Sunday, 19 March 2017

Towards 1914 (3): Crises and wars

For this post I have been particularly indebted to two masterly books.
Christopher Clark, Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin, 2014)
Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (Profile, 2013)

The first Moroccan crisis

The Entente Cordiale had not been explicitly aimed at Germany, but it created problems for German policy makers. In March 1905 Wilhelm II made a deliberate attempt to break it. He paid a state visit to Tangier in which he made a speech emphasising Germany’s commercial interests in Morocco and the importance of maintaining the independence of its Sultan. This was diplomatic bluster on Wilhelm’s part. Germany had no economic interests in Morocco and certainly did not want war. But it caused French and British diplomats to discuss the military possibilities of the Entente in the event of a war with Germany. The immediate outcome was the resignation of the French Prime Minister, Delcassé, in June, 1905.

Germany succeeded in having an international conference called at Algeciras in 1906. The conference confirmed the integrity of the sultan's domains but sanctioned French and Spanish policing of Moroccan ports and collection of the customs dues. There was now no hope of a Franco-German rapprochement and the Anglo-French entente was solidified. The crisis revealed to British statesmen the importance of France and was the effectual end of the policy of isolation. It also revealed Germany’s isolation, with only Austria-Hungary supporting its position.

The Anglo-Russian Entente

On 31 August 1907 Britain and Russia concluded the Anglo-Russian Entente in St. Petersburg. It ended decades of hostility by defining their respective spheres of interest in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, with Russia taking the northern areas of Persia and Britain taking the Persian Gulf area in the south. Its primary aim was to check German expansion into the area.

Along with the Franco-Russian alliance and the Entente Cordiale, this formed the Triple Entente between the UK, France and Russia.

The Daily Telegraph interview

Historians differ about how far German policy was dictated by the Kaiser, and how far his ministers pursued their own aims while allowing him to shoot his mouth off. But there is no doubt that Wilhelm's instability, unpredictability, and love of the limelight contributed to international tensions. His Daily Telegraph interview of November 1908 severely strained Anglo-German relations.

As a slow-burn consequence, Bernhard von Bülow resigned as Chancellor in the summer of 1909 and was replaced by Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg.

The naval race

The Daily Telegraph interview came a time when Britain and Germany were beginning their naval race.

From 1897 Germany embarked on a drive for world power (Weltpolitik), which upset the relative stability of late nineteenth-century politics and posed a direct challenge to Britain. This drive expressed itself in naval policy, which was in part a response to a campaign whipped up by the Navy League. In 1898 the German Navy Law announced the intention to build a battle fleet. A law of 1900 decreed that this fleet was to be strong enough to challenge the British in the North Sea. This committed Germany to a continuous, and expensive programme.

This did not mean that the German government was envisaging an offensive naval war against Britain. Admiral Tirpitz was following contemporary strategic thinking when he calculated that if Germany had two battleships for every three floated by Britain – which meant a German North Sea fleet of some sixty battleships - then the German navy stood a good chance of victory in a defensive war.

The Liberal government would have preferred spending on social reform, but it was pushed by events. British naval thinking, exemplified by Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord from 1904, was driven by the ‘two-power standard’ whereby the Royal Navy was to be stronger than the combined fleets of the next two maritime powers.

Admiral Sir John ('Jackie') Fisher
Public Domain

In 1906 HMS Dreadnought was launched. She was 1,500 tons heavier than the last pre-dreadnought built for the Royal Navy and three knots faster and had ten 12 inch guns. This meant that she could outgun and outsail all other battleships, rendering them obsolete.

Dreadnought at sea in 1906
Public Domain

By 1909 it was suddenly realised that the Germans were going to be building 10 Dreadnoughts against the 4 British ones that had been ordered up to then. The ‘We Want Eight’ panic then ensued, and six battleships and two battlecruisers were ordered in the 1909 program. After that, the pace was kept up. Germany would only give up her naval plans in return for a British promise of unconditional neutrality in a Franco-German conflict, and after Algeciras, such a compromise was impossible.

Crisis in the Balkans

In 1903 the pro-Austrian King Alexander of Serbia and his wife, Queen Draga were murdered. 

King Alexander I Obrenović of Serbia
and Queen Draga, c. 1900
Public Domain

His successor King Peter was a pro-Russian pan-Serb, who wanted to unite all Serbian lands, including those within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This led to Austrian fears that Serbia would become 'the Piedmont of the Balkans' - that is, would be the means of Austria losing its influence in south-east Europe as had previously happened in Italy.

In 1908 Balkan issues re-emerged to destabilise Europe. Germany’s growing political and economic influence in the Ottoman Empire concerned Russia in particular. In spite of the promises of reform Abdul Hamid continued to misgovern his empire and this had particular repercussions for Macedonia, which had been confirmed as an Ottoman possession in the Berlin Congress. The province was in a continued state of turbulence and this gave encouragement to the other Balkan states to stir up trouble there.

In 1908 the Young Turks, a nationalist and westernising group, led a successful revolution forcing Abdul Hamid to issue a new constitution. (He was deposed in a counter coup in the following year in favour of his brother and died in captivity in 1918.)

