Planning – The Great Illusion – World War One Part 1 (Setting the Scene)


In some ways the Europe of the early 20th century was like our world today. There was continual change, and inventions were rapidly altering society.

The telegraph spanned the globe, trade and banking systems tied nations together as never before.

In his 1910 book “The Great Illusion”, author Norman Angell, contended that the world was now so interconnected and dependent that it would be futile for the major nations to go to war with each other. If war did occur, these interconnections and dependencies would force a quick cessation of the violence, as the war would be equally damaging to all, whether victor or vanquished.

A bright new future beckoned.

As we know, things did not quite work out that way.

So! What went wrong?

To make sense of the events that propelled the world to war in 1914, it is necessary to understand a little of the history.

The Six Empires

Despite the rapid modernization, the European empires, which still controlled much of the world, remained steeped in tradition and old prejudices.

Like the horse and cart, their days were done.

They just did not know it yet, and it would take two world wars for the final nails to be driven into the coffins.

At the opening of the 20th century Europe was dominated by six empires:

  • The British
  • The French
  • The Russian
  • The German
  • The Austro – Hungarian (or Habsburg)
  • The Ottoman

The final decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th were dominated by diplomatic maneuvering, and by 1914 two major groups had emerged, ”The Triple Entente” (France, Russia and Britain), and  “The Triple Alliance” (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy).

The Triple Entente

France for much of the 19th century was the dominant European land power.   Despite her defeat in the Napoleonic wars, she retained her position of world and European power. She and Britain had sided with the Ottoman Empire in defeating Russian during the Crimean war (1853 – 56)


She was herself decisively defeated by the German confederation in the war of 1870 (Franco-Prussian War), which was the final of Germany’s wars of unification. She lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany and was forced to pay reparations. France recovered well, paying off the reparations in record time, and maintaining her empire. She continued to nurse a grievance against Germany and a burning desire to recover the lost lands. She forged an alliance with Russia (and later an Entente with Britain).

Russia was a massive empire but corrupt and backward.

She met with defeat at the hands of France, Britain and the Ottomans in the Crimean War. In the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05) she suffered both land and navel defeats becoming the first modern European nation to be defeated by an Asian power. News of the defeat led to a revolution at home.

The shock of the defeat and revolution resulted in some modernization and change, but massive systemic problems still persisted. Despite this, her massive resources in material and manpower was of grave concern to Germany.

Britain was the preeminent world power and at the beginning of the 20th century was at the zenith of her power. She was predominantly a maritime power, and had abstained from European military involvements, concentrating on the Empire. Her main concern was to ensure that there was no single dominant power in Europe. Her last European military involvement was in the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and the Crimean war in the 1850s.

Ironically, for the 18th and much of the 19th century she had strong ties with the German states, the royal family were of German origin, Victoria’s mother and husband Albert were German, and the Kaiser was her grandson. German was commonly spoken within the family. But now a unified Germany with naval aspirations was a threat. Efforts at an alliance with Germany failed, and Britain turned to longtime enemies, France and Russia as potential allies. In 1904 Britain joined France in the “Entente Cordiale” and the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 resulting in the Triple Entente, ending Britain’s policy of “Splendid Isolation”.

The Triple Alliance

Germany represented the “new guys” and had only existed as a unified state since the mid-19th century.

Under the leadership of Chancellor von Bismarck and General von Moltke Prussia fought a series of successful wars to consolidate and expand its power, defeating Denmark, Austria, and France in quick succession, and by the 1870s Germany was a major power. Bismarck was arguably the most skilled diplomat of his time, and through a series of treaties and alliances protected Germany and prevented an all-out European war.

The succession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888 changed this, with his Weltpolotik foreign policy (world politics).

He was jealous of the more established Empires and sought overseas territories like Britain and France.  

He embarked on a navel expansion to help realize this ambition, but this brought Germany into competition with Britain, the preeminent naval power. Wilhelm fired Bismarck, in 1890, because of disagreements, and as they say, “The rest is History”

Margaret McMillan, in her book “The War that Ended the Peace”, has a chapter covering this period entitled “Woe to the Country that has a Child for King”.

German thinking around this time was dominated by the idea of “die einkreisung” (encirclement), they felt they were surrounded, with Russia in the east and France in the west. Despite the fear of a two front war the Kaiser with his obsession to expand the navy, seemed determined to alienate Britain, and make a bad situation worse.

