Questions to ask yourself:

How does government use its power?

Some other sub-questions we will cover:

How could war have been avoided, or what was the single most significant cause that resulted in WW1?

How did political alliances and geographic and cultural factors influence the start and continuation of WW1?

How do individuals experience war, and how do those efforts affect the outcomes of wars?

Why were certain historical events “significant”?

What you will be able to do:

Indicate the MAIN causes of the First World War

World 1914 empires colonies territory. License: CC by/3.0/. See also BBC bitesize


"The First World War of 1914–1918 was the bloodiest conflict in Canadian history, taking the lives of more than 60,000 Canadians. It erased romantic notions of war, introducing slaughter on a massive scale, and instilled a fear of foreign military involvement that would last until the Second World War." (Source: First World War Timeline)

M-A-I-N Causes

For many decades historians have debated the causes of the First World War. While their interpretations may differ as to the primary cause of the war, is it clear that a number of main causes, all interacting with each other led to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.

It is helpful to remember the causes of the war through the acrostic MAIN:


Alliance System



Text by Matt Russell. See also the overview at 4 M-A-I-N Causes Of World War One)

Exploration Tasks: View overview video then paraphrase the MAIN causes of the First World War.

As a class, watch an overview video to introduce the concepts. Here are a few you can choose from:


Militarism was one of the factors that led to the war. Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century Europeans countries like France, Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary maintained large armies. Mandatory military service allowed the Germans, French and Russians to have well over a million soldiers each in uniform.

European foreign policy at the time also considered that warfare was a legitimate tool to be used in order to achieve foreign policy goals. For example, the Germans and the French had fought a war in 1871 and the Russians had fought the Japanese in 1905.

Militarism definition: "A belief or system where the military is exalted and its needs and considerations are given excessive importance or priority. Militarism was a powerful force in 19th and early 20th century Europe. While militarism alone did not start World War I, it fuelled a potent arms race and undermined the role of diplomacy as a means of resolving disputes."
(Text by Matt Russell. Definition and more on the philosophy of Militarism: MILITARISM AS A CAUSE OF WORLD WAR I ➦

Image source: Caricature by Art Young in the American magazine The Masses, published in March 1916, during the First World War. Public Domain ➦

New Technologies and Weaponry

New technological and industrial innovations had allowed countries to modernize their militaries with machine guns, artillery cannons and high explosive shells. "Guns like the Maxim Gun, the Lewis Machine Gun and the Vickers machine gun pictured at right, were relatively new inventions that proved to be among the Deadliest Weapons Of The First World War".

As well, new battleships were being introduced to European navies. Named after the first such ship, the British battleship H.M.S. Dreadnought, dreadnought battleships featured increased armor shielding, ten main battle guns, and new engines. The arrival of this new class of battleship sparked a naval race between Great Britain and Germany as each country tried to build more and more ships. Britain even asked its dominions to contribute money to dreadnought construction, although Canada show reluctance and refused, choosing instead to launch its Naval Service in 1911.

Text by Matt Russell with link above to

Source: via Wikimedia under Public Domain. Originally from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

“The pre-1914 armaments race was a product of broader technological forces at work in Europe since the mid-1800s, and that this wave of new technologies and the weapons it spawned were themselves products of a war-oriented culture embedded much more deeply in European history.” (Source)

Rivalries in Europe over the strength of armies and navies

"As the world entered the 20th century, an arms race had begun. By 1914, Germany had the greatest increase in military buildup. Great Britain and Germany both greatly increased their navies in this time period. Further, in Germany and Russia particularly, the military establishment began to have a greater influence on public policy. This increase in militarism helped push the countries involved into war."

Source: Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The German Empire pt1

Army sizes of the combatant nations in 1914.

“Of all the initial belligerent nations, only Great Britain had a volunteer army, and this was quite small at the start of the war. The other nations had much larger conscript armies that required three to four years of service from able-bodied males of military age, to be followed by several years in reserve formations. Military strength on land was counted in terms of divisions composed of 12,000–20,000 officers and men. Two or more divisions made up an army corps, and two or more corps made up an army. An army could thus comprise anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 men.”
(Source: World War I - Forces and resources of the combatant nations in 1914)

