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June 2014 Meeting Report

Dr Anthony Cooper on the Events Leading to the First World War

1914 was the climactic year that saw the end of the Pax Britannica, which had lasted for the century following Waterloo. It saw the beginning of the war which has been described as the suicide of Europe.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century what was to become Germany consisted of 200 small states within the Holy Roman Empire.  Napoleon began the process of amalgamation after the battle of Austerlitz by creating the Confederation of the Rhine as a French Vassal state. This brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire which had ruled since 1438.

The Congress of Vienna was held from September 1814 to June 1815 to provide a long-term peace for Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. The goal was to resize the main powers so they could balance each other off and remain at peace. France lost all its recent conquests, while Prussia, Austria and Russia made major territorial gains.

Otto von Bismarck was the Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in defeating his arch-enemy France. In 1871 he formed the German Empire with himself as Chancellor. Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles. France had to surrender Alsace and part of Lorraine. France was also required to pay an indemnity calculated, on the basis of population, as the precise equivalent of the indemnity which Napoleon imposed on Prussia in 1807.

Wilhelm II, German Emperor (Kaiser Bill), was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe. He had a love-hate relationship with Britain, and wanted a "place in the sun" for Germany. Crowned in 1888, he dismissed  Bismarck in 1890 and launched Germany on a bellicose "New Course" in foreign affairs that culminated in his support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. One month later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, thus initiating the First World War. Russia joined the war on the side of Serbia, and Germany on the side of Austria. Italy joined on the side of Germany-Austria, and Britain joined with France after the German invasion of neutral Belgium.

Germany had been preparing for war long before 1914. In fact, Germany had started drawing up a plan for war - the Schlieffen Plan - in 1897. It was based on the theory that Germany would be at war with France and Russia at the same time. It called for an invasion through Belgium and a left flanking sweep into France to take Paris. Unfortunately for them they ran up against a contemptibly small but highly efficient British Expeditionary Force.

The war stagnated into a sodden trench stalemate. The quickly trained volunteer army was no match for the machine gun, and the early British tanks were no match for Flanders mud created by extensive artillery fire. The Menin Gate records the names of 54,896 soldiers who have no known graves, and the wall at Tyne Cot cemetery contains many more names for whom there was no more space at the Menin Gate. The Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate every evening except for the period of German occupation during the Second World War.
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