Origins of World War I


On 28 June 1914, a Bosnian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie. This event is described as the catalyst for World War I, but it wasn't the sole cause of the war.

Several interconnected factors caused the outbreak of war, which on their own, might not have led to large-scale war. Many events during July 1914 led to war. As a member of the British Empire, Australia went to war to support the United Kingdom (UK). The war eventually involved countries outside of the European empires, such as Japan and the United States of America.

Long-term issues

Historians have long debated the causes of World War I.

Perhaps the most significant work on the subject was Fritz Fischer's 1961 book 'Griff Nach Der Weltmacht'. It was published in English as 'Germany's Aims in the First World War'.

Fischer argued that Germany sought war to increase its status as a world power. This advanced the debate over the degree of continuity between the foreign policy aims of Germany under Adolf Hitler and that of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It's helpful to understand what was happening in Germany after World War II, when Fischer's work was published.

Controversy surrounded Fischer's ideas to separate the Nazi regime from the broader history of Germany. In making his argument, Fischer raised questions about the uniqueness of Nazi Germany. While his work was important, he overplayed Germany's responsibility in causing World War I.

Decisions by other countries played significant roles in the coming of war, such as:

Painting of men in formal uniform in a large grand hall
Painting of the final session of the Berlin Congress on 13 July 1878; the central action shows German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, on the left, shaking hands with Russian statesman, Pyotr Schuwalow, on the right. Image: Berliner Kongress, Wikimedia Commons

Other long-term contributory factors included:

  • the rise of militarism
  • economic rivalry between the great powers
  • nationalism
  • war planning
  • maintenance of the balance of power
  • regional tensions
  • emergence of the alliance system

Australia was not immune to the effects of some of these factors.

For example, the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1911 is best understood in the context of the British-German naval arms race.

Ships and small boats in a harbour

HMAS Australia entering Sydney Harbour for the first time on 4 October 1913. Image:

None of these factors on their own made World War I inevitable.

In the years leading up to 1914, many events helped to create an environment that made war possible, although not certain. That would change in July 1914.

Murder of Archduke Ferdinand

The background to the assassination of Ferdinand was Austria-Hungary's occupation of Bosnia.

At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said:

[Europe is like a p]owder keg and [its] leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal. A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all. I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where. Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.

In 1878, Austria-Hungary had occupied Bosnia. The province of Bosnia nominally remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire until Austria formally annexed it in 1908. This created tension with Serbia, who viewed Bosnia as part of 'Greater Serbia'. Indeed, Serbia's independence from the Ottoman Empire had also been recognised in 1878 by the Treaty of Berlin.

Questions over Bosnia's status remained open until the early 20th century when Serbia's international relations shifted from a pro-Hapsburg to a more pro-Russian standpoint.

The Bosnian population became more frustrated over their poor treatment by Austria-Hungary.

Princip, who assassinated Ferdinand, was a member of Young Bosnia (Mlada Bosna). In the years leading up to 1914, this organisation had become increasingly militant because of Austria's actions in Bosnia. Young Bosnia sought to unify Bosnia with Serbia in a greater Yugoslavia. In due course, an organisation called the Black Hand took notice of Young Bosnia.

The Black Hand was a Serbian organisation of radical Army officers who aimed to unify lands outside of Serbia that were considered Serbian territory.

Together, Young Bosnia and the Black Hand planned the assassination.

At least three members of Young Bosnia - Princip, Nedeljko Čabrinović, and Trifko Grabež - received money and training in Serbia for the assassination.

On 28 June, Ferdinand and Sophie were on an official visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina province.

Six assassins had been placed along the Appel Quay to attack the couple. There was little visible security present for the visit.

At around 10am, the convoy of six open-topped cars entered the Appel Quay on route to Sarajevo City Hall. While the first two assassins failed to attack, a third threw a hand grenade. The bomb bounced off the collapsible roof of Ferdinand's car and destroyed the car following. Ferdinand and Sophie were rushed to the city hall for safety.

