99 Years Ago: The Week The World Caught Fire

Certain historical events are remembered in terms of a single event which, in the course of minutes or hours, ushered in a new era. People who lived through Pearl Harbor could remember exactly where they were when they heard about the Japanese attack, a point when the course of US history (and world history) changed in the course of a couple hours.

Ninety-nine years ago, as the world plunged into the First World War, the experience was different. Rather than a single sharp event which plunged the world into cataclysm, there was a long series of events, at first not much noted, which in late July and early August of 1914 plunged all the major European powers into war over the course of a week.

There’s a certain tendency to look, with historical hindsight, at the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 as an incident very likely to lead to world war. There were hints of such a possibility. German Chancellor Otto von Bismark famously observed in the late 19th century that the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. When Archduke Ferdinant was assassinated, some people immediately worried that this would lead to a general war. (H. G. Wells was among those with the dubious honor of predicting a general war was coming after hearing news of the assassination on June 28th.) However, there had just been two full fledged wars in the Balkans during the last ten years, and neither had led to general war. Indeed, the great powers, for all their diplomatic entanglements, had been able to negotiate satisfactory (at least to themselves) peaces to both prior Balkan wars.

The assassination was a slow fuse. A week after the assassination, Austria-Hungary secretly sought assurances form Germany that Germany would support the Hapsburg Empire should it go to war with Serbia over the assassination. Having received these assurances (now known to history as “the blank check”), it was not until July 23rd that Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, demanding not only that Serbia hand over Serbian citizens implicated in the plot, but also that Serbia allow Austria-Hungary discretion to act within Serbia to bring to justice those responsible.

The attention of other countries was elsewhere.

The British Parliament was debating home rule for Ireland, which it was inclined to grant. In response, Unionist groups in Northern Ireland were rapidly arming, and there were serious concerns that should a rebellion in the North occur, the British army (which had a large representation of Orange men within its ranks of men and officers) would refuse to fight.

In France, the public was gripped by a sensational murder trial: Madame Caillaux, the second wife of former Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux, had, on March 16, 1914, walked into the editorial officers of Le Figaro, which had published private letters by Prime Minister Caillaux which potentially brought scandal on him, and shot the editor dead. The trail ran from July 20th to July 28th and resulted in Madam Caillaux’s acquittal on the basis that she had been overcome with feminine emotions due to the threat to her husband’s reputation and thus had not been responsible for her actions.

Serbia, anxious to avoid war, agreed to all but one point of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum, however Austria-Hungary (which had withdrawn its ambassador as soon as the ultimatum was delivered) was determined to put an end to Serbia’s role as a regional destabilizing force and declared the concessions insufficient. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on Tuesday, July 28th and immediately began bombarding the Serbian capital, Belgrade, by means of gunboats sailing on the Danube.

Russia, which had ties to Serbia, immediately ordered a partial mobilization of its army: putting its four military districts bordering Austria-Hungary on a footing of preparedness for war. It did not, however, initiate any military action against Austria-Hungary, much less Germany.

Germany was pledged to support Austria-Hungary should Russia take any military action against it. However, key leaders of the Germany military also saw responding to a Russian threat against Austria-Hungary as a way to provoke a war between Russia and Germany which they saw as inevitable, and do so before Russia’s rapid industrialization and expansion of its railroads made it a more formidable enemy. On Wednesday, July 29th, in meetings of the German leadership, generals Falkenhayn and Moltke advocated war against Russia in response to Russian mobilization — even as Kaiser Wilhelm was still conducting his famous direct telegram correspondence with the Tsar in an effort to secure peace. Further, since France had a military alliance with Russia, and France was perceived as the faster-moving power, German war plans for a war with Russia involved first attacking France and knocking it out of the war in a month-long campaign, then turning to deal with the larger, slower opponent. Thus, what the German high command was advocating was that they initiate a continent-wide war in response to a partial Russian mobilization along the Russian/Austro-Hungarian border.

