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 120th installment in the series.
May 28-June 3, 1914: “Militarism Run Stark Mad”
As May 1914 drew to a close, two years after the sinking of the Titanic the world was gripped by news of yet another horrific maritime disaster—but developments behind the scenes foreshadowed something even worse, as a high-ranking American diplomat warned President Wilson that Europe was on the brink of a terrible cataclysm … and Germany’s top general hoped for exactly that.
The Empress of Ireland Sinks
In the early morning hours of May 29, 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland, a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company liner on the Quebec-Liverpool route, was traveling northeast in the St. Lawrence River towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence when she was rammed amid heavy fog by a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad, heading in the opposite direction. The Storstad survived, but the 570-foot-long Empress of Ireland sank within 15 minutes of the collision, which took place around 2 a.m.
The accident occurred just a few miles from the town of Rimouski, Quebec, in a busy waterway plied by other vessels which hurried to the rescue, but the toll was still staggering: out of a total manifest of 1477 passengers and crew, 1012 were drowned, including 134 children—putting the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the same grisly “1000+” hall of infamy as the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, when 1512 perished in the icy waters of the mid-Atlantic.
Like the Titanic, a disproportionate number of the victims in the Empress of Ireland sinking were poor “third class” passengers traveling below decks in “steerage"—and again, like the Titanic, many of these died needlessly, although for different reasons. The Empress of Ireland was provided with enough lifeboats—a positive legacy of the Titanic disaster—but half of these couldn’t be used be lowered as the ship listed to one side very quickly as it sank, probably because many passengers had opened their portholes to let in fresh air (in violation of regulations), allowing water to flood in even faster.
And like the Titanic, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland foreshadowed the terrible toll of the U-boat campaign against Allied and neutral shipping in the looming Great War, including the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, when 1198 passengers and crew lost their lives. And the Lusitania was just one of some 5000 Allied and neutral merchant vessels sunk by German and Austrian U-boats from 1914 to 1918, resulting in the deaths of around 15,000 crew and a similar number of civilian and military passengers.
“Militarism Run Stark Mad”
While the world was fixated on the Empress of Ireland sinking, behind the scenes diplomats were frantically trying to defuse European tensions amid mounting fears of a continental war. One of the most famous last-ditch attempts was the mission of Colonel Edward M. House (right), dispatched to Europe by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (left) as an unofficial envoy in the hopes of reconciling rivals before it was too late.
As the personal emissary of the leader of the great Republic across the sea, House was received with due respect but also understandable curiosity by European diplomats and politicians who wondered what, exactly, he hoped to achieve. The general goal was certainly ambitious: Wilson and House believed the U.S., with its economic strength and lack of direct involvement in European affairs, could use its leverage to help initiate a new era of trust-building in the Old World. But the details remained rather vague.
House suggested that the three “Anglo-Saxon” powers—Britain, the U.S., and Germany—ought to divide the world up into spheres of commercial influence, creating a new world order that would guarantee Germany her long-coveted “place in the sun.” Of course there were some problems with House’s plan, beyond his sketchy racial taxonomy (classifying Germany as “Anglo-Saxon” was a stretch, even by the flexible standards of racial theorists like Houston Stewart Chamberlain). For one thing it left out France and Russia, both established world powers, as well as Japan, the rising power in Asia.
But the real historical import of House’s mission was his insight into the current situation in Europe. His letter to Wilson from Berlin on May 29, 1914, was alarming indeed:
The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.
House’s prediction that the Triple Entente would start the war reflected American distrust of Britain and France, suspected of harboring colonial ambitions in the New World, and aversion to Russia, a despotic absolute monarchy. But House also raised red flags about Germany, warning British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that in Berlin “the air seemed full of the clash of arms, of readiness to strike.”
“If Only Things Would Boil Over”
House was absolutely right, judging by a private remark made by the German chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, to a retired German diplomat, Baron Hermann von Eckardstein, just two days later, on June 1, 1914. “If only things would boil over,” Moltke remarked wistfully, adding: “We are ready; the sooner, the better for us.”
Moltke’s statement reflected the volatile mix of short-term confidence and long-term desperation prevailing in Berlin and Vienna. Just a few weeks before Moltke (left) had expressed the same view to the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf (right), in a private meeting at a hotel in the resort town of Karlsbad, Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). Conrad and Moltke agreed in their basic assessment: Germany and Austria-Hungary were ready for war with Russia and France now, but before long the balance of forces would begin to tilt permanently against them, as Russia implemented its Great Military Program and France started to benefit from increased manpower thanks to the Three-Year Service Law. Moltke warned Conrad: “If we delay any longer, the chances of success will be diminished; as far as manpower is concerned we cannot enter into a competition with Russia.”
Similarly, a week after the Karlsbad meeting Moltke told Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow “there was no alternative to waging a preventive war in order to defeat the enemy as long as we could still more or less pass the test.” And Moltke’s deputy, General Georg von Waldersee, wrote that Germany had “no reason whatever to avoid” war and in fact a very good chance “to conduct a great European war quickly and victoriously.” The conclusion was inescapable: if Germany and Austria-Hungary were going to fight Russia and France, it had to happen soon. Of course a suitable pretext would have to be found.
The Assassins Cross the Border
Events were already in motion that would provide Moltke and Conrad the very excuse they were looking for. On May 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip and several of his co-conspirators set out from the Serbian capital of Belgrade on their final journey to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province Bosnia, where they planned to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones.
Princip (left) and his fellow plotters, Nedeljko Čabrinović (center) and Trifun Grabež (right), had received training with pistols from Milan Ciganović, an employee of the Serbian state railroad and associate of Major Vojislav Tankosić, who in turn was the right-hand man to Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis) the chief of Serbian military intelligence and leader of Unity or Death, otherwise known as the Black Hand.
Serbia’s civilian government wasn’t totally in the dark about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand: by late May 1914, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (who was currently locked in a power struggle with Dimitrijević) had caught wind of the conspiracy, perhaps via Ciganović, who apparently served as an informer for Pašić inside the Black Hand. Pašić was worried enough to inform his cabinet, and tried to disrupt the plot by ordering officers in the Serbian frontier guard to apprehend the plotters when they tried to cross the border into Austrian Bosnia. Pašić also instructed the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, to ask the Austrians to cancel the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo.
But both measures were doomed to fail. The Black Hand had already infiltrated the frontier guard and on the evening of May 31 to June 1, 1914, Princip and Grabež crossed the border with the help of Rade Grbić, an officer in the frontier guard who ferried them across the River Drina, at one point hiding them on an island popular with smugglers. They were followed not long after by Čabrinović, who crossed separately and met up with Princip and Grabež in the Bosnian town of Tuzla on June 3; all three finally arrived in Sarajevo on June 4. Meanwhile it’s not clear if Jovanović—a radical Pan-Serb who may have been mixed up with the Black Hand himself—ever delivered the warning to Vienna as instructed. If he did, he was obviously ignored by the proud Austrians.
The Sarajevo murder would find Serbia totally unprepared for conflict: On June 2, 1914, Prime Minister Pašić and his cabinet resigned at the urging of Serbia’s King Peter, who was trying to forestall a military coup by Dimitrijević and his fellow ultranationalists, and on June 24 King Peter himself would step down in favor of Crown Prince Alexander. Meanwhile the Serbian army was in disarray, exhausted and overextended following hard fighting in the Balkan Wars. On June 2, 1914 the Greek military attaché in Belgrade asked Crown Prince Alexander about the possibility of Serbian help in another war against Ottoman Empire, and summarized the gloomy reply: “The Serbs lack everything. They have no ammunition, no artillery, no rifles. They have nothing at all and even if they were to mobilize, there would be no response to the call-up.”
“Calm and Quiet – Perfect Peace”
On June 3, 1914, Mildred Aldrich—an American journalist and writer who had just moved to the rural French village of Huiry, overlooking the River Marne—wrote to her friend explaining her decision to leave Paris: “I have come to feel the need of calm and quiet – perfect peace.” With modest pride she noted her village “is in that district between Paris and Meaux little known to the ordinary traveler… these are all little villages of which you may never have heard. No guidebook celebrates them.” A few months later Aldrich’s idyllic retreat would provide a ringside seat to the greatest battle in history.