Why did war break out in 1914?
With the exception of the United States, the great powers were organized loosely into a system of alliances. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance. France and Russia, fearing the growth of German power, had entered into an alliance in 1892. Russia maintained its close traditional ties with its fellow Slavs in Serbia. Britain increasingly feared the German naval build-up. In 1904, Britain and France entered into the Entente Cordiale (An Agreement between the Countries), an informal arrangement less binding than a mutual defense pact. After Russia's alarming defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, Great Britain aligned itself with Russia to help preserve the European balance of power.
Each of these alliances was somewhat obscure, for the precise obligations of the alliance partners were sometimes spelled out only in secret documents and, other times, not at all. The Anglo-French Entente was especially shrouded in ambiguity. During the years preceding the 1914 crisis, the British and French General Staffs consulted frequently to develop war plans in the event of an outbreak of hostilities with Germany. The British and French navies also cooperated extensively. Nevertheless, the idea of an anti-German alliance was unpopular in Great Britain, a sentiment which compelled British politicians to declare periodically that Anglo-French military collaboration implied no obligation to assist France in a war against Germany. In fact, during the last weeks before the outbreak of war, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey frequently stated in Parliament that the Entente would not restrict Britain's "freedom of action" in a crisis. This lack of clarity in British policy may have contributed to the fatal miscalculation by the German leadership who assumed that Great Britain would remain neutral.
Few imagined that the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Serbian nationalists on June 28, 1914, would...