The Causes of The Great War

The First World War began in 1914. Today marks the day that Britain and Northern Ireland entered the war.

Royal Irish Rifles in a communications trench, first day on the Somme, 1916.

Over 9 million soldiers died in the 4 years until 11 November 1918.  Total direct casualties were over 37 million (source).

My great grandfather Sidney was in the trenches in the Great War.  He never spoke of his experiences.

The causes of the war are complex. The trigger for the war was the assassination of the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist.

The true causes of the war?

  1. The rise of Nationalism.  “My country is better than any other” was a popular belief in Britain, France, Germany.  This storyline blinded the population and the leadership to the real facts of the situation.
  2. The rise of Imperialism in Germany threatening Great Britain’s sense of world superiority.  Germany were rapidly building a powerful navy and Great Britain were concerned about Germany overtaking their control of the seas.  Germany wished to build an international empire “worthy” of their status as a leading power.  Britain felt this ambition threatened their own empire.  Both Britain and Germany had interest in a valid reason to “adjust” the balance of power.
  3. Delusional Arrogance of the aristocratic leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Britain. They were surrounded by “yes-men”.  Roles were filled by family connection not by merit.  Each leader was led to believe by their advisors that they had massively superior military capabilities. Each country believed that the conflict would be over in a matter of weeks.  “It will be over by Christmas” was the general view of the British soldiers as they headed off to war.  Germany’s first 3 days of war was so incredibly successful (Belgium and northern France collapsed entirely) that the country got very excited by the war.
  4. Political Power more important than Human Rights.  Military and Political leaders who saw soldiers like pawns on a chess board – expendable units for a few yards of advance.  Military technology had moved ahead in giant leaps, but military tactics remained locked in the distant past.
  5. Internal weaknesses in Russia and Germany – the senior leaders needed an external enemy to avoid revolutions and major changes in their own regimes.  Russia had lost a recent war with Japan and needed a victory to boost moral.  Germany was a weak confederation and Kaiser Wilhelm needed a common dangerous enemy to unite factions.
  6. “Sleepwalking” diplomats that watched the events unfold without having a sense that the continued build up would reach all-out war.  Europe had not had a major war in almost 100 years and senior diplomats were often chosen for their family ties, not for their experience or wisdom as spokespeople for their nations.


The song “The Green Fields of France” is often sung in pubs in Ireland to remember the fallen of the war.  It is an intensely sad song that always makes me feel an intense gratitude to be alive today and to live in a time when myself or my friends and children are not under the threat of spending 4 years in trenches.  The song asks whether we have ever learnt the lessons of the war.  I hope we do.  My own personal ambition is to teach the world to use words so powerfully that guns are not needed.  This is a big challenge.

The Green Fields of France

by Eric Bogle

Well how do you do, young Willie McBride,
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while ‘neath the warm summer sun
I’ve been working all day and I’m nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the dead heroes of nineteen-sixteen.
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene.

Chorus :
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the dead-march as they lowered you down.
Did the bugles play the Last Post and chorus,
Did the pipes play the ‘Flooers o’ the Forest’.

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined
Although you died back there in nineteen-sixteen
In that faithful heart are you ever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed and forgotten behind the glass frame
In a old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France
The warm summer breeze makes the red poppies dance
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard it’s still no-man’s-land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generaation that were butchered and damned.

Now young Willie McBride I can’t help but wonder why
Do all those who lie here know why they died
And did they believe when they answered the cause
Did they really believe that this war would end wars
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing and dying was all done in vain
For young Willie McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.


Further Resources


Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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