In the 37 days that followed the assassination in Sarajevo, all five great powers declared war. This is my brief summary of those days.
5th July An Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was approved by Kaiser Wilhelm, after he had been visited by Szogeny, the Austrian Ambassador. The Kaiser undertook to support Austria if Russia backed Serbia in their response, essentially giving Austria carte blanche to do as they wished with Serbia.
6th July The Kaiser summoned Falkenhayn, Bethmann-Hollweg, Zenker and Krupp and told them to prepare for war; though at this point he still thought it was unlikely.
7th July Austrian cabinet met to confirm action against Serbia. 7 out of 8 approved action. Only Tisza, the Hungarian Minister President, warned against. Tisza produced reasoned arguments against war, especially the potential impact on Rumania. Ironically he was murdered in 1918, as one the architects of the war, as the Austro Hungarian empire fell apart.
8th July The decision was taken to send an ‘impossible’ ultimatum to Serbia on 23/7.
23rd July Ultimatum sent to Serbia, but not copied to the great powers until Berchtold was sure the French President Poincare had left St. Petersburg, after his state visit there late on 23rd.
24th July British parliament was preoccupied with Ireland and a long tedious debate about Fermanagh and Tyron, and their borders. No thought of Europe, then Edward Grey, Foreign Minister received a copy of the Austrian ultimatum - a fatal moment. Churchill returned to the Admiralty to begin Fleet mobilization.
26th July Serbia accepted the ultimatum. Even then people thought it might blow over.
27th July British cabinet crisis meeting, amidst rumours that Austria was not satisfied by Serbian acceptance. Cabinet was 75% pacific. Cabinet met every day that week to discuss. Churchill was consistent on two points throughout:
- Fleet must be prepared and ready for action, whatever the outcome;
- If France was attacked by Germany, it would through neutral Belgium.
Churchill did not expect Belgium to resist, and neither did Kitchener, but they knew France must be supported. At this point, no plea for support or guarantee had come from Belgium - that came on 3rd August. However, Grey was also consistent on two points throughout the debates:
- Prevent war by all means
- Not to desert France
It became increasingly difficult to achieve both of those. His strategy was to convene a Great Powers conference in any acceptable European capital, which would be brokered by Great Britain, but both Austria and Germany stalled and would not agree.
A Treaty of 1831, reconfirmed in 1839 by all the great powers including Prussia, guaranteed the neutrality and sovereignty of Belgium. This was to be violated by Germany within days.
28th July Churchill telegraphed First Sea Lord re detailed positioning of the Fleet in Europe and Asia. This included impounding two Dreadnought Battleships, commissioned by Turkey, and ready to leave Newcastle. this caused uproar in Turkey, and there were later consequences of this action.
29-30th July 1st Fleet left Portland Harbour in the dark, passed through Straits of Dover up North Sea to Scapa Flow, ready for war.
Declarations of War.
The sequence was:
1 Berchtold sent Austrian ultimatum to Serbia at 6pm on 23rd July (having waited 1 hour to be sure Pres. Poincare had left his state visit to Russia, and would be uncontactable).
2 Serbia submitted to the ultimatum at 6pm on 25th July. This was not telegraphed by Austria, but the text reached London, Paris and Berlin by morning of 27th July.
3 Kaiser Wilhelm returned to Berlin on the evening of 26th July from Fleet exercises off Norway.
4 Not until late morning on 28th July did the Kaiser receive a translation of the Serbian acceptance (withheld by his senior staff). When he read it he said “every reason for war has been removed”, but it was too late.
5 Before hearing from the Kaiser, Berchtold had telegraphed Serbia to say their response was unsatisfactory, and they were ‘at war’.
The Austria Serbia declaration completed the first phase, and triggered the second – the dispute between Russian and Germany about mobilization. Once Austria Serbia had started, then the opinions of Moltke and Falkenhayn counted for more than Jagow and Bethmann-Hollweg in Germany; and generals in St. Petersburg outvoted the Czar. The second phase lasted 4 days, and ended when Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August 1914
Grey, the Kaiser, the Czar, all the Great Powers had tried to stop the war, but the chain of events had gone too far:
1. Austria v Serbia over a murder
2. Germany v Russia over precautions, therefore mobilization
3. Germany v France followed inevitably, at 6.45pm on 3rd August.
4. No 3 required violation of Belgium, therefore entry of Britain into war on 4th August