Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Why the War Began in 1914

The Germans began the war in 1914 not because they were attacked in that year but because they thought that their enemies were so peculiarly unprepared and so singularly unable to fight at all in that year that it was the most favorable moment for an aggressive war in fifteen years. Such a good chance might never return. If they waited they might lose it. The nations they intended to attack were beginning to realize the extent and meaning of the German preparations and might make some of their own which would prevent the Germans from winning a prompt and crushing victory.

There had been in the years just preceding 1914, several crises during which the Germans had felt out the attitude of the French and the British, and they had concluded that both of those nations were afraid to fight. They did not think they would dare to accept the issue of war. Here again is clear proof that the Germans began an aggressive war. They had really come to believe that, short of being actually invaded, neither the British nor the French would dare to begin a war. There had been an occasion in 1908, when Austria had annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina without the consent of the Powers, when they thought it quite possible that a general war might result from that act.

The Germans and Austrians exulted when the French and British did not compel, them to fight. In the next five years there were several other chances for the French and British to have begun a war if they had wanted to. Were they not so much afraid of Germany that they would always yield rather than accept the issue of war? The Germans therefore proposed to ask them to make one after another the vast concessions that they had in mind, each time asking as much as they thought they could without compelling the British and French to fight.

Austria-Hungaria and Balkans


The German spies reported in 1914 that there had never been a time when the French, British, and Russian armies had been as little ready to fight. The British army was then very small and attempts to increase it had repeatedly failed. Its equipment, the Germans thought, was very poor and attempts to make it better had been defeated. The majority of the Russian army was not equipped at all. It lacked shoes, clothing, and even rifles. There were no factories in Russia in 1914 adequate to maintain it in the field, though the state was proposing to build some very large factories.

The French had the best of the three armies, but charges were made in the French Chamber in July, 1914, that the French army was not ready for war. One of the senators, Humboldt, who is now believed to have been a German agent, charged the Minister of War with incompetence. The forts were old; the guns were antiquated; the troops without shoes. There was not enough ammunition and what there was was old. The Minister was compelled to admit there was much truth in what he said. The Germans concluded that not merely was the French army not ready, but that the French nation would have no confidence in it because of these revelations made at the very moment when the war was about to begin.

That Great Britain would join the war the Germans thought unlikely, but they believed that a much more important fact was true. They did not think Great Britain could join the war in August, 1914. There was a great quarrel going on in Ireland. It seemed possible that civil war might break out over the issue of Home Rule. A bill had been passed by the British Parliament concerning the government of Ireland, and a certain section of people in the north of Ireland, living in Ulster, had declared their intention to fight if the act was put into operation. They procured rifles and ammunition, organized a government, and practically defied England. There was grave doubt whether the British army would attempt to coerce them.

Then there was a quarrel between Canada and South Africa and the Hindus which made the Germans think that the British Empire would not join England, if England joined France against Germany. In Paris at this time a trial was going on of the wife of a former Premier of France, Madame Caillaux, for the murder of a newspaper editor. All sorts of scandals were brought to light about important men in French life, until it looked as if there was in all France scarcely an honest or a patriotic statesman. So the Germans thought, at any rate. The Russians had not yet recovered, they calculated in Berlin, from the war with Japan in 1905, and would be very slow to enter any new war. As for the United States, from which of course Great Britain and France might get considerable assistance, it looked at that time as if the United States would go to war with Mexico.

There could not therefore have been a moment, certainly there had not been for many years a time, when the enemies of Germany seemed weaker and in greater trouble than they were in July and August, 1914. The Germans and Austrians therefore made up their minds to pick a quarrel with Serbia over the murder of the Archduke. They would present demands which they thought the Serbians would be absolutely certain to refuse. They would then claim that war was necessary. They fully expected the Russians to come to the aid of the Serbians and they knew that the French had signed a treaty with Russia which compelled them to come to the aid of the Russians. This would begin the war in just the way they wanted it begun, at just the moment they wanted it begun, and with the kind of issue they could present to their own people and claim that the war was begun in self-defense. We know definitely now that the Germans had planned the war as early as April or May, 1914, and began it really in a frenzy of fear toward the end of July lest some compromise or yielding on the part of the French or the Russians should postpone it.

There cannot be any doubt that they wanted the war. Some of them were even honest enough to confess it, although the majority insisted that the war had been forced upon them by their foes. But one of the best-known German writers, Maximilian Harden, wrote as follows about the beginning of the war. "Not as weak blunderers have we undertaken the fearful risk of this war. We wanted it. Because we had to wish it and could wish it. May the Teuton devil throttle those whiners whose pleas for excuses make us ludicrous in these hours of lofty experience! . . . Germany strikes! . . . We are waging this war not in order to punish those who have sinned, not in order to free enslaved peoples. . . . We wage it from the lofty point of view and with the conviction that Germany, as a result of her achievements, and in proportion to them, is justified in asking, and must obtain, wider room on earth for development and for working out the possibilities that are in her . . . Now strikes the hour for Germany's rising power!"

And with what object then did the Allies enter the contest? With what purpose did they fight for four years against the tremendous preparations of Germany? President Wilson stated on August 27, 1917, the aims of the Allies: "The object of this war is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace and the actual power of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government, which having secretly planned to dominate the world, proceeded to carry the plan out without regard either to the sacred obligations of treaty or the long-established practices and long-cherished principles of international action and honor; which chose its own time for the war; delivered its blow fiercely and suddenly; stopped at no barrier either of law or mercy; swept the whole continent within the tide of blood —not the blood of soldiers only, but the blood of innocent women and children also, and of the helpless poor. . . . This power is not the German people. It is the ruthless master of the German people. . . . It is our business to see to it that the history of the rest of the world is no longer left to its handling." The Allies therefore accepted the gage thrown down by Germany with high resolve, and eventually the United States joined them. They determined to stake their all to protect democracy and civilization as they existed in the world; to preserve French, British, and American society, threatened by the Germans with extinction.