I am looking for information on the general perception of the educated population in the decade leading up to WW1. I would like to know to what extent a tragedy of the scale of WW1 was foreseen. Was it a shock that it happened, or was it something that many saw inevitably nearing?

I find it difficult to find information on this topic by searching the internet. I can find analyses about the causes of the war, and discussions about whether it was inevitable. But I am unable to find information about how the situation was perceived at that time.

Just to be clear, I am sure that there are some writings out there that seem to have predicted it, but statistically there will always be a few. This is not what I am asking about. I would like to know if concerns about a disaster of this scale were something that came up relatively frequently in intellectual discussions of that time (as they do in our time).

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    Most French newspapers of the early 1900s are available in the internet, at the portal 'Gallica'. Reading them is very interesting and enlightening. The general tone of the comments and reporting was strongly anti-German and very aggressive...
    – xxavier
    Aug 15, 2017 at 9:41
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    @xxavier French is not one of the languages I can read, but looking for old newspapers is a great idea! I'll see what I can find in my own language.
    – user26353
    Aug 15, 2017 at 20:39
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    One relevant tidbit: Shortly before the war began, Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) wrote a story called "Danger!" which described how a European power might use submarines to sink cargo vessels carrying food from North America to the UK, and thus starve the UK into submission. Doyle's basic point was that the UK now imported the vast majority of its food supply from overseas, and that was a weakness for an enemy to exploit. (The Germans did, in fact, try something along those lines in 1917.)
    – Lorendiac
    Aug 16, 2017 at 2:19
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    @Lorendiac It seems that Britain was actually importing about 60% of its food in 1914 (according to page 2 of this document, cited vaguely to the UK government). I'm not sure that's "the vast majority", though it's certainly a significant majority. Aug 16, 2017 at 12:20
  • @David Richerby - I found an e-text at gutenberg.org/files/22357/22357-h/22357-h.htm and in it, Doyle wrote that four-fifths of Great Britain's food was imported "in normal times." I don't know just where he got that figure, and I don't know if 60% or 80% is closer to the truth of where it stood in the early 1910s.
    – Lorendiac
    Aug 18, 2017 at 2:22

7 Answers 7


It was foreseen that there would be new wars, and that the alliance system meant that there was real potential for a war to involve most of Europe. Otto von Bismarck said in 1897 "One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans." and he was generally recognised as having a very acute understanding of European politics and the boundaries between peace and war.

However, nobody anticipated that the war would take the shape that it did. It was not realised just how effective defence had become, with the fairly new technologies of barbed wire and machine guns, nor that the industrial age allowed mobilising huge armies rapidly, moving them swiftly and supplying them adequately. Nor did anyone believe that opposition troops could take the losses they did and carry on fighting (everyone believed their own troops were steadfast, but not anyone else's).

Nobody understood that horse cavalry was obsolete on the battlefield, or believed that unrestricted submarine warfare would break out, or really knew how to manage a vast system of convoys, or manoeuvre large fleets in poor visibility. They didn't anticipate gas warfare, or flamethrowers, or aerial warfare, or the other expedients that would be tried to break out of the deadly embrace in which the armies of the Western Front held each other.

War was anticipated, but not the scale of the tragedy that WWI became. It changed Europe greatly, and its after-effects are not yet over.

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    The general expectation was probably something like the Franco-Prussian war. Aug 14, 2017 at 20:00
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    @StevenBurnap: yep, "Generals always fight the last war"
    – sds
    Aug 14, 2017 at 20:53
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    Yet, much of the lessons to be learned during World War One were amply demonstrated during both the American Civil War and the Second Boer War. The Prussian victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870 were always the exception, due to significant technological (and organizational, due to the Prussian General Staff) advantage. Aug 14, 2017 at 21:47
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    Yeah, unfortunately the European generals didn't think much of the US Civil War despite it being a gold mine of experience and tactics in the new ways of fighting. Aug 14, 2017 at 23:59
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    @sds Really it is ‘soldiers are always preparing to fight the last war.’ lists.project-wombat.org/pipermail/…
    – Gangnus
    Aug 15, 2017 at 10:03

The Great War was generally foreseen, there was a buildup of arms that both predicted it and enabled it to happen. I learned about the lead up to the War in high school IB history. The arms race is well known and often referenced in reference to the naval buildup of 'Dreadnoughts'.

