Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but ther personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (Aufudy 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of brining Britain and the Empire with its immenense military and material resources into the War. After the War, the Allies demanded that Germany accept the guilt for launching the War. Some authors have laid the blame for the War largely on Germany. [Fischer] Other historians are more inclined to ascribe the blame to other countries as well seeing war in most instances as a reciprocal event. [Strachan]
The Balkan League’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War man a loss od most Ottomab territoy in the Balkans. The partition of this territory provoked an international crisis that threatened to touch off a general European war a yeat before it actually occured in 1914. After the major Serbian victory at Kumanovo (October 1912), the Serbbs seized control of terrirtiry that would have doubled the size of the kingdom. This included Albania, which would have given Serbi a primary gisl--a port sn access to the Adriatic Sea, especially the of Durazzo (Durrës). This was not what Austria wanted to see given Serbia's policies, especially pan-Slavic visions. Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Berchtold who was concerned about Serbian expansion its influemce on Austria-Hungary's increasinglhy restive Slavic population. Austrian-Hunagary was contending with the rusing nationalisdt sentiment in its multi-ethnic population. Count Berchtold promoted the idea of an independent Albania. This put Austria on the path of a major European crisis because of Serbis's reltionsdhip wihh Russia and support for Pan-Slavism which of course made sound familiar to anyone familar with the outbreak of World War I. The sitution becane more serious when Serb forces reached
the Adriatic Alessio (Lezhë), only 50 miles north of Durazzo (November 17). The Austrian mobilized army corps. The Austrians were trying to intimidate. The Tsar was inclined to order a Russuan mobilizarion. Ther Germbs sy=upported ustria and the French supported the Russions. The Tsar fir domestic reasins decioded to descalate and dis not order a movilization. France, Germany, and Britain helped arrange a diplomatic resolution -- the Conference of London (December 1912). The Austrians git what they wanted--stopping Serbia from m expanding to the sea. The problem is that it not resolve the basic tensions in the Balkansand led major actors to draw unfoiryunate conclusions. The Serbs felt tht theuir kegitiomate interests werev denied. Count Berchtold and other Austro-Hungarian officials conclded thay their ability ito intimidate was stronger than it actually was. Tsar Nicholas did not like backing down and decuided to be more asertive, especilly on Pan-Slav issues. The Germans and French denisrared their willingness to back allies.
Terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. War had been brewing in Europe for decades. Despite all the bickering over colonial possessions, it was the Balkans that would provide the spark for war. Terroism provided that spark in a chilling reminder to our modern age. The Balkans was particularly unsettled and wars occured there just before the outbreak of World War I. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbia developed as an independent state in the mid-19th century and an expanding Serbia came into conflict with an expanding Austro-Hungarian Empire. And beause large numbers of Serbs lived in Bosnia which the Austro-Hungarian annexed, the conflict between the two states intensified. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs, despite the fact tht Emperor Pranz Josef was not fond of him. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs--the Blank Check.
Austria-Hungary was shocked. Offiacials debated on how to respond. The constrait was Russian asurances to Serbia. Austrian officials hesitated to act because of Russian commitments to Serbia. The Austrians had no desire to launch a general European war which was reflected in their war planning, but they wanted to punish Serbia. Invading Serbia was one thing. War with Russia was something very different. The Austrian military party, headed by Count Berchtold, eventually convinced the government of the need for a punitive policy toward Serbia. Austria's principal ally was Germany. The two has formed the Dual Alliance.
It is at this point that the Kaiser lost control of the situatiomn, effectively control of his government. German Chbcellor Bethmann-Hollweg had rejected multiple pleas from Britain and Russia to urge Austria to compromise and moderate its response to the Arch-Duke's assasination. There was no demand from German elites and popular public opinion for war. Sudenly as war loomed, the Kasiser reversed course, and advided, even demanded, that Austria accept mediation. He warned that Britain would probably join Russia and France if war broke out. Kaiser Wilhelm appealed directly to Emperor Franz Joseph.
