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 134th installment in the series.
July 27-28, 1914: Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia
In the final week of July 1914, after a decade of confrontation and near misses, mounting tensions between the two main European alliance blocs finally came to a head. Seizing on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext, Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands to Serbia on July 23. European diplomats scrambled to defuse the situation, but on July 25, Serbia, assured of Russian support, refused to knuckle under—and Austria-Hungary, likewise assured of German support, rejected the Serbian response, laying the groundwork for war.
The wheels of fate were spinning fast now, as Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef ordered mobilization against Serbia and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II ordered “pre-mobilization” measures and contemplated mobilizing against Austria-Hungary. But no one had declared war yet, so there was still a chance—albeit ever-diminishing—that war might be averted by a face-saving compromise, handing Austria-Hungary a diplomatic victory while maintaining Serbian sovereignty.
It was not to be. The actions of Germany and Austria-Hungary on Monday, July 27 and Tuesday, July 28 clinched their guilt as the inadvertent authors of the Great War. In the face of growing evidence that Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia would not remain localized, they continued to dismiss warnings from Russia, France, Britain, and Italy as bluff and proceeded with their plan, employing deception to make it seem like mediation had a chance—when in fact they never intended to negotiate.
July 27: British Suspicions
Following Austria-Hungary’s rejection of the Serbian response, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey frantically tried to prevent a wider war with all the diplomatic tools at his disposal. While urging Germany to rein in Austria-Hungary and begging France to do the same with Russia, he also suggested that they join forces with Italy, the other uninvolved Great Power, to offer mediation between Russia and Austria-Hungary, as they had at the Conference of London in 1913. The Russians, French, and Italians all accepted Grey’s offer, but the Germans—still pretending they had no involvement in Austria-Hungary’s plans—replied that “We could not take part in such a conference as we cannot drag Austria in her conflict with Serbia before a European tribunal.” Later that day, German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, aware that Germany couldn’t appear totally obstructive, told Goschen, the British ambassador to Berlin, that the “Conference you suggest would practically amount to a court of arbitration, and could not, in his opinion, be called together except at request of Austria and Russia.”
Such a request would require direct talks between Russia and Austria-Hungary—but behind closed doors the Germans sabotaged the initiative by telling the Austrians to reject both outside mediation. The damning proof comes from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, who sent a secret telegram to Foreign Minister Berchtold in Vienna saying
The Secretary of State [Jagow] told me very definitely in a strictly confidential form that in the immediate future mediation proposals from England will possibly be brought to Your Excellency’s knowledge by the German Government. The German Government, he says, tenders the most binding assurances that it in no way associates itself with the proposals, is even decidedly against their being considered, and only passes them on in order to conform to the English request. In so doing the Government proceeds from the standpoint that it is of the greatest importance that England at the present moment should not make common cause with Russia and France.
In other words, the Germans were only going through the motions in order to make the British think their intentions were peaceful, hopefully creating enough confusion and delay that Austria-Hungary could quickly crush Serbia while the Great Powers were still “talking.” And if the Russians left the negotiating table and declared war on Austria-Hungary, with any luck (the Germans hoped) the French and British would view Russia as the aggressor and refuse to come to her aid.
But the Germans were far too optimistic about their chances of “splitting” the Triple Entente through diplomatic subterfuge. While Grey may have been slow to grasp what was really happening, he wasn’t so naïve as to believe that Austria-Hungary would act against her powerful ally’s wishes. As early as July 22, Grey’s own Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Eyre Crowe, warned that the Germans were acting in bad faith: “It is difficult to understand the attitude of the German Government. On the face of it, it does not bear the stamp of straightforwardness. If they really are anxious to see Austria kept reasonably in check, they are in the best position to speak at Vienna.” By the evening of July 27, Grey’s suspicions about Germany’s real intentions were growing, according to the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, who warned Berlin that
if war now comes, we could no longer count on English sympathies and British support, since the Austrian action would be regarded as showing all signs of lack of good will. Everybody here is convinced, and I hear the same thing from my colleagues, that the key to the situation is Berlin and if Berlin seriously means peace, Austria can be restrained from pursuing a foolhardy policy, as Grey calls it.
Grey’s room for maneuver was still limited by the fact that many of his colleagues in the Liberal cabinet opposed any involvement in a continental war, which prevented him from issuing explicit threats. Nonetheless, on July 27, he signaled that Britain might become involved by allowing First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill keep the First and Second Fleets mobilized after the royal review from July 18 to 26.
