On the verge of war
The placid warm days at the end of July this year contrast to what was taking place at this time 98 years ago. By the end of July 1914 a number of European leaders were aware that their countries might be verging on a major war. Practically none of them wanted such a thing, and they took actions they thought ought to avoid that calamity, but by early August they had been overcome by the impact of habit and national ambition.
It is hard today to visualize the type of lifestyle in which the major actors lived in 1914. Practically all the major figures were at least of what we now term the upper class, and many of them were of a noble class that has since lost much of its standing. It was a time when servants were numerous. Not only were there house servants in abundance, but a whole series of specialized servant categories existed. There were laundresses who went from household to household even among the less affluent families. Their duties were needed in the days when women’s skirts regularly touched the ground and when men regularly dressed especially for dinner even when dining at home. A class of seamstresses performed similar duties from one household to the next.
The Europe of 1914 was a series of nations with widely different social structures. France and Great Britain were democracies although the people in charge were practically all of the upper class. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia were all headed by monarchs who exerted varying degrees of influence, and those who led the offices that served them held various levels of nobility and land ownership.
As to the nations themselves, one of them was a geographic dinosaur. Austria-Hungary, ruled by an aged monarch of the Hapsburg dynasty, covered a territory now covered by a dozen separate nations. Russia was replete with unrest and repression. Germany was ruled by a touchy and unpredictable kaiser, and France held a long-standing grudge at having been deprived of two provinces by Germany four decades earlier. Britain was occupied for much of the summer of 1914 with efforts by much of Ireland to obtain home rule or even independence.
So in late June the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Bosnia by a Bosnian Serb. The Austrians had been looking for reasons to squelch Serbian expansion ambitions and considered the assassination a good excuse to demonstrate they were still a major power. But there were hang-ups. The chief Hungarian official in the empire was a Magyar who detested Slavs and didn’t want to take a chance on having any more of them in the empire. So he stalled deliberations in Vienna until he got a promise that the Serbs would be given a chance to answer the charges of collusion in the assassination. Constructing the document that offered that chance took up two weeks of argument in July.
While that was taking place the French, allied with Russia, tried to encourage the Russians to stand as the guardian of the Slavic Serbs, thus offsetting German support for Austria. It is often forgotten that the French, though unaware of the exact nature of the German flanking attack through Belgium, knew that the German war plans called for an immediate attack on France, with the option to deal later with Russia. So the French wanted the Russians to maneuver quickly into East Prussia, thus taking some of the pressure off the French front.
Meanwhile the Kaiser’s officials were alternately urging the Austrians to settle with Serbia and prepare to send troops to the long Russian-Austrian border. The kaiser, Wilhelm II, was not always in touch with reality. When he wanted to consult with the British he often did it via a direct message to King George V, although that monarch was totally constrained by long custom from making decisions unilaterally. When someone suggested to Wilhelm that he direct his message of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister, or to Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, the kaiser replied loftily: “I deal with kings.”
The British cabinet was sharply divided as to whether to honor a tenuous alliance with France, or whether to stay neutral in case of war. The majority favored neutrality. One member said: “Why should Britain become involved in a faraway Balkan problem?”
Accounts of that month in 1914 stress how the officials were working overtime to cope with the various issues that arose. Many important messages were delivered at 1 a.m. or just before dawn, when important decisions were called upon from sleepy and worn out individuals.
When the Russians began to mobilize, they insisted it was not with aggressive intent, but the German military took it as such and started a much faster mobilization. Once that was in motion, the Germans had only one military plan — a sweep through neutral Belgium to outflank the French. The German ambassador to Belgium wrote much later that he had been ashamed to deliver his country’s ultimatum to a nation he admired, and it is generally conceded that the Germans never recovered from the loss of reputation they suffered by the invasion of Belgium.
Among many other things, the invasion of Belgium solidified British determination to enter the conflict on the side of France, and the flurry of diplomatic activity and storm of paperwork in July were followed by the guns of August as World War I got under way.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.