Source: Public Domain

More on the Navy Buildup
German Navy vs British Navy
"In addition to the arms race, there was also a competitive naval race between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Britain had the largest navy in the world at the time, which it needed to maintain its vast colonial empire. Germany viewed the British navy as a threat and sought to develop its own navy to match the powerful British navy. Mostly Germany needed a strong navy to challenge British ships in the North Sea. The North Sea was Germany's only coastal access but was difficult for Germany since the North Sea was connected to Britain and the British navy dominated the area. Also related to the naval race was the development of the dreadnought. [Mentioned above] Britain developed and launched the dreadnought in 1906 which was the first battleship to be developed in the 20th century. The British dreadnought was notable for having larger caliber guns and for being faster on open water than any other earlier battleships. In response, Germany developed its own version of the dreadnought and worked to challenge the power of the British. By the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain had 29 dreadnoughts and Germany had 17" Source: LONG-TERM CAUSES OF WORLD WAR at

Source: Public Domain A fleet of German U-boats ca. 1910. Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-20 / CC-BY-SA

Click for Photo location in Cartograf map

Exploration Task: Read and Organize summaries on the Main Causes

In groups access one of the website/articles from the list of “M-A-I-N causes - Articles and overviews” provided. Write simple summaries of the four main causes described in the videos and on those pages. Use an organizer that includes a way to add other “causes” as they become apparent, or a google slide that can be copied like this one. Then as a group write a summary statement in simple language to describe the meaning of each of the 4 MAIN causes. Discuss and do the same if you feel there should be another cause listed.

A World War Begins

"At the outbreak of war in 1914, no one expected the conflict to take on such incredible proportions or to last for so long. In the years preceding the Great War, the mightiest countries of Europe forged strong alliances with one another in order to maintain the balance of power on the continent. Because of these alliances, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, many countries were bound by treaty to join the conflict. Russia’s alliance to the Serbian power forced the country to side against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Germany had strong ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and took its side against Serbia and Russia. Like a domino effect, almost all European countries were pulled into the conflict.

Of course, many European countries were major colonial powers at the time. Their involvement in the conflict thus meant that their colonies were automatically at war as well. For this reason, the Great War brought people from all of the continents together to fight mainly in Europe, but also in Africa and the Middle-East. Not only was the Great War a global conflict on a geographical level, but its scale and duration meant that it affected all spheres of society..."

Source and more information at "War Breaks Out" at

Who fought? Where and When?!

View images and contexts at "War Breaks Out" at

Exploration Activities: How did WW1 World War One Break Out?

Try some of the activities on the Je Me Souviens site that offer an introduction to WWI and the conditions in Europe before the outbreak of war. Introduction to the Great War. In the "Canada and the First World War 1914-1919" virtual exhibition, review the sections on War Breaks Out and the Birth of Battalions.

Alliances overview

Prior to the start of the First World War, Europe was divided into two main armed camps of allied countries. On one side was the Triple Alliance, composed of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy [Central Powers] . On the other was the Triple Entente which contained France, Russia and Great Britain [Allied Powers]. Also, Great Britain had guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality in 1831 and under the treaty was obliged to defend Belgium if it were to be attacked. The result was two heavily armed blocs of countries, mutually distrustful of the other side. The nature of these agreements meant that if one member was attacked, then the other countries would go to war to protect that country. While in theory this could prevent war by acting as a deterrent, it would also have the opposite effect if countries were belligerent and it could lead to a cascade that would all of these major powers into a continental war.

Text by Matt Russell

Who fought? Where and When?!

European diplomatic alignments shortly before the war.

Details on the Allied snd Associated Powers

"The major Allied powers in World War I were Great Britain (and the British Empire), France, and the Russian Empire, formally linked by the Treaty of London of September 5, 1914. Other countries that had been, or came to be, allied by treaty to one or more of those powers were also called Allies: Portugal and Japan by treaty with Britain; Italy by the Treaty of London of April 26, 1915, with all three powers. Other countries—including the United States after its entry on April 6, 1917—that were arrayed against the Central Powers were called “Associated Powers,” not Allied powers; U.S. Pres. Woodrow Wilson emphasized that distinction to preserve America’s free hand. The Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919) concluding the war listed 27 “Allied and Associated Powers”: Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, the British Empire, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, the Hejaz, Honduras, Italy, Japan, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serb-Croat-Slovene State, Siam, the United States, and Uruguay."

Source Allied powers on

More on the Central Powers

"German Empire and Austria-Hungary, the “central” European states that were at war from August 1914 against France and Britain on the Western Front and against Russia on the Eastern Front. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy had been parties to a secret agreement, the Triple Alliance, from 1882 until World War I, but Italy entered the war in opposition to Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers on October 29, 1914, as did Bulgaria on October 14, 1915."

