The Road To War

When considering the Christmas Truce, it is important to first take a look at what started WW1 in the first place. You can find an in-depth look at the causes of World War One on the 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1 page. However, this article provides a more concise summary of The Road To War.

A Powder Keg Waiting to Explode

By 1914, Europe had become a hotbed of alliances and political intrigue. Two nations in particular stood out: Germany, an economic Goliath, with the largest army in the world, and Great Britain, who still very much ruled the waves and had built an empire that even Germany was envious of.

Royal family ties did not seem to make the uneasiness in Europe any better; if anything they probably made the situation worse. Three cousins now held the power in Europe: King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, and although the British King and Russian Tsar had quite a warm relationship, the same could not be said of their German cousin, Wilhelm.

The Road to War

Queen Victoria’s attempt to ensure peace through family matchmaking in the 19th Century seemed to have badly backfired. Her eldest grandson, Wilhelm had grown up resenting all things British, in particular George’s father, King Edward VII. The Kaiser’s jealousy towards his uncle Edward had certainly helped spur him on to build such a great army, as well as the building of a navy, which he hoped would one day rival the Royal Navy.

Wilhelm had also been furious with his uncle for seemingly encircling Germany within a web of alliances, the most noticeable of which was the entente cordiale, a series of agreements signed on the 8th April 1904, between Britain and France. When added to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892, it is understandable to see Wilhelm’s concerns of being boxed in.

Meanwhile, Germany’s strongest ally was fast becoming her greatest liability. The once mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire was beginning to weaken, both militarily and economically. Furthermore, it was involved in a number of border disputes with the Balkan countries, which were becoming embarrassing to Austria-Hungary, and in turn to Germany itself.

In particular, Serbia was becoming a thorn in the Austrian emperor’s side, with terrorist groups causing trouble at every turn. This was now coming to a head, with Germany strongly advising Austria-Hungary to keep their house in order and solve the Serbian problem.

It was perhaps surprising then that it was not in Serbia, but in neighbouring Bosnia, that an incident took place, which was to ignite the powder keg that Europe had become and trigger a series of seemingly unstoppable events, which would lead not only to a war in Europe, but eventually to the first ever world war.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand had always been somewhat of an embarrassment to his uncle, Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. His playboy lifestyle did not go down at all well with the Emperor, especially when Franz Ferdinand became heir to his throne, in 1896. However, it was Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie Chotek, which particularly infuriated his uncle.

The Emperor had made it quite clear that his nephew was not to marry Sophie, a mere countess, as it was contrary to the rules of the Habsburg family, who were only permitted to marry a member of one of the European royal dynasties. Franz Ferdinand, who was totally besotted with Sophie, ignored his uncle’s wishes.

Emperor Franz Joseph did finally allow the marriage to go ahead, in 1901, thanks in part to a request from Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a close friend of Franz Ferdinand, but only on the proviso that the marriage would be morganatic, which meant that their descendants would not have any succession rights to the throne.

As it turned out, Sophie would be a good influence over Franz Ferdinand’s life and over time even the rift with his uncle had healed enough that he began to take an active role in the government and carry out official engagements. It was on one such engagement in the summer of 1914 that he found himself in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

The Archduke must have been aware of how dangerous such a trip was. His uncle had been the subject of a failed assassination attempt by the Serbian secret military society, Unification or Death, also known as the ‘Black Hand’, a few years earlier, in 1911. However, despite the known risks, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, drove through the streets of Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914, in an open sports motorcar with its top folded down.

The security provided for the Archduke while he was in Sarajevo was altogether quite lax. A proposal that troops line the route was dismissed out of hand, as it was believed that this would offend the loyal citizens of Bosnia. With hindsight, this lack of security was extremely foolhardy, as the assassination of the Archduke had actually been in the planning since March of that year.

An Unlikely Assassination

On the morning of the 28th June 1914, a team of six assassins had been assembled in Sarajevo by Danilo Ilić, a Bosnian Orthodox Serb, who was a member of the Black Hand secret society. The assassins, who had been trained in Serbia, were armed with bombs and pistols and had been posted along the motorcade route of the Archduke. The team included a Bosniak by the name of Gavrilo Princip.

The series of events leading up to the assassination really were quite remarkable, and from the outset it appeared that the dastardly act was all set to fail. The motorcade passed the first two assassins without either of them acting, but the third would-be assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, threw his bomb at the motorcar that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were driving in. However, the bomb actually bounced off the folded back cover of the convertible sports car and exploded under the next car in the motorcade, injuring about 20 people in the process.