In Russia, arguments were ongoing between Tsar Nicholas and his military leaders over whether it was possible to have a “partial mobilization”, with the military insisting that logistical operations required that the entire army be put on a war footing. On Thursday, July 30th, Tsar Nicholas complied and ordered a general mobilization of the Russian army. On the same day Germany ordered a full mobilization of its army to commence the next day.

German mobilization, however, was not simply a matter of calling up their reservists and having troops ready at the borders. The German was plan was a detailed timetable designed to successfully prosecute a two front war against Russia and France. Thus, as German soldiers assembled and armed, the boarded trains that took them directly to the Belgian border, setting in motion an invasion of France through neutral Belgium.

On Saturday, August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia. Prepared for all eventualities, the German Ambassador delivered two copies of the declaration, one stating that Germany was declaring war because Russia had refused to respond to German demands that it stand down its armies, the other stating that Russia’s response to German demands was unacceptable. That evening, France, seeing what was the wind was blowing, issued an order for immediate mobilization of its own army, including all reserves, to begin the next day, Sunday.

On that Sunday, August 2nd, Germany invaded Luxembourg, which it would use throughout the rest of the war as a staging area. That same day, The German ambassador to Belgium delivered the following communication to the Belgium’s Minister for Foreign Affairs:

RELIABLE information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany. It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany’s opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.

In order to exclude any possibility of misunderstanding, the German Government make the following declaration: —

1. Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind them selves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.

2. Germany undertakes, under the above-mentioned condition, to evacuate Belgian territory on the conclusion of peace.

3. If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in cooperation with the Belgian authorities, to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops.

4. Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

The German Government, however, entertain the distinct hope that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Belgian Government will know how to take the necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as those mentioned. In this case the friendly ties which bind the two neighbouring States will grow stronger and more enduring.

In 1839, all of the great powers had agreed to permanent Belgian neutrality. However, German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg now dismissed that treaty as “a scrap of paper”. King Albert of Belgium rejected the demand that German armies be allowed to pass through Belgium on their way to France.

On Monday, August 3rd, Germany formally declared war on France, it’s armies already rapidly moving to attack. The next day, August 4th, one week after Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, German soldiers crossed the Belgian frontier, opening fire on soldiers and border guards who opposed them. That same day, Britain, the last of the major powers to become involved, followed up on its commitment to defend Belgian neutrality and declared war on Germany.

The general European war had commenced.

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  1. Europe had not known lengthy wars since the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Wars after Napoleon had tended to be fairly brief. One or two major battles, albeit bloody, and the issue was decided. Most of the leadership and populations of the warring nations assumed that a swift resolution would occur again. They failed to reckon on technological improvements since the Franco-Prussian War and the ability of modern nations to keep in the field vast armies that could inflict and sustain huge casualties that in earlier times would have broken a nation in short order. The Great War was our Civil War on steroids. The heads of state of Europe would have done better to pay heed to our Civil War in its length and casualties, but that type of study seems to have been limited to the military academies of Europe and the civilian leadership in Europe was ignorant of the subject with the exception of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the beginning of the Great War.

    Europe sorely missed a statesman of the caliber of a Bismarck, a Metternich or a Castlereagh in 1914. The Sarajevo assassination was the signal that it was time for another European council. Diplomacy, with time for cooler heads to prevail, might well have been successful in forestalling a general European war.

  2. Serbia, anxious to avoid war, agreed to all but one point of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum, however Austria-Hungary (which had withdrawn its ambassador as soon as the ultimatum was delivered) was determined to put an end to Serbia’s role as a regional destabilizing force and declared the concessions insufficient.

    The clause that Serbia rejected would have allowed Austro-Hungarian investigators free rein to find and capture those responsible for the assassination. Had they been allowed to do so, they would have discovered that the main instigator was the Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence (as you yourself pointed out in a recent post). That revelation would, if anything, have made war even more inevitable and as it was, everyone involved understood Serbia’s refusal as a tacit admission of complicity.

