Road To WW1: Outbreak

 Given the will of all powers concerned to find a peaceful solution on July 1914, this might have been possible at any time until July 29. Historian Imanuel Geiss

 A failure of monumental proportions

By Roger Childs

WW1 damageIn late July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and shelled its capital Belgrade. Were these the crucial events that set in train the outbreak of a European and ultimately World War? Tragically the answer is “Yes”. The six great powers of Europe were split into two rival alliances and if war was to occur, getting your military forces mobilised rapidly was crucial.

The first mobilisation order came from Russia, as that country’s government was determined to support its fellow Slavs in Serbia. This fateful decision set in motion a chain reaction which led to the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.

(For background to the late July – early August developments see and  )

A tragic sequence of decisions

Mobilisation is a declaration of war. French General Rauol de Boisdettre

Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany thought that dealing with Serbia in the aftermath of the Franz Ferdinand assassination would not involve other nations. They were wrong. Once Austria-Hungary fired salvos on the Serb capital events quickly spiralled out of control.

Within a week, five great powers, along with their empires, were at war.

French march~ July 29: Austria-Hungary shells Belgrade / Russia partially mobilises

~ July 31: Russia and Austria-Hungary fully mobilise / German sends an ultimatum to Russia to demobilise

~ August 1: Germany sends an ultimatum to France to declare its neutrality in the event of a war between Germany and Russia / France rejects the German ultimatum / France and Germany mobilise / Germany declares war on Russia

~ August 2: Germany sends an ultimatum to Belgium to allow transit of German troops / Britain guarantees naval support to France

~ August 3: Germany declares war on France

~ August 4: Britain declares war on Germany / Germany invades Belgium

~ August 5: New Zealand and other dominions and colonies join Britain

Mobilisation and war plans

Schlieffen PlanOnce the mobilisation button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping and transporting two million men (in the case of Germany), began turning automatically. Historian Barbara Tuchman

Mobilising Germany’s forces and its supplies required over 240,000 railway carriages grouped in more than 11,000 trains! It was similar situation in other countries. Once the process was started, it was virtually impossible to stop.

All the major powers had war plans, but Germany’s were the most complex. Their Schlieffen Plan was based on the correct assumption that they would be fighting France on their western frontier and Russia in the east. So it was vital for Germany to mobilise as rapidly as possible.


Why did things get out of control so quickly?

Balkans 1914In the past, the great powers had often met together to bring a crisis to an end and maintain peace in Europe. However the Austrians and Germans thought they could sort out the problems with Serbia themselves. One thing they didn’t anticipate was the rapid action of Russia to support the Serbs.

All the main powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary – had huge military resources and also a nationalistic determination to maintain their place in Europe and the world. There had been plenty of tension between them in the period from 1890 and there were a number of crises, three in the Balkans (see the map above),  from 1908 to 1913, which might have sparked a general war.

By 1914 there were hawks and doves in every country and making decisions involved

  • heads of state
  • government ministers
  • diplomats in foreign capitals
  • military leaders.

In an age when communication and travel was very slow by today’s standards, delays and misunderstandings often resulted. There were also rivalries, secret agendas and power plays within nations. Then once Austria – Hungary started threatening Serbia, the powers of Europe became obsessed with maintaining their status and influence, and acting in their own best interests.

There were also obligations between allies: Germany and Austria-Hungary, Britain and France (the entente cordiale), France and Russia.

Stepping back was not an option, so from late July ultimatums and mobilisations became the order of the day. The power brokers were calling the shots and there was no heed given to cautionary sentiments such as appeared in Britain’s Punch magazine in early August:

Why should I follow your fighting line

For a matter that’s no concern of mine?


I shall be asked to a general scrap

All over the European map,

Dragged into somebody else’s war

For that’s what a double entente is for.


Germans marchSo a hundred years ago, in early August 1914, Europe marched off to war in a burst of patriotic fervour: the bands played, the crowds cheered and the troop trains rolled.

All the powers deluded themselves it would all be over by Christmas; but which Christmas?