Dallman's answer quoting Bismarck is intriguing. I did not know the predictions went that far back. I do know the naval buildup and posturing basically came in with the new century. There were major tense moments in 1905 and 1908. Basically competing empires with many colonies would tussle over far off interests - similar to the US-Russia Cold War many years later where fighting over colonies (or proxies) was the "cold" part of the war. The big difference was in the cold war there was the threat of nuclear annihilation so it was universally agreed that bringing home the war wasn't desirable. But at the turn of the 1900s new technological arrogance had many countries imagining their new industrial prowess made them unbeatable and so had optimistic expectations of the war.

This is evident when we look at who fought in the war early on. In Britain the aristocracy sent all of their young men to fight thinking that war was a sure path to glory, they had no idea of how deadly this war would be. A generation of aristocrats were wiped out and this had a major impact on Britain (one upside being that it became somewhat more democratic with many traditional hereditary offices left vacant). The Futurists were also wiped out in this way. They were techno-utopians, sort sort of proto-facists who believed in the goodness of war as a sort of social-darwinian strength builder. They were very stupid and were killed early on.

The War started slowly. The real fighting didn't get going much until the fall (September) but The Guns of August, by Tuchman is one of the most influential histories written in 1962. In 1996 Jannen pushed it earlier with his Lions of July history. Back then the pace of war and change felt very fast with telegraphs and rail travel but is very slow of course by our modern standards. Parades sent happy soldiers off to war even into the autumn, they were finally going to go settle the grudge against the other side, sure of victory, sure of glory. Germany and France had had longstanding animosity from invasions going back to Napoleon and Bismarck was the German champion who conquered France in 1871.

The war was seen as inevitable by many. But the cause of the war is frequently debated. Check out the BBC's list of 10 theories on who started the war. A lot has to do with the falling apart of Austro-Hungarian empire.

Robert Newman, from Caliban to the Taliban, has an intriguing theory which posits that the first World War started in Iraq and war over Iraq continues to this day, as powerful empires compete for its oil.

Whatever it was that caused it, it was foreseen. But your not going to find one definite source of the start of it, as that complexity is a big part of why the War started at all. Franz Ferdinand is pointed to as the start because he was the first one in Europe who was shot. And the complex forces led to a total war over the coming years. As Robert Newman says, surely that one guy was not really THAT popular. There was a lot going on that predicted it, but his death is the simplest way of explaining a complex situation.

John Dallman's conclusion is correct - that the effects of this complicated power struggle are not yet over.

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    I understand that many theories about how WW1 started can be defended, and I didn't read the book you mention, but saying it started in Iraq (back then part of Ottoman Empire) is nonsense, considering Ottoman Empire only joined the war 5 years after it's start.
    – Bregalad
    Aug 15, 2017 at 9:59
  • The "invasions" go back further than Napoleon. IIRC Louis XIV seized Alsace-Lorraine (Elsaß-Lothringen) in the early 1700s, while Austria was occupied in the Balkans and before Prussia was a power.
    – David
    Aug 15, 2017 at 13:05
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    ... but it goes back even further than that. Charlemagne had three sons: one inherited Germany/Austria, one inherited France, and one inherited the "middle" (Belgium, Luxembourg, Savoy, the Saar, Alsace, Lorraine, ...) This third son died young and the descendants of his brothers have been fighting over his land ever since.
    – David
    Aug 15, 2017 at 13:09
  • And Cain killed Abel..... Aug 15, 2017 at 19:33

Certainly, yes. It was foreseen, it was anticipated, and it was actively sought and welcome, on many sides.

Revanchism had been festering in France since the defeat and perceived humiliation in 1871 (indemnity being exactly what Napoleon had asked 65 years earlier, plus interest) until long after World War I. Total war as popularized much later by Adolf Hitler, was not a new idea at all and was as an idea actively promoted and idealized from the 1870s (To The Last Cartridge).

