Going Over The Top: Getting an Early Start

By David Flin

In the first article in this series, I examined the network of alliances that built up to form the power blocs that ended up in the First World War. The way these developed sometimes resembles a game of Diplomacy, although some of the real-world countries were not very good players. In this article, I’ll be looking at some earlier potential flashpoints. In OTL, none of these led to a general war, but they could easily have done so.

The Fashoda Incident (1898) This took place in eastern Africa, on the White Nile, between Britain and France. A French expedition to Fashoda to gain control of the Upper Nile ran into a British-Egyptian force that heavily outnumbered it. The commanders of the two forces both asserted national rights over the region, but decided to await instructions from London and Paris. This led to a brief but intense diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

Fashoda Incident. Photograph showing Captain Marchand's boat approaching Sir Herbert Kitchener's gunboat at Fashoda, on the Nile. Other vessels of the British flotilla are visible in the background

The military situation on the ground was heavily in favour of Britain, and France accepted that it needed British friendship to balance Germany more than it needed Fashoda, and a solution was found. The solution heavily favoured Britain, which caused disgruntlement in sections of the French public, and a continuation of heated rhetoric for a time.

However, it marked the last colonial crisis between Britain and France, and resolving it enabled closer relations, culminating in the Entente Cordiale of 1904.

It could easily have gone very differently. If either of the forces involved had started shooting, it would have been much harder for a diplomatic solution to be found. Had this happened, it probably wouldn’t have resulted in a general war, although if France could make a convincing case that Britain had initiated hostilities, then Russia might get involved, which could have a domino effect. More likely would be that it would have been very much harder for Britain and France to develop the Entente Cordiale, with knock-on effects when a general European War does break out.

Russia-Japan War (1904-1905)

The alliances and agreements in force at this time get complicated, especially when one adds in personality issues such as Wilhelm II’s antipathy to the Asian races. Wilhelm certainly encouraged Russia to take a firm stance with Japan, writing in a letter to Nicholas II of Russia:

"Twenty to thirty million Chinese, supported by a half dozen Japanese divisions, led by competent, intrepid Japanese officers, full of hatred for Christianity—that is a vision of the future that cannot be contemplated without concern, and it is not impossible. On the contrary, it is the realisation of the yellow peril, which I described a few years ago and I was ridiculed by the majority of people for my graphic depiction of it ... Your devoted friend and cousin, Willy, Admiral of the Atlantic"

The network of alliances made this complicated. France was allied with Russia, while Britain was allied with Japan. However, Britain had a treaty with France. Meanwhile, Russia, which had a treaty with France regarding Germany, was being encouraged by Germany to fight Japan, which could embroil Russia in a war with Britain, which could embroil France into a war supporting Britain against Russia and a war supporting Russia against Britain.

The war ended up being confined to just Russia and Japan, but it was a close-run thing. When Russia’s Baltic Fleet sailed for Far Eastern waters, it started inauspiciously. Near the Danish coast, the Russian fleet saw ships approaching, and assumed that these were Japanese Torpedo Boats that had sailed around the world to ambush them as they emerged from the Baltic. It first fired on a Russian vessel bringing it messages, then on a Swedish ship, and then, significantly, on British trawlers. This caused outrage in Britain, which refused to believe that a handful of trawlers in the North Sea could be mistaken for Japanese Torpedo Boats launching a surprise attack. War was a distinct possibility.

It blew over, and the Russian fleet continued on its journey half way round the world in order to be humiliatingly beaten by the Japanese.

If Britain and Russia had gone to war, then the network of alliances would have become complicated. It’s probable that a general war would have developed, but it’s not easy to work out who would be on which side. Germany, for example, was supporting and encouraging Russia to fight Japan, and so would be likely to help Russia against Britain, which would have brought France in on Britain’s side, but Britain fighting Russia would have also brought France in on Russia’s side, while Germany was at the time trying to separate Britain from France and Russia, and would have supported Britain against Russia and Russia against Britain.

Confused? So were all the commentators at the time.

Satterfield cartoon about the Russo-Japanese War

Tangiers Crisis (1905-1906)

This crisis was one of diplomatic niceties, and managed to entrench the forming alliances. In this, Wilhelm II of Germany arrived in Tangiers, Morocco, which was in the acknowledged French sphere of influence. While there, he declared his support for the sovereignty of the Sultan. This annoyed the French, to put it mildly, and the situation escalated, with the German Chancellor von Bülow threatening war over the issue.

