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20 October 2014
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The Road To War: The Triple Alliance
How did the Triple Alliance react to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

Gavrilo Princip, © IWM

Tensions in the Balkan states were high, especially those between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Serbia still strongly objected to Austria's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, and was afraid that it might be next. Organisations were formed to stir public opposition to Germanic rule in Slavic states. One young student and member of the Black Hand, Gavrilo Princip, took matters further when he shot the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife on 28th June 1914.

Before doing anything, Austria consulted Germany. They knew Russia supported the Balkan states. Because of the Triple Alliance agreement, any Austrian action against Serbia would force Russia into a major war with Germany, or to abandon its loyalty to Serbia. Assured of their success either way, Germany and Austria-Hungary took a chance that the Schlieffen Plan would work and that soon they could take their pick of the European empires and their colonies.

After three weeks, Austria-Hungary replied with an ultimatum to Serbia. It wanted:

  • Serbia to take full responsibility for the murder, though Princip was not Serbian but Bosnian. Austria claimed that the conspirators confessed to the murders being planned with Serbian approval and weapons.
  • The right to police 'anti-Austrian' groups within Serbia.
  • The right to prosecute these and other conspirators in Austrian courts.

The terms were more severe than Serbia could possibly accept, and Austria-Hungary must have known this. To allow Austrian police into Serbia would challenge Serbia's right to rule itself, making it in effect a territory of Austria-Hungary. Serbia was given only 48 hours to decide on whether to accept the ultimatum. Refusal certainly meant war.

After seeking Russian advice, Serbia refused to accept the parts of the ultimatum that allowed Austrian troops or police into Serbia. It asked that other powers like France and Germany help resolve this disagreement. Austria-Hungary refused to accept this and declared war.

Meanwhile, Italy declared itself neutral, effectively breaking its treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but keeping its secret treaty with France. Italy would be persuaded to join the Allies in 1915 when the Treaty of London promised them land if they fought for the Allies.

NOTE: The Timeline and the 'Observer' journal might help you with this topic. It can get very complicated!

How much do you think Imperialism, or the activities of the empires, was the cause of the war?

Click here for help

A - It wasn't, the Alliance was merely acting to protect Austria from terrorists.

B - All the empires were competing to be the most powerful, and would have fought sooner or later.

C - The empires did not believe in the smaller countries' right to independence.

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