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 mylist 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!”
Belgrade – the first shots fired
The previous day had seen Austria-Hungary declare war on Serbia through the unorthodox method of a publicly transmitted telegram. The government in Vienna, reacting to the news that Russia is beginning to mobilize in response, is receiving mixed messages from its ally in Berlin. Bethmann and Foreign Secretary Jagow, acting on orders from the Kaiser, have requested that the Austrian government open direct talks with the Russians while negotiating with Serbia to find an acceptable compromise to its ultimatum. At the same time, however those same officials, together with the German military, are urging their Austrian counterparts (Foreign Secretary Berchtold and General Conrad von Hotzendorf) to commence hostilities as soon as possible to short-circuit talks with St. Petersburg.
Accordingly, the Austrian government decides to stay the course and commences an artillery bombardment of Belgrade that afternoon. While the bombardment is relatively brief and causes little damage it still accomplishes what Berlin is looking for. Equally important is that it kills the remaining hopes that St. Petersburg and Vienna could diplomatically resolve the crisis. That General Conrad is banking on Germany coming to his armies’ aid is amply demonstrated by his order to mobilize the army along the Serbian border but not as of yet the Russian one. Without German mobilization the Russians would be free to invade Austrian-held Galicia (parts of modern-day, western Ukraine and southern Poland, including Krakow and Lvov) and strike towards Budapest.
Berlin – “who rules in Berlin – Bethmann or Moltke?”
Kaiser Wilhelm, meanwhile, has given yet another verbal dressing-down to his Chancellor, the third such in 3 days. While the Kaiser is unaware that his subordinates are ignoring his wishes, he is very much aware that Bethmann is bungling the diplomatic side of the crisis since the ultimatum was issued. Having once again endured the wrath of the “All-highest Warlord”, an emotionally shattered Bethmann – he is described as having “completely collapsed” – begins frantically cabling Vienna that evening to try and get his ally to reverse course and halt mobilization.
Meanwhile Bethmann makes another horrible blunder. Meeting late that night with the British Ambassador he begins blabbing on Germany’s war plans in the desperate hope of compelling London to stay neutral in the seemingly inevitable conflict. First he tells Ambassador Goschen that Germany “aimed at no territorial acquisitions at the expense of France” should the Germans win, but admits France’s colonies are not so sacrosanct.
Goschen then asks whether German will respect Dutch and Belgian neutrality. Fully aware that Moltke’s war plan calls for violating Belgian neutrality to get around the French army’s flank, Bethmann can only promise to leave the Netherlands alone. Instead he blurts out that if Belgium does not align against Germany then her “integrity would be respected after the conclusion of the war.” Goschen, fully alarmed by what appears to be Germany’s plan to invade Belgium – a country it, Britain and the other Great Powers are pledged by treaty to protect – promptly informs London of the interview.
St. Petersburg – “The real cause of Austrian intransigence”
Bethmann’s muddled efforts create the most harm with regard to Foreign Minister Sazanov and his colleagues. At 11:00 AM the German Ambassador, Count Pourtales calls on Sazanov to follow up on the Kaiser’s mediation offer: the telegram to his cousin “Nicky” that the Tsar will only receive later that day. He asks Russia to make things easier for the Kaiser by not launching a “premature mobilization” against Austria-Hungary; Sazanov, in turn, asks that the Austrians cease mobilizing its armies against Serbia. After Pourtales leaves, a highly skeptical Sazanov then asks his colleagues whether the German offer is sincere or merely a delaying tactic to give Vienna a head start on its offensive.
Sazanov: I no longer have any doubt as to the real cause of Austrian intransigenceAn angry Pourtales promptly walks out of Sazanov’s office. Plans for full Russian mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary are now prepared to be given. The drama in St. Petersburg that night is only beginning, however.
Pourtales: I protest with all my power, Mr. Minister, against this injurious assertion.
Sazanov: Your government still has an opportunity for proving the erroneousness of what I have said.
Willy/Nicky, Part 2: or, the Tsar and his telephone
About 2 hours later, at 8PM, Tsar Nicholas II calls Sazanov on the telephone to inform him of the telegram from “Willy” the night before. As noted yesterday, the Kaiser’s request for mediation to Vienna had been delayed by 2 hours due to his discomfort with using this relatively new-fangled technology; whether Nicholas, unlike Wilhelm was simply more comfortable with the idea of using a telephone, or felt forced to use it by the gravity of the situation, is unclear.
Thanks for your telegram conciliatory and friendly [ie the mediation offer]. Whereas official message presented today by your ambassador to my minister was conveyed in a very different tone. Beg you to explain this divergency! It would be right to give over the Austro-Servian problem to the Hague Conference. Trust in your wisdom and friendship.The “Hague Conference” (hosted in the Dutch city of The Hague), a forerunner to both the League of Nations and the United Nations, had been established in 1899 to arbitrate international disputes. It had been the Tsar’s brainchild and had successfully resolved a few colonial disputes prior to 1914. (Today it is the home of the International Criminal Court.) As such the Tsar sincerely believed it could be used to mediate between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. The problem was that the parties involved would have to be willing to resort to The Hague in the first place.