It sounded like a storm in a tea cup, but Germany called up reserve units, and France moved troops to the German border. Both were attempting to add muscle to their diplomatic arguments.

At the Algeciras Conference, it became evident that Germany was isolated, with only Austria-Hungary supporting it, and Britain, Russia, Spain, Italy, and the United States supporting France. Germany backed down, but Wilhelm II resented having to do so.

Had Germany not backed down, and a general war resulted, then Germany and Austria-Hungary would have been isolated and in deep trouble.

Casablanca Incident (1908)

This is where it officially gets silly. Six deserters, three of them German, from the French Foreign Legion, take refuge in the German Consulate in Casablanca. The German Chancellor of the Consulate issues them with a safe conduct pass, and they make their way to take passage on a German ship.

Surprisingly, the French Foreign Legion arrested, with some violence, the deserters before they reached the ship, and a diplomatic row followed. After sabre rattling and the usual threats of war, France and Germany agreed to arbitration before four judges, two selected by each side, and the four judges would select an umpire. Germany chose an Italian (Italy being part of the Triple Alliance) and a German, while France chose a Frenchman and an Englishman (England being part of the Triple Entente). The four judges chose a Swede as Umpire. They considered the case carefully, and after three weeks of intense discussions, came to the conclusion that armies do indeed have the right to arrest deserters in a public place.

Germany threatened war if the rights of German citizens were not respected, but it fizzled out. The main effect of the incident was to desensitise diplomats to German threats of going to war. It was unlikely that war could have arisen, but things had a potential of spiralling out of control had one of the deserters been killed when being arrested by the French authorities. Had that happened, Germany would again have been isolated and in some difficulties in a general war.

Bosnian Crisis (1908-1909)

In October 1908, Austria-Hungary announced that it was unilaterally annexing the former Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The status of Bosnia and Herzegovina was complicated, but the Great Powers had agreed in 1878 that Austria-Hungary would administer the territories.

Unilateral annexation was no part of the agreement, as the territories were technically under Ottoman sovereignty, although being administered by Austria-Hungary. On 6 October, Austria-Hungary announced the annexation. On 7 October, Serbia, feeling under threat and with its own ambitions in the Balkans, mobilised its army. The Ottoman Empire protested the annexation, and began mobilising its army.

Britain, France, Italy, and Russia viewed the situation with alarm, and called for a conference to resolve the issue. Germany opposed such a conference, and squabbles over location, nature, and preconditions prevented it from taking place. As a result, a series of bilateral talks took place to resolve the crisis. Italy and Austria-Hungary agreed that Italy would be compensated for its recognition of the annexation, However, no compensation was actually delivered, and this became one of the reasons why Italy broke its alliance with Austria-Hungary and fought alongside the Entente when the First World War started.

Russia and Austria-Hungary came to an agreement over Russian use of the Dardanelles in exchange for Russian recognition of the annexation. However, this came to nothing, and Russia felt that Austria-Hungary had not negotiated in good faith.

Serbian demands were ignored by Austria-Hungary, which threatened general war if Britain and France didn’t persuade Serbia to accept what it was being offered, which was nothing. Serbia was leant on, and it backed down.

In the short-term, it was a complete diplomatic victory for Austria-Hungary, but at the cost of ensuring Russia, Italy, and Serbia no longer regarded Austria-Hungary as being in anyway trustworthy when it comes to negotiations.

Throughout, Austria-Hungary adopted a belligerent stance, and it was by no means out of the question for any of the great powers to not back down. Under the circumstances here, the Ottoman Empire would have been firmly opposed to Austria-Hungary, opening the Dardanelles to allow supplies to reach southern Russia easily.

Other near misses

By now, everyone was used to crises involving threats of war and brinkmanship by some or most of the powers, none of which resulted in a general war. These were followed by others, the Agadir Crisis (1911), the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912), the First Balkan War (1912-1913), and the Second Balkan War (1913).

Threats of war and brinkmanship had become the norm, with agreements made to resolve disputes frequently broken and ignored. None of these crises had developed into a general war, and it was in this context that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary went to watch military manoeuvres in Bosnia in June 1914, to be followed with the opening of a museum in Sarajevo.

Alternate History possibilities

There are many different points at which the First World War could have started earlier. At each point, the technological and power balance will be different, possibly leading to very different outcomes.

In the next article in this series, I’ll be taking the opposite route, and looking at whether or not war could have been avoided following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

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