Who started WW One?

What Went Wrong

On Sunday morning, the 28 June 1914, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bosnian Serbs assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Empire, and his wife.

(1) Serbian military officers and government officials approved and took part in the assassination plot.

The assassins believed the death of such a high personage as the Archduke would hasten the breakup of the Empire and free Bosnia from Austro-Hungarian rule.

Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia, a part of the declining Ottoman Empire, in 1908. This frustrated the ambitions of both those Serbs who wanted the unification of all southern Slavs in their own new country, Yugoslavia, and those who wanted to create a Greater Serbia by the unification of Bosnia with Serbia.

Two of the assassins, 19 year old Bosnian Serb youths, on reading newspaper reports of the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo and deciding to assassinate him approached a contact in Belgrade for weapons. He was a member of the Black Hand, a secret society, including many Serbian officers and officials, dedicated to the creation of a Greater Serbia. On his own initiative Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, the leader of the Black Hand, and Head of Serbian Military Intelligence, approved the plot to assassinate the Archduke.

A Black Hand member who was also a Serbian military officer arranged for the assassins to be given guns, bombs, training, and credentials that would get them past Serbian border guards into Bosnia.

The Serbian government knew there was a plot of some kind and that weapons were being smuggled across the border into Bosnia but did not have the political power to investigate it properly and stop it. They warned the Austro-Hungarian authorities but in such a vague way no action was taken.

Questions: What was the role of the Black Hand? Did it play a part in the instigation of the plot to assassinate the Archduke? Could the Serbian government have done more to prevent the assassination of the Archduke? [More]

(2) Austria-Hungary decided to put an end to Serb agitation against the Empire as well as punish those responsible for the crime in Sarajevo.

Austria-Hungary decided to put a permanent stop to Serb agitation for a Greater Serbia by invading the country and giving parts of its territory to its neighbours, Albania and Bulgaria, and turning what was left into a vassal state of the Empire.

There had been bad relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia since 1903 when Serbian officers in a military coup murdered the Serb royal family which had been friendly to Austria-Hungary and replaced it with one friendly to Russia.

Question: Was Austria-Hungary right to pursue such an extreme solution to Serb ambitions that threatened the Empire? [More]

(3) Germany gave unqualified support to Austria-Hungary, the so-called “blank cheque”, in full knowledge of what the Austro-Hungarians intended to do.

Serbia was of great interest to Russia. Both countries were composed mainly of ethnic Slavs and Orthodox Christians, and Russia had economic interests in the Balkan region especially regarding the Turkish Straits. Russia was likely to come to the aid of Serbia if Serbia was invaded and the only way that Austria-Hungary might deter Russia from such action was if it had the military backing of its ally in the Dual Alliance, Germany.

Within days of the assassination Austria-Hungary sent an envoy to Germany with a message for the Kaiser from Franz Joseph, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, saying Serbia had to be “eliminated as a political power factor in the Balkans”. While discussing this message at a meeting in Potsdam with the Austro-Hungarian ambassador the Kaiser gave Germany’s unqualified support to whatever the Austro-Hungarians decided to do which included military action.

This policy was immediately rubber-stamped by Bethmann-Hollweg, the German chancellor and the German military leaders in Potsdam at that time. The Kaiser believed Russia would not intervene. The German leaders also advised Austria-Hungary to move against Serbia quickly and present Europe with a fait accompli.

Questions: Was Germany right to give unqualified support to Austria-Hungary? What did Germany hope to achieve; to maintain its only powerful ally, or break up the Entente between Russia, France and Britain, or to bring about a “preventive” war defeating Russia before it became too powerful, and thus make Germany the dominant power over all Europe? [More]

(4) Austria-Hungary moved slowly and issued an ultimatum to Serbia.

Initial opposition of the Hungarian prime minister and military unpreparedness, many regular troops were on harvest leave, meant several weeks went by before Austria-Hungary could take action and when they did it looked like a calculated power play rather than a reaction to the crime in Sarajevo.

Austria-Hungary decided first to issue an ultimatum to Serbia with a 48-hour time limit making demands to be met in full which they believed the Serbs would reject, thus giving Austria-Hungary an excuse to invade. It made 10 demands two of which infringed Serbian sovereignty by demanding Austro-Hungarian officials operate and carry out investigations in Serbia.