Georges Clémenceau, the French Donald Trump of the 1900s, a radical and revanchist, was well-known for anticipating and promoting the idea of a war with the German Empire in retaliation of 1870/71, and in order to win back Alsace_Lorraine. He had been actively preparing for war since at least April 1904. Since the Tanger crisis (1905), the war was regarded and promoted as "unavoidable". Théophile Delcassé, foreign minister at that time, and considered the "Most dangerous man for Germany in France" (Wilhelm II) in the early 1900s could be named in one sentence with Clémenceau, both for his hatred towards Germany (since 1898/99), and his strife to prepare for the upcoming war.

During at least half a decade preceding the Entente, Otto von Bismarck (a notable warmonger) had in turn been actively trying (however unsuccessfully) to estrange the French and the British, likely also in preparation of the anticipated war. He had presumably been working on this ever since he provoked the French army to an attack in 1870.

Jean Jaurès on the other hand, as a strict anti-militarist is known to have spoken for humanity and peace, and against the upcoming war for at least a decade, and having tried to actively prevent its immediate preparations since at least August 1913 ("loi des trois ans"). He continued opposing until the very day of his assassination (ironically by a Clémenceau follower).

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    Georges Clémenceau, the French Donald Trump of the 1900s You're definitely in need of a citation to claim that Clémenceau was the equivalent of what Trump is today.
    – Bregalad
    Aug 16, 2017 at 6:54
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    Trump isn't as unique as we'd assume. For instance, Warren Harding, the American Trump of the 1920s. What's old is new again. Aug 16, 2017 at 8:38
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    What is sure is that I would never refer to Donald Trump as "the Georges Clémenceau of the 21st century".
    – Evargalo
    Aug 16, 2017 at 16:09

"The Riddle of the Sands" - a spy story published in 1903 - was just one of many predictions of war involving Britain and Germany, and specifically involving a naval dimension.

The British Admiralty widely believed that the war wouldn't happen until the Germans completed widening the Kiel Canal, to simplify moving ships between the Baltic and North Sea/Atlantic Ocean. The linked article says

The formal reopening on June 24, 1914, in the week ending on July 1, 1914, was believed by Germany to be the forerunner of great events.

On June 28, Archduke Ferdinand was shot...


Was WW1 generally foreseen?

       Yes Europe was armed to the teeth
       Yes Europe had experienced wars for most of it's history even recent history
       Yes military leaders had plans in place for defeating powerful neibors.    
                German Schlieffen plan
                France's offensive Plan XVII 
                Joint British and French arrangements   
                Russia's approach to a future European war

Europe was well prepared and well understood local isolated wars among it's nations. Europe was not prepared, nor experienced, nor did they understand the abyss of a pan European war even as they stood at the precipice of that war. WWI had 40 million casualties, that was unprecedented for any prior war.

To this extent WWI was not generally foreseen from the perspective of those who contributed to the start of that war. There were shrewd diplomatic observers who were aware of what was happening as it happened, but they were the exception not the rule among professional diplomats, military leaders, and European rulers each took action without understanding the consequences of those actions until Europe was embroiled in a global war.

Each European country secured their peace through an elaborate series of treaties and alliances. These alliances were not well understood outside of the parties involved, and sometimes were outright state secrets. These alliances changed over time. Russia was once a German ally but within 3 years of negotiating that treaty flipped and became a French Ally against Germany. Treaties contained provisions and caveots. If Russia attacks Austria Hungary then Germany will be in alliance but if France attacks Austria Hungary or Germany than the other country will be neutral. Unforeseen consequences due to the complex and opaque treaty system is an often cited cause of WWI.

  • Would Austria Hungary have declared war on Serbia if they knew Russia would respond?
  • Would Russia have mobilized their troops if they realized Germany would interpret that as a hostile action and declare war?
  • Which cross purpose series of treaties would Italy, who was both aligned with France and Britain and Germany ultimately support?
  • Germany understood France was Russia's ally but did they understand that Britain would respond too? Britain would respond not due to Germany's invasion of France but due to Germany's invasion of little Belgium to get at France.

