What Caused the First World War?

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” (1888)
Otto von Bismarck
German leader (1815-1888)
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife leave Sarajevo City Hall minutes before the shooting, 28 June 1914.
“It is easy to throw up one’s hands and say the Great War was inevitable but that is dangerous thinking . . . We need to think carefully about how wars can happen and about how we can maintain the peace."
Margaret MacMillan
Canadian historian and author (1943-current)


Assassination – Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand, fatally shot both the Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in the attack near Sarajevo city hall (June 28, 1914).

In late June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, was visiting Bosnia on an official visit, in part to observe military maneuvers outside of Sarajevo. Bosnia had been annexed by Austria-Hungary six years prior, a fact that remained painful to nationalists who wanted to create a pan-Slavic state to unite the scattered Slavic peoples into one nation. On June 28, the Archduke and his wife, the Duchess Sofia, traveled through the city of Sarajevo in a multi-car procession. While driving along the Appel Quay along the Miljacka River in the heart of the city, Nedeljko Čabrinović hurled a bomb at the open top car. The bomb, given to the group of seven conspirators by an officer in the Serbian armed forces, bounced off the Archduke’s vehicle and exploded nearby, injuring several others in the procession. The would-be assassin took a dose of cyanide (it was expired) and jumped into the river (only a dozen centimeters deep) in a failed suicide attempt.

After a brief visit at the town hall, the Archduke changed his plans to visit those injured in the attack in the hospital. A wrong turn by the front car in the procession resulted in the Archduke’s car being forced to stop unexpectedly along the way. Another of the conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be standing near-by and pulled out a revolver and shot both the Archduke and Duchess at close range. Princip was captured and beaten on the spot. He died in prison in 1918 of tuberculosis unapologetic for his role in sparking the chain of events that resulted in the First World War.

The assassination may not have led to the First World War if other underlying factors did not exist. Noted Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan also reminds us that underlying causes, such as:

“Forces, ideas, prejudices, institutions, conflicts, all are surely important. Yet that still leaves the individuals…who had to say 'yes, go ahead and unleash war', or 'no, stop'.”
Margaret MacMillan
Canadian historian and author (1943-current)

In the grand theatre of the beginning of the First World War, if there was a alternate cast of characters with different tendencies, perspectives, and personal circumstances, there could have been a dramatically different outcome. However, that was not the case; the personalities and the assassination, taken together within a context that included other factors such as: militarism, industrialism, imperialism, the alliance system, and nationalism, made the First World War more likely to have occurred.

Other factors that contributed to an atmosphere that facilitated the First World War:


Militarism: the belief that a government’s armed forces can solve issues for its benefit if it is adequately powerful. Militarism often manifests itself when a nation’s military leaders have undue influence over the decision making process in a civilian government, when nations compete with each other in an arms race, or when they display a keen willingness to pursue aggression and military solutions over diplomacy.


Imperialism: the desire by countries to build overseas empires in order to expand their influence and wealth (through colonization). By late in the 19th century when Germany was unified into a single nation, the “scramble for Africa” had already occurred and all of the perceived best pieces of the pie were already taken by other countries. The resultant scarcity of colonies caused increased competition between empires which resulted in periodic crises in Africa and increasing tension between European nations.


Alliances: political arrangements during the early 20th century in Europe where nations had formal agreements (alliances) with other nations to come to their aid militarily in times of need. In other words, when one nation is attacked, the others in the alliance have an obligation to get involved.

The First Balkan War further cemented many, but not all of the alliances that had developed in the lead up to the First World War.


One alliance during this era in history was the Triple Entente, made up of Britain, France, and Russia.

Military Alliances in Europe, 1914

The other major European alliance was known as the Triple Alliance or Central Powers, made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (also known as the “Axis” in some quarters).


Nationalism: when people feel deep loyalty to their nation. Nationalism is often the driving force behind independence movements and ideologies like pan-Slavism. If ultranationalism develops, conflict often ensues. Example: The Black Hand, a Serbian Nationalist movement, did not like its Austro-Hungarian rulers who were seen as outsiders by many Serbs. See Assassination above.


Industrialism: an economic focus on large-scale mechanized industry rather than agriculture and/or resource harvesting. This factor, taken along with the others, led to an arms race and, ultimately, massive casualty numbers among all First World War belligerents. New industrial technologies led to more efficient war-making tools: dreadnought battleships, long range artillery, tanks, airplanes, submarines/U-boat, machine guns, chemical weapons, zeppelins.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism: an unproven extension of Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is the belief that competition and conflict between ethnic groups and nations is a natural part of existence because it weeds out the weak and rejuvenates the strong. While this idea did influence the thoughts many people held at that time, it acted in the background and was not a primary cause for the conflict.

