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 August, 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 108th installment in the series.
March 16, 1914: A Spectacular Murder Rocks France
On March 13, 1914, the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro published a private letter written by Joseph Caillaux, a former prime minister now serving as finance minister, to his first wife when she was still his mistress. Among other things, the letter revealed that Caillaux had secretly worked against a tax law he claimed to support, casting him in a bad light politically; this was conservative revenge for his alleged German sympathies and continuing opposition to the controversial Three-Year Service Law. Worse yet, Le Figaro’s editor, Gaston Calmette, threatened to publish more letters showing that Caillaux later cheated on his first wife with his then-mistress (now second wife) Henriette Caillaux.
Three days later, in the early evening of March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux visited the offices of Le Figaro and waited an hour to meet Calmette, who was out. When he returned, Caillaux followed him into his office, where she asked him, “Do you know why I have come?” Calmette replied, “Not at all, madame,” at which point Caillaux drew a revolver hidden in her fur hand muff and fired six shots, hitting Calmette four times. He died of his wounds six hours later.
Madame Caillaux later explained that she felt compelled to kill Calmette because the alternative—a duel between the muckraking journalist and her husband—would destroy her husband’s political career, even if he survived (remarkably, her crime didn’t seem to have the same effect, as Caillaux served in the government for most of the First World War).
Unsurprisingly, this sensational crime riveted France and the world, and the ensuing court case had all the makings of a legal circus. Fernand Labori, who previously represented the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and the writer Émile Zola during the Dreyfus Affair, would defend Caillaux; the roster of witnesses called to testify featured some of the most powerful people in France, including the sitting president, Raymond Poincaré (an unprecedented occurrence); and foreign newspapers dispatched world-famous journalists like Walter Duranty and Wythe Williams to France to cover the trial.
Fascinating as it was at the time, the Caillaux scandal would still probably have been forgotten if not for the coincidental timing of the trial. As it happened, Madame Caillaux’s trial began July 20, just three days before Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, and the legal drama engrossed the French public during the critical final days of July, just as their British counterparts were distracted by the prospect of mutiny and civil war in Ireland. Thanks to these diversions, in August 1914 for millions of ordinary French and British citizens the Great War would seem to come “like a bolt from the clear blue sky.”