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The First World War Begins

Authored by Laura Wales
Published on 28th July, 2023 4 min read

The First World War Begins

Today (28/07/2023) marks 109 years since the First World War broke out. Also known as “The Great War” due to its sheer scale and devastating impact, it was fought between the Allied Powers (Belgium, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire). 

The incident that triggered the conflict occurred a month prior to the official start of the war. On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, visited Sarajevo, the capital of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A group of six (primarily) Bosnian-Serb assassins from the Young Bosnia (Mlada Bosna) movement wished to free Bosnia from Austrian rule. They concocted a plan to assassinate the Archduke during his visit in the hopes that his death would bring about independence. The motorcade route that the Archduke and his wife were due to take through the city had been published in advance, providing the assassins with prior knowledge of his whereabouts. Lining the street as Franz Ferdinand’s car drove by, Nedeljko Čabrinović threw a grenade at the moving vehicle. This detonated beneath the car behind. Several of its passengers were injured and taken to hospital whilst the rest of the vehicles continued along the scheduled route. The other assassins were unsuccessful in their subsequent attempts to assassinate the Archduke. After the procession, however, the Archduke extended his journey so as to visit his injured officers in hospital. On his return journey his driver took a wrong turn onto a street where Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins, was standing. Princip proceeded to withdraw a pistol and fired two fatal shots at Franz Ferdinand and his wife. 

Popular myth has it that Princip only ended up on this street by chance, having stopped there to buy a sandwich, and that as he exited the shop he found the Archduke’s car opposite him. While this is untrue, the myth stresses the chain reaction of small, chance, incidents that ultimately precipitated a World War. 

Anti-Serb riots proliferated in Sarajevo following the assassination. These were encouraged by the Austro-Hungarian authorities as the Archduke had been killed by a Serbian. The assassination itself triggered the “July Crisis”. This was a period of extreme diplomatic tension between the major powers in Europe. Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia consisting of ten unrealistic demands. These were deliberately made unacceptable in order to provoke hostilities. When Serbia agreed to meet all but one of them, Austria-Hungary took this as an all-out rejection of their terms, and declared war on 28 of July 1914. 

It was as a result of several pacts and alliances that other countries got involved in the weeks that followed: Austria-Hungary had set in motion a domino effect. Russia was the first to order mobilisation in support of Serbia as it saw itself as having a duty to protect the Slavic people. Germany followed as a result of its alliance with Austria-Hungary, declaring war on Russia after demanding they cease military action, as a result of its alliance with Austria-Hungary. The French President Raymond Poincaré left Russia following an official visit on 23 July. This coincided with the delivery of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum. With their leader at sea, France’s ability to respond was delayed. France was in support of Russia, however, and their involvement was unavoidable once Germany embarked upon the Schlieffen Plan. This entailed invading France through neutral Belgium. Under the 1839 Treaty of London Britain had obligations to protect Belgium and thus declared war on Germany. Britain also feared the threat of German domination over western Europe if they were to defeat France, so their entry into the war was intended to safeguard their own as well as Belgium’s national interests. Thus, all the major powers of Europe were drawn into the conflict. 

The United States did not enter the war until 1917, having remained neutral for 3 years. The US declaration of war against Germany came as a result of the latter’s unrestricted submarine warfare which had resulted in the sinking of the British ocean liner, the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. In 1917 the British also intercepted and decoded an encrypted message from the Zimmerman telegram, sent to Mexico from Germany, proposing an alliance should America join the war on the side of the Allied Powers. America severed diplomatic ties with Germany and its senate voted to declare war. 

The First World War stands as one of the deadliest conflicts in history. It is commemorated on Remembrance Day, 11 November, the date of the armistice that ended the conflict. 

Discover more about the First World War and its battles in our collection Life on the Front Line: Diaries, News, and Letters from the First World War, 1914-1919. This provides insights into the experiences of British soldiers in the trenches, of combatants captured by the Central Powers, and of non-combatants. This collection provides an engrossing and heartbreaking account of the War.

Authored by Laura Wales

Laura Wales

Laura Wales is a Marketing and Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives. She is an English Literature graduate from Durham University. She has a particular interest in the history of the First World War, along with the legacies of historical literature in contemporary writing.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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