Austria assumed that the Germans would enter the War if the Russians declared war. The Austrians sought German reasurances. The German Government not only reafirmed therir alliance, but gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs (July 6). The Germans also assured Austria-Hungary of its support in case the Russians declared war. Essentially the Kaiser was writing the Austrians a blank check. Up until this point war could have been avoided. This was a critical decission by Germany, it was the principal decession that led to World War I. Austria-Hungary would not by itself dared to go to war against Russia. In addition, Russia had a treaty with France. Suddenly the Germans turned a regional crisis into a major European crisis involving France. This freed Austria's hand as officials did not believe that Russia would risk war with Germany. The Austrians with German backing decided to settle accounts permanently with Serbia in the Balkans. The Austrians delayed ammouncing their plans for 3 weeks, in part because a substantial portion of the Army as was traditional was on leave. Austrian soldiers were trafitionslly given permission to return home to help with the harvest. (After the War began, the lack of farm labor was to cause major food shortages in both Austria-Hungary and Germany.)
Austria rejected pleas from Russians and Britain for medition. A major concern was that if backed down, they would lose credibility, ffecting their status and prestige as a great power. The Austrians saw the Serbian Government as responsibe for the assasination, not without substbtial reason. The Austrians issued a long list of oneous demands. The Austrians demanded to be allowed to participate in the investigation and judicial process in Sebia. The Serbians were willing to accept the demands, except Austrian participation in an investigation. Serbian officials claimed that this violated their Constitution. Essentially,
it would have destroyed Serbia's sovereignty. There may have been room for compromise. Unfortunately, Austria with Herman backing was in no mood for compromise. And any Serbian response besides unconditional acceptance would mean war with Austria-Hungary.
Austria as a result, rejected the Serbian reply, which accept the Austrian demands except the involvement of Austro-Hungarian officials in an inquiry into the assassination. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov assured the Serbs of Russian backing. The Austrians assured of German support rejected the Serbian reply (July 26). Sir Edward Grey (later Lord Grey of Fallodon) attempted to mediate, suggesting a general European conference, but it proved to be too late.
The Austrians rejected British Foreign Secretary Lord Grey's attempt to mediate the dispute. Austria-Hungary severed diplomatic relations with Serbia and declared war (July 28). The austrians were determined to act decisively to end Serbian support for terrorism. They were willing to risk war with Russia because thet had Germans backing. This mean tht the situation wa no longer just a Balkan crisis--the Great Powers (Russia and Germany). Austria-Hungary was prepared to risk war because it had the guarantee of German support and the Serbs because of Russian support. Suddenly the Balkan Crisis threatened a possibke general European war. The next day, Austrian artillery began to shell Belgrade (July 29).
Much of the historical debate has focused on the heads od state and foreign ministers in assigning blame for the war. Annd hear there was plenty of blame to go around, especially but not exclusively for the Kaiser. It is not true, however, that the Kaiser was chomping at the bit for war. Particularly important here was Field Marshal and Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger). Some historians argue that the generals, especially the German generals had taken control of state policy.
One historian maintains that Moltle essenially 'superseded the Chancellor'. [Craig] The military 'overborne the civilian authorities and brought war on in theor own way.' Thus 'the great decision of 1914 was made by the soldiers.' [Craig, pp. 291-95 and 540.] Another historian describes the Chancellor essenbtialy 'surrendering' to Molkte and 'capitualting' to his 'will yo war'. He explains, "At the deisive moment the military took over the direction of affairs andimposed their law." [Albertini, Vol. 3.]
Unknown to both Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser, the German generals had on their own contacted the Austrian military. Threy demanded a rapid mobilization against Russia. German Chief of Staff Moltke sent an incenderary telegram to the Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad (July 30). In read in part, "Austria-Hungary must be preserved, mobilise at once against Russia. Germany will mobilise." Imperial officials in Vienna took this as an official German Government statement. The Austrians thus refused mediation. And proceeded to mobilise against Russia. [MacMillan, pp. 605–07.] And it would be Moltke who would tell the Kaiser that once activated, the Schliffen Plan could not be cancelled (August 2). We know of none of the other World War I militaries that played such a central and enthiusiastic part in launching the War. And then in continuing the War and for drawing America into the War. And for that matter initiating the November Criminal myth that the Germany Army had not lost the War, but stabbed in the back by Socialists and Jews. A lie that would enable them to escape responsibility for the disaster of the War. And would ultimately play a key role in the rise of the NAZIs. While much of yhe literature focuses on the German nmilitary. At least one historian writes anout the Russian generals as well. Charging that Russian Foreign Minister S.S. Sazonov lost control to the military. [Albertini, Vol. 2, p. 540.]
After Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia had to decide whether to honor its commitments to the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia ordered general mobilization (July 30). This meant Austria was mobilizing sgainst Russia. These mobilizations orders were critical. The great bulk of European armies were in the reserves, not the standing army. This no country could go to war without mobilizing its army. Mobilization orders were thus very significant--a virtual declaration of war. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once mobilized posed a formidable danger to Germany. The Germans believed that Russian mobilization was a serious threat and that it thus had to strike before the mobilization had been completed. Russia had a larger army than Germany, but Germany hadc a better equipped army and could mobilize faster. Thus to allow Russia time to mobilize, Germany would lose an important advatage because the Gemnan generals calculated that they could mobilize so much faster than the Russians. The Russian Government asssured the Germans that their mobilization was not preparation for war wih Gerrmany, but rather a reaction to the developments in the Balkans betweem Austria-Hungary abd Serbia. Here historians disagree about the aareness in St. Persburg of the German danger. Some historians maintain that the Russians mobilized, seeing mobilization as a way of preventiung a war. One historian writes that "Neither the czar nor Sazoniv believed that their actiins would lead to war." [Lebow, pp. 26 and 111.] Other historians maintian that the Russians knew very well what they were doing and the response that they would triger in Berlin. [Albertini, Vol. 2, pp. 565, 571-72.] A particularly important asssessment is Russin official who kept a diary. [Schilling, pp. 62-66.] Whatever the Russian intentions, the German assessment is crystal clear. The German generals saw this as absurd because Russia had issued a general mobilization. The German Government delivered an ultimatum to Russia, demanding that the Russians stop mobilisation within 12 hours (July 31).
Tsar Micholas and Kaiser Wilhelm had family connedctions and on sovoal terms. Over the years since they became the soverign rulers of their country, ghey exchnged some 75 telegrams (1894-1914). The letter and telegramns of special imprtnce occurred (July 29 - August 1). And were an effiort to prevent the disaster of war. Tragically, their family relationship could not stop the the fast developing tragedy.
When the German ultimatum to Russia expired, Germany issued its own mobilization order (August 1). The German Government sent sent another ultimatum to Russia which pointed out that since both Germany and Russia were in a state of military mobilization, an effective state of war existed between the two countries. The German anbassador in St. Pteresburg poresented this nessage to the Tsar, "The Imperial German Government have used every effort since the beginning of the crisis to bring about a peaceful settlement. In compliance with a wish expressed to him by His Majesty the Emperor of Russia, the German Emperor had undertaken, in concert with Great Britain, the part of mediator between the Cabinets of Vienna and St. Petersburg; but Russia, without waiting for any result, proceeded to a general mobilisation of her forces both on land and sea. In consequence of this threatening step, which was not justified by any military proceedings on the part of Germany, the German Empire was faced by a grave and imminent danger. If the German Government had failed to guard against this peril, they would have compromised the safety and the very existence of Germany. The German Government were, therefore, obliged to make representations to the Government of His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias and to insist upon a cessation of the aforesaid military acts. Russia having refused to comply with [not having considered it necessary to answer] this demand, and having shown by this refusal [this attitude] that her action was directed against Germany, I have the honour, on the instructions of my Government, to inform your Excellency as follows: His Majesty the Emperor, my august Sovereign, in the name of the German Empire, accepts the challenge, and considers himself at war with Russia."
Later that same day, France, an ally of Russia, declared a state of general mobilization. The German government justified military action because Russian plans for aggression was demonstrated by the Tsar's mobilization order. German mobilizing was only in response to Russian mpobilization. [Hamilton and Herwig, pp. 70-91.] France realized thzt its security would rise or fall with Russia and honored its treaty with the Russians. The French had learned as a resuklt of the Franco-Prissian War (1870-71) never to face the Germans alone. Again we can see how significant the mobilization orders were. Germany set the Schliffen Plan in motion. This was the German military plan first conceived in 1905 as to how fight a two front war. The German calculation was they had to deal with France first before the Russians could fully mobilize. The plan aimed at gaining a quick victory against the French so the German forces could be concentrated on the Eastern Front. The question in Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Paris becane wht would Britain do.
