How did the First World War begin?

The origins of the First World War are one of the most discussed, and most controversial, phases of modern history and I’m almost regretting getting into it, but here goes. I’m going to look at some of the reasons behind the war and the sequence of events that led to the great powers of Europe into war. I doubt if anyone knows how many books have been published on this subject, so summarising down to an article has been a challenge, so please forgive any omissions!

A logo saying 1914–1918 War.

As is fitting for a war that was to shape the 20th century, to get under the skin of the origins of the war, we need to go back to about a hundred years before its outbreak.

Back in 1815, the Congress of Vienna established what came to be known as the Concert of Europe and was intended to keep the lid on the forms of nationalism that had caused the series of European wars between 1792 and 1815, including the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary wars. The Vienna agreement was essentially a balance of power negotiation, that shifted territory from France to Prussia, Austria and Russia.

The agreement was a success in terms of its primary aim of preventing major European conflict. However, the Concert of Europe was less effective in suppressing smaller scale conflict, especially in the Balkans. In 1911, Italy had attacked Libya and had shown the Ottoman Empire to be largely powerless. This led a number of nationalities within the empire to assert themselves, with Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Greece emerging as independent states but dependent on the support of the great powers for their continued survival.

Austro-Hungary was a similar amalgam of eleven different ethnic groupings with, often conflicting interests, many of which included significant populations living outside of their true mother country. For example, Austria was heavily populated with ethnic Germans which will no doubt be important by the time we get to 1938!

In 1908, Austro-Hungary had annexed Bosnia Herzegovina. This action had alienated Russia who felt protective towards the Slavic populations of the Balkans and felt that it had vital interests in the Balkans, not least access to the sea route from the Black Sea. In addition, due to the presence of Serbs and Croats who lived in Bosnia Herzegovina, the annexation led to calls for those people to be governed by Serbia, where Serbs and Croats formed the dominant political power.

In 1912 and 1913, Serbia fought two wars of ethnic expansion and had taken both territory and population from Austro-Hungary and, in both cases, the Concert of Europe had failed to prevent the wars or broker an agreement. It seemed that the balance of power worked to avoid big conflicts but couldn’t stop smaller wars, especially in the Balkans!

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Emperor Franz Josef and the Austro-Hungarian throne, was acutely aware of the need for an alliance with another powerful regional power to buttress his empire against Russia, whilst he dealt with the Serbs, and had been seeking suitable partners.

Romania was a good match, with a larger army than Austro-Hungary, however, there was a fly in the ointment. A continuing dispute over the Transylvanian region, where Magyars ruled over ethnic Romanians, rumbled on. Rejecting any form of reform, the Magyars were an immovable obstruction to resolving the Transylvanian issue and this, in turn, prevented alliance with Romania.

In Austro-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand was widely seen as a reformer who strove to keep Austro-Hungary together by balancing the interests of the many ethnic groups that made up the empire. He needed to make concessions to a number of ethnic groups, most notably the Serbs, Bosnians and Croats, in order to placate them, however, for every concession made, another ethnic group would experience, or would perceive, a loss.

These tensions meant that Franz Ferdinand became a target for assassination as disaffected groups began to believe that his assassination could prevent the implementation of reforms that many feared. Members of the Serbian secret military society the “Black Hand” , which aimed to unite all South Slavs and had begun actively recruiting potential assassins and supplying them with weapons, had planned to kill the Governor of Bosnia, but now switched their attentions to Ferdinand.

Unable to broker an alliance with Romania and fearful of triggering an intervention from Russia in the event of a Balkan conflict, Ferdinand cast around for another ally and requested a guarantee of support from the Germans. At this time though the Germans weren’t keen and refused to offer a guarantee.

Without an alliance with Romania and with no support from Germany, Ferdinand approached Bulgaria. An agreement with Bulgaria was enticing as it had a shared border with Serbia and was able to protect against a Russia advance; accordingly, Austro-Hungary began to woo this new potential ally. In order to help bring about the union, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Franz von Matscheko committed his thoughts to a letter that made the case for the alliance to both Franz Ferdinand and to the Germans whose financial strength would be required to bankroll the alliance.

On June the 28th, the Archduke and his wife made a planned visit to Sarajevo. It was a terrible date to pick; not only was it Serbia’s national day but also the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo upon which the Serbian national founding myth depended. The visit was about as inflammatory as it could get!

