The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 133rd installment in the series.
July 25-26, 1914: Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia’s Response
The delivery of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914 triggered frantic activity across Europe as men of state tried to defuse the situation by getting Austria-Hungary to extend the deadline or soften the terms. But in the end their uncoordinated efforts were too little, too late—and it didn’t help that some of them were sending mixed messages.
In the final hours before the Serbian response was received at 6pm on July 25, Austria-Hungary and Germany tried to persuade Europe’s other Great Powers not to get involved. Above all they hoped that France and Britain, which had no direct interest in Serbia, would urge moderation on Russia—and at first it looked like they might get their wish.
In Paris the text of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was delivered to Justice Minister Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu-Martin, filling in for Premier (and Foreign Minister) René Viviani, who was still at sea with President Raymond Poincaré on the return journey from St. Petersburg. According to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Paris, Count Szécsen, Bienvenu-Martin seemed to understand the need for harsh measures, and the German ambassador, Wilhelm von Schoen, made a similar report, leading German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow to conclude that “France, too, desired a localization of the conflict.”
Meanwhile, in London, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey still refused to take sides. On July 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov instructed Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Benckendorff, to point out that
So long as it is possible to avert a European war, it is easier for England than for any other Power to exert a moderating influence on Austria… It was therefore very desirable that England should firmly and clearly make it understood that she considers Austria’s action unjustified by the circumstances and extremely dangerous to European peace.
That same day, Grey’s own assistant undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Eyre Crowe, argued that Germany’s attitude would determine the outcome, and that London should therefore warn Berlin before it was too late: “The point that now matters is whether Germany is or is not absolutely determined to have this war now. There is still the chance that she can be made to hesitate, if she can be induced to apprehend that the war will find England by the side of France and Russia.”
But Grey was reluctant to make even veiled threats to Berlin and Vienna, hoping instead to offer Britain’s services as an impartial mediator between Austria-Hungary and Russia—obviously still failing to comprehend that Austria-Hungary was set on war with Serbia no matter what. He also continued to suggest that Germany join the other Great Powers in mediating the dispute, for example telling the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, Berlin could “influence the Austrian government to take a favorable view” of the Serbian response—again failing to understand that Germany was actually encouraging Austria-Hungary to spurn compromise and crush Serbia.
The Germans and Austrians took French and British ambiguity as evidence that neither would come to Russia’s aid, which in turn made it unlikely that Russia herself would actually fight when the chips were down. Thus on the evening of July 25 Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg sent a telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm II (still enjoying a cruise in the Norwegian fjords on the royal yacht) assuring him that “Paris and London are actively working for localization of the conflict.”
Victims of Their Own Deceit
But this was a disastrous misapprehension, as events would soon reveal. First of all, as minister of justice, Bienvenu-Martin had no experience or authority over French foreign policy, and the Germans should never have imagined that his casual remarks actually represented the views of the French government—a fact he emphasized himself.
Second, when it came to Britain the Germans were ironically falling victim to their own trickery. Lichnowsky was under instructions to say that Germany had not been consulted by Austria-Hungary about the latter’s plans regarding Serbia. Foreign Secretary Grey took this lie at face value and assumed that Germany also wanted to keep the peace, which is why he didn’t threaten Berlin—but if he had known that Germany was secretly encouraging Austria-Hungary, he probably would have.
As a matter of fact, the German deception went even further than that: when Grey asked Berlin to urge Vienna to accept outside mediation of the dispute with Serbia, the Germans said they would recommend the idea to their ally—but actually told the Austrians to ignore the British suggestion and proceed with their plan.
The Serbian Response
Meanwhile, as the hours crept by on July 25 and the deadline approached, Serbian leaders worked feverishly to craft a humble response that would satisfy as many of the Austrian demands as possible, but without sacrificing Serbia’s sovereignty. Ultimately, the Serbians agreed to nine out of eleven conditions, including issuing an official statement disavowing subversion aimed against Austria-Hungary; suppression of publications inciting hatred of Austria-Hungary; dissolution of “Narodna Obrana,” a Yugoslav propaganda organization; elimination of anti-Hapsburg content from textbooks and teaching; removal from service of all army officers who espoused anti-Austrian propaganda; arrest of Ciganović and Tankosić, both implicated in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; suppression of cross-border smuggling between Serbia and Bosnia; and explanations of anti-Austrian statements by high-ranking Serbian officials.
But two demands remained unfulfilled: item five, for the participation of representatives from the Austro-Hungarian government in the suppression of subversive moments, and item six, participation of Austro-Hungarian officials in the internal Serbian judicial investigation. Both conditions would have undermined Serbian sovereignty, leaving the Serbian government no choice but to deliver the following fateful response: “As regards the participation in this inquiry of Austro-Hungarian agents... this cannot be accepted, as this is a violation of the constitution and of criminal procedure.”
As expected, the Serbian refusal on these two points provided Austria-Hungary the pretext it needed to break off diplomatic relations in preparation for war. After receiving the Serbian response at 6pm the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, Baron von Giesl, notified Vienna, burned his codebooks, sent a note to Prime Minister Pašić declaring that diplomatic relations were broken off, and immediately headed to the Belgrade train station, where he boarded the next train for Austria-Hungary at 6:40pm.
