Austro-Hungarian railways | 31 July 1914


News has reached Vienna that a Russian general mobilisation is underway. Their army must now attempt to transition from their War Plan B (for “Buggering around in the Balkans”) to War Plan R (for “Oh fuck, the Russians are coming”). This, sadly, is much easier said than done. Simply put, the army is divided into three groups. One group has been earmarked to go to Galicia and the border with Russia. Another is heading to the Serbian border.

And then there’s the third group. This group had by design been held back to go in either direction as circumstances dictated. Five days ago, circumstances had seemed to dictate that they should go to Serbia, and two days ago they began to move. Problem! Conrad von Hotzendorf, the head of the Austro-Hungarian army, has now changed his mind and decided that instead they should go to Russia.

The July Crisis was and is thoroughly ridiculous. It’s then only appropriate that the subsequent war should begin with an army-sized happening of ridiculous proportions. Conrad’s railwaymen are absolutely adamant that there simply isn’t enough railway capacity to take the men back to Galicia. (This would mean routing them over the Carpathian Mountains, of which much more later as “the Carpathians”. The mountains are, unsurprisingly, a horrendous rail bottleneck.) Furthermore, the men’s supplies and ammunition have already gone towards Serbia.

A frank exchange of views follows. The practical upshot of which is that the simplest thing to do is just let them go, wait for the railways to clear, and then turn the whole lot around and send them back through the entire empire to Galicia. At least the blokes will have had a nice holiday before they get their chance to die for the King/Emperor (delete as appropriate). In a theme which will soon become depressingly familiar, it’s not the most auspicious start to the war.

SMS Konigsberg

Yeah, so let’s get one thing straight. The port city then known as Konigsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave) is mostly irrelevant to the war. That blue text doesn’t refer to the city, it takes you to the adventures of a modern German cruiser which is more or less the sum total of the German Navy’s strength in Africa.

It didn’t have to be this way. At one time, the German plan for war with Britain called for its navy to disperse its strength around the world. Knowing that they couldn’t compete in a straight fight with the Royal Navy in the North Sea, they would instead spread themselves across the world and go commerce raiding against the British Empire’s supply lines.

And then Admiral Tirpitz and that ridiculous naval arms race intervened. Now, virtually the entire German Empire’s naval strength is concentrated in its High Seas Fleet at Kiel. And they still can’t compete in a straight fight with the Royal Navy in the North Sea, go figure.

The German Navy’s foreign strength currently consists almost entirely of Konigsberg at Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa (today, Tanzania); and the East Asia Squadron, a cruiser group starring Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Emden

, based out of the German-owned Chinese treaty port Tsingtao, and of whom more later. There will additionally be a few civilian vessels who will be given naval guns and sent on commerce-raiding missions, but they stand no chance of resisting a determined attack from even the most obsolete ships of the enemy’s navy.

The ship is commanded by Captain Max Looff, who is well aware that in the event of war with Britain, if he’s still in harbour he’ll likely be ordered to stand down. There’s no way he can stand against even a slice of the Royal Navy’s strength – if they know where he is. So today, having been warned that war is a possibility, he fills his ship’s bunkers with coal, and sets sail for the open ocean. We’ll be catching up with him very soon.

Jean Jaures

There’s perhaps one slight hope for the avoidance of a general European war. These hopes rest mainly with the French socialist leader Jean Jaures, a committed internationalist and pacifist. He’s been working tirelessly to rally supporters for peace, to organise mass resistance to the possibility of war, and to contact his colleagues in Germany with a view to doing the same.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that, just over a month after one assassin kicked this whole bandwagon towards the edge of the cliff, another assassin this evening cuts down the last tree that might have got in its way. Raoul Villain (I’m not making that up, it really was his name) is a dedicated revanchist who’s been stalking Jaures for a while, with a revolver in his pocket and a notebook full of nationalist bletherings. Jaures is sitting with some comrades outside a cafe when the Villain strikes (ho ho ho), shooting him twice in the head.

Whether Jaures could in fact have prevented, or even delayed the war, is a Matter of Some Debate. We’ll never know. All we do know is that he never had the chance.


The German ambassador in St Petersburg reports that Russian general mobilisation is underway. To the German mind (or at least, those in the government) there is only one thing to do, and that’s to declare a State of Imminent Danger of War. Curiously, General von Falkenhayn, the minister of war, has a considerable job of work cajoling the Kaiser into signing the order, even though the Willy-Nicky correspondence has now broken down entirely. Eventually he bludgeons Wilhelm II into submission and gets the signature.

Grigoris Balakian

Again we turn to Grigoris Balakian for an impression of the situation on the ground in Berlin.

Berlin’s daily newspapers were promulgating news of the Russian mobilisation. It was even said that Russia had already taken up a threatening position on the borders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Popular opinion had it that war was inevitable. The anger and resentment of the German people was directed against Russia.


In the evening, the German ambassador formally notifies the French government that it will mean war if Russia doesn’t stop mobilisation immediately, and says he’ll be back tomorrow for the French government’s official response. General Joffre immediately demands permission to mobilise the French Army, but he only comes away with permission to send a warning order to his principal subordinates. Meanwhile, the minister of war, Messimy, makes it clear once more to the Russian military attache that France is committed to war alongside its ally.


A similar message has been passed to the British government. Unlike France, they still have no firm policy on what to do, and alarm bells are ringing. As tonight turns to tomorrow, the King, rather ridiculously, is dragged from his bed by the Prime Minister to send a telegram to the Tsar, appealing somewhat fatuously for Russian mobilisation to stop.

Meanwhile, Sir Edward Grey has continued his mission to terrify the living hell out of the French. He’s had his ambassador remind them that he sees no reason why British public opinion would support war, at the moment. He absolutely resists comparisons to a previous crisis, the Agadir incident in 1911, when they had very firmly stood beside the French.

Meanwhile meanwhile, Herbert Asquith has also been writing to Venetia Stanley, his (cough cough) close friend. (A hundred years of historians have cast aspersions on their relationship, I can’t be bothered with any more than that.) This time he lets her know that “Everybody [in the Cabinet] longs to stand aside”. A full three-quarters, if not more of them, are as of the 31st of July, committed to non-intervention. Asquith’s also received today a deputation from the suits at the City of London, asking for Britain to stay out of the war.

Actions in Progress

July Crisis

Further Reading

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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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