Skip to main content

by Stephen Yellin

This is part of a series of daily articles that covers the run-up to the catastrophe of World War I in July 1914. The diplomatic crisis exactly 100 years ago was sparked by the murder of the main force for peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Archduke Franz Ferdinand, together with his wife Sophie – by a Serbian terrorist. Backed by Germany’s offering of unconditional support in using force to retaliate against Serbia – the infamous “blank check” – the Viennese authorities began preparing a list of demands for the Serbian government to accept or face war. The demands were deliberately made to ensure war would occur.

The ultimatum was finally issued on July 23, 1914, over 3 weeks after the Archduke’s murder. The 12 days that followed are the focus of this series.

Feel free to refer to my list of important figures in keeping track of who's who.

Previous days:
Thursday, July 23rd - the fuse is lit
Friday, July 24th - "c'est la guerre europeene"
Saturday, July 25th - "we stand upon the edge of war"
Sunday, July 26th - “War is thought imminent. Wildest enthusiasm prevails.”
Monday, July 27th – “You’ve cooked this broth and now you’re going to eat it.”
Tuesday, July 28 – “To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war”
Wednesday, July 29th – “I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter!”
Thursday, July 30 - "The responsibility of Peace or War"
Friday, July 31 - "Everything is finished. There is nothing left to do."
-------------------------------------

Saturday, August 1 - "There must have been some misunderstanding"

By August 1st the terrible momentum of events had shifted from Austria-Hungary's demands of Serbia to the demands of the "Great Powers" of Europe against each other. The day ahead would see war realized in a manner that, in Berlin, bordered on the farcical. Meanwhile the leaders of the one Great Power yet to commit - Great Britain - frantically attempted to limit the war ahead while keeping its word to France.

Berlin, Part 1 - "...the war, it has been thrust upon us."

Saturday morning sees the Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg address the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German Parliament. Unlike the Reichstag (the lower house) the Bundesrat must give its consent before a declaration of war can be issued. Bethmann explains the threat posed by Russian mobilization and the increasing signs of French preparation to do the same. If Germany does not do the same, he warns, East Prussia in the east and the Rhineland in the west would be in danger of invasion.

To that end Bethmann announces that Berlin has sent a 12-hour ultimatum to St. Petersburg demanding the Russians cease their mobilization, as well as a note to Paris demanding to know the French government's intentions. Should Russia refuse and France decline to make an "absolutely unambiguous declaration of neutrality", then Germany will have no choice but to declare war on both. He concludes his speech by saying "We have not willed the war, it has been forced upon us. If the iron dice now must role, then may God help us." The Bundesrat unanimously gives its consent.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg
Bethmann-Hollweg
The Russian deadline expires at Noon, Berlin time without a response from St. Petersburg. Even as Foreign Secretary Jagow draws up a declaration of war for Ambassador Pourtales to deliver to the Russian government, Bethmann extends the deadline to 5:00 PM. When the French give an ambiguous reply to Berlin's request - "France will act in accordance with our interests", says Prime Minister Viviani - the Chancellor extends her deadline to 4:00 PM Berlin time.

The reason to wait is an important one. Once German mobilization is declared along with the declarations of war, German troops of the Sixteenth Division are to move into neutral Luxembourg to seize control of her railways - a critical link in making the Schlieffen Plan work. Such an unambiguous act of war means Germany cannot turn back after mobilization is ordered. Bethmann's unwise decisions to accompany this by open declarations of war, however, will increasingly leave the rest of the world convinced that Germany was the chief aggressor in making a European-wide war a reality.

Finally, having waited until 4:00 PM to hear any reply, Bethmann gives in to the demands of War Minister Eric von Falkenhayn and arranges a meeting with the Kaiser and the military chiefs - Moltke for the army, Grand Admiral Tirpitz for the navy - at the Kaiser's Charlottenburg place. At 5:00 PM Wilhelm signs the order for full mobilization, and gives Falkenhayn a long handshake with "tears in [our] eyes", as the latter recalled.

Yet the dramatic events in Berlin are far from over.

St. Petersburg - "I have no other reply to give you."

