The Brunner Mond chemical factory had been built in 1893 to manufacture caustic soda and soda crystals. However, declining demand for caustic soda meant that production ceased in 1912 and parts of the factory stood idle. Due to a crippling shell shortage following the onset of the First World War, the War Office chose to use the spare capacity at the Silvertown site to purify TNT for explosive shells.
The chief scientist at the factory described the purification process as “manifestly very dangerous” and the company bosses themselves tried to dissuade the government for going ahead with the plan. Despite these concerns, and the fact that the factory was situated in a highly populated area, the Silvertown plant began to produce TNT in September 1915 at a rate of approximately 9 long tons per day.
At 6.52pm on the evening of 19 January 1917, a fire that had broken out in another part of the factory reached the stores of TNT. Approximately 50 tonnes exploded, completely destroying the factory and many nearby buildings. The blast could be heard as far away as Sandringham in Norfolk while molten metal was strewn across several miles, some of which damaged a gasometer in Greenwich and caused a giant fireball as 200,000 cubic metres of gas caught fire.
Over 60,000 properties suffered some form of damage from the blast, but the loss of life was fortunately a lot lower than it could have been. The explosion took place in the early evening when there were not many people in the factory, and people had not yet gone to bed in the upstairs rooms of their homes that suffered the most damage.
On the 8th January 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he outlined his principles for world peace, known as the Fourteen Points. Keen to distance the United States from nationalistic disputes that fuelled European rivalries, he sought a lasting peace by securing terms that avoided selfish ambitions of the victors.
Three days earlier, on the 5th January, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had outlined British war aims at the Caxton Hall conference of the Trades Union Congress. It was the first time any of the Allies had shared their post-war intentions and, as a result Woodrow Wilson considered abandoning his own speech since many of the points were similar. However, he was persuaded to deliver the speech anyway.
The Fourteen Points were greeted with some reluctance from France in particular. Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, is said to have remarked that, “The good Lord only had ten!” as a comparison to the Ten Commandments. However, the Fourteen Points speech became an instrument of propaganda that was widely circulated within Germany. Consequently it later served as a basis for the German armistice that was signed later that year.
However, France’s vastly different intentions meant that, when the time the Paris Peace Conference began on the 18th January 1919, there was significant tension between the negotiators. The fact that Wilson himself was physically ill meant that he was less able to argue for peace terms that reflected the Fourteen Points against Clemenceau – the Tiger – and his demands to cripple Germany. Consequently many Germans felt incredible anger over the final terms of the Treaty.
On the 15th November 1917, Georges Clemenceau was appointed Prime Minister of France for the second time. His appointment was something of a surprise, especially as it was made by President Raymond Poincare with whom he had a particularly frosty relationship. Clemenceau had previously held the position until 1909, after which he spent much of his time criticising the government in his own radical newspaper. However, within the first three years of the war three separate Prime Ministers had served and Poincare recognised that Clemenceau’s desire to defeat Germany made him the best replacement.
As 1917 wore on, the French government had become increasingly divided over whether to negotiate peace with Germany. Clemenceau was a fierce critic of this approach, having held a deep-seated hatred of Germany since France’s loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War five years before he was first elected to parliament. His appointment therefore heralded a marked change in government as he sought to consolidate French support behind its troops.
In a speech three days after his appointment, Clemenceau declared, “Nothing but the war. Our armies will not be caught between fire from two sides. Justice will be done. The country will know that it is defended.” This coincided with a clampdown on pacifist opponents and suspected traitors, and he continued to speak in favour of ‘war until the end’ until Germany’s surrender in November 1918. Victory was a double-edged sword: he now needed to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty with Wilson and Lloyd-George, which he described a like being “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.”
On the 11th November 1918, fighting on the First World War’s Western Front ended when representatives from the Allies and Germany signed the Armistice of Compiègne. Named after the location in which it was signed, the armistice was agreed at around 5:00 a.m. in a railway carriage that was part of Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch’s private train. Designed to come into effect at 11:00 a.m. Paris time, the armistice was extended three times before the Treaty of Versailles finally came into force on the 10th January 1920.