World and especially important British attention shifted west to neutral Luxembourg and Belgium (August 2). War in the the Balkans or the East was one thing. As Prime-Minister Chanmberlain would phrase it a generation later, 'a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing'. War in the Low Lands across the Channel was something very different. For centuries, English/British foreign policy had opposed powerful countries controlling the Low Lands. The neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium had been guaranted by the Great Powers, including Germany. The Germans began occupying tiny, neutral Luxembourg as a first step in the invasion of Belgium and northern France. This began in the evening (August 1) and was completed (August 2). This was the first step in executing the Schlieffen Plan, the planned attack on France through Belgium. The Germans delivered another ultimatum, this time to King Alberrt and neutral Belgium. Luxembourg had no way of resisting, possessing inly a police fiorce. Belgiam on the other hand had an army. It was a small azrmy, but an army never-the-less. The Germans did not take the Belgian or British army seriously. The Kaiser would call the British Army, a 'contemptible' little army. [Doyle] The German Goverrnmernt demanded free passage for their army across Belgium. The Schliffen Plam was well known. It was very clear that these moves were the preliminary steps in executing the innasion of France. The French frontier forts posed a serious obstacle to the Germany Army. Attacking through Belgium was a way of avoiding those formidable obstacles. Here speed was all important. The Germans realized that with their strong army, but vulnerable economy, their best chance od winniubg any war was at the onset. The fastest route to Paris was through Belgium. The Belgians rejected the German demands outright. King Albert famously replied, "Belgium is a country, not a road." Kaiser Wilhelm II at this stage had second thoughts. He discussed canceling the invasion of Belgium with German Chief of General Staff Moltke. The Kaiser not only had family ties to the Tsar, but also to the British royal family. Moltke who was was completely absorbed with the complicated operation of executing the Schlieffen Plan could hardly believe his ears. He told the Kaiser essentially that the Schlieffen Plan had been set in motion and could not now be stopped, in part because it would cause chaos in the rail schedule.
France was tied by treaty obligation to Russia. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could fully mobilize and the French launched an offensive. Respomding to the French mobilization, Germany declared war on France (August 3). The Germans had already set the Schlieffen Plan in motion. Tthe first wave of German troops were already assembling on the frontier of neutral Belgium, which as plammed in the Schlieffen Plan would be invaded by German armies on their way to Paris.
This was the German military plan first conceived in 1905 as to how fight a two front war. The German calculation was they had to deal with France first before the Russians could fully mobilize. French officials fevorously turned to the British. The Brutisdh Government was not, however, at this stage was nit prepred to go to war to defend France. Belgium was another matter. British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey, went before Parliament and convinced a divided British Government to honor its treaty obligations to Belgium if Germany as announced invaded Belgium. Grey hoped that this would disude the Germany. Here the Germans were thinking short term. The knew that Brutain had a very small amny. They believed that with their powerful army theu could win a short decisive victory. And that the threat of a British naval blockade would hve no real impact. The Germans would make asimolar assessment abiut American in 1917.
As Europe was hurdling toward war, the question became Britain. Taking on Russia and France wa quite an undertaking even for the powerful German Army, but adding the British Empire was an entirely different matter. It mean that the Germans would be going to war against a much more powerful eneny coalition with far greater resources than Germany even with Austria-Hungary added. Britain has developed closed relations with France, but had no treaty relations required it to come to France's defense. And Britain had until this point had more conflict with Russia which was threatening India than wirh Germany. This is where Belgium which wanted nothing more than to remain neutral comes into the picture. Britain did have treaty relations with Belgium, guaranteeing its neutrality. The Schlieffen Plan was no secret. It was the German war plan and had been the basis for German strategic thinking for three decades. Now that German had declared war on France, Kaiser Wilhelm now o decide wether to activate the Sclieffen Plan, knowing that it would likely mean war with Britain as well as France and Russia. Actually it was never a real possibility that they would not activate the Schliffen Plan. The German generals pushed for the Schlieffen Plan which was already in motion, troops and supplies moving toward the Belgian border and Luxenbourg seized. The next day German troops entered Belgium (August 4). Belgian neutrality had been guaranted by the great powers (Britain, France, and Prussia) in the 19th century. German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in a speech to the Reichstag admitted that the invasion of Luxemburg and Belgium violated of international law, but insisted that Germany was "in a state of necessity, and necessity knows no law." The sinister sound of this statement resonated to us today knowing what we do about World War II, but the Deputies did not have our advantage of hindsight. The independence of the Low Lands, however, had been a cornerstone of British foreign policy for centuries. The Schlieffen Plan, however, did not expect such stiff resistance from the Belgians or such rapid British intervention. Even worse for the Germans, the rapid advance of the Russian forces mn that the Germans had divert forces east.
