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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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."
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."
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.
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."