Berlin Goes All In
Berlin’s response was simply to double down on its deception. Around midnight on the evening of July 27, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg ordered the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to pass along Grey’s offer of mediation to Austria-Hungary—but only to avoid the perception, both at home and abroad, that Germany was in the wrong:
By a rejection of all mediatory action we should be held responsible for the conflagration by the whole world and be represented as the real warmongers. This would make our own position in the country [Germany] impossible where we should appear as having forced the war… we cannot therefore reject the role of mediator and must submit the English proposal to the Vienna cabinet for consideration.
This move was obviously insincere because Foreign Secretary Jagow never withdrew his statement to Austria-Hungary’s ambassador Count Szőgyény that Vienna should ignore the offer of mediation. Furthermore, during the afternoon of July 27, the Germans learned that Austria-Hungary planned to declare war the next day, but never asked Vienna to delay the declaration to allow time for negotiations. Thus the Germans would simply pretend to try to reason with Austria-Hungary until she declared war, presenting the other Great Powers with a fait accompli and finally call their bluff.
This was always going to be a huge gamble, but decision makers in Berlin and Vienna seemed to be in the grip of a world-weary fatalism. On July 27, Bethmann-Hollweg’s friend and confidant, philosopher Kurt Riezler, wrote in his diary: “Everything depends on whether St. Petersburg immediately mobilizes and is encouraged or restrained by the West… The Chancellor thinks that fate, stronger than any human power, is deciding the future of Europe and our people.” Later that evening, as the international scene grew darker, another of Riezler’s diary entries sums up the incredible complexity of the situation, whose explosive intricacy appeared to defy comprehension, let alone control:
The news all points to war. In St. Petersburg there are obviously fierce debates over mobilization. England has altered its language—people in London have obviously just perceived that the Entente will be disrupted if they fail to support Russia…The danger is that France and England may decide to avoid offending Russia by supporting its mobilization, perhaps without really believing that Russian mobilization means war for us; they might think we are bluffing, and decide to answer with a bluff of their own.
By the evening of July 27, panic was spreading across Europe. The stock exchanges closed in Vienna and Budapest, the twin capitals of Austria-Hungary, as well as the Belgian capital of Brussels, reflecting unease over the possibility of a German invasion. In Berlin, German socialists organized anti-war protests which drew 60,000 people (contradicting later wartime propaganda that Germans embraced war wholeheartedly). Meanwhile Joseph Joffre, chief of the French general staff, ordered 40,000 French troops from Morocco and Algeria to return to France in case of war.
July 28: The Kaiser’s About-Face
In Germany, the morning of Tuesday, July 28 began on a bizarre note, with a sudden reversal by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had hurriedly returned from his yacht trip in the Norwegian fjords to personally oversee German foreign policy. However, his change of heart couldn’t avert the impending disaster—in part because his own subordinates ignored him.
The truth was that Germany’s political and military leaders never really trusted their mercurial head of state to follow through on his vow to support Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia. In fact, their distrust of Wilhelm (who was notorious for losing his nerve in crisis situations) was such that several key players, including Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Secretary Jagow, withheld information from him and dragged their feet carrying out his orders at key moments in the crisis.
Even though the text of the Serbian reply was received in Berlin around noon on July 27, Wilhelm didn’t see the text until the next morning—at which point he decided that the Serbs’ agreement to nine out of 11 conditions meant there was now no need to fight, scribbling: “A great moral success for Vienna; but with it all reason for war is gone.”
This incredible about-face was apparently the product of wishful thinking and belated wisdom, as it was becoming clear that Britain and Italy would not, in fact, stand aside in a European war. Instead, Wilhelm suggested a temporary occupation of Belgrade to secure Serbian compliance. In this scenario, Austria-Hungary would leave most of Serbia untouched in order to allay Russian fears, but still hold the Serbian capital as a bargaining chip, to be returned after the Serbs carried out all the Austrian demands: “On reading the Serbian reply… I am persuaded that on the whole the wishes of the Danubian Monarchy are met. The few reservations made by Serbia on single points can in my opinion well be cleared up by negotiation… This will best be done by Austria’s occupying Belgrade as security for the enforcement and execution of the promises…”
Bethmann-Hollweg and Jagow doubtless rolled their eyes at the Kaiser’s latest flip-flop: The “halt in Belgrade” idea was not only impractical—there was no reason to think Russia would be more amenable to a limited occupation of the Serbian capital—it also missed the whole point of the plan and was bound to annoy Austria-Hungary following Germany’s repeated promises of support for a full-on war against Serbia. So they more or less brushed it off. Of course, they couldn’t totally disregard their monarch’s orders, but they waited until the evening of July 28—after Austria-Hungary had already declared war on Serbia—to pass the suggestion along to Vienna. Ironically the Kaiser, like the rest of Europe, found himself presented with a fait accompli.
