29. The July crisis

AJP Taylor wrote in his book "The first world war: an illustrated history", Nowhere was there conscious determination to provoke a war.

Lloyd George said in 1936 of the July 1914 crisis:

The military arrangements between the Great Powers cut short the negotiations to avert the crisis

The timeline for the crisis is as follows.

28th June: the assassinations in Sarajevo

10th July: discussions in Belgrade between the Austrian ambassador Giesl and Russian ambassador Hartwig are terminated when Hartwig drops dead of a heart attack.

Between 17th-23rd July: there is a French government delegation led by Poincare to St Petersburg. What were they discussing and why are there no records of the meetings?

On 23rd July: the Austrian ultimatum is given to Serbia

On 28th July: Austria declares war against Serbia

On 30th July: Russian mobilisation commences

On 1st August: Germany declares war on Russia

On 4th August: UK declares war on Germany

30. Background to the July crisis - speed

Sheer speed of the crisis – 37 days or just 9 days? It depends how you calculate it, but either way it was for the time a very speedy crisis, even more so when one considers the communications of the era were telephone or telegram. Key players were on holiday in less accessible places, eg Kaiser Franz Joseph was in Bad Ischl, a mountain resort, and Kaiser Wilhelm was in a palace outside Berlin with no telephone line to Berlin. Sir Edward Grey went fishing in the West Country, and Churchill was in Norfolk.

By way of comparison, the Fashoda crisis (1898) between Britain and France took eight months to resolve initially. You can extend that to six years, if one includes the time taken to conclude the Entente Cordiale.

Similarly, the Morocco crises of 1905 and 1911 took months to resolve and for international treaties to be negotiated and drafted.

31. Eye off the ball – France

In the spring of 1914, the trial of Henriette Caillaux took place in France. She had shot dead the editor of Le Figaro because he had carried out a programme of vilification of her husband, Joseph Caillaux, a leading left-wing politician who had been conciliatory toward Germany. Amazingly, she was acquitted on 28th July on the grounds of it being a crime passionel.

This was followed by assassination of Jean Jaures on 31st July. He was an international socialist who had been trying to unite the working classes of various countries against the notion of a war, and a major figure on the French left. Today, there is a Rue Jean Jaures in almost every town in France. This assassination was more shocking to many people than that of Franz Ferdinand.

32. Eye off the ball – UK

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was not recognised as a world event. The London “Times” after 29th June, published reports of the assassination and aftermath on the inside pages, not on the front page.

Ireland was a major focus for the government and the English press over the spring and early summer of 1914. The Curragh mutiny of British army officers took place in March 1914, when they refused to follow orders and move against the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force.

The Home Rule for Ireland crisis was the key focus of parliament in June 1914. On 8th July, a Bill for the temporary exclusion of Ulster from Home Rule plans was put forward in parliament. This was followed on 26th July, by four civilians being shot dead shot by British troops in Dublin, in the aftermath of the gun-running on board the Asgard of guns which were German supplied.

The detachment of the English press is typified by the headline “To hell with Servia” in the Manchester Guardian. [Serbia was in fact “Servia” in the period up to WWI].

33. July crisis – UK government

The Prime Minister was HH Asquith. He gave his name to being “squiffy”, as he was not noted for his sobriety. He wrote letters to his “fancy bit”, Venetia Stanley, in Cabinet. His government made a mess of the Irish issue. He was a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, the characteristic of whose alumni was, he said, “effortless superiority”. His wife’s diaries for the period of his premiership were published in 2008 for the first time  (see the bibliography).

Sir Edward Grey was the foreign secretary. His main interest was fly fishing which he pursued in the West Country through much of the July crisis. He did not go to foreign countries, infamously only ever doing so once in eight years, to Paris with the King at the King’s insistence. He was an old boy of the school at Winchester and generations have spent their time covering his back. There are others who consider him as having key responsibility for Britain becoming involved in WWI at all. Like others in the Cabinet, he had an anti-German bias. He was indecisive.

A key issue with the UK Foreign Office, in 1914 and today, is the “Wykehamist fallacy”. It is populated with reasonable English public school boys who cannot believe that anyone would actually engage in such dastardly behaviour as starting a war, though they might threaten it. This leads the Foreign Office to underestimate foreign threats. Grey is in the Wykehamist camp.  After WWI, the Foreign Office was put on a more professional basis, as opposed to being a repository for the sons of the gentry as it was at this period.

Grey didn’t think dispute between Austro-Hungary and Serbia was of concern to Britain. He failed to communicate with Austria at all. He failed to understand the Russian position. Grey talked about war between Russia, Austria, Germany and France.

34. What was the Foreign Office doing?

Well, the professional civil servants in the Foreign office were producing a viable course of action for Britain. On 24th July, Eyre Crowe said that the key thing is to deter Germany and suggested mobilising the Royal Navy. Grey dithered.

