WWI Centennial: The Opening Shots of The Great War

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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 135th installment in the series.

July 29-30, 1914: Russia, Austria-Hungary Mobilize

The final days of July 1914 saw Europe slide over the edge into the abyss of war, to be fought on a scale that dwarfed all previous conflicts. Following Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia on July 28, the key events—the “crossing of the Rubicon”—were the Russian and Austro-Hungarian general mobilizations on the evening of July 30. After Russia mobilized the Germans felt they had no choice but to mobilize too, setting in motion the Schlieffen Plan for the invasion of Belgium and France. The vials of wrath were about to be emptied.

July 29: Last-Ditch Efforts

The morning of Wednesday, July 29 dawned with violence and panic. At 5am, Austrian gunboats on the Danube fired the opening shots of the Great War, shelling the Serbian capital, Belgrade, in a mostly symbolic attack that nonetheless succeeded in taking the civilian population by surprise. Slavka Mihajlović, a young doctor, recorded in her diary: “The explosion echoes around Belgrade and the hospital shakes. We all jump out of bed, more out of astonishment than fear, and stay up till dawn. So it is true! The war has started! Big Austria has moved against small war-torn Serbia!”

Elsewhere stock exchanges in Berlin and Amsterdam closed amid panic selling, and business was at a standstill in Paris and Antwerp, the commercial capital of Belgium. During the course of the day there was a huge anti-war protest in the Cirque Royal in Brussels, while the Belgian government called out reserve divisions as it prepared to defend Belgium’s neutrality.

But the fatal moves were made behind closed doors. On the morning of July 29 Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II signed two ukazes, or imperial decrees—one ordering partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary alone, the other ordering general mobilization against Austria-Hungary and Germany—which Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov could publish if Austria-Hungary didn’t halt her military operations against Serbia.

The decision to sign two ukazes was a typical bit of muddleheaded indecision in St. Petersburg, especially as the first one was basically irrelevant: there was no plan for partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary alone, as the Russian general staff explained repeatedly, only general mobilization. After all, the generals had never imagined that mobilization might be used selectively as a diplomatic threat, and since Germany was bound to fight with her ally Austria-Hungary, the mobilization plan logically covered both opponents. To their exasperation, the civilian ministers went ahead and drafted an order for partial mobilization anyway, apparently with more confidence in the soldiers’ skills of improvisation than the soldiers had themselves.

For the time being, however, both decrees remained in Sazonov’s desk, as he made one final, desperate effort to save the peace of Europe and the world. After Austria-Hungary rejected direct talks with Russia on July 28, on July 29 Sazonov returned to the idea of a general European conference, originally suggested by British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. The British ambassador, to St. Petersburg, George Buchanan, reported that Sazonov said

He did not care what form such conversations took and he was ready to accept almost any arrangement that was approved by France and England. There was no time to lose, and war could only be averted if you [Grey] could succeed by conversations with the Ambassadors… in arriving at some formula which you could get Austria to accept.

Buchanan responded by bringing up an idea suggested by Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano two days before on July 27: Serbia might be able to accept all the demands contained in the Austrian ultimatum of July 23 if they were presented by the Great Powers acting together (the Concert of Europe), along with a guarantee that Austria-Hungary would immediately halt military operations and submit to mediation by the four other Great Powers, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy—in contemporary terms, something like an intervention supported by the entire United Nations Security Council. Sazonov replied that “he would agree to anything four Powers could arrange provided it was acceptable to Serbia.”

After the meeting with Buchanan Sazonov next saw the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtales, to warn him of Russia’s plans to begin partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary the next day, July 30, and urge the idea of a European conference as the last hope of averting war: “[T]he Vienna cabinet had returned a categorical refusal to the wish expressed by him to enter into direct conversations. Nothing therefore remained but to revert to Sir E. Grey’s proposal of a conference of four.” Pourtales said he would pass the idea along to Berlin but repeated his warning that he “could not regard order for Russian mobilization… as other than a grave mistake.”