    Given all that, characterizing Serbia as a “regional destabilizing force” is euphemism of the highest order. Whatever one means by those words, they should hot extend to harboring (however unwillingly) court officials who assassinate opposing heads of state. Very few at the time would deny that that kind of skullduggery amounted to a de facto declaration of war.

  3. HA,

    Certainly, the Serbians were and remain bad news. (Just how bad is arguably underlined by the fact that the only military use of force the Vatican has actually supported in the last 30 years was against the Serbs — though there are arguably other reasons for that as well.)

    I’m not sure that there’s strong evidence that the wider Serbian government knew about the antics of their intelligence chief ahead of time — he was, after all, also running a secret society which had at times acted against the Serb government. But certainly, I would agree that the Austro-Hungarians were right to see the Serbs as a serious (if regional) threat, as demonstrated by the fact that the head of the Austro-Hungarian general staff had been pushing for war with Serbia for a quite a while (mostly held back, before his death, by Archduke Ferdinand.)

    At the same time, one can at least see why the Serbs saw having Austro-Hungarian representatives come into Serbia and help run the trails of those involved as being a violation of sovereignty — something the Serbs were pretty sensitive about since they were so newly independent and overshadowed by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

    All in all, though, I certainly don’t blame the Austro-Hungarians much for wanting to go to war with Serbia over the assassination. (The way they behaved when they actually got into Serbia, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.) And the ones who engineered that very regional conflict into a general European war were clearly the Germans. The Austro-Hungarians wanted a regional war just between them and Serbia which would, they hoped, allow them to solidify the situation in the area and put down a disruptive local power.

  4. so newly independent and overshadowed by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

    By this time, Serbia had been independent for about half a century, but your point is a valid one. While people these days tend to forget the rank barbarity that was then normal for the region – a memory lapse that anti-Catholics continue to make use of when it comes to the matter of Croatian Ustashe in the following war, who simply took a page from the Serbian playbook — it is worth noting that Serbia’s dysfunction was in some sense inevitable. Arguably, one cannot survive and overcome four centuries of Ottoman oppression by simply playing nice.

    Also, whatever the blame Serbia bears for the war, her people suffered inordinately for the misdeeds of their rulers. If I recall, half the male population was dead by the end, though as in much of the rest of the continent, disease was as much of a killer as bullets and bayonets.

  5. I had not understood why Germany was blamed for WWI. I vaguely remember high school lessons suggesting that Germany was blamed because history is written by the victors.

    I am embarrassed to say that I have never had much interest in the First World War. Lessons in school blitzed through that section and I never picked it up again.

    Have you a recommendation for a general history of the Great War?

  6. For a long time the First World War was neglected a lot in histories, and there’s been a lot of bad history of the conflict done. It’s one of those unusual periods where the historical analysis has been getting much better as we get further from the event, in part because some of the key documents relating to it are only now being de-classified by the involved governments.

    For a fairly short and readable general history, I’d recommend Hew Strachan’s The First World War from ten years back. There’s a paperback version that’s in print now, but it’s worth getting the hardcover from the library (or used) as it has a really good selection of pictures.

    For the longest time, I was fascinated by WW2 but pretty much ignored WW1, but it’s now become my main historical fascination. I’m hoping that it gets increasing attention and analysis with the 100th anniversary coming up.

  7. Ah, Donald beat me to it.

    Keegan’s book is the first one I read when I started getting interested in WW1 again, and it’s also quite good.

  8. It’s one of those unusual periods where the historical analysis has been getting much better as we get further from the event, in part because some of the key documents relating to it are only now being de-classified by the involved governments.

    Dunno. IIRC, there was a great mass of documents released very early on due to the controversy spawned by the war guilt clause. I think there were many early twentieth century diplomatic histories composed in various languages – I’ve held dozens in my hands.

  9. A must-have for anyone interested in the Great War (as it is still known in the UK, the Second World War being simply “the War”) is the 26-part documentary of that name, broadcast by the BBC in 1964 to mark the fiftieth anniversary and drawing on over a million feet of original film, hundreds of exclusive interviews with surviving participants and contemporary diaries, letters and reports. It is, and will remain, the definitive film account of that conflict. The series editor was John Terraine.