There was no secrecy about the visit and a group of students, calling themselves the Young Bosnians, who were advocates of the Greater Serbia movement, planned to assassinate the Archduke. Their assassination attempt, or more accurately, multiple attempts, positioned multiple assassins along the main route the Archduke’s car was due to travel. So far, so good for the assassins, however, five of the students lost their nerve and didn’t act. One of the assassins did pluck up enough courage to throw a bomb at the Archduke’s car but it rolled under another car, putting a crater in the ground and wounding over 15 people. The student was captured but not before he’d taken a cyanide pill that failed to kill him and had also failed to drown himself in the local river!

The Archduke made it to the town hall reception where a hurried conference discussed what to do next. Ferdinand was understandably annoyed, saying “So you welcome your guests here with bombs!” The Archduke and his wife decided that they would visit the wounded in hospital and a revised route was worked out. However, in the confusion and by one of those quirks of fate upon which history can turn, the Archduke’s car took a wrong turn into a street where Gavrilo Princep, one of the failed assassins was walking. The car was in the process of turning around to get back on the route to the hospital when Princep took the opportunity that had been presented to him. He pulled out his pistol and shot the Archduke in the neck. He then shot Sophie, the Archduke’s wife in the abdomen. The couple were driven to the Governor’s residence but were pronounced dead a little after 11am.

Princep and the rest of the assassins were captured and, as ethnic Bosnians coming from a Bosnian pressure group, drew suspicion onto the Serbians, as it was widely, and correctly, assumed that they had sponsored by the Serbian authorities. The Serbian Prime Minister, Pasic, caught between a strong and hawkish military, which had sponsored the Young Bosnians and the need to mollify international opinion, failed to condemn the assassination strongly enough, leaving a suspicion that it had, indeed, been a government sponsored Serbian plot.

Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Franz von Matscheko proposed to the ageing Emperor Frank Josef that it was time for a final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia. This view chimed with that of the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf. It was his belief that Serbia had to be neutralised as a threat and as soon as possible.

Von Hotzendorf had, until now, been kept in check by Franz Ferdinand and Matscheko, but now found that his hawkish opinions were pushing at an open door. His desire for personal glory and belief that the odds on an Austro-Hungarian victory against Serbia lengthened the longer the potential war was postponed, led him to the conclusion that she would be better of fighting now rather than when Serbia was stronger. In the light of Franz Ferdinand’s death, the Austro-Hungarian government rapidly developed a new policy position that a war with Serbia was both inevitable and preferable.

There were two main problems, the first was that the Austro-Hungarian army was woefully underfunded; its budget was less than that of the British Army but had to support an army of over ten times as many men! The simple fact was that much of the state’s resources were routinely diverted into appeasing the various nationalist elements in the country and not on national infrastructure.

The second problem was that war against Serbia carried the massive risk of Russian intervention; it this risk that the Austro-Hungarians now sought to counter.

Franz Conrad’s belief that Austro-Hungary would struggle in any war was grounded on the twin pillars of European military strength, manpower and firepower. In both these areas Austro-Hungary lagged behind its local rivals and other European powers, lacking front line troops, reserves and modern artillery in the quantities required.

Austro-Hungary had found itself in a position where, due to budgetary constraints, it was unable to rearm quickly enough for the new challenges of 1914. Put simply, Austro-Hungary was incapable of fighting a war in the Balkans whilst also defending itself from other powers that might choose to get involved.

The answer to this weakness was a military alliance with Germany, which was more than capable of supporting Austro-Hungary. An alliance would protect Austro-Hungary from Russia and to lend weight to her efforts to bring Bulgaria into an alliance.

Kaiser Wilhelm, fired up with anger over the loss of his friend Franz Ferdinand, called his ministers together and rapidly agreed to support Austro-Hungary in the event of Russia’s intervention in the Balkans. What Austro-Hungary decided to do about the Serbia problem was very much left to her discretion.

However, the decision to support Austro-Hungary was driven by deeper motivations than grief for the Archduke. The Germans knew that Russia was modernising its armed forces and, more importantly, its communications network. Railways meant that troops could be brought to the frontier quickly and German knew that Russia was building strategic railways. It was easy to travel and observe developments such as stations in the countryside with unusually long platforms designed to facilitate the disembarkation of troops and cavalry.

