Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

Chronicling America 

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 134th installment in the series.

July 27-28, 1914: Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

In the final week of July 1914, after a decade of confrontation and near misses, mounting tensions between the two main European alliance blocs finally came to a head. Seizing on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext, Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands to Serbia on July 23. European diplomats scrambled to defuse the situation, but on July 25, Serbia, assured of Russian support, refused to knuckle under—and Austria-Hungary, likewise assured of German support, rejected the Serbian response, laying the groundwork for war.

The wheels of fate were spinning fast now, as Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef ordered mobilization against Serbia and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II ordered “pre-mobilization” measures and contemplated mobilizing against Austria-Hungary. But no one had declared war yet, so there was still a chance—albeit ever-diminishing—that war might be averted by a face-saving compromise, handing Austria-Hungary a diplomatic victory while maintaining Serbian sovereignty.

It was not to be. The actions of Germany and Austria-Hungary on Monday, July 27 and Tuesday, July 28 clinched their guilt as the inadvertent authors of the Great War. In the face of growing evidence that Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia would not remain localized, they continued to dismiss warnings from Russia, France, Britain, and Italy as bluff and proceeded with their plan, employing deception to make it seem like mediation had a chance—when in fact they never intended to negotiate.

July 27: British Suspicions

Following Austria-Hungary’s rejection of the Serbian response, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey frantically tried to prevent a wider war with all the diplomatic tools at his disposal. While urging Germany to rein in Austria-Hungary and begging France to do the same with Russia, he also suggested that they join forces with Italy, the other uninvolved Great Power, to offer mediation between Russia and Austria-Hungary, as they had at the Conference of London in 1913. The Russians, French, and Italians all accepted Grey’s offer, but the Germans—still pretending they had no involvement in Austria-Hungary’s plans—replied that “We could not take part in such a conference as we cannot drag Austria in her conflict with Serbia before a European tribunal.” Later that day, German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, aware that Germany couldn’t appear totally obstructive, told Goschen, the British ambassador to Berlin, that the “Conference you suggest would practically amount to a court of arbitration, and could not, in his opinion, be called together except at request of Austria and Russia.”

Such a request would require direct talks between Russia and Austria-Hungary—but behind closed doors the Germans sabotaged the initiative by telling the Austrians to reject both outside mediation. The damning proof comes from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, who sent a secret telegram to Foreign Minister Berchtold in Vienna saying

The Secretary of State [Jagow] told me very definitely in a strictly confidential form that in the immediate future mediation proposals from England will possibly be brought to Your Excellency’s knowledge by the German Government. The German Government, he says, tenders the most binding assurances that it in no way associates itself with the proposals, is even decidedly against their being considered, and only passes them on in order to conform to the English request. In so doing the Government proceeds from the standpoint that it is of the greatest importance that England at the present moment should not make common cause with Russia and France.

In other words, the Germans were only going through the motions in order to make the British think their intentions were peaceful, hopefully creating enough confusion and delay that Austria-Hungary could quickly crush Serbia while the Great Powers were still “talking.” And if the Russians left the negotiating table and declared war on Austria-Hungary, with any luck (the Germans hoped) the French and British would view Russia as the aggressor and refuse to come to her aid.

But the Germans were far too optimistic about their chances of “splitting” the Triple Entente through diplomatic subterfuge. While Grey may have been slow to grasp what was really happening, he wasn’t so naïve as to believe that Austria-Hungary would act against her powerful ally’s wishes. As early as July 22, Grey’s own Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Eyre Crowe, warned that the Germans were acting in bad faith: “It is difficult to understand the attitude of the German Government. On the face of it, it does not bear the stamp of straightforwardness. If they really are anxious to see Austria kept reasonably in check, they are in the best position to speak at Vienna.” By the evening of July 27, Grey’s suspicions about Germany’s real intentions were growing, according to the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, who warned Berlin that

if war now comes, we could no longer count on English sympathies and British support, since the Austrian action would be regarded as showing all signs of lack of good will. Everybody here is convinced, and I hear the same thing from my colleagues, that the key to the situation is Berlin and if Berlin seriously means peace, Austria can be restrained from pursuing a foolhardy policy, as Grey calls it.