Source Central powers on

Investigation and Creation Tasks
Important Alliances & Early Key Events: Describe and Situate Them on a Map!

Students can read and research even more online documents and online sources, to establish facts and events related to the formation of alliances leading up to World War One. Then on a blank map (one could use Cartograf or Google My Maps) they could outline, describe, and situate the Alliances that led up to WW1. When appropriate, map and describe key events and even people to the locations, explaining their significance. For example, students can indicate and describe two or three key Alliances that formed before world war one in this way:

  • Use Zones (polygon shapes and lines) to trace countries and/or alliances. In Cartograf there is then a place within each of these items to write descriptions and even to attach images.

  • Using Points of Interest to locate, then include descriptions and even appropriate images: Students could identify 5 to 10 key locations, what “significant” event occurred there, and/or who was involved. For each location, students could also explain why they chose to locate their point in that exact spot.

Above from sample map from available Cartograf scenario.

Another source for mapping ideas could be Eastern Front World War I at


Both Great Britain and France were world-wide imperial powers. These two countries could call upon their colonies for men during a war and also could use these colonial possessions for raw materials for their industrial base. Britain could also count on their self-governing dominions like Canada to increase its manufacturing potential of war material. While Russia lacked overseas colonies, its immense size made it both a European and an Asian power. In fact its ambitions in the far East had brought it into conflict with Japan in 1905, and a subsequent humiliating defeat.

Germany and Austro-Hungary also had fewer colonial options. While Germany did have some overseas colonies in Africa, they were few. The Germans did try however to leverage their financial power on African colonies controlled by minor European powers like Portugal and on the Ottoman Empire, bringing it into their sphere of influence. The Austro-Hungarians were not a player in the world-wide game of empire. Their concern was extending their power and influence within Europe's borders. In particular they considered the Balkans to be part of their sphere of influence. In 1909 Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia, bringing the territory into its Empire. This damaged relations with Serbia, who also claimed this territory and Russia, who acted as a benefactor to the Serbs. The end result was heightened tensions among all of the powers. Tensions that were made worse, as new imperial powers outside of Europe were also emerging at this time. Japan had begun imperial conquests into Korea and northern China, and the United States had taken Hawaii, the Philippines and claimed the Caribbean as part of its exclusive sphere of influence.

Text by Matt Russell

"Empires and imperialism endured long into the 20th century with dramatic consequences. Rivalry intensified between the foremost European empires yearning to claim what spoils remained. Locked in competition, the great powers of Europe raced toward a general armed conflict. "

Sample text and images from Imperialist Legacies By Florian Olsen, PhD, Illustrated by Agathe Bray-Bourret. This illustrated graphic essay is available to Quebec teachers by request.


Nationalism was a final major cause of the war. For countries like France and Great Britain, nationalism was derived from their status as world powers. Their status as imperial powers was a sense of pride among the populaus and many in the overseas dominions regarded themselves as British, not Australians or Canadians. For many British, the maintenance of their imperial superiority was paramount in the area of foreign affairs and trade. Germany and Italy were relatively new countries that had unified in the middle decades of the 1800s. For them, nationalism was dependant on the projection of power by the state. Both sought to increase their prestige by trying to become major players on the world stage. Germany of course was more successful at this. Germans took pride in their manufacturing and technical superiority, as well as their increasing economic power compared to their European rivals.

In Austria-Hungary, nationalism took on a different flavor. The dual monarchy as it was known did not maintain a unified national identity. While it was run by the Austrian royal family, the country was made up of many ethnic and linguistic minorities. German speakers (the majority language of Austria) only made up 23% of the population of the country. Hungarians made up another 20%. Other major minorities included Czechs, Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians, Romanians and Slovaks. Many of these minorities had national ambitions for their peoples, or wished to join with their fellow people in already established countries like Romanian or Serbia.

Text by Matt Russell

Creation Task idea

Concentrating on the key question suggestion, How does government use its power?, students could write an opinion paper or essay to answer the other two related questions:

  • How could war have been avoided, or what was the single most significant cause that resulted in WW1?

  • How did political alliances and geographic and cultural factors influence the start and continuation of WW1?

Teachers note that additional tasks and our curation of online documents is still being built, expanded and checked over at #14 M-A-I-N Causes of First World War 1896-1945 - Nationalisms & Canada

#14 M-A-I-N Causes of First World War 1896-1945 Nationalisms&Canada