Monday, 30 June 2014

How the World Went to War

Recently I have been helping out with Barnet Museum's Barnet In World War One exhibition. The opening of the exhibition on Sunday was a fantastic event and despite the rain, a very enjoyable day. 

Everyone knows what happened in WWI, who fought who, how many died, when it began and when it ended. But today I wanted to blog on why, in the summer of 1914, Europe almost accidentally stumbled into the most catastrophic war the world had ever seen, precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

28 June
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot dead while on a state visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. His killer was Gavrilo Princip a 19 year old who was backed by Serbian terrorist organisation, ‘the Black Hand’. One would-be assassin threw a bomb at the Archduke's motorcade in a first, unsuccessful, attempt on his life. But, when a fateful mistake meant Franz Ferdinand’s driver took the car directly to the street corner where Princip was standing, his two shots killed the Archduke and his wife, Sophie Chotek. The assassination ultimately pushed existing animosities and alliances into a full blown war.

29 June
Austria-Hungary exacted revenge by destroying Serbian shops in Sarajevo. The Serbian government claimed it was not responsible for the murders, and said it had tried to warn Austria of a plot. However the Austrian chief of military staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, wanted war, hoping their powerfully ally Germany would back them. The foreign secretary was more cautious, fearing that Serbia’s long time ally Russia would be angered by any attack and be forced to step in.

5 July
When he learnt of Austria-Hungary’s wish to attack Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm pledged Germany's support, even if it meant war with Russia. This became known as Germany’s ‘blank cheque’, which would guarantee any action they decided to take against Serbia. The Kaiser explained: “Should a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia be unavoidable, Austria-Hungary can rest assured that Germany, your old faithful ally, will stand at your side.” 

7 July
With Germany's backing Austria was keen to attack Serbia, but the Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza was hesitant, afraid an attack on Serbia would spark a war with its much larger neighbour, Russia. Instead the ministers agreed to draw up an ultimatum to Serbia - some wanted to make it so harsh the Serbs would be forced to reject it, and trigger war between the two countries.

9 July
Britain tried to deter Germany from war. In 1907 Britain had moved into a closer friendship with France and Russia, as part of the ‘Triple Entente’. Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary, was aware of Germany's support for Austria-Hungary and explained that British public opinion would make it very difficult for him to stay out of the fighting if events in the Balkans escalated. 

19 July
Austria-Hungary’s ministers gathered for a secret meeting in Vienna, where they made the final decision to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, as Tisza finally agreed on war, saying “It was very hard for me to come to the decision to give my advice for war, but I am now firmly convinced of its necessity”. If Serbia agreed to its terms, it would come under Austria-Hungary’s control. If it refused, Austria-Hungary would declare war.

21 July
Having discovered Austria-Hungary’s intentions to threaten Serbia, Russia's foreign minister issued them with a warning, declaring that Russia would support Serbia.

23 July
Ignoring Russian warnings, Austria-Hungary issued the Serbian government with its impossible ultimatum. It blamed Serbian officials for Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and made a series of demands. Among them was; Serbia must stop all anti-Austro-Hungarian propaganda and remove anyone deemed guilty of it from office; it must accept Austria-Hungary’s collaboration in suppressing subversive movements within Serbia, and it must allow Austria to direct judicial proceedings against accessories in the assassination plot. In short, Serbia was being asked to hand over sovereignty.

25 July
After checking he had Russia’s support in the event of war, the Serbian Prime Minister delivered his reply to the Austrian embassy. Serbia conceded to all of the demands, apart from two. Key among them was the request that Austria-Hungary be allowed to direct judicial proceedings in Serbia - a violation of its constitution. Serbia had effectively rejected the ultimatum and, as planned in Vienna, war was now inevitable.

26 July
The British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey proposed a peace conference to try to stop Europe descending into war. His plan was that Italy, Germany, France and the UK, the four countries not directly involved in the Balkan crisis, should act as mediators between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and their ally Russia. This offer was met with hostility from the German Kaiser who didn't want to be seen to give in to Britain’s “condescending orders”.

28 July
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, although the Austrian army was not ready to attack, and would not be for another two weeks. Germany was frustrated with its ally; it had been a month since Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and with each day that passed, sympathy for Austria-Hungary’s cause among other European powers was ebbing away.

30 July
Under immense pressure from his foreign minister, the Tsar ordered his armies to prepare for war and mobilise against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although just the day before he had agreed not to go to war, the Tsar was now convinced that Russia must protect Serbia. His ministers advised that if he did not act boldly, the Russian dynasty would be at risk.

31 July
The Kaiser believed Britain, France and Russia would use the pretext of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to encircle and “annihilate” Germany. German military plans aimed to deal with this “encirclement” by making a pre-emptive strike against France, through Belgium, before turning the bulk of its forces east to deal with Russia. Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia that unless it called off mobilisation, war will be declared. And, afraid of an attack by France, Germany demanded that its neighbour in the west show friendship towards them by allowing German soldiers to occupy French frontier forts for the duration of war with Russia.

1 August
The German ambassador asked the Russian foreign minister Sasonov to back down three times, and three times Sasonov refused. This forced the German army to mobilise. In the west, France had already begun mobilising its armies in anticipation of German attack. A European war was now inevitable.

2 August
On the pretext of preventing a French attack, Germany sent an ultimatum to Belgium asking for safe passage through its territory. If the Belgian government said no, Germany would consider them an enemy. Britain had promised to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality, and if the German demand was rejected, and soldiers crossed its border, Britain would be obliged to act. Belgium rejected the ultimatum.

3 August
In Paris, the German ambassador delivered Germany’s declaration of war to the French foreign ministry. France had been careful to do nothing to provoke Germany - positioning its troops 10 km from the German border - but Germany’s military plans were inflexible. They had to defeat France before attacking Russia. 

4 August
As German troops advanced into Belgium, the British cabinet was agreed that it could not stand aside, and an ultimatum was sent to Berlin.

4 August
The Kaiser and his government refused to stop the invasion of Belgium and at 23:00, Britain declared war on Germany. The European powers were pitted against each other and Britain would drag its global empire into the conflict. An assassination in southern Europe, brought war not only to the wider continent, but to the populations of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America. 

Many believed the war would be over within months, but fighting continued for another four years, and the war that would be 'over by Christmas' ended up being the most devastating one the world had ever seen to that date.