Secret Treaties of WWI
The "elaborate alliance systems" among European powers, "each secured by a network of secret treaties, financial arrangements, and 'military understandings'" are commonly cited as one of the causes of World War I.4 For example, the Reinsurance Treaty of June 1887 between the German Empire and the Russian Empire (negotiated by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in order for Germany to avoid a two-front war), was a "highly secret treaty" in which the two powers pledged a three-year period to remain neutral should the other become involved in a war with a third country, unless Germany attacked Russia's longstanding ally France or Russia attacked Germany's longstanding ally Austria-Hungary.5

The use of "secret agreements and undertakings between several allies or between one state and another" continued throughout World War I; some of them were irreconcilably inconsistent, "leaving a bitter legacy of dispute" at the end of the war.

In the famous, Pulitzer Prize winning book "the Guns of August " by Barbara W. Tuchman she describes the first month of WWI. A series of actions which like dominos created unforeseen cascading events which ended in the first World War which almost nobody predicted or understood as the inevitable or even the possible consequences of their own actions.

The Guns of August (1962), also published as August 1914, is a volume of history by Barbara W. Tuchman. It is centered on the first month of World War I. After introductory chapters, Tuchman describes in great detail the opening events of the conflict. Its focus then becomes a military history of the contestants, chiefly the great powers.

The Guns of August thus provides a narrative of the earliest stages of World War I, from the decisions to go to war, up until the start of the Franco-British offensive that stopped the German advance into France.

One of the big contributors to this global war were opaque and secret treaties which made predictions the consequences of aggression against that neighbor or this neighbor difficult if not party to the agreement.

Pertinent Treaties:

  • The Treaty of London – 1839, Belgium had recently broken with the Netherlands this treaty between Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation, Russia and the Netherlands recognized a new independent Belgium and it's neutrality in any European dispute between the great powers. This is the treaty which ultimately brought Britain into WWI when Germany invaded her.

  • Dual Alliance / Triple Alliance – 1879, A treaty between Germany and Austria Hungary which pledged if either were attacked by Russia both would join in. the Treaty further said if either were attacked by a non Russian country the other would remain neutral. Italy joined in the Triple Alliance in 1882, but later reneged on their commitment upon the outbreak of the war in 1914.

  • Reinsurance Treaty – 1887, The secret treaty between Germany and Russia, agreed that the two countries would observe neutrality should one the other be involved in a war with a third country – although this would be wavered should Germany attack France or Russia attack Austria Hungary. It also agreed that Germany would declare herself neutral in the event of a Russian intervention in the Bosphorous and the Dardanelles.

  • Franco – Russian Alliance – 1894, when Germany refused to renew it's Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia for fear of upsetting the UK and Ottoman Empires, it left Russia vulnerable. France and Russia formed this alliance as a consequence of Russia loosing that agreement with Germany.

  • Entente Cordiale – 1904, between France and Britain. during the Russo-Japanese War France and Britain were put on a path of war neither wanted on behalf of their allies. France was allied with Russia and Britain with Japan. In order to avoid war, the sides negotiated a treaty that settled many long standing issues – particularly their differences in Africa over British control of Egypt and French control of Morocco.

  • The Triple Entente – 1907 - An agreement between Britain and Russia to stop their rivalry in Central Asia. Often mistaken as a triple alliance with France, which never actually existed.

  • Ottoman–German alliance - 1914 - secret, Germany and Turkey would remain neutral in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but if Russia intervened "with active military measures" the two countries would become military allies.

  • Treaty of London - 1915 - secret, in which Italy was promised certain territorial concessions in exchange for joining the war on the Triple Entente (Allied) side

  • Treaty of Bucharest - 1916 - secret, concluded between Romania and the Triple Entente powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) on August 17, 1916; under this treaty, Romania pledged to attack Austria-Hungary and not to seek a separate peace in exchange for certain territorial gains after the war.

Here's how it went down.

