Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28th, 1914

- The First World War can be said to begin at 11am with a simple telegram sent by Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary, to the Serbian government announcing that a state of war now existed between the two countries.  Since June 28th, Berchtold and Field Marshall Conrad von Hötzendorff, Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian army, had sought to utilize the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo as a pretext to attack Serbia, long seen as a troublesome enemy in Vienna.  An ultimatum to Serbia on July 23rd had been designed to be rejected, and when the Serbian reply on July 25th agreed to all demands but one, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Belgrade had broken diplomatic relations and left the Serbian capital without even reading the particulars of what the Serbs had objected to.  The expectation was that a short, decisive victory would cripple the Serbs and create an image of Austro-Hungarian strength, in contrast to the generally-prevailing opinion abroad that Austria-Hungary was in decline.  In this attack they had been encouraged by their German allies - Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador on July 5th that the time had come to deal with Serbia and offered his full support.

- Even as the declaration of war was sent, however, any hope of containing the war to the Balkans had already evaporated.  Russia viewed itself as a protector of Serbia, and at a Council of Ministers meeting on July 24th, it was decided that the four military districts facing Austria-Hungary - Kiev, Odessa, Moscow, and Kazan - were to take steps to prepare for mobilization, a move which Tsar Nicholas II signed off on the following day.  When news arrived of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war arrived in St. Petersburg, Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov announced that the Russian army in the four districts would mobilize, the last step before war.  Publicly the intent of only mobilizing against Austria-Hungary may have been intended to intimidate Austria-Hungary to back away from its attack on Serbia, but in practice General N. N. Janushkevich understood by July 28th that mobilization greatly increased the chances of a general European war, and that mobilization of the entire Russian army was now necessary.  Mobilization was perhaps the crucial step towards war, as once one country mobilized, its enemies would feel overwhelming pressure to mobilize their own army, so as to avoid being caught unprepared.  The Russian government had been encouraged to take these steps by the French Ambassador Maurice de Paléologue, who declared to Sazonov that France fully stood behind their Russian ally (despite having received instructions from Paris to encourage the Russians to find a peaceful solution).

- By this date, most Europeans had become aware that a general war was now likely, provoking a range of reactions.  Not everyone was yet swept up by enthusiasm for the coming conflict - in Berlin 100 000 attended a rally opposing war.  In Vienna, however, news of the declaration of war on Serbia was greeted by large cheering crowds, scenes that would be repeated in European capitals over the next week.  Others looked forward to what appeared to be the great event of the age - to his wife, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty (the cabinet minister in charge of the Royal Navy), wrote this day that 'Everything tends towards catastrophe, & collapse.  I am interested, geared-up & happy.'

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