Even as the Kaiser signs what will ultimately be the death warrant for his dynasty his ambassador to Russia, Count Pourtales, sits in the waiting room of Chorister's Bridge, the headquarters of the Russian foreign ministry. He has with him the German declaration of war against Russia. At 5:30 PM, Berlin time Foreign Minister Sazanov receives Pourtales in the former's office.

Sergei Sazanov, Russian Foreign Minister in 1914.
Sazanov
Pourtales asks whether "the Imperial government [Russia] was agreeable to giving him a favorable reply to his note of yesterday [the 12-hour ultimatum]". Sazanov says no, he is unable to comply. Pourtales draws the declaration of war from his pocket and repeats his question, only to have Sazanov repeat his answer. "With increasing emotion", Pourtales asks his question one last time. "I have no other reply to give you," says an equally moved Sazanov. Pourtales presents the declaration of war to Sazanov "with trembling hands". Deeply emotionally affected by what they have just done, the two men embrace, although Pourtales later reports that the 2 men briefly exchanged blame as to which country was responsible for the war. The ambassador prepares to leave St. Petersburg at 8:00 AM the next day.

Paris - "So it would appear"

The morning of August 1st sees the French Cabinet deliberating whether to give the order for full mobilization of the French army. They are delighted when a secret dispatch arrives from Rome; the Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio San Guiliano has informed the French ambassador that, since Austria-Hungary has attacked Serbia, Italy has no obligation to join her "ally" in going to war. While in truth Italy has had no interest in joining Austria-Hungary and Germany in going to war - they are interested in seizing the remaining Austrian territory populated by Italians - this decision frees the French to send their troops on the Franco-Italian border northward.

As this is happening Baron Schoen, the German ambassador arrives to meet with Prime Minister Viviani. Viviani gives Schoen the ambiguous reply to Germany's "note" (read: ultimatum to stay neutral or be attacked) mentioned above; when Schoen points out that France has a military alliance with Russia, the Prime Minister simply replies "So it would appear" ("Evidemment" in French) when he returned to the meeting, he finally consents to General Joffre's demand for full mobilization. The French order goes out at 3:45 PM, and by 4:00 the first mobilization placards appear in Paris. Orchestras begin playing "The Marseillaise" and "God Save the Tsar" (the Russian national anthem in 1914); they also play "God Save the King" and "Rule Brittania", perhaps in a plea for their fellow Entente member to join them at that crucial hour.

Prime Minister Rene Viviani
As of August 1st there is no sign the British government will do so, much to the fury of Ambassador Paul Cambon in London.

London - "It would be very hard to restrain public feeling in this country."

The British Cabinet also meets that Saturday - a most unusual occurrence for a country whose leaders routinely head home or on vacation for the weekend. Then again, rarely has Great Britain faced so critical a decision as its leaders do now. With most of the governing Liberal Party's members opposed to intervention along with a clear majority of the British Cabinet, the interventionist wing led by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, Prime Minister Asquith and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, attempt to persuade their colleagues at that meeting to join them. Churchill, for one, passes notes to Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, imploring the as-yet-uncommitted Liberal leader to "come and bring your mighty aid to the discharge of our duty".

David Lloyd George
Lloyd George and the anti-interventionists do not oblige Churchill, rejecting his call for the navy reserves to be called up and enact all naval preparations for war. An hour-long "torrent of rhetoric" from Churchill fails to move his colleagues, led in their opposition by Lord Morley. Only a threat from Grey that he will resign if the Cabinet votes not to intervene - a resignation sure to bring Asquith and Churchill with him, thus bringing down the government and almost certainly throwing the Liberals out of power - prevents Morley from calling for a vote that day.

Seemingly separate from the question of aiding France is the question of Britain's pledge to protect Belgian neutrality, something Germany appears to be prepared to violate as part of its offensive against France. Morley admits that protecting Belgium might be a solid reason for Britain to intervene, but he and his colleagues refuse to back an ultimatum to that end. Nevertheless they have given Grey a way to break the deadlock: he sends a warning to his friend, Ambassador Lichnowsky that if Germany does not give Belgium the same non-intervention guarantee as France, "it would be very hard to restrain public feeling in this country." As Sean McMeekin accurately notes, "It was an odd sort of warning: threatening Germany with the wrath of English public opinion."

