WORLD WAR ONE     home | history

Into War Leaping, to August 3, 1914

On July 23, while the German Kaiser was on vacation sailing off the coast of Norway, Austria-Hungary sent its ultimatum to Serbia — its way of declaring war. War had already been decided upon, the ultimatum suggesting that if Serbia did not surrender its sovereignty Austria-Hungary would take it by force.

The German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was for Germany's ally, Austria taking advantage of the assassination by decidedly crushing Serbia and moving before Russia and France had time to consider whether to go to war. Chief of the German General Staff, von Moltke, agreed with the chancellor, and Moltke called on Austria to take military action quickly before diplomatic pressure could be mustered to oppose it. Bethmann-Hollweg and von Moltke appear to have been in a hurry also from fear of an effort at peace that Kaiser Wilhelm might make when arriving from his vacation.

On July 27, France ordered a standby for mobilizing its military. The French premier, Viviani, was shaken by the coming of war. And Poincaré — stronger than Viviani in foreign affairs — was to claim that he also did not want war. But there was the belief in France that if their nation refused to back Russia, their alliance with Russia would amount to nothing, making France vulnerable to the power of Germany. And there was fear that within a few years Britain might abandon its military alliance with France.

Kaiser Wilhelm was back in Germany on the 27th, and he asked the chancellor what had gone wrong his absence. Bethmann-Hollweg responded by announcing that if he could he would prevent war. But it was too late. At 11 in the morning on the 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On the 29th, Austrian troops began shelling Belgrade, just across the river Danube from Hungary. That same day, Russia began a partial mobilization of its armies, and Germany and Britain began taking military precautions: Germany began to mobilize its navy, and Britain's navy in the North Sea went to its battle stations.

War brought joy to great numbers of people in Vienna and in Hungary's capital, Budapest. For days people in Vienna paraded, carrying flags and portraits of Franz Joseph, and they sang patriotic songs. People chanted "God protect our king, our land!" People chanted "death to Serbs" and "Serb dogs must die!" The archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Piffl, gave voice to what many saw as a holy crusade. He proclaimed that it was the voice of God that spoke through the roar of Austria-Hungary's guns. He called on his flock to go forward in happiness and in confidence to attack the enemies of God. It was different however with Pope Pius X. He was disheartened by events. When asked to bless the Habsburg armies he refused and said he blessed peace.

Crucial opinions were at play around Russia's tsar. The tsar favored mobilizing his armies against Austria-Hungary only. His war ministers wanted full mobilization, pointing out that partial mobilization would tie up train schedules making full mobilization impossible should Germany choose to go to war in support of Austria. In the afternoon on the 30th the indecisive tsar was pushed into choosing full mobilization – directed against Germany as well as Austria-Hungary. His ability to make a decision had been questioned and he had responded with a show of decisiveness.

In Russia, Orthodox priests saw it as their duty to tell peasants of the coming war and to give them guidance, and they told the people that, as in the time of Napoleon, Russia had to fight to preserve its national life and its religion, that Russia would emerge as a greater, as the true mother of the Slav races and that their Eastern Orthodox Church would remain unshaken. Priests shouted "God be with us! Victory will be ours!" In days ahead, priests held a cross in their hand in front of peasant soldiers going off to war who fell to their knees, kissed the cross and received the priests' blessings.

News of Russia's mobilization reached Germany on the morning of the 31st. Bethmann-Hollweg was now ashen with fear of a European-wide war that he had not expected. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, he wired Austria's foreign minister urging the Austrians to refrain from mobilizing against the Russians. Germany's military command in the person of von Moltke was giving priority to measures of national defense, and he wired a message to Austria insisting that Austria do its part by countering Russia. Austria's foreign minister followed the wishes of von Moltke and ignored Bethmann-Hollweg.

With Russian troops mobilizing and on their way to war, in Germany diplomacy was replaced by Kaiser Wilhelm giving to his military its role in defending his realm. Speed was now important, and at 1 PM on the 31st Germany began mobilizing. Germany sent Russia an ultimatum that it cease every war measure against Germany within twelve hours, and it sent a query to France asking whether it intended to stay neutral.

By August 1 the French were also mobilizing. And with Germany's ultimatum to Russia having passed its deadline, Germany declared war on Russia, a declaration signed by a distraught Wilhelm. News reached the Kaiser that caused him to believe that France would stay neutral. He ordered a halt to the mobilization against France, which distressed his military high command and almost caused von Moltke to have a nervous breakdown. But soon Wilhelm learned that the news was false, and the mobilization against France continued.

The German people believed that Russian armies were invading, and they believed that the French were starting a war against Germany because of jealousy and for revenge. On August 2, while France was organizing the offensive that it had planned against Germany, German military patrols crossed the French frontier, and skirmishes occurred. The British government was concerned about living up to its commitments to France, and with its navy fully mobilized it secretly reassured France that it would protect French shipping along the channel coast.

Germany's plan for war against France was to avoid the heavy fortifications that the French had built between their two countries and to march through Belgium — low land and the shortest route to Paris. On the evening of the 2nd, Germany sent Belgium a message which spoke of the friendly relations between the two nations, and in polite language the note demanded that Belgium allow Germany's armies peaceful passage. The note promised that if Belgium allowed this and remained neutral that Germany would compensate Belgium for any damages that Germany may inadvertently cause in Belgium. The politeness ended at the note's closing, which warned that if Belgium chose to resist movement of Germany's troops across its territory, Germany would consider Belgium an enemy.

Belgium refused the German demand. On the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and began to force its way through Belgium. French military planners in 1912 had considered attacking Germany through Belgium, but the British had talked them out of it. Now Germany was claiming that marching through Belgium was justified on the grounds that it was a military necessity and that "necessity knew no law."


In Britain, the German invasion of Belgium swung numerous members of the Labour Party and much of the nation in favor of war. In London, crowds sang "God Save the King," and "Rule Britannia." They cheered the sight of any man in military uniform. Soon one of Britain's young poets, Rupert Brooke, would capture some of the feeling common in Britain at the start of the war. He thanked God for "matching us with His hour," and he described going to war "as swimmers into cleanness leaping."

CONTINUE READING: Mindsets against Negotiation

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