Have you ever watched a long fuse burn for minutes before reaching the explosive it’s attached to and then seeing that explosive device ignite and explode? That’s kind of what happened prior to the start of World War I.
The long fuse was lit nearly 100 years before the war began when Serbians staged an uprising in 1817 which resulted in their withdrawal from the Ottoman Empire. That move led to Serbia joining the Austrian Empire.
Over the next eight years, Brazil gained their independence from Portugal, the 49th parallel was established as the border between the US and Canada, and Spain lost most of the lands they claimed in North, Central and South America.
By 1839, Belgium won their independence and ended a 9-year long war with the Netherlands. Belgium also added the French half of Luxembourg resulting in a newly independent Luxembourg that was half the size they had been. Poland declared their independence from Russia but the Polish rebellion was put down by Russian troops. Italy tried to rebel against the Austrian Empire only to have that rebellion put down by Austrian troops. Great Britain gains control of India and begins pushing into Afghanistan partially to gain more territory and partially to stop the trade routes of China’s opium trade. After years of instilling fear into the people Spain, the Inquisition was finally ended.
The 1840s was highlighted with the Great Irish Famine, caused largely by the British. About one million Irish died during the famine, reducing the overall population by 25%. France banned slavery and the Netherlands became a constitutional monarchy.
In the 1850s, the Crimean War broke out when France, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain declared war on Russia. India rebelled against British rule, forcing the end of the East India Trading Company. Moldavia and Wallachia merge to form Romania, but remain as part of the Ottoman Empire.
In the 1860s, that fuse was growing shorter when Italian rebels drove Austria and Spain out of northern Italy, allowing for the formation of an independent Italy. Poland attempts another rebellion against Russian rule, but once again Russian troops end the rebellion. Germany and Switzerland go to war over possession of the Holstein and Schleswig regions with Germany eventually winning and adding those regions to their nation. The Austro-Prussian War breaks out with Prussia defeating Austria, Italy driving out of Venice and the Italian conquering of Rome. On a positive note the Suez Canal opened up in 1869.
In the 1870s, Italy conquers the Papal States and establishes a unified Italy with Rome as the capital. Prussia and other German states form new unified Germany, controlled by Prussia. Austria is excluded. This was the first time that a unified Germany existed. Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire after series of wars and tries expanding into eastern Europe. Great Britain prevents Russia from gaining Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia. As the Ottoman Empire crumbles, the Austro-Hungarian Empire gains Bosnia and Herzegovina. Montenegro and Bulgaria gain their independence from the falling Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria annexes Macedonia and Albania opts to remain part of what was left of Ottoman Empire.
In the 1890s, the Ottoman Empire loses Romania to independence and Thessaly to Greece. Serbia breaks away from Austro-Hungarian Empire and becomes independent. Many modern historians point to this as setting the stage for what led up to World War I, but as you can see, the entire region of Eastern Europe is in a lot of turmoil. Due to turmoil in Egypt, Great Britain assumes control of the country in order to protect the Suez Canal. Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy form the Triple Alliance. Ottoman Empire loses Crete to Greece. The Spanish-American War erupts and the US gains Cuba, Philippines and Puerto Rico from Spain. Germany, under the leadership of Wilhelm II, begins strengthening their navy in response to the stronger British navy. After the abolition of slavery, a number of European nations rushed to Africa to claim as much territory as possible so as to help them exploits the riches and lands of Africa.
From 1900 to 1914, the fuse continued to burn and grow closer to the final explosion when Japan defeats Russia in the Russo-Japanese War and nearly destroyed all of Russia’s eastern navy. Norway gains peaceful independence from Sweden. Unrest in Russia results in a labor strike, on which Tsar Nicholas II orders troops to fire upon them, killing hundreds. Nicholas II forms a national legislative body known as the Duma. British launch their new class of battleships with the HMS Dreadnought. Germany responds with building their own new class of battleships. Russia and Austria-Hungary supports the German annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia objected to the annexation since there were a number of Serbs living in Bosnia at the time. Civil war broke out in Portugal, lasting 16 years and resulting in the establishment of a dictatorship. Germany becomes the leading manufacturing nation in all of Europe. The Ottoman Empire loses Libya to Italy. First Balkan War erupts between Balkan states and Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia make up the Balkan League and gain their independence from the Ottoman Empire. However, conflict arose with the Balkan League on how to divide themselves up. In the end, Bulgaria lost land back to the Ottoman Empire and Romania. Serbia took Macedonia from Bulgari and Romania takes even more land from Bulgaria as does the Ottoman Empire and Greece.
The stage was set and the fuse nearly there when on June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist by the name of Nedjelko Cabrinovic, approached the open carriage of Austrian Archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia and assassinated them both. This took place in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Instantly, the Austro-Hungarian government blamed Serbia for the attack as did many other nations around the world. A chain of events was set off in an already volatile world that could not be stopped. Later that day, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the support of Germany, declared war on Serbia.
On this day, August 1, 1914, the fuse reaches its target and explodes when Russia and Germany declare war on each other and France mobilized their forces in preparation of war.
On August 2, 1914, Germany signs an alliance with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).
On August 3, 1914, Germany declares war with France.
On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declares war on Germany after Germany invades Belgium. Austria-Hungary invades Russia.
On August 6, 1914, Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia.
Most historians agree that World War I officially began when German and Russia declared war on each on August 1, 1914. The war lasted November 11, 1918, resulting in the destruction of most of Europe and the deaths of over 20 million troops and civilians.
Sources for the above includes: Today, June 28, 1914: The Spark That Ignited World War I; WWI Timeline; Timeline of World War One; First World War Erupts in Europe; How and Why Did the First World War Start?