Grey’s room for maneuver was still limited by the fact that many of his colleagues in the Liberal cabinet opposed any involvement in a continental war, which prevented him from issuing explicit threats. Nonetheless, on July 27, he signaled that Britain might become involved by allowing First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill keep the First and Second Fleets mobilized after the royal review from July 18 to 26.

Berlin Goes All In

Berlin’s response was simply to double down on its deception. Around midnight on the evening of July 27, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg ordered the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to pass along Grey’s offer of mediation to Austria-Hungary—but only to avoid the perception, both at home and abroad, that Germany was in the wrong:

By a rejection of all mediatory action we should be held responsible for the conflagration by the whole world and be represented as the real warmongers. This would make our own position in the country [Germany] impossible where we should appear as having forced the war… we cannot therefore reject the role of mediator and must submit the English proposal to the Vienna cabinet for consideration.

This move was obviously insincere because Foreign Secretary Jagow never withdrew his statement to Austria-Hungary’s ambassador Count Szőgyény that Vienna should ignore the offer of mediation. Furthermore, during the afternoon of July 27, the Germans learned that Austria-Hungary planned to declare war the next day, but never asked Vienna to delay the declaration to allow time for negotiations. Thus the Germans would simply pretend to try to reason with Austria-Hungary until she declared war, presenting the other Great Powers with a fait accompli and finally call their bluff.

This was always going to be a huge gamble, but decision makers in Berlin and Vienna seemed to be in the grip of a world-weary fatalism. On July 27, Bethmann-Hollweg’s friend and confidant, philosopher Kurt Riezler, wrote in his diary: “Everything depends on whether St. Petersburg immediately mobilizes and is encouraged or restrained by the West… The Chancellor thinks that fate, stronger than any human power, is deciding the future of Europe and our people.” Later that evening, as the international scene grew darker, another of Riezler’s diary entries sums up the incredible complexity of the situation, whose explosive intricacy appeared to defy comprehension, let alone control:

The news all points to war. In St. Petersburg there are obviously fierce debates over mobilization. England has altered its language—people in London have obviously just perceived that the Entente will be disrupted if they fail to support Russia…The danger is that France and England may decide to avoid offending Russia by supporting its mobilization, perhaps without really believing that Russian mobilization means war for us; they might think we are bluffing, and decide to answer with a bluff of their own.

By the evening of July 27, panic was spreading across Europe. The stock exchanges closed in Vienna and Budapest, the twin capitals of Austria-Hungary, as well as the Belgian capital of Brussels, reflecting unease over the possibility of a German invasion. In Berlin, German socialists organized anti-war protests which drew 60,000 people (contradicting later wartime propaganda that Germans embraced war wholeheartedly). Meanwhile Joseph Joffre, chief of the French general staff, ordered 40,000 French troops from Morocco and Algeria to return to France in case of war.

July 28: The Kaiser’s About-Face

In Germany, the morning of Tuesday, July 28 began on a bizarre note, with a sudden reversal by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had hurriedly returned from his yacht trip in the Norwegian fjords to personally oversee German foreign policy. However, his change of heart couldn’t avert the impending disaster—in part because his own subordinates ignored him.

The truth was that Germany’s political and military leaders never really trusted their mercurial head of state to follow through on his vow to support Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia. In fact, their distrust of Wilhelm (who was notorious for losing his nerve in crisis situations) was such that several key players, including Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Secretary Jagow, withheld information from him and dragged their feet carrying out his orders at key moments in the crisis.

Even though the text of the Serbian reply was received in Berlin around noon on July 27, Wilhelm didn’t see the text until the next morning—at which point he decided that the Serbs’ agreement to nine out of 11 conditions meant there was now no need to fight, scribbling: “A great moral success for Vienna; but with it all reason for war is gone.”

