It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the world was festering with greed, fear, unhappiness, confusion, and a dynamic surge of nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century. The actual First World War might have begun in 1914, but its roots went back decades. As with other wars, the Great War was complex and a number of issues precipitated its beginning. However, before delving into history, let’s begin with 1914 and get a good view of Europe.
In 1914, the great powers of Europe wasdivided into two groups: the Triple Alliance made up of Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary and the Triple Entente comprised of Britain, France and Russia. Historically, Germany and Austria belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and both countries spoke the same language, German. Italy was a neighbor to both countries and felt that being an ally of Germany, in particular, would safeguard her borders from any outside trouble. Equally Austria was having multiple problems with her Eastern Balkan territories and felt secure in having Germany back her if this trouble resulted in military intervention. The German army was viewed as the most powerful on mainland Europe. An important thing to keep in mind about an alliance is that each member declares allegiance to the other, meaning that in a time of conflict or war, they will come to each other’s aid.
The Triple Entente was structured differently. Entente is a French word that means an agreement or understanding between countries. Entente usually implies support but not necessarily the unconditional promise of a country to get involved in a war for the other country or countries. Like Germany, Great Britain had strong protective forces. Unlike Germany, Great Britain’s strength rested in her navy. However, combined, the French and British armies could equalize the German forces, a fact that gave some comfort to England since the Germans were seen putting new emphasis on building a strong naval fleet. An unusual member of the Entente was Russia. Geographically it was far from France and England, but nonetheless, it was a key player. Russia was ruled by the Romanovs, who had ties to Britain’s royal family. Russia also had a large military force and could provide a strong defense on Europe’s eastern borders.
Another important concept to keep in mind is that Great Britain had huge territorial holdings. An old saying, “the sun never set on the British Empire,” indicated that Britain controlled one-quarter of the global community from the western through the eastern hemispheres. It was this ownership that earned England the honorific title, “Great Britain.”