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1905-1916.
Sir Edward Grey
Meanwhile the government continues to make public efforts to preserve whatever hope of peace remains, even going so far as to wake King George V at 2:00 AM that morning to have him sign a pacific telegram to the Kaiser. Together with a rather erratic statement made by Grey later that morning to Lichnowsky, an ardent Anglophile horrified by the thought of Germany going to war against Britain, the 2 messages led to a confrontation in Berlin with far-reaching effects on the war to come.

Berlin, Part 2 - Your Uncle would have given me a different answer!"

When we last left Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German government, they were shaking hands with each other at the palace of Charlottenburg after finally agreeing to mobilize the German army. They have yet to leave the room when the Foreign Secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow rushes in to tell them that Lichnowsky has sent an urgent telegram from London. 10 minutes later the now-decoded message is read to everyone: Grey has apparently promised Lichnowsky "that in the event of our not attacking France, England, too, would remain neutral and would guarantee France's passivity."

Gottlieb von Jagow
The Kaiser is elated with the sudden prospect of only fighting Russia as opposed to all 3 Entente powers. He exclaims "Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our army to the East!" Moltke, horrified, is forced to explain to the Kaiser that Germany has no war plans to send its armies against Russia only.
Your Majesty, the deployment of an army of a million men cannot be improvised...if Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the east it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of men with no arrangements for supply.
He also points that out that France, as Russia's ally, could hardly be expected to sit still as Germany struck at her eastern neighbor. This explanation is not to the liking of the "All-Highest Warlord". "Your uncle would have given a different answer!" Wilhelm barks, referring to the brilliant commander of the Prussian armies under Otto von Bismarck. His barb cuts at the very core of Moltke's being - he has lived his whole life with the burden of living up to the remarkable legacy of success his namesake left behind. Over his strenuous objections the Kaiser cancels the occupation of Luxembourg scheduled to take place at 7:00 PM.
Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, German General and commander of its armies in 1914.
Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger
The order arrives just 20 minutes before the deadline. A visibly shattered Moltke refuses to sign the order to cancel the march into Luxembourg; leaving the palace he "burst into tears of abject despair". His wife later recalls he returned home physically shaking, his face almost purple.

Some historians speculate that Moltke may have suffered a minor heart attack from the day's stress. There is no doubt that he is never the same man afterwards; his leadership of the German army in the first 6 weeks of the war was disastrous, leaving his individual commanders to act for themselves with virtually no interference. The failure of the German army to win on the Western Front in 1914, despite the blood-soaked debacle of France's Plan XVII and the abysmal leadership of the British Expeditionary Force, can be in part traced to the events of August 1st and its effects on Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger.

Late that evening, after celebrating the seemingly good news from the British and French with his family, the Kaiser is awakened to receive a telegram from King George V. He is informed that

I think there must be some misunderstanding as to a suggestion that passed in friendly conversation between Prince Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey this afternoon when they were discussing how actual fighting between German and French armies might be avoided while there is still a chance of agreement between Austria and Russia. [Sentence structure is original]
The telegram has actually been written by Grey, and the "misunderstanding" was Grey backtracking on his casual statement to Lichnowsky of "guaranteeing the passivity of France." In fact Grey has no way whatsoever of achieving this, nor would France have ever accepted leaving its ally in the lurch at this point. Once he realizes this Grey has no choice but to disavow his pledge; as a purely constitutional monarch King George has no choice but to accept this turn of events. A dejected Wilhelm, throwing a coat around his pajamas, sends for Moltke. Shortly after 11:00 PM, Berlin time, he hands Moltke the telegram and says "Now you can do what you want."
Photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Notice that he is posed in such a way that his withered left arm appears the same size as his right one.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
The order to occupy Luxembourg is now dispatched. The first actual invasion in 1914 of one country by another has happened. It will not be long before the next invasion commences.
EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Let me know what YOU think (8+ / 0-)

    I apologize for the length of my daily posts on the countdown but the details are so fascinating, and the context so important, that I feel they have to be included in a series of this kind.

