World War One: The Major Alliances

The Alliances at the Start of World War One
The Alliances at the Start of World War One. historicair via Wikimedia Commons

By 1914, the six major powers of Europe were split into two alliances, which would – with the exception of Italy – form the two warring sides in World War One. Britain, France, and Russia were in the Triple Entente, while Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were in the Triple Alliance. While historians now lay much less emphasis on these alliances dragging nations into the war against their will (this was once a popular conclusion, with Britain in particular seen as sucked in simply because older treaties), the pre-war alliances really did affect who fought who.

There was nothing natural or inevitable about one - the Entente alliance – because it was created in a large part by German actions and miscalculations.

The Formation of the Central Powers

From 1862 to 1871, Prussian Chancellor Bismarck won a series of small wars which enabled him to form a new German Empire out of multiple small German states around a Prussian core. The united Germany was Bismarck’s overriding goal, and once this was achieved he changed tact, because he feared that the nations surrounding the new German Empire – including France and Austria-Hungary, smarting from their recent defeats – might act to destroy Germany. He was very right on this point, and he didn't want any more wars. What Bismarck wanted was a careful series of alliances and foreign policy decisions which would stabilize Europe until Germany had become an established fact. He believed the next large war would tear the German empire apart and it should be avoided, and he was proved to be very right.

The Dual Alliance

Bismarck knew an alliance with France wasn’t possible because of lingering hatred and anger over the German control of Alsace-Lorraine (which, for all of Bismarck's cunning and genius, was a major flaw in the settlement he made in the Franco-Prussian war), and knew that Britain was engaged in a foreign policy known as “splendid isolation”, which kept the nation out of the continent.

Bismarck thus turned to Austria-Hungary and Russia. In 1873 the first new alliance was created: the Three Emperors League, which pledged mutual wartime support between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. However, Russia withdrew in 1878, and Germany and Austria-Hungary formed the Dual Alliance in 1879. The Dual Alliance promised both parties would aid each other if Russia attacked them, or if Russia assisted another power at war with either nation.

The Triple Alliance

In 1881 the Dual Alliance unifying the center of Europe against war by signing the Triple Alliance treaty with Italy. Both the Dual Alliance and Italy promised to go to war if either was attacked by France. There was another clause, that if any member found themselves at war with two or more nations at once, the alliance would also come to their aid. But crucially for Italy, there was a further clause, voiding the deal if the Triple Alliance members were the aggressor. Shortly after, Italy signed a deal with France, pledging support if Germany attacked them. It’s worth pointing out that the chief concern of the Dual Alliance in signing this wasn’t the support of Italian armies, but to stop Italy attacking them over border issues!

Avoiding War on Two Fronts

Bismarck was keen to avoid fighting a war ​on two fronts, east and west, and this meant making some form of agreement with either France or Russia. The former was still angry over the last war's loss, an anger which would cause them to invade Germany to seize this disputed territory back at the start of World War One as a matter of urgency rather than defend themselves. Bismarck  thus signed a ’Reinsurance’ Treaty with Russia, aiming to avoid having to fight France and Russia at once. It stated that both would remain neutral if one was involved in a war with a third party, and that if that war was with France, Russia had no obligation to aid Germany, just not aid France. However, this treaty only lasted until 1890, when it was allowed to lapse by the government which replaced Bismarck.

The Russians had wanted to keep it, and this is usually seen as a major error by Bismarck's successors.

Bismarck’s Balance Crumbles

The story of late nineteenth century diplomacy after the removal of Bismarck and his carefully constructed alliances – which, while experiencing strain, especially with Russia, were holding due to his skill – is the increasingly alienating and ham-fisted action of German Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ministers. They made Germany look volatile and pushed Russia and Britain into alliance with France. Germany thought they could prise Britain away from the Entente, but all they did with their naval-race and awkward colonial pronouncements was drive Britain closer to France and Russia. Bismarck is often blamed for starting this process by creating a system only someone as skilled as he could hold together in the short term, and that in the long term it would inevitably damage Germany. As, perhaps easily predicted, Bismarck was not replaced by another statesman of genius – in fact the actions of the Germans who followed him bordered on incompetent – and Germany alienated its way to the encirclement they feared.

The formation of the Triple Entente

In 1891, snubbed by Germany, Russia sought other allies. Russia entered into an agreement with France which was spelt out in the 1892 Franco-Russian Military Convention. The terms were loose, but tied both nations into supporting each other should they be involved in a war. It was designed to counter the Triple Alliance, and threatened this with war on two fronts. Much of the diplomacy Bismarck had considered critical to the German Empire’s survival had been undone in a few years.

Meanwhile Britain was concerned that ‘Glorious Isolation’ would get them left behind, especially as they worried over their ability to defend certain African colonies from France, and India from Russia. In addition Germany, who had a historical attachment to Britain thanks to their support of Prussia in previous wars, kept worrying Britain by making confused and awkward interventions in colonial issues and trying to threaten Britain’s global position.

Britain decided to solve this via alliances, and signed the Entente Cordiale with France. This wasn’t an easy peace to create, as both had competing colonial interests, but they overcame these to pledge co-operation in the time of war, if not actual troops. In 1907 Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Entente, forming a three way ‘Triple Entente’ between Britain, Russia and France. This alliance had little in the way of explicit agreements to send in British troops, but did commit the nations to doing something, with the unwritten assumption being armies. What Britain and France did do was sign an Anglo-French Naval Convention, promising the powers would defend certain naval interests for each other.

Britain’s fears were exacerbated as Germany embarked on a lavish naval spending programme designed to challenge British supremacy on the seas and secure colonies, both of which Britain felt threatened by. Britain thus engaged in a tricky balancing act: making the Entente strong enough so Germany would be deterred from starting a war, but making it weak enough so France and Russia would also avoid war.

The alliances were set. When an Austrian heir was assassinated in 1914, all the Great Powers of Europe reacted in a way that led to the slaughter of millions in horrifying battles, and all these actions were conditioned by these alliances. The Triple Entente fought the Central Powers minus Italy, who delayed entering until they joined the Entente after being promised land.