The shot that sparked the First World War
We shouldn't underestimate the killing of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, argues Christopher Clark. This was the event that, above all others, propelled Europe towards disaster...
The Balkan powder keg: war in south-east Europe, 1912–13
The Balkan Wars began in Africa. In the autumn of 1911, Italy launched a war of conquest on Tripolitania, a north African province of the Ottoman empire, triggering a chain of opportunist assaults on Ottoman territories across the Balkans. In October 1912, a loose coalition of states – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece – mounted parallel invasions of the Balkan lands of the Ottoman empire, thereby starting the First Balkan War (October 1912–May 1913). The result was a momentous victory for the Balkan allies over the Ottoman forces, who were driven out of Albania, Macedonia and Thrace.
In the Second Balkan War (June–July 1913), the belligerents fought over the spoils of the first: Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Romania fought Bulgaria for territories in Macedonia, Thrace and the Dobrudja respectively.
These cruel conflicts, largely forgotten today, transformed the geopolitics of south-eastern Europe. The kingdom of Serbia’s territorial extent increased from 18,650 to 33,891 square miles; its population grew by more than one and a half million. Three hundred thousand Serbian troops had been put into the field within three weeks of the first mobilisation order in October 1912. The ‘reunification’ of the ‘Serb lands’ (including Bosnia and Herzegovina, provinces of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy), remained a political goal of primary importance. Austria-Hungary thus faced a new and threatening constellation on its south-eastern periphery.
In the meantime, the retreat of Ottoman power raised strategic questions that troubled Russian diplomats and policy-makers. If Ottoman power on the Bosphorus were to collapse, who would inherit control of the Turkish Straits, deemed of vital strategic and economic interest to the Russian empire? Concern over these issues heightened the tension between Vienna and St Petersburg during the last 18 months before the outbreak of war. The two continental alliance blocs were drawn deeper into the antipathies of a region that was entering a period of unprecedented volatility.
From Third Balkan War to First World War
The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War. How was this possible? Conflicts and crises on the south-eastern periphery, where the Ottoman empire abutted Christian Europe, were nothing new. In the course of the Balkan Wars, however, the conflicts of the Balkan theatre became tightly intertwined with the geopolitics of the European system. This created a situation in which a conflict of Balkan inception could engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.
Austria, which had once dismissed the Serbs as “rascally boys” stealing apples from the Habsburg orchard, adopted an increasingly militant view of the Balkan situation. The hawks spoke with ever louder voices, and the leading Austrian dove, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would perish in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
Equally important was Russia’s deepening support for Serbia, now the dominant Slavic power of the Balkan region. Russian policy-makers spoke speculatively of a future quarrel between Austria and Serbia in which Russia would be obliged to intervene.
This trend was reinforced from Paris. As prime minister and minister of foreign affairs (1912–13) and then as president of the Republic (1913–20), Raymond Poincaré extended the remit of the Franco-Russian alliance, assuring the Russians of French support if Russia felt obliged to aid Serbia by waging war on Austria-Hungary.
Should this eventuality arise, a continental war was highly likely, not just because Germany’s treaty commitments to Vienna would be triggered by a Russian mobilisation, but also because German military planning foresaw parallel mobilisations against both France and Russia.
British policy-makers viewed these developments with ambivalence. Foreign Secretary Edward Grey recognised the danger inherent in the Balkan inception scenario, but was too committed to the policy of the entente to stand aside when it became a reality in the summer of 1914. The remoteness of the Balkan theatre and the fact that neither Russia nor France had been threatened with war by the Central Powers made it difficult at first to persuade the cabinet and public that British intervention was warranted. Only by shifting the focus of the discussion westwards to the issue of Belgian neutrality and Britain’s ‘moral’ commitment to France was Grey able to make a case for committing Britain to the continental war on 4 August 1914.