WWI: How the World Went from Peace to War in 37 Days
September 4, 2014
In the summer of 1914, Europe went to war. It began a conflict that would engulf almost the entire world. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand pushed existing animosities and alliances into the most catastrophic war the world had ever seen. How did this happen? In recent times, Europe had stepped back from the precipice; in 1914 there would be no peace or compromise. As grave events spiraled out of control Europe could not step back from the brink.
37 days: Countdown to World War One
Witness the incredible events that took the world from total peace to total war in 1914.
"Six months should see the end of it."
-- The Observer newspaper, August 1914
1914: How the World Went to War
LONDON (February 24, 2014) -- In the summer of 1914, Europe went to war. It began a conflict that would engulf almost the entire world. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand pushed existing animosities and alliances into the most catastrophic war the world had ever seen. How did this happen? In recent times Europe had stepped back from the precipice; in 1914 there would be no peace or compromise. As grave events spiraled out of control Europe could not step back from the brink.
28 June: Archduke assassinated
Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot dead while on a state visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. His killer was the 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, backed by Serbian terrorist organisation, 'the Black Hand', and joined by a group of other would-be assassins.
One of them threw a bomb at the Archduke's motorcade in a first, unsuccessful, attempt on his life. But, when a fateful mistake meant Franz Ferdinand's driver took the car directly to the street corner where Princip was standing, his two shots killed the Archduke and his wife, Sophie Chotek.
29 June: Austria-Hungary wants revenge
In Sarajevo, Serbian shops were destroyed during riots to shouts of "death to the Serbian murderers." Although Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination, the Serbian government tried to distance itself claiming it had tried to warn Austria of a plot.
The Austrian chief of military staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, wanted war, but the foreign secretary was more cautious, fearing that Serbia's long time ally Russia would be angered by any attack and be forced to step in. But perhaps Austria-Hungary's powerful ally Germany would back them against Russia.
30 June: Britain and Germany united
At the German naval base of Kiel it was the last day of the Royal Navy's visit. Over the last few days German and British navies had carried out joint manoeuvres. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, a cousin of the British King, George V, was proud to be an admiral of the British fleet. Although there were some suspicions between the two nations they parted ways on good terms.
5 July: Germany promises to back Austria-Hungary
When he learnt of Austria-Hungary's wish to attack Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm pledged Germany's support, even if it meant war with Russia. This became known as Germany's 'blank cheque', which would guarantee any action they decided to take against Serbia. The Kaiser explained: "Should a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia be unavoidable, Austria-Hungary can rest assured that Germany, your old faithful ally, will stand at your side." Perhaps he was unaware what the consequences could be for Europe.
7 July: Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia delayed
With Germany's backing some Austrian ministers were in favour of a quick attack on Serbia. However any plan needed the approval of both Austrian and Hungarian leaders, but the Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza was not convinced. He was afraid an attack on Serbia would spark a war with its much larger neighbour, Russia.
Instead, the ministers agreed to draw up an ultimatum to Serbia -- some wanted to make it so harsh the Serbs would be forced to reject it, and trigger war between the two countries. This delay could allow time for Russia to join the fray.
9 July: Britain tries to deter Germany
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, told the German ambassador that Britain had not promised to aid France or Russia in a European war. In 1907 Britain moved into a closer friendship with France and Russia, as part of the 'Triple Entente.'
Grey was aware of Germany's support for Austria-Hungary and hinted at collaboration between the French and British military. He explained that British public opinion would make it very difficult for him to stay out if events in the Balkans escalated. But his softly-softly approach would not be enough to hold Germany back.
19 July: Secret plans made to strike
Austria-Hungary's ministers gathered for a secret meeting in Vienna, where they made the final decision to issue an ultimatum to Serbia. Just five days earlier the one person blocking it changed his mind. Tisza is now in support of war: "It was very hard for me to come to the decision to give my advice for war, but I am now firmly convinced of its necessity". The ultimatum was approved. If Serbia agreed to its terms, it would come under Austria-Hungary's control. If it refused, there would be war.
21 July: Russia begins to stir
Having discovered Austria-Hungary's intentions to threaten Serbia, Russia's foreign minister issued them with a warning. Russian public opinion was in favour of protecting Serbia, and Sergei Sazonov explained to the Austrian and German ambassadors: "If Austria-Hungary is absolutely determined to disturb the peace, she ought not to forget that she would have to reckon with Europe. In no case should there be any talk of an ultimatum."
23 July: The impossible ultimatum
Ignoring Russian warnings, Austria-Hungary issued the Serbian government with its ultimatum. It blamed Serbian officials for Franz Ferdinand's assassination and made a series of demands. Among them: Serbia must stop all anti-Austro-Hungarian propaganda and remove anyone deemed guilty of it from office; it must accept Austria-Hungary's collaboration in suppressing subversive movements within Serbia, and it must allow Austria to direct judicial proceedings against accessories in the assassination plot. In short, Serbia was being asked to hand over sovereignty.
25 July: Serbia concedes, but...
Serbia's deadline for responding to Austria-Hungary's ultimatum was 18:00 central European time. After checking he had Russia's support in the event of war, the Serbian Prime Minister delivered his reply to the Austrian embassy. Serbia conceded to all of the demands, apart from two. Key among them was the request that Austria-Hungary be allowed to direct judicial proceedings in Serbia -- a violation of its constitution. Serbia had effectively rejected the ultimatum and, as planned in Vienna, war was now inevitable.
26 July: Britain makes a bid for peace
The British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey proposed a peace conference to try to stop Europe descending into war. His plan was that Italy, Germany, France and the UK, the four countries not directly involved in the Balkan crisis, should act as mediators between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and their ally Russia. This offer was met with hostility from the German Kaiser who didn't want to be seen to give in to Britain's "condescending orders".