Germany knew that, at some stage, Russia’s famed manpower reserves would cease to be a theoretical threat and become and irresistible juggernaut that could crush her neighbours. If Russia had to be fought, why not fight now when Russia wasn’t ready for war instead of waiting for the conflict to come when she was? As the German Chief of Staff, Count Moltke stated in May 1914, “failing to deal with Russia in the near term meant lessening our chances; we could not compete with the Russian masses.” He saw that there was no choice but to wage preventative war in order to “beat the enemy while we still have some chance of winning.”

The fundamental problem was that European affairs were so entwined with conflicting interests that it wouldn’t take much to unravel the whole thing.

The American Colonel House, who was President Wilson’s representative, put it in a letter to his boss; “Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria. England does not want Germany wholly crushed, for she would then have to reckon alone with her ancient enemy, Russia; but if Germany insists on an ever-increasing navy, England will have no choice.“

As Austro-Hungary and Germany forged closer links, it’s probably a good point to consider the other great European Alliance, the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia.

The Entente was made up from seemingly incompatible countries; whichever way you look at the three nations, differences abound. Britain and France were traditional enemies and had fought each other for much of their history. Russia was an autocratic monarchy in contrast to France’s republic. Britain and Russian interests often collided in Asia due to the presence of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Whichever measure you use, it is hard to imagine them as instinctive bed fellows. However, these countries had, by 1914, made various bilateral agreements that bound them together.

Geographically it made sense for France and Russia to assist each other in the face of a military powerful and expansionist Germany lodged between them, but this hadn’t always been the case. Germany and Russia had, in the days of Bismark, been careful to foster a close understanding and had, through the Reinsurance Treaty, been committed to come to each other’s aid.

However, with the decline of the Turkish empire, Austro-Hungary began to assert her interests in the Balkans, bringing her into competition with Russia. Over time, Russia found it harder and harder to maintain good relations with Germany and in 1887, when Germany failed to extend their Reinsurance Treaty, which bound them to support each other in war, found France was a willing investor and ally; by 1894 they were in formal alliance.

As well as pushing Russia into the arms of France, Germany also managed to provoke the British Empire by building a powerful modern navy. The German reasoning was that she deserved colonial possessions like the other great powers and a hugely expensive navy was the way to achieve it. The arms race that ensued, meant that valuable resources, up to a third of the entire defence budget went to the navy. This robbed Germany of the ability to field the manpower she would need to win a land war on two fronts; she simply couldn’t maintain the army at the scale needed even though she had a greater population than France.

As well as diverting resources from the German army, the arms race also pushed Britain to seek alliances that could be used as a counterbalance to German power. On the face of it, the Entente Cordiale, between Britain and France signed in 1904, was focussed on colonial matters but it was bigger than that, by formalising peace and support between Britain and France the treaty gave both powers a level of security against Germany and whatever alliances she entered.

Finally, Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907, which was designed to defuse a number of disputes relating to Tibet, Persia and Afghanistan and had the wider effect of forming the Triple Entente between France, Britain and Russia. This alliance formed an effective counter to the German, Austro-Hungarian and Italian Triple Alliance that had been signed in 1882 and agreed a mixture of support and neutrality in various scenarios.

So, on the face of it, Britain, France and Russia might not have looked like likely allies but they each feared Germany’s intentions and were pushed together.

The German high command looked at the apparent contradictions within the Entente and concluded that such a brittle alliance could be and would be ruptured if it were placed under any kind of strain.

Germany calculated that, in the event of a war breaking out between Austro-Hungary and Serbia, either Russia would not fight because it was not ready to do so, or if it did, it would be ineffective.

Crucially, Germany calculated that, even if Russia did intervene, she would not be supported by France and Great Britain over a minor conflict in the Balkans. Germany was convinced that, with Russia getting stronger by the year (she was already embarked on a major rearmament programme that was due to culminate in 1917) she had an incentive for a pre-emptive war. Accordingly, Germany made assurances to support Austro-Hungary and, whilst she made some attempts to localise the crisis to Austro-Hungary and Serbia, did not fear conflict with Russia.

The German leaders reasoned that the Russians shouldn’t want a war because they were militarily unprepared and because politically there was no moral imperative to support Serbia; after all, Serbia had sponsored the assassinations. It therefore followed that, if Russia chose to go to war, they must be using the crisis as a pretence for military action and, in the face of such aggression, Germany would have no choice but to defend herself.

