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 93rd installment in the series.
November 25, 1913: Russia Tries to Enlist British Help Against Germany
The years leading up the first World War saw Europe separated into two alliance blocs, with the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain on one side, facing Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (Italy, nominally allied with Germany and Austria in the Triple Alliance, was actually undecided). From 1911 to 1914 a series of confrontations served to harden these blocs as allies strengthened their commitments, prompting their opponents to move closer together in a cycle of endless escalation.
On the Entente side, the Franco-Russian alliance provided the main axis, bolstered by the more recent and informal agreements between France and Britain. These two partnerships, hinging on France, brought Britain and Russia together gradually and indirectly; although suspicious of Russia’s ambitions in Asia, the British realized its importance as a counterweight to Germany in Europe. Thus the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 led to the Anglo-French Naval Convention, while Russia and France finalized their contingency plans for joint military action against Germany, and the French quietly informed the Russians that Britain would probably support them in a continental war. Amid the crises resulting from the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, French President Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to take a firm line against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and vowed France wouldn’t back down in future conflicts either. His appointment of the fiercely anti-German Théophile Delcassé as French ambassador to St. Petersburg only served to reinforce the message.
On the other side, during the Balkan crises Germany repeatedly assured Austria-Hungary of its full support, even if that meant war with Russian and France, and the nerve-wracking standoff with Russia over Serbian expansion brought home to the Germans the existential threat posed by Slavic nationalism to Austria-Hungary—their only real ally. Indeed, key figures in Germany and Austria shared fears of a looming “racial struggle” between Teutons and Slavs, and from September 1913 onward, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II believed war was the only way for Austria-Hungary to settle the Serbian question.
In November 1913, another crisis pushed Russia and France (and ultimately Britain) even closer together. The Turkish government’s appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders (above), to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople triggered serious alarm in Russia, as it effectively gave Germany control of the Turkish capital, imperiling Russian foreign trade (half of which flowed through the Turkish straits) and foreclosing any chance for Russia to conquer the strategic city for itself. And as always in European diplomacy, there was another level to consider: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov understood that the von Sanders mission was a probe by Germany as it tried to break through the feared strategic “encirclement” by France, Russia, and Britain by dividing the allies, and maybe even turning them against each other. Specifically, would Britain stand by the French and Russians, or was the proud island nation reaching the limits of cooperation?
Sazonov was determined that the Entente would show the Germans a united front, which meant getting Britain on board. On November 25, 1913, he sent formal requests to Paris and London for French and British diplomatic support against Germany in the von Sanders Affair, with a warning that Germany was trying to pry the allies apart. On December 1, 1913, Sazonov explained to the British charge d’affaires, “this matter would be a test of the value of the Triple Entente. He believed that, if the three Powers showed themselves really determined, Germany would not persist in her intentions…” British participation was particularly important, Sazonov emphasized, as “Germany might disregard remonstrances of France and Russia if she had not also before her fear of the British fleet” (a little flattery of British vanity never hurt).
Meanwhile Sazonov also enlisted France to put pressure on Britain. Thus the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, urged British Foreign Minister Edward Grey to join the French and Russians in delivering a note warning the Turks “that to entrust the Constantinople First Army Corps to a German general … would mean virtually handing the keys to the Straits to that Power … [and] upset the equilibrium of the Powers which is the guarantee of the existence of the Ottoman Empire.”
At first the strategy seemed to be working: On December 2, 1913, Grey sent the British ambassador to Constantinople a telegram stating that control of the straits were “matters of concern more or less to every Power that is interested in Turkey.” But Grey then limited himself to asking the Turks to clarify the extent of von Sanders’ responsibility, including his authority to initiate military action. Unsurprisingly Sazonov was annoyed, but resigned himself to taking what he could get from the cagey British.
Eventually the British would be forced to take a more active role in the crisis, when the situation was more serious. This reluctance to take sides in the early stages of the von Sanders Affair—when a clear stand might have deterred the Germans and Turks—followed by belated intervention, foreshadowed Britain’s tragic hesitation and inability to act forcefully to avert war in the final weeks leading up the First World War.