This incredible about-face was apparently the product of wishful thinking and belated wisdom, as it was becoming clear that Britain and Italy would not, in fact, stand aside in a European war. Instead, Wilhelm suggested a temporary occupation of Belgrade to secure Serbian compliance. In this scenario, Austria-Hungary would leave most of Serbia untouched in order to allay Russian fears, but still hold the Serbian capital as a bargaining chip, to be returned after the Serbs carried out all the Austrian demands: “On reading the Serbian reply… I am persuaded that on the whole the wishes of the Danubian Monarchy are met. The few reservations made by Serbia on single points can in my opinion well be cleared up by negotiation… This will best be done by Austria’s occupying Belgrade as security for the enforcement and execution of the promises…”

Bethmann-Hollweg and Jagow doubtless rolled their eyes at the Kaiser’s latest flip-flop: The “halt in Belgrade” idea was not only impractical—there was no reason to think Russia would be more amenable to a limited occupation of the Serbian capital—it also missed the whole point of the plan and was bound to annoy Austria-Hungary following Germany’s repeated promises of support for a full-on war against Serbia. So they more or less brushed it off. Of course, they couldn’t totally disregard their monarch’s orders, but they waited until the evening of July 28—after Austria-Hungary had already declared war on Serbia—to pass the suggestion along to Vienna. Ironically the Kaiser, like the rest of Europe, found himself presented with a fait accompli.

The Declaration of War

Exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, at 11am on Tuesday, July 28, Emperor Franz Josef signed the declaration of war against Serbia. Ten minutes later, Count Berchtold sent a telegram to Belgrade (a fitting opening to the first war of the modern era, as this was apparently the first time in history war was declared by wire) stating simply:

The Royal Serbian Government not having answered in a satisfactory manner the note of July 23, 1914, presented by the Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade, the Imperial and Royal Government are themselves compelled to see to the safeguarding of their rights and interests, and, with this object, to have recourse to force of arms. Austria-Hungary consequently considers herself henceforward in state of war with Serbia. Count Berchtold

At the same time, Berchtold sent a message to all the other Great Powers reprising the reasons for its declaration of war, while reassuring the Russians, once again, that Austria-Hungary had no plans to annex Serbian territory. Unsurprisingly, these premises and promises did not impress St. Petersburg, where military expediency was about to eclipse exhausted diplomacy.

Madison.com

Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia showed that all Germany’s talk of trying to restrain its ally had basically been a sham, because Austria-Hungary would never have launched the war without German support. After hearing the news around 4 p.m., Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov reacted with fury, summoning the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtalès, and launching into a tirade to the effect (as Pourtalès recounted) that

he now saw through our whole deceitful policy, he no longer doubted that we had known the Austro-Hungarian plans and that it was all a well-laid scheme between us and the Vienna Cabinet. Angered by these reproaches, I replied that I had told him definitely days ago that we regarded the Austro-Serbian conflict as a concern only of those two states.

Increasingly desperate, Sazonov turned yet again to Britain, the only Great Power that might still be able to get Germany to rein in Austria-Hungary—despite the fact that Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had already rebuffed several calls to make explicit threats to Germany. In his instructions to the Russian ambassador to London, Benckendorff, Sazonov wrote:

In consequence of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, direct discussions on my part with the Austrian ambassador are obviously useless. It would be necessary for England with all speed to take action in view of mediation and for Austria at once to suspend military measures against Serbia. Otherwise mediation will only furnish a pretext for delay in bringing the matter to a decision and make it meanwhile possible for Austria to annihilate Serbia completely.

Russians Draw Up Mobilization Orders

As his diplomatic efforts ran into the sands, Sazonov now tried to use the threat of military action to get Austria-Hungary to halt military preparations against Serbia. This was a dangerous escalation, born of a fatalistic attitude similar to the one prevailing in Germany. General Sergei Dobrorolski, the chief of the mobilization division of the Russian general staff, recounted: “On 28 July, the day of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia, Sazonov all at once abandons his optimism. He is penetrated by the thought that a general war is unavoidable…”

Already on July 25, Tsar Nicholas II had ordered “pre-mobilization” measures including promotion of cadets to full officers, bringing frontier units up to full strength, and recalling troops out on maneuver, and he also agreed “in principle” to a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary (which, the Russians hoped, would indicate they did not intend to attack Germany). On July 28, Sazonov and the other members of the Imperial Council were prepared to ask the Tsar to order partial mobilization as soon as the following day—but they soon learned it wasn’t the simple.

