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Monday, 12 October 2009 01:55

Lesson 1: WWI  Causes Game

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©John D Clare, 1995


  1. Students will have a deeper understanding of the causes of WWI
  2. Students will use what they have read and what they have learned to gain insights into whether the war could have been avoided.

Procedure: (This lesson takes 2 – 3 class periods)

Step 1:

  1. Read to the pupils Emil Ludwig's statement blaming the `incompetent politicians' for the outbreak of war:
    “A peaceable, industrious, sensible mass of 500 million (European people) was hounded by a few dozen incapable leaders ... into a war which was in no way destined or inevitable.”
  2. Pose the question: `Was he right?' Was the war due to the incompetence of the leaders - the stupidity of men such as Franz Josef and Kaiser Wilhelm?

Step 2:

  1. Play the game. Divide the class up into five more-or-less equal groups. The groups represent Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France and Great Britain. The teacher plays Serbia and Belgium. Give each country a copy of the map (Student Handout 8.1.3) and the relevant country factsheet (Student Handout 8.1.1)
    Make available to pupils any textbooks or resources that you have for further research.
  2. Explain that the date is the end of July 1914 (just after the Austrian ultimatum), and that you have called the nations of Europe together in a last ditch attempt to avert World War. Is history going to blame them, the leaders of the nations for a conflagration that will kill 13 million people? This is their chance to stop it. The first task, today, is to apprise the other countries of their relative positions/ beliefs.
  3. Give the nations 30 minutes to study their positions and beliefs, and prepare and rehearse a statement.
    Then call a plenary session:
    1. First, tell them Serbia's position (sad about the death of FF/ had warned the Austrians/ prepared to accept 90% of the ultimatum - will destroy the Black Hand and stop anti-Austrian propaganda BUT cannot let them conduct a judicial inquiry into Serbian affairs: it's against the constitution. To accept it would be to abdicate sovereignty. But you hope that peace is possible.)
  4. Then listen to the submission of each of the nations in turn. Let other states ask any (as searching as they wish) questions. It may develop into a row, but keep them on the issues only - don't let them start to move to a solution yet. You may wish to add a statement on Belgium's behalf, that they want peace, but will fight if invaded - to do otherwise would be an abdication of sovereignty.

Step 3:

  1. Divide the pupils into their countries. Have them take out the maps (Student Handout 8.1.3) and pass out in sealed envelopes, the secret instructions (Student Handout 8.1.2).
  2. Explain that this is a peace Conference - where they will be negotiating to stop the war.
    Explain that each nation has its secret instructions from its government. These follow the same pattern: first a summary of the position/ beliefs of each country; second a list of aims for the peace conference.
    NB: Nobody else must be allowed to see them but the delegates from their own country; the instructions are secret.
    Explain that they can do anything to get peace. They can give land and/or money away, redraw the map of Europe (indeed, the world), make trade agreements, form and re-form alliances.
    The only thing they cannot do is to go against the things that are underlined in the secret instructions.
  3. Finish with an inspiring talk, as leader of the Conference, about the need for world peace and the horrors of war. Then let them play the game. You may wish to make rules about movement about the room, but such rules tend to be forgotten as the game gets more exciting.
  4. At the end, thank them for their participation, and remind them that Serbia will not accept point 6 of the ultimatum. Ask Austria if they are going to declare war (their secret instructions tell them they must say yes: they have no alternative). Then tell Russia that Austria is going to war; is Russia going to mobilize (again, they must say yes). Tell Germany that Russia is mobilizing, will Germany implement the Schlieffen plan (again, yes is the only choice). Tell France and Britain that Germany is invading France through Belgium, will they fight (again, a yes answer is required).

NB: Don't tell the pupils, but it is impossible for them to win the game.
You will find that they tell you at many points that they have stopped a war, but they are mistaken. Usually it is because they have not fully understood what is happening, or because one nation has abrogated an essential (underlined) secret instruction; track down the error and make them put it right. Accuse the guilty party of intentional deception.

Usually the game goes more-or-less like this:

  • milling around! To prevent this, make students spend five minutes planning strategies to end the war; this gives them a preliminary agenda for the game. Note that it tells them all this in their secret instructions anyway!
  • standpoint-testing. Reps will go round the various countries trying to persuade them to withdraw their standpoint. At this stage you will probably be asked, as Serbia, if you might please let in Austrian investigators, or as Belgium if you could just let the Germans pass through. If you give way on this, the game is lost. Explain that you cannot, for to do (either) is to lose national sovereignty.
  • bribery. Reps try to persuade nations to drop their principles for money, or land etc. Some classes spend a long time redrawing the map of Europe.
  • reforming the political system. A final stage comes as pupils realize that the basic political system is at fault, and they try to rework the system of alliances/try other strategies.

NB: Germany's instructions remind them that, if there is to be a war, this is a good time - they may well win it - and self-interest may well merit a bit of a double-­crossing game - to look peace-wanting, but to stir up war: If your Germany players are more able, this can be great fun!
When the game is finished, you will be able to lead an interesting discussion about who was to blame for WWI. It will stop them blaming the `stupid politicians'.


Most of the assessment of this lesson is through observation of student participation. You may also have students write a response to the question that was posed in the beginning of the lesson and discuss whether or not they changes their minds after participating in the simulation.

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 October 2009 06:23
More in this category: Lesson 2: Trench Warfare »

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