The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 56th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
February 18, 1913: Poincaré Takes Office, Coup in Mexico
On February 18—one month after winning the French presidential election—center-right politician Raymond Poincaré took office in an inauguration ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville, an elegant chateau constructed between 1533 and 1628 to house the city government of Paris. In a sign of Poincaré’s popularity, his inauguration attracted thousands of enthusiastic spectators despite the frigid weather.
Poincaré’s presidency was an important factor in the lead-up to the First World War, for a number of reasons. Although he didn’t seek war with Germany, the new French president was increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace in Europe. At the same time, he also planned to take a more active approach to the presidency (previously regarded as a mostly ceremonial position), especially in foreign policy, where he had the power to conclude treaties and appoint key diplomats.
Indeed, one of his first moves was replacing the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Georges Louis, with Théophile Delcassé—a big name in French foreign policy who, as foreign minister from 1898 to 1905, helped to bring about the entente cordial ("friendly understanding") with Britain. Delcassé was known to be pro-Russian and anti-German, and his agenda as ambassador to St. Petersburg can be deduced from his own words during the Second Moroccan Crisis: “No durable arrangement can be concluded with Germany. Her mentality is such that one can no longer dream of living in lasting peace with her. Paris, London, and St. Petersburg should be convinced that war is, alas! inescapable and that it is necessary to prepare for it without losing a minute.”
Everyone recognized the significance of the appointment of Delcassé, described by Kaiser Wilhelm II as “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.” On February 21, 1913, the Belgian ambassador to France, Baron Guillaume, reported to the Belgian foreign office that “the news that M. Delcassé is shortly to be appointed Ambassador at Petersburg burst like a bomb here yesterday afternoon… He was one of the architects of the Franco-Russian alliance, and still more so of the Anglo-French entente." And on February 25, the French ambassador to Serbia, Léon Descos, told the French foreign ministry that his hosts thought Delcassé’s appointment would provide “…Slavism with the support needed to strengthen it in its struggle against the Teutonic powers.”
Meanwhile Poincaré wasted no time in moving to strengthen the French military. Among other things, the new president advocated increasing the size of the active-duty French army by extending the length of service for conscripts from two to three years. On February 20, in his first presidential address (read to the Chamber of Deputies by premier Aristide Briand), Poincaré laid the groundwork for the three-year service law: “No people can be really pacific unless it is always ready for war. We must turn toward our army and navy, and spare no effort or sacrifice to consolidate and strengthen them.”
Poincaré and Delcassé weren’t alone in thinking war probable and maybe even inevitable; other members of the French government were considering the same scenario, and pondering the most advantageous moment to fight. On February 20, 1913, the Russian ambassador to London, Count Aleksandr Benckendorff, sent a secret message advising Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov: “[France] has complete confidence in her army... and it may be that she regards conditions as more favorable today than they might be later.” Likewise, on February 24, Sir Henry Wilson, the British officer in charge of coordinating military planning with France, told London that top French generals were “of the opinion that it would be far better for France if a conflict were not too long postponed.”
Coup in Mexico
While Europe was fixated on the crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the New World had problems of its own. Foremost was the ongoing Mexican Revolution, which began with the toppling of the dictator Porfirio Díaz (above) in 1910 and soon escalated into a complicated civil war lasting until 1920.
After two chaotic years in power, Díaz’s replacement, the beleaguered liberal reformist president Francisco Madero, was finally ousted on February 18, 1913, following 10 days of bloody street warfare in Mexico City (which then had a population of about half a million) known as “La Decena Tragica,” or “Ten Tragic Days.” The author of his downfall was General Victoriano Huerta, the military governor of Mexico City, who had previously sworn allegiance to Madero but betrayed him when he saw an opportunity to seize power for himself. On February 22, Madero and vice-president José María Pino Suárez were both murdered at Huerta’s command; public revulsion at the assassinations foreshadowed Huerta’s own downfall in July 1914.
Huerta’s coup received assistance from co-conspirators including Félix Díaz, the nephew of the ex-dictator Porfirio Díaz, and the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. This kind of meddling was a common theme of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America throughout this period: 1900-1925 saw repeated U.S. interventions across the Caribbean and Central America, including decades-long military occupations of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. U.S. interventions generally aimed to protect American commercial and financial interests, prop up friendly regimes threatened by strikes and rebellions, and quell border disputes.
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As the largest country in the region and the only one bordering the U.S., Mexico’s descent into anarchy understandably absorbed the attention of the American public well into the First World War, culminating in the Punitive Expedition which tried and failed to catch Pancho Villa between 1916 and 1917. In fact, German diplomats hoped to use the unstable situation to distract U.S. policy makers and keep America out of the war – but their (rather unrealistic) efforts backfired badly with the Zimmerman Telegram affair in 1917.