On July 26, the Quartermaster General of the Russian Army, Yuri Danilov, hurried back from a tour of the provinces to explain that partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary by itself was impossible, as the general staff only had plans for a general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Given the incredible scale and complexity of mobilization plans, which required coordinating the movements of thousands of trains, there was no way to improvise a new plan for partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary in just a few days. And even if it were possible, partial mobilization would be positively dangerous because the improvised measures would almost certainly throw a monkey wrench into the plans for general mobilization—leaving Russia defenseless if Germany came to Austria-Hungary’s aid (as she inevitably would).

Largely because of these protests from the general staff, on the evening of July 28, Tsar Nicholas II, indecisive as ever, ordered the Imperial Council to draw up two mobilization decrees, or ukazes—one ordering partial mobilization and the other ordering general mobilization. He would sign both of them on the morning of July 29 so that Sazonov could issue the order immediately if Austria-Hungary didn’t halt its military preparations against Serbia. Russia was about to cross the Rubicon.

Alarm in Germany

In fact, Russian pre-mobilization measures were already stoking fear in Germany, where the general staff knew that the success of the Schlieffen Plan depended on beating France before Russia had time to mobilize. As soon as the Russians began preparing for war—regardless of whether they called it “pre-mobilization” or something else—the clock was ticking for Germany, which had just six weeks to defeat France before the Russians would begin to overrun East Prussia.

New York Times via Wikimedia

On July 27, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Pourtalès, had warned Berlin of the “very considerable increase in Russian forces,” while the Germany military attaché, Major Eggeling, warned the Russian Minister of War, Sukhomlinov, that “even mobilization against Austria alone must be regarded as very dangerous.” The message was repeated by Pourtalès, who told Sazonov on Bethmann-Hollweg’s instructions that “Preparatory military measures on the part of Russia directed in any way against us would oblige us to take counter-measures which would have to consist in the mobilization of the army. Mobilization, however, means war.” The other members of the Triple Entente also urged caution, with the British ambassador, Buchanan, recommending on July 27 that Russian mobilization should be “deferred as long as possible,” and the fiercely anti-German French ambassador, Paléologue, giving the same advice on July 28—but only because it would help convince the British that Germany and Austria-Hungary, not Russia, were responsible for the war.

By the evening of July 28, the mood in Berlin was dark indeed, as War Minister Falkenhayn warned Kaiser Wilhelm that they had already “lost control over events” and the chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke predicted, in an overview he wrote for Bethmann-Hollweg that Europe was about to embark on a “world war… that will destroy civilization in almost all of Europe for decades to come”—but added that Germany would never have a better chance to win than she did now.  

Germany Negotiate Treaty with Ottoman Empire

With war looming and Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance, looking increasingly unlikely to fight on their side, the Germans were desperate to scoop up any allies they could. Now they abandoned their longstanding policy of calculated ambiguity towards the Ottoman Empire and in mid-July signaled that they would consider a full-fledged alliance with Constantinople.

Naturally, the Turks—who rightly feared Russian designs on Constantinople, and had been looking for a patron and protector among the other Great Powers for years—jumped at the opportunity. After drawing up a first draft on July 24, on July 27 and 28 Minister of War Enver Pasha met secretly with the German ambassador, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, to hammer out the final wording of the agreement they would sign on August 2. But in the weeks that followed, the slippery Turks added a number of conditions, including the total abolition of the humiliating “capitulations” which gave European powers authority over Ottoman subjects, and massive financial and military aid.

The Germans’ task was made easier by Britain’s confiscation of two battleships under construction for the Ottoman Empire, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I, on July 28, which sparked outrage in the Turkish public; ordinary Turks had raised money to pay for the ships with public subscriptions and fund drives. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill justified the confiscation on the grounds of military necessity, but many critics said his highhanded move pushed the Ottoman Empire into Germany’s arms. It just so happened that two German battleships, the Goeben and the Breslau, were cruising in the Mediterranean when the war broke out—and they would provide perfect compensation for the ships stolen by the perfidious British.