Once safe at the city hall, Ferdinand decided to visit the people injured in the attack. The party planned a new route and left in the cars at 10:45am. However, Ferdinand's driver took the original route. Realising his mistake, and having turned right at the Latin Bridge, the driver tried to turn around. Princip, who remained after the other assassins had left, saw the royal couple. He took two shots and hit Ferdinand and Sophie. By 11am, they were both dead.

Princip took a cyanide pill, but it failed to work. In due course, five of the assassins were captured, including Princip.

A man and woman walking down stairs to an automobile
Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie leaving Sarajevo Guildhall, 5 minutes before they were both killed on 28 June 1914. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The July Crisis

Initial reactions to the deaths of Ferdinand and his wife were of shock. But it certainly was not the reason that Europe's armies went to war in late July and early August. In Australia, the reaction to the assassination varied.

Official historian of the Australian home front during World War I, Ernest Scott, wrote:

The news was, of course, published under large headlines in the journals. Obviously an important event in world politics had occurred. Some serious consequences might be expected to follow. But nobody in Australia dreamt that this crime committed in the Balkans was of momentous concern for this country.

In many respects, this mirrored views in Europe.

For example, the critical issue in Britain at this time was the Home Rule crisis in Ireland.

As July wore on, the press in Australia became more interested in other topics, such as the coming federal election. In Europe, however, the likelihood of war increased. This was in part because the July Crisis was a problem of international relations. Indeed, while concerns had existed in Europe that war was inevitable at some point, the Great Powers had the means at their disposal to avoid a general European war if they so desired.

The alliance system that had evolved over the preceding decades had helped to ensure that general war did not break out. The July Crisis and the march to war was a failure of the alliance system and the delicate balance of power that existed.

Many leaders in Europe also wanted a war to deal with pre-existing issues.

In Austria, for example, the assassination was seen as a provocation by Serbia.

Some leaders believed that the assassination created the opportunity to complete unfinished business. For example, the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Count Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, wanted to deal with Serbia.

In a meeting on 29 June with the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold Berchthold, Hotzendorf demanded war. However, Austria could not move without being sure of Germany's position.

This led to the dispatch of Count Leopold Hoyos to Berlin where he received the so-called Blank Cheque from Germany.

Germany's decision to unequivocally support Austria-Hungary marked the starting point of the breakdown in the delicate balance of power in Europe. Germany's support stemmed from two factors:

  • a need to deal with Russia before its military reform program was complete
  • a desire to try and breakdown the Entente (the agreement by which France, Britain and Russia agreed to support each other in the event of war)

Germany risked war on these issues.

After receiving German support, by 14 July, Austria produced an unrealistic ultimatum to be delivered to Serbia. The text of the ultimatum was delivered to Serbia on 23 July, which had 48 hours to reply.

It was made clear to the Austro-Hungarian Minister to Serbia, Baron Giesl von Gieslingen, that no matter the response, he was to break off relations with the Serbian Government. Indeed, Giesl was told that:

it must come to war

Building up to the ultimatum, Germany and Austria-Hungary maintained a veil of normality in their actions. Both were gambling on the possibility of a general European war.

Serbia initially accepted most of the harsh terms of Austria's ultimatum.

Russia viewed itself as the protector of the Slavic people. It advised Serbia not to resist any invasion. However, Serbia expected Austria to declare war and began mobilising its army on 24 July.

After the end of the 48-hour deadline, Austria began to mobilise its troops to invade Serbia on 28 July. Russia also ordered a limited mobilisation of its forces on 25 July, which started on 26 July.

This started a process of mobilisation across Europe that led to war.

Despite last-minute attempts to avoid a conflict, Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July.

This led to Russia's general mobilisation.

In support of Austria, Germany mobilised and declared war on Russia on 1 August.

