Naval History Homepage and Site Search


Period of "Pax Britannica", 1815-1914

ROAD TO WORLD WAR 1, Franco-Prussian War to Sarajevo, 1871-1914

German General Steinmetz at Battle of Saarbrucken, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War (click to enlarge) return to "Pax Britannica", 1815-1914





International Events 1870-1914
Final Steps, Summer 1914
Nations of the World at War 1914-18



By 1914, many factors - industrialisation, nationalism, military and naval rivalry, colonialism - had combined to prepare the nations of Europe, and those further afield for war. The inter-relationships of these factors are complex and even now somewhat uncertain. What is certain is that the assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Serbian-inspired student in June 1914 led to World War. And to Britain going to the defence of Belgium, in the supposed words of the German Chancellor, 'over a scrap of paper' - in fact the 1839 Treaty of London signed by Britain, Prussia, France, Austria and Russia guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium.


Some of the more important steps leading to the Great War can be traced from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 with Germany's subsequent rise to power and the decline of France as the number one continental European nation. Germany then posed a challenge to Britain's overseas empire and naval supremacy, and France changed from British enemy to ally.







1870-71 - Franco-Prussian War - In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia in part over a disagreement about a Prussian prince accepting the crown of Spain. By September 1870, a French army had been defeated, Emperor Napoleon III captured at Sedan, France declared a republic, and Paris under siege. In January 1871, Wilhelm I of Prussia was crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I of a unified Germany at Versailles, Paris fell, and France surrendered, losing Alsace and Lorraine and forced to pay huge reparations. Otto von Bismarck (left, at the end of his career), Chancellor of Prussia since 1862, and now Germany, subsequently sought to keep France isolated to prevent the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine.


1870 - Rise of Italy - The French garrison of Rome withdrew during the Franco-Prussian War. The city was seized by Italian forces and the unification of Italy was accomplished with Rome as capital.


1878 - Break-up of the Ottoman or Turkish Empire in Europe - Following the independence of Greece in 1832, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire continued after the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War with the Congress of Berlin. Montenegro, Serbia (both part of the old southern Yugoslavia) and Rumania were made independent. A 'small' Bulgaria also became independent, but the remainder stayed Turkish. Bosnia-Herzegovina (also part of the old Yugoslavia) was administered by Austria while remaining in the Ottoman Empire. Britain gained Cyprus. Russia and Austria continued their rivalry for power in the Balkans.


1879 - Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary - Reached between Germany and Austria-Hungary against possible attack by Russia.


1881/82 - European Occupation of North Africa - 50 years after annexing Algeria, France declared Tunisia a protectorate. Then in 1882 Britain occupied Egypt (also part of the decaying Ottoman Empire) partly to protect the Suez Canal (right, in 1904). Only Tripoli (or Libya) still part of the Ottoman Empire and independent Morocco stayed free of European domination for now.


1882 - Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy - Against the threat of French attack, Italy joined the three year old German-Austrian Alliance to form the Triple Alliance. Chancellor Bismarck thus continued his policy of isolating France. Rumania also joined the Alliance.


1884 - European Colonisation of Africa - In 1876 Leopold II of Belgium (left, in 1903) started exploiting the Congo and European interest in African colonies grew. Then at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, guidelines were drawn up to control the 'scramble for Africa'. Amongst the understandings reached, the Congo was recognised as King Leopold's personal property and Germany's protectorate over Tanganyika or German East Africa was accepted.


1890 - Fall of Chancellor Bismarck - Kaiser Wilhelm II, eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria, came to the German throne in 1888, by which time Bismarck's policies had ensured that only France in Europe was hostile to Germany. However differences over the Kaiser's desire for better relations with Britain, German colonial expansion, and a powerful navy led to Bismarck's fall from power in 1890, and the start of the Kaiser's erratic foreign policy.


1894 - Dual Entente of Russia and France - Russia, concerned about relations with Austria over the Balkans, turned to France in a formal alliance against attack by Germany, Austria's partner in the Triple Alliance.


1894 - Rise of Japan - With the Meiji emperor  (left) assuming direct control of the country in 1868, Japan started rapid modernisation along western lines. In 1894-95, war with China led to the acquisition of Formosa. Korea was annexed in 1910.


1896 - The Kruger Telegram. The Boer Republic of the Transvaal in South Africa was internally self-governing under President Kruger (left). To bring it fully under British control, a raid was made into Transvaal led by Jameson, head of Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodesia) private army. The raid failed and the Kaiser sent a congratulatory telegram to Kruger. It's offensive tone helped start Anglo-German relations on the road towards war.


1897 - European Powers in China. A German naval force seized Tsingtao and the Shantung Peninsula. Britain already controlled Hong Kong and much of the commerce of south and central China, Portugal occupied nearby Macao, and France had taken over Indo-China.