28 July: Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia
With all of their demands not met, Austria-Hungary moves to declare war on Serbia. Even though they were now at war, the Austrian army was not ready to attack, and would not be for another two weeks. Germany was frustrated with its ally; it had been a month since Franz Ferdinand's assassination and with each day that passed, sympathy for Austria-Hungary's cause among other European powers was ebbing away.
(July 29, 2014) -- Thom Hartmann talks World War 1 with Adam Hochschild, Journalist (a co-founder of Mother Jones) / Author-7 books including To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
29 July: Can the Royal cousins avert disaster?
The Tsar agreed to mobilise the Russian army against Austria-Hungary, but before he sent the order he received a telegram from his cousin the Kaiser. "Nicky, I share your wish that peace should be maintained. It would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the Austro Serbian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed. I
think a direct understanding between your government and Vienna possible and desirable and my government is continuing its exertions to promote it." Russian military plans meant mobilisation had to be against both Austria-Hungary and Germany. The Tsar called it off.
Russia Mobilizes for War
Shared blood between Queen Victoria's grandchildren was not enough to stop the march to war. Under immense pressure from his foreign minister, the Tsar ordered his armies to prepare for war and mobilise against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Although he called it off the previous day the Tsar was convinced Russia must protect Serbia. His ministers advised that if he did not act boldly, the Russian dynasty would be at risk. Fully understanding the consequences, it was not a decision he took lightly.
31 July: Germany prepares for war on two fronts
Britain, France and Russia form the "Triple Entente" that 'encircles' Germany.
1 August: Germany declares war on Russia
With no word from St. Petersburg the German Chancellor addressed his parliament. Germany would declare war on Russia at 17:00. As he delivered the declaration, the German ambassador asked Russian foreign minister Sazonov three times whether Russia would back down. Each time the answer was no. The German army was then ordered to mobilisze. In the west, France had already begun mobilising its armies in anticipation of German attack. A European war was now inevitable.
The Kaiser believed Britain, France and Russia would use the pretext of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to encircle and "annihilate" Germany. German military plans aimed to deal with this "encirclement" by making a pre-emptive strike against France, through Belgium, before turning the bulk of its forces east to deal with Russia.
Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia that unless it called off mobilisation, war will be declared. And, afraid of an attack by France, Germany demanded that its neighbour in the west show friendship towards them by allowing German soldiers to occupy French frontier forts for the duration of war with Russia.
2 August: Germany tells Belgium to step aside
On the pretext of preventing a French attack, Germany sent an ultimatum to Belgium asking for safe passage through its territory. If the Belgian government said no, Germany would consider them an enemy.
Britain had promised to guarantee Belgium's neutrality, and if the German demand was rejected, and soldiers crossed its border, Britain would be obliged to act. At 02:30 the following morning, Belgium did exactly that. The ultimatum was rejected. The British government now had to make a terrible decision.
Transcript from a scene in the film, 37 Days to War:
Von Below -- German Ambassador to Belgium: "We have received reports in the last 24 hours of French troops along the Givet-Namur road: and therefore in the light of this violation of your territory and of the 1839 treaty we are obliged to request of the Belgian government free access for our own troops to engage the French. You have 12 hours to respond."
Sir Winston Churchill -- First Lord of the Admiralty: "This will be our casus belli."
HH Asquith -- Prime Minister: "It might be …."
Churchill: "It's an immaculate one, too -- no oil reserves, no coaling stations, no gold fields -- just
poor little Belgium at the mercy of the German juggernaut. Even the Radicals will be filled with indignation."
Asquith: "If Germany invades …"
Sir Edward Grey -- Foreign Secretary: "Legal situation's not altogether clear -- we would probably still need an official request for assistance from the Belgian government to avoid breaching the same treaty."
Asquith: "We cannot be more Belgian than the Belgians, Churchill. Surely they will ask for our help?"
Grey: "I have no idea. It's possible the Belgian army will simply fire a token shot and then line the roads while the German army passes through."
3 August: Germany declares war on France
In Paris, the German ambassador delivered Germany's declaration of war to the French foreign ministry. France had been careful to do nothing to provoke Germany -- positioning its troops 10 km from the German border -- but Germany's military plans were inflexible.
They had to defeat France before attacking Russia. In London, Sir Edward Grey made a speech in parliament: "If we do stand aside we would sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world." Opposition to war in Britain was dying away.
4 August: Britain sends an ultimatum to Germany
As German troops advanced into Belgium, the British cabinet was agreed: it could not stand aside. An ultimatum was sent to Berlin. The deadline for Germany to reply was 23:00 (GMT). Just after 19:00 the British ambassador, Goschen, went to see the German ambassador with the ultimatum.
The German ambassador blamed Britain for "all the terrible events that might happen," but Goschen protested that it was a matter of honour for Britain to protect Belgium's neutrality. As the hour of the deadline approached, an anxious crowd waited outside Downing Street.
WW1 100th Anniversary: Incredible Archive Footage of the Great War
(August 4, 2014) -- 100 years ago, on 4 August 1914, the British Empire declared war on Germany, and thus became embroiled in the largest and deadliest conflict at that point in human history.
4 August: Britain declares war on Germany
The Kaiser and his government refused to stop the invasion of Belgium and at 23:00, Britain and Germany were at war. The European powers were pitted against each other and Britain would drag its global empire into the conflict.
An assassination in southern Europe, brought war not only to the wider continent, but to the populations of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America. Many believed the war would be over within months, but the guns did not fall silent for another four years, and millions lost their lives.
(Feb 25, 2014) -- BBC Two begins a landmark debate on whether we were right to enter World War One.
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