How Did Alliances Contribute to WW1?

The various military and political alliances, which had been agreed between certain European countries by the early twentieth century, are considered by many historians to be one of the four longterm causes of the First World War.

While the role the alliance system played in the road to war may sometimes be exaggerated, there is no doubting that the different alliances made between the major European powers prior to 1914 did play their part.

In this article, we shall attempt to define what the alliance system was, in the context of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe, and have a look at how these alliances helped cause WW1.

Alliance System Definition

The alliance system is a mutually beneficial formal agreement between two or more nations, which can be economic, political or military in nature.

In Europe, during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, military alliances in particular were prevalent, as countries sought to defend themselves from possible aggressors close to home.

Early Examples of the Alliance System

The need for such a system was brought about from centuries of wars within Europe, culminating in the French Revolutionary Wars, at the end of the eighteenth century, and the Napoleonic Wars, in the early nineteenth century.

These battles, which involved nearly all of the countries from the continent at some point or other, consisted of an ever changing web of alliances, which became known as the Coalition Wars.

The Coalition Wars (1792 – 1815)

Encompassing both the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, the Coalition Wars were a series of seven wars undertaken by a number of different military alliances between the great European powers.

This period of super alliances, or coalitions, came about either in support of Napoleon Bonaparte, or in order to defeat him, and involved a total of twenty-seven duchies, kingdoms and empires at one time or another.

The main European powers who allied together to form the anti-French Coalitions were Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, but only Britain fought in all seven of the wars.

The Congress of Vienna
The Congress of Vienna (1814 – 1815)

Following Napoleon’s defeat, European leaders worked to restore some stability on the continent. The major powers met in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, to establish an informal system of diplomacy, in order to try and prevent any future wars or revolutions. They also set the national boundaries within Europe.

The Holy Alliance (1815)

Only a few months after the Congress of Vienna, the Holy Alliance came about at the behest of Tsar Alexander I, and consisted of a coalition between the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia.

The coalition got its name due to the fact that it was based around Tsar Alexander’s vision of instilling Christian values and the divine right of kings across European political life. Although in reality, the three monarchs in the Alliance used it to suppress any revolutionary influences from entering their kingdoms.

The Quadruple Alliance (1813 – 1815)

First formed in 1813, Austria, Prussia and Russia also joined with Great Britain to form the Quadruple Alliance.

The main goal of this alliance was to stabilise European international relations and counter any revolutionary republican threats, like those which had led to the French Revolution.  

Following the defeat of Napoleon, the alliance was formalised with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, on the 20th November 1815.

The Quintuple Alliance (1818)

In 1818, four became five at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, when France joined the Quadruple Alliance as an equal member, thus making it a Quintuple Alliance.

The main goal of the Congress was France offering to pay most of the war indemnity still owed to the allies, in exchange for the withdrawal of their armies of occupation out of France.

During the 1820s, British foreign policy went in a different direction to the other four European powers, thus weakening the alliance somewhat.

The Congress of Verona
The Congress of Verona (1822)

In 1822, the Quintuple Alliance met for the last time at the Congress of Verona, and the alliance was later disbanded (along with the Holy Alliance of the three original members), following the death of Tsar Alexander I, in 1825.

The First Treaty of London (1839)

The First Treaty of London, also known as the Convention of 1839, while not strictly speaking an alliance, is mentioned here given its importance in the events leading up to World War I.

The Treaty came about following the Belgians establishing an independent Kingdom of Belgium, in 1830, having reluctantly been a part of the Netherlands since 1815. The Kingdom of Belgium was now officially recognised by the co-signatories, namely Great Britain, the German Confederation (led by Prussia), Austria, France, Russia, and of course the Netherlands.

At the time, Britain insisted that the co-signatories agreed to Belgium’s neutrality, which proved to be a key point seventy-five years later, when Germany invaded Belgium, in August 1914,  and was in direct violation of the treaty, thanks to an important ‘scrap of paper’.

A Scrap of Paper - The First Treaty of London 1839
A Scrap of Paper – The First Treaty of London (1839)

When German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, was informed that Great Britain would declare war over Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality, he reportedly asked the departing British Ambassador how Britain could go to war over a mere “scrap of paper”.

League of the Three Emperors (1873)

Having taken full control of German foreign policy in 1870, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck negotiated an agreement between the Kaiser of Germany, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the Tsar of Russia.

The alliance saw a resurrection of the Holy Alliance of 1815 and again acted as security against rising radical sentiments, which each of the monarchs found unsettling.