The rest of the cars then sped up, which meant that the three remaining assassins, including Gavrilo Princip, each failed to act as the Archduke’s car passed them by. Meanwhile, Čabrinović had swallowed a cyanide tablet and then jumped into the Miljacka river in order to avoid being captured. Incredibly, he did not die, as the cyanide tablet was past its sell-by date, only making him sick, and the river was not very deep during the summer months. Instead, he was arrested by the police, but not before being badly beaten by an angry crowd.

Having escaped the assassination attempt unscathed, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie continued on with their visit to the Town Hall, where the Archduke was scheduled to give a speech. Clearly shaken by the events, he began his speech by saying, “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I am greeted with bombs. It is outrageous”.

After the reception, the Archduke decided that rather than continuing with the planned itinerary, he and Sophie would instead visit the victims injured in the attack. For security reasons, a change in the route was decided upon in order to avoid the city centre. Unfortunately, the chauffeur driving Franz Ferdinand’s car did not know the new route and made a wrong turn down a side street.

As fate would have it, they had driven down the very same street that Gavrilo Princip happened to be waiting on. It is not known for certain if it was a pure coincidence that Princip was standing outside of Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen, or if he believed the street to be part of the Archduke’s return route from the Town Hall.

Whatever the reason, Gavrilo Princip had found himself in the right place at the right time. As the chauffeur fumbled with the gears, Princip was able to walk up to the car and fire two shots from less than six feet away; hitting Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the stomach. They both died before receiving any medical assistance.

What Started WW1?

At his trial, Princip later confessed that he had only meant to shoot the Archduke and was truly sorry that Sophie had also been murdered. Aged nineteen, Princip was too young to receive the death penalty for his crime and so was given the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, where he died of tuberculosis, almost four years later.

As horrible as this deed in Sarajevo had been, no-one could possibly have envisaged the series of events that followed. Whether or not the assassination was just used as an excuse for war, which Germany in particular pounced upon, there is no doubting the fact that the assassination in Sarajevo was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

What Started WW1?

Following the assassination of the Archduke, events took place at a frightening rate. Emperor Franz Joseph was outraged that his nephew had been killed and demanded quick retribution, but the once mighty Austria-Hungary declaring war on lowly Serbia was not as easy as it may have appeared and Emperor Franz Joseph knew fine well he would need Kaiser Wilhelm’s permission.

Kaiser Wilhelm himself was deeply saddened at his friend’s murder, but he was warned by his ministers that Serbia had a powerful ally of its own in Russia. They knew that if Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia, there was a very strong chance that Russia would declare war on Austria-Hungary. Then Emperor Franz Joseph would no doubt come to Germany and ask the Kaiser for help against Russia. And a war with Russia was also not without its complications.

Russia had a longstanding alliance with France, which had been established for the very purpose of ensuring that the German powerhouse would not go to war with either country. Although Germany had by far the strongest army and stockpile of weapons, it would mean the possibility of a war on two fronts. A situation that the German ministers were strongly advising the Kaiser not to even contemplate.

And there were further complications, which the German government were all too ready to point out to their Kaiser. According to the Schlieffen Plan, the only successful way of defeating France was to invade them via Belgium. And the German ministers strongly advised the Kaiser against doing that, as Belgium just so happened to have an alliance with Great Britain.

Incredibly, the Kaiser refused to take the advice of his own government and actively encouraged his cousin Franz Joseph to declare war on Serbia. It is not known exactly whether Kaiser Wilhelm hoped that the alliances would not hold up, or whether he actually felt that Germany was strong enough to take on the whole of Europe on two fronts.

Whatever his reasoning, Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia on the 28th July 1914 led to a series of unstoppable events, and on the 4th August 1914, only 37 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Great Britain declared war on Germany citing as the reason the violation of the The Treaty of London, in which Belgium’s neutrality was to be respected by all nations.

Test Your Knowledge of The Road To War

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King George V and Tsar Nicholas II.

The Entente Cordiale.



The Black Hand.

Nedeljko Čabrinović.

Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen.



4th August 1914.

Please note that this Test Your Knowledge of The Road To War exercise is now also available as a Premium Quiz Sheet for teachers to print out for their class and works well in tandem with The Road To War PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes.