Road To WWI: July Crisis

 Finally a situation arises when a Great Power can no longer just look on but must draw the sword. German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Austrian Chief of General Staff, July 6 1914

Remembering a revolution and a war

By Roger Childs

Paris fireworksJuly 14 is Bastille Day and it celebrates the storming of the notorious Paris prison during the French Revolution of 1789. It is France’s National Day and this year, on the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One, there have been special ceremonies as well as dramatic fireworks around the Eiffel Tower.

It was in July 1914 that the great powers of Europe were faced with the possibility of fireworks of a different kind. Could they prevent a minor crisis in the Balkans leading to major war?

Serbia is implicated in the assassination

The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia-Herzegovina in June 1914 was seen in Vienna as a challenge to Austria-Hungary’s right to rule the area. (See: )

Neighbouring Serbia, as a supporter of Pan-Slavism – uniting Slavs in the region – was clearly involved.

Balkans map~ Assassin Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian-Serb.

~ The assassination team had been trained and armed in Serbia by the Black Hand.

~ Serbian border officials had turned a blind to the armed group crossing into Bosnia.

~ The Serbian government knew that the Black Hand was plotting something, but its vague warning to the Austro-Hungarian government was not recognised as being serious.

There had also been tensions with Serbia in recent years, and many in Austria were convinced that it was now time to deal with Serbia once and for all.

Austria-Hungary checks things out with its ally Germany

Franz JosefFranz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria-Hungary (pictured alongside), and heir to his throne. Franz Josef was normally opposed to war, but realised that the assassination was a threat to his empire.

He wrote to his ally, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The crime against my nephew is the first consequence of the agitation carried on by Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavists whose sole aim is to weaken the Triple Alliance and shatter my empire.

The Emperor referred to the Triple Alliance which included Italy, as well as Austria-Hungary and Germany.

He also emphasized the influence of Russia:

  • the biggest Slav nation
  • the most populous Great Power
  • a staunch supporter of Serbia.

Russia was part of an allied group called the Triple Entente which included the other two European Great Powers: France and Britain.

All six nations in the alliances had been involved in an arms build up since the late 1890s, to ensure they were ready for war, should it occur.

KaiserAustria-Hungary would not take action against Serbia, without the support of Germany, which was probably the strongest military power of the six. Discussions in Berlin during July 5 and 6 between the two powers, resulted in the Kaiser (pictured alongside), giving Austria-Hungary what has become known as the blank cheque.

Basically the Germans would support any action their ally decided to take against the Serbs.

The Kaiser said: I am with you there (with Austria-Hungary against Serbia) The others (other great powers) are not prepared. They will do nothing against it. Within a few days you must be in Belgrade (capital of Serbia.) I was always a partisan of peace, but this has its limits… Finally a situation arises when a Great Power can no longer just look on but must draw the sword.

Nothing to worry about?

Balkan War For over two weeks Austria-Hungary did nothing. The Sarajevo assassinations had been big news in late June and there was general sympathy throughout Europe for the victims. However as time passed it was felt that this was just another act of violence in Southeast Europe – The Balkans – where assassinations and conflict were common.

Things would get sorted, if necessary by the great powers getting together. In the previous 10 years there had been a number of crises and small wars, however none had lead to a major conflict.

Despite being in different alliances, the major powers had sorted out

  • two crises in Morocco: 1905 and 1911
  • a crisis in Bosnia: 1908
  • the First Balkan War: 1912-13

The Second Balkan War of 1913 only lasted two months and the participants brokered a settlement amongst themselves.

Surely in the aftermath of the Franz Ferdinand assassination, good sense would prevail and a settlement between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would be worked through?

Danger time: Austria-Hungary acts against Serbia

July was summer time in Europe and in the middle of the month many of the politicians went on holiday. Then seemingly out of the blue, more than three weeks after the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria Hungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum.

Basically Vienna demanded that the Serbian government accept all 10 clauses otherwise the country would be invaded.

Serbia was prepared to accept eight of the clauses, which required them to end anti-Austrian groups and propaganda, and arrest anybody who had supported or been involved in planning the assassination.

What it wouldn’t agree to was

Clause 5: Accept the presence of Austrian authorities in Serbia to see that anti-Austrian activities ceased

Clause 6: Open an inquiry into the assassination and allow Austria-Hungary to take part in it.

The government knew that if they agreed to these two clauses, they would be giving up their independence as a country.

British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, described the ultimatum as the most formidable document that was ever addressed from one State to another.

Late July: the road to war?

Serbia accepted everything except allowing Austro-Hungarian officials to operate inside its borders. The German Kaiser was delighted, commenting on July 27

A brilliant achievement… It is more than one could have expected! A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it all reason for war is gone…

Austrian ArmyHe wanted his ally to accept the Serbian answer in principle and negotiate on the other points. However his government officials did not pass on this message immediately.

On July 28 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Then the following day Austria-Hungary shelled the Serbian capital Belgrade.

However there was no invasion at this point as the Austro-Hungarian army would not be fully mobilised until August 12. Surely wise heads and diplomacy could prevent a war breaking out?


(To be continued. The next article will cover the failure of diplomacy)

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