The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 130th installment in the series.
July 16-18, 1914: Missed Signals
By July 14, 1914, Austria-Hungary had decided to attack Serbia and enlisted the support of her ally Germany, all under a cloak of secrecy meant to keep Europe’s other Great Powers unaware, unprepared, and ultimately uninvolved. But the news leaked thanks to the German ambassador at Rome, Baron Flotow, who hinted what was going on to Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano on July 11. San Giuliano telegraphed the news to Italy’s ambassadors across Europe, and the message was apparently intercepted by Russian spies, who soon spread the word. In short, the secret plan was no longer secret, at least in elite diplomatic circles, meaning there was still a good chance to avert disaster—but tragically, during this crucial period European diplomats on all sides missed important signals. The cost of their mistakes would be tallied in millions of lives.
Brushing Off the Russians
On July 16, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Nikolai Shebeko, reported:
Information reaches me that the Austro-Hungarian Government… intends to make certain demands on Belgrade, claiming that there is a connection between the question of the Sarajevo outrage and the Pan-Serb agitation within the confines of the Monarchy. In so doing it reckons on the non-intervention of Russia… It would seem to me desirable that… the Vienna cabinet should be informed how Russia would react…
Sazonov didn’t see Shebeko’s telegram until July 18, when he returned from a brief vacation at his country estate, but he then summoned Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Frigyes Szapáry, to warn him Russia could “in no circumstances agree to any blow to Serbia's independence.” However, Austria-Hungary continued to ignore the Russian warnings, instead heeding the advice of Germany, where the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman (above, left), expressed confidence Russia was bluffing and would ultimately be restrained by France and Britain.
For this to work, however, France and Britain would first have to know what was happening between Austria-Hungary and Russia. This was another area where key signals were missed—especially by the British government, still distracted by the Irish crisis.
On July 16, the British ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, reported:
I gather that … a kind of indictment is being prepared against the Serbian government for alleged complicity in the conspiracy … and that Austro-Hungarian Government are in no mood to parley with Serbia, but will insist on immediate unconditional compliance, failing which force will be used. Germany is said to be in complete agreement with this procedure.
Two days later, the British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, reported that Sazonov warned him, “Anything in the shape of an Austrian ultimatum at Belgrade could not leave Russia indifferent and she might be forced to take some precautionary military measures.”
These reports from British ambassadors clearly showed that Austria-Hungary and Russia were on a collision course. But Prime Minister Asquith and Foreign Secretary Grey (above, second from left) were reluctant as ever to get embroiled in continental affairs, especially when their attention was focused on the Irish issue. In fact Grey didn’t even meet with the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Count Mensdorff, until July 23—when it was already too late.
Meanwhile, from July 15 to 20, French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier René Viviani were at sea aboard the battleship France, headed for a long-planned conference with Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers in St. Petersburg. Although the French leaders weren’t totally incommunicado, long-distance ship-to-shore radio communications were still patchy (even with the benefit of the powerful Eiffel Tower transmitter), so their ability to get news during this period was limited.
The British weren’t the only ones ignoring their own ambassadors. The German government had a habit of simply not listening to bad news from foreign countries, especially if the country in question happened to be Britain. Even worse, Berlin often withheld information from its ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky (above, second from right), who was viewed as an unreliable “Anglophile.” Nonetheless, on July 18 German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow sent a long message to Lichnowsky secretly explaining that
Austria… intends now to come to a settlement with Serbia and has conveyed this intention to us… We must see to localizing the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Whether this is possible will depend in the first place on Russia and in the second place on the moderating influence of the other members of the Entente… at bottom Russia is not now ready to strike. France and England will not want war now.
But Lichnowsky replied that Berlin was too optimistic about localizing the conflict: “Hence the chief thing seems to me that the Austrian demands should be worded in such a manner that with some pressure on Belgrade … they will be acceptable, not in such a manner that they will necessarily lead to war…” His forecast was correct, but the suggestion to soften the ultimatum showed he was still in the dark about the true nature of the plan: Vienna wanted Belgrade to reject the ultimatum, because Vienna wanted war.
Last but not least, the Austrians themselves were displaying some ostrich-like behavior by sticking their heads in the sand about Italy. Berlin was urging Vienna to cede Austria’s ethnic Italian territories of Trentino and Trieste to get Rome to join them, or at least remain neutral, and cautioned that Italy might join their enemies if they didn’t. But Emperor Franz Josef wasn’t inclined to start dismembering his empire—that was kind of the whole point—and Vienna breezily dismissed a series of Italian warnings conveyed by German diplomats.
On July 16, the German ambassador to Rome, Flotow, reported to Foreign Secretary Jagow in Berlin: “I regard it as hopeless if Austria, in view of the danger, does not pull herself together and realize that if she means to take any territory [from Serbia] she must give Italy compensation. Otherwise Italy will attack her in the rear.” Increasingly alarmed, on July 18 Jagow instructed the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to advise the Austrians (again) “that an Austrian attack on Serbia would not only meet with a most unfavorable reception in Italy but would probably encounter direct opposition.”
However, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Berchtold insisted—probably disingenuously—that Austria-Hungary had no territorial ambitions in Serbia, and therefore owed Italy nothing in the way of compensation. He was also receiving more positive reports from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey (who had suffered a nervous breakdown after the assassination of the Archduke, and was only now pulling himself together—above, right). Mérey was sanguine in his message of July 18, admitting Italy would be angry but predicting it wouldn’t come to a fight: thus, “I do not in any sense plead for previous consultations and negotiations with the Italian cabinet.”
In truth, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano was also partly to blame. An elder statesman, he treated foreign policy as his personal bailiwick and often made decisions without consulting other members of the Italian government. After learning the basic outlines of the Austrian plan on July 11, he decided to use the mounting crisis to extract territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, rather than coming right out and telling Vienna to back off, as he had a year before. Even worse, he never informed Prime Minister Salandra (a foreign policy novice) about the July 1913 precedent, so Salandra didn’t realize Italy had the option of telling Austria-Hungary not to go it alone.
If there was one country that heard the message loud and clear, it was Serbia herself. As early as July 15, the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, warned Belgrade that Austria-Hungary was preparing something big, and on July 18, Prime Minister Pašić (currently a political “lame duck,” but still technically in charge) ordered Serbia’s army to begin calling up reservists. The same day Slavko Gruić, secretary general of the Serbian foreign ministry, assured the unforgettably named British charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Dayrell Crackanthorpe, that “Serbia would not stand alone. Russia would not remain quiet if Serbia were wantonly attacked… Under present conditions a war between a Great Power and a Balkan state must inevitably … lead to a European conflagration.”
Ordinary Folks Smell Smoke
While diplomats on all sides did their best to project calm, by mid-July even some “ordinary” (albeit particularly perceptive) people were noticing something was afoot. On July 14, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted that newspapers in Austria-Hungary were whipping up public opinion against Serbia, and two days later Mildred Aldrich, an American journalist and author who’d just moved to a small village east of Paris, wrote in a letter to a friend: “Alas! I find that I cannot break myself of reading the newspapers, and reading them eagerly. It is all the fault of that nasty affair in Servia… It is a nasty outlook. We are simply holding our breaths here.”