The Alliance System
The Schlieffen Plan
The assasination of Franz Ferdinand
Why did Britain go to war against Germany in August 1914?
Trying to get to the bottom of why WW1 happened is never going to be easy. The world in the years before 1914 was changing fast so that new technology gave us new weapons and means of communication, a popular press for the first time with an increasingly literate population but with a political system that in most countries had not matched the changes. Nearly all of the countries that went to war in 1914 were monarchies that were relinquishing their power very slowly and had archaic systems of decision making that still gave individuals enormous amounts of power. It was as much the system of decision making that was at fault for the outbreak of war in August 1914 as the level of international tension.
The emergence of new nations like the USA, Japan, Germany and Italy and the relative decline of Britain and the very real decline of the Ottoman empire together with Russia and France constantly looking over their backs at imagined and real enemies - all at the same time at the end of the c19th, made for a combustible mixture that many have seen as leading to an inevitable war. The mutual suspicions of these powers led to an arms race and an alliance system that reduced the options of countries. Empire was seen as the pre-requisite for economic success and this gave rise to imperial and trade rivalries. Social Darwinism was the prevailing orthodoxy of the time and with countries being ready to use war as an acceptable means of diplomacy, war was seen as a way of resolving international disputes. With the decline of imperialism came the rise of nationalism with subject peoples, especially in the Balkans wanting to break away from the rulers.
There are no easy answers
People may want an easily digestible answer to why WW1 broke out but the complexities of international relations and of the world in those days before August 1914 mean that it is not possible. As Margaret MacMillan has said in her excellent book on the origins of WW1,'The War that ended Peace' either everyone was to blame, or no-one was to blame. Was Serbia to blame for not restraining the gang that assassinated Franz Ferdinand? Was Austria to blame for wanting to destroy Serbia? Was Germany to blame for giving a blank cheque of support to Austria-Hungary? Was Britain to blame for not making her position clearer in the summer of 1914? Was Russia to blame for mobilising her armed forces against Germany and Austria-Hungary before any attempt had been made to resolve the crisis? Was France to blame for not restraining Russia.
The decision makers lacked the skills and knowledge needed
The decisions made that summer were made by a very small group of men (no women) who had all kinds of pressures on them - from politicians, from their own public, from the new media, and also from loved ones. Decisions were made at a time when communications were improving but were not as instant as they are today and this made it difficult to make decisions made on up to date information. Conrad the Austrian Chief of Staff wanted to impress his mistress, Grey the British Foreign Minister was desperate during the July crisis to return to his fishing on the Test in Hampshire whilst the Kaiser, although full of bluster wanted to avoid war. Nicholas, the Russian Tsar wanted to gain respect and revenge for previous humiliations suffered by Russia. All these men were making decisions which affected the lives of millions in a far from perfect international system and doing so without the skills and knowledge which the task demanded.
The dawn of the new century was a time of optimism for many people throughout Europe. As if to emphasise the fact, the Paris Exhibition that opened in April 1900 seemed to promise a future of progress and prosperity the like of which had been experienced over the previous 25 years. Europe was beginning to look as we know it today - a land of cities with well built houses and shops offering new products at accessible prices for all.
Rising levels of education had brought increased literacy throughout much of western Europe and the working classes were now reading books and magazines produced just for them. The newly published Daily Mail was printing one million copies a day during the Boer War whilst G A Henty turned out stirring stories of Empire at the rate of one every six months. Much of these increased literacy levels resulted in greater feelings of nationalism and created feelings of insecurity as stories of invasion by our enemies increased circulation figures for newspapers. The 'Boy's Own Paper' started in 1879 in Britain fostered a love of Empire and taught the duties of citizenship.
Possessing an empire was increasingly seen as the means of maintaining one's prosperity. Surely if a nation possessed colonies it could have its own resources of essential minerals etc whilst having a guaranteed export market. Alfred Thayer Mahon published a book (The Influence of Sea Power upon History) at the same time as Turner which argued for the creation of strong navies to maintain a colonial empire. Mahon argues that maritime nations had dominated the world over the previous 400 years as a result of their navies which gave them control of the seas. Newly emerging nations like the USA, Germany and Italy increasingly wanted an Empire for themselves which would serve as a source of raw materials, trade and for prestige and this led to a scramble to acquire colonies in the last 25 years of the century. In a world with less and less land to colonise this led to conflict and disputes between the colonial powers, nearly all European.
