Europe in 1914.
The coming anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War has already led to the appearance of several weighty books on the subject. I do not propose to add to the debate on why the war started, but merely to outline the chronology of events.
For centuries, the dominant power on the continent of Europe had been France. This changed for ever in 1870-71, with the defeat of France by Prussia and the creation of the German Empire under William I as Kaiser. The new empire was now the most powerful state in Europe, both militarily and industrially. Bismarck, the architect and now Chancellor of the new Germany, realised that German interests were henceforth best served by preserving the status quo. His foreign policy was therefore dedicated to the isolation of France, who would always be seeking revenge for her defeat. He therefore negotiated a Triple Alliance with the Austrian Empire and Italy, whilst simultaneously signing the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. He always strove to be on good terms with Britain. To his successors he left two pieces of advice: never fight against Russia, and don’t tie the sleek German battleship to the worm-eaten Austrian hulk. Both of these came to be ignored.
Unfortunately the German Empire, though strong economically and militarily was politically primitive. The Reichstag was the most democratic Parliament in Europe, but Bismarck had ensured that it had hardly any control over the government, which was answerable to the Kaiser alone. And in 1888 William II became Kaiser of Germany, following the deaths in quick succession of his grandfather and father. In 1890 he sacked Chancellor Bismarck and took personal control. He proved to be an excitable, rather unstable young man, whose erratic attempts at personal diplomacy served only to sow confusion and suspicion. His aim was to win Germany “a place in the sun”: a goal which Bismarck would have regarded as dangerously vague and lacking in content.
One rapid consequence was the failure to renew Bismarck’s treaty with Russia. Instead the French seized their opportunity, and in 1893 a Franco-Russian commercial treaty and alliance was signed. Although William was to make personal appeals to the Tsar, this link was never broken, and Germany now faced the alarming prospect of a war on two fronts.
For the latter part of the 19th century Britain had followed a policy which won the nickname of “splendid isolation”. This meant, not withdrawal from the continent, but the refusal to commit to a firm alliance with any other power. Instead, Britain would use its influence to make small adjustments to the balance, to avoid major conflicts and prevent any one country achieving dominance. There were no permanent “good guys” or “bad guys” in British diplomacy. There was still a residual, traditional suspicion of France, which resurfaced as late as the 1890s. The nearest to being a permanent “bad guy” was Russia; disliked for its repressive government and for its imperialist ambitions in Central Asia and the Balkans (shades of the 20th century Cold War!). The only continental war Britain fought in the century after the fall of Napoleon was against Russia in the Crimea in the 1850s, at there was a threat of war against Russia in the Balkan crisis of 1877-78. On the other hand, many prominent British politicians favoured closer friendship with Germany, and it was not Britain’s fault that this never came about.
For centuries Britain, with her small army, had relied upon the superiority of her navy to protect her from invasion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this superiority at sea had enabled her to build up a vast world-wide empire, though paradoxically this meant that Britain had even fewer soldiers to be deployed on the European continent. By the start of the 20th century Britain was the only major European power without a system of military conscription, though as long as the fleet reigned supreme, this did not matter very much. But now, beginning in 1898, Germany began to build its own High Seas Fleet, and continued to expand its naval programme in subsequent years. Unlike Britain, Germany did not have a world-wide empire to protect, and this naval project had to be seen as a threat to Britain. It was made very clear that Germany could either have a large fighting navy or British friendship, but not both, but without result. Britain had to respond in kind, and soon the 20th century’s first serious arms race had developed, as each side tried to outbuild the other in the new class of super-battleships, the Dreadnaughts.
There were inevitable diplomatic repercussions. In 1902 Britain signed an alliance with the rising power, Japan: her first alliance for many decades. The arrangement was that henceforth Japan would look after British interests in the Far East, enabling the British Grand Fleet to be withdrawn to home waters to keep a watch on Germany. Equally inevitably, Britain was drawn closer to France. In 1904 an “Entente Cordiale” was agreed between the two powers, and then in 1907 an Anglo-Russian Convention created a Triple Entente in opposition to the Triple Alliance. From the British point of view, this was far from being an open-ended commitment to back France under all circumstances, but nevertheless there was an increasing presumption that Germany would be the enemy in any future war in Europe. The British army was modernised, and plans were made for a British Expeditionary Force of seven divisions to go to the aid of France. In two crises involving colonial disputes in Morocco, in 1905 and 1911, Britain supported France against what was seen as German trouble-making. Meanwhile the Germans, by now aware that Italy was no longer a dependable ally, increasingly developed a paranoid feeling of being “surrounded by enemies”, with their only friend the weak and crumbling Austrian Empire.
Count von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff from 1890 to 1905. Faced with the prospect of a war on two fronts, against Russia and France, he devised the complex plan that came to bear his name. It depended on the primitive and inefficient Russian government taking a long time to mobilize its vast armies, giving the Germans a window of opportunity to smash the French. Accordingly the great bulk of the German army would move westwards, with the greatest strength, 53 divisions, concentrated on its right (northern) wing. This would deliver a crushing hammer-blow through Belgium and then wheel round to envelop Paris from the north, and knock France out of the war before Russia could do much damage in the east. Actually this plan indicated the failure of German diplomacy to detach France from Russia; and in reality even Schlieffen wondered whether Germany really had the strength to carry it out. But it was the only plan the German army had.
Crisis in Balkans
The decline of the Turkish Empire in Europe was a recurring feature of 19th century politics. As the Turkish tide receded, new states came into existence in the Balkans: Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria. They were weak and poor, and the neighbouring Great Powers, Russia and Austria, competed for influence in the region. Traditional British policy had been suspicious of Russian ambitions in the Balkans. This had led to the Crimean War in the 1850s and the threat of war between Britain and Russia in 1877-78.
This latter crisis led to Bosnia being brought under Austrian supervision, and in 1908 the territory was unilaterally annexed, without the other Powers being consulted. The Russians, unable to respond, especially felt humiliated by the episode. The problems of Bosnia have been brought into sharp relief in our own times, with its mixed and volatile population of Croats, Serbs and Moslems, and in the early 20th century they haunted the Austrians. At that time the Austrian Empire (technically the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary) was an anachronistic ramshackle affair, where a ruling elite of Germans and Magyars presided over a large Slav population of Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Slovenes and others, plus a large number of Jews. Some of these groups supported the Austrian government; others were opposed. (As in Third World countries today, many of these racial minorities fled rural poverty to seek work in the capital, Vienna, to the alarm and disgust of the young Adolf Hitler). The acquisition of Bosnia did not help the situation at all. Serbia had its own claims to Bosnia and was prepared to stir up trouble there. In 1911 the “Black Hand” was formed; a Serb terrorist group with links to the Serbian government. Austria on several occasions considered launching a war to crush Serbia, whereas the Serbs looked to the Russians for support.
In 1912 the various small states formed a Balkan alliance and went to war with Turkey. The Turks were driven back almost to the gates of Constantinople and all remaining Turkish territory in Europe was parcelled out. But the very next year there was a second Balkan war, where all the other states combined against Bulgaria, which had gained the most, and even the Turks managed to regain some ground. The result was a smouldering powder-keg of mutual hostility throughout the region.
On June 28th the nephew and heir of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, were murdered on a visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The terrorists who carried out the killing were a group of young Bosnian Serbs. This was not an isolated incident, and the Austrian government decided the time was ripe for retaliation against Serbia itself. The foreign minister, Berchtold, commented, “The time has come to settle with Serbia once and for all”. But the Austrian government did nothing until it was assured of German support. When this was promised by the Kaiser, an ultimatum was sent to Serbia on July 23rd, couched in such terms that the Serbs could not possibly accept it. As Berchtold put it, “What terms can be put which it would be possible for the Serbs to accept? ….. A diplomatic success would be valueless”.
Nowadays we might have more sympathy for the Austrian reaction. Suppose a member of the British royal family was murdered by terrorists suspected of having links with a foreign government. Or consider the American reaction to 9/11. This led to the invasion of Afghanistan. The initial American reaction was to attack Iraq; but intelligence reported that Saddam Hussein had no connection with Al-Qaeda, and the Iraq war had to be postponed till a later date. But what would have happened if some major power (Russia, for instance) had announced that any attack on Afghanistan, or Iraq, would be treated as an extremely hostile act? Would the American have gone ahead anyway?
This is what happened in 1914. The aged Emperor Franz Josef, reading the ultimatum, commented, “Russia cannot accept this. This means a general war”. He was right: the Russians were outraged.
In the event, the Serbian government accepted all but 2 of the Austrian demands. Under normal circumstances, this might have provided a basis for future negotiation; but that was not what the Austrians wanted.
On July 28th: Austria declared war on Serbia. Everyone knew that this was little more than a token gesture: the Austrian army would not be able to make any moves for at least a month, and a serious invasion could scarcely be mounted before next year. But the ball was now very much in the Russian court. Would they stand by the Serbs, and if so, what would they do?
As the crisis deepened, Italy announced its neutrality. This surprised no-one; though one prominent Italian socialist journalist broke with his party on the issue, demanding instead that Italy should enter the war against Germany. He was to get his wish a year later. His name was Benito Mussolini.