The ultimatum was delivered to Serbia at 6 P.M. on Thursday, the 23 July.

Question: There might have been a different outcome to the crisis if Austria-Hungary had moved quickly and presented Europe with a fait accompli as Germany wished. Seizing some Serbian territory would have been possible especially as most of the Serbian army was in the south of the country. It could then have been used as a bargaining counter to ensure Serb good behaviour in the future. [More]

(5) France supported Russia.

Diplomatic leaks and code breaking of diplomatic messages gave the Russians and French advance notice that Austria-Hungary was going to make extreme demands on Serbia.

By coincidence Poincaré, the French president, the prime minister, and head of the French foreign office were on a state visit to St Petersburg from the 20-23 July. During the visit both governments affirmed the importance of their alliance. During a diplomatic reception the French president warned the Austro-Hungarian ambassador that Serbia had a friend in Russia and Russia had an ally, France.

Question: Was France right to support Russia? [More]

(6) Russia resolved to defend Serbia. Immediately after the delivery of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, on the following day, Russia started military preparations as well as diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis.

Russia initiated its “Period Preparatory to War” and decided it would order partial mobilisation if Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. This was mobilisation of the Russian forces facing only Austria-Hungary and thus not a direct threat to Germany.

Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, recognised that Serbia had a case to answer and proposed direct talks between Russia and Austria-Hungary to discuss how the demands on Serbia could be restated without infringing Serbia’s sovereignty.

The Austro-Hungarians took several days to reply and eventually, after their declaration of war on Serbia, agreed to talk but only about general relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia itself.

Questions: Was Russia justified in giving its support to Serbia? Was it wrong to decide immediately to take military precautions? Was Russia’s proposal for talks genuine? [More]

(7) Austria-Hungary declared Serbia’s reply to the ultimatum unsatisfactory and broke off diplomatic relations and began to mobilise against Serbia.

Though the Austro-Hungarians designed the ultimatum expecting it to be rejected, it couldn’t be blatantly unacceptable and the Serbs might have accepted it.

The Serbs considered this because the country was very weak after the Balkan wars but they believed they would get Russian support, and composed a clever reply accepting most of the Austro-Hungarian demands with qualifications, in effect, not accepting them, but giving the impression they were being contrite and reasonable.

Questions: Did the Russians have an undue influence over the Serbian reply? Could the Serbian reply have been used as the basis of a solution? The Kaiser thought so. See (9) [More]

(8) Britain initially tried to play a neutral role.

Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, put forward the idea of the great powers least involved in the crisis holding an ambassadors’ conference in London to mediate between Russia and Austria-Hungary. The four countries were France, Britain, Italy and Germany. The idea of a conference was accepted by Russia but turned down by Germany because it was too much like bringing Austria-Hungary in front of a tribunal.

Grey was stuck between supporting Russia and France and thus possibly encouraging them to be too bold, or advising them not to take any risks.

Warning Russia when Russia considered its interests were threatened would have upset the delicate relationship between Britain and Russia concerning their imperial arrangements in Persia and southern Asia. The Russian foreign minister made clear that Britain’s behaviour in the crisis would affect this relationship.

(9) Germany played a double game pretending to support mediation to solve the crisis but all the time encouraging Austria-Hungary to act quickly against Serbia.

On the 27 July in response to a British request Germany forwarded another British mediation proposal to Vienna after Jagow, the German foreign minister, told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador that any proposal from Britain that Berlin might forward to Vienna could be ignored and was being forwarded only to please the British in the hope they would stay neutral. Germany kept pressing Austria-Hungary to act quickly.

On the following day the Kaiser himself, having only just seen the Serbian reply, two and a half days after it was made, thought it was more than one could have expected, it was a great moral victory for Vienna, and every reason for war dropped away. This was a remarkable compliment to the skill of the Serbs in crafting their reply to the ultimatum, to say the least. He proposed Austria-Hungary should accept the reply but occupy Belgrade (the “halt in Belgrade” proposal) until its demands were met, any remaining differences being settled by negotiation.

