The First World War started on 28 July 1914. The spark had been ignited a month before, on 28 June 1914, with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne.
The assassination had very much been the work of a single band of terrorists, the Black Hand, and in particular 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip (pictured), but the Austrian–Hungarian empire saw an opportunity to assert its authority over Serbia. First it sought reassurance from its powerful ally, Germany. Together, they had formed the Dual Alliance in 1879 which, three years later, became the Triple Alliance when Italy added its signature. Now, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, gave Austria-Hungary the assurance it needed, then promptly went off on a cruise around Norway.
‘The sword has been forced into our hand’
It took the Austrian–Hungarian government three weeks but the ultimatum they sent Serbia was, in the words of Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, the ‘most formidable document ever sent from one nation to another’. Serbia was given forty-eight hours to comply with ten demands, specifically designed to humiliate and therefore be rejected. Although the Serbs agreed to eight and suggesting, quite reasonably, that the other two be decided by the Hague Tribunal, it was never going to be enough for the bellicose Austrian–Hungarians and on 28 July 1914, they declared war on Serbia.
Events now moved quickly, one triggering off another. In response to this declaration of war, Russia, which saw itself as protector of Serbia, began to mobilise. France, Russia’s ally since 1892, offered her its support. In response, the Germans gave Russia twelve hours to halt its mobilisation. The deadline passed, thus on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and, two days later, on France. ‘The sword has been forced into our hand,’ claimed the Kaiser.
For the Russian, British and German sovereigns, the prospect of war was akin to a family spat – Wilhelm II, of the Hohenzollern dynasty, was Queen Victoria’s grandson and a cousin either by marriage or blood to both the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and Britain’s King George V.
The Schlieffen Plan
Germany now faced a war on both its western and eastern borders; a war on two fronts. But it was a prospect they had long anticipated. In 1905, the then German Chief of Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen (pictured), had devised a plan for such an eventuality. Russia, he surmised, not incorrectly, would take up to six weeks to mobilise its armies, allowing Germany time to defeat France. In order to avoid the line of fortifications on the Franco–German border, the German army would have to advance through neutral Belgium in a huge sweeping movement: ‘let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve’. Having knocked out Belgium, it would swing south, covering twenty kilometres a day, and encircle Paris. Having dealt with the French, it would then have time to move east to confront the vast armies of Russia. Schlieffen died in 1913. One year later, his grand plan was put into action.
‘Poor little Belgium’
Speed was of the essence. On 2 August, Germany stormed through Luxembourg and demanded immediate access through Belgium. But ‘Poor little Belgium’, as the British press called her, refused and turned to a 1839 treaty, guaranteeing its neutrality. One of the signatories was Germany. The other was Great Britain. Britain asked Germany for an assurance that they would respect Belgium’s neutrality. Germany ignored it and on 4 August began bombing the Belgium city of Liège. Germany could not believe that Britain would go to war with a ‘kindred nation’ over a ‘scrap of paper’ – a treaty signed seventy-five years before. But it did – Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August. Sir Edward Grey, gazing out from the Foreign Office, remarked, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’.
‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’
Grey, in his gloominess, was in a minority – the rest of Europe rejoiced at the prospect of war. Everywhere, civilians gathered in town squares to celebrate, young men anticipated adventures of daring-do and chivalry. ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’, the British army was told; ‘you’ll be home before the leaves fall’, declared the Kaiser to his troops. For Russia, a victorious war would stifle the murmurings of revolution that was infecting his kingdom. For France, still chafing over its defeat in the Franco–Prussian War in 1871, war offered a chance to re-establish its reputation.
The Great War had begun.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.