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How did Europe come to the brink of war in 1914?


This activity has been devised and used successfully by Megan Underwood who teaches in Bicester. Megan’s own concluding notes say:

‘This is a great lesson that does take some preparation but once prepared sort of runs itself. The students end up with a very good idea of the complexity of the causes of WW1 and a further exercise can be completed in a follow up lesson on whether the students can identify which cause was the most important and whether WW1 would not have happened if one or other cause had not been present. Having conducted this lesson on several occasions and having given it to several colleagues who have all found it successful it is a simple way of tackling a complex issue. Students enjoy the moving round aspect and each new table offers new excitement. It is accessible to all and encourages debate and team work. I have heard some of the most challenging children in my lessons having passionate discussions regarding the hopes and fears of these nations and which they think are the most important.’

What follows is Megan’s description of the activity, linked to the resources she has very kindly provided.

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity can be downloaded [ click here ]

Also, accompanying resources can be downloaded:

This activity is based on the ’Simulation’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


This activity is designed to help students understand the interconnectivity and “spider’s web” aspects of causation and especially the causes of WW1. To take them away from the linear, step-by-step, ‘one thing leads to another and then another’ cause and effect thinking that sometimes exists for students. This lesson helps students to understand what is considered a difficult and complex issue in a simple and enjoyable way. It is also designed to try to get away from the idea that Germany is to blame for everything!

There are optional aspects to the lesson such as post-it notes, music etc but these are worthwhile as they do add to the focus of the students. It is pretty tight time wise to complete in an hour and a key feature is to keep the pace up, especially for the “moving round the room” part.


Resources are provided for this activity in the 'Support' section, above. They include:

Country packs for Serbia, UK, France, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia. Each pack contains flag, map and cards for each nation [see Packs ] [ see Flags ]

‘Aims of Countries’ Sheet – sheets for collecting information about aims [ see sheet ]

National Anthems if possible and other music [see youtube links on PowerPoint slide 7]

PowerPoint sequence – see Megan’s notes in the Note function boxes on the PowerPoint. [ see PowerPoint ]

Also, it is helpful to provide Post-it notes for use by students.

Setting Up

See the full Room Plan, in a new window1. You MUST have only 6 tables (or groups of tables), one for each of the countries to be studied: UK, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, France and Serbia. Arrange the tables to create a map of Europe [ see Room Plan ] and put the country’s name on each table. Also make sure that students are all able to access the information packs (see below) and discuss the issues.

Students are allocated to “countries” as they come into the room as the teacher sees fit. It helps to have people together who are happy to discuss and argue their opinion with each other – so the teacher may have to give this considerable thought beforehand depending on the class.

2. Create information packs for each country using the resources provided and listed above. They contain: cards with statements about the nation in question (and only that nation) at the time of WW1 (what it was worried about, wanted etc, these can be added to or limited based on ability/knowledge of the class), a flag (for a bit of colour!), and a map showing all the nations in question with their specific one highlighted so they can see the geographical situation (not included here as needs to be done by hand really).

See the ‘Aims’ sheet in a new window3. Each student has a blank sheet to fill in during the main activity [see Aims sheet]. The sheet contains a common set of questions about each of the 6 countries. I suggest they stick this in their books, especially if they need to refer to the causes for later homework or assessment. They answer the same questions for each country as follows:

Country Name:

Main Aim:

Who stands in the way of this?


Any other aims or worries?

The teacher could, in advance, fill in the country names on the sheet but experience has shown that students will just start at the top of the form and work downwards without reading the name of the country they should be filling in and therefore end up with the wrong information in the wrong place. Students filling in each country name as they come to it not only avoids such mistakes but also focuses them on which country they are working on at any one time.

The Activity - Introduction

1. Get the students focussed on what they might be looking for as possible causes of WW1 by giving each a post-it note on which they write one idea of what they think causes wars. [See PowerPoint slide 2 – here and later see Megan’s notes in the Note function boxes on the PowerPoint]

If necessary, prompt students to think about previous wars studied e.g. 1066. Students stick these notes up in a convenient place in the classroom. Depending on time, teacher to read out notes and ask for justification for these ideas – the idea being that all students then have a range of ideas to be thinking about. Also this is a prediction that can be returned to later to see if they were right.

2. Using PowerPoint slides 3-5 the teacher must explain the situation that existed in Europe at this time. They may have already done a lesson on the longer term causes of WW1 such as imperialism, militarism and alliances but this is not necessary. If they have, this material quickly revised a list of things they need to know before they start.

