The third week of July saw the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum delivered to Serbia and a response given by Serbia. The reply was rejected and the mobilization of Serbia and Austria-Hungary would begin. This week we look at the events that led up to these mobilizations and take a quick tour around Europe at the armies being mobilized and the men who led them.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 4. Last week we talked about the diplomatic players in the events of July 1914 and then looked at the moves that were made between July 12th and July 18th. A big piece of these moves revolved around the ultimatum given to Serbia by Austria-Hungary. This week we will start by looking at the events on July 19th and follow them to July 25th. This will take us all the way up until mobilization orders are signed. Then we will talk briefly about the armies of the nations involved in August 1914 and the men who led them. This will just be a primer and should give a good frame of reference for the events we will be talking about next week and in early August.
We left the leadership of Austria-Hungary as they continued to debate about the wording of the ultimatum that they were to soon send to Serbia. On July 19th they finally nailed down their wording, wording that you can see on historyofthegreatwar.com in Episode 3’s show notes. They sent the final ultimatum to Germany for review where there was some concern that Serbia might accept the ultimatum. When the Austro-Hungarian leadership heard this concern they reassured Germany that there was no way that Serbia could accept the terms. It was at this time that Germany began working very hard to try to convince the other European countries, especially France and Britain, that they should keep the war localized to the Balkans and not let it spread to all of Europe. This was part of the campaign by Germany to convince the other nations of Europe that they did not have foreknowledge of what Austria-Hungary was about to send to Serbia. While Germany was sending these messages they took some time to begin war preparations. On July 20th they informed German shipping companies that they should begin withdrawing their ships from foreign waters and they also began concentrating the German fleet in home ports.
Austria-Hungary decided to present the ultimatum to Serbia on July the 23rd at 6PM and gave the Serbians just 24 hours to respond. The original plan was to present the ultimatum several hours earlier but Germany requested that they delay until 6PM so that the French President and Prime Minister, who were leaving St. Petersburg on their way back to France, would be out to sea when it was delivered. The French officials had been in Russia to discuss the treaty between the two countries and how to coordinate military activities. By delaying the delivery of the ultimatum the ability of the French government to quickly respond to the situation was reduced. To increase their level of plausible deniability the entirety of the German military and political leadership went on holiday in the days preceding July 23rd, mostly so that they could make a big deal about racing back on the 23rd when the ultimatum was delivered. The Kaiser chose to take a Baltic cruise on this yacht.
When Serbia received the ultimatum they were aghast at the terms. They immediately began contacting their allies in Russia for advice and aid. The next day, July 24th, Austria-Hungary informed the other governments of Europe about the ultimatum that was delivered. Upon receiving the text that was sent to Serbia the Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov is quoted as saying “It’s a European War.” The official Russian response was to request that Austria-Hungary give Serbia more time, to tell Serbia not to oppose an Austria-Hungary invasion, and to give the order that Russian partial mobilization was to take place on July 28th. With the intricate time tables inherent to the mobilization of such large forces it was difficult for a country the size of Russia to partially mobilize to present a threat only to Austria-Hungary and not Germany. This decision to being partial mobilization, even with the full mobilization order coming a few days later, hindered Russia in the coming weeks. The goal of the partial mobilization was to put a strong enough force in Galicia facing Austria-Hungary but small enough to not threaten the German territory in East Prussia. In Britain at this time the ultimatum stirred the British Foreign Secretary Grey into action and he asked the German ambassador to assist in mediating the dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Late in the day on July 24th Serbia sent Austria-Hungary their reply, they accepted all the terms of the ultimatum except for the demand that Austro-Hungarian police be allowed to operate within Serbia.
July 25th turned out to be an eventful day. After being asked by the Russian government to extend the time period allotted before considering the Serbian response Austria-Hungary rejected the response. . Austria-Hungary was actually surprised that the Serbians accepted as much of the ultimatum as they did but they rejected it on the grounds that Serbia did not accept one of the terms. When notified of the Austro-Hungarian rejection, Serbia immediately began mobilizing their army and officially asked the Tsar for help. In response to this plea for help the Tsar authorized partial mobilization to begin immediately, instead of waiting for the 28th as originally planned. Even though the Tsar authorized a partial mobilization the military leadership in Russia was pushing for full mobilization to begin immediately fearing that any mobilization would cause a war with Germany. Also at this time France begin secret military preparations by recalling any troops currently on leave and cancelling any scheduled leave for the soldiers. Germany continued to try to convince the other nations that they had no pre-knowledge of the ultimatum, making a bit of a show of recalling Germany’s leaders from their holidays they had begun just a few days before. The British again reached out to Germany to try and convince them that it wasn’t too late to intervene, Britain asked Germany to join a group of powers to try and negotiate even after mobilization began. Any kind of negotiation after armies are mobilized is extremely difficult due to the momentum of armies trying to stick to time tables. It would have taken the full cooperation of all the countries involved to make negotiation a feasible course of action and as we discussed last week several of the key players in any negotiation were actively advocating for war. Finally, in reaction to the Serbian mobilization and the Russian partial mobilization, Austria-Hungary also ordered full mobilization of their forces.
