Action & Reaction: How WWI Really Started

For Every Action, There Is An Equal And Opposite Reaction. ~Sir Isaac Newton

“Wait a second…I thought this was a history blog.”  It is.  “Then why’d you start with Newton Third Law of Motion?”  Read on and you’ll see…

Welcome back; this is post #3 in our series: Demystifying the Start of World War I

We’ve discussed the pre-1914 world and Germany’s Schlieffen PlanToday’s the day to find out how the war started and became global.  We’re going to look at it step by step and try to break away the mystery and confusion surrounding the start of WWI.

1. Archduke Goes For A Car Ride  Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was on a state visit to Sarajevo, which was the capital of Bosnia.  Now, the European powers had been having an unfriendly debate about who should control the Balkans area and the Slavic peoples wanted to be free to rule themselves.  On June 28, 1914, Francis and his wife Sophie, were on their way from the train station to the town hall, when a Serbian assassin shot at the car.  Both the duke and his wife were wounded and died within a few minutes.

2. First Declaration of War  The Austrians believed that the assassination was instigated by Serbia, who had been issuing Anti-Austria propaganda.  For about a month, Austria waited and considered.  Then on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia.

3. Russia Mobilizes Feeling threatened, Russia began preparing for war, causing Germany to…

4. Germany Declares War on Russia  Hoping to win before Russia was mobilized for war, German declared war on August 1, 1914.

5. Germany Declares War on France  It’s always a good time to get back at an old enemy…or is it?  On August 3 Germany declared war on France (Russia’s ally).  It was time to try the Schlieffen plan

6. March Thru Belgium Oops…Belgium is a proclaimed neutral country and German troops marched through (without permission) on August 4.  This is one of the fatal flaws in the Schlieffen Plan because…

7. Britain Declares War on Germany  Angered by Germany’s invasion of Belgium’s neutrality, Britain took a stand and declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914.

This map shows European Alliances at the start of WWI - note that Italy did eventually declare neutrality and later joined the Allies. (Map from Wikicommon Images)

This map shows European Alliances at the start of WWI – note that Italy did eventually declare neutrality and later joined the Allies. (Map from Wikicommon Images)

Do you see how the web of alliance drew the European powers into a conflict that could have been regional? Here’s how the nations aligned for the war:

Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

Allies: Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania, Japan, Portugal, Montenegro, Greece, and Italy

Note that Japan is an Asian country involved in the war and the United States will join later.  Also consider that many of the European powers had colonial empires from which they drafted armies and used resources and sometimes even fought in these territories.   The war is global.

So, how did the Schlieffen Plan turn out?  Well, the Belgians weren’t happy about their peaceful country getting invaded and fought defensively; they were ultimately defeated.  Fatigue and the need to send an army to Russia caused a change in the Plan, allowing the Allies to make a stand at the Marne River outside of Paris.  The Battle of the Marne (September 5-10, 1914) saved Paris from capture and the war locked into a stalemate on the Western Front, with both sides digging entrenchments.  Germany was surprised at how quickly Russia mobilized; it didn’t take six weeks.  This caused Germany to have to send troops to hold Russia back on the Eastern Front.

And there, in approximately 500 words, you have a simplified and condensed account of the start of World War I.  A spider-web of alliances set the stage and allowed a tragic assassination to trigger a war from local conflict.

According to Sir Isaac Newton, there is always an equal and opposite reaction to every action.  I think the start of WWI clearly exemplifies this statement in the political and military arenas.  What do you think?

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Now the world was at war…what new weaponry was tested or accepted during this conflict?  If you can think of some inventions that became widely used during World War I – leave a comment and we’ll discuss your answers next Friday.



Planning A Conquest…Maybe?

Do you pre-plan everything, make hundreds of to-do lists, and strategize your errands around town to avoid traffic?  I do.  In fact, one of the things I’ve had to learn through the years is readjusting my plan as events unfold.  Well, pre-planning is great.  Check lists are wonderful.  And strategy is a good idea.  Sometimes…

You see, before World War I started, one nation had spent a lot of time pre-planning a military strategy for quick success.  We can applaud them as planners and strategists, but, in the end, their plan didn’t turn out well.

This is the Imperial German Army in the decades before WWI.  Count von Schlieffen is the second soldier from the right.  (Image from Wikicommon, Public Domain)

This is the Imperial German Army in the decades before WWI. Count von Schlieffen is the second soldier from the right. (Image from Wikicommon, Public Domain)

May I introduce our topic for this week?  Germany and the Schlieffen Plan.  (If you missed last week’s intro to the pre-WWI world, here’s a quick link.)

With all the alliances that the European powers had been creating, Germany felt threatened.  France and Russia were allies, and Germany was sandwiched between.  Yikes!  To combat this threat, the Germany military developed a strategic plan in 1905, eleven years before the war started.  Named after Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the highest ranking military commander at the time, the Schlieffen Plan hoped to cripple both France and Russia.

Here’s how it was supposed to work:

1. Invade France  The German army was supposed to attack toward the west, first.  The invasion route called for some troops to swing north through Belgium and come down on Paris, while other units entered along the central French border and headed north toward Paris.  The maneuver through Belgium was to avoid strong French fortifications along the German/French border.  This invasion had a six week timetable, which required strict adherence because…

2. Race East  Count von Schlieffen calculated that it would take Russia about six weeks to mobilize for war.  In 1905 Russia was still a developing country, lacking good communication and transportation.  Thus Germany planned to have six weeks after a declaration of war before Russia could present a military threat.  In six weeks, France should be captured and the army would move east.

3. Defeat Russia  An army with one great victory already should be able to quickly defeat Russia.  The war ends and German wins…simple, right?

4. Hmm… The plan was militarily strong, except at one point.  Belgium was a neutral country since 1839 and didn’t want wars or armies within her borders.  Perhaps Count von Schlieffen assumed the Belgians wouldn’t mind an army only running through, maybe he forgot – but this was the weak link in the plan.

In 1905 the Schlieffen Plan looked good on paper, but how would it turn out in actual combat?  Eleven years later the world would find out the extent of Germany’s secret plan.

However, Germany failed to “update” the plan and reassess current situations, leading to serious problems and war a larger scale than they had ever anticipated.

Join us next week for THE START of WWI – how did the conflict begin and how successful was the Schlieffen Plan? (Look for the post on Sunday…see you then).

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Does the Schlieffen Plan seem strategically sound?  What variables do you think Germany failed to recognize?