Prelude to War
Australia and World War I

Australia, Britain and a European War

Australians took pride in being part of the British empire, the empire on which ‘the sun never set’. It covered about 25 per cent of the earth's surface and gave Britain control and/or influence over 27 million square kilometres of land and 390 million people. Britain's empire gave it status as the world's greatest power and Australia enjoyed its links to this greatness.

Australia's relationship with Britain in 1914

Fourteen years after Federation, Australia retained strong ties to the ‘mother country’ — Great Britain.
A separate Australian identity and the idea of Australia being a nation in its own right was slow to develop and eventuate. Australia's links to Great Britain remained stronger than any sense of national identity or awareness of Australia's geographic location within the Asia–Pacific region. Around 90 per cent of Australians had British ancestry and Britain influenced Australia's cultural identity through:
  • Australia's acceptance of the British legal system
  • a focus on British achievements, history and social customs within Australia's education systems
  • Australia's admiration for, and desire to copy, British cultural and sporting traditions.

The Dominion of the British Empire

Federation in 1901 was a statement of Australia's independence from Great Britain and of its ongoing political, economic, cultural and emotional ties to Great Britain.
Culturally, economically and in defense terms, Australia looked to Britain for leadership. Australia had gone from colony to dominion status. Although this suggested that Australia had self-government, in reality two things limited this:
  • Australia's willingness to still accept British control of its foreign affairs
  • Britain's intention to continue to control Australia's affairs.

Two important ways Britain kept its influence over Australia were by appointing Australia's Governor-General and allowing the Australian Government to communicate with the British Government (and other overseas governments) only through the Governor-General and the Colonial Office. Australians remained citizens of Great Britain (not of Australia) until 1949.

Australia's regional context

Apart from New Zealand, Australia had limited contact with its neighbours within the Asia–Pacific region. This reflected the following attitudes:
  • Australia's view of itself as an isolated ‘white’ ‘British’ outpost amid the surrounding Asian peoples whose culture and traditions it neither shared nor valued
  • Australia's belief that it should preserve its British connections against potential threats from other empires — for example, the Germans in New Guinea and the French in New Caledonia
  • Australia's reliance on maintaining good relations with Great Britain, whose navy it hoped would safeguard Australia against possible French or German attempts to extend their countries' influence into Australian territory.

The ‘crimson thread of kinship’ and Australia's isolation within its own region were strong influences on its support for Great Britain when war broke out in 1914.

Towards a European war

The Alliance System

The major powers were the European nations of Austria–Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. They were not surprised when war broke out in 1914. They had spent years preparing for it, though some had hoped it would occur later than it did.
By 1907, they had formed themselves into rival and armed power blocs.
Alliance System in 1914 before WWI.PNG
map showing the major powers of the early twentieth century and the rival alliances they had formed by 1907. Italy declared itself neutral when war broke out in 1914. In April 1915, in the secret Treaty of London, Italy committed itself to go to war in support of the Triple Entente.

Britain had joined with Russia and France in an alliance known as the Triple Entente.

Germany was linked with Austria–Hungary and Italy in the Triple Alliance.

Italy declared itself neutral when war broke out in 1914. In April 1915, in the secret Treaty of London, Italy committed itself to go to war in support of the Triple Entente.

The Entente powers called in military support from their empires and also gained support from Italy switched sides joined the Triple Entente in April 1915. The United States did not join the Triple Entente alliance until in 1917, then this alliance was called the Allies.

Germany and Austria–Hungary and their supporters [Germany's colonies plus The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) from October 1914 and Bulgaria from 1915] were called the Central Powers because of Germany and Austria–Hungary's central location within Europe.

Tensions and rivalries among the great powers

Nations formed the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente in response to growing rivalries within Europe. Rivalries existed in the areas of:
  • competition to take advantage of trading opportunities
  • competition for the control of territory and resources in Africa that would give nations access to raw materials that weren't available in Europe
  • the development of weapons and ships that nations could use to protect their interests
  • the size and strength of armies and navies and the arms race (especially between Britain and Germany) that resulted from this
  • individual power and status.

One nation's attempts to protect its interests led others to fear its power:

  • Britain feared Germany's navy and the possibility that it would cut Britain off from the rest of its empire.
  • Germany argued that its navy was essential to protect its trade.

The alliances reflected the threat which the powers sensed from one another, and the desire to avenge past ‘wrongs’:

  • France feared Germany's army and sought revanche (revenge) for Germany taking the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from France in 1871.
  • Russia and Austria–Hungary competed with each other to extend their power in the area of South-Eastern Europe known as the

Between 1905 and 1913, tensions among the great powers increased as a result of crises in northern Africa and the Balkans. The great powers resolved these crises, although hostility generally increased among those involved.
schlieffen plan.PNG
A map showing the main features of Germany's Schlieffen Plan and France's Plan 17
The tensions among the major powers led them to prepare strategies to be used if war broke out. Germany developed the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ and France developed the war plan known as ‘Plan 17’ to recapture the provinces of Lorraine and Alsace and then move into German territory.

The Schlieffen Plan

In 1914, Germany believed war with Russia was extremely likely. If war broke out, Germany assumed France would also attack as she was both an ally of Russia and keen for revenge for her defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.
If this happened, Germany would face a war on two fronts. Germany wanted to avoid this at all costs and thus the Schlieffen Plan was born.
Germany planned to defeat France rapidly by entering through Belgium which the French would be unprepared for. By German reckoning it would take Russia 6 weeks to mobilise their armies which would give them time to capture France. Germany planned to then turn their attention to the eastern front for a major offensive on Russia. This was the basis for the Schlieffen Plan.
All did not go to plan: it took only 10 days for Russia to mobilise their armies and they had not anticipated that Britain would come so quickly to the aid of France.
satirical map small.PNG

Satirical Maps

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words
Satirical Maps provide much information for historians concerning the tensions .and rivalries in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century. Click here to explore some examples of these Satirical Maps.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.PNG
Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg

Gavrilo Princips.PNG
Gavrilo Princip

timeline of chain of events.PNG
The chain of events that lead to full scale war in Europe

Assassination in Sarajevo

On 28 June 1914, at Sarajevo in Bosnia, 23-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. His assassination provided an excuse for Austria–Hungary to attempt to punish and weaken its long-time enemy, Serbia.

The ‘July crisis’ which developed from the assassination involved all the major European powers and ignited the tensions among them. Their failure to resolve the July crisis demonstrated nations' desires to exercise their power and also their fears of one another (see image to the right). By 4 August 1914, Europe was at war.

When Germany invaded neutral Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan on 4 August 1914 Britain decided to honour its promise to defend Belgium's neutralitiy and declared war on Germany. Now all of Europe was at war.

Gavrilo Princip's Pistol.PNG
The .32 caliber pistol FN Model 1910 used by Gavrilo Princip. It is now part of the permanent exhibition in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, Austria

How did Australia become involved?

why was Australia at war.pngOn 4 August 1914 Australia, as a dominion of Britain, was therefore also at war.
The Australian constitution, however, dictated that no man could be conscripted to serve overseas.
How then, did so many Australians fight and die in World War I?

We shall explore how this came about in Australia's Enthusiasm for War.