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World War One: Photographs of the horror, the heroism and the suffering and slaughter - the Great War that changed to the world forever

Historian Richard Doherty looks at the complex causes behind the Great War, and asks if it could have been prevented

One hundred years ago today, an hour before midnight, the United Kingdom government declared war on Germany. Britain thus entered into a week-old war that had begun with an Austrian declaration of war on Serbia and expanded to bring in Russia, to support the Serbs, and Germany, to support the Austrians.

Along the way, Germany had not only declared war on France but had launched an attack on its neighbour. In the hope of knocking the French armies out quickly, and then turning to deal with Russia, the Germans had taken a short cut through Belgium.

And it was that breach of Belgian neutrality which led to Britain issuing an ultimatum to Germany. That ultimatum expired at 11pm on August 4 and the Royal Navy and Army, already mobilising, began finalising their preparations for active service.

Over the next few days the Expeditionary Force, as it was then known, was transported to France to support the French armies. This was a superb piece of logistics and represented the apotheosis of much Franco-British staff work in the preceding years. What it didn't represent was a formal military alliance between Britain and France.

Looking back a century later we could be excused for thinking that the alliances that existed during the war preceded it and were solid. That wasn't the case. Those alliances were much looser than we think and didn't oblige members to support each other in war. Italy and Romania were allied with the German Empire but remained neutral in August 1914 before later entering the war against Germany.

For the driving forces that led us to war, we have to look back at the increasing nationalism of European nations, the rush to create empires and to seek out new markets for goods. It was such forces that led the newly-united Germany to enter into an arms race with Britain, attempting to create a navy that would match the Royal Navy, then the most powerful in the world.

Europe had several power blocs. France faced Germany, which had an alliance, and blood ties, with the Austro-Hungarian, or Habsburg, Empire. To meet the threat posed by this – and Germany, as Prussia, had conquered France just over 40 years earlier – France reached an agreement with Russia. In turn the Russian Empire offered protection to the Slav nations, especially Serbia which felt threatened by the Habsburg Empire.

When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, he threw the switch that let flow the current that sparked off war a month later. But even then, war was not inevitable. The switch might have been turned off.

Major international crises had been averted in the past by the great powers. But these had not been centred in Europe. This one was. Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, having occupied these Slav lands since 1878. The annexation was in contravention of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin and it was the desire of the Slavs for independence that led directly to war.

Could Slav wishes have been accommodated within the Habsburg Empire? It is possible that this could have occurred. One man had the idea of a federal empire of states under the Habsburg crown but this ran counter to the desires of the more extreme Slav nationalists. And when the man with the idea visited Sarajevo on his 50th birthday, those nationalists had the opportunity to eliminate him. Franz Ferdinand's grand idea died with him.

Even then war might have been averted. However, Franz Ferdinand, although heir to the throne, had suffered indignities from his family and the establishment. He had married a Bohemian aristocrat for love and Sophie was not considered 'royal enough'. As a result the marriage was morganatic with the couple having to accept Sophie could not inherit her husband's titles, nor could their children inherit the throne.

Part of that arrangement was that Sophie was not entitled to a state funeral. And so Franz Ferdinand had renounced his right to a state funeral. As a result there was no gathering of leaders at which talks might have taken place to avert war. In one sense, Europe had blundered into war but the blundering was a result of the adherence of the Habsburg dynasty to tradition.

The war left millions dead and it changed the face of Europe. Gone were the German and Habsburg empires. Gone, too, were the Turkish and Russian empires. Both the British and French empires survived, but in weakened states. The United States had entered the war and then retreated from the international stage, having played a major role in the settlement at Versailles that was to lead to another world war.

At home, two major pieces of legislation had been stalled on the outbreak of war: Home Rule for Ireland and the emancipation of women. In spite of the contribution that women made to the war effort, taking over men's jobs in offices, munitions factories, on the buses and the farms, only women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote in 1918.

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