President Woodrow Wilson of the USA had outlined his war aims in the Fourteen Points that he announced in a speech in January 1918. These provided a framework for peace, and were a key factor in encouraging Germany to enter negotiations.
By the end of September, the German High Command had realised that the German cause on the Western Front was doomed. The Kaiser was informed of the situation on the 29th September, and by the 5th October the German government had contacted President Wilson of the United States to begin preparations for negotiating an armistice. However, the two sides didn’t come together until the 8th November because Britain, France and Italy were unwilling to enter discussing based on the 14 Points. By this point the German Revolution was about to result in the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The negotiation wasn’t really a negotiation: the German delegation was presented with the terms and had no option but to sign. The railway carriage in which they did so was later used by Hitler for France’s surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940.
A series of three wars in less than a decade had seen the creation of a unified Germany directed by the Realpolitik of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Keen to consolidate the newly-united country, he turned to diplomacy in an attempt to ensure the status quo in Europe.
Despite forming the Dreikaiserbund with Austria-Hungary and Russia in 1873, a power struggle over territory in the Balkans from 1875-78 led to Bismarck playing the role of ‘the honest broker’ at the Congress of Berlin to resolve tensions between his allies. The congress was a diplomatic defeat for Russia and left the Dreikaiserbund in tatters, leading Bismarck to negotiate the new Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary.
Although specific details of the Dual Alliance were kept secret until 1888, it was a defensive alliance in which both countries agreed to assist each other if they were attacked by Russia. Bismarck and Austria-Hungary’s Secretary of State, Count Julius Andrássy, also agreed to remain neutral in the case of an attack from another country in what is known as benevolent neutrality.
The announcement of the alliance surprised some observers, who noted the threat that the burgeoning German nationalism posed to the Habsburg Empire. The Austro-Prussian War had only been fought between the two countries thirteen years earlier, but the relatively generous peace terms that had been agreed in its wake left the door open to future cooperation. This, combined with Germany and Austria’s shared linguistic and cultural connections, ensured the Dual Alliance lasted until the end of the First World War.
Boris III became Tsar of Bulgaria at the end of the First World War, just four days after his father, Ferdinand I, signed the Armistice of Thessalonica with the Allied Powers. In order to save the monarchy he handed power to his eldest son, who had gained great respect from both Bulgarian and German troops during the First World War.
The new Tsar found himself leading a country that faced enormous economic and political problems as a result of the war and the subsequent Treaty of Neuilly that was signed in November 1919. Bulgaria was forced to hand territory to both Greece and the newly-formed Yugoslavia, resulting in approximately 300,000 Bulgarians finding themselves in new countries. The army was also reduced and the country was forced to pay reparations.
The first decade of Boris’ reign saw tensions between the monarchy and the powerful forces of the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party. By the end of 1935 he had begun to secure his hold on power and establish the ‘King’s Government’ in which he personally dominated the political system.
The outbreak of the Second World War was followed a year later by Bulgaria allying itself with the Axis powers in an attempt to win back territories lost at the end of the First World War. However, Boris refused to lend unconditional military support to Germany and infuriated Hitler with his refusal to declare war on the USSR. In early 1943 Boris angered Hitler again by refusing to deport Bulgarian Jews. He insisted that they should stay in Bulgaria where they were needed for labouring tasks, and saved approximately 50,000 people. Boris died of apparent heart failure later that year, on 28 August.
The Weimar Republic was officially established on 11th August 1919, when Friedrich Ebert signed the new constitution into law. The National Assembly that created the constitution had convened in the city of Weimar, which is why the state of Germany from the inauguration of the new constitution until Hitler became Fuhrer is generally referred to as the Weimar Republic. However, its official name continued to be Deutsches Reich which had first been adopted in 1871.
The Weimar Republic was born amid civil strife and open revolt that engulfed cities across Germany in the closing weeks of the First World War. The November Revolution actually began at the end of October 1918, but quickly spread from the port of Kiel to reach as far as the southern city of Munich by the 7th November.