This brought Germany's pre-war military plans, the Schlieffen Plan, into effect. This meant a large-scale attack on France before Germany turned its attention to Russia.

Germany then declared war on France on 3 August. France had begun mobilising on 1 August.

On 4 August, Britain declared war when Germany violated Belgium's neutrality. Britain's position had been somewhat ambiguous up to the start of August despite being involved in some limited attempts to mediate the crisis.

Australia on the eve of war

Australia in 1914 was a very different country to what it is today.

The Australian colonies had federated in 1901. The idea of the nation was still new to most people.

There was no real contradiction in identifying as both British and Australian. Most Australians had either been born in Britain or were the children of people who had. Membership of the British Empire remained central to Australians' understanding of their place in the world.

This situation was reinforced by strong and historic political, cultural and emotional links to the UK. People referred to it as 'the mother country'.

Australia's circumstances on the eve of World War I differed from that of Europe.

While aware of developing events in Europe, Australia was experiencing a dry winter and entering a drought. In June 1914, Prime Minister Joseph Cook of the Liberal Party called for a federal election. The election was called to gain a better majority and to deal with the issue of preference for union members in government employment. When Cook introduced laws to deal with the union issue, he knew that the Labor Party would oppose it. This allowed him to call an early election.

Parliament went into its pre-election recess on 26 June, only 2 days before the assassination of Ferdinand. Members of Parliament were busy campaigning in their electorates throughout July and early August.

Studio portrait of bearded man in a suite and tie
Portrait of Sir Joseph Cook, Prime Minister of Australia, 1913 or 1914

Political environment

Australia was the first country to have a government led by a socialist party when John Watson became Prime Minister in 1904.

Women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1902. They could also stand for election at the federal level.

The period before the war in Australia was one of social reform. Militancy amongst the trade unions increased due to industrial disputes with major companies, such as Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited (BHP).

Economic situation

By 1914, Australia was emerging from issues related to the depression of the 1890s.

The country was recovering with some limited economic growth, but it was slow compared to similar countries, such as Canada.

Slow growth of the agricultural sector had not been helped by the Federation drought of 1895 to 1902.

By 1913-14, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), Australia's economy comprised:

  • primary (farming and mining) sector at 28.6% of GDP
  • secondary (manufacturing) sector at 13.4% of GDP
  • tertiary (service) sector at 58% of GDP

International relations

At the time, Britain managed Australia's diplomatic affairs. This could and did cause problems.

For example, the dominions of the British Empire were not consulted on Britain's position during the July Crisis.

Australia also had little input to the UK's decision to declare war on Germany. This was the prerogative of Britain, which declared war on behalf of the British Empire as a whole.

While the British Government managed Australia's broader foreign affairs, Australia maintained a distinctive view of international relations. The country's unique location drove these views.

As a predominantly European country in the Asia-Pacific region, the country seemed challenging to defend. Australia was geographically challenging to defend with a long coastline and small navy and army.

There were also concerns in Australia about encroachment by Japan. This led Australia to impose a custom's tariff on imports. Preferential tariffs were given to Britain but not to other countries, such as Japan.

More significant was Prime Minister Sir Edmund Barton's introduction of the White Australia policy. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 restricted the entry of non-European people into Australia.

Military situation

The Defence Act 1903 prohibited the deployment of the Regular Army overseas. However, operational control of the RAN passed to the British Admiralty at the outbreak of war.

Despite the limitations placed on overseas deployment, at the 1911 Imperial Conference, Australia and the other dominions had agreed to make contingency plans for any potential involvement in operations overseas.

Some historians have viewed these negotiations as a conspiracy. However, it's clear that Australian politicians at the conference did all they could to clarify that the most they could do was to provide contingency planning.

It made sense for Australia to foresee what might happen if it were drawn into a conflict to support Britain.

Also in 1911, the Australian Government had introduced compulsory military training for boys aged between 12 and 18 years.

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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Origins of World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 5 March 2024,
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