15. A fundamental problem – alliances

The alliances between the powers in Europe are often seen as a cause of WWI, which is a chain reaction, if you like.

The Triple Alliance (1882, renewed 1887) was between Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy. Italy should therefore have been on the German side in WWI but ultimately was not. Bismarck saw France as the great threat.

The league of the three emperors (1873-1887) was between Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary. The dual goals of the league were to prevent intervention by Austro-Hungary or Russia in the event of an outbreak of hostilities between France and Germany and to prevent friction between Austro-Hungary and Russia over territorial claims in the Balkans.

The Reinsurance Treaty (1887-1890): was a secret German-Russian non-aggression pact.

In the 1890s, the UK was in isolation but then the UK signed the Anglo-Japanese Treaty 1902 and the Entente Cordiale with France 1904.

The Treaty of Bjorko between Russia and Germany (1905) fell through: the Tsar was being naïve in signing it.

The Triple Entente was signed in 1907 between the UK, France and Russia.

You can see from the above that one country becoming involved in a war with another was going to lead to a host of countries being dragged into the conflict.

16. The forgotten country – Russia

All too often, the role of Russia is totally ignored, but it was one of the great powers and an important player on the world stage.

Russia today has a need for warm-water ports, ie ones that do not ice up in winter. The problem was greater in 1914 as Russia was boxed into the Black Sea because its naval vessels were not allowed to transit the Bosphorus into the Mediterranean.

Russia wanted to take over Constantinople, not least as this would free the Bosphorus to their naval ships.

They wanted a naval base in the Med, hence support for the Serbs and interest

in Albania.

The geography of the era was different to today, as:

  • Germany and Russia had a common border
  • Austro-Hungary and Russia had a common border, and
  • the British Empire collided with Russia over Persia which had and has oil resources, so in effect they also had a common border.

17. Russian background

Russia was feudal and autocratic. It was a medieval society. The absolute ruler was Tsar Nicholas II. His father was competent, but Nicholas was not.

Russia lost a war with Japan in 1905. This caused a lot of social unrest, notably the Odessa mutiny of the fleet. As part of the attempts to placate the populace, a parliament was created – the Duma. In reality, it was only a talking shop with no real power.

18. Russian facts and figures

Russia had grown by 55 square miles per day since 1683. The population was 200 million in 1914. Germany’s population was 65 million.

It was the 5th largest world economy but had huge borders and many national groups.

Was it really the world force people thought because of its archaic social


19. Russia’s worries in 1914

Russia and Turkey were, and are today, neighbours, so Ottoman Turkey was a key area of concern for Russia in 1914.

Russian concerns centred on the Black Sea and access to it and the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus (Dardanelles).

Firstly, Germany had lent General von Sanders to Turkey to command shore defences on the Dardenelles.

Secondly, the Turks were acquiring the latest ships, 5 dreadnought battleships, including ships being built in Britain. (Ultimately, Churchill stopping delivery of the Turkish ships was a factor in propelling Ottoman Turkey into the war on the German side).

Thirdly, Russian warships were not allowed to transit the Bosphorus in this era, so the Black Sea fleet could not be brought out into the Mediterannean.

Russia was also eyeing up the decaying Ottoman Empire to see what it could purloin. The Russian foreign minister, Sazonov, suggested a European war in order to divide up Ottoman Empire (January 1914) but Russia would need help from Britain and France to achieve that.

20. European armies and war plans – 1912 to 1914 – the American view

Colonel House was US President Wilson’s emissary to Europe and he reported back to the president thus:

It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies

Written 29th May 1914

21. The armies of 1914

Germany was outnumbered by the French and Russians. The German armies numbered between 761,000 and 810,000.

Austro-Hungary, the total for the armies was 450,000. It was a complicated mix of forces. This was remarkably small given the size of the population.

Russia had 1.3m which would go to 1.8m with reserves, but didn’t have enough equipment for this number (see Norman Stone, War in the East). The plan for the army which had been written in 1913 was to have an army of 2.2 million by 1917.

France had an army of 790,000.

By contrast to the great continental powers, Britain’s army was 400,000 of whom half were overseas in various parts of the Empire. The British Indian arm was 250,000 but of course they were in India.

22. War plans

What is the definition of a war plan? Well, a plausible one is:

Grand strategy – mobilisation and deployment of national resources of wealth, manpower and industrial capacity……….for the purpose of achieving the goals of national policy in wartime

Undoubtedly, the most famous of the WWI war plans was the German Schlieffen plan. It is worth mentioning that von Schlieffen was a strategy theorist and that he was long retired, and indeed had died, by July 1914.

However, all the great powers had war plans of one sort or another. A common factor is that there were, in 1914, no defensive strategies and no alternative strategies. The plans were all attack-orientated.

23. UK war plans

The Royal Navy was the key to the defence of the UK, and was the “cement” that held the British Empire together. Perhaps the key problem was the defence of India and the sea routes, which ran through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal.

As regards European matters, the UK was not committed to helping anyone. The Entente Cordiale with France was vague and there was no commitment on the UK to come to the aid of France.

What the UK did, or did not do, depended on a political decision. War plans existed but were subservient.

One option as regards a war plan for a continental European conflict was amphibious raiding, as advocated by the former First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher. Again, this shows the predominance of the Royal Navy in defence thinking. Indeed, an Antwerp landing had been advocated since 1911, as the first step for a continental force, ie the British invading Belgium!

The UK did not have a “war by timetable” issue, as that really applied to the continental armies who need to move huge quantities of men and materiel to their land frontiers. The British had the sea as their frontier.

24. More war plans

France had had seventeen war plans since its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The 1914 plan, known as Plan XVII, involved an attack on Lorraine. The plan also involved having to invade Belgium before the Germans did. (The Belgian army was mobilised in July 1914 with orders to fire on any army crossing its frontiers.)

The French tactic was “offense à outrance”, ie all-out attack. This was carried out in the Battle of the Frontiers in August and September 1914 when the French lost huge numbers of soldiers. They were wearing the same uniforms as 1870 – red trousers and kepi, with royal blue jacket and white cross-belts, which cannot have helped.

The French plans were for a short war, as the 19th century wars had been. A key issue for the French army was artillery, for although they had the very effective 75mm field gun, they lacked heavy artillery.

Italy’s plan was to attack France across the Alps, as Italy was in an alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary. They also thought Switzerland might attack northern Italy, so a defensive line was constructed around Lake Como – Linea Cadorno.

25. US unreal war plans

The United States also had war plans which managed to be even odder than those of some of the European nations. Indeed, much of the efforts of the United States army up to this point had been directed toward fighting the Indian wars and shortly after this, in 1916, to fighting Pancho Villa in Mexico.

So, the US plans included:

  • invading Canada (1912-13)
  • defending New York City against the British (1915)
  • defence of Pacific coast against a Japanese invasion (1915-1917)
  • sending US forces to Europe 1917 and invading Bulgaria via Greece, as well as
  • attacking the German army from the rear, with help of the Dutch (who of course were neutral in WWI but that didn’t stop the American plans!).

The next section is here