To offset this, they formed the triple alliance, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy.

Austria-Hungary. Until its defeat by Prussia in the war of 1866 (Austro-Prussian War) Austria had been the predominant power in Central Europe, and traditional leader of the German states. From 1866 that role would be filled by Prussia and later a unified Germany. The dual empire of Austria- Hungary was formed in 1867, after Austria’s defeat, this granted more independence to Hungary, who had previously been suppressed by the Austrians. Franz Joseph becoming the Dual Emperor.

The Empire expanded into the Balkans at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, which brought it into conflict with the expansionist Serbia, with fatal results.

Austria-Hungary was a polyglot empire, as the map below shows, that did not survive WWI.

Italy, another recently unified country, was the third member of The Triple Alliance.

I am not going to go into much detail about Italy.

The Triple Alliance was a defensive alliance and when Germany and Austro-Hungary went to war in 1914, Italy declined to support them in what it saw as an aggressive war and declared its neutrality.

Italy would eventually join the war on the Entente side in 1915. 

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire had its origins in the late 13th century and continued to expand from its Anatolian base for several centuries.

It expanded into Europe in the 14th century, toppling the Byzantine Empire in 1453, taking Constantinople as its capital. At its furthest extent it included, North Africa, the Middle East, much of Asia Minor, the Balkans, and parts of central Europe. The high-water mark was the battle of Vienna in 1683, which raised the Ottoman siege of the city. It was the furthest incursion into Europe, and in the following centuries the Europeans would gradually drive them out of the Balkans, culminating in the 1912-13 Balkan Wars.

Long considered the “Sick Man of Europe”, her demise had often been predicted.

By the early 20th century she was still hanging on, and with the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, had started to show some signs of recovery, despite continued unrest.

Unfortunately for them, they picked the wrong horse in the WWI Derby, and what remained of the Empire was dismembered by the victors.

The Bit Players

As the name implies World War One, was a global conflict, and many nations would be drawn in. Some for selfish reasons and others just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They are too many to mention, so I will focus only on those that had a pivotal role in the origins or conduct of the first few months of the war.

Serbia was for long ruled as part of the Ottoman Empire.

Through out the early 19th century Serbia unsuccessfully attempted to throw off the yoke of Ottoman rule. Finally, in 1867, with the tacit support of the European powers it was able to drive out the Ottomans and declare independence. In a subsequent series of wars, it would extend its borders and gain international recognition. However, it was thwarted in its larger aim to unite all the Slavic populations into single Slavic state.

Russian saw herself as the protector of Serbia.

This aspiration brought it into conflict with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, as Bismarck predicted, would lead to the world conflagration that was WWI

Belgium came into existence in 1830 following a revolution and the breakaway of the southern portion of the Netherlands. The main reason was one of religion, the majority in the north were protestant whilst those in the south were catholic. A conference of the major European powers in London (Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia), recognized the Kingdom of Belgium and guaranteed its neutrality.

This neutrality would be ruthlessly disregarded by Germany in 1914, guaranteeing the entry of Britain into the war.

In 1885 at a Berlin conference the Congo was ceded to Belgium, this ushered in decades of the most barbaric and inhuman treatment of the local population in the pursuit of profits.

Belgium would survive both world wars and shed its empire, eventually becoming a founding member for the EEC in 1957, which developed into the present day EU.


1914 Europe was the product of a century of shifting alliances and Great Power politics, and despite Norman Angell’s contention, the charge was primed, and just waiting for someone to light the fuse.

The late Chancellor von Bismarck was “right on the money”.

I do not have any pithy lessons for project managers from Part 1, but rest assured there will be many in Part 2.

Tune in Next week for the next exciting instalment of:

Planning – The Great Illusion – World War One Part 2 (The lamps are going out all over Europe)

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rashid N. Kapadia

    An excellent summary of European political forces and alliances that led to WWI. Thanks!
    I guess we can take away many many lessons for today’s turbulent times. Let’s hope—and work together to ensure that—we don’t end up doing “some damned foolish thing”.
    Looking forward to part 2 of this series.
    Admire the wide range of history you are writing on.

  2. Mark Norman

    Very nice, Jim. You are doing this justice. Can’t wait for part 2.

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