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In Britain popular interest in the First World War runs at levels that surprise almost all other nations, with the possible exception of France. The concluding series of Blackadder, the enormously successful BBC satirization of the history of England, saw its heroes in the trenches. Its humour assumed an audience familiar with château-bound generals, goofy staff officers and cynical but long-suffering infantrymen. The notion that British soldiers were ‘lions led by donkeys’ continues to provoke a debate that has not lost its passion, even if it is now devoid of originality. For a war that was global, it is a massively restricted vision: a conflict measured in yards of mud along a narrow corridor of Flanders and northern France. It knows nothing of the Italian Alps or of the Masurian lakes; it bypasses the continents of Africa and Asia; and it forgets the war’s other participants – diplomats and sailors, politicians and labourers, women and children. Casualty levels do not provide a satisfactory explanation for such insularity. British deaths in the First World War may have exceeded those of the Second, and Britain is unusual, if not unique, in this respect. The reverse is true for Germany and Russia, as it is for the United States. However, even losses of three-quarters of a million proved to be little more than a blip in demographic terms. The influenza epidemic that swept from Asia through Europe and America in 1918–19 killed more people than the First World War. By the mid-1920s the population of Britain, like those of other belligerents, was recovering to its pre-war levels. In the crude statistics of rates of marriage and reproduction there was no ‘lost generation’.
But the British, and particularly the better educated classes, believed there was. The legacy of literature, and its effects on the shaping of memory, have proved far more influential than economic or political realities. In 1961, Benjamin Britten incorporated nine poems by Wilfred Owen in his War Requiem, which he dedicated to the memory of four friends who had been killed in 1914–18. The work was first performed at the consecration of the Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The old cathedral was a casualty of the Second World War, not the First, but Britten was following an established pattern in conflating the commemoration of the two wars. Armistice Day for the First World War, 11 November 1918, and the act of remembrance on the nearest Sunday to it, was appropriated to honour the dead of 1939–45. Today Remembrance Sunday embraces not only every subsequent war in which Britain has been engaged but also more general reflections on war itself, and on its cost in blood and suffering. The annual service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall is therefore deeply paradoxical. A ceremony weighted with nationalism, attended by the Queen and orchestrated as a military parade, bemoans wars fought in the nation’s name. It cuts away war’s triumphalism, and in the process seems to question the necessity of the very conflicts in which those it commemorates met their deaths.
Wilfred Owen himself embodied some of these paradoxes. Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918: his mother did not receive the news until after the fighting was over. The war both did for Owen and made him. He returned to the front line when he could probably have avoided doing so, telling his mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Serenity Shelley never dreamed of crowns me’. The war gave him the material which transformed him into one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century. For schoolchildren throughout Britain his verses are often their first and most profound encounter with the First World War. Niall Ferguson’s interpretation of the conflict, The Pity of War, published on the occasion of the armistice’s eightieth anniversary in 1998, used Owen’s words in its title. But it is worth recalling what Owen makes explicit but his readers tend to overlook – that his subject was war as a general phenomenon, more than the First World War in particular. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, that ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’, is, he insists, ‘an old lie’. By quoting Horace, Owen places himself along a continuum that embraces two millennia; he says little, if anything, about the peculiarities that explained the horrors of the war in which he himself served and died.
Owen did not achieve canonical status until the 1960s: Britten popularised him. The first edition of his poems, prepared by Sassoon in December 1920, sold 730 copies. A further 700 copies, printed in 1921, were still not sold out by 1929. By then the collected poems of another victim of the war, Rupert Brooke, had run to 300,000 copies. Brooke knew his Horace as well as Owen did, but for Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ death in battle was both sweet and fitting. Of course Brooke’s continuing popularity reflected in large measure the desire of wives and mothers, of parents and children, to find solace in their mourning. They needed the reassurance that their loss was not vain. But it makes another point – that the First World War was capable of many interpretations, and that until at least the late 1920s those different meanings co-existed with each other. Every adult across Europe, and many in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, had his or her own sense of the war’s significance. The conviction that the war was both wasteful and futile was neither general nor even dominant.
When the great powers of Europe embarked on war in 1914 popular conceptions of combat were shaped more by the past than by prognostications of the future. The literature of warning, both popular and professional, was abundant. But hope prevailed over realism, and in truth the circumstances of the outbreak created little choice: for every nation the war seemed to be one of national self-defence, and the obligations on its citizens were therefore irrefutable. By December 1916 the nature of the war, its costs and casualties, and their threat of social upheaval, were self-evident. But even then none of the belligerents seized the opportunity of negotiation which the United States held out. The differences in values and ideologies look less stark than they seemed then only because we have been hardened by the later clashes between Fascism and Bolshevism, and between both of them and western liberalism. The very fact of the United States’s entry into the war in April 1917 makes the point. Woodrow Wilson had been ‘too proud to fight’. He was deeply opposed to the use of war for the furtherance of policy, and the evidence of the battles of Verdun and the Somme in 1916 should have consolidated that belief. So when he took the United States into the war he laboured under few illusions as to the horrors which men like Wilfred Owen had experienced at first hand. But he concluded that the United States had to wage war if it was to shape the future of international relations. It may have been a vision which the Senate rejected in the war’s immediate aftermath, but it still inspires American foreign policy.