Bethmann-Hollweg, the German chancellor forwarded his version of this proposal to Vienna which gave the Austro-Hungarians the impression that if they rejected it they would still have full German support. It also arrived in Vienna after Austria-Hungary had already declared war on Serbia. That the Austro-Hungarians were about to declare war was known to the chancellor but not to the Kaiser.

Questions: Were the Kaiser and chancellor pulling in different directions? Was the Kaiser’s proposal a way out of the crisis allowing negotiation and meeting the needs of both Austria-Hungary and Russia? [More]

(10) Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on the 28 July, two weeks before it could complete mobilisation and invade.

In response to German pressure Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia a full two weeks before it was ready to take military action. The intention was to pre-empt diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. Conrad, the Austro-Hungarian Chief of the General Staff, was against this but was persuaded to change his mind.

The Austro-Hungarian foreign minister also thought the declaration of war might presuade Serbia to accept the ultimatum in full. As Serbia now knew it had Russian support there was no chance of this.

The declaration, and brief bombardment of Belgrade that followed it, alarmed the Russians even more. They thought a full scale invasion was underway and it spurred them to further military action.

Question: How far did German pressure persuade Austria-Hungary to take this precipitous action? [More]

(11) Within 36 hours of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia, Russia announced its mobilisation.

The Russian military argued partial mobilisation, only on the Russian borders with Austria-Hungary, which is what the Council of Ministers had decided on, would dislocate a general mobilisation if one became necessary later, and in any case Germany was behind Austria-Hungary’s actions and war with Germany was almost certain. Consequently, Russia prepared to announce general mobilisation which threatened Germany as well as Austria-Hungary.

At the last moment, following a message from the Kaiser saying he was trying to influence Vienna to negotiate, the Tsar changed this back to partial mobilisation and this was the announcement made late on Wednesday, the 29 July.

Following further arguments from the military and Sazonov, the Tsar changed again back to general mobilisation and this was announced at 5 P.M. on Thursday, the 30 July, less than 24 hours later.

For Russia mobilisation did not necessarily mean war. The Russian army could stand ready within Russia’s borders.

Question: Like the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia, Russian mobilisation, whether partial or general, was a game changing move. Did the Russians need to take such extensive military measures so quickly? [More]

(12) France did not restrain Russia.

The French leaders were at sea returning from the state visit to Russia. Poor radio communications meant they were not fully aware of how quickly and seriously the crisis was developing. They did not get back to France until the 29 July.

During this time on several occasions the French ambassador in St Petersburg assured the Russian government of France’s full support. He was also unclear in his messages to the Foreign Ministry in Paris about the exact nature of Russia’s military preparations.

The French themselves started to take military precautions and the French President once back in Paris approved the military measures and continued to back Russia.

Questions: Did the French ambassador exceed his authority and fail to keep the French government fully informed? With better and timelier information would the French have restrained the Russians? [More]

(13) Britain delayed for too long to make clear to Germany that it would support France and Russia.

In issuing the German “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the crisis and risking war with Russia, the German Kaiser and the civilian leadership believed Britain would remain neutral, and they were confirmed in this impression by George V saying to the Kaiser’s brother as late as the 26 July, that he hoped Britain would be neutral.

Grey was in a very small minority in the British Liberal cabinet – possibly only himself, Asquith, the prime minister, Haldane, and Churchill, four out of 19 men – and in an even smaller minority in the Liberal party in parliament, that would go to war on the side of France as a result of a conflict in the Balkans, which involved autocratic Tsarist Russia.

Most cabinet members wanted Britain to be neutral. Any public warning by Grey was impossible, and, in fact, the warning he eventually gave was given privately through the German ambassador in London.

The Conservative opposition was strongly in favour of supporting France if because of its alliance with Russia it was attacked by Germany.

Question: Would an early warning to Germany that Britain would fight on the side of France in the event of a European war have deterred Germany from risking war? [More]

(14) Germany realised that a European war was going to break out. Russia was mobilising and Grey had finally made it clear that Britain would be drawn in and would support its Entente partners, France and Russia.

The German chancellor made a third and this time, apparently genuine attempt, to persuade Austria-Hungary to modify its policy. He put forward a British proposal for a mediated solution very similar to the Kaiser’s “halt in Belgrade” idea.