Alfred Thayer Mahon argued that maritime powers had dominated the world for hundreds of years
There were storm clouds though on the horizon and the peoples of Europe were feeling more and more uneasy about the politics of the time. The rise of nationalism in Ireland, the Balkans and in Austria Hungary challenged the existing order. Throughout the nineteenth century Europe presided over the decline of the Ottoman Empire and as it declined its subject peoples demanded to rule themselves so that by 1900 Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Greece were all independent. This movement encouraged other subject peoples around Europe to demand their independence, encouraged by great powers seeking to extend their own influence.
Where there had been wars in Europe in the 19th century, they had been brief, and fought by regular standing armies with little civilian involvement and indeed with little impact on civilian life. Although the Franco-Prussian and Boer wars hinted of new ways of waging war those in charge did not adapt their methodology to meet the demands of a new warfare. Barbed wire, machine guns and trench warfare had all been used by 1900 but few generals saw what the future had in store. War was still thought of as an acceptable means of resolving disputes between countries if diplomacy failed. In fact war or indeed the threat of war, was seen as an extension of diplomacy. Just how dangerous a situation this was we were to see during the July crisis of 1914.
Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations suggested Britain ruled the world
In June 1897 Britain and her Empire celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Victoria's accession to the throne. Britain seemed to rule the world having had global dominance for most of the nineteenth century. 50,000 troops from around the world escorted the Queen to St Paul's and a few days later a naval review at Spithead, off Portsmouth, saw 165 warships cruising off land for as far as the eye could see. The nation was imbued with feelings of pride for the Empire occupied over 12million square miles and included a quarter of the world's population.
This display of power though was illusory for the better informed knew that Britain's position in the world was being challenged and the USA would shortly overtake Britain as the world's greatest manufacturer followed by Germany. Although the Jubilee celebrations were all about the Empire, the Empire aroused mixed emotions, and a result of the haphazard way in which it had developed there were many among the educated classes who questioned whether the Empire was worth the effort and the expense. The ‘New Imperialism’ of the time, championed by the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain called for the colonies of the Empire to be provided with the investment that would mean they could develop economically and be self sufficient but the reality was that the Empire could not defend itself and was a drain on Britain's resources. The British people had had an off and on relationship with the empire. They loved it when the newspapers were full of stories of daring do and the exploits of Gordon, Wolseley and Roberts in far away exotic places but otherwise they were not interested. The soldiers who patrolled and fought to defend the empire were thought of as the scourge of the earth and those who went to India in the Indian Civil Service to govern it were a class apart from the rest of the country.
The waging of the Boer War seemed to be proof that the country was not in a fit state to defend herself against an attack from a strong European country like France, Russia or Germany and without allies or friends we were at the mercy of European armies that were much more powerful than our own. The men who were sent to fight in South Africa were the smallest army we had ever sent away (in terms of stature). In 1901 the journalist Arnold White pointed out that at the Manchester recruiting station, three out of every five recruits at the start of the war had to be rejected because they failed to meet the army's already low standards.
What emerged from the Boer War was a crisis of confidence - in the fitness of the British working man and in the ability of our armed forces to defend our shores. Kitchener (Commander in Chief in South Africa ) had warned the government that there were no more soldiers to be sent to India in the event of an attack from Russia. In effect India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, was defenceless.
There had been a debate among the service chiefs and the government in the 1890s about how best to defend Britain. In 1900 the army rarely exceeded 135,000 excepting the Indian army and 30% were at any one time on garrison duty abroad. The main problem with the army was that it had hardly changed since the time of Napoleon. It lacked training facilities and in particular a General Staff. It was poorly equipped and trained and even though there had been reforms in the 1870s which had abolished flogging and the purchase of commissions, the quality of the ordinary recruit was poor.
The navy had been heavily criticised in the 1880s for not having adapted to modern times but there had been changes particularly in the introduction of the two power standard in 1889 which meant that there was a commitment from government to maintain a ship building programme to ensure the British navy was the largest in the world and larger than the next two navies added together. Maintaining a large navy meant significant investment - the Naval Defence Act of 1889 committed the country to spending £21.5 million on the navy including ten battleships and again in 1894 the Liberal government committed the country to another five year programme devoted mainly to the building of large cruisers and torpedo-boat destroyers.
