37 Days & The July Crisis
In the 37 days following the Austrian Archduke’s assassination leading up to the beginning of the war saw Europe’s statesmen: ambassadors, ministers, foreign secretaries and chancellors communicate, cajole, manoeuvre and threaten one another. So much so that in the last week of July and first week of August 1914, war was almost averted a handful of times. Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, succinctly summed up the July Crisis in his speech to the House of Commons on August 3rd, 1914. When he said: “events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved.”
The political meanderings began on the 6th of July, when Germany offered Austria a ‘blank cheque’ of support for any punitive action Austria sought to take against Serbia. The German Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg messaged that Germany would “faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.” Arguably it was Berlin that held the reins of the situation. When the Kaiser & Bethmann-Hollweg pause to reconsider their political manoeuvring of Austria the head of the German army Von Moltke took it upon himself to send a telegram to Austria on 26th July, calling on them to hurry their decision to declare war on Serbia. In late July, French President Raymond Poincaré made a well timed visit to Russia, meeting with Tsar Nicholas (see image #4). Both men sought to reassure themselves of the others support.
By mid July ultimatums were flying across Europe, Austria-Hungary’s 10-point ultimatum to Serbia was constructed as to be unacceptable, as was Germany’s to Belgium. Britain’s later ultimatum to Germany on the 4th August, proved to be the last straw for a British government who had been torn and unable to agree upon intervention in what was fast becoming a large-scale European conflict.
As Austria manouvered slowly toward war the Tsar and Kaiser continued their back and forth across the telegraph lines. Both men sought assurances from the other that they would not mobilise. When Austria-Hungary finally mobilised against Serbia on the 23rd July, Russia began to mobilise in response. However, when the Kaiser sent a message assuring that Austria’s aims were limited the Tsar consulted with his staff about halting the mobilisation only to be told that it could not be stopped (see image #3). With Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia on the 28th July, a chain of reactions perpetuated by Europe’s intricate alliance system rapidly escalated and enlarged the conflict. In response to Austrian aggression Serbia’s ally Russia mobilised threatening to intervene, seizing their opportunity Germany declared war on Russia on the 1st August.
The alliance systems within Europe saw two main blocks form the Central Powers, a predominantly defensive pact including: Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy and the Entente Powers including France, Russia and Great Britain (see map below). The relationships between the Entente Powers was less set in stone with Britain and France having supposedly unwritten understandings that Britain would support France if invaded. As it happened in August 1914, Italy decided to remain neutral and Britain with the invasion of Belgium had a suitable reason to enter the war with its Entente partners.
The side effect of the alliance system meant that when Germany declared war on Russia it was already mobilising to attack her ally France - in Germany’s grand strategy, the Schlieffen Plan, it was to take six weeks to defeat France before turning their attention east to Russia. As a result war was assured between the great powers the moment Germany declared war on Russia.
Europe in August 1914 (source)
The last days of political wrangling and first days of war brought some almost comic ironies. For instance when Germany declared war on Russia, Austro-Hungary had not yet severed diplomatic ties nor declared war on Russia.
The first week of August saw the situation deteriorate rapidly, the 1st saw German units scout into Luxembourg and with general mobilisation gaining pace. The British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made a finalattempt to avoid all out war by sending the German ambassador a promise of Britain and France remaining neutral if any conflict was limited to eastern Europe. This message came just minutes after the Kaiser had mobilised his troops and less than an hour later the first troops entered Luxembourg before being hastily withdrawn when the message was received. When this reassurance of neutrality was subsequently denied as a miscommunication, as the offer had probably been made without consulting the French, it would have effectively left France’s ally isolated facing the entire German army alone.
The Kaiser’s opinion of the British Foreign Secretary was at its lowest point noting in the margin of a diplomatic dispatch that “the rubbish talked by this man Grey shows that he has absolutely no idea what he ought to do.” The Kaiser again ordered his troops into Luxembourg. This invasion caused a similar chain reaction in the west to the one seen earlier in the east. In response to Germany’s aggression both Belgium and France began to mobilise. Late on the 3rd August, Germany began her invasion of Belgium leading Britain to issue a last desperate ultimatum demanding Germany respect Belgian neutrality.
The motivations of the great nations of Europe are complex and varied, with roots stretching back decades. For Germany it was an opportune chance to assert martial dominance over Europe, for France it was a defensive necessity but also an opportunity to take revenge for the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. Russia had been cajoled into war by her fear of losing face and the pressure of eastern Europe’s slavic peoples to whom the Tsar saw himself as the protector. Austria-Hungary’s motivation was not Archduke Franz-Ferdinand’s assassination but rather to halt the expansion of ‘pan-slavism’ and a determination to expand and ensure their influence across the Serbia and the Balkans.
For Britain it was the invasion of neutral Belgium that galvanized support for intervention in the unfolding European war. While there are a dozen contributing factor including tacit support of France, the wish to maintain a European landscape not dominated by any one power and a wish to maintain respect for international law with arcuate maintained Britain’s place as a dominant trade power and also perhaps a latent desire to assert Britain’s own power over its main rival Germany, who if victorious in the absence of British support would have resulted in a Europe dominated by a German superpower.
Regardless of the reasoning, until the first week in August Britain had been divided on war. The cabinet and the people themselves were fractious in their support for British involvement in a ‘European war’. It was Britain’s guarantee of Belgian neutrality which brought Britain into the unfolding conflict. The blatant defiling of international law could not be allowed to occur. The struggle of ‘brave little Belgium’ facing brutal atrocities captured the imaginations of the public catalysing widespread support for a military intervention to protect Belgian independence. The ‘Rape of Belgium' proved to be a crucial tipping point.
On the 3rd August, Germany declared war on France and on the 4th following Germany’s failure to respond to the British ultimatum declared war on Germany. It was not until 6th August, that Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and France. In a further development Italy, Germany & Austria’s ally declared itself neutral when Austria-Hungary refused to grant Italy territories in exchange for their support, This left Austria and Germany isolated. By the 5th August almost all of mainland Europe had been dragged into war. However, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the United States had remained neutral with many of them watching from the sidelines for entirety of the war.
As August wore on and the opening engagements of the war on the Western Front were fought the political loose ends were tied up with allies on both sides declaring war on their allies enemies. On August 11th,France declared war on Austria-Hungary, followed by Britain the next day. On the 22nd August Austria-Hungary declared war on Belgium and on the 23rd Japan, Britain’s ally, declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on the 25th.
Image One Source - Kaiser Wilhelm II and his General Staff
Image Two Source - Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his Foreign Minister Agenor Maria Goluchowski, by Karl Peyfuss
Image Three Source - Tsar Nicholas II greeting his officers c.1914
Image Four Source - French President Raymond Poincaré visiting with Tsar Nicholas in late July 1914
Image Five Source - Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey making his speech for war to the House of Commons, August 3rd, 1914
Sir Edward Grey’s speech on the eve of war: 3 August 1914 (source)
Primary Source Documents (source)
1914: Fight the Good Fight, A. Mallinson, (2013)
The First World War: A Miscellany, N. Ferguson (2014)
The Guns of August, B. W. Tuchman, (1962)
The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, M. MacMillan (2013)