The Declaration of War
Exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, at 11am on Tuesday, July 28, Emperor Franz Josef signed the declaration of war against Serbia. Ten minutes later, Count Berchtold sent a telegram to Belgrade (a fitting opening to the first war of the modern era, as this was apparently the first time in history war was declared by wire) stating simply:
The Royal Serbian Government not having answered in a satisfactory manner the note of July 23, 1914, presented by the Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade, the Imperial and Royal Government are themselves compelled to see to the safeguarding of their rights and interests, and, with this object, to have recourse to force of arms. Austria-Hungary consequently considers herself henceforward in state of war with Serbia. Count Berchtold
At the same time, Berchtold sent a message to all the other Great Powers reprising the reasons for its declaration of war, while reassuring the Russians, once again, that Austria-Hungary had no plans to annex Serbian territory. Unsurprisingly, these premises and promises did not impress St. Petersburg, where military expediency was about to eclipse exhausted diplomacy.
Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia showed that all Germany’s talk of trying to restrain its ally had basically been a sham, because Austria-Hungary would never have launched the war without German support. After hearing the news around 4 p.m., Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov reacted with fury, summoning the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtalès, and launching into a tirade to the effect (as Pourtalès recounted) that
he now saw through our whole deceitful policy, he no longer doubted that we had known the Austro-Hungarian plans and that it was all a well-laid scheme between us and the Vienna Cabinet. Angered by these reproaches, I replied that I had told him definitely days ago that we regarded the Austro-Serbian conflict as a concern only of those two states.
Increasingly desperate, Sazonov turned yet again to Britain, the only Great Power that might still be able to get Germany to rein in Austria-Hungary—despite the fact that Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had already rebuffed several calls to make explicit threats to Germany. In his instructions to the Russian ambassador to London, Benckendorff, Sazonov wrote:
In consequence of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, direct discussions on my part with the Austrian ambassador are obviously useless. It would be necessary for England with all speed to take action in view of mediation and for Austria at once to suspend military measures against Serbia. Otherwise mediation will only furnish a pretext for delay in bringing the matter to a decision and make it meanwhile possible for Austria to annihilate Serbia completely.
Russians Draw Up Mobilization Orders
As his diplomatic efforts ran into the sands, Sazonov now tried to use the threat of military action to get Austria-Hungary to halt military preparations against Serbia. This was a dangerous escalation, born of a fatalistic attitude similar to the one prevailing in Germany. General Sergei Dobrorolski, the chief of the mobilization division of the Russian general staff, recounted: “On 28 July, the day of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia, Sazonov all at once abandons his optimism. He is penetrated by the thought that a general war is unavoidable…”
Already on July 25, Tsar Nicholas II had ordered “pre-mobilization” measures including promotion of cadets to full officers, bringing frontier units up to full strength, and recalling troops out on maneuver, and he also agreed “in principle” to a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary (which, the Russians hoped, would indicate they did not intend to attack Germany). On July 28, Sazonov and the other members of the Imperial Council were prepared to ask the Tsar to order partial mobilization as soon as the following day—but they soon learned it wasn’t the simple.
On July 26, the Quartermaster General of the Russian Army, Yuri Danilov, hurried back from a tour of the provinces to explain that partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary by itself was impossible, as the general staff only had plans for a general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Given the incredible scale and complexity of mobilization plans, which required coordinating the movements of thousands of trains, there was no way to improvise a new plan for partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary in just a few days. And even if it were possible, partial mobilization would be positively dangerous because the improvised measures would almost certainly throw a monkey wrench into the plans for general mobilization—leaving Russia defenseless if Germany came to Austria-Hungary’s aid (as she inevitably would).