1898 - British Isolation. Russian threats to British influence in China led to Britain reconsidering its policy of isolation and entering into a peacetime military alliance. British overtures to Germany were rejected.


1898 - Foreign Takeover of China - As the Great Powers scrambled for concessions in China came to an end, Russia took over Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea. (right - a company of Boxers in Tien Tsin, two years later in the revolt against foreign domination)


1898 - The Anglo-French Fashoda Incident. Thirteen years after the death of General Gordon at Khartoum, Gen Kitchener reoccupied the Sudanese capital following the Battle of Omdurman. Only two months previously, a small French force had reached Fashoda, south of Khartoum, and claimed the Upper Nile for France. Gen Kitchener sailed to take Fashoda (a Lt David Beatty commanded one of the gunboats). After a lengthy confrontation between the two countries and threat of war, agreement was reached in early 1899 on Anglo-French spheres of influence in Africa.


1898 - Rise of the United States - The sinking of the USS 'Maine' in Cuba's Havana harbour (right) led to the Spanish-American War. As part of the USA's continued rise to world power, the Philippine Islands and Guam in the Pacific were taken over from Spain.


1899 - Samoa. Disputes between Germany and Britain (although not the United States) over the future of Samoa were resolved. Germany and the U.S. took control of the island group and Britain withdrew completely in exchange for Tonga and the German Solomon Islands (including an island known as Guadalcanal!).


1899 - Start of the Boer War - Transvaal and the Orange Free State entered into an alliance, rejected continued British control, and in October, the Boers attacked British Bechuanaland, Cape Colony and Natal. Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith were besieged. Europe supported the Boers against Britain in a war that lasted until 1903.


1900 - Boer War. By June, the Transvaal cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria had fallen to British forces and the Republic annexed by Britain.


1900 - Chinese Boxer Rebellion. After 60 years of dismemberment by foreign powers, the Chinese at last reacted. A Chinese secret society nicknamed the 'Boxers', secretly supported by the Chinese empress, developed to rid China of foreign domination. A series of massacres led to the siege of the international Legation Quarter in Peking, finally lifted after two months by the troops of eight nations - European, Russian, American and Japanese. (right - the "11th Regiment" attacking Tientsin, believed to be a Japanese unit)


1901 - Anglo-German Relationships. The two countries continued alliance negotiations, which could led to Britain becoming a member of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany continued to prolong discussions, even at the risk of driving Britain into the Dual Entente of France and Russia, but they finally broke down over the Boer War.


1902 - Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Alliance - Signed to provide both powers with an ally and to counter Russian expansionism.


1904 - 'Entente Cordiale' of France and Britain - Out of fear of Germany, Britain and France settled a number of differences (including France exchanging her interests in Egypt for a free hand in Morocco), and entered into an informal alliance. Although not a military pact, the two countries later consulted on both military and naval matters right up to the outbreak of the Great War. (right - a 1915 German view of the Entente Cordiale)


1904-05 - Russo-Japanese War - Disputes over Manchuria and Korea caused war. After destroying the Russian Baltic Fleet at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima and defeating Russia, Japan was recognised as a world power. (below right - Russian armoured cruiser 'Pallada' hit by 500lb shell in Port Arthur)


1905 - Russian Revolution - Partly because of Russia's defeat by Japan, the 1905 Russian Revolution (which included the mutiny on battleship 'Potemkin') brought about political concessions by the Tsar.


1905 - First Moroccan Crisis - Fearing France would try to annex Morocco, Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) visited Tangier and announced his support for the Sultan.


1907 - Triple Entente of Russia, France and Britain - Britain and Russia settled a number of differences in Asia. Then with both countries concerned about Germany, but friendly with France, the 1894 Dual Entente and the 1904 'Entente Cordiale' became the Triple Entente of Russia, France and Britain.


1908 - Bosnia Crisis - An enlarged Bulgaria declared full independence from Turkey. Almost immediately Austria annexed the semi-independent Slav/Serb province of Bosnia-Herzegovina arousing the hostility of Serbia and Russia.


1911 - Second Moroccan (Agadir) Crisis - With French troops in Morocco, and fearing France would proclaim a protectorate, Germany sent the gunboat 'Panther' to Agadir. Germany backed down after a speech by David Lloyd George. Morocco came under French control in 1912.


1911-12 - Italian-Turkish War - Italy defeated Turkey and took the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean and Tripoli/Libya in North Africa. All of North Africa was now in European hands, and the European powers had completed the partition of Africa. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent.


1912-13 - Balkan Wars - Turkey had by now been expelled almost completely from Europe and the Balkans. In the First War of 1912/13, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria defeated Turkey, divided Macedonia between themselves, and created the new country of Albania. Bulgarian dissatisfaction with her gains led to the Second Balkan War (1913) against her previous allies, and to defeat. Serbia (Austria's enemy) emerged as the leading Balkans power. (right - New York Greeks leaving for the Balkans Wars)


1914 - By now the international tensions were many and complex. On what became the Allied side, these include:

British fear of German naval power and colonial ambitions;


France never relinquishing her claim to Alsace and Lorraine;


Russia championing the Balkan Slavs against the Austrians with Serbia seeking to be leader of those Slavs; and


Italy wanting Austrian territory.

