The events of the July Crisis come to their seemingly inevitable conclusion. We will start our narrative on July 26th and follow it all the way through until the declarations of war begin to fly in the first few days of August.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 5. Last week we followed the chain of events from July 19th to July 25th 1914. This took us from the delivery of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum until the mobilization of troops in Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Serbia. After we chronicled the events of the week we took a look at the basic composition of the European armies and their commanders. This week we arrive at the fateful last week of July. All the events of the last 3 weeks are coming to a head with somewhat inevitable conclusions. We will start our narrative on July 26th and follow it all the way through until the declarations of war begin to fly in the first few days of August.
Over the last 5 days of July and the first few days of the August the events were propelled by their own momentum and the individual governments around Europe could no longer control or influence them. Even though some of the major players in events would change their mind in the last few days of July and attempt to stop the coming war they were unable to alter the course of events even though up to that point they had been able to exercise some control over them. This will also be the first appearance of some of the military leaders we discussed last week as the army commanders finally take their place and take control of the situation.
In response to the Austro-Hungarian mobilization order on July 25 the next day Russia put all of their fortress towns on the border with Germany and Austria-Hungary onto a war footing. On the same day Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, requested that Germany try to influence Austria-Hungary into negotiating. This was requested with the knowledge that Russian mobilization may begin very soon and the hope was that mediation could occur even after mobilization was ordered. This would have been very difficult to accomplish even in the best of times. Almost in recognition of the diminishing chances of any kind of successful negotiation on July 27th the British admiralty with Winston Churchill, yes THAT Winston Churchill, as First Lord of Admiralty, began concentrating the British fleet in Scapa Flow.
On July 28th Kaiser Wilhelm was the first of Germany’s leaders to begin to get cold feet. Prompted by rumors that Britain would join France and Russia against Germany the German leader began to think that war may not be such a great idea after all. While he voiced these concerns to some other members of the German government they did not take any immediate action. It is on this same day that the first of the declarations of war is announced, on July 28th one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In response to this declaration Russia began partial mobilization, which the Tsar had ordered 2 days before, with assurances from France that they would be ready to support them. Russia’s leadership was hesitant to begin partial mobilization due to the difficulties it would cause if they later ordered a full mobilization. The partial mobilization would result in some trains and units being used in the partial mobilization leaving them out of place for the critical roles they were to play in a full mobilization.
Austria-Hungary fired the first shots of the war on July 29th when they shelled Belgrade with artillery. This bombardment of the Serbia capital was the first artillery shells fired in a war that would come to be dominated by the role artillery would play on the battlefield, how fitting. It was also on this day that Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff told Bethmann-Hollweg, Germany’s Chancellor, that if Russia mobilizes, even partially, Germany must enter the war and mobilize immediately. Moltke was driven by the precise timetables that drove Germany’s war plans in 1914 that would have been difficult, he claimed impossible, to alter. After this exchange a message was sent to Russia telling them to halt all military operations or Germany would be forced to mobilize. At this point in the process Britain was still a wildcard and Germany believed that they could still get the island nation to stay neutral in the coming conflict. To try and persuade Britain to stay neutral Bethmann-Hollweg told them that if they remained neutral Germany would not annex any French territory that was taken in the conflict. The next day Britain rejects Germany’s request for them to remain neutral in any coming conflict.
The next day is July 30th and on July 30th things start to get a bit confusing. One of the catalysts for this confusion was the actions of Bethmann-Hollweg. Those who have been listening up to this point, know that Bethmann-Hollweg was very supportive of the war. He had been a primary driver in Germany for supporting the war and clarifying Germany’s willingness to go to war if Austria-Hungary started one. However on July 30th he did two things that were very confusing. First, he passed on to Austria-Hungary Britain’s warning that they will not remain neutral in the coming conflict. This isn’t the confusing part, he was just passing on pertinent information to an ally, however he also passed a long his advice that Austria-Hungary accept mediation from the other powers in Europe. At this point he was basically advising against going to war. When Austria-Hungary rejected the very idea of mediation Bethmann-Hollweg then goes on to suggest a Stop in Belgrade strategy. In this strategy he advised Austria-Hungary to go ahead and invade Serbia with the stated intention of occupying Belgrade, the Serbian capital, which is just a few miles from the border. Once Belgrade was occupied the Austro-Hungarian troops would stop and Austria-Hungary would then go to the negotiation table with Serbia in a position of strength. Austria-Hungary just ignored this suggestion all together.
This is the second instance of German leaders reconsidering their support for a European war. They were not the only European leaders to have these thoughts, they occurred on all sides. I feel this is a natural response to a situation like the one the European leaders were in on July 30th 1914. Up until this point threats had been exchanged and they had blown some hot air about how prepared their nations were and how they were going to crush their opponents, but it wasn’t until July 30th and July 31st that lines start to get crossed from which there was no return. It is very easy to be brave when there is still room to back down or to seek other arrangements, the moment right before the plunge is a natural time for people to start to get second thoughts about the whole venture.