And that is where we will leave events for this week, the ultimatum was delivered, returned with a partially accepted response, and that response was rejected, Serbia and Austria-Hungary had mobilized and Russia had begun partial mobilization. Next week we will pick up on July 26th to find out how the mobilization of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia spilled over to Germany, France, and Britain. To finish out today we will look at the armies who were being mobilized around Europe and the men who led them. All of the armies were products of their countries’ past conflicts and the ideas of their leaders. They range from the huge but poorly trained and equipped conscript armies of Russia and Austria-Hungary, to the small professional British army, to the still very large but better trained and equipped armies of Germany and France. The leaders of the armies were just as diverse where in the East the leaders were chosen mostly for their aristocratic lineage in the West they were chosen mostly for their experience and skill.
We begin our tour of the armies of Europe with Russia. In 1914 Russia could call upon the largest army in history, at mobilization they could call 5.9 million men into uniform. Behind these were another 6 million of untrained men held in reserve. Clearly, manpower wasn’t a problem for the Russians, the problem was geographical distance. Some of the soldiers had to travel 500 miles to their concentration points upon mobilization compared to just 200 miles for French and German soldiers. Not only did they have further to travel but due to a lack of railway density they often did not have nearby rail transport like their Western European counterparts. This resulted in long slow travel to the unit concentration points. The slowness of the Russian mobilization would be an influence on the planning of their enemies and their allies. The army was also not well supplied, in fact the Minister of War would be sacked for not providing the necessary equipment to the troops once the war started. These supply shortages resulted in a lack of ammunition, clothing, transport, artillery, rifles, the list goes on and on. For example, at the start of the war Russian infantry units had 1/2 the number of artillery pieces as the German infantry units. This shortage of material also extended to the logistical support of the armies at the front. This armies the size of the ones wielded by Russia it would require a logistical genius to keep them supplied. This did not end up being the case and the troops at the front would end up not having the ammunition and food they needed to fight. Another critical shortage was trained officers. This shortage ran throughout the entire command structure of the army. Even at the very top the office of Chief of the General Staff was occupied by 4 men in the 6 years preceding the war. This quick rate of replacement was not due to merit of new officers but instead the lack of skill of the current Chief.
The person who commanded the Russian army in 1914 was Grand Duke Nicholas, not to be confused with Tsar Nicholas who was his first cousin once removed. The Grand Duke was 57 when the war started and did not have any experience as a commander of armies, the closest experience he had was as Inspector General of cavalry troops from 1895-1905 . He had attended the Saint Petersburg Military Engineering-Technical University and had thankfully managed to avoid the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, something that kept his prestige intact. Throughout his entire career he was well liked by the troops around him and in fact during the 1905 revolution the Tsar had asked him to become the military dictator of Russia to stop the revolution, knowing that the army would follow the Grand Duke. This was a request that the Grand Duke refused preferring instead for the Tsar to make concessions to the revolutionaries. In 1914 the Tsar gave the grand Duke overall command of the Russian forces and while in command he was primarily an administrative leader, mostly just choosing from a set of options proposed by his generals.
The army of the Austro-Hungarian empire was of similar make up to that of the Russians. It had a lot of men but by and large they were poorly trained and equipped. In 1906 the army of Austria-Hungary had just 1/3 the budget of the British and French armies and just 1/4 that of Russia and Germany. Part of this was due to a purposeful weakening of the Imperial army by the Hungarian elements of the dual monarchy. The Austrians controlled the Imperial army so the Hungarians saw weakening of the army as a way to weaken the Austrians politically as well. The reserves for the army were in even worse shape than the front line troops in terms of training. The reserves were often completely untrained or trained many years in the past and they did not enjoy the level of training refreshes seen in the other armies of Europe. They were also equipped more poorly than the front line troops with some units barely able to field any artillery. On mobilization they could call upon a force about 1/3 the size of the Russians, about 2 million men. These units had about 1/2 the artillery of their Russian counterparts.
