The Great War Begins

One hundred five years ago, on July 27, 1914, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia.  During the week that followed, all major European powers slid into the maelstrom of a general war.  Last summer I described World Wars I and II in a post that I titled “War and Madness”. In this post I provide a few more details on how World War I began.

France and Russia were allies.  Both nations were concerned because of Germany’s growing industrial and military power.  Neither had confidence in German peaceful intentions, and they were alarmed by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s  frequent bellicose statements; therefore, they had signed a treaty of mutual defense.  If either state was attacked, the other was pledged to come to its aid.   Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a similar arrangement.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1914 was slightly larger than France in size and a bit more populous.  It spread over a large part of Central Europe and comprised present Austria and Hungary as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia.  It also included territories that are now part of Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro.

Whereas the core and ruling class of Austria-Hungary was ethnic German and Hungarian, a large number of its citizens were Slavs.  There was agitation for greater autonomy or even separation on the part of some Slavic elements, and the central government was increasingly concerned.  The independent Slavic state of Serbia, on the empire’s southern border, was suspected of sowing seeds of dissension and revolution. .When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Serb nationalist on June 28, 1914, Austrian hard-liners were determined to use this event to punish the Serb State.

The Austro-Hungarian’s approached the Germans regarding their plans, and they were assured that Germany would back them up in any move they might make.  Thus emboldened, the Austrians sent an ultimatum to Serbia and began preparing for war.  There was no proof that Serbia was involved in the assassination, and the Serbian government made every reasonable effort to meet Austro-Hungarian demands, but It was an exercise in futility.  The Austro-Hungarian war party was bent on Serbia’s destruction.

Russia considered itself the protector of its fellow Slavs in eastern Europe and warned Austria not to attack Serbia.  When Austro-Hungary persisted in its warlike threats and mobilized its army, the Russians issued their own mobilization order.

Because of the Franco-Russian alliance, the German General Staff had prepared for a two front war and had developed very detailed plans for military actions in the event of hostilities.  A fundamental assumption of the German high command was that it would take a month or more for Russia to fully mobilize, and a small German army along with its Austro-Hungarian allies could hold the Russian bear at bay during that time.  Meanwhile, the main German army was expected to overwhelm the French in a brief, thoroughly organized campaign, after which it would be free to deal with the Russians.  If the Russians mobilized first, it would throw German planning completely out of kilter.  

As Austria and Russia rushed to arms, the German General Staff became alarmed, and Germany issued an ultimatum demanding that Russia immediately cancel its mobilization orders.  When the Russians failed to comply, Germany declared war on Russia and France.

Germany instantly initiated its Schlieffen Plan, calling for a massive German assault through Belgium into northern France calculated to destroy the French army in a six-week campaign.  The plan had been developed and refined over a period of years and was meticulously detailed.  Railroad schedules were calculated so as to bring the full weight of German military power to the western front with unprecedented speed, and striking France through Belgium would avoid French border fortifications. 

Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by all major European powers, but the Germans believed in the old maxim “all’s fair in love and war.”  They would not let “a scrap of paper” dissuade them from executing their master plan. The British took a different view of the matter.  They took the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality seriously.  Also, they were already alarmed by Germany’s recent bellicose words and actions, including the rapid build-up of German naval strength.  Out of this concern came an informal military understanding with France, Britain’s ancient enemy, though there was no formal mutual defense treaty between the two states. When the Germans charged into neutral Belgium, it gave the British government the excuse it needed to send Germany an ultimatum.  Within in a few days all major European powers were at war.

As the Germans moved into Belgium, the French were mounting an assault into Alsace Lorraine to hit the German center.  Here the French ran into prepared defensive positions and suffered appalling losses.  Meanwhile, the French left flank along with the relatively small British contingent was in danger of being overwhelmed by the massive German sweep through Belgium and into northern France.   

It was a very close thing, but as the poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”  The great Schlieffen Plan fell apart during the first week of September as the French desperately moved units from right to left and counterattacked along the Marne river, less than thirty miles from Paris.  The Germans were thrown back, the contending armies soon dug in, and trench warfare began on the Western Front. 

The civilized world experienced four more years of death and destruction.  Ancient kingdoms would be destroyed, and much of Europe and the Middle East would be devastated.  Civilization has never fully recovered from the terrible effects of The Great War.

3 thoughts on “The Great War Begins

  1. You filled in a blank for me. I didn’t know that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire included Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, et al. consequently I never understood why the assassination in Serbia by one man provoked a world war.

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    1. Serbia was not part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but many Serbs lived in the Empire. When a Serb assassinated the Archduke, the Austro-Hungarian war party chose to blame the Serb nation as a whole. Slavic agitators had been pushing for greater autonomy for Slavs within Austro-Hungary, and hard-liners thought that they would teach these agitators a lesson by stomping hard on Serbia.

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