It was not a forgone conclusion that the British would join France in a war with Germany. They had not joined France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870). In fact the British were concerned that the French were trying to draw them in a war against Germany. The French on the eve of war went to St. Petersburg to encourage Tsarist officials. The British War Cabinent decided against war if the Germans invaded France. The British were committed to a defnsive alliance, but the French were taking a beligerant approach. In the end the Germans were determined to activate the Schlifen Plan which projected a massive invasion through Belgium to avoid French defeneses. The Germans were sure that this wouls gain them a rapid victory before the British could make a meaningful contribution. The British attitude toward Germany in 1914 was very different than it had been in 1870. Kaiser Wilhem II had managed because of his belicose statemenbs and decision to build a highseas fleet had steadily eroded the German image in British public opinion. The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. The German Schlieffen Plan called for attacking France before Russia could fully mobilize. The German Army on August 2 marched into Luxembourg, and soon crossed into neutral Belgium (August 4). The German invasion of Belgium was an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. The invasion of neutral Belgium outraged the British public. Britain not only had a special relationship with Belgium since the 1830s, but had actual treaty obligation to insure Belgian neutrality that were negotiated when Belgium was created. King Leopold I had been largely responsible for bringing Albert and Vicoria together and was a family confident. For Britain the violation of Belgian neutality was the causus bellum for the declaration of war. [Gilbert] Britain may well of joined France had Germany not attacked throygh Belgium, but it was the invasion of Belgium that caused the British declaration of war. The British Government voted for war after receiving an "unsatisfactory reply" to British ultimatum that Belgian neutrality had to be kept neutral (August 4). Britain declared war on behalf of the whole British Empire including the Dominions. They were at war automatically when Britain went to war. The Dominions were to play an important role in the War. Australia, Canada, and India played a substantial military role. The resources of the Dominions also supported the Allied war effort. German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg told British British ambassador Sir Edward Goschen who had made a last minute effort to prevent war that he was astonished that the British would go to war over the 1839 treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium, referring to the treaty dismissively as a 'scrap of paper', a statement that when made public further outraged public opinion, not only in Britain, but the the United States as well. The Government ordered The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) immediately dispatched to France, following plans aprepared before the War with the French High Command. It was at first a small force, but it was a professional force and helped slow the German advance through Belgium and prevented them drom seizing key Channel ports. Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allies.
Other countries entered the War in the weeks after the fighting broke out. Montenegro and Japan joined the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, and Belgium). The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). The war had within days become the most widespead conflict since the Napoleonic Wars.
The German gamble to win the War by a quick strike through Belgium before Britain could effectively intervene proved to be a dreadful mistake. A key goal of Bismarck's policies was to keep Russia and France separated. Kaisee Wilhelm dimissed Bismarck and ignored this key principle. Even so, Germany with its powerful army would have been able to prevail over the French and Germams. And France alone would have been unable to blockade Germany. Adding Britain to the calculation was a dreadful strategic miscalculation. The Kaiser was to make a second disastrous gamble in 1917, renewing unrestricted sunmarine warfare, believing they could win the War before America could train and transport an army to France.
After the War, the Allies demanded that Germany accept the guilt for launching the War. Some authors have laid the blame for the War largely on Germany. [Fischer] Other historians are more inclined to ascribe the blame to other countries as well seeing war in most instances as a reciprocal event. [Strachan]
Albertini, Luigi. The Origins of the War of 1914 3 vols. Isabella M. Massey. trans. and ed. (London: Pxford Univerity Press, 1952-57).
Craig, Gordon. The Politics of the Prussian Army (New York: Oxford Univerdity Press, 1964).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The contemptible little army," Daily Chronicle (October 10, 1914).
Gilbert, Martin. World War I.
Hamilton. Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Decisions for War, 1914–1917 (2004).
Lebow, Richard Ned. Nuclear Crisis Management: A Dangerous Illusion (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1987).
MacMillan, Margaret. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013).
Schilling, Baron M.F. How the War Began in 1914: The Diary if the Russian Foreign Office (London: Allen and Unwin, 1925).
Strachan, Hew. The First World Wa (Viking, 2004), 354p. Strachan offers an excellent brief review of some of the lesser known campigns. This volume is a condensed version of a three volume work he is preparing.
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