Victoria's Diamond Jubilee gave the illusion Britain dominated the world
Whereas the navy began to modernise, particularly under Fisher from 1904, the army seemed to be prone to any reform, largely because its commander in chief, the Duke of Cambridge was immune to any kind of change proposed by his generals. Only when Wolseley became commander in chief in 1895 did the reformers take the helm and then money was limited for much reform which had to be achieved under the existing budget. It was only when Haldane became War Minister in 1905 that the government set about producing a force that could be quickly be sent to Europe and a reserve that could provide sufficient men to back up such a force.
Britan ended her policy of isolation with a treaty with Japan
The government was keen to try and resolve differences over Morocco, Newfoundland and Egypt with France and over the Far east and central Asia with Russia. Little came of efforts to come to an arrangement with Russia but in 1902 Britain did sign a treaty with Japan by which both countries agreed to follow an Open Door policy with regard to China, to remain neutral if attacked by a third country and to come to each other's aid if attacked by tow or more powers. Following the visit of the Edward VII to Paris in 1903 the way was open for a treaty with France which was signed in 1904 and agreements were made to settle outstanding differences over Egypt and Morocco. With the weakness of Russia's position made clear following its defeat by Japan in 1904-5, Russia settled many of her colonial differences with Britain in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Britain had reduced the likelihood of falling out with Russia and France without committing herself to any firm agreement to come to their aid should they be attacked. These were friendship agreements and not the defence agreements that certainly France craved in later years.
Grey disliked Germany and surrounded himself with like minded civil servants
The direction of foreign policy in the years leading to the outbreak of war was largely in the hands of SIr Edward Grey. He didn't have to worry about interventions from either Edward VII or George V whilst the Prime Minister trusted Grey enough to allow him to determine his own policy so long as it accorded with his own. Grey had around him at the Foreign Office a group of like minded civil servants - men who disliked Germany and so the direction of policy after 1905 was very much anti-German and dealing with what he and his group perceived as the German threat, although his views did not have universal support within Parliament or even the Cabinet. He was criticised for adopting a policy that was seen as unnecessarily provocative towards Germany.
Grey dealt with criticism by ensuring that his opponents were given as little information as possible. his was a personal diplomacy and consultation was on the basis of 'a need to know' and Cabinet was not informed about some crucial decisions such as the discussions in 1905-6 about British military intervention on the side of France in the event of a war. Grey's view of the Entente signed with France in 1904 was that it should be followed in a 'loyal and generous spirit'. In public he denied that Britain was under any obligation towards France but in private he gave encouragement to the French belief that Britain would come in on their side in a war.
Such a policy which might seem consistent to those who had Grey's ear could appear anything but consistent to those on the outside. To the Germans it must have seemed that Britain would stand aside from a continental coalition, especially if the Franco-Russian coalition took the initiative.
Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary
Grey although Foreign Secretary knew very little about the countries he was dealing with. He spoke no foreign languages and did little travelling. His view of the world moreover was opposed by many Liberals and supported by most Conservatives. He was a Liberal Imperialist although he cared little for the British Empire. His views and actions were largely focused on Europe and largely around the various treaties which had been signed and to which he remained committed where they concerned Britain.
Looking back at Anglo-rGerman rivalry in the c20th from the 21st, it might seem that the two countries were natural rivals and that it was inevitable that they would be on opposite sides in the two great wars of the century. Yet prior to 1914 it was never the case that Germany and Britain would clearly be on opposite sides.
Both nations were Teutonic races sharing the same sober values and in both countries the Protestant elites dominated. Each found much to admire about the other. The British admired German culture and science, and British medical students had to study German as all the manuals on medicine that they used were German. The Germans admired Shakespeare and the British way of life. There were many personal links and of course the royal families were linked with Victoria descended from two German families - the Hanoverians and the Saxe-Coburgs, whilst the Kaiser William was Victoria's grandson.
From the time of German's emergence as a independent state in 1871, German developed its economy steadily. In 1880 Germany had just 8% of the world's manufacturing production to Britain's 22% but by 1913 had 14% to Britain's 13%. This though need not have been a cause for conflict as they were trading partners and had a mutual reliance. Whilst Germany consolidated its economy Bismarck developed a series of treaties to ensure German's security. He constructed a number of contradictory agreements with neighbouring powers that guaranteed German's security as long as Germany did not get involved in colonial matters which was causing the tension between the likes of France, Russia and Britain. Once William became king though in 1888 and began to take a hold over the German government this all changed. In 1890 Bismarck left the government and this coincided with Germany not renewing the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. Germany now embarked on a new course in foreign policy, largely initiated by Friedrich von Holstein in the Foreign Ministry.
