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"
Sunday, August 2 - "A great country does not wage war by halves"
Monday, August 3 - "It has not been possible to secure the peace of Europe."
Tuesday, August 4 - Drawing the sword
August 3rd had seen the German ultimatum to Belgium - let its troops through the neutral country Berlin had publicly pledged to protect, or be attacked themselves - swing both public opinion and the government's in Britain from staying out, to getting into the European-wide war that was now officially underway. All that remained for the decision-makers of the "Great Powers" of Europe was to convince their people that the war was a just one, and to get their assent for spending the money deemed necessary to fight it.
August 4th saw the first shots fired on the Western Front, the death of the socialist Second International, and reckless comments from the German chancellor that would forever haunt his nation when it came to assigning blame for the war he'd helped create.
Brussels - "The sacred gift of our forefathers"
At 8:02 AM on Tuesday morning, the first wave of Germans soldiers, wearing the new field-grey uniforms designed to avoid making them easy targets for machine guns and artillery, crossed the Belgian border at Gemmenich. These 6 infantry brigades and 3 cavalry divisions have orders to seize Liege, a major fortified city along the Meuse River that barred the way into the rest of Belgium. Despite receiving reports that the Belgians had reinforced the city, Field Marshall von Moltke orders the attack in accordance with his pre-war plan.
The attack is a fiasco - the Liege forts hold despite artillery bombardment and the Belgians blow up the Meuse bridges, forcing the Germans to retreat as they lack pontoons to bridge the river. One brigade reaches Liege but suffers heavy losses from well-entrenched Belgian defenders, still wearing brightly colored uniforms from the 19th century, and is forced to retreat like the others.
Upon hearing the news King Albert I asks to speak to the Belgian Parliament at 11:00 AM. He is greeted by cheers of support as he rides his horse from the palace, wearing not the royal regalia but a plain field uniform. Upon reaching the Parliament dais he says, in part: the following:
Gentlemen:Then, in a spur-of-the-moment call to arms the King concludes by shouting
Never, since 1839, has a more solemn hour struck for Belgium: the integrity of our territory is threatened...
But if our hopes [for peace] are betrayed, if we are forced to resist the invasion of our soil, and to defend our threatened homes, this duty, however hard it may be, will find us armed and resolved upon the greatest sacrifices.
Even now, in readiness for any eventuality, our valiant youth is up in arms, firmly resolved, with the traditional tenacity and composure of the Belgians, to defend our threatened country...
If the foreigner, in defiance of that neutrality whose demands we have always scrupulously observed, violates our territory, he will find all the Belgians gathered about their sovereign, who will never betray his constitutional oath, and their Government, invested with the absolute confidence of the entire nation.
I have faith in our destinies; a country which is defending itself conquers the respect of all; such a country does not perish!
Gentlemen, are you unalterably decided to maintain intact the sacred gifts of our forefathers?All reports show that the Parliament rose in unison, many openly in tears, and shouted "Oui! Oui!" They knew the odds - outnumbered at least 10:1, lacking in the heavy artillery needed for a strong defense of their fortified cities, they chose to resist rather than be subjugated and let its neutrality willingly be violated. They knew they would not stand alone, however: France had already agreed to support Belgium in their mutual fight, and Great Britain was about to follow.
Berlin - "The wrong we thereby commit"
As the last of the German units engaged at Liege make their way back to their camp, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg arrives at the Reichstag to defend his government's actions. Germany's constitution, like those of France and Great Britain, requires the Reichstag to approve any financing of a war by granting "war credits" to the government. With the Social Democratic Party - the largest in the Reichstag as of the 1912 elections - publicly opposed to such a war as part of the Second International's policy, and officially committed to launching a mass workers strike to prevent it, Bethmann hopes to persuade them to come on board now the war has started.
Like Sir Edward Grey's speech to the House of Commons the day before, Bethmann's surprising display of eloquence helps to move his audience. His theme is that Germany has been forced to fight due to Russian aggression against Austria-Hungary, aggression stiffened by French collaboration in their efforts to "encircle" Germany.
[Only] in defense of a just cause shall our sword fly from its scabbard...Russia has set fire to the building [i.e. Europe]. We are at war with Russia and France - a war that has been forced upon us.