This is of course the biggest paradox in our understanding of the war. On the one hand it was an unnecessary war fought in a manner that defied common sense, but on the other it was the war that shaped the world in which we still live. When the First World War began, historians, especially in Imperial Germany, identified a ‘long’ nineteenth century, starting with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending in 1914. For their successors that was when the ‘short’ twentieth century began, and it ended with the conclusion of the Cold War in 1990. The subsequent conflicts in the Balkans brought home to many the role played by the multinational Habsburg empire in keeping the lid on ethnic and cultural difference before 1914. Between 1917 and 1990 the Soviet Union’s ideological confrontation with the west performed a not dissimilar function. But the Soviet Union was itself an heir of the First World War, the product of the Russian revolution. Its authoritarianism established a form of international order, especially in eastern Europe after 1945. The sort of localised war which had triggered world war in 1914 was suppressed precisely because of that precedent: the fear of a big war now contained and defused the dangers inherent in a small one. However, for eastern Europe there was another lesson from the First World War, and it was a very different one from that with which it is commonly associated in the west today. War was not futile. For the revolutionaries, as for the subject nationalities of the Habsburg empire, the war had delivered.
In the Middle East, the reverse applied. The war satisfied nobody. The British and French were given temporary control of large chunks of the former Ottoman empire, thus frustrating the ambitions of Arab independence. Moreover, contradictory promises were made in the process; in particular Arthur Balfour, the former British prime minister, declared that the Jews would find a homeland in Palestine. The roots of today’s Middle Eastern conflict lie here.
The First World War solved some problems and created others; in doing so it was little different from any other war. The other major English-language work published on the eightieth anniversary of the armistice, John Keegan’s The First World War, concluded that ‘principle . . . scarcely merited the price eventually paid for its protection’. This is the pay-off for his opening assertion: ‘The First World War was an unnecessary and tragic conflict’. Liberals with a small ‘l’ say that of many wars, and with good reason. But is it really more true of the First World War than of any other war? And what do principles represent, if in the last resort they are not worth fighting for? We may wonder why the belligerents of 1914 were ready to endure so much, but we do so from the perspective of a new century and possessed of values that have themselves been shaped by the experience both of the First World War and of later wars. It behoves us to think as they did then, not as we do now.
1 To Arms
Austria-Hungary: An Empire under Threat
The weekend of 12–14 June 1914 was a busy one at Konopischt, the hunting lodge and favourite home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Here he could indulge his passion for field sports, and here he and his wife, Sophie, could escape the stultifying conventions of the Habsburg court in Vienna. Although he was heir apparent to his aged uncle, Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, his wife was treated according to the rank with which she had been born, that of an impoverished Czech aristocrat. On their marriage, Franz Ferdinand had been compelled to renounce royal privileges both for her and for their children. At court dinners she sat at the foot of the table, below all the archduchesses, however young; at a ball in 1909, an Austrian newspaper reported, ‘the members of the Imperial House appeared in the Ballroom, each Imperial prince with a lady on his arm according to rank, whereas the wife of the Heir to the Throne was obliged to enter the room last, alone and without escort’.1
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were expecting two sets of guests, and got on well with both of them. The first, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, treated Sophie with a warmness that provided a refreshing contrast with Habsburg flummery. He had been under thirty when he ascended the throne in 1888, and his youth and vigour had inspired the hopes of a nation which saw itself as possessed of the same qualities. Germany was younger even than its ruler, having united under Prussia’s leadership in 1871. By 1914, however, the paradoxes of Wilhelm’s character, at once both conservative and radical, seemed to be manifestations of inconsistency rather than innovation. Born with a withered arm and blighted by an uncertain relationship with his English mother, a daughter of Queen Victoria, the Kaiser was a man of strong whims but minimal staying power. Ostensibly, he had come to admire Konopischt’s garden; in reality, he and Franz Ferdinand discussed the situation in the Balkans.
This, the most backward corner of Europe, was where the First World War would begin. The problems it generated, which preoccupied Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand, were not Germany’s; they were Austria-Hungary’s. Vienna, not Berlin, was to initiate the crisis that led to war. It did so with full deliberation, but the war it had in mind was a war in the Balkans, not a war for the world.