France was busy on July 30th, on this day they began military preparations to defend their frontier from German invasion. This involved the moving of troops to within 20 kilometers of the France-German border. They chose to keep their troops this far back to prevent any accidental provocation of Germany which would result in France losing the ability to claim that Germany started the war. One of the interesting things that both Germany and France wanted was the ability to state, and to prove, that the other side had started the war. This put them both in an awkward position all of their war plans called for an offensive into the enemies country, but they couldn’t start their offensive until the other country had provoked them. On this day Poincare, the French president, also tried to persuade Britain to openly declare support for France. He hoped that this show of support would make Germany think twice about starting the war. As we have discussed Germany’s leaders were hesitant to join a war in which they would be fighting Britain, but even with this fear they were still planning for war.
In Russia on July 30th the Tsar was finally persuaded to begin preparations for full mobilization. He ordered for this mobilization to begin on August the first. This persuasion came from two directions, the Russian military commanders who were already concerned about the effects that partial mobilization was having on their plans, and from Samsonov, the Russian Foreign Minister. When the German Ambassador in St. Petersburg found out about this order he immediately demanded that Russia stop the mobilization of her forces. When the news of this mobilization order reached the leaders of Germany they immediately began preparing for their own mobilization. Germany also sent an official demand to Russia to suspend all war measures in the next 12 hours. There was an implied “or else” on the end of this demand that is not ambiguous in any way. The military leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Moltke and Conrad, are also in communication at this time, and on July 31st Moltke told Conrad that he should mobilize against Russia and that if they did Germany will join them.
In what is almost becoming a broken record Grey again tried to get the sides to the mediation table, he was again ignored. Grey also at this times sent requests to France and Germany asking the countries to guarantee Belgian neutrality in any coming conflict. France immediately sent a response to Britain agreeing to guarantee this neutrality. Germany refused this guarantee, claiming that to agree to Belgian neutrality would give France too much information about its plans in the coming war. Along with their response to the question of Belgian neutrality, France sent along a request for Britain to guarantee assistance to the French. The British did not provide this guarantee to the French. Finally, Germany, knowing at this point about France’s military preparations that began the previous day, demanded that France declare her intentions in the conflict. The reply from France was simply that France would “act in accordance with her interests.”
This is the first time we have mentioned Belgium and they would play a very important role in how Britain got involved in the war. Belgium had gained their independence from the Netherlands in 1831 during a 9 year conflict that was triggered due partially to religious differences and a dominance of politics by the Dutch. In 1831, just one year into the conflict the de facto independence of Belgium was recognized by five European powers at the London Conference. The countries included Britain, France, and Prussia. All five countries present guaranteed Belgium’s independence permanently. Eight years later in 1839 these countries met again and formalized this agreement in the Treaty of London. This treaty expanded upon the agreement made at the London Conference by adding a clause to also guarantee Belgium’s neutrality in any future conflicts. Germany would violate this agreement in 1914.
When the war started Belgium was ruled by King Albert the first who had became king upon the death of his father in 1909. After advocacy by the military leaders in Belgium he had agreed to begin military reforms in 1913 as well as put universal conscription in place to swell the ranks of the military. These reforms had just begun in 1914 and they were not scheduled to be completed until 1926. When the Germans would cross the Belgian border in a few weeks the Belgian army would be comprised of just 265,000 men, facing almost 1.5 million Germans. Obviously outclassed the Belgians anchored their defense around the large fortress cities of Liege, Namur, and Antwerp. In episode 8 we will be discussing these cities and the German action in Belgium in much greater detail. For now we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
On August 1st, after learning of Austria’s order for full mobilization which was given the day before, Russia refused Germany’s demand that she stop all war preparations. Upon receipt of this rejection Germany ordered mobilization to begin, this prompted France to also order mobilization. Germany then declared war on Russia. After these mobilizations began the war no longer a hypothetical and instead it was a certainty, the only question was who would attack first. On August the first the third member of the Triple Alliance, Italy, declared neutrality in the conflict. On the second of August Britain promised naval protection to France, but did not mention any involvement of the army.
As Germany’s mobilization accelerated they demanded access into Belgium from the Belgian government. Belgium knew that to reject this request would mean war with Germany, something Belgium was not prepared for. However on the next day, August the third, Belgium rejected the German access demands. On the very next day, August the fourth Germany would cross the border into Belgium. After Germany crossed the border Britain declared war on Germany on August the fourth. Upon hearing the news that Britain had declared war over the issue of Belgian neutrality Bethmann-Hollweg was surprised that they would begin a war over what he called a “scrap of paper.” Finally, just to finish up the lines between all the dots, on August the sixth Austria declared war on Russia and Serbia declared war on Germany.
After over a month of diplomatic maneuvering Europe was at war. The sides in the coming conflict were finally assembled and the troops were marching all over Europe. On one side was Russia, France, Britain, Serbia, and Belgium and on the other were just Germany and Austria-Hungary. It will be four long years before Europe is once again at peace. Next week we will finally, and I know I promised this weeks ago, look at the plans the military masterminds all over Europe had dreamed up for how they would win a European war. The opening moves of these plans will begin next week and we will follow them through their success and failures until the end of the year.