The Origins of the First World War

The Conflict Begins

Gavrilo Princip Being Arrested, 1914International relations in Europe in the summer of 1914 seemed quiet, but great tensions existed under the surface. The great European powers were ranged against each other in two alliances — The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia and Great Britain). The situation was heightened by economic and imperial rivalries, national pride, the nationalism of new countries, ambitious statesmen, the instability of eastern Europe (particularly the Balkans where the Ottoman Empire was collapsing) and the constant talk of wars somewhere. All the ingredients were there for a small international fire to become a raging inferno. Once started by those fatal shots, efforts to stop the blaze proved futile.

On Sunday, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot and killed by a Serbian nationalist during a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Convinced that the Serbian government was involved in the plot, Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, sent a harsh ultimatum to Serbia. Although Serbia met nearly every demand, Austria-Hungary, bent on conquest, declared war. The fire spread. Russia, the self-proclaimed protector of the Slav nations, mobilized. Germany demanded promises of peace from Russia and France and, when there was no answer, declared war on Russia on August 1, and on France two days later. France looked to Britain for support. Although Britain was not bound by a formal treaty to join France in a war, Sir Edward Gray, the Foreign Secretary, had made an informal agreement with the French.

Then, on August 4, the German army on its way to France invaded neutral Belgium. Britain sent an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of German troops and reminding Germany of the treaty of 1839 guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality, to which Prussia (effectively the predecessor of Germany) was also a signatory. Unanswered, the ultimatum expired at midnight on August 4. Britain was at war. And when Britain was at war, Canada was at war. How Canada reacted to the war and what measures it took in support of Britain were up to the Canadian government.

It was with a spirit of light-hearted optimism and exuberant enthusiasm that Britain and its Empire went to war. It would be exciting; it would be good for business; and the boys would be home by Christmas. They did not know that four years of death and destruction lay ahead in a war revolutionized by high explosive shells, rapid-firing machine guns, poison gas, mighty dreadnoughts, stealthy submarines and airplanes. Nor did they know that it would destroy thousands of young men and transform society.

A German Shell Exploding Close to an Advanced Dressing Station, Germany, France and Russia already had elaborate war plans and proceeded to put them into effect. All failed. The object of the German Schlieffen Plan was to strike quickly against France, destroy her armies and then turn against the Russians, on the eastern flank. The plan almost succeeded. Massive German armies struck through Belgium, battered the fortified cities of Liège and Namur, and wheeled southward into France. At Mons a small British Expeditionary Force made a determined stand, but the task was impossible, and the “Old Contemptibles” were forced to retreat. Then, the German advance weakened, and the French and British counterattacked. In the First Battle of the Marne the invasion was checked, and the Germans were driven back to a line along the Aisne River. The Schlieffen Plan had failed.

The French Plan XVII also failed as French drives against Germany in Alsace and Lorraine were bloodily repulsed.

On the Eastern Front the outcome was similar. At first the Russians threw back the Austro-Hungarians and advanced into Eastern Prussia. But Allied hopes were dashed as the Germans under von Hindenburg inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russian armies at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. By late autumn a military deadlock had been reached on both the Eastern and the Western Fronts.
In the west, after the “Miracle of the Marne,” there followed a race to the sea as German and Allied armies tried to outflank each other in a desperate bid to gain the Channel ports. While the heavy fighting moved north, the battlefields to the south became quiet. The soldiers there dug themselves into the ground to provide shelter and security from bullets and shells. The Germans were able to select the best positions for a defensive position. Already they were expecting to defend a line rather than to attack on the Western Front. Their positions were excellent not only from the point of view of defence, but they also ensured that vital strategic railways were secure and away from enemy artillery, well behind the lines. The Germans also took advantage of the heavily industrialized areas of France and Belgium now under their control.

hese early and primitive fortifications were a start to a complex system of trench lines, machine gun and artillery positions that were to reach their height with the construction of the Hindenburg Line in the winter of 1916–1917. But at this stage they were simple trenches defended at best with a few strands of barbed wire. By December 1918 the line stretched for 750 km, from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier; and it was on this Western Front that Canada was to be chiefly engaged.

On October 29, the German army made one final effort to reach the Channel ports. In the First Battle of Ypres, in a little corner of Belgium known as Flanders, the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies held against overwhelming odds and the ports were saved. Unfortunately, Britain lost the greater part of her precious regular army; while the efforts to protect the Ypres Salient were to be even more costly in the future.

The Conflict Widens

Artillery SpottersThe war of rapid movement ground to a halt, and the two great enemy armies became completely deadlocked along a 960 km front of impregnable trenches. For the next four years there was little change. As attack after attack failed to penetrate the enemy lines, the toll in human lives grew rapidly, and the Western Front became an area of bloody stalemate.

Faced with the prospect of a long struggle, both sides began an urgent search for allies. The Dominions had already joined Britain and their troops were soon involved in the far-flung operations. The war became more truly a world war as Japan, in 1914, and Italy, in 1915 joined the Entente Powers, while Turkey lined up with Germany and Austria. Other countries were drawn in, one by one, until by 1917 every continent and all the oceans of the world were involved.

Canada Enters the War

Newfoundland Regiment at Pleasantville, 1914That Canada was automatically at war when Britain was at war in 1914 was unquestioned as from coast to coast, in a spirit of almost unbelievable unanimity, Canadians pledged support for the Motherland. Sir Wilfrid Laurier spoke for the majority of Canadians when he proclaimed: “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”.

Prime Minister Robert Borden, calling for a supreme national effort, offered Canadian assistance to Great Britain. The offer was accepted, and immediately orders were given for the mobilization of an expeditionary force. With a regular army of only 3,110 men and a fledgling navy, Canada was ill-prepared to enter a world conflict. Yet, from Halifax to Vancouver, thousands of young Canadians hastened to the recruiting offices. Within a few weeks more than 32,000 men gathered at Valcartier Camp near Quebec City; and within two months the First Contingent, Canadian Expeditionary Force, was on its way to England in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic. Also sailing in this convoy was a contingent from the still separate British self-governing colony of Newfoundland. A suggestion that Newfoundland's men should be incorporated into the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been politely but firmly rejected.

On reaching England, the Canadians endured a long miserable winter training in the mud and drizzle of Salisbury Plain. In the spring of 1915 they were deemed ready for the front line and were razor-keen. Nothing, they believed, could be worse than Salisbury. In the years that lay ahead, they were to find out just how tragically wrong that assessment was.



Adapted and used with permission from Veterans Affairs Canada: Canada and the First World War : Valour Remembered