Peacocks & Chess Moves: The start of the First World War
100 years ago today the empire of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and officially started the First World War, but how did Europe go from relative peace to all out war in a matter of weeks?
After the assassination of the Archduke there began a period of political bicep flexing and a flurry of pacts, friendly handshakes and aggressive finger pointing as the major (and some of the not so major) powers of Europe shuffled themselves into two distinct sides ready for what would be an August face-off.
On 6th July, Germany put an arm around its Austro-Hungarian cousins and told them they could count on German support if they decided on revenge against Serbia. Indeed, Germany, (who had become increasingly nervous of Russia over the last number of years) saw this as a good opportunity to put Russia back in her rightful place… But, if Germany had any hopes of defeating Russia in a war they had to act now. Her main ally, Austria-Hungary was threatening to implode and Russia was becoming stronger all the time. It was time to put the wheels in motion.
Germany persistently whispered into the ear of Austria-Hungary, suggesting that the Serbian government were behind the assassination. On the 9th Friedrich von Wiesner, an official from the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Office was sent to check it out. Not surprisingly, four days later on 14th July, Herr von Wiesner reported back confirming the rumours that the Serbia government were indeed behind the assassination. Now the Austro-Hungarians were jumping up and down with rage. It was time for action.
On the 21st July the Chief-of-Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army, Conrad von Hotzendorff, called for the declaration of war on Serbia claiming that no one in Europe would bat an eyelid. Feeling brave two days later on the 23rd July, the Austro-Hungarian government placed fifteen separate demands on the Serbian government, including one that they arrest the leaders of the Black Hand and send them to Vienna for trial.
The next day, the 24th July, fearing the worst, the Serbs asked Russia for their help if they were to be attacked by Austria-Hungary. They got the nod from the Russians on the 26th July. Meanwhile they had already stuck two fingers up at Austria-Hungary by flatly refusing to co-operate with any of their demands. This didn’t really go down well with Emperor Franz Josef and the rest of the Austro-Hungarians, and they duly declared war on Serbia on the 28th July.
On the 31st July Russia mobilised her army in support of Serbia, and in a provocative move, rushed a large number of troops right up to the borders of Austria-Hungary and Germany.
This was an invitation Germany could not ignore and duly declared war on Russia 24 hours later, citing aggressive Russian behaviour and the need to protect their territory from any impending threat. However, the Germans were also very nervous about France. If Germany committed to a war with Russia in the east, Germany’s western flank would be vulnerable to French attack. The German plan to overcome this perceived threat was laid out in their Schlieffen Plan. German thinking at this time was that the French army was relatively weak and could be defeated before the much stronger Russians had fully mobilised. If this could be achieved they would then be free to concentrate on Russia without the threat of an attack on their western front. As such Germany declared war on France on 3rd August. They were now committed to something they were originally trying to avoid; a war on two fronts.
Now it was time for Britain to get in on the act. When Germany declared war on France, Belgium understandably felt uneasy. As a neutral territory they looked to Britain to help them preserve their position. Britain, being generally nice chaps, immediately tipped their hat to Belgium and guaranteed to protect their neutrality. In the same breath Britain warned Germany that if they set foot in Belgium they could consider themselves at war with Britain and her Empire.
It was all about to kick off big time. The Germans walked straight into Belgium on the 4th August and true to their word Britain declared war on Germany. Over the next ten days or so, all the major protagonists declared war on each other, making two very distinct, very powerful and very destructive sides; led by Austria-Hungary and Germany on one side, and Russia, France and Great Britain on the other.
After all this political showboating and feather ruffling it would be left to the ordinary man in the street to fight it out in the trenches over the next five years; to live and to die amongst the mud, the guns, the filth, the gas, the rats and the blood.
This blog post is an extract from my book: World War One: A Layman’s Guide which is available to purchase on all Amazon sites in either Kindle or paperback formats.