On the part of the Central Powers (right - one allied view of German aims):

Germany continued to envy British colonial and naval power;

Austria was under growing pressure to grant more independence to her many minority populations including Serbs; and

Turkey came under growing German military influence.




FINAL STEPS, Summer 1914



Following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914, seven European nations went to war between late July and early August 1914:


The Central Powers of Austria-Hungary and Germany (the Triple Alliance less Italy and Rumania); and


The Allies of the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Britain and their Empires) in defence of Serbia and Belgium:


June 1914


28th - Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and heir to the throne, and his wife, were visiting Sarajevo, capital of annexed Bosnia-Herzogovina. Both were shot and killed by student Gavrilo Princip, member of a Serbian secret society.


July 1914


23rd - Austria, threatened by Russian support for Serbia, but now assured of German backing, sent an ultimatum demanding that Serbia suppress all anti-Austrian activities. (right - Austrian cavalry, year not known)


25th - Serbia ordered mobilisation, but also agreed to meet most of Austria's demands.


28th - Austria declared war on Serbia, and next day bombarded Belgrade the Serbian capital. Austrian forces were not yet ready to invade.


30th - Russia, committed to the defence of Serbia, finally decided on general mobilisation.


31st - Austria announced general mobilisation. Germany insisted Russia halt mobilisation and demanded to know if France would remain neutral if Germany went to war with Russia.


August 1914


1st - France mobilised. Germany also ordered mobilisation and declared war on Russia (the German Schlieffen Plan required France to be defeated in battle before Russia could be attacked, thus making war with France inevitable). Italy announced neutrality.


2nd - Germany invaded Luxembourg early on the 2nd and sent a note to Belgium demanding free passage of troops through Belgium territory for the attack on France. Britain assured France that the British Fleet would protect the French coast and shipping from German attack.


3rd - Belgium refused German demands, and the King of the Belgians appealed for the preservation of Belgian neutrality (right - the 'scrap of paper'). Germany declared war on France.


4th - Britain protested against German violation of Belgian territory. Invading Belgium early on the 4th, Germany declared war on Belgium. British mobilisation was ordered; Britain went to war with Germany from midnight on the 4th.


6th - Austria finally declared war on Russia.


10th and 12th - France and Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary.


23rd - Outside Europe, Japan declared war on Germany.








Most of the world eventually joined the seven European nations at war:




Allies: Western - Great Britain and Ireland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg. joined by Italy in May 1915, Portugal in March 1916 and Greece in June 1917; Eastern - Russia and Serbia. Joined by Montenegro and Albania in January 1916, and Rumania in August 1916. (right - A French view of Germany's "main industry")


Central Powers - Germany and Austro-Hungary. Joined by Turkey in November 1914, and Bulgaria in October 1915.


Remaining Neutral - Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain.




British Empire - Canada, Newfoundland, Bermuda, West Indies, British Guiana, and Falkland Islands; French Empire - West Indies and French Guiana.


Countries joining Allies - United States in April 1917, followed by Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Brazil. In addition Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Uruguay broke off relations with Germany and became associated powers.


The other countries of South America remain neutral - Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Chile, and Argentina.




Largely British or French Empire plus Italian - Libya, Eritrea, Italian Somliland; Belgium - Belgian Congo; Portuguese - Angola, Mozambique.


German - German West Africa (Togo, Kamerun), German South West Africa, German East Africa (postwar Tanganyika).


Independent countries - Liberia joined Allies in August 1917, Ethiopia.




British Empire or dominated - Aden, Oman, Trucial Coast of Arabia, Kuwait, India, Burma, Malaya, northern Borneo, Hong Kong, Wei-hai-wei in northern China; French - Indo-china; United States - Philippine Islands.


Countries joining Allies - Japan in August 1914, Siam in July 1917, China in August 1917.


German - Kiachow Bay in northern China; Turkish or Ottoman Empire - Turkey in Europe and Asia Minor, the Levant States of Syria and Lebanon, Palestine, most of present day Jordan and Iraq, the Red Sea coast of Arabia including the Hejaz and Yemen.


Remaining Neutral - Persia, Afghanistan, Dutch East Indies.




British Empire - Australia, New Zealand, Papua, many island groups in the South Pacific; French - Island groups in South Pacific; United States - Hawaiian Islands, Guam in the Marianas group, Samoa.


German - Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Island groups in the Central Pacific, German New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, Western Samoa.

All images are courtesy of the United States Library of Congress to whom I am indebted

click for Romanian Translation

return to "Pax Britannica" 1815-1914
or to Naval-History.Net

revised  29/07/14