Declaration of the Young Turk revolution, 1908

The annexation of Bosnia: The instability in the Balkans convinced the Austrian foreign minister Count von Aehrenthal, that the status quo was not in the Habsburg interest as the weakening of the Ottoman Empire was stirring up the South Slavs within the Empire and also outside it. In October 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia- Herzegovina, taking Russia by surprise as it pre-empted negotiations over the Balkans that were already taking place between the two powers. In spite of misgivings Germany backed Austria-Hungary, mainly because of their annoyance over the Anglo-Russian entente - even though, as in Morocco, she had no direct interest in the question. Wilhelm subsequently asserted that he stood beside his ally, Austria-Hungary, ‘in shining armour’, while von Bülow declared that the ‘German sword had been thrown into the scale of European decision’.

The annexation was a humiliation not only for Russia but also for Serbia which regarded itself as the protector of all South Slavs (‘Greater Serbia’ or ‘Yugoslavia’) including the Bosnians. There were massive demonstrations in Belgrade, where parliament voted emergency funds for war.

The crisis ended in March 1909 when the Treaty of Berlin was revised. The annexation was reluctantly accepted and Austria made formal amends to the Turks by agreeing to pay for crown property in the provinces but the damage had been done. There was now a distinct possibility of open conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.

Ottoman caricature of the
annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina
Public Domain

The recognition of the annexation was followed by a secret treaty between Austria and Bulgaria. But Serbia was now implacably hostile to Austria and it began to support openly the South Slav revolutionary movements. Meanwhile Russia began to step up her arms programme.

The second Moroccan crisis (the Agadir crisis)

SMS Panther
Public Domain

After 1908 the central powers and the Entente grew ever further apart. The next conflict arose over Morocco. Like China and the Ottoman Empire, it was a crumbling state and a prey to the interference of the European powers. When a Berber rebellion took place in 1911 the French sent an expedition to occupy Fez, the capital, thus putting central Morocco under direct French control. The French remained in Fez after the crisis had died down. On 1 July the Kaiser ordered the gunboat Panther to Agadir on the grounds that German nationals in Morocco needed protection (even though there weren’t any!).

This stirred up alarm in Britain, forcing Lloyd George to state publicly that Britain could not be treated as of no account in a question that affected her interests. This was read as a declaration of support for France in a war against Germany. In November France and Germany reached a compromise (Morocco would become a French protectorate in return for economic concessions to German interests and a slice of territory in the French Congo) but the French Prime Minister Caillaux fell from power and was replaced by the more hawkish Poincaré. In Germany too public opinion was inflamed. The Kaiser and Tirpitz resisted Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s urgings to accommodate Britain and increased their dreadnought programme. The British then stepped up their production.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Public Domain

The Italo-Turkish War

The French intervention in Morocco stirred up Italian ambitions in Libya. On 29 September 1911 Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire

On 3 October the Italian navy bombarded Tripoli and captured the city. On 4 December they landed at Tobruk, but were defeated in the hinterland by Turkish troops and Libyan volunteers organised by Captain Mustafa Kemal. The Turco-Arabic resistance inflicted bruising defeats on the Italians, who emerged the eventual victors but at great cost.

The war was ended by treaty in October 1912. Although the Ottomans ceded Libya, it was to take the Italians twenty years to gain control of the interior.

The First Balkan War

With Turkey embroiled in a war with Italy, the Balkan states moved in. In March 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro formed the Balkan League under Russian auspices to take Macedonia away from Turkey. The war began when Montenegro declared war on Turkey, on 8 October 1912, to be followed by Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. The league was able to field a combined force of 750,000 men was soon victorious.

The Turkish collapse was so complete that all parties were willing to conclude an armistice on Dec. 3, 1912. A peace conference was begun in London, but after a coup d'état by the Young Turks in Constantinople in January 1913, war with the Ottomans was resumed and again the Turks were routed. Under a peace treaty signed in London on May 30, 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territory, including Macedonia and Albania. The creation of an independent Albania was a coup for Austria-Hungary as it cut off Serbia from the sea.

The Second Balkan War

Serbian troops with wireless field telegraph station
during the Second Balkan War, on June 1913.

Public Domain

This began when Serbia, Greece, and Romania quarrelled with Bulgaria over the division of their joint conquests in Macedonia. On June 1, 1913, Serbia and Greece formed an alliance against Bulgaria, and the war began on the night of June 29/30, 1913, when King Ferdinand of Bulgaria ordered his troops to attack Serbian and Greek forces in Macedonia. The Bulgarians were defeated, however, and a peace treaty was signed at Bucharest between the combatants on August 10, 1913. Under the terms of the treaty, Greece and Serbia divided up most of Macedonia between themselves, leaving Bulgaria with only a small part of the region.

However, Serbian forces remained in Albania. On 13 October Austria issued Serbia with an ultimatum and Serbia complied on 25 October. 

The war was a foretaste of what was to come. For the first time a military aircraft (Romanian) was seen flying over a large civilian centre (Sofia). There were appalling atrocities on both sides. 21 per cent of the Bulgarian troops were killed or wounded or died from disease.


  1. The political consequences of the wars were considerable. An enlarged Serbia was now the prominent Balkan power and Russia’s only ally in the region. The Austrians were deeply anxious about Serbia’s ability to stir up trouble among their Slav subjects.
  2. However, diplomacy had successfully averted crises in Morocco and the Balkans. Couldn't future conflicts also be resolved by diplomacy?

No comments:

Post a Comment