On 26th July, Sir Arthur Nicolson, the permanent secretary, proposed four - power negotiations to try to find a solution. Germany said the topic should be Russia-Austrian relations, but Austria wanted a war with Serbia and was not going to go down the road of negotiation. Grey was fishing in Devon

Ultimately, neither course was followed by Grey. If they had been, arguably the crisis could have been resolved without a war.

35. What was Serbia doing?

Prime Minister Pasic was on an election tour and was recalled to Belgrade. Serbia initially agreed to the Austrian demands, which were outlandish and were designed to be so. Then, Pasic’s government changed its mind. Why? Was it the influence of the Russian government?

36. Austrian response

On 26th July, Kaiser Franz Joseph thought that the ultimatum by Austria to Serbia was a foul-up by Leopold Graf Berchtold, the Imperial foreign minister, ie it was too severe.

The German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg did not want a European war but did want a localised one in the Balkans. Kaiser Wilhelm said the Serbian answer was enough and there was no need for anything further. Bethman-Hollweg ignored him.

Added to the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, the head of the Austro-Hungarian army, Conrad von Hoetzendorf told Franz Joseph that the Austrian army could not be ready for action until 12th August.

37. The halt in Belgrade

German Kaiser Wilhelm had thought that the Serbian response was enough but said that if anything was needed by way of military action, it should be a token, and suggested occupying Belgrade. This became known as the “stop in Belgrade” tactic. He believed that the Russians would not intervene in a token gesture.

Austrian foreign minister Berchtold told Kaiser Franz Joseph that the Serbian army had shot at the Austrians (which was not true) to get him to approve the declaration of war, which he did. So, on 28th July the Austrian declaration of war was sent to Serbia.

Berchtold did not mean to start a war but ignored the “Halt in Belgrade” suggestion and believed that Russia would not intervene. In Germany, Bethmann-Hollweg wanted to blame Russia for any war that ensued from the crisis.

38. Mobilisation

The Austrian army could mobilise against Serbia by 1st August but only if Russia stayed neutral, and it did not have to defend two frontiers.

On 28th July, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov wanted a partial mobilisation. The Russian Generals said that partial mobilisation was impossible. On the 29th July, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg warned that further Russian mobilisation steps would compel Germany to mobilise.

Sazonov went for full Russian mobilisation as a threat. Kaiser Wilhelm phoned the Tsar, his cousin. Russian mobilisation was stopped by the Tsar.

On 30th July, Sazonov pressured the Tsar into agreeing to full Russian mobilisation, even though Sazonov had originally wanted only partial mobilisation. The Tsar promised Kaiser Wilhelm that Russian troops would not move while Austria negotiated.

On 31st July, German chief of staff von Moltke told Austrian chief of staff Conrad to mobilise his army, which is of itself an interesting development. Austrian mobilisation only raised tension further.

In Germany, Bethmann-Hollweg thought Russian mobilisation meant war, and so pushed von Moltke to mobilise quickly. Germany sent ultimata to Russia and France. Sazonov said mobilisation was precautionary. At that stage, France had not mobilised.

Von Moltke told Kaiser Wilhelm that mobilisation could not be stopped – war by timetable as AJP Taylor has termed it.

39. Germany

On 1st August, British foreign secretary Edward Grey offered Germany the concept of French neutrality in any conflict. He then had to amend that as he meant to add it was only if Germany did not attack Russia!

On 1st August: Germany declared war on Russia, but they had no plan to attack Russia, though Russian troops do cross the East Prussian border, ie the Russians were in Germany before the Germans were in Belgium.

On 2nd August, the German government sent an ultimatum to Belgium asking for free passage for its troops, which was refused.

On 3rd August, Germany declared war on France on the totally false grounds of French planes bombing Nuremberg (which if your geography is not up to it, is in the east of Germany, well away from France!)

40. Britain

 On 1st August, Britain offered to safeguard French ports and shipping.

On 2nd August, Britain sent a polite request for Germany not to invade Belgium, but the Foreign Office managed not to send it until 3rd August at 09.30. German troops were in Belgium at 08.00.

On 3rd August, the British army was mobilised and the BEF formed to be sent to France. (The Belgian army had manned both the German and French borders).

On 4th August, the Cabinet declared war on Germany, which they thought meant an economic blockade, and the deployment of the Royal Navy.

No appeal from Belgium for British help until 5th August, the day AFTER the British government had declared war.

At the Cabinet meeting on 6th August, Henry Wilson said that the BEF could not help Belgium – it was too late. It could only go on to the French left flank. The Cabinet resolved that the BEF should go to Amiens but in the event the BEF went to Maubeuge, as the timetables demanded.

At a Cabinet meeting on 9th August, Kitchener explained to the Cabinet that a continental war would necessitate raising a large citizen army which would fight on the continent, and that it would be a war of attrition. The die was cast.


The next section is here