William, his government ministers and advisers now began to talk of a German empire. There was vague talk of 'Weltpolitik' and 'An Empire in the sun', vague concepts that were never clearly defined but caused consternation amongst imperial rivals. The Imperial powers often used their colonies as bargaining chips and Germany's inability to do this marked her out as a second rate power and there were times when foreign diplomats treated her as such. All the time that Germany remained without an Empire, it would not get involved in the kind of disputes that caused tension between Britain and France, Russia and Japan and Russia and Britain. If Germany were to look to acquire an Empire it could not avoid getting involved in disputes with all of these powers.
With the failure of Germany to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia and Russia's signing of a defensive treaty with France, Germany seemed to be hemmed in. Holstein wanted a closer relationship with Austria with whom Bismarck had forged a treaty of alliance in 1879
Germany began in the 1890s to look for colonies and to acquire interests abroad. With Tirpitz winning the factional battle within the naval administration, he pressed for a programme of battleship construction which began following the Naval Acts of 1898. The development of an enhanced navy has been given as a major cause of the war yet Germany believed that it would not be taken seriously until it had a larger navy. It wasn't the building of a German navy that forced Britain into an alliance with France and Russia but Britain's need to resolve outstanding colonial issues with these countries. In the end Germany renounced the naval race in 1913 by which time Germany had not got even close to Tirpitz's aim of a German battleship for every 1.5 British battleships. By 1914 Britain had 29 large naval ships to German's 17 and Britain's lead over Germany was increasing by every year that went by.
The same could be said of German's desire of a 'Place in the Sun', the establishment of a German empire. By 1914 Germany acquired the Mariana and Caroline islands, Samoa and Kiaochow on the Chinese coast - -hardly a great empire.
The exact direction of German foreign policy was difficult to discern and her talk of establishing an empire and navy to rival Britain's was all bluster but talk that made it easy for newspapers and writers to portray Germany as the major threat to Britain and her empire. Had there been a clearer direction it would have been easier to avoid war in 1914 but much the same could be said of most of the European powers. We have already seen how Grey conducted his own foreign policy much of it secret and the same could be said of Germany where the Kaiser was full of rhetoric about war but really wanted peace to prevail.
William in his time as Kaiser of Germany demonstrated all the insecurities and lack of conviction that an emerging power like Germany would exhibit as it sought to establish itself as a major power among European nations. Germany was keen to establish itself as the major power in central Europe, where there had not been a great power for centuries. It was over sensitive to how foreign diplomats dealt with it and in particular to what it saw as its being encircled by the agreements signed between Russia and France.
William II Kaiser of Germany
The Kaiser reflected these sensibilities and made things worse by his own tendency to talk too much and constantly make up schemes and plans which he tried to foster on others. He was forever, in memos, telegrams and letters ranting on about his own pet schemes which were dreamt up quickly and as quickly forgotten such as the scheme to station a corps of Prussian troops on the Californian coast to help protect the USA against Japan.
William appointed all his own officials and often by-passed ministers and dealt with his own favourites. this often meant that he was following a course of action that was at odds with that of his own ministers. William was once sitting next to Leopold of Belgium at a gala dinner and used the evening to tell the Belgian king that Germany expected Belgium to side with her in a war with France and would be amply rewarded with territory for so doing. In 1908 an interview with William was transcribed into an article for the Daily Telegraph in which William said that he regarded the British as 'mad as March hares'. As a result of the constant indiscretions William's ministers tried to keep him at arm's length and perhaps the most important foreign policy decision was made without William's input (the non-renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia.
If William himself did not determine foreign policy, then who did? It was not the king and it was not even the Foreign Minister as Germany lacked such a person. Instead there was an imperial state secretary for foreign affairs who was the direct subordinate of the Chancellor. Decision making on foreign affairs vacillated between power-centres within a system that depended on the knowledge and ability of the Chancellor. With a weak Chancellor power could be based amongst civil servants such as Holstein, but a Chancellor who had the ear and confidence of William, the support of his civil servants and the Reichstag, and who had successful policies was a powerful man indeed.