Unfortunately, while Buchanan and Pourtales conveyed these messages to their masters in London and Berlin, the situation was about to escalate even further. During a meeting with the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, Szapary, Sazonov received the news that Austro-Hungarian gunboats had bombarded Belgrade that morning. According to Szapary’s account the Russian foreign minister “was completely transformed… saying that he now saw Tsar Nicholas war right. ‘You just want to gain time by negotiations, yet you go ahead and bombard an unprotected city!... What good is it for us to talk, if you go on like that!’ he said.”

In a message to the Russian ambassador to London, Benckendorff, Sazonov emphasized that before any British-organized conference could begin, Austria-Hungary would have to halt military operations against Serbia to forestall Russian mobilization: “The action of the London Cabinet in favor of mediation and also to suspend Austrian military operations against Serbia seems to me altogether urgent. Without the suspension of military operations, mediation would only serve to drag matters on and would enable Austria meanwhile to crush Serbia.”

Chronicling America

The Lion Bares Its Claws

The messages to London sparked another round of frenetic activity by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, who finally abandoned his scrupulously neutral stance and began threatening Germany and Austria-Hungary with British intervention in the event of a European war. The threats prompted a last-minute attempt by Berlin to reverse course – but tragically it came too late.

On the morning of July 29, in a meeting with the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, Grey essentially gave Berlin a “blank check” to organize any kind of diplomatic solution it saw fit:

I urged that the German Government should suggest any method by which the influence of the four Powers could be used together to prevent war between Austria and Russia. France agreed, Italy agreed… In fact mediation was ready to come into operation by any method that Germany thought possible if only Germany would “press the button” in the interests of peace.

The sole condition, per the Russian demand, was that Austria-Hungary first halt military operations against Serbia, perhaps after occupying Belgrade (Grey’s version of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “halt in Belgrade” idea of July 28).

Grey also issued his first real warning that Britain would not stand aside from a European war in which Germany attacked France, adding, “if the issue did become such that we thought British interest required us to intervene, we must intervene at once, and the decision would have to be very rapid…” In the same vein the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Mensdorff, reported that “if French vital interests or the power position of France is at stake, no English Government will be in a position to hold England back from taking part on the side of France.”

With these warnings the British Foreign Secretary was already pushing the boundaries of his authority, as the Liberal Cabinet remained divided over the issue of intervention in a European war. But even vague threats were sufficient to cause panic in Berlin.

Germany Tries to Reverse Course

By the afternoon of July 29, Germany’s leaders were completely overwhelmed by the crisis they had helped create. First Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was alarmed by reports that France was undertaking some preliminary military measures, including ordering troops back from North Africa. Not long after the chancellor received a message from Ambassador Pourtalès in St. Petersburg, warning that Russia planned to order partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary beginning July 30. Finally, on the evening of July 29 he received the first message from Ambassador Lichnowsky in London hinting that Britain would not remain neutral if Germany attacked France.

Unsurprisingly, this cavalcade of bad news created an atmosphere of panic that was not conducive to rational decisions and proportional responses. Bethmann-Hollweg did his best to manage the simultaneous, interconnected chains of events now unfolding across Europe – but his efforts were too little, too late. 

Scurrying from one confrontation to another, the chancellor first sent a telegram to Paris urging the French to halt their military preparations, and warning that if they didn’t the German government would be compelled to declare an “imminent danger of war,” triggering pre-mobilization measures. Turning to Russia, Bethmann-Hollweg asked Kaiser Wilhelm II to send a conciliatory personal telegram to Tsar Nicholas II claiming, “I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you. I confidently hope that you will help me in my efforts to smooth over difficulties that may still arise.”

But in a particularly ham-handed move, at the same time Bethmann-Hollweg sent a separate telegram to Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov warning “that further progress of Russian mobilization measures would compel us to mobilize and that then European war would scarcely be… prevented.” This threatening telegram had the exact opposite effect from what was intended, convincing Sazonov that Germany had been plotting with Austria-Hungary all along, as he angrily told the German ambassador, Pourtalès: “Now I have no doubts as to the true cause of Austrian intransigence.”

