Austria-Hungary declares war | 28 July 1914

Diplomacy has failed. The July Crisis is coming to its head. These are melodramatic times, and it’s hard to talk about them without sounding somewhat melodramatic also.

Austria-Hungary declares war

Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. The General Staff prepares to implement their “Plan B”, which provides for mobilisation for a Balkan conflict only. They do also have a “Plan R”, which is a general mobilisation to attack Russia, but that one’s being kept on ice for the moment. Nevertheless, Austro-Hungarian mobilisation towards Serbia is now well underway.

Belgrade is emptying fast. Most of the military-age men are in the Serbian army now. The government and major institutions have departed for the interior. Families with anywhere to go are going. An accident of history has left the Serbian capital just over the border from Austria-Hungary. When the declaration of war arrives, engineering parties are quickly sent out to destroy the bridges over the twin rivers Sava and Danube.

One last note. The head of the Serbian Army is Field Marshal Radomir Putnik. He’s spent most of the last month on a rest cure in Austria-Hungary, hoping that if he ignores the crisis it’ll go away. Today the crisis finds him; almost as soon as the war declaration has taken effect, he’s arrested by the Budapest police.

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The Kaiser

Even as Franz Joseph is signing the declaration of war, Wilhelm II is desperately trying to swim upstream. Now, far too late to exert any diplomatic pressure on Austria-Hungary, he reads the Serbian response to the ultimatum. To a man who’s shitting himself, he grabs it like a lifeline. Declaring it an excellent result, he says clearly that “This does away with any need for war”, and immediately begins ordering his ministers to tell Vienna that he’s cancelling the blank cheque.

Bethmann-Hollweg obeys, but he ensures that the transmission of the Kaiser’s message is delayed long enough that Austria-Hungary is well committed to war by the time it arrives. He also ensures that the German government roundly rejects Sir Edward Grey’s proposal for mediation.

German Social Democrats

He’s also smoothing the path to war by holding important discussions with the Social Democrat leader Albert Sudekum. They’ve been a consistent thorn in Bethmann-Hollweg’s side lately, but happily they’ve no love lost for Russia either. Today Bethmann-Hollweg secures an assurance that the SPD will not oppose in the Reichstag a defensive war against Russian aggression. They might still pay lip service to Jean Jaures and his Socialist International meeting, but as far as the German Chancellor is concerned, they’ve been nobbled.

Grigoris Balakian

Even as the meetings are being conducted, the SDP has organised hundreds of public meetings throughout Berlin and Germany. Grigoris Balakian is Armenian, one of the major minority groups within the Ottoman Empire, and one that’s been particularly harshly treated over the past twenty years or so (of which more later). It’s therefore unsurprising that he attends his local meeting.

I did not want to miss this historic opportunity to study the psychology of the organised German working class. … It seemed to me that on the face of each worker I could read the nightmarish expression of impending danger.

Balakian describes the meeting and the speeches in detail. It’s to be followed by a mass march to the Kaiser’s palace.

Policemen on horseback, foot, and bicycle, and military police, had gathered at the intersection of Bismarckstrasse and the large boulevards. Carrying iron chains tied together, these forces sought to disperse the crowd because it was protesting against war. Despite these measures, between 60,000 and 70,000 working-class people reached the palace from the side streets, singing the Internationale.

I was impressed, because I had been witness to the Muslim demonstrations in Constantinople in the wake of the Ottoman constitution, but there was no comparison. That was a demonstration by a mob; the one in Berlin was respectable and methodically planned.

As an Armenian Christian, perhaps Balakian is not the most objective observer; and his estimate of the number of people who reached the palace is probably also not reliable. However, it’s important to set this demonstration against other processions throughout Germany and Austria-Hungary in the last few days, all in about similar size, and in favour of the war.

Tension travellers

Speaking of which, the German tension travellers have produced a report. They’ve identified that the Period Prepatory to War has been ordered, but they also report measures already taken as “apparent partial mobilisation” and “some military measures also on the German border, which must be regarded as preparation for a war”. Things are about to go downhill fast.

Sir Edward Grey

In London, Grey is now becoming punchier. He’s now saying to Count Lichnowsky that the Serbian response is more than satisfactory and that Austria-Hungary must moderate its position. Paul Cambon, the French ambassador, has been leaning on him hard. He’s after a clear statement that Britain would enter any European war, for the deterrent effect it might have on the German position.

Once again, they’re absolving themselves of any responsibility for war breaking out. They have no options; the Germans have a full range of options.

And yet, Grey has also made clear to Cambon that the Franco-Russian treaty is a secret one and he doesn’t know exactly what the terms are. The British arrangements with both partners are only understandings; neither are a military alliance.

First Lord of the Admiralty

The incumbent, one W. Churchill (you may have heard of him), has been keeping the Royal Navy concentrated together after its test mobilisation and fleet review. By this evening he’s seen enough to, on his own authority, order the ships of the First Fleet north to their wartime base at Scapa Flow. Just in case.


President Poincare has returned to Paris, and in his own mind, there is no longer any way to avoid war. He arrives home to find that soldiers have been recalled from leave, provincial governors have been alerted, and the purchase of necessary war supplies has begun.

Meanwhile, the sensational trial of Henriette Caillaux ends in the most sensational verdict possible. The court declares her actions to be a crime of passion, and she is therefore acquitted and set free. Other news begins to appear in the headlines again, and the French public starts to realise now how serious the international situation has become.

Actions in Progress

July Crisis

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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