On the 5th of July, the German high command’s decision was communicated to the Austro-Hungary in the so-called “blank cheque”, giving her freedom of manoeuvre and a seemingly unlimited guarantee of support. The German ambassador reassured Austrian officials that Germany would stand by them and that Austro-Hungary should act as soon as possible saying, “it would have been better to attack yesterday than today; and better to attack today than tomorrow.”

But despite this warlike stance, there was a bit of a lull while Austro-Hungary debated what to do. The Kaiser went off on a cruise and British diplomats relaxed; it seemed the danger had passed. It seemed to the Kaiser that “the more resolute that Austria shows herself and the more energetically we support her, the sooner Russia will stop her outcry.”

Within the Austro-Hungarian government itself, despite receiving a secret report from Sarajevo that confirmed that the Serbian government probably wasn’t involved in the assassination, opinion moved in favour of a strike against Serbia.

On the 23rd of July, following on from Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, an ultimatum was delivered to the Serbian government demanding three main actions; that the Serbians round up terrorist groups in Serbia, that propaganda against the Austro-Hungarians be ceased and that Austro-Hungary should have representation on the panel investigating the Archduke’s assassination. This was strong stuff that impinged right upon Serbian sovereignty. As Sir Edward Grey said, “this was the most formidable document that was ever addressed from one state to another.” The Austro-Hungarian ambassador didn’t expect Serbia to meet these demands and didn’t stick around for a response.

In fact, as it turns out, Serbia did make some concessions, but only insomuch as they didn’t threaten her sovereignty. Austro-Hungary’s demand to intervene in the internal Serbian assassination investigation, however, was considered a step too far and was refused. At the same time, Serbia appealed to international opinion for support, citing their concessions as a sign of good faith. However, the Serbian Prime Minister was convinced that Austro-Hungary was planning for a war.

Russia also expected war. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazanov suspected that Germany was looking to provoke a preventative war against Russia to neutralise the threat of her rearmament programme. Accordingly, on the 24th of July, Russia mobilised some of its military to defend against the possibility of an attack from Germany.

So, events were set in train, literally, for it was rail transport that drove the need for mobilisation and a sequence of moves were played out as if in a chess game. The need to deploy forces to the borders by rail and the rigid logistics of the rail timetable meant that, in order to have forces in position to counter a threat, it was necessary to transport troops from their bases and muster points as quickly as possible according to pre-planned timetables.

As troop movements towards a frontier looked the same regardless of whether they were intended for offensive or defensive purposes, no nation could allow its neighbours to mass troops along a border without preparing its own troops to counter any possible attacks. It therefore proved impossible to break the cycle of mobilisation, with each subsequent move provoking a counter move. The small Balkan crisis was escalating out of control and once mobilisation orders were given, war became increasingly likely.

In reality, only Great Britain was exempt from the inexorable logic of mobilisation, protected as she was by the sea and the Royal Navy; she alone did not need to deploy a large continental army in a short time period to threatened borders. However, her strategic situation was changing, for years Germany had been building up her navy and on the 24th of July, Germany had sent a battleship through the newly completed Kiel canal, which for the first time allowed her to transfer her navy between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea away from the sea route; this expression of German naval planning and ambition was not wasted on the British.

In the light of European tensions, the British fleet, having been massed for the annual naval review, remained concentrated following a decision by the First Sea Lord Winston Churchill not to disperse them. Whilst exempt from the need to mobilise to defend her borders, there was nothing wrong with being ready for any eventuality!

On the 25th of July, in the expectation that Austro-Hungary was planning to go to war over their ultimatum, Serbia mobilised its army. At the same time, Franz Josef ordered that Austro-Hungary mobilise, commencing on the 28th, in preparation for an attack on Serbia even now Austro-Hungarian unpreparedness was showing; it would take them around 17 days for them to fully mobilise.

Fearful of the escalating situation, the British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, proposed to the Germans that a peace conference of the Concert of Europe be called to try and avert war. Grey also made it clear that, should any wider conflict develop from a localised Austro-Hungarian and Serbian affair, Britain would be unable to stand aside.

Kaiser Wilhelm, returning from his yachting holiday on the 27th of July, was dismayed to hear of the risk that Britain might get involved. Realising that his high command’s calculations may be mistaken, he attempted to stop the Austro-Hungarians and start a mediation process. His assessment of the Serbian response to the ultimatum was that it was adequate and he said “this document does away with any need for war”. By this stage, however, Conrad was determined to go ahead with his war and in Germany, the Kaiser’s Chancellor, Bethmann-Holweg, believed he could contain the conflict to the Balkans.