Madame Caillaux Found Innocent

Even the darkest moments in history have their unexpected moments of absurdity. On July 28, as the world was coming apart at the seams, a French jury found Madame Henriette Caillaux, the wife of leftist politician Joseph Caillaux, not guilty of the murder of Gaston Calmette, the editor of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, on March 16, 1914.

This was an interesting verdict to say the least, as Madame Caillaux freely admitted to shooting Calmette in his offices, in order to prevent him from publishing scandalous letters written to her by Joseph Caillaux when he was still married to another woman. Ironically, some of the letters were read out in court anyway, including one suggestive reference to “a thousand million kisses all over your adored little body”—apparently alluding to sexual acts that were certain to raise eyebrows in early 20th century France, causing Madame Caillaux fainted in the courtroom from the sheer infamy of it all.

In a particularly French twist (which also reflected the ingrained sexism of the time), the jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty of murder because, as a woman, she was more prone to succumb to irrational, passionate feelings, and therefore not responsible for her actions when she killed Calmette. However, this reasoning didn’t seem to convince the angry mobs that besieged the courthouse, shouting “murderess,” after the verdict was announced.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Jon Snow's Game of Thrones Fate Could Have Spelled Divorce for Showrunner David Benioff

Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Turner
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Turner

The emotional toll that Game of Thrones's twists and turns takes on its fans has been well-documented. Between the TV show's massive body count and its never-ending series of other shocking moments, the show has left viewers shaken to theirs core for the past eight years (which is part of its massive appeal). But one of Game of Thrones's most heartbreaking moments—the death of Jon Snow at the hands of Alliser Thorne and other members of the Night's Watch in the fifth season—didn't leave just fans crushed. It nearly cost showrunner David Benioff his marriage.

While being interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2015, The Romanoffs star Amanda Peet, who has been married to Benioff since 2006, told Kimmel that she was close to divorcing Benioff for killing off Jon Snow.

"I made him promise me, I begged him … I said, 'I've heard all this stuff … [Kit Harington] got a haircut, I don't want to divorce you, what's happening?'" Peet recalled. Benioff assured his wife that Jon wasn't going to die, but obviously that wasn't true—or at least not at the time. "I don't love you anymore," Peet (jokingly) told her husband. "I said, 'If you kill him, that's it.'"

As we all know, the sixth season saw Jon brought back to life, but Peet likely had no idea it was going to happen due to the intense secrecy of the show. "It's a little like being married to someone in the CIA or something," the actress stated. "He's in bed and he has his earphones and we angle the computer so that I can't see the dailies."

Though Jon's resurrection may have saved their marriage, who knows how Peet will feel about how it all ends when Game of Thrones's eighth and final season premieres on April 14, 2019.

20 Surprising Facts About Benedict Cumberbatch

Larry Busacca, Getty Images
Larry Busacca, Getty Images

If Benedict Cumberbatch isn't careful, he might just run out of dream roles to play. Since the earliest days of his career, the 42-year-old actor has made no secret that there were two roles at the top of his character bucket list: Hamlet and Patrick Melrose, the protagonist at the center of Edward St Aubyn's critically acclaimed series of novels.

In 2015, Cumberbatch took the stage in London to do the whole "to be or not to be" thing. (More on that later.) In 2018, he starred in Patrick Melrose, Showtime's television adaptation of the book series, and earned both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for the role. Now, Cumberbatch is back on the small screen—and bald—for the HBO movie Brexit, which premieres on January 19th.

1. He made his stage debut playing a "very bossy" Joseph in a Nativity play.

In a 2010 interview with London Theatre, Cumberbatch shared that his first stage performance found him playing “a very bossy Joseph in the Nativity play at primary school. Apparently I pushed Mary offstage because she was taking too long. Actresses eh!”