This army was led by Count Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, often just referred to, thankfully, as Conrad. He was 62 when the war started and was well known as somebody who supported the war. He believed, even well before 1914, that the best course of action for the Empire was a preventative war in the Balkans. In 1914 he pushed for a pre-emptive strike against Serbia before a formal declaration of war was provided. Conrad saw this preemptive strike as the best way to minimize the impact that Russia could have on Austria-Hungary’s action against Serbia. Many of his contemporaries, and even some modern day historians, consider Conrad to be a strategic mastermind but much like his contemporaries his plans were often too large and complex, ignoring the reality of the situation on the ground. I find it hard to discern any qualities of a strategic mastermind in Conrad’s plans, but he may have just not had the pieces to work with to make them happen. Even the best of poker players find it hard to win with a pair of 2s.
In direct contrast to the large, poorly trained, poorly equipped armies of Russia and Austria-Hungary was the small professional army of the British Empire. Britain had just 6 divisions ready to be used as an expeditionary force on the continent in August 1914. There were 14 more territorial divisions who acted as a reserve force but their contracts stated they couldn’t be used in overseas action. Even with the territorial divisions soon to be cleared for overseas service, at 20 total divisions the British army was a fraction the size of other European armies. In the decade before the war the army went through some reforms that resulted in more training for the officers and men and continued the decline of the British tradition of men being able to buy officer commissions. In 1914 the British army was a force that by and large had experience in overseas combat through the many colonial conflicts Britain had been a involved in such as the Boer War from 1899-1902. They were considered the best trained force in the world and were famous for their ability to fire 20-30 aimed rounds in a minute causing some Germans in the early battles of the war to believe that they were being fired upon by a machine gun when it was instead a small band of British infantrymen.
The leader of this small force was Sir John French who was 62 in 1914. He had made quite a name for himself while commanding a cavalry division in the Boer War. This partly contributed to his belief that cavalry still played an important role on the modern battlefield. While this was shown to be false pretty quickly in August 1914 this view was shared by most of the other high ranking officers in the other armies of Europe. From 1907 to 1912 French served as the Inspector-General of the army and in 1914 he was approached to command the British Expeditionary Force, or the BEF. When discussions were occurring he was told that he was the only real, viable, candidate for the position and he did eventually accept the role of commander of the troops.
The British army would be working very closely with the French army during the entirety of the first world war. The French army was reorganized in the Prussia style after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war. The French borrowed the German system of mass conscription and the General Staff model of command. To educate and ensure the quality of these General Staff officers the French created an Army Staff College. The French model of conscription involved compulsory military service for all men when they reached the age of 21 at which point they served for 3 years of active service. After their period in active service these men went through a few different levels of activity in the reserves as they got older. The French believed, like most of Europe, that the active troops and the youngest reserves were the only troops fit for front line combat and they planned to use the older reserves only for second line and support troops. The French believed that this was the practice of the German army as well, they would be in for quite a shock when they found out that it wasn’t. In total the French had about 1.5 million front line troops upon mobilization with some 2.5 million men in the reserves.
For years after their defeat by the Prussians the French planned for a defensive war and they invested heavily in a series of frontier fortifications with the centerpiece around the massive fortification complex of Verdun in Northeastern France. Around the year 1890 the French armies strategic thinking shifted from a strategy focusing on the defense to one that emphasized offensive thinking. Men who would command armies in World War 1 such as Ferdinand Foch, destined to become supreme commander of the Allied armies, and Noel de Castlenau, Joffre’s chief of staff in 1914, were vocal in their belief that it was the offense, and only the offense, that could win a future war with Germany. They believed that dense formations of attacking infantry, much like those used by Napoleon, and the spirit of the French troops would be the best way to win a war. This offensive spirit was often referred to as L’elan vital, or the vital impulse. This elan, it was believed by the French, was the primary factor in their troops winning a future war. A quote that sums up why they believed in this mentality was said by Joseph de Maistre, “A battle lost is a battle one thinks one has lost; for a battle cannot be lost physically.” I will probably refer to this quote far in the future when we see the attitude of attack attack attack in the French High Command result in a mutiny in the French army.