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 10:41:43 AM PDT

  •  bethman was right (2+ / 0-)

    in that the war was thrust upon them. it was not their intent, when they gave austria the green light on serbia, and they did feel their hand was forced by russia's mobilization. but given that neutral modern belgium was seen by the british as largely their invention, the etched-in-stone german plan to march through it ensured a wider war.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 10:54:24 AM PDT

    •  He knew the risk when he offered Austria (4+ / 0-)

      the "blank check". Both he and the Kaiser recognized there was a chance Russia would try and intervene but were willing to run a risk of a European-wide war rather than alienate their sole, reliable ally in Europe. That does not mean they are the only ones to blame for the war; far from it, as I hope my articles have demonstrated. If the war was "thrust" upon Germany, it was because its leaders were willing to accept that a possible consequence of their actions.

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 11:02:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  they were counting on (4+ / 0-)

        austria acting quickly, before russia would have time even to begin to mobilize. it was premised on the austrian conquest of serbia being a fait accompli. but that, as with so much of what happened that month, was based on a mistaken dual premise- that austria was capable, both politically and militarily, of acting quickly.

        The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

        by Laurence Lewis on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 11:30:52 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Political Leadership Not Totally Involved (3+ / 0-)

        Apparently many of the political and civilian leaderships in pre-WW1 Europe were not totally intimate with the mobilization plans their militaries had prepared.  Certainly the German Kaiser's reference to moving against only Russia reveals that he had little idea of the rigidity of the German mobilization plan.  Evidence exists which indicates the same applies to the Tsar, who had some idea that Russia could mobilize against only one opponent and not all.  The military commands of the various powers failed their civilian leaderships badly in having not developed a spectrum of mobilization plans rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach to their responsibilities.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 06:41:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The Von Schlieffen plan made the war inevitable... (3+ / 0-)

          Much as the Bush administration was built to go to war with Iraq. The particulars were merely circumstantial. But the incompetence and lack of decisive leadership all around are breathtaking amongst the players in 1914. I doubt much of the leadership team from Iraq will look much better in similar examination.

        •  And the military commanders failed the (3+ / 0-)
          The military commands of the various powers failed their civilian leaderships badly in having not developed a spectrum of mobilization plans rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach to their responsibilities.
          civilians even worse by not even communicating the substance of their plans to their respective governments.  In particular, if the Kaiser and the Tsar known how rigid the plans were, they might have worked harder to restrain their respective militaries.

          "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." -- Sen Carl Schurz 1872

          by Calamity Jean on Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 09:23:32 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  The perception Germany was responsible for the war (5+ / 0-)

    Big things such as the "Blank Check" gave the impression Germany bore the main responsibility for starting the war.Little things such as the decision to accompany mobilization with a declaration of war and the immediate invasion of Luxembourg reinforced that impression. From this came the harshness for Germany of the Treaty of Versailles. This in turn lead to the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War. The seeds of European and Middle East history up to this  present day were thus sown.

    •  "The _perception_ Germany was responsible" (0+ / 0-)

      I came across a posting on LGM re: WWI that referred to a book as being a well-researched effort and decided to read it.  The book was the "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" by Christopher Clark.  I also had the perception that Germany was largely at fault for WWI and I was very surprised that Mr. Clark, while certainly not finding Germany to be "innocent" in any fashion, presents a great deal of evidence that places a great deal of the blame elsewhere.  Serbia, which was complicit in lighting the fuse, differed little, if any, from the Serbia that was guilty of ethnic cleansing after the break-up of Yugoslavia - same thoughts of a Serbian identity, same tactics against non-Serbians.  Politicians and statesmen in France who were frightened of Germany and thought that they would win a War if the alliance with Russia were kept.  A few British politicians who were very much for war and prevailed against initially great odds in the British Government.  Mr. Clark's "perception" was certainly not that Germany "was responsible" for the instigation of WWI.
      What comes through in his book is that what happened in the years and months leading up to the war was an incredibly complex, inter-twined tangle of personalities swimming in a sea of unclear roles of Government, military, political, and public opinion.  What most struck me was the fact that personal ambition, ancient insults, inability to accurately gauge the intentions and abilities of other Nations and their leaders, were major influences in the initiation of WWI.  The complexity of these factors, that seemed to change on a day to day basis, underlies the difficulty (impossibility) of assigning specific responsibility for the War to any one Nation or leader.
      Certainly, what came through very clearly was that none of the leaders at that time had any concept of what they were about to unleash on their Nations.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site