2. He thinks his name sounds like "a fart in a bath."

There’s something very regal-sounding about a name like Benedict Cumberbatch, but it’s not one that necessarily rolls right off the tongue. The Washington Post once identified the actor as “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” (though later clarified that it was a joke). But there have been plenty of other mix-ups—like the time a television show ID'ed him as “Benedict Cumberpatch” (which sort of has a nice ring to it).

Cumberbatch had a feeling that his name might cause problems in his career, which is why he began his career as Benedict Carlton (which is his middle name). Ultimately, it was his agent who convinced him to use Cumberbatch, even though the actor said the surname sounds like “a fart in a bath.”

3. He toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer.

Though he grew up in a family of actors, Cumberbatch wasn’t always planning to live his life out in front of a camera. In fact, it was because of his parents’ chosen profession that they encouraged him to pursue a more stable calling, which led him to want to become a criminal lawyer.

“[Acting is] a very odd, peripatetic, crazed, out of your control work and social schedule,” Cumberbatch told The Mirror in 2015. “It's very hard to plan a family life, let alone know where the next paycheck is coming from so they worked very, very hard as my parents, and actors, to afford me an education whereby I had the opportunity and the privilege to try and channel myself towards other goals.

“For a while, I wanted to be a barrister because there's definitely a crossover with criminal law—with trying to persuade an audience and a jury and a judge of the case and your client's story so I did go down that route for a little bit. I think they would have been very happy if I ended up there."

He spoke with Vulture about his legal leanings, too, and noted that, “I would've loved the performance of court, the idea of persuading people, storytelling and all that. It parallels beautifully with acting, lots of frustrated, amateur dramatics going on in court all the time. I think lots of barristers literally perform in amateur dramatic societies and are very good actors. It's a massive crossover."

4. His parents on Sherlock are also his parents in real life.

Speaking of Cumberbatch’s parents: While both Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham are familiar faces as actors in their own right, fans of Sherlock might also be quick to recognize them as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’s parents.

In 2014, Cumberbatch told the Press Association that he was a little nervous about working with his parents, as “They’re Equity card carrying members but you know it was nerve-wracking because they are actors as well and yet they were brilliant and they were fantastic.”

5. He spent a year teaching in India.

During a gap year, Cumberbatch decided to volunteer his time and teach English at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. “I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant,” he told Lion’s Roar. “In India, I went on a retreat with a lama—several days of incantation to clear and purify the mind—along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks."

Though teaching and acting may seem unrelated, many of the skills and practices Cumberbatch learned during that time eventually helped him in his acting career. “Stillness is an essential part of acting,” he said, “so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand. A still point is a very, very hard place to find, especially among the usual kind of pulped sheep pushed around by the blinking flashing world of modern technology.”

6. He was kidnapped in South Africa.

While filming the 2005 miniseries To the Ends of the Earth, Cumberbatch experienced another kind of epiphany when he nearly lost his life. The actor and two of his co-stars took a day off to learn how to scuba dive near Mozambique. On their way back from the outing, the actor explained, “The three of us were trying to change the tire. These six men appeared suddenly from the eucalyptus. They said: 'Put your hands on your head, don't look at us,' and were frisking us for drugs, money, weapons. Then they bundled us into the car. They dragged me up and put me in the boot of the car.”

Like so many of the quick-thinking characters he has played, Cumberbatch realized his only option was to try and argue his way out of the situation:

“I said: ‘If you leave me in here, it’s not the lack of air, it’s the small space. There’s a problem with my heart and my brain.’

“I just tried to explain to them: ‘I will die, possibly have a fit, and it will be a problem for you. I will be a dead Englishman in your car. Not good.’

“They shut the boot and had an argument, and then pulled me out. So I kind of thank God I had the presence of mind to give them the idea that it would be better to keep me alive. And the other two hadn’t been harmed.”

In a way, the incident became the impetus for Cumberbatch to pursue his dreams even more aggressively. “It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own,” he said. “It’s made me want to live a life slightly less ordinary.”

