The First World War started in August 1914. It would last for more than four years, and kill about nine million people in uniform. In the same time period the war and other violent conflicts would kill an estimated twenty million civilians. The world would never be the same.
Tensions in Europe
The major powers in Europe had been preparing for war for years. The situation was so tense before the war that many called Europe a powder keg waiting to explode. Key factors in the build-up to war included:
- Arms races to build bigger and more powerful armies and navies;
- Growing disputes over trade and land;
- Dissatisfaction with the balance of power in Europe;
- Resentment from the legacy of past grievances.
Alliances and Treaties Divided Europe
Complicated military alliances and treaties between the European powers divided much of Europe. The consequence of these alliances and treaties meant that if one country or power bloc went to war, the others would likely go to war too. The two opposing sides in Europe were:
The Central Powers:
- The Ottoman Empire (Turkey)
The Triple Entente or Allies:
- Great Britain
Italy, initially allied to the Central Powers, refused to be drawn into what it viewed as their war of aggression. In May 1915, Italy joined the Entente hoping to acquire territory from Austria-Hungary and new colonial possessions, mainly in Africa.
Smaller European powers picked sides during the war, dominions and colonies contributed soldiers to their mother countries, and powerful non-European powers such as Japan and the United States would later enter the war on the Allied side.
Assassination Sparks War
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 set off a chain of events that led to war in early August 1914.
- The assassination was traced to a Serbian extremist group that wanted to increase Serbian power in the Balkans by breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
- The Austro-Hungarian Empire attacked Serbia in response.
- Germany supported Austria-Hungary, while Russia sided with its traditional ally, Serbia.
- When Russia mobilized its military forces at the end of July, Germany sought to avoid a two-front war by a quick invasion of France, Russia’s main ally.
- German troops moved on France by invading Belgium, a country that had been neutral for nearly one hundred years, on 3 August. Britain, fulfilling its obligations to support Belgian neutrality, declared war the next day.
- On 4 August 1914, Canada, as a member of the British Empire, was at war.
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