Bismarck’s overriding objective was to ensure peace in Europe based on a balance of power, thus preventing any one state from gaining enough power to dominate the others. Trouble in the Balkan’s eventually undermined Russia’s commitment to the League, and it collapsed five years later, in 1878.

The Three Emperors’ League was the first in a series of alliances masterminded by the German Chancellor, whose political machinations certainly played an important part in the alliance system’s contribution to being a cause of WW1.

Bismarck the Puppet Master

Splendid Isolation

After its short involvement within the Quadruple and Quintuple Alliances, Britain decided to abstain from the alliance system for most of the nineteenth century. Instead, Britain decided upon a policy of splendid isolation—a term coined by the Canadian politician, George Eulas Foster.

Indeed, for the second half of the nineteenth century, Britain sought to maintain the status quo in Europe, while protecting the trade routes to its colonies.  Perhaps the Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, explained the country’s policy of isolation best, in a speech he made in 1866:

It is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolising alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavour not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country.
Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby

Military Alliances Prior to WW1

A military alliance is a formal agreement between nations, which promises the defence of all of its signatories according to the terms laid out in the agreement.

A number of important military alliances were signed within Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which would eventually have a bearing in the lead up to the First World War.

The Dual Alliance (1879)

Part of Bismarck’s system of alliances to prevent a war in Europe, the Dual Alliance was a military alliance agreed between Germany and Austria-Hungary, in 1879.

Despite their common language and similar culture, the alliance was not necessarily seen as an obvious one at the time, and was primarily brought about due to their mutual concerns over Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans.

The terms of the treaty required each nation to support the other if one of them was attacked by Russia, but both signatories also promised benevolent neutrality to the other nation, if either was attacked by any other of the European powers.

The Triple Alliance (1882)

Having lost out to the French in its attempts to establish a colony in Northern Africa, Italy sought to secure support against France in the future. They found this support in the Triple Alliance—a formal military alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Under the terms of the alliance, Germany and Austria-Hungary were obliged to assist Italy if attacked by France without provocation, while Italy would come to Germany’s assistance in the case where France attacked the Germans. Meanwhile, Italy promised to remain neutral if Austria-Hungary and Russia went to war.

The Triple Alliance
A Satirical Look at the Triple Alliance:
Germany drags the Austrian boy, while the Italian child throws a tantrum to stay with the French cockerel.

At the time, the newly formed nation of Italy was very much seen as the weak link in this military alliance, while public opinion in Italy showed that they were not particularly happy about their alignment with Austria-Hungary, who in the recent past had been against Italian unification.

The Franco-Russian Alliance (1894)

What started out as an economic and political alliance in 1891, the Franco-Russian Alliance (also known as the Dual Alliance), became a military alliance in 1894.

France in particular pushed for a military alliance between the two countries, having felt more and more isolated following the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, agreed in the decade before.

The close of the century now saw two opposing military alliances facing off in mainland Europe.

Franco-Russian Alliance
Satirical Look at the Franco-Russian Alliance

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902)

Anglo-Japanese Alliance
The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was looked upon favourably by the British. public.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was a military alliance between Great Britain and Japan, signed in 1902.

The terms of the agreement included a declaration of neutrality if either signatory became involved in a war related to their interests in China or Korea, as well as a promise of support if either of the signatories became involved in a war with more than one nation.

The wording of the alliance was such that although it acknowledged Japanese interests in Korea, Britain was not necessarily obliged to help Japan should a Russo-Japanese conflict arise.

The alliance was also significant in so much that it ended Britain’s splendid isolation policy, which it had largely maintained since the 1822 Congress of Verona.

Political Alliances Prior to WW1

Although strictly speaking not military alliances, the following ententes involving Great Britain were also very important in how the alliance system contributed to World War One.

The Entente Cordiale (1904)

The signing of the Entente Cordiale, between Great Britain and France, in 1904, was significant in that it marked the end of intermittent conflict between the two countries, which had hitherto taken place for the best part of a millennia.

Although considered more of a friendly agreement than a military alliance, the Entente Cordiale was still a significant departure from the modus vivendi Anglo-French relations had tentatively “enjoyed” up until then, following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

The Entente Cordiale was also widely seen as the first step towards an Anglo-French military alliance and it almost certainly played an important part in Britain’s thinking during the July Crisis of 1914.

The Entente Cordiale
A Satirical Look at the Entente Cordiale – Germany pretends to be non-plussed by Britain and France’s new friendship.