More to the point; what would Britain do? No-one seemed to know. Until the crisis broke, the Liberal government was more concerned with the threat of civil war in Ireland, where Protestant Ulster was threatening armed revolt against the Irish Home Rule Bill (and importing German weapons with which to fight). Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary could perhaps have made it absolutely clear to the Germans that any attack on France would inevitably lead to a declaration of war by Britain; but he knew he could not count on the support of all the Cabinet for any such declaration. In any case, such a strategy failed in 1939: Chamberlain made it very clear that Britain would go to war if Germany attacked Poland, but Hitler simply did not believe him. As it was, Grey spent the vital days at the end of July trying to mediate a way out of the crisis, perhaps by an international conference. France and Russia accepted his offer of mediation; but in Germany the Kaiser dismissed it as “A tremendous piece of British insolence”. As the Austrian ambassador in Berlin explained, “The German government in no way identifies itself with them, but on the contrary is decidedly opposed to their consideration, and only communicates them in order to satisfy the English”.
The Russians were faced with a choice. They could stand by and do nothing, which was unlikely after other recent humiliations. They could order a partial mobilisation of armies, directed purely against Austria. Or they could order a full mobilisation, which would involve moving troops to the German frontier as well. For a couple of days, Tsar Nicholas II vacillated, but his General Staff was determined on full mobilisation, and the order was duly issued on July 31st.
At this point, war became inevitable. The Russian war strategy, like that of the other Great Powers, was an aggressive one: to advance into the weakly-defended east of Germany. But such a move would ruin the Schlieffen Plan, which was entirely dependent on the Russians moving only slowly. Therefore an ultimatum was sent from Berlin, demanding an immediate halt to mobilisation, and on August 1st Germany declared war on Russia. At the same time an ultimatum was sent to Paris, threatening war if France came to the aid of Russia, and including demands which the French government could not possibly accept, such as handing over border fortresses.
By this time the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, and even the Kaiser himself, were showing signs of cold feet. But it was too late: the mighty German military machine had taken over. Moltke, the Chief of Staff, told the Austrian generals, “A European war is the last chance of saving Austria-Hungary. Germany is ready to back Austria unreservedly ……. Mobilize at once against Russia. Germany will mobilize”. Under the Schlieffen Plan, the great bulk of the German army would mobilize and move westwards. The Kaiser could announce, “We march only towards the east”, but as Moltke pointed out in his memoirs, “This was impossible. Once planned, it could not possibly be changed”. So, although France had made no hostile moves, the German invasion was now imminent. It was, as A. J. P. Taylor once put it, “War by railway timetable”.
On August 2nd Germany occupied Luxemburg and sent an ultimatum to Belgium. At the same time, Russian forces invaded eastern Germany. The next day, August 3rd: Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The mighty Schlieffen Plan went into operation. In a little over a week, one and a half million men had been mustered and were ready to advance against France. 550 troop trains a day crossed the Rhine: one every ten minutes at the Cologne bridge. Deployment was completed by the 17th. Seven armies, commanded by (numbering 1-7 from the north) Kluck, Bulow, Hausen, Albert of Wurttenburg, Crown Prince William, Rupert of Bavaria, and Heeringen, went into action; the main hammer-blow being assigned to Kluck’s and Bulow’s troops, who were to swing round through Belgium and attack Paris from the north.
On August 4th: Britain declared war on Germany. The British cabinet had been deeply divided until the invasion of Belgium, which won over the doubters, especially David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the war party. Traditionally Britain had always opposed any major power taking over a territory so dangerously close to British shores; and German behaviour in Belgium (taking hostages, destroying property and shooting civilians who resisted) outraged public opinion both in Britain and in the United States (In the war of 1869-70, German forces had refrained from entering Belgium, and Britain had not intervened). There was also another factor at work. The German government enquired whether Britain would allow the German fleet to sail down the Channel to attack northern France: the answer from the First Lord of the Admiralty (Winston Churchill) was, of course, “No way!” As it was, the British declaration of war caused only two unimportant cabinet ministers to resign in protest.
The British Expeditionary Force was mustered and landed in France. The continent was now at war: Turkey and Italy would shortly join in.
Why war broke out in 1914 has been debated by historians ever since. Unlike the Second World War, which was plainly caused by Hitler’s aggression, the First World War does not seem to have been “about” anything. I remember the late professor Geoffrey Elton being asked for his view on the subject. He replied, as I recall, "Sunspots! Afflicting all the leaders of Europe with temporary insanity! Well, it's as good an explanation as any!"
I heard recently a lecture on 1914 by Niall Ferguson, which I found most unconvincing in its assessments. He said that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, must bear a "very heavy responsibility" for what followed. But I'm not sure what else Grey could have done. Perhaps tell Russia after the Sarajevo murder that Britain would absolutely oppose any military action in support of Serbia? (As it was, Grey appealed for a conference, but this was effectively sabotaged by Germany). Or perhaps warn the Germans against any attack on France? (though this would only have encouraged France to support Russia). Or, alternatively, take no action when the Germans invaded Belgium? (though it is hard to see why any country should want to be friends with Britain after this). Of course Grey did not foresee what the First World War would be like; but then,neither did any other national leaders. The only person who might, with hindsight, have approved of what followed is Lenin; since without the world catastrophe which ensued, the Bolsheviks would never have come to power in Russia!