Ironically, as the British and Russians finally deduced that Germany had never really been trying to rein in Austria-Hungary, the Germans—finally realizing that British intervention was a real possibility—began making their first serious efforts to persuade the Austrians to moderate their stance towards Serbia. Even more ironically, Bethmann-Hollweg now hurried to dust off the Kaiser’s non-starter idea of a “halt in Belgrade,” meaning an Austrian occupation limited to the Serbian capital, leaving the rest of Serbia untouched, as a compromise measure—the same idea that he had conveyed too late and told the Austrians to ignore on July 28. He now sent a message to Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold stating “we regard such compliance on the part of Serbia as suitable basis for negotiation on condition of an occupation of Serbian territory [Belgrade] as a guarantee.” However, as the events of July 30 would reveal, Berlin’s sudden attempt to reverse course came too late.

“Infamous Offer”

Bethmann-Hollweg, who apparently suffered some kind of nervous collapse during the course of the day, was juggling a number of potential scenarios. Overall he was trying to avert a European war by convincing Austria-Hungary to compromise—but if war happened, he was also trying to keep Britain out of war by any means possible.

This led to a strange last-minute offer, perhaps inspired by confused reports from the Kaiser’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, and close friend Albert Ballin, head of the Hamburg-America Line, that the British would be receptive to any deal that allowed them to remain neutral. On the evening of July 29 the German chancellor met with the British ambassador, Goschen, and told him, “We can assure the English Cabinet – on the assumption of its remaining neutral – that, even in the event of a victorious war, we aim at no territorial gains at the expense of France,” although the chancellor couldn’t rule out Germany taking French colonies.

This offer was essentially a bid to get Britain to sell out France, and unsurprisingly it was angrily rejected by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, who characterized it as “infamous,” the following day.

Russia’s Confused (General, Then Partial) Mobilization

As noted above, Bethmann-Hollweg’s threatening telegram to St. Petersburg, far from deterring the Russians, merely convinced Foreign Minister Sazonov that Russia now faced war with Germany as well as Austria-Hungary. Thus on the evening of July 29, having received no word of Austrian concessions, he recommended that Tsar Nicholas II issue the order for general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary, rather than partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary alone (which the generals reminded them was ill-advised, because it would make a general mobilization much harder to execute later).

Sazonov’s chief of staff, Baron Schilling, recorded the meeting where the momentous decision was made:

After examining the situation from all points, both the Ministers and the Chief of the General Staff decided that in view of the small probability of avoiding a war with Germany it was indispensable to prepare for it in every way in good time, and that therefore the risk could not be accepted of delaying a general mobilization later by effecting a partial mobilization now.

Around 8 pm the Tsar agreed to order general mobilization, and the war ministry’s telegraph office began drawing up the orders—but then the Tsar had a sudden change of heart, inspired by another personal telegram from the Kaiser, pointing to Austrian promises and imploring the Tsar not to set the machinery of war in motion:

Austria does not want to make any territorial conquests at the expense of Servia. I therefore suggest that it would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the austro-servian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed. I think a direct understanding between your Government and Vienna possible and desirable, and as I already telegraphed to you, my Government is continuing its exercises to promote it. Of course military measures on the part of Russia would be looked upon by Austria as a calamity we both wish to avoid and jeopardize my position as mediator which I readily accepted on your appeal to my friendship and my help.

Around 9:30 pm the Tsar decided to give Berlin one last chance and rescinded the order for general mobilization – but still ordered partial mobilization in order to keep the pressure on Austria-Hungary. When his ministers tried to persuade him that this was foolish, Nicholas replied angrily: “Everything possible must be done to save the peace. I will not become responsible for a monstrous slaughter.”

Unfortunately the order for partial mobilization was still sufficient to unleash chaos, and the events of the next 24 hours served to unravel the peace of Europe.

July 30: Into the Abyss

The fate of Europe now hinged on the attitude of Austria-Hungary: would Vienna halt military operations against Serbia and submit to a conference, as demanded by Russia, Britain, France and Italy – or would she continue with her plan to crush Serbia and end the threat of pan-Slav nationalism once and for all? The answer to this, in turn, depended on another question: would Austria-Hungary heed Germany’s last-minute advice to accept a compromise solution?

On the morning of Thursday, July 30, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold received Bethmann-Hollweg’s messages begging Vienna not to break off talks with St. Petersburg and consider a compromise solution along the lines of a “halt in Belgrade.” In fact what happened now was a classic example of the “tail wagging the dog”: Germany, having encouraged Austria-Hungary to take an aggressive course of action, suddenly found that her ally was determined to follow through, dragging Germany along behind.