7. Julian Assange tried to talk him out of starring in The Fifth Estate.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in 'The Fifth Estate' (2013)
DreamWorks

In 2013, a very white-haired Cumberbatch played the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. In preparing for the role, Cumberbatch—ever the dutiful actor—reached out to Assange about arranging a meeting. Assange’s response, which went viral, was rather epic. Though he assured Cumberbatch that he would very much enjoy meeting him, and that he believed they would get along, he spent the bulk of his word count telling the actor why making the film was a terrible idea:

“You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.

“Not because you want to, of course you don't, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.

“Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.

“I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.”

The film went forward as planned, with Cumberbatch in the lead (though it was a critical and box office failure, which likely pleased Assange).

8. He is easily starstruck.

When asked during a Reddit AMA whether he’s ever been starstruck while meeting or working with a fellow actor, Cumberbatch admitted that it happens all the time: “Uhhhhhhhh. Every time I've met someone famous who I've been in the audience of,” he said. “I have the same butterflies and inability to be cool. I approach them as a fellow member of the human race as the next person in their audience does. I've been doing this for 10 odd years, and so to meet people who thrilled me with their work for my entire life in such a concentrated manner as has happened over the last few years has been mind-blowing.”

9. Ted Danson was really, really excited to meet him.

While Cumberbatch may get nervous every time he meets an acting hero, one well-known actor who was pretty excited to meet Cumberbatch was Cheers star Ted Danson. When asked during a Reddit AMA to share the “weirdest encounter you've had with a fan,” Cumberbatch answered: “Ted Danson at a pre-Oscar party screaming across a floor of people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ray Liotta, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, et al while pushing past them and knocking their drinks. ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! IT'S F***ING SHERLOCK HOLMES!’”

10. He wasn't immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes.

Though playing the titular “consulting detective” in Sherlock is the role that brought Cumberbatch global recognition, saying yes to the part wasn’t exactly a no-brainer for the actor. While speaking at a BAFTA event in 2014, Cumberbatch admitted that he was actually a little hesitant to sign on for the project. “I heard about it and thought that sounds like an idea to [re-franchise] something to make money,” he said. “It could be a bit cheap and cheesy. Then I found out who was involved and realized it wouldn’t be cheap and cheesy.

“My mum had done a few episodes of Coupling with Steven [Moffat] and Mark Gatiss was a huge hero of mine when I was a student in League Of Gentleman,” Cumberbatch continued, “so I knew the stable was good. I thought I would read it and then I fell in love with it.”

11. The BBC wasn't sure Cumberbatch was "sexy" enough to pull off Sherlock.


BBC

It’s funny to think about now, considering Cumberatch’s massive worldwide fanbase, but just as the actor wasn’t immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes, the BBC wasn’t sure the actor was a great match for the role—because they wanted someone with sex appeal. While speaking at the Hay Festival in 2014, Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat talked about the BBC’s track record in determining which actors might connect with audiences—Cumberbatch being one of them.

“They said of casting David Tennant as Casanova, ‘Damn, you should have cast someone sexier,’” Moffat said. “With Benedict Cumberbatch, we were told the same thing. ‘You promised us a sexy Sherlock, not him.’”

Sue Vertue, a fellow producer on Sherlock (and Moffat's wife), relayed a similar tale to Entertainment Weekly just a few months prior to Moffat’s comments, telling the magazine: “When we first cast [Cumberbatch], people were saying, ‘You promised us a sexy one!’ People weren’t thinking of Benedict in that light at all.” His name, apparently, posed another problem: “When people said, ‘Who’s playing Sherlock Holmes?’ and we’d say, ‘Benedict Cumberbatch,’ everyone looked very vague,” Vertue said. “Then we’d always have to spell his name.”

12. He is (distantly) related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It turns out that Sherlock Holmes may have been the role Cumberbatch was born to play. In 2017, researchers at Ancestry.com made the rather fascinating discovery that Cumberbatch and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are sixteenth cousins, twice removed. The ancestral link between the two is former Duke of Lancaster John of Gaunt, who was Doyle’s 15th great-grandfather and Cumberbatch’s 17th great-grandfather.