This happened as military considerations were becoming paramount and the German minister of war wanted Germany to declare “State of Imminent Danger of War”. Moltke, the German Chief of the General Staff, warned that Russia and France were making military preparations (which was true) and if they were allowed to get ahead it could have fatal consequences for Germany. The German military position was growing worse day by day.

Questions: Was this third attempt to restrain Austria-Hungary too late? Was it genuine? Germany wanted to appear as the peaceful party and for Russia to make the first military move so it could be blamed if war broke out. This was important to get the support of the socialists, the largest party in the Reichstag. [More]

(15) Military considerations became paramount and an ultimatum was sent to Russia.

Moltke, who had supported the chancellor’s efforts to keep the conflict local and to exhaust diplomatic efforts, suddenly changed his mind and demanded Germany immediately declare a “State of Imminent Danger of War” which led within 48 hours to German mobilisation.

Germany had only one military plan which depended on critical timing and great speed. It was based on Schlieffen’s ideas. As Russia and France had a military alliance it assumed that if Germany fought Russia it would have to fight France at the same time and it was best first to defeat France quickly in the west, which involved an immediate invasion of France through neutral Belgium, and then turn on the Russians in the east who took at least three weeks to fully mobilise.

German mobilisation took 16 days. It opened with an immediate surprise attack in the west to seize the Belgian forts blocking the invasion route to France, as soon as German mobilisation was announced. Any defensive preparations by the Belgians or the French would lessen the chances of success. Germany might not be able to wait. Time was running out.

Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia saying if Russia did not stop its mobilisation and demobilise, Germany would mobilise.

Questions: Could Germany have waited another two or three days to exhaust the “Halt in Belgrade” solution. Why did the German Chancellor give in to the military? [More]

(16) Austria-Hungary strongly adhered to its original objective to invade and break up Serbia.

Austria-Hungary ignored the last-minute call from the German chancellor to accept a mediated solution. At no time during the crisis did Austria-Hungary consider modifying its plans. It believed anything less than a complete invasion and the destruction of the Serb army would not solve the Serbian problem.

Almost at the same time the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff received a message from Moltke, acting independently of the chancellor, saying Austria-Hungary should mobilise against Russia and send the bulk of its forces north to fight Russia rather than Serbia. For Germany it was vital that Austria-Hungary threw its full military weight against the Russians to weaken and slow the Russian attack on Germany while Germany was attacking France in the west.

Austria-Hungary announced the mobilisation of all its forces.

Question: Could war have been averted even at this late stage? [More]

(17) Russia ignored the German ultimatum.

Russia told Germany its mobilisation was only a precautionary measure and it could not now be stopped. The Tsar might not have realised German mobilisation led immediately to war unlike Russian mobilisation, and those of other great powers, which involved the call up of reservists and the preparation of the army, but not actual war.

(18) Germany mobilised, declared war on Russia and then on France, and immediately invaded Belgium.

For Germany mobilisation meant immediate cross-border attacks, the seizure of the Luxembourg railways and the capture of the Belgian forts at Liège blocking the invasion route to France. The attack on Liège was carried out by regular German troops at peace-time strength.

(19) Britain joined the conflict.

Britain had no formal alliance with France but because of the friendly Entente between the two countries the French had concentrated their warships in the Mediterranean. Consequently, the French northern and western coasts were open to naval attack by Germany unless protected by the Royal Navy.

This, combined with the wholesale German invasion of neutral Belgium which greatly aroused British public opinion against Germany, and influenced Lloyd George, the chancellor and a possible prime minister, brought about a majority in the cabinet that was willing to oppose Germany. Four cabinet ministers resigned but two later withdrew their resignations.

A third reason to intervene in the war received little attention. It was mentioned by Grey in his statement to the House of Commons on the 3 August – the balance of power.

“If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great Power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself …. if that were to happen, and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone’s words come true, … there would be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any Power?”

The Liberal cabinet also knew that if the cabinet split and the government resigned, it would be replaced by a coalition or a Conservative government both of which would go to war.

On the next day Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding it cease its invasion of Belgium. Germany refused. At 11.00 P.M. (London time, midnight in Berlin) on the 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

Question: Did Britain do the right thing?