Sunday, 26 March 2017

Apocalypse 1914: how war broke out

The  Domenica del Corriere, depicts  Gavrilo Princip
killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo.
Public Domain

In 1913 the European powers were preparing for a possible war as the arms race accelerated. In March the German government introduced a new army bill designed to provide superiority over Russia in the following year. In confidence the party leaders in the Reichstag were told that the increases were justified by the expectation of the ‘coming world war’. The French urged on the Russians the necessity of completing the railways which would enable them to present Germany with a war on two fronts. The British government was proceeding with its naval programme. Russia was so fearful of the implications of the Berlin-Baghdad railway that she began a huge expansion of her forces and even contemplated seizing the Straits.

Yet none of the powers wanted a world war, and right up to 1914 international crises were negotiated on a case by case basis. Less than two months before the war broke out an agreement was signed between Britain and Germany over extending the Baghdad railway to Basra. It has been argued that the Junker elites wanted a war but this has more recently been contested.

Germany was prepared to fight a limited land war while it still had the military and economic advantage over Russia and was prepared to encourage Austria-Hungary to bring it about. On 8 December 1912 the Kaiser told Herman von Moltke, his chief of staff, his naval chief Alfred von Tirpitz,  and two senior admiralty officials that if Russia was ready to defend Serbia against Austria, then Germany would consider war unavoidable. Moltke replied, ‘the sooner the better’. On the other hand, it has been argued that all the European states had expansionist ambitions and that the 8 December meeting did not come out with detailed war plans.

The answer to the question of who is to blame for the war? (if there is an answer) does not answer the question of why the war happened. The over-riding factor was Austrian fear of Serbia. Its policy was to show the Serbs that they could not rely on the Russians to defend them. This meant being prepared to go to war with Russia in order to make this point. Austria was willing to go this far because she could rely on German support and Germany was prepared to back Austria because of her new interest in Turkey and her calculation that if there had to be a war, it should come sooner rather than later.

The entry of France into the war was made inevitable by the plan drawn up in 1905 by the German chief of staff, Alfred von Schlieffen and arouse out of his concern that Germany could be ‘encircled’ by simultaneous attacks from France and Russia (as Frederick the Great had been). This required that if war broke out with Russia, France should be eliminated by a pre-emptive knock-out blow. Since this attack was to come through Belgium, it risked bringing Britain into the war, since Belgian independence was guaranteed by treaty.

The Schlieffen Plan


On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. Princip was a member of the Young Bosnians, one of a group that sought an independent Yugoslav state. Though the Serbian government of Nikola Pašić was probably not responsible, the bombs and bullets had been provided by Dragutin Dimitrijević (Apis), the head of the Serbian Intelligence Bureau, who was also head of an ultra-nationalist organisation called the Black Hand.

In early July interrogations of the conspirators revealed the Belgrade connection, though there was no hard evidence implicating the government itself.

The blank cheque

Four men had to make the decision on how to react to the assassination: the Emperor, Franz Joseph, his chief of staff, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, the joint foreign minister of Austria and Hungary, Count Leopold Berchtold, and the prime minister of Hungary, István TiszaThey wanted to point the finger of blame at Serbia, and to persuade the rest of Europe of Serbian complicity.

Count Conrad von Hötzendorf
He wanted a hard line against Serbia
Public Domain

On 5 July, following an Austrian mission to Berlin, Germany assured Austria-Hungary of its unconditional support in pursuing its case against Serbia. This 'blank cheque' has been seen as Germany's first mistake. It could have restrained its ally - but it chose not to.

The Austrian reaction was delayed by harvest leave, the need to bring Tisza, on board, and by the fact that the French president, Raymond Poincaré, was on a visit to Russia for important (and secret) talks with the foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov. This meant that the short, sharp war which perhaps the Germans had been banking on, was not going to happen.

The ultimatum

On 23 July, the Vienna government presented an ultimatum to Serbia that was designed to be humiliating and to be rejected. The most controversial parts of the ultimatum were points 5 and 6, which were irreconcilable with Serbian sovereignty. On 25 July the Serbs issued an equivocal reply that could have been interpreted as defiance or playing for time. On the morning of 28 July Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war on Serbia. 


On 29 July Russia ordered a partial mobilisation. On 30 July a reluctant Nicholas II was persuaded by his military order a general mobilisation. The plans, drawn up some time in advance, meant that it was a mobilisation primarily against Germany.

The Russian mobilisation was the first of the general mobilisations. Did this make war inevitable?  At 3 pm on 31 July the Wilhelm II signed the order for the State of Imminent Danger of War (Kriegsgefahrzustand). Russia was given a twelve-hour ultimatum.  On 1 August Germany declared war on Russia.


Hermann von Moltke the Younger
Did he adhere too slavishly to
the Schlieffen Plan?
Public Domain

Moltke was trapped by the earlier Schlieffen Plan. It required immediate action in the direction of France, even though it was Russian mobilisation that had provided the casus belli.  Germany had to declare war on France before beginning hostilities – and this put her in the wrong. 

On the evening of 1 August the German ambassador in Brussels handed a letter to the Foreign Ministry. The letter demanded that Belgium accept German protection against a (non-existent) French attack. It demanded that Belgium answer within twelve hours (by 8 am on Sunday 2 August) whether she would resist the movement of troops through her territory. Later that day Belgium rejected the ultimatum.

Following the ultimatum to Belgium, in the early hours of 2 August German troops entered Luxembourg and secured the principal rail lines, which were, by treaty, under German management. No resistance was offered, apart from a formal protest to Berlin. All eyes were now fixed on the Belgian frontier.

When news of the German ultimatum to Brussels reached Britain on the morning of Monday 3 August, public opinion that had previously been hostile to war changed dramatically.

On the evening of 3 August Germany declared war on Belgium and France. At 8.02 am on 4 August the six infantry brigades and three cavalry divisions crossed into Belgium, to be met with fierce resistance.

Sir Edward Grey
He failed to make clear to
Germany that Britain would not
remain neutral if Belgium were invaded
Public Domain

When the news arrived in London, the cabinet agreed to send an ultimatum to Germany. Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, informed Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassador in Berlin that he was to give the German government until midnight (11 pm British time) to reverse course and guarantee Belgium neutrality. The ultimatum was wired to Berlin at 7 pm.  Goschen found the chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg in a state of great agitation. He told Goschen that Britain was going to war 'just for a scrap of paper'.  

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
German chancellor
He miscalculated Britain's reaction
to the invasion of Belgium
Public Domain

On 4 August Britain declared war on Germany. For Britain this was a war of choice - she had not been invaded like France and Belgium. So why did she join

  1. Though Britain was not bound by the terms of the Entente Cordiale there was a widespread feeling that she was honour-bound to come to the aid of France. 
  2. The invasion of Belgium converted many to the war.
  3. Britain could not allow the creation of  a German-dominated Europe.


  1. All the European crises before 1914 had been resolved peacefully. There was a widespread feeling that the Sarajevo crisis could be settled in a similar fashion.
  2. The war came about because of a deep-rooted instability in Europe but also because of wrong decisions made in July and August by individual statesmen and military commanders. Few wanted a war. No-one would have wanted a war as catastrophic as the First World War. Yet they did not try hard enough to avoid it. 
  3. Once certain political decisions were made, the military machine was set in motion and at a certain point (when exactly?) war became inevitable.

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