The Anglo-Russian Convention (1907)

The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (also known as the Anglo-Russian Entente) was a non-military alliance, which effectively ended the longstanding rivalry between the two countries in Central Asia.

Having spent much of the nineteenth century as enemies, the Anglo-Russian Convention went a long way to ease tensions between Britain and Russia, but was also seen as a starting point to quell Germany’s aspirations in the Middle East.

Although the Anglo-Russian Convention was not a military alliance, it was extremely important politically from an imperial standpoint, and took Germany totally off guard. Russia and France were now no longer Britain’s biggest imperial rivals abroad—that mantle now belonged to Germany.

The Triple Entente (1907)

The Triple Entente (or Triple Friendship) of 1907 was an informal agreement between France, Russia and Great Britain, and was seen as a counterweight to the Triple Alliance (between Germany, Austria-Hungry and Italy).

Unlike the Triple Alliance, or the Franco-Russian Alliance for that matter, the Triple Entente, was not actually a military alliance. However, it was still extremely significant in that Great Britain had finally abandoned its policy of neutrality on the continent and had effectively chosen a side.

The Triple Entente
The Triple Entente from a Russian perspective – France and Britain being led into war by Mother Russia.

It is worth noting that despite not being a formal military alliance, all three members of the Triple Entente entered the war as the Allied Powers and later agreed to only negotiate any future peace terms together as one.

How Did Alliances Lead to WW1?

We have established the web of alliances that had been created amongst the major powers in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, but how did the alliance system directly contribute towards starting the First World War?

Secret Clauses in Alliances

Although we are now aware of all the clauses, changes and renewals for each of the aforementioned alliances and ententes, that was not the case at the time, where much of the alliance system, in the half century before the war, took place in secrecy.

Many of the secret clauses only came to light following the war itself. One such clause was the clause added to the Dual Alliance, in 1910, which required Germany to directly intervene if Austro-Hungary was attacked by Russia.

And it wasn’t just clauses that were kept secret—sometimes entire treaties were hushed up. For example, the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887, which took place between Germany and Russia, was obviously a highly secret treaty, as Bismarck would not have wanted their closest ally, Austria-Hungary, knowing about it; and certainly not their most dangerous enemy, France.

The Role Alliances Played in the July Crisis

There is always the simplistic way of looking at how the alliance system led Europe to war, where Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, so Russia attacked Austria-Hungry, which led to Germany attacking Russia and then France attacking Germany, but in reality that is not quite how events unravelled during the summer of 1914.

How Did Alliances Contribute to WW1
A Simplistic View of How The Alliance System was to Blame for Starting World War One

That said, there are some key events in the July Crisis, which can justifiably be attributed to the alliance system, especially when it comes to the practicalities of mobilising armies.

One key event was when Russia only wanted to partially mobilise her army to threaten Austria-Hungary, but due to the practicalities of war, had to fully mobilise towards both Austria-Hungary and Germany. If the Dual Alliance and/or the Triple Alliance had not existed, then perhaps Russia would have risked partially mobilising, as the Tsar had initially intended.

Another key event was the fact that any mobilisation of Germany towards France was automatically an act of war, because of the Schlieffen Plan, which required the invasion of Belgium. If the Franco-Russian Alliance had not existed, then perhaps Germany would have risked partially mobilising her army to square up to Russia, which may in turn have eventually led to a cooling down through further negotiations.

Finally, it might be argued if that fateful scrap of paper had not existed and had not held Britain to honour Belgium’s neutrality, then perhaps the British might have stayed out of the war. Although, in reality, it is probably the Entente Cordiale that held more sway for Britain than the much older Treaty of London. After all, Britain did not want the possibility of a post-war Europe without any friends.


There is no doubt that the alliance system played its part in the road to war, but it is important that its role as one of the four causes of WW1 is not over exaggerated. After all, the whole point of an alliance system is to prevent war and maintain the balance of power, not to start one.

It is important to also remember that there were plenty of opportunities during the July Crisis for each of the major powers to take a step back and let peace prevail. So perhaps the alliance system was used more as an excuse to legitimise war for some of the nations involved, rather than being its major cause.

Why not check out the 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WWI – Alliances Power Point Lesson with Speaker Notes

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4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1


The 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1 WebQuest (Student Version) – This 5 page teaching resource consists of a webquest that covers the four main longterm causes of World War One.

The webquest comprises of 5 worksheets, which contain 24 questions, as well as 4 jigsaw puzzles (with secret watermarks) and an online quiz (requiring a pass of 70% to reveal a secret phrase).