    Darwin’s remarks about the Serbs is apposite. They were regarded as semi-civilized at best. In June 1903 the ruling dynasty was replaced in a bloody coup. A mob, led by drunken army officers, went on a murderous rampage through the royal palace in Belgrade. They eventually found King Alexander and Queen Draga hiding in a cupboard in the queen’s bedroom. They were shot, stabbed and mutilated, and their naked bodies hurled out of a window. The chief plotter, Col. Dragutin Dimitryevich, later founded the Black Hand terrorist group which assassinated Franz Ferdinand.

    Regarding the “Curragh mutiny” touched on by Darwin in his post – this was a declaration by some officers that they would resign their commissions if they were ordered north to impose Home Rule on Ulster. There was no question of anyone, particularly the rank and file, refusing to fight, and in any case the government was not planning to send them to Ulster. The Anglo-Irish families traditionally well-represented in the officer corps (Wellington is a famous example) were not Orangemen and would not have taken kindly to being so described.

    The Home Rule Bill had been passed by June 1914, but the Conservatives maintained it was unconstitutional. The Liberals did not have an overall parliamentary majority and in fact had only one more seat more than the Conservatives (272 as opposed to 271) and with a lower share of the popular vote (43.9% as opposed to 46.3%). They relied on the support of the 71 Irish nationalists in Parliament. They had used the new and controversial Parliament Act to override the House of Lords. Such a fundamental change in the make-up of the United Kingdom, opponents argued, needed a far stronger mandate.

    Winston Churchill, whose father Lord Randolph had famously “played the Orange Card” against Gladstone at the time of the first HR Bill in 1886, and who in 1914 was First Lord of the Admiralty, threatened to use the fleet to bombard Belfast into submission. To this day, he is not held in much esteem by NI protestants.

  10. <i?They were shot, stabbed and mutilated, and their naked bodies hurled out of a window.

    Well, to be fair, there was the matter of Draga’s sham pregnancy that supposedly led to Serbian humiliation at the Russian court, and also the rumour that her brother would be appointed the heir (the mob murdered him as well). In any case, the Sicilians (yet another tribe schooled in Ottoman micro-statecraft) had nothing on these people. There may have been even a pet direwolf there, too, somewhere, but don’t quote me on that.

  11. Art Deco,

    Dunno. IIRC, there was a great mass of documents released very early on due to the controversy spawned by the war guilt clause. I think there were many early twentieth century diplomatic histories composed in various languages – I’ve held dozens in my hands.

    Certainly, there have been a huge number of histories trying to get at the causes and conduct of the Great War. And there was indeed a large release of documents right after the war by Germany in order to try to make their case against the accusation of war guilt.

    I think that makes a lot of the earlier historiography problematic is:

    – In the diplomatic arena, part of the problem is that right after the war the people writing had such a huge stake in particular interpretations of what happened. Plus, the German release of documents was selective and intended to move guilt away from them. Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1967 was one of the first works to start to get at additional documentation which showed pretty clearly that far more than any other great power, Germany was gunning for a general European war in 1914, but that from the very beginning there was a systematic attempt by German leadership to obscure the causes of the war. So we have Bethmann Hollweg endorsing war as a response to mobilization even while acknowledging that Russian mobilization is not an existential threat for Germany because Russian mobilization is not the kind of launch-a-war mobilization that constituted German plans. But you also have him stating that in order to avoid problems with the Social Democrat’s, it’s essential to at all times represent Russia as the guilty party. (Fischer covers this and also Fromkin more recently in Europe’s Last Summer: Why the World Went to War in 1914.) So I’d argue that as the documentary record has become more complete, the diplomatic history writing has become a lot better.