After receiving news of the Serbian response at 7:45pm, around 9 pm Emperor Franz Josef ordered mobilization against Serbia under “Plan B” (for “Balkans”), which called for the formation of three armies along the Serbian frontier—the Second, Fifth, and Sixth (see map below)—while three others guarded Austria-Hungary’s border with Russia. On the other side Serbia’s Prince Regent Alexander had already decreed mobilization that afternoon, and the Serbian government began evacuating Belgrade—just a few miles from Austro-Hungarian territory across the Danube River—and relocating to Kragujevac, about 50 miles to the south. In the opening weeks of the war the Serbian First, Second, and Third Armies would form north and west of Kragujevac before advancing to the Austro-Hungarian frontier (top).
On the evening of July 25 enthusiastic crowds gathered in Berlin and Vienna, cheering the rejection of the Serbian response. The British ambassador to Vienna, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, later recalled: “The demeanour of the people at Vienna and, as I was informed, in many other principal cities of the Monarchy, showed plainly the popularity of the idea of war with Serbia… Now the floodgates were opened, and the entire people and press clamoured impatiently for immediate… punishment of the hated Serbian race.”
Russia Prepares to Mobilize
At the same time Russia was preparing to mobilize in support of Serbia, marking a dangerous escalation of the situation. On the morning of July 25, before Serbia even presented its response to the Austrian ultimatum, Tsar Nicholas II ordered “pre-mobilization” measures including the return of troops on maneuvers, automatic promotion of all cadet officers to full officers, and call-up of reservists for frontier divisions. The Tsar also approved—“in principle”—mobilization against Austria-Hungary, involving 13 army corps containing a total 1.1 million men; however the actual order for mobilization wasn’t yet given.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov hoped that a show of strength would suffice to deter Austria-Hungary from attacking Serbia, and also believed that a “partial mobilization,” limited to the Russian frontier with Austria-Hungary, could convey this message without threatening Germany. However he failed to realize two key details.
First of all, the pre-mobilization order actually affected all Russian forces along both the German and Austro-Hungarian borders—and the Germans were unlikely to grasp, or care about, the fine distinctions between pre-mobilization and mobilization. Indeed, it was all a matter of semantics, and the preparations certainly looked warlike to the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, who told the Italian ambassador on the evening of July 25 that the Tsar’s “Council of Ministers has taken decisions on the… measures to be put in force in the war against Austria and Germany, now regarded as imminent.” Later Paléologue accompanied Izvolsky, the Russian ambassador to France (now hurrying back to his post) to the train station, where, amid crowds of soldiers, they agreed, “It is war this time.”
Second—and even more disastrously—there was no such thing as “partial mobilization” against Austria-Hungary: the Russian general staff had only drawn up plans for general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary, on the reasonable assumption the allies would fight together. In other words, it was all or nothing, and when the Tsar’s ministers discovered this unfortunate fact, they would face a terrible choice: back down and let Austria-Hungary crush Serbia, or proceed to general mobilization.
As the sun rose on July 26, 1914, the situation in Europe was rapidly spinning out of control, but no one had declared war and swift, forceful diplomacy might yet have saved the day. Unfortunately, now it was Sazonov’s turn to misspeak. Still hoping to defuse the situation, the Russian foreign minister assured the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtalès, that “no mobilization order had been issued… [and] the Cabinet had decided not to issue one until Austria-Hungary assumes a hostile attitude toward Russia”—for some reason leaving out Serbia, the focal point of the whole conflict. It’s hard to understand this omission, but Sazonov may simply have assumed that the phrase “toward Russia” covered Serbia as well, since everyone understood the basic situation—but in these fraught negotiations any misunderstanding could be catastrophic.
To be fair, Sazonov was in good company when it came to tragic misstatements. In one of the more significant errors, over breakfast on July 26, Britain’s King George V told the Kaiser’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, “We shall try all we can to keep out of this and shall remain neutral.” While it’s easy to see how the Germans might interpret this in an encouraging light, as with Bienvenu-Martin’s statements they never should have given so much weight to the opinion of a single individual, especially as the British monarch no longer exercised much real control over foreign policy; the king, who had not consulted extensively with Prime Minister Asquith or Foreign Secretary Grey, was expressing a personal opinion at most.
In any event, the Germans often fell prey to irrational optimism. For example, on July 24, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and Lord Chancellor Richard Haldane had dinner with Albert Ballin, a German shipping magnate and close friend of the Kaiser, who was apparently acting as an unofficial envoy from Berlin, and offered them the following unusual deal: “Suppose we had to go to war with Russia and France, and suppose we defeated France and yet took nothing from her in Europe, not an inch of her territory, only some colonies to indemnify us. Would that make a difference to England’s attitude? Suppose we gave a guarantee beforehand!”
Churchill and Haldane were skeptical about this strange, improbable proposal for a number of reasons. For one thing, there was no way to know that Germany would keep her word after defeating France and establishing control of the continent. But Ballin somehow came away with the impression that Britain might be open to such an arrangement, leading to another round of desperately confused last-minute negotiations as the fateful month of July 1914 drew to a close.
The Chain Reaction
Whatever the Germans—and many British—may have hoped, Britain didn’t actually have much choice about getting involved in a European war, having learned the hard way that she couldn’t allow the continent to fall under the control of a single power, as during the imperial heydays of Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. On July 26, Crowe, the perceptive undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, sketched out the chain reaction that was about to start:
I am afraid that the real difficulty to be overcome will be found in the question of mobilization. Austria is already mobilizing. This… is a serious menace to Russia, who cannot be expected to delay her own mobilization... If Russia mobilizes, we have been warned that Germany will do the same, and as German mobilization is directed almost entirely against France, the latter cannot possibly delay her own mobilization even for the fraction of a day… This however means that within 24 hours His Majesty’s Government will be faced with the question whether, in a quarrel so imposed by Austria on an unwilling France, Great Britain will stand idly aside, or take sides…