3. Use slide 6 to explain the main task that follows below, completing the information sheets about each country’s aims.

The Activity – Stage 1

4. Now move on to the core of the activity. The students fill in their sheet for each nation in turn, moving round the room one table at a time to eventually end up with 6 nation’s worries and hopes completed. I find this is best done in a controlled manner, giving them a specified time to complete one table/country before everybody at once moves onto the next. This means that all students are forced to talk with the people on their table and none finish way before others having put little thought into the exercise.

Experience has shown me that the first table they do is the longest, taking about 5-6 minutes, the others may take 4-5. You need to keep an eye on the time and try not to let this part of the lesson run over 25 minutes. An added incentive is some sort of countdown to moving on – usually of about a minute as this motivates them to finish and keeps the pace up (Mission Impossible music works well here!)

If technology allows, playing the relevant national anthems during these periods gives them the necessary ideas about nationhood and also allows them to talk freely without worry of being overheard or thought foolish. I have had children stand up and salute at various moments because of this!!

It is also my experience that older KS3 students (I usually do this lesson with year 9) want to stay seated and have the packs passed around. DO NOT DO THIS, they’ll get over it! They need to be moving, it adds to their motivation and excitement of what is coming next.

The Activity - Stage 2

5. When they have finished this filling in the sheets they need to return to their original table/country. This is perhaps the moment to re-visit the post-it notes of ‘causes’ - they may wish to get rid of some and perhaps add other ideas. [See PowerPoint screen 8 for this and the next step].

6. Students now need to “represent” the country at which they are seated. It may be necessary to give them a minute to re-read the cards in front of them and remind themselves of “their” country’s main aims. You may also wish to re-emphasise the “geographical” layout of the classroom and how surrounded and threatened the Triple Alliance may have felt.

7. Now give the students a series of “what if” scenarios as on PowerPoint screen 9. Take each ‘what if?’ in turn and, after brief thinking or discussion time, ask them to stand up if they think they would end up fighting if this “what if” occurred. Ask one or two students (both sitting and standing) to explain their decision.

Your choice here is whether to give the “country” groups time to discuss or have the students act on their own opinions. My personal preference is that they do discuss but are allowed to make their own decisions and act in accordance with them on the understanding that they may have to justify them! However I have done it both ways and each works well – which you choose depends on the timing of the lesson and the nature of the class. You have to judge this at the time. 

8. When you get to the last ‘what if’ - “what if Austro-Hungary invades Serbia” - you should have all of them (with the exception possibly of the UK) standing up. Question again some students to explain their decision – and show that they now have got all of the relevant people fighting.

In the case of the UK it doesn’t really matter if they stand or not or are mixed about the decision. All standing shows clearly that a full blown war is possible, but there is usually some indecision here which is great. If some stand and some sit or if they all sit this is perfect for using later to show that the UK did not get involved until Belgium was invaded. Either way, we have ourselves a big war! You can now question the students about their decisions in a specific order: Austria-Hungary and Serbia (why are they fighting? – this is obvious from the “what if” questions), followed by Russian (to defend Serbia), Germany (to help Austria-Hungary now that Russia are involved), France (because of the Triple Alliance agreement to help Russia if attacked) and Britain (see above about the decisions about why Britain may or may not be fighting). This should clearly demonstrate the “domino effect” of each action leading to a reaction by another country. This is something that in my experience the students completely get.

9. Finally you come to why Austro-Hungary has invaded Serbia. PowerPoint screen 10 shows several options which you can get the students to vote on. Timing is key here, to leave them wanting more. This must be done in the run up to the bell at the end of the lesson. Once they have voted you say “I’ll tell you next lesson” – they hate it, it’s fantastic!


The next lesson will deal with the “trigger” for the war. It is an interesting question about how war may have been avoided if certain “causes” or “triggers” did not occur. Was Europe itching for a war? Were they just looking for an excuse? Did they know what they were getting themselves into?

[Ian notes - You could also make links across time by comparing the causes of this war with any others that you’ve studied e.g. the Norman Conquest, Spanish Armada.]


1. How was the timing? Did you struggle to fit it all in? There are optional aspects to the lesson if pushed for time (the post-it note activity for example could be done verbally as a discussion). It is really important to give them just enough time for the discussion about each country’s desires and worries – that is the main point of the lesson.

2. Could you have helped begin discussions on tables by throwing in controversial ideas about the nations’ hopes and fears?

3. Do you think a previous lesson on militarism, imperialism and nationalism would have/did aid their understanding of these issues?

4. Would a follow up lesson or starter to the next lesson really hammer home the ideas that some causes were more important than other? Could some be taken away and there still be a war? How are you going to re-use what’s been learned about causation?

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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This Page





Setting Up

Activity – Introduction

Activity – Stage 1

Activity – Stage 2