Two armed camps
Between 1887 and 1907 Europe became polarised into two armed camps. This was an absolute precondition for WW1. Without the division of Europe into these armed camps each with their own war plans, there would not have been war in 1914. The creation of alliance systems gave individual countries the confidence to pursue foreign policies that were far more aggressive than would have been the case had countries had no alliances and therefore countries that would stand and support them come what may. The knowledge that Austria could rely on the full support of Germany in its quarrel with Serbia encouraged it to pursue its thirst for revenge. Similarly Russia mobilised against Germany in 1914 in full knowledge that France would go to war against Germany if Germany intervened. With the division of Europe, countries enemies became clearer and so it became easier to devise war plans in the eventuality of war. The war plans that were developed had little flexibility built in to them and were so complicated that once the plan had been initiated there was no going back without handing the initiative to the enemy.
The Schliefen Plan
The crucial event in this process had been the lapse of the Reinsurance Treaty between Russia and Germany in 1890. France and Russia both saw Germany as a potential enemy and decided to conclude a defensive alliance which was ratified in 1894. In 1904 Britain signed an Entente with France. Whilst it was not a defensive treaty Britain had now aligned herself with France and with the close links that developed, particularly over military and naval cooperation, Britain felt honour bound to support France in 1914.
Germany's war plan, popularly known as the Schlieffen Plan after the Commander in Chief of the army up to 1905 has been the subject of a great deal of debate by historians. All countries had developed war plans for the eventuality of war but it has been the German plan that has come up for greatest scrutiny. Was the German Plan a cause of war and therefore justified imposing the so called War Guilt Clause 231 with its attendant reparations which so cripples Germany and wee themselves a factor bringing Hitler to power.
All of the various war plans could be seen as advocating wars of aggression and this was certainly the case with the Schlieffen Plan but it was essentially a reaction to the French Russian alliance which sandwiched Germany and left her vulnerable to an attack from both of her frontiers.
The development of war plans had come about as a result of the acceptance by all sides that war was an extension to international diplomacy and a response to the industrialisation of war. The Prussian victory over the French in 1870 had been a watershed in warfare. It had shown that it was possible to have larger armies armed with all the weapons that an industrialised country could mass produce. The German army in 1870 had been taken to the front by train and the train was a key component in devising war plans. Now soldiers could be mobilised quickly and armies could move quickly requiring a quick response from the enemy. By 1897 Germany had 545,000 soldiers in uniform and another 3-4 million who could be quickly called up. The other powers had to follow suit. Only Britain who put her security into the hands of the navy remained with a small army so that by 1900 all the powers had large standing armies. When Germany mobilised in 1914 she put over three million men into the field.
General von Schliefen
Much of the German war plan was devised by General Von Schlieffen who was head of the German general staff from 1891. Schlieffen devised a plan that would deal with the problem of having an potential on each frontier. The resultant plan was a gamble and made certain assumptions. If any of these assumptions proved false or if something went wrong in the implementation of the plan, the result could be disastrous for Germany. Schlieffen feared a long drawn out war with Russia and France and devised a plan that would deal a knockout blow to France before even the Russians had even mobilised. Schlieffen assumed it would take at least six weeks for the Russians to mobilise as they did not have a good enough rail network to mobilise quickly. Schlieffen assumed that France would place most of her army along the common border with Germany and in the southern part of Belgium. Von Schlieffen believed that Britain would not intervene and that the northern part of Belgium would be poorly defended. It was in this part of Belgium , between Liege and the sea that Schlieffen would focus on. He aimed to move the German armies quickly through northern Belgium and then into northern France. By the time the French realised what was happening it would be too late to take effective action and Paris would have fallen. For this plan to work the assumptions had to hold and the train timetable had also to work. Once the troops began to be mobilised the whole process had to happen quickly. There would be no going back. In his analysis of the causes of WW!, AJP Taylor claimed the railway timetables were as important a factor as any other in bringing about war.
All of the war plans were devised by the military and had little civilian involvement or oversight. In many cases there was not even inter department liaison. In Germany the Kaiser did not know of the details of the Schlieffen Plan until told of them by Moltke days before war began. In Britain the army devised plans for the British Expeditionary Force without discussing with the navy how they were to be transported. Given the nature of these plans they assumed a momentum of their own and must be considered factors in bringing about war.