    – On tactics and strategy, I think part of the issue is that shortly after the war a lot of the people writing had a very strong agenda. Brock Millman has a book out called Pessimism and British War Policy, 1916-1918 which makes the case that while Haig believed he could win the war on the Western Front, after the Battle of the Somme a lot of the politicians (including Lloyd George) became convinced that the war could not be won, and instead were focused on winning strategic resources in the East and the colonies which would allow Britain to be successful against a still-strong Germany when the war kicked up again after a 5-10 year armistice. (I suppose arguably they were right on the resumed war part, though off on the length of time.) As a result, they’d quietly made things harder for Haig and the Western Front. When Haig went and unexpectedly won, it became necessary to defend those decisions which might otherwise be seen as having extended the war, and so it became necessary to emphasize a claim that Haig’s leadership had been inept and wasted lives. This account in works by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, along with the works by disaffected veterans like Sigfied Sassoon and Robert Graves, provided grist for inter-war pacifism and then for the more class based critique of the Great War which became current after WW2. That too is something I think we’re finally starting to get behind in the last 10-20 years of scholarship.

    John Nolan,

    I’d have to go look this up, as I was reading it several years ago in William Manchester’s massive three volume Churchill biography, but I seem to recall that there was moderately good evidence during the home rule crisis that Unionist organizations were making some rather significant arms purchases — possibly with help (or at least winking) from Unionist officers in the British Army.

    And as you say, Churchill managed to get himself into rather hot water with the NI, with at least a credible danger of assassination. So depending how much Manchester is being influenced by his subject’s view of things, perhaps that’s an overly biased source.

  12. Both the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers were gun-running in 1914; the former via Larne and the latter via Howth. Interestingly, the Ulster gun-runners landed their arms under cover of darkness and attempted to evade the authorities, whereas the southerners ran their shipment of Mausers in broad daylight, with a large crowd present and under the noses of the military. The soldiers were taunted into opening fire and three people were killed; this incident at Bachelors Walk on 26 July has now acquired mythological status in the somewhat overblown annals of Irish republicanism. During the Easter Rising of 1916 the rebels were suspected of using dum-dum bullets, but the truth was that the ‘Howth Mausers’ were obsolete black powder weapons which fired a lead slug.

    The term ‘Unionist’ had a different connotation in 1914 than it has now. Since the defection of the Liberal Unionists to the Tories at the end of the 19th century, the Conservative Party was officially called the Unionist Party and indeed referred to itself as the Conservative and Unionist Party until the 1970s. Only later was the term used to describe those who wanted the separation of the Six Counties from the rest of Ireland.

  13. On this day in 1918 began the Battle of Amiens, an offensive by Sir Henry Rawlinson’s 4th Army (British, Australian and Canadian) which Ludendorff referred to as the German army’s “Black Day”, and which was the start of the Allied ‘advance to victory’. The battle is noteworthy for a number of reasons:-

    1. The element of surprise. Men and materiel were moved into position under cover of darkness and radio silence was maintained (except for misleading radio traffic to make the Germans believe the Canadians were being moved to Ypres).

    2. A combination of sound-ranging and aerial photography enabled nearly all of the German batteries to be located and neutralized by ‘predicted’ counter-battery fire, i.e. without preliminary ‘ranging’. The troops could advance leaning on a creeping barrage, and the use of an instantaneous fuze enabled artillery to cut wire.

    3. Over 500 tanks were deployed; in addition to the much improved Mk V heavy tank there were light Whippet tanks and armoured cars. Tanks and infantry were well co-ordinated.

    4. Tactical airpower was used effectively; the RAF employed some 1,900 machines including dive bombers and fighter ground attack. Continuous wave radio made ground-to-air communication possible. The aim was to keep the enemy off-balance.

    Even cavalry played a part. It was the all-arms battle. The lesson was not lost on the Germans – they used it in a later war. Ironically, Rawlinson is usually remembered in connection with the first day of the Battle of the Somme, two years earlier, rather than as a pioneer of Blitzkrieg.

    Attached to the British 47th (2nd London) Division was an American unit – the 131st Infantry Regiment.

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