Your loving Nicky
[Note: In 1914 the more frequently used spelling for Serbia substituted a “V” for a “B”. It was not until later in the 20th century that the “b” in Serbia began being commonly used.]
During the same phone call, Sazanov gets the Tsar’s permission to discuss full mobilization with War Minister Sukhonlinov and the Russian army’s Chief of Staff, General Yanushkevitch. None of these 3 men are in doubt as to what ought to be done. At 9:00 PM the Tsar was asked permission to order full mobilization; lacking any peaceful alternative at that moment, he consents. General Dobrorolskii, head of the Russian army’s Mobilization Division heads over to the Central Telegraph Office to have the notices typed up. Once completed all other telegram transmissions will be temporarily suspended in order to get the mobilization telegrams dispatched as quickly as possible to all army units.
Then, at 9:40 PM, the Tsar receives a new telegram from the Kaiser. In it “Willy” tells “Nicky” the following:
I received your telegram and share your wish that peace should be maintained. But as I told you in my first telegram, I cannot consider Austria's action against Servia an "ignoble" war…This my reasoning is borne out by the statement of the Austrian cabinet that Austria does not want to make any territorial conquests at the expense of Servia. I therefore suggest that it would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the austro-servian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed. I think a direct understanding between your Government and Vienna possible and desirable, and as I already telegraphed to you, my Government is continuing its exercises to promote it. Of course military measures on the part of Russia would be looked upon by Austria as a calamity we both wish to avoid and jeopardize my position as mediator which I readily accepted on your appeal to my friendship and my help.
[All spelling and grammar are from original]
The Tsar promptly telephones War Minister Sukhomlinov and demands the order for mobilization be canceled. A horrified Sukhomlinov tells Nicholas that “Mobilization is not a mechanical process which one can arrange at will, as one can a wagon, and then set in motion again.” Nicholas gets the same response from Chief of Staff Yanushkevitch. Normally that would be enough to convince the normally passive Tsar to accede to his ministers. Not this time: Nicholas stuck to his guns and demanded the order be canceled. Sukhomlinov and Yanushkevitch now have to choose between submitting, or committing treason by directly defying their master’s order.
Nicholas II had stopped a European war from commencing. The tragedy is that, thanks to events that had already unfolded and those continuing to develop, he has only done so for a single day.
Paris – “Here was a united France.”
The morning of the 29th sees President Raymond Poincare and Prime Minister Rene Viviani finally disembark from their sea voyage from St. Petersburg to Dunkirk. Much has happened during their 6-day trip, including their government’s decision in their absence to mobilize the 100,000 French troops in Algeria and Morocco. Even the hawkish Poincare is shocked by this abrupt move towards war, something neither he nor Viviani was aware of thanks to problems receiving telegrams aboard their ship. The 2 men are quickly brought up to speed on France’s preparations. Viviani orders the French Ambassador to Britain to support Sazanov’s call for the British to restrain Austria from mobilization. How Viviani expects London to do this is left unexplained.
As I came out of the station I was greeted by an overwhelming demonstration which moved me to the depths of my being. Many people had tears in their eyes and I could hardly hold back my own. From thousands of throats arose repeated shouts of: Vive la France et Vive la Republique! Vive le President!...From the station to the Elysee [the President’s mansion] the cheering never stopped…Here was a united France.
London – “Not a British life shall be sacrificed”
Even as Sir Edward Grey continues to achieve a diplomatic solution with increasingly feeble results, the British cabinet and its public are now fully engaged with the prospect of entering a European war. For the most part they want nothing to do with a conflict stemming from a dispute in faraway Serbia of no interest to Britain and its empire. The Daily News asserts: “The most effective work for peace that we can do is to make clear that not a British life shall be sacrificed for the sake of Russian hegemony of the Slav world.” The Labour Party, then the 3rd -largest in Parliament, considers calling for a general strike if the government enters the war. Most members of the governing Liberal Party – including most of the British Cabinet – share a similar distaste for intervention, reflecting the “Little England” platform of its voting base.
The Cabinet members to support possible intervention on July 29th are but 3 out of 20 in total: Grey, Prime Minister Asquith and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Churchill attempts that day to persuade the popular Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George to join the interventionist side but in vain. (Lloyd George’s post is the British equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.) Despite this anti-interventionist sentiment, and without informing the Cabinet, Grey tells the German ambassador for the first time that “the British government would be forced into taking rapid decisions” in the event of a European war. “In this case it would not do [for Britain] to stand aside and wait.” This strongly implies that Britain will not stay neutral as Bethmann and his colleagues in Berlin had hoped, and contributes to the German Chancellor’s emotional breakdown that evening.
On the same day that Bethmann accidentally spills the beans on the planned German invasion of Belgium, the Belgian government becomes sufficiently alarmed at the unfolding crisis to recall all officials at once. One minister vacationing in Germany finds the train lines so packed with civilians fleeing for home, while there is still time, that only a friendly lift from a Belgian industrialist gets him back to Brussels the next day.
The fate of Belgium will become increasingly important to our story as the crisis reaches its conclusion.