In 1914 the chief of the French General staff was Joseph Joffre. Joffre had begun his military career by seeing some action during the Siege of Paris in 1870 and after the Franco-Prussian war he saw a variety of assignments in the French Colonies as an Army engineer. Even though he had no experience leading an army or as a member of the General Staff in 1911 he back Chief of the French General Staff, being recommended by his mentor Joseph Gallieni. Joffre was an astute politician which would play a part in getting the job as Chief and also serve him well during the first year of the war. Before the war he developed a good relationship with Messimy the French Minister of War. Like most French generals Joffre believed in the power of the offense and in the years before the war he went so far as the purge defensively minded generals from positions within the French army. When the war started Joffre became known for his remarkable calm under pressure. Even during the incredibly hectic and busy days of 1914 he maintained a strict sleep and meal schedule. This calm was most likely a positive influence on the performance of the French General Staff in the opening stages of the war.
Facing Joffre and the French army was that of Germany. The German army was coming off of 60 years of victory dating all the way back to their defeat of the Austrians in 1855. All German men at the age of 20 served for 2 years of active service before moving into the reserves. The Germans were able to match French active troops while only requiring 2 years of service due to their larger population. After their two years of service men moved into various stages of reserves which entailed a few weeks training every year. The army was led mostly be Prussians with the exception of the 3 Army Corps maintained by Bavaria. This hold over from pre-unification Germany was interesting in that the Bavarian contingent was completely separate from the main German army with their own Ministry of War and General Staff, they did of course work closely with the rest of the German army throughout the war. In 1914 the Germans were able to mobilize about 3.8 million men.
These men were led, for the most part, by Prussians especially in the highest levels of command. Unlike the Russians who saw 4 Chiefs of Staff in 6 years the Germans had seen 4 Chiefs of Staff since 1857. This continuity of command was something not enjoyed by any other European army. Overall the German army was considered to be very well led and the military astuteness of the German officers throughout the command chain was a big reason why the army was as successful as it was in the war. While army training emphasized the flexibility of commanders to make decisions on the spot, even at the lowest levels of command, the rigid nature of the German army and society led to a lack of strategic flexibility and historians often site this lack of flexibility as one of the contributing factors of why the Germans were not able to do better than they did in 1914. An example of this inflexibility was the reliance, with very few changes since its last 1905 revision, on the Schlieffen Plan. We will discuss the Schlieffen Plan in detail in a few weeks but it was developed by the Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen who served from 1891 to 1906. The plan was created and some revisions were made but it was considered the only plan for over a decade. The German General Staff had also not done much planning past the Schlieffen plan such was their belief that it would quickly win the war, there were no contingency plans for what to do if it didn’t succeed completely. Dennis Showalter had a quote that I absolutely love when discussing the effect the Schlieffen Plan had on the German army “The Schlieffen Plan was only the most visible element of a military myth developed between 1890 and 1914: a myth not merely expecting but requiring everything to go improbably right almost all of the time”
The man who would have to implement the vaunted Schlieffen Plan was Helmuth Von Moltke often called the Younger so as not to be confused with his uncle Field Marshall Count Helmuth Von Moltke who was the Chief of the Prussian General Staff during the Franco-Prussian war. Moltke the Younger saw some action during the Franco-Prussian war and in 1880 joined the German General Staff after attending the German War Academy. He was chosen to succeed Schlieffen in 1906. His appointment was a bit of a surprise and many people have pointed to his close relationship with the Kaiser, Wilhelm the Second, as a major contributing factor for his appointment. Moltke had served for a time as the Kaiser’s aide-de-camp and during that time he had become close with the Kaiser. During his time as Chief of the General Staff Moltke continued to build upon the Schlieffen plan and to make small changes. The only major change he made was to take troops designated to the right wing of the army and move them to the left wing and to the Eastern front. This weakening of the crucial area of the army is the reason some historians say that the plan failed in 1914. Moltke was 66 in 1914 and he would only be Chief for a few months before health considerations would require his replacement.
These then were the armies of Europe and the men who led them. In 1914 it would be these armies, their leaders, the millions of men they contained who would meet on the battlefields of Europe. In our journey through July 1914 the war draws ever closer. Next week we will follow the events of the last week of July 1914 in the last podcast before the war begins. It was a week of frantic diplomatic maneuvering as the momentum of war reached its greatest peak and the leaders of Europe were almost powerless to stop it.
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