Parallel to the Serbian and Austro-Hungarian mobilisations, the French and Russian governments reinforced their commitment to each other and the need to stand firm, while France tried to convince Britain that she was still committed to peace. By reassuring Britain of their desire for peace, the French hoped to pave the way for British support in the event of a war which France herself was largely committed to.

The agreements between Britain and France had deepened from a general understanding to a more strategic alliance under Sir Edward Grey, but Grey was adamant that Britain retained freedom to act independently. However, towards the end of July, he went as far as to commit, and then rapidly withdraw, an offer to help France in the event of her remaining neutral in any conflict; effectively offering to guarantee her neutrality.

Russia and Italy appealed to Britain to declare her hand in favour of France as this would help to deter Germany and Austro-Hungary. In tandem with this, Grey rejected a secret suggestion from the Germans that they should leave mainland France alone in exchange for being permitted to help themselves to France’s colonial territories.

In a last-minute effort to avert war, the Tsar sent a message to the Kaiser asking him to do whatever he could to prevent Austro-Hungary from declaring war. On the strength of Kaiser Wilhelm’s response, he ordered only a partial Russian mobilisation but came under pressure to change this on the basis that Austro-Hungary was already into its full mobilisation plan and Russia couldn’t afford to delay.

On the 28th of July, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian army shelled Serbian targets across their shared border and naval vessels in the Danube shelled Sarajevo itself. The Austro-Hungarian plan was to focus on Serbia and not to worry about the threat from Russia at this stage, based on the faulty logic that Russia would take much longer to mobilise than she required.

The logic of mobilisation affected Germany perhaps more than any other nation. Ever fearful of the spectre of a war on two fronts and with both France and Russia as immediate and powerful enemies, their war planning was predicated on the expected mobilisation times of Germany’s opponents. It was anticipated that, of her two opponents, France would mobilise fastest and therefore the German plan called for a short sharp strike with the bulk of her forces to defeat the French. This action was to take about five or six weeks and would neutralise the threat to Germany’s western borders. Then the German army would board trains and deploy to the east to face Russia which was expected to take six weeks to mobilise.

This plan was predicated on Russian forces failing to move against Germany in any strength during the early stages of the war, but it was acknowledged that it would be prudent to encourage Austro-Hungary to position of some of her forces in the Galicia region. It was reasoned that this would divert Russian focus from attacking Eastern Prussia, so Germany pressurised Austro-Hungary not to focus solely on Serbia and to move its 2nd Army to Galicia.

This was easier said, or demanded, than done and was to have far reaching effects. As a result of this pressure, Austro-Hungary ended up with diluted forces on both the Serbian and Galician fronts as the structure of the Austro-Hungarian rail network, meant that it could only really move armies in one direction at a time.

Having picked a war with Serbia, Austro-Hungary was now forced to rob from the Serbian front to deploy to the Galician front. The absence of troops on the Serbian front meant that offensive action was potentially dangerous, however, this was precisely the action that political pressure demanded; after all, what was the point of picking a fight with someone if only to defend once the fight had started?

The key problem was manpower. Serbia could field around 350,000 troops, many of whom had recent battle experience. The Austro-Hungarians could only field around 290,000 men, and these were generally lower calibre troops. The Austro-Hungarian commander, Oskar Potiorek, developed a plan that aimed to encircle firstly the Serbian forces and, ultimately, Serbia itself. However, depending as it did on manpower that was subsequently diverted to the eastern front, it was rapidly derailed.

On the 30th of July, Tsar Nicholas ordered that the complete mobilisation of the Russian military take place. He had been unwilling to take this step until now as he was only too aware that it carried a very real risk of escalation. However, the Tsar had been convinced by his foreign minister, Sazanoff, that he could delay no longer. When Russia mobilised, Germany sent one last ultimatum the following day demanding that she should “cease every war measure against us and Austro-Hungary”. This demand was rejected by the Russians who were unwilling to risk not having their troops in position in the event of war.

As well as putting pressure on Russia, Germany also requested that France undertake to remain neutral in any conflict. France refused, honouring her 1894 alliance with Russia and began mobilisation on the 31st of July.

