Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

History and Timeline

The basic history of the outbreak of World War One.


The countries of Europe wanted empires in the Roman tradition and engaged in military conquest throughout much of the world. Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austro-Hungary and Russia had each developed empires and a commitment to military expansion. In the 1860s Italy and Germany became new integrated nations and also aspired to empires.


These countries depended on arms. In the early 19th century weapons production was a craft process based in workshops making swords, muskets etc. The big centres were Birmingham and Liege. Around the middle of the 19th century new industrial arms companies began producing larger steel weapons - cannon, guns and warships. The biggest of these were Krupp in Germany, Armstrong and Vickers in Britain, Schneider-Le Creusot in France, Skoda in Austro-Hungary and Nobel-Bofors in Sweden, though there were many others. They began selling their weapons world-wide using fear, bribes, the prospect of winning wars. They worked to get the support of the professional military by promising them the best weapons. They were marketing weapons for war.


The Crimean War (1853-56) the American Civil War (1861-65) and colonial wars gave the European and American arms industry more than a decade of substantial war to grow in size, technology and marketing. It began exporting round the globe.


In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War was won by the Germans in part through Krupp cannon, and suddenly they were in great demand and industrial weapons dominated warfare. The British meanwhile had developed steel hulled steam warships with powerful cannon led by Armstrong on the Tyne. The British navy was more than twice as powerful as any other nation and warships were exported throughout the world by Armstrong-Whitworth. Maxim, Gatling or machine guns became weapons with great potential killing power and another great export trade. Millions of rifles were made and exported. Munitions was becoming the biggest industry world-wide.


Around this time various ruling groups tried to replace ordinary Christian teaching, like "You shall not kill." with more secular and autocratic politics. Bismarck fought the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. the Roman Empire, Latin and Classical studies were pushed in elitist education. Patriotism and nationalism were used to bring enyone who opposed militarism into line.  


There were various groups working for peace and disarmament - some Anabaptist Christians refused weapons altogether. These groups set up proposals for peace and disarmament. The most famous of these was Leo Tolstoy, converted to Christianity after writing War and Peace? Tolstoy became a Christian Pacifist lampooning the acceptance of mass murder and the order to kill on which War depends and deriding the waste of having millions of men in the armed forces doing nothing useful. He pointed out that a wheelbarrow was more useful than all the money spent on weapons. In 1899 the Hague Peace Conference tried to get international agreement for disarmament, but failed. It did establish standards for the conduct of war. 


Britain did not want to comply with the Hague Peace proposals, because it was about to start the Second Boer War. This it did. In the conduct of that War it developed and used Concentration Camps in which some 30,000 people died unnecessarily through starvation and illness. Britain in 1902 was regarded as the most bellicose European nation. The Second Boer War was bonanza time for the British munitions companies, especially Vickers. 


Armstrong and Vickers had supplied Japan with a first class navy and in 1904-5 she fought Russia and won. The militarist faction gradually dominated the democratic wing of Japanese politics and set out to become the dominant Eastern power. They were led by the Zaibatsu, the big companies producing weapons and battleships. Russia in defeat turned to Schneider and Vickers to equip her with the best modern weapons and militarized strongly. Basil Zacharoff, selling for Vickers, and other arms dealers plied their trade everywhere.


Germany, led by Krupp, Kaiser Wilhelm and Admiral Von Tirpitz also began to build a strong navy. The British and German Naval lobbies mounted scares about the other side and propaganda to get more ships built. The Dreadnought class (see the first one in the picture above 1906) made the rivalry more acute. In 1906-9 there was naval pressure for more British warships led by Mulliner. It led to a campaign in 1909 - "We want eight (battleships) and we won't wait." which made the Germans suspicious because lies were told about their building programme. Trust between Britain and Germany broke down then.


France, after its defeat in 1870 by Germany developed a strong arms industry based on Schneider and the State armories. especially, they produced the soixante quinze, the best field gun of the era. They sold weapons to Russia who was heavily in debt to French banks.   


In the years before the War Europe settled down into the Triple Alliance - France, Russia and Britain - and the central powers - Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which were touchy alliances. Several incidents could have triggered war. There was a Moroccan Crisis, the Algeciras Crisis, the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzogovena and other tensions. In February, 1912 Lord Haldane went to Berlin to try to negotiate a more stable relationship, and had good support from the Chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg, but the naval part led by Von Tirpitz was strong. Britain increased her naval building in 1913.


By 1914 Europe was bristling with arms. It was like a box of fireworks. The murder of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne did trigger war. Austro-Hungary had a feud with Serbia because they wanted Skoda to supply weapons to Serbia in an arms deal, but Serbia refused. The assassination offered a chance to humiliate them. Serbia looked to Russia as an ally. Austro-Hungary looked to Germany, Russia looked to France and France looked to Britain. When Germany invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. Germany feared attack from two sides. The Schlieffen Plan looked at a fast knock-out blow to the French in the West, followed by the defeat of Russia in the East. It did not quite work out.


The war calculations were not about territory, or even about empire rivalry, but all about fears and calculations of military outcomes based on the mistrust caused by weapons. Throughout Europe, because of the cost of weapons, either there had to be a recession in militarism and the arms trade, or war had to happen, as it did. 


The United States lent money to the Triple Alliance and then supplied explosives and weapons on a large scale until they were dragged into the War which the American statesmen had been determined to keep out of. The War was supposed to be finished by Christmas, but it led to world-wide devastation. It also produced the biggest bonanza in arms sales ever, making weapons the dominant world industry by far. The logic of the arms industry took effect.