Between 1905 and 1914 there were a series of crises between the European powers, each of which helped to bring war a little closer. In the first few crises the issues were resolved and peace maintained but at a cost. Each crisis left at least one nation feeling aggrieved and perhaps humiliated and with a desire not to let the humiliation happen again. Each crisis reduced the scope for crisis resolution and with the escalation in the size and power of armies and a belief in war as a means of achieving political aims it was only a matter of time before a crisis could not be resolved and war resulted. Certainly Germany Austria-Hungary and Russia were prepared for wars of aggression and were prepared to launch a preventive war if they believed it was in their interests to do so. As the scope for resolving disputes were reduced and the range of actions reduced, so the likelihood of war increased.
The Schlieffen Plan meant that Germany was committed to an inflexibe war plan
The Naval Race between Britain and Germany saw both countries trying to build more battleships than the other
The three Balkan Wars were key to what happened after Sarajevo
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand which as we know led to the outbreak of WW1, led first of all to the 3rd Balkan War. The first two had happened in 1912/13 and could well themselves have led to general war between the European powers. The fact hat war did not happen a year earlier was due to the restraint imposed on allies by Britain and Germany and the willingness of the European powers to settle disputes through peaceful means as they had been doing for more than a century. But in the process, seeds were laid for war. Serbia came out of these wars emboldened whilst Austria felt isolated, and it seemed as if the art of using ultimatums and brinkmanship had worked. Despite their small populations the peoples of the Balkans were encouraged to take on the Ottomans as a result of Italy attacking Libya in an unprovoked attack in October 1911. It was this attack which gave the Balkan peoples the confidence to attack the Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
Bethman, the German Chancellor and his foreign secretary Kiderlen wanted at first to steer a middle way thorough the Balkan Wars encouraging mediation through international agreements. Germany was at the time in the middle of negotiations with Britain to try to bring about Britain's neutrality in the event of a European war. Kiderlen tried to steer a course between working with Britain to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Balkan Wars and trying to restrain her alliance partner Austria from going too far. In the event the German leaders, including William, did not want to see the destruction of the Ottoman Empire as they had substantial interests there. So eventually Germany gave outright support to Austria although it did not state categorically state what this support consisted of.
The Balkan Wars had finished without any major confrontation but it had left a residue of bitterness and resentment that festered. Serbia was a clear winner and gained not just territory but prestige emerging as the dominant Balkan power. There was talk of union with Montenegro and of a new Balkan League. Serbia's government was incapable and unwilling to rein in the various nationalist groups which were agitating for union of the South Slavs within Austria-Hungary.
Russia and Russia had both used preparations for war and military mobilisations as tools of diplomacy and believed they had worked and would work again. They had worked this time because the bluffs had not been called and the voices for peace were stronger than those for war. But would such measures work again?
On 28th June the weather in Sarajevo, Bosnia was warm and sunny as it was throughout much of Europe where people filled the beaches, parks and amusement arcades. In the five weeks that followed, Europe went to war with all the main powers except Italy and Turkey involved. During these five weeks the general public took little part in the deliberations as just a few men decided the fate of Europe, often behind closed doors. The news of the assassination brought a mixed reaction. The Kaiser abandoned his summer cruise and travelled back to Berlin whilst in Austria the rides at the Praterpark continued to revolve. As a British fleet left Kiel where it had been on a goodwill visit, the Germans sent a message 'Pleasant journey and the British reply was 'Friends in past and friends forever'.
The division of Europe into two armed camps made war inevitable
The assassination which was to have such huge consequences was perhaps the most botched up assassination attempt ever made and was the result of a comedy of errors.
The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife, Sophie Chotek, had decided to visit Bosnia(on their wedding anniversary) in an attempt to quell unrest and to attend military manoeuvres that were taking place just outside Bosnia's capital Sarajevo. He was to include a visit to Sarajevo on the most nationalistic day in the Bosnian Serb calendar, the celebration of St Vitus' Day commemorating the Battle of Kosovo fought in1389. Despite the numbers of troops outside Sarajevo, the Governor of Bosnia Potiorek decided he did not need troops to guard the royal visitors. They would be safe.
When the news of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife was relayed to Vienna, there was universal support within the government for war against Serbia. The Hungarian Prme Minister, Tizsa, would not support war without the support of Germany and no-one knew what their attitude was so a mission was sent on July 5th to find out. What resulted from that mission was the so-called blank cheque from Germany in which full support was offered to Austria-Hungary. It was thought that the sooner Austria acted the better.