Also on the 31st of July, Britain asked both France and Germany to guarantee Belgian neutrality. The major powers of Europe, including Prussia as predecessor state to Germany, had each guaranteed that Belgium was to be preserved as a permanent neutral state when they signed the Treaty of London in 1839. Belgium, despite this guarantee offered a tempting alternative to the, heavily defended and often fought over, Franco-German border. Cutting through Belgium presented a line of least resistance for both the Germans and the French if they wanted to strike at one another. It was this eventuality that the British sought to pre-empt by seeking assurances from the French and Germans that they would not use this option; only the French were to respond.

Britain’s ultimatum was too little too late, the German plans for war against France had anticipated violating Belgian territory since the 1890’s. If it came to war with France, Belgium would be invaded regardless of international opinion.

On the 1st of August Tsar Nicholas, conscious of the escalating situation and keen to avoid a war, appealed to the Kaiser to avoid bloodshed. Later on, that day, however, Kaiser Wilhelm, determined to honour his commitments to Austro-Hungary, commanded full mobilisation of the German army. This was the last chance for peace in the east and committed Germany to war with Russia, but first the exposed western front must be neutralised.

Efforts in the German camp were now focussed on the role of Britain and France. The German ambassador, Lichnowsky, sent a last-minute message to Berlin in which he expressed his belief that he had been offered a British guarantee that France would remain neutral if Germany was willing to agree not to attack to the west. However, this offer was based on a misunderstanding between Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey and was never a real option, nevertheless, it excited the Kaiser as he hoped that he could save Germany from a two-front war.

Clutching at this straw, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered that the German army’s opening moves in the updated Schlieffen plan be halted to allow this chance of peace in the West to develop. Moltke, however, was adamant that his forces could not possibly be transferred to fight Russia in the east when the plan committed them to first crushing France. He stressed that any deviation to the plan could leave German forces in disarray and still facing potential French aggression. The mobilisation and transport timetables were so complex that it was impossible to change them on the fly.

At 11pm on the 1st of August German troops at Trier were ordered to begin their move over the border into Luxembourg (whose independence was also guaranteed under the Treaty of London) in order to take control of a strategic rail and telegraph junction.

As the troops moved over the border, King George V attempted to intervene by sending a telegram to the Tsar, urging restraint, but like Sir Edward Grey’s final futile telegram to Berlin, it arrived too late.

As these last diplomatic moves were playing themselves out, Germany, already committed to war, presented the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sazanoff, with a formal declaration of war. In an emotional meeting Sazanoff turned on the German ambassador and told him that “the curses of the nations will be upon you”. He continued, “you could have prevented the war by one word; you didn’t want to.” The German ambassador had to be helped from the room in tears.

On the 2nd of August, German troops crossed the border with France for the first time and several small skirmishes broke out, during which Corporal Jule-Andre Peugeot was unlucky to become France’s first casualty of war. In Britain, the Royal Navy was issued with a full war mobilisation order.

At seven o-clock on the evening of the 2nd, the Germans issued an ultimatum to the Belgian government, demanding free and safe passage across Belgian territory; the deadline set for a response was just twelve hours. The Belgians refused the ultimatum, citing the guarantees of the Treaty of London in 1839 and resolved to defend their country.

With the expiration of the ultimatum to Belgium on August the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and sent troops across the Belgian border in order to prepare for an attack on the French from the north. In the Reichstag, the German Chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg acknowledged that German troops were in Belgium, stating that, “the wrong I speak openly that we are committing we will endeavour to make good as soon as our military goal is reached.”

In line with her treaty obligations Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding that Belgian neutrality be respected. The deadline for withdrawal was set at 11pm on the 4th of August. For those in the British government who wanted war against Germany, Belgium presented a fine justification for war that was untarnished with ulterior motives. Up until now, the British cabinet had been divided, the violation of Belgium was the unifying factor that allowed them to coalesce around the need for war. The ‘hawks’ were to get their wish and at 11pm, having received no response from Germany, Britain’s ultimatum expired, and war was formally declared.

In little over a month, the great powers of Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia and Austro-Hungary had gone from peace to being at war with each other. They would remain at war for over four more years.

So, there you have it, an almost inexorable spiral of events that shaped our world. I believe you can follow my writing, so if you read this far, why wouldn’t you?

If you enjoy reading stories like this and want to support me as a writer, consider signing up to become a Medium member. It’s $5 a month, giving you unlimited access to stories of Medium. If you sign up using my link, I’ll earn a small commission.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.