Serbia against the wall | 24 July 1914

With the ultimatum in hand, the situation for Serbia looks extremely grim. They need help, and they need it now. Before we consider their position in detail, though…

Bratianu’s critique

The Prime Minister of Romania, Ion Bratianu, makes an entirely valid point to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador. “Why didn’t you just attack straight away and have done with it?”, he says, or at least, words to that effect. “Then you would have had the sympathies of Europe on your side.”

It’s unclear exactly how accurate this is. However, at the very least, it would have denied them an opportunity to leak their entire cunning plan to the Entente powers in advance. This would surely have given the whole shitshow a better chance of coming off without causing, oh, a world war, or anything like that.

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The 3rd of August is a bank holiday this year.  I do hope that nothing happens to spoil it!
The 3rd of August is a bank holiday this year. I do hope that nothing happens to spoil it!


Nikola Pasic has arrived back in Belgrade, and the mood is very low. For most of the day, it seems as though the government may just be preparing itself to suck it up and accept the ultimatum. Belligerent diplomatic messages are sent to friendly capitals, but they may well have been attempts to gain support rather than a true reflection of their position.

The cabinet would have remembered well the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum of 1913 over Albania, when Russia’s advice was to back down, and they were ultimately left with no choice. In the end, the only decision they can make is to wait and see what Russia does.

St Petersburg

Sergei Sazonov spends the day in a whirl of activity. First he lunches with Paleologue and Sir George Buchanan. Paleologue and Sazonov spend most of the meeting leaning on Buchanan to lean on Sir Edward Grey to not remain neutral. (This is another excellent cautionary tale when it comes to the tendency to view “the Entente” as a World War II-style alliance. The French and Russian governments are well aware that the British government has no firm commitment in writing to join any war that might ensue.)

This is followed by a highly unusual meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers. That body has had a variable level of power since it was formed in 1905, due to Russia’s autocratic political system. Sazonov speaks at great length about the need to support Serbia now, and he carries the rest of the council with him. They do agree to pursue the diplomatic step of requesting that Austria-Hungary extend the 48-hour time limit on the ultimatum to Serbia, but the other steps agreed are all military in nature. (We’re now about to bump up against the thorny issue of mobilisation, of which more tomorrow.)

One of these measures is the declaration of a “Period Prepatory to War” in the Russian Empire’s western districts. Given that (as we’ll explore further tomorrow) mobilising one’s army has become equivalent to declaring war, and combined with measures to mobilise the Baltic Fleet, this is the equivalent of the modern US’s armed forces going to DEFCON 2…


Meanwhile, the energetic minister of war, Adolphe Messimy, is running all over the place. He goes to see the chief of the French Army, General Joseph Joffre (of whom much more later), to warn him that it might be necessary to go to war. The two men spend the evening discussing the arrangements for mobilisation and the Army’s plan for war with Germany (again, of which more later).

Meanwhile, President Poincare is keeping in touch with the situation from his ship. He’s not overly concerned; he’s already arranged his government’s response to the ultimatum.


Today the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, writes words that will forever haunt all future discussions of Britain’s role at the back end of the July Crisis.

We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of a real Armageddon, which would dwarf the Ulster and Nationalist Volunteers to their true proportion. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.

In making this statement he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. He completely fails to appreciate the situation that the last three years of Anglo-French military arrangements has left his country in.

Meanwhile, Sir Edward Grey meets the Austro-Hungarian ambassador Mensdorff once more. He’s tried to ignore the crisis and that hasn’t worked. When he brings the situation to the Cabinet, after a long discussion of the situation in Ireland, they’re more than happy to accept his first solution, almost on the nod. Grey’s proposal is for an immediate four-power diplomatic conference between Britain, France, Italy, and Germany.

With Russia having declared the Period Prepatory to War and France standing squarely behind their ally, this is not unlike trying to convince the German government to back down with a major (and I mean major) leaflet campaign. Sadly, events will overtake Grey before he can organise the whist drive and the car boot sale, but street theatre remains a viable option as long as they can get everyone to Liege in the next seven days.

It may seem like a balanced proposal (two Entente partners, two Triple Alliance partners), but the Italians have absolutely no desire to be nice to Austria-Hungary about anything. The conference also would not involve Russia, Serbia’s patron. And then, even if it had gone ahead, how would the powers enforce any settlement? The time to suggest a conference would have been, say, July 3rd.

And, incidentally, for a country that will spend a large amount of time over the next few days scrambling to keep Britain out of the war, there’s precious little diplomatic traffic between Berlin and London to that end at the moment. They seem to be taking it entirely for granted that Britain will stay out.

Daily Telegraph

“The position… is so critical that any day may see catastrophe.” Words from today’s Daily Telegraph. However, it’s not talking about the crisis. The only mention of the ultimatum is a bland newswire reprint from Reuters. They’re talking about the ongoing crisis over Home Rule for Ireland. The French newspapers are similarly full of Henriette Caillaux’s murder trial (described in the Telegraph as “A Comedy of Divorce”).

The irony of Franz Ferdinand

As the crisis spirals towards war, I’ve written a few thoughts in a separate post on how spectacularly ironic the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was.

Actions in Progress

July Crisis
Russian Period Prepatory to War

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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