The “German Republic” was declared on the 9th November, shortly after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication was announced. Power was swiftly transferred to Friedrich Ebert, who reluctantly accepted it and formed a coalition government known as the “Council of the People’s Deputies”. It was this government that therefore signed the armistice on the 11th November, and which authorised the brutal suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919. Just four days after the deaths of Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht elections for the National Assembly took place, which convened in Weimar in order to avoid the unrest in Berlin.
It took the best of part of seven months for the delegates to agree on the terms of the constitution, and Ebert signed it into law while on holiday in Schwarzburg.
On the 23rd July 1914, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia specifically designed to be rejected and lead to war between the two countries. The ultimatum was delivered at 6pm by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, with a deadline of 48 hours within which the Serbian government had to respond. They accepted all but one of the numerous demands, which led Austria-Hungary to declare war three days later on 28th July.
Austria-Hungary had been concerned about the growing power of Serbia, and was keen to find a way to weaken the government and stop it taking over the Southern Slavic populations of the northern Balkans, and especially Bosnia, under the banner of pan-Slavism. To the government officials who favoured war, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on the 28th June was the perfect excuse.
Following the assassination, Germany had given Austria-Hungary assurances that it would support military action against Serbia, in what is known as the ‘Blank Cheque’ of 5th July. Acting with the knowledge that the strongest army in Europe was on their side, the Austro-Hungarian Crown Council began to discuss how best to justify a war against Serbia. They decided that an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands would be the best course of action, and finally agreed the wording on the 19th.
After Serbia’s refusal of the sixth point in the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war. Although it was intended to remain localised, the network of European alliances that had developed from the late 19th Century soon saw the conflict develop into the First World War.
On the 21st June 1919, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German High Seas naval fleet in Scapa Flow, a large natural harbor in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The ships had been confined there under the terms of the Armistice that ended fighting in the First World War.
America had suggested that the fleet be interned in a neutral country but, as neither Norway nor Sweden agreed, Britain volunteered instead. The majority of the 74 German ships were in Scapa Flow by the 27th November, where they were guarded by British Battle Cruiser Force. The fleet was manned by a skeleton crew of less than 5,000 men that gradually reduced over the next few months as they were repatriated back to Germany.
Negotiations over the fate of the ships took place at the Paris Peace Conference, where the various representatives were struggling to agree on a resolution. While Britain wanted to destroy the ships in order to maintain their naval superiority, France and Italy each wanted to take a quarter each. Concerned that the entire fleet might be shared out between the victors, Admiral von Reuter, the German officer in charge of the interned fleet, began planning to scuttle or purposely sink the ships.
Shortly before 11.30 on the morning of the 21st June the order went out to scuttle the ships. By 5pm 52 of them had sunk. The sailors escaped on lifeboats, and were captured as British prisoners-of-war. Nine sailors were shot and killed, making them the last German casualties of the war.
Germany and Russia signed the secret Reinsurance Treaty that ensured they would each remain neutral if the other went to war with a third European power.
Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary had entered into a second Three Emperors’ Alliance in 1881. Like the one before it, the agreement was designed by the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to isolate France from potential allies and avoid rivalry between his two neighbours over territory in the Balkans.
Continuing tensions between Austria-Hungary and Russia over this region led to the agreement’s collapse in 1887 and forced Bismarck to find another way to maintain French diplomatic isolation.
Germany had already formed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879, so the Reinsurance Treaty was created to ensure Russia continued to side with Germany. In return Germany agreed to a Russian sphere of influence in Bulgaria and the Black Sea.
By the time the treaty came up for renewal in 1890, Wilhelm II had become Kaiser of Germany. He insisted that Bismarck resign the Chancellorship in March that year, and argued that his personal relationship with Tsar Alexander III would be enough to avoid any future problems with Russia. Bismarck’s successor Leo von Caprivi was also unwilling to seek a renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty, meaning that it lapsed.
Without the treaty to tie St Petersburg to Berlin, the Russian government began to forge closer relations with France. France’s improving diplomatic situation was formalised in the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. This opened up Germany to the possibility of a war on two fronts, making the failure of the Reinsurance Treaty a contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War.