries agreed to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia

Russia. This sparked a reaction from the other major players in Europe, so in 1907 the Triple Entente was formed, including Britain, France and Russia (just remember, Entente sounds French so the Triple Entente must be the group involving France, and thereby Russia and Britain)

Franz Ferdinand 

… No, not the band. Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and on the 28th June 1914 was shot by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb part of the terrorist group called the back hand, in Sarajevo in Bosnia. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the attack, and was prepared to go to war for revenge. Russia, however, was an ally of Serbia, and was going to support it. Co-incidentally, Germany was friends with Austria-Hungary so it too would go to war, but it already had a plan it was going to exercise known as the Schlieffen Plan.

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The Schlieffen plan was designed in 1905 after the Entente cordiale, and involved taking out France in 6 weeks, so Russia would not have enough time to mobilise its army. It would then turn around and challenge Russia if Russia did not back down. On paper, it was perfect. But it would run into 2 problems in 1914:

§ To take out France hastily, Germany would need to cut through Belgium. Belgium had a treaty with Britain, so when Germany invaded Belgium, Britain soon declared war on Germany.

§ Russia took just 2 weeks to mobilise its army. Germany and the Alliance were now facing full out war from two fronts.

And thus, World War One, the most important conflict to date, had begun.

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