In his slippery reply to Bethmann-Hollweg’s messages, Berchtold said he would empower the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to St. Petersburg, Szapáry, to “elucidate” the demands on Serbia, couching the message in terms which gave the impression he was ready to embark on sincere, substantive negotiations with the Russians. But Berchtold had no intention of really negotiating: indeed, he carefully avoided saying he would empower Szapáry to revise any of the conditions in the ultimatum to Belgrade.

Ironically, Berchtold may still have believed that Germany really wanted Austria-Hungary to proceed with their previously agreed plan, despite Germany’s apparent advice to the contrary; indeed, he told the chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, that Germany was only urging new talks with Russia “in order by our conciliatory behavior towards her to avoid the odium of starting a major war, leaving it in the event to Russia. This would, moreover, influence English public opinion in our favor.”

As proof of his real attitude, that same morning of Thursday, July 30, Berchtold decided to ask Emperor Franz Josef to decree general mobilization in response to the Russian partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary ordered the previous night. According to Conrad, Franz Josef was no more inclined to listen to the Germans’ belated advice to reverse course, as this would damage the empire’s prestige, noting, “it seemed at that moment as if Kaiser Wilhelm was meditating a retreat…”

Russia Orders General Mobilization

As Germany tried, and failed, to persuade Austria-Hungary to moderate her stance, over the course of July 30 the atmosphere in St. Petersburg was growing ever gloomier, as it became apparent that Austria-Hungary was intent on crushing Serbia, no matter the consequences. Even worse, the Russians were by now convinced that Germany was not really trying to persuade Austria-Hungary to accept a compromise (another tragic irony, as Germany was finally trying in earnest, after merely pretending before) and was also preparing for war.

A string of belligerent messages from Berlin didn’t help. On July 30 the Kaiser sent Tsar Nicholas II another telegram warning,

If, as it is now the case, according to the communication by you & your Government, Russia mobilises against Austria, my rôle as mediator you kindly intrusted me with, & which I accepted at you[r] express prayer, will be endangered if not ruined. The whole weight of the decision lies solely on you[r] shoulders now, who have to bear the responsibility for Peace or War.

After meeting with the other members of the Imperial Council, who were all in agreement, at 3 pm on July 30 Foreign Minister Sazonov met Tsar Nicholas II and asked him to order general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. According to Sazonov’s later account, Nicholas asked him, “You think it’s too late?”

I had to say I did… I told the Tsar in detail my conversation with the Minister of War and the Chief of the General Staff… This left no doubt whatever that… the position had changed so much for the worse that there was no more hope of preserving peace. All our conciliatory efforts… had been rejected… On the morning of July 30 he had received a telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm saying that if Russia continued to mobilize against Austria, the Kaiser would be unable to intercede, as the Tsar had asked him... I could see from his expression how wounded he was by its tone and content…

After an hour of discussion, the despondent monarch finally agreed to order general mobilization at 4 pm, with mobilization set to begin the next day, July 31; the order went out by telegram at 5 pm.                

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Austria-Hungary Orders General Mobilization

Meanwhile on the afternoon of July 30 Franz Josef, seeing that Russia was not halting its mobilization against Austria-Hungary, once again refused the British offer of a European conference, rejected Russia’s demands to halt military operations against Serbia, and ordered general mobilization, including Austro-Hungarian forces facing Russia, to begin the next day. Explaining these momentous decisions to Kaiser Wilhelm II on July 31, he stated:

Conscious of my heavy responsibility for the future of my Empire, I have ordered the mobilization of all my armed forces. The action of my army against Serbia now proceeding can suffer no interruption from the threatening and challenging attitude of Russia. A fresh rescue of Serbia by Russian intervention would entail the most serious consequences for my lands and I, therefore, cannot possibly permit such intervention. I am conscious of the import of my decisions and have taken them trusting in divine justice and with confidence that your armed forces will take their stand with my Empire…

In Berlin War Minister Falkenhayn and chief of the general staff Moltke persuaded Bethmann-Hollweg to declare an “imminent danger of war” the next day, and the chancellor warned the Prussian cabinet, “things are out of control and the stone has started to roll.”

Europe had crossed the Rubicon; the greatest war in history was about to begin.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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