On the threat posed by Russian mobilization, a threat even German socialists shared with their fellow citizens:
Were we now to wait further in patience [before mobilizing] until the nations of either side of us chose the moment for their attack?"No! No!" came replies in the Reichstag. Bethmann goes on to declare that French troops had crossed into Germany despite their public pledge to stay 10 kilometers back from the border. Then the problem with the German case for defensive action reared its head: rather than wait for a French attack, Bethmann awkwardly explains, "we were forced to ignore the rightful protests of the Governments of Luxembourg and Belgium." He goes to make the incalculably disastrous - if honest - confession that Germany has violated international law by invading Belgium. He further stuffs his proverbial foot in his mouth by adding:
The wrong - I speak openly - the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained...he who is menaced as we are and is fighting for his highest values, can only consider how he is hack his way through.This public admittance of wrongdoing, while earning "great and repeating applause" from the Reichstag is rightly regarded by the commander of the Imperial navy, Grand Admiral Tirpitz as "the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman." By publicly stating his country has wrongfully violated the rights of a small, neutral country it has publicly pledged to defend, and invaded it for good measure, Bethmann ensures that Germany will lose the public relations battle against the Allies to win sympathy and support from the unaligned nations of the world - chief among them the United States. German atrocities that will soon unfold in Belgium and Northern France, including massacres of innocent civilians and the needless destruction of the medieval city of Louvain, will only reinforce the portrayal of "German barbarism" that Allied propaganda used to woo America into the struggle. Otto von Bismarck, the ruthlessly pragmatic Chancellor who'd founded Germany, would have been appalled.
Nevertheless, on August 4th Bethmann gets unanimous approval for the "war credits" Germany needed to wage the struggle he'd played a vital role in unleashing. Even the Social Democrats vote for war, completely disregarding its pledge to fight against a war as part of the Second International. Friday had seen the Kaiser publicly proclaim his forgiveness to all the politicians who'd opposed his regime up to that point. Such unanimity, typical of the countries that went to war in August 1914, will not last.
France - The birth of the "Union Sacree"
Tuesday morning sees the funeral of the great Socialist and anti-war leader Jean Jaures, murdered by a right-wing fanatic last Friday evening. Despite their fallen leader's stance, his death ironically served to rally the Socialist movement behind the government and in favor of war. "It was as if Jaures had been the first victim of the war," Sean McMeekin notes. Leon Jouhaux, leader of the combined French trade unions claims to speak at the funeral for "all the working men" when he says "we take the field with the determination to drive back the aggressor."
The British Cabinet, having made the fateful commitment to war the day before, now takes 2 critical actions that day. It begins its debate on sending a British Expeditionary Force to the continent, something that the anti-interventionists, having already committed to naval action to protect the French coast, reluctantly go along with. As the shrewd French ambassador had told his government 2 days before, "a great nation does not go to war by halves" - having sent in the navy, Britain will now send 2 infantry corps together with cavalry units to join the French army. Needing a new War Secretary capable of rallying the country behind the war, Prime Minister Asquith appoints the famous Lord Kitchener - the victor of Omdurman and Britain's foremost military leader in 1914. Kitchener is one of the few leaders in Europe to recognize the war to come will be a long one, and it is thanks to him that Britain will be able to fight it in the 4 years to come.
The other action the Cabinet takes is the approval of an ultimatum to Germany as conceived by Sir Edward Grey. Germany has until midnight, August 4/5 to withdraw its troops from Belgium and pledge not to invade it again.
I then said that I should like to go and see the Chancellor [Bethmann], as it might be, perhaps, the last time I should have an opportunity of seeing him. [Jagow] begged me to do so. I found the Chancellor very agitated."A scrap of paper": the 1839 Treaty of London protecting Belgian neutrality that Prussia (Germany's legal predecessor) had signed along with Great Britain, France, Russia and Austria. Those words, part of a emotion-fueled outburst by a mentally overburdened man, would forever be associated with Bethmann and the decisions he made in July and August of 1914. What makes Bethmann's decisions even more astonishing is that this same man had intervened on the side of peace in the previous European crises: in 1905/6, 1908/9, 1911 and 1912/3, Bethmann had sided with the Kaiser in putting the brakes to a European-wide war. The best explanation for this about-face is a tragically personal one: Bethmann's beloved wife had died a few months before after a long illness, leaving him deeply depressed and greatly affecting his judgment in consequence.
[Bethmann] at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty's Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word - "neutrality," a word which in war time had so often been disregarded - just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.
His loss would prove to be the world's.
That same day saw the German ambassador to London, the ardent Anglophile Prince Lichnowsky, is photographed as he forlornly walks back to the German embassy after receiving his passport. Sir Edward Grey, as a token of respect to his old friend, arranges for a military guard of honor to salute him as he departed.