13. He also has a family link to Alan Turing.

Amazingly, the Conan Doyle connection wasn’t the first time Cumberbatch’s ancestry was linked to one of his characters. In 2014, the same team of researchers determined that Cumberbatch was the 17th cousin of Alan Turing, the computer scientist/codebreaker he played in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014)—a role that earned Cumberbatch an Oscar nomination in 2015.

14. He has been rendered in chocolate on more than one occasion.


UKTV/FLICKR

In a somewhat bizarre promotional campaign by Britain’s UKTV in 2015, Cumberbatch narrowly beat out David Tennant by a margin of just one percent to be named “TV Dishiest Drama Actor.” The prize? Having a life-sized statue, made entirely of Belgian chocolate, created in the actor’s likeness.

It took a team of eight people more than 250 man-hours to construct the delicious doppelgänger, dubbed “Benedict Chocobatch." In 2016, he was recreated in the sweet stuff again, though this time as an edible chocolate bunny/Benedict hybrid that fans could actually purchase … and eat.

15. He turned Hamlet into "the most in-demand show of all time."

In 2015, Cumberbatch achieved one of his lifetime dreams when it was announced that he would play Hamlet in a 12-week run at London’s Barbican theater. Tickets ended up selling out almost as fast as one could say “To be or not to be.” As The Telegraph reported in 2014:

"The curtain does not go up on the production for another year, but Cumberbatch's Hamlet is nevertheless outselling the next most popular show, the current run of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, by four to one. The show has even registered 214 per cent more ticket searches in the hours after tickets were released than Beyoncé and Jay Z’s global On the Run tour.

Hamlet tickets went on sale at 10am on August 11 and within minutes fans were expressing frustration at finding themselves more than 20,000 places back in the queue."

16. He's the leading man in a lot of fan fiction.

In addition to being a leading man on the stage and both the small and big screens, Cumberbatch plays a starring role in a lot of fan fiction. A lot of fan fiction! In 2013, The Mirror estimated that approximately 100 million words of fan fiction had been written about the Sherlock star. Considering that was six years ago, the word count has certainly only grown.

17. Simon Pegg convinced him that he might have radiation poisoning.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in 'Star Trek Into Darkness' (2013)
Paramount Pictures

While filming Star Trek: Into Darkness, Simon Pegg decided to have a little fun with Cumberbatch by convincing him that he was at risk for radiation exposure. According to Pegg, it worked. He recounted the story to The Sun in 2013:

"I don't like seeing people get embarrassed. But we were filming in a nuclear facility and one day I said that Chris [Pine] needed neutron cream—otherwise he'd get sunburn. He said, 'What?' And I said, 'Yeah, you'll get a rash from ambient radiation in the air.' From there the trick spread to other cast members. Finally, we got Benedict. He had this speech and he kept f***ing it up. Afterwards he said, 'Guys, I'm ever so sorry —I've got a real headache. I think the ions were getting to me.' He was so convinced."

18. He has a rare genetic mutation.

If Cumberbatch’s eyes seem to regularly change color, you’re not imagining things: The actor was born with both central heterochromia and sectoral heterochromia—two rare-but-harmless genetic mutations that affect his eyes. Each of his eyes has multiple colors (a mix of blue, green, and gold) because of the central heterochromia, and the sectoral heterochromia is the reason why he has a brown “freckle” on his right eye.

But ask the actor what his favorite part of his body is, and the eyes have got it. “I guess as an actor your eyes are vital in conveying any internal thought process or feeling, and for that I have my mum to thank,” he said.

19. He's not cool with "Cumberbitches."

When Cumberbatch’s massive contingency of female fans dubbed themselves “Cumberbitches,” the actor took issue with the pejorative moniker. “It’s not even politeness,” he said of his distaste for the term. “I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are ... Cumberpeople."

20. He has been a vocal proponent of closing the gender pay gap.

Equal pay in Hollywood is a hot-button topic, and Cumberbatch has made his stance on the issue very clear by stating that he won’t work on a project if his female co-stars aren’t being paid the same. "Equal pay and a place at the table are the central tenets of feminism," Cumberbatch told Radio Times. "Look at your quotas. Ask what women are being paid, and say: 'If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it.'"

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