It is likely that this support was offered in the belief that Russia would not intervene. They had not intervened over the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in October 1913 so why would they do so now? Even if they were to it is likely that the German decision makes considered that if there was to be war with Russia it was better to fight one now as in a few years time Russia would be much stronger.
With German's full support Austria proceeded to work out what to do next. Tizsa wanted an ultimatum before mobilisation but although the Germans urged speed, this was not the way the Austrians worked. Eventually an ultimatum was sent on 23 July, whilst the French Prime Minister, Poincare was on his way back from a visit to Russia. The Serb Government was given forty-eight hours to respond to the ten demands. The first three were about suppression of irredentist groups and their propaganda. There were points about taking action against those implicated in the Sarajevo plot and the most controversial of all, the participation in Serbia of Austrian officials in the investigations.
When Grey saw the document he described it as the most formidable document he had ever seen addressed by one State to another. Churchill described it as the most insolent document of its kind ever devised. Yet it was a lot milder than the ultimatum presented by NATO to Serbia in March 1999 to force the Serbs to comply with NATO policy over Kosovo.
The Russian response was not as Germany had expected. On the evening of the expiry of the ultimatum, Russia told Serbia it would take it under its protection and would go to any length to protect Serbia. This news probably encouraged Serbia to reject the ultimatum but they produced a response which offered the greatest possible compliance without compromising Serbian independence.
The Russians then decided to prepare to mobilise an army of 1,700,000 to go into action as soon as Austria attacked Serbia. On 26-27 July the Serbian authorities received despatches that the Russians were mobilising. There had been debate in Russia as to whether there should be partial mobilisation but the Russian war plan, Mobilisation Schedule No 19 did not allow for a partial mobilisation. In any way a partial mobilisation would leave Russia unprotected against a German attack, given the German-Austrian alliance. France had also made it clear that Russia had the support of France. In taking these steps the Russians escalated the crisis and greatly increased the chances of a general European war. It encouraged Serbia to reject the Austrian ultimatum and raised the pressure on Germany.
On the morning of 28 July Franz Joseph signed his declaration of war and this was followed on 30 July by full mobilisation by Russia. This was the first of the general mobilisations and came at a time when Germany had not even gone into pre-mobilisation phase. Austria had not even announced a general mobilisation at this stage, just a partial mobilisation aimed at Serbia. When Russia would not rescind its order Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and put into action the Schlieffen Plan which would mean an attack frist on France with a holding operation on the Eastern Front.
Germany had been hoping to keep the war localised and to emphasise this most of the decision makers in Germany were on holiday, including the Kaiser who was on a cruise in the Baltic. As news came through of Russia's mobilisation, the decision was taken to respond and
In Britain the cabinet had not discuss foreign policy at all since the assassination. It was only on 24 July that the cabinet discussed the crisis and it was only to approve Grey's plan for a four power intervention. Cabinet then broke up for the weekend and reconvened on 27 July when Grey asked the cabinet whether it would support intervention if France were to be attacked. Three of the cabinet threatened to resign (Morley, Simon, Burns, Beauchamp and Harcourt).
A British recruiting poster using the 1839 treaty with Belgium
At a late night session on 29-30 July only four cabinet colleagues backed the proposal to support France. Not even the question of Belgium would move the cabinet which took the view that the 1839 treaty on Belgium required collective action to be taken. There was also the view that unless northern Belgium was attacked, Britain's interests were not threatened.
At the cabinet meeting on 1 August, the anti-interventionists called for a declaration that on no account would Britain get involved in a war and no decision was taken to deploy the BEF. The following day though it was decided that if there was substantial violation of Belgian territory then Britain would be compelled to take action. Grey was able to convince the cabinet that Britain had a moral obligation to support France. There was also the issue for some that if Asquith, Lloyd George and Grey resigned it would signal the end of the Liberal government. Moreover the Conservatives had made it clear that they supported action on behalf of the French.
On 2 August, the German Government issued an ultimatum to the Belgian government. This given the Germans need for a speedy advance through Belgium was a huge mistake. When the ultimatum was answered on 3 August prompting the German attack, which ultimately brought in the British on 4 August.
Peter Crowhurst, May 2016
The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson, 1998
A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 by GR Searle, 2004
The War that ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan, 2013
The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark, 2012