105 years ago (+2 days), on the 4th August 1914, England declared war on Germany which essentially sealed English fate in what can be described as one of the world's most tragic and avoidable travesty's. I'm unsure of how many countries need to be formally involved in a war before it is named a 'world war', but certainly England with it's vast colonies in its empire may well have pushed the numbers up to 'world war' status.
Germany had entered Belgium on 3rd August 1914 in order to initiate their 2 front war strategy called the Schlieffen Plan. This plan subsequently triggered an ultimatum from England, but of course the treaty had already been violated.
The political, economical and even meglomaniacal stances of the major powers in Europe would suggest that what ended up as the travesty of the Great War was simply not a linear case of good versus bad. It is often perpetrated that the Germans and the Central Powers were the culprits for the war and maybe a slightly higher proportion of the blame can be laid at the feet of the German Reich. However even if we dont go deep into the political relationships of all the great powers at the point of July 1914, we can only look back over the previous 100 years of political and military alliances of Europe's major powers, to see how capricious and egotistical the leaders of the respective powers actually were.
Historically, i.e. prior to both of the world wars, the French were always Englands greatest foe. The French having one of the largest global empires behind England. Yet from the mid 1800's, Germany (or Prussia) were a growing state. Growing in political stability, industrialisation and economy as well as militarisation, making the rest of great powers sit up and take notice. We can see from this brief glimpse into the major wars and treaties of the 1800's just how fickle and volatile the political and military relationships were.
In a bid to undermine the UK's dominant trade network, France under the leadership of Napolean Bonaparte attacked Russia. As is well known, the might French Armee, became unstuck and subsequently so did the mighty French empire under his leadership.
Napolean, having returned from his 1812 imposed exile in 1815 shortly got back to work trying to make France the perennial world power. Unfortunately for him, a coallition of the UK, Prussia (Germany) and the Netherlands put a swift end to that in the famous battle of Waterloo.
The Greeks commence their war of independance against the occupying control of the Ottomans (the Turks). Supported by Russia, the UK and France, the Greeks were succesful in obtaining their independance, however, this was the precursor to the first Russo-Turkish war of the 1800's.
Originally sparked by Russia's involvement in the Greek war of independance, the Turkish rulers closed the Dardanelles, a critical shipping trade route, off to all Russian naval vessels. War subsequently ensued with Russia gaining the upper hand. A Treaty was enforced in 1829 of which Russia came out of it with sovereignty over several previously Turkish occupied slavic countries in the Balkan area, such as Serbia, Moldavia and Wallachia.
The UK and Russia were 2 giant empires battling it out for world supremacy. The UK held the title and with France faltering in 1812 and 1815, this left the Russians with expansive ideals - and their sights were firmly set on British India. Russia was an ever expanding empire across all the lands locked from Moscow and to the east. The UK had sailed east and occupied India slowly piece by piece. Detractors would say this was whilst draining the sub continent of its riches and resources, supporters would say, whilst implementing western values in a Third World country. The Great Game, as the battle of wits became known, was essentially Russia and England fighting proxy wars against each other, without ever firing a shot at each other directly. Both empires tried and failed (often in humiliating circumstances) to call upon the various neighbouring tribes in Afghanistan and Persia in order to curry favour to either protect their interests or to go to war to gain more territory and riches, as in the case of Russia.
The Treaty of London was signed which recognised both the independance (from the Kingdom of the Netherlands) and (at the behest of the UK) the neutrality of the Kingdom of Belgium. This treaty would play a major role in the decision that would see England join the Great War in 1914.
The Hungarians rose up for their independance against the ruling Hapsburgs of the Austrian Empire. After inflicting serious defeats, the ailing Austrians requested support from the Russians, enabling the suppression of the uprising and subsequently placing Hungary under a military dictatorship.
The Crimean War commences seeing English and French empires supporting the Ottomans in the Crimea to halt the expansive interests of the Russians.
The Franco-Prussian (Germany) war commences in 1870. Ignited by French concerns over a Germanic King potentially taking the Spanish throne and subsequently being surrounded by Germany on 'both sides' of their border. The war is swift and the Prussians take back contested lands in Alsace and Lorraine, which adds insult to injury and more over adds to the needle between the two countries. The simmering contempt could be a clue to the French antagonism towards Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.
The war also sees the unification of the Germanic states into a unified Germany.
Otto Von Bismark, the German Chancellor, formed an alliance called The League of the Three Emporers. This alliance between the leaders of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary aims to keep peace in Europe. The Russians and Austrians did have clashing interests in the lands of the Balkans, which were primarily a land of Slavic peoples. This alliance lasted until 1887 along with any German treaty with Russia directly. The collapse of the treaties was mainly down to the contemptuousness of the new Kaiser, Wilhem II, who dismissed the notorious diplomat Bismark, in 1890. Some historians believe that the dismissal of Bismark was the beginning of the end in Germany's 'management' of a peaceful Europe.
Russia and Turkey go to war yet again. The flailing Ottoman Empire has no such Western support this time around as they did in Crimea and to add to the problem, their conquered countries in the Balkan area also rise up gaining independance. The Russians progress close to Constantinople and the Dardenelles, the strategic shipping and trade route, which the British aren't too happy about so subsequently stick their oar in and suggest that a treaty be drawn up so all sides are happy. The Treaty of San Stefano, closely followed by the Treaty of Berlin, saw the recognised independance of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, but failed to recognise Bulgaria as an independant country, only rather a country partitioned into 3 differently ruled heads.
There are numerous other wars, treaties and alliances that can be written about, such as the Boer War - which the German Kaiser inflamed British heat by applauding the Boer resistance against the British in a publicly published telegram. The Russo-Japanese war, although not directly affecting any of the other major powers in Europe, the UK did build and supply (from Barrow in Furness) war ships to the Japanese fleet who subsequently handed a rather embarrassing defeat to the mighty Russians.
There are other instances of what could be considered small spats in the grand scheme of things, such as the Crisis in Agadir which nearly brough France and Germany to blows and also the Fashoda incident in Sudan / Egypt where the French were found to be posturing against the UK but embarrassingly backed down with the threat of war.
The list above shows how fickle nations can be in their decision making. It cannot be simply down to the prosaic fact that one side is good and the other bad, but is evidently more about who can benefit the other more both economically and militarilly.
A breif run down of the key events that led to Herbert Asquith's ultimatum to Germany and subsequent declaration of war;
- Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist shoots and kills the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914. Princip was part of the underground terrorist organisation based in Serbia, called the Black Hand.
- 28th July 1914; Austro-Hungary declares war on Serbia after the Serbs fail to satisfactorily comply with Austrian demands.
- 1st August 1914; Germany declares war on Russia and France mobilise its armies.
- 3rd August 1914; Germany declares war on France and enters a 'neutral' Belgium. The UK issue an ultimatum, but it is too late.
- 4th August 1914; Britain declares war on Germany
So as we take a look at the date of August 4th 1914, and with the English declaration of war on Germany, did this really come about due to an impedance of a 75 year old treaty that recognised the neutrality of a small country, or was it a design to make sure the largest and fasted growing country in Europe would be halted before it rose to the number one spot?
Who really knows? What we do know is that what followed was one of the worst travesties known to mankind in the history of the world. And that its impact can still be felt in political and geographical tensions around the world today.