Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 29th, 1914

- The first shots of the Great War are fired this morning when Austro-Hungarian artillery fire on the Serbian capital of Belgrade (which sits right on the border between the two countries) and Serbian fortifications. Militarily, the bombardment makes no impact - indeed, the Austro-Hungarian army will not be sufficiently prepared to actually invade Serbia until August 12th.  Such ineffectiveness portents the overall quality of the Austro-Hungarian war effort.

- For much of July, both the bulk of the British political establishment and the British public had been blissfully unaware of the growing threat of war in the Balkans, their attention fixated on the long-running Home Rule crisis in Ireland, which threatened that summer to provoke a civil war.  By the last week of July, as awareness of the crisis dawned, most saw no reason for British participation in the conflict.  While the Entente Cordialle had clearly placed Britain in the camp of France and Russia, it was not a formal, binding alliance - Britain had no legal obligation to defend either country.

Within the government, however, key figures moved to prepare Britain for war.  Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had on July 26th sought to convene an international conference to settle the Balkan dispute peacefully.  The proposal came to nothing - the Austro-Hungarian government was determined on a military solution to the Serbian question, and had the full support of their German allies.  Grey now came to realize that a general European war was probable, and personally felt that Britain could not allow France in particular to be crushed by German power.  On the afternoon of the 29th, Grey informs the German ambassador that 'it would not be practicable' for Britain to remain neutral if Germany attacked France and Russia.  The Foreign Secretary, however, is walking a very fine line - he has no authorization from the Cabinet to issue such a declaration, nor can he promise the French ambassador Britain's entry into the war.  He hopes to be able to convince the rest of the Cabinet of the necessity of intervention, but to this point it seems an uphill battle.

Grey is not the only British minister acting independently.  This morning the dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy leave Portland on Britain's Channel coast and sail to their wartime base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.  They do so on the orders of Churchill, so that the fleet would be prepared if war came suddenly.  Not only does Churchill not make any public statement about the move, but also does not inform his fellow Cabinet ministers, knowing they would have objected.  Only Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who also believes Britain should support France, knows of the order.

- Meanwhile, Grey's statement to the German ambassador has contributed to second thoughts amongst German officials.  On the 28th, Kaiser Wilhelm II had undertaken an about-face and now stated that Austria-Hungary should accept mediation as opposed to provoking war.  Illustrative of the respect his officials accorded him, German Chancellor Theodor von Bethmann-Hollweg passes this suggestion on to Vienna without endorsement, and Berchtold ignores it.  The Chancellor believed the crisis could be managed to allow for an Austro-Hungarian victory while preventing a general war.  These illusions are shattered by the report from the ambassador in London on his conversation with Grey.  Bethmann-Hollweg now faces the prospect of war with not only France and Russia, but also Britain, and recoils.  The German War Minister, Erich von Falkenhayn, appalled by such indecision, argues that steps should be taken to prepare for mobilization, but Bethmann-Hollweg manages to hold him off for now.

- This morning Foreign Minister Sazonov, influenced by the leadership of the Russian army, convinces Tsar Nicholas II to order the general mobilization of the Russian army.  The fear is now widespread that if Russia does not immediately mobilize, it risks being caught unprepared if Germany mobilizes first and attacks.  General mobilization is set to begin the following day, but at the last moment the Tsar changes his minds and cancels the order, reverting to partial mobilization only, much to the outrage of his ministers.  The u-turn results from a series of telegrams exchanged directly between the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar, each begging the other to refrain from taking the final plunge into war.  The 'Willy-Nicky Telegrams,' as they become known, are a throwback to an earlier age when international relations were a matter for monarchs only, who acted on the basis of personal relationships with each other.  The viability of conducting diplomacy in this manner is now to be tested.

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