Largely because of these protests from the general staff, on the evening of July 28, Tsar Nicholas II, indecisive as ever, ordered the Imperial Council to draw up two mobilization decrees, or ukazes—one ordering partial mobilization and the other ordering general mobilization. He would sign both of them on the morning of July 29 so that Sazonov could issue the order immediately if Austria-Hungary didn’t halt its military preparations against Serbia. Russia was about to cross the Rubicon.
Alarm in Germany
In fact, Russian pre-mobilization measures were already stoking fear in Germany, where the general staff knew that the success of the Schlieffen Plan depended on beating France before Russia had time to mobilize. As soon as the Russians began preparing for war—regardless of whether they called it “pre-mobilization” or something else—the clock was ticking for Germany, which had just six weeks to defeat France before the Russians would begin to overrun East Prussia.
On July 27, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Pourtalès, had warned Berlin of the “very considerable increase in Russian forces,” while the Germany military attaché, Major Eggeling, warned the Russian Minister of War, Sukhomlinov, that “even mobilization against Austria alone must be regarded as very dangerous.” The message was repeated by Pourtalès, who told Sazonov on Bethmann-Hollweg’s instructions that “Preparatory military measures on the part of Russia directed in any way against us would oblige us to take counter-measures which would have to consist in the mobilization of the army. Mobilization, however, means war.” The other members of the Triple Entente also urged caution, with the British ambassador, Buchanan, recommending on July 27 that Russian mobilization should be “deferred as long as possible,” and the fiercely anti-German French ambassador, Paléologue, giving the same advice on July 28—but only because it would help convince the British that Germany and Austria-Hungary, not Russia, were responsible for the war.
By the evening of July 28, the mood in Berlin was dark indeed, as War Minister Falkenhayn warned Kaiser Wilhelm that they had already “lost control over events” and the chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke predicted, in an overview he wrote for Bethmann-Hollweg that Europe was about to embark on a “world war… that will destroy civilization in almost all of Europe for decades to come”—but added that Germany would never have a better chance to win than she did now.
Germany Negotiate Treaty with Ottoman Empire
With war looming and Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance, looking increasingly unlikely to fight on their side, the Germans were desperate to scoop up any allies they could. Now they abandoned their longstanding policy of calculated ambiguity towards the Ottoman Empire and in mid-July signaled that they would consider a full-fledged alliance with Constantinople.
Naturally, the Turks—who rightly feared Russian designs on Constantinople, and had been looking for a patron and protector among the other Great Powers for years—jumped at the opportunity. After drawing up a first draft on July 24, on July 27 and 28 Minister of War Enver Pasha met secretly with the German ambassador, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, to hammer out the final wording of the agreement they would sign on August 2. But in the weeks that followed, the slippery Turks added a number of conditions, including the total abolition of the humiliating “capitulations” which gave European powers authority over Ottoman subjects, and massive financial and military aid.
The Germans’ task was made easier by Britain’s confiscation of two battleships under construction for the Ottoman Empire, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I, on July 28, which sparked outrage in the Turkish public; ordinary Turks had raised money to pay for the ships with public subscriptions and fund drives. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill justified the confiscation on the grounds of military necessity, but many critics said his highhanded move pushed the Ottoman Empire into Germany’s arms. It just so happened that two German battleships, the Goeben and the Breslau, were cruising in the Mediterranean when the war broke out—and they would provide perfect compensation for the ships stolen by the perfidious British.
Madame Caillaux Found Innocent
Even the darkest moments in history have their unexpected moments of absurdity. On July 28, as the world was coming apart at the seams, a French jury found Madame Henriette Caillaux, the wife of leftist politician Joseph Caillaux, not guilty of the murder of Gaston Calmette, the editor of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, on March 16, 1914.
This was an interesting verdict to say the least, as Madame Caillaux freely admitted to shooting Calmette in his offices, in order to prevent him from publishing scandalous letters written to her by Joseph Caillaux when he was still married to another woman. Ironically, some of the letters were read out in court anyway, including one suggestive reference to “a thousand million kisses all over your adored little body”—apparently alluding to sexual acts that were certain to raise eyebrows in early 20th century France, causing Madame Caillaux fainted in the courtroom from the sheer infamy of it all.
In a particularly French twist (which also reflected the ingrained sexism of the time), the jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty of murder because, as a woman, she was more prone to succumb to irrational, passionate feelings, and therefore not responsible for her actions when she killed Calmette. However, this reasoning didn’t seem to convince the angry mobs that besieged the courthouse, shouting “murderess,” after the verdict was announced.