The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 31st installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 17, 1912: France Tells Russia England Will Fight Germany

After the Russian and French general staffs met in Paris in July 1912, French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré (above, at right) followed up with a trip of his own to St. Petersburg, where he met Tsar Nicholas II and Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov. Poincaré’s overriding goal during his visit to St. Petersburg was to further secure the Franco-Russian Alliance, for domestic as well as foreign policy reasons: by reassuring the Russian government of France’s commitment to their alliance, he also reassured a jittery French public of Russia’s commitment to help defend France against Germany.

Poincaré’s meetings with Sazonov (left) and the Tsar covered a wide range of areas where France and Russia were cooperating, including French investments in strategic railroads that would help speed up Russian mobilization in the event of war with Germany. They also discussed the increasingly violent situation in the Balkans, where the Muslim Ottoman Turks were brutally crushing unrest among Christian Slavs; here Poincaré advised the Russians not to go rushing in just yet, knowing direct Russian intervention could lead it into conflict with Austria-Hungary as well as the Ottoman Empire. France would always stand by its Russian ally in the event of a war with Germany, Poincaré assured the Russians, but the terms of the Franco-Russian Alliance didn’t extend to a war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, which posed no direct threat to France.

But perhaps the most important communication occurred on August 17, 1912, when Poincaré informed Sazonov of the recently agreed Anglo-French Naval Convention, which would, despite some ambiguous wording, probably oblige the British to take France’s side in a war with Germany. Sazonov recounted that “the French Prime Minister confided to me that, although no written agreement existed between France and England,” there was nevertheless “a verbal agreement by virtue of which England stated her readiness, in the event of an attack on the part of Germany, to give assistance to France with both her naval and her military forces.”

This momentous disclosure could complicate European diplomacy considerably; it’s no surprise Sazonov also recalled that “M. Poincaré earnestly requested me to maintain the utmost secrecy about this information, and not to give even the English any reason to suspect it had been communicated to us.”

Big News for Russia

To see why Poincaré’s disclosure about the Anglo-French Naval Convention was so important, you just have to look at the broader context of the European alliance system at that time. Poincaré understood that in the event of war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, Germany would likely declare war on Russia too, in support of its only real ally – in which case France would become involved under the terms of the Franco-Russian Alliance. In this context, his disclosure about the Anglo-French Naval Convention could only embolden the Russians in their dealings with Austria-Hungary and its German ally, as the Russian ministers – calculating that the Germans would want to avoid getting embroiled in a war with Russia, France, and England all at once – felt free to act more aggressively in pursuing Russian interests.

And the Russians had plenty of long-term demands in the Balkans and the Middle East. Above all Tsar Nicholas II (left) was curious to know whether France would support Russia’s aspirations to eventually control Constantinople, as he asked Poincaré point blank on August 17, 1912. Poincaré responded coyly that he couldn’t give such a sweeping assurance, being a mere premier; only the French President could make such a bold foreign policy statement (implying he intended to run for the presidency, which he did, winning election on January 17, 1913).

Of course, the Russians didn’t presently have the means to mount an amphibious landing in Constantinople, meaning the whole discussion was pretty much moot – at least for the time being. In the long term, given the unsettled situation in the Balkans (which held out the possibility of Great Power intervention to protect Christian minorities), the goal of seizing control of the straits wasn’t that far-fetched, especially once Russia’s ambitious new naval program was complete.

At this point Russia’s aggressive foreign policy might well lead to a broader conflict, especially if Germany became desperate to break through the French, Russian, and British “encirclement.” But Poincaré wasn’t wholly opposed to the idea of a general European war, as long as France had Russia and Britain at its side, creating a balance of forces which favored the French. Many observers assumed that war with Germany was inevitable, and if it could be made to occur on terms favorable to the French, all the better.

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