Study Tip: Create a Mnemonic

A mnemonic is a memory tool to help recall things. The idea is to take the first letter of each word and scramble them into a single word that can be more easiliy remembered.  E.g. Paul’s mnemonic helped him remember all of the groceries he needed to purchase.

Militarism (M), Alliances (A), Imperialism (I), Nationalism (N), Industrialism (I), Assassination (A)…

M A I N I A… it’s not a word, but I can definitely remember that! “MAINIA

Which mix works best for you? How about AIMAIN or AMIINA ?

A recruiting poster from England, 1914 (LAC M#3666554).

Dominoes and the Chain of Events that Led to War

Several weeks after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary issued a strongly worded, multi-point ultimatum to Serbia which included a demand to prosecute “accessories to the [assassination] plot.” Serbia largely acquiesced to the various points of the ultimatum with the exception that it refused the above-noted demand, citing that it was unconstitutional for the Austro-Hungarians to prosecute those potentially involved in the assassination. The refusal of any part of the ultimatum was grounds for aggression and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, with the support of Germany. In fact, Germany gave Austria-Hungary a “blank-cheque,” offering its unquestioning and unlimited support.

Russia had mobilized for war days earlier to protect its ally, Serbia, against aggression from Austria-Hungary and Germany. Then Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 to support Austria-Hungary. Germany also declared war on Russia’s ally, France, on August 3 thinking that they could achieve a quick victory in the west before facing a completely mobilized Russia in the East.

En route to France, German troops marched through, attacked and committed atrocities in Belgium, which resulted in Britain’s involvement to protect Belgium, its ally. When Britain declared war on Germany (Aug.4), Canada, as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, was also automatically at war.

War is Declared

Militarism + Alliances + Imperialism + Nationalism + Industrialism + Assassination

each a domino acting and influencing the others in a complex and unpredictable manner,

begin to teeter and tip . . .  and fall against one another.

July 26, 1914     In response to the assassination, Austria-Hungary declares WAR on Serbia.

                             Russia, an ally of Serbia, mobilizes its armies.

Aug 1, 1914        France mobilizes, concerned of Germany’s response to Russia.

                             Germany declares WAR on Russia and mobilizes. 

Aug 3, 1914        Germany declares WAR on France.

Aug 4, 1914        Germany’s invades neutral Belgium. 

                              This causes Britain to declare WAR on Germany in support of their ally, Belgium.

                                           CANADA as a dominion of Britain is NOW at WAR.

“It is easy to throw up one’s hands and say the Great War was inevitable but that is dangerous thinking... We need to think carefully about how wars can happen and about how we can maintain the peace.”
Margaret MacMillan
Canadian historian and author (1943-current)

The War's Diversity and Global Nature

It may have been the nations of Europe that sparked the First World War, but the conflict was truly global in scale. Battles occurred in dozens of different countries around the planet and locales as diverse as Togo, Lebanon, Mexico, Tanzania, China, and Malta, all played roles in the conflict (For more information, see here and here).

Because of the nature of colonial empires, like Britain and France, many of the soldiers who fought hailed from far-flung regions of the world. In fact, 4 million non-Europeans served in varying capacities during the War. The British called upon troops from India, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Caribbean and South Africa. The French relied on troops from places including Algeria, Tunisia, Somalia, and Morocco. In addition, Chinese labourers worked long hours, seven days a week with few holidays, digging trenches, building roads, and unloading ships, amongst other manual labour tasks. 140 000 Chinese labourers worked on the Western Front and it is estimated that as many as 20 000 perished in the process. Despite the diversity present in Europe at this time, and the value of colonial peoples to the European belligerent nations, the battlefield was not a place of equality. Colonial people, and especially people of colour, were generally seen as inferior and often given lower status roles, prevented from attaining officer ranks, and placed in segregated environments.

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps load sacks of oats onto a lorry at Boulogne, France, in August 1917 (Imperial War Museum Q-2700)

A variety of ethnic minorities served within the Canadian contingent of the British forces. For information about Indigenous Canadians specifically, see this.

A number of Black soldiers fought as Canadian troops in the First World War; several dozen fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge specifically (see here). One such soldier was Lieutenant Lancelot Joseph Bertrand, who earned a Military Cross for leading his company to success in their mission after the company commander and other officers were killed. Lieutenant Bertrand died about six months later at the Battle of Hill 70.

To read a more detailed account of the multi-racial Western Front, please check out this BBC article.

“Sometimes you have to pick up the gun to put the gun down.”
Malcolm X
Minister, human rights activist (1925-1965)
"If we don't end war, war will end us."
H.G. Wells
Author, science fiction (1866-1946)

Unit Home

The Great War Begins. Dominion of Canada. Canada's Demographics. Sam Hughes.

Opening Moves

Western Front Aug.3 to Oct.17, 1914. Schlieffen Plan. Race to the Sea. Stalemate. War at Sea.

The Road to Vimy Ridge

Introduction Homepage