The Great War, later known as the First World War, had its origins in the rivalries and conflicts among the major European powers (in particular, Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia) in the latter half of the nineteenth century. These empires competed with each other for overseas colonies as well as for land in Europe. Germany and France were especially bitter rivals, as a result of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War, for power and prestige on the continent. Germany also sought to challenge the dominance of Great Britain's Royal Navy.

Punch, 30 September 1882 (cartoon by John Tenniel). ©Chinook Multimedia

"The Lion's Just Share."

Colonies were essential to imperial powers because they supplied raw materials for industry and provided markets for manufactured goods. Great Britain had the largest empire, which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the East and West Indies, South Africa, and other African colonies. France had colonies in Africa and Asia, but Germany had only a few colonies and was looking to build its empire. Britain was determined to prevent the Germans from expanding into the Balkans and the Middle East. Here, the Great Powers quarrel over the spoils of Egypt. The lion represents Great Britain, the bear is Russia, and the donkey represents Spain. Germany and Austria -- portrayed as vultures -- and Italy and Turkey -- depicted as dogs -- hover over the dead corpse.

"Division of Labour."
Punch, 21 December 1904 (cartoon by Linley Sambourne). ©Chinook Multimedia

"Division of Labour."

"BRITISH NAVAL ESTIMATES FOR THE YEAR 1904-5, £36,889,500. APPROPRIATIONS IN AID: AUSTRALIA, £200,000; CANADA, NIL."

As Germany and Britain competed for naval superiority in the years leading up to the Great War, Britain turned to its colonies for help. In Canada, Robert Borden, the Prime Minister after the 1911 election, wanted to offer money to Britain as immediate aid. Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal leader and Leader of the Opposition after 1911, wanted to strengthen the Canadian Navy. The Laurier policy would have taken longer to implement, and Britain believed that it could not wait. The figure walking alongside Canada represents Australia. John Bull, who represents Britain, is shouldering the burden of the naval defence of the Empire.

By 1914, Europe was divided into two powerful camps. The Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Great Britain contended against the allied nations of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Turkey joined in 1915 to form the Triple Alliance (previously Italy had been part of the Triple Alliance, but it did not join the conflict in 1914 and later fought on the side of the Triple Entente).

"Father Neptune."
Punch, 27 June 1900 (cartoon by E. Tennyson Reed). ©Chinook Multimedia

"Father Neptune."

"BUST MY BULKHEADS AND SHIVER MY COMPARTMENTS, HAVE I GOT TO LEARN GERMAN AT MY TIME OF LIFE!"

Between 1900 and 1914, Germany intensified its efforts to eliminate Britain's naval superiority by building more, and larger, battleships. In this cartoon, Neptune, the Roman god of the seas, is talking to the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

These bitter rivalries between the great powers and the system of ententes they helped create are often identified as significant causes of the First World War. Some historians, however, view Germany's long-standing desire to dominate Europe, and particularly eastern Europe, as a more important factor. These scholars argue that the German monarchy and ruling classes welcomed the war as a means to implement expansionist goals that had their roots in the nineteenth century. German historian Fritz Fischer, writing in the post-Second World War period, is perhaps the most influential proponent of this interpretation. His views, first published in 1961, met initial hostility from Germans but soon came to be very widely accepted. Indeed, Fischer's interpretation has influenced German foreign policy and, in particular, Germany's decision to renounce claims to lost territory in the east. Ironically, the strongest opposition to Fischer's views has arisen in non-German academic circles. Many critics outside of Germany have taken Fischer to task for downplaying the role of diplomatic tensions and other international factors in bringing about the conflict. The dispute, however, underscores the difficulty scholars face in attempting to attribute a single cause to the First World War. The origins of such complex historical events are rarely reducible to simple explanations. (1)

"Bravo, Belgium!"
Punch, 27 June 1900 (cartoon by E. Tennyson Reed). ©Chinook Multimedia

"Bravo, Belgium!"

The Allies regarded Belgium as a brave martyr overrun by the treacherous "Hun." Insulting ethnic labels were commonly applied to the enemy in the Great War.
"Bravo, Belgium!"
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 12 December 1914. ©Chinook Multimedia

 

 

The incident that brought these two camps to war was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in June 1914. Serbia was formerly under Austria-Hungary's control. All Europe tensed in anticipation of conflict. Austria-Hungary threatened to invade Serbia; Russia countered by mobilizing against Austria-Hungary. German war plans were predicated on the possibility of a two-front war with France and Russia. As a result, Germany declared war on both powers and Germany invaded Belgium as part of a massive offensive against the French. This was a clear violation of Belgian neutrality, and Britain demanded Germany's immediate withdrawal. When Germany refused, war was declared in August.

Soon, almost all the nations of Europe were drawn into the conflict. The First World War had begun.

 

Copyright © 2015 The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum
Prince of Wales Armouries Heritage Centre
10440 - 108 Ave, Edmonton