  • June 28, 1914 Sarajevo, Serbia, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip assassinates Arch Duke of the Austro Hungarian Empire and his wife
  • July 28, 1914 The Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia.
  • July 31, 1914 - Reacting to the Austrian attack on Serbia, Russia begins full mobilization of its troops.
  • August 1, 1914 - Germany declares war on Russia. France and Belgium begin full mobilization.
  • August 3, 1914 - Germany declares war on France, and invades neutral Belgium.
  • August 4, 1914 - Great Britain declares war on Germany, due to Britain's agreement with Belguim. The declaration is binding on all Dominions within the British Empire including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.
  • August 6, 1914 - The Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Russia.
  • August 12, 1914 - Great Britain and France declare war on Austria-Hungary.
  • August 23, 1914 - Japan declares war on Germany.
  • October 29, 1914 - The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) enters the war on the side of the Germans
  • November 5, 1914 - France and Britain declare war on the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

Question: I am looking for information on the general perception of the educated population in the decade leading up to WW1. I would like to know to what extent a tragedy of the scale of WW1 was foreseen. Was it a shock that it happened, or was it something that many saw inevitably nearing?


The Guns of August chapter 1 begins at King Edward VII's funeral in May of 1910. 9 Kings attended that funeral including Germany's Kaiser. It discusses European history leading up to WWI. Included were European royalty, alliances, diplomacy, rivalries, and nationalism leading up to WWI.

Question: I would like to know if concerns about a disaster of this scale were something that came up relatively frequently in intellectual discussions of that time (as they do in our time).

War on the scale of WWI was unknown prior to that war. War had never been fought by that many people across so many countries, across such a vast area before. The weapons used, the scale of munition production, were also new and unprecedented. People in Europe feared wars on smaller scale. Like a war between France and Germany (Franco Prussian War). Not even the experts understood a war which spanned the entire continent was developing when a 19 year old revolutionary killed the scion to one of the great empires of Europe.

The Guns of August Chapters 6 to 9 commence with August 1914. Discussed and probed are maneuvers by leading politicians, diplomatic affairs, and actions undertaken by various armies, during the opening days of the war, August 1 to August 4. Covered are the Kaiser's hesitation, the struggle by Russia to ensure that its ally, France, would join in the war, France's attempts to win a guarantee from Britain of her involvement, and Germany's ultimatum to Belgium.


The European powers had military plans prepared for the event. The most well known is the German Schlieffen Plan and the French had Plan XVII.

However, militaries draft many war plans that are never used, such as the United States's 1920s-30s war plan against the United Kingdom. See Estimate of the Situation - Red and Tentative Joint Basic Plan - Red (PDF - 139 MB).

The existence of war plans doesn't mean these countries foresaw the Great War, it's only in hindsite that they may seem prescient, but at the very least they considered a continental war a possibility and made plans for it accordingly. To use these plans as evidence that military and civil leaders forsaw the war, you'd need to learn more about their opinions and actions they took to prepare for or enact these plans.

John Keegan's perspective in The First World War: "In no sense did [Schlieffen Plan] precipitate the First World War; the war was the result of decisions taken, or not taken, by many men in June and July 1914, not by those of a group of officers of the German Great General Staff, or any single one of them, years beforehand. Neither did its failure, for fail it did, determine what followed; it was a plan for quick victory in a short war." (1998)

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    Having a military plan means nothing, really. It is actually required that the army is prepared for the worst, even in cases where the worst is likely to never happen.
    – Bregalad
    Aug 16, 2017 at 6:56
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    @Bregalad - Yup. Countries have invasion plans in the same way that the New York Times has obituaries ready to go for nearly every celebrity (even the young healthy ones).
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 16, 2017 at 14:18
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    I agree and have edited my answer. How does it read now? My main intention is to say "That these plans were drafted isn't evidence, but you can use them to find out more about what people thought of them at the time."
    – Ryan
    Aug 16, 2017 at 16:41

By 1914, Europe had been in an almost perpetual state of warfare, for most of the time that civilization existed there. A major war was not exactly unforeseen, as states of warfare, both small and large, had been commonplace for generations.

What wasn't expected was the level of death and destruction brought by modern technology, and attacks on civilians, which had been avoided in previous conflicts by unofficial agreement. Submarine attacks on passenger liners, aerial bombing of civilians in cities, brought the destruction home to some of the general populace in a way they had never experienced before.

Ironically, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 killed more people than WW1, yet it is hardly remembered.

  • +1: I remember the Spanish Flu pandemic from reading about it at school, though seeing it came after the end of WWI one could as well say it indirectly contributed to its severity. Aug 20, 2017 at 9:21

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