When Did World War I Begin?

It is a date that marks the start of events that would go on to change the course of millions of lives – tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the day Britain declared war on Germany and the First World War began.

So said Britain’s The Independent, yesterday, of today. But is August 4, 1914 — with its British declaration of war — the day that World War I actually began?

Crowd outside Buckingham Palace on the night of August 4, 1914
Crowd outside Buckingham Palace on August 4, 1914, after the declaration of war against Germany – Creative Commons (Marion Doss)

You’ll find that others have their advocates:

• The Wikipedia page for the war opts for July 28, the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Since the assassination of the Austrian crown prince by a Bosnian Serb exactly one month earlier had set off the crisis that led to the war, there’s something to that argument. (Indeed, one Wikipedia editor sought to change the start point to June 28, the date of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.) It prompted a series of partial and full mobilizations between the chief allies of the Serbs and Austrians: the Russians and Germans.

• But those two countries weren’t at war until August 1st, which Fiona Robinson — one of my favorite WWI bloggers — insists is “the date recognized as the official start of the First World War.”

But, with all due respect to the always-overlooked eastern theater of the war, there was not yet a Western Front on August 1: Germany didn’t declare war on France for another two days (an event that those two countries marked yesterday with a ceremony in Alsace, the contested province whose recovery helped motivate French participation in the war).

And even then, Britain wasn’t quite in the war. That didn’t happen until the 4th, when the Germans invaded Belgium and Britain joined the fray, invoking a seventy-five year old treaty.

1914 "Scrap of Paper" British recruitment poster
Early British recruitment poster depicting the 1839 Treaty of London, guaranteeing Belgian neutrality and derided as a “scrap of paper” by German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg – Canadian War Museum

• Even then, argued John Keegan, “The First World War had still not quite begun” (The First World War, p. 69): Austria didn’t declare war on Russia until the 5th, and didn’t bother going to war with Germany’s western enemies for another week.

But if I dare argue against my favorite military historian… To the extent it’s possible to pick a single anniversary for an event so complicated as the First World War, I think it’s hard to contend too strongly for any date other than August 4th.

If we imagine a scenario in which Britain didn’t join the war, then we’d likely end up with conflict fought on three European fronts: Belgium and northern France; the region of central and eastern Europe where the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov empires ran into each other; and the Balkans. Had the French somehow held out without the help of the British Expeditionary Force and stalemate still resulted in the west, we might imagine the war spreading to another European theatre (the Italian-Austrian border) and perhaps the Middle East (as the Germans sought Ottoman help against Russia and the French then schemed to add Syria and Lebanon to their empire) or, less likely, Africa (German Cameroon and East Africa bordered French West Africa and the Belgian Congo, respectively).

Australia propaganda poster from WWI with German ape gripping the world in his bloody hands
Anti-German propaganda by Australian artist Norman Lindsay – National Library of Australia

But it would not really have been a world war without Britain’s action on August 4, 1914:

  • Without British participation, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa would not have lost 300,000-some men in battles against German and Ottoman foes.
  • I suppose we could argue that the conflict truly became a world war on August 23rd, when Japan became the first country not in Europe (or a dominion or colony of a European power) to join the war. But it only did so by arrangement with Britain, its then-ally.
  • Nor would the Middle East have been as important a theater as it was, since a neutral Britain needn’t have been worried about losing Suez and access to India. (Though such an Albion would likely still have perfidiously agitated to seize oil concessions and political influence in Palestine, Arabia, and other Ottoman provinces.)
  • It’s impossible to think that France could have interdicted trade to Germany without the Royal Navy, which means that it’s also impossible to imagine that Germany would have needed to counter a blockade by turning to submarine attacks against neutral merchantmen. And that makes it very hard indeed to imagine Woodrow Wilson leading his country into the war in 1917. (For that matter, consider the importance of Anglo-American cultural and economic connections.)

So let’s mark today as the proper 100th anniversary of the war. I’ll have much more to say about it as the week and month go on.

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