By 1914 Austria-Hungary had lost faith in the international order established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, whose robustness had prevented major war on the continent for a century. For twenty years, between 1792 and 1815, Europe had been racked by wars waged at France’s behest; they had challenged the old order, and they had promoted or even provoked nationalism and liberalism. For the Habsburg Empire, whose lands stretched from Austria south into Italy, and east into Hungary and Poland, and which claimed suzerainty over the states and principalities of Germany to the north, national self-determination threatened disintegration. In 1815 it therefore sponsored a settlement whose principles were conservative – which used the restoration of frontiers to curb France and elevated the resulting international order to suppress nationalism and liberalism. Rather than run the risk of major war again, the great powers agreed to meet regularly thereafter. Although formal congresses rapidly became more intermittent, the spirit of the so-called Concert of Europe continued, even when it transpired that the forces of nationalism and liberalism could be moderated but not deflected. After the revolutions that broke out in much of Europe in 1848, war occurred more often. Conservatives realised that liberals did not have a monopoly on nationalism, although for the multi-national Austrian Empire the effect of nationalism remained divisive. In 1859 it lost its lands in Lombardy to the unification of Italy. Seven years later, it forfeited control of Germany to Prussia after the defeat at Königgrätz, and in the aftermath it struck a deal with Hungary which acknowledged the latter’s autonomy, recognising that the Emperor of Austria was also the King of Hungary. But, despite these challenges, the ideals of the Concert of Europe persisted. Wars remained short and contained. Even when Prussia invaded France in 1870 and emerged as the leader of a federal German state, the other powers did not intervene.
However, the writ of the 1815 system did not embrace Europe’s south-eastern corner. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the entire Balkan peninsula, as far west as modern Albania and Bosnia and as far north as Romania, was part of the Ottoman Empire. From its capital in Constantinople, the Turks ruled the modern Middle East, with further territory in North Africa, Arabia and the Caucasus. As a result, many of the Balkan population were Muslim and therefore outside the purview of what the Tsar of Russia, in particular, had seen as a Christian alliance. Indeed, Russia itself had invaded the Balkans, and on the third occasion, in 1878, the representatives of the great powers convened in Berlin and recognised three independent Balkan states, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania, and expanded the frontiers of two more, Bulgaria and Greece. The Concert of Europe had put its seal on the decline of Ottoman power in the Balkans, but it had left a situation in which international order in the region depended on the forbearance and cooperation of two of its number: Russia and Austria-Hungary.
For Austria-Hungary the situation in the Balkans was as much a matter of domestic politics as of foreign policy. The empire consisted of eleven different nationalities, and many of them had ethnic links to independent states that lay beyond its frontiers. Austria itself was largely German, but there were Italians in Tyrol, Slovenes in Styria, Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia, and Poles and Ruthenes in Galicia. In the Hungarian half of the so-called Dual Monarchy, the Magyars were politically dominant but numerically in a minority, hemmed in by Slovaks to the north, Romanians to the east, and Croats to the south. In 1908 the foreign minister, Alois Lexa von Aerenthal, had annexed Bosnia- Herzogovina, still formally part of the Ottoman Empire, at the top end of the Balkan peninsula. He had hoped to do so without disrupting Austro-Russian cooperation in the area, but he had ended up compounding Austria-Hungary’s problems in two ways. First, Russia had disowned the deal. Thereafter, the interests of the two powers in the region competed rather than converged, and this was an opportunity which the Balkan states were only too ready to exploit. Secondly, and relatedly, Bosnia-Herzogovina was populated not only by Bosnians but also by Croats and Serbs. Serbia took the view that, if Bosnia was not to be under Ottoman rule, it should be governed from Belgrade.
Serbia embodied the challenge that confronted Franz Ferdinand – or would do so when he eventually succeeded to the throne. Writ large, it said that nationalism outside the empire threatened the survival of the empire from within. Writ in regional terms, it said that Serbia had to be contained. In two Balkan wars, fought in rapid succession in 1912 and 1913, Serbia had doubled its territory and increased its population from 2.9 million to 4.4 million. Serbia’s victories kindled the hopes not only of Serbs but also of some Bosnians and Croats, who aspired to create a new south Slav state in the Balkans. Those aware of the more unsavoury features of Serb government appreciated that such a state might mean not liberation but rather subordination to a greater Serbia. Indubitably, however, neither a south Slav state nor a greater Serbia could be created without considerable cost to Austria-Hungary – whether in its capacity as a Balkan power or as the ruler of other ethnic groups with nationalist ambitions elsewhere. Vienna had not intervened in either Balkan war. Austria-Hungary had paid a price for abstention. Its own interests had been ignored in the subsequent settlements, and the Balkan states had been rewarded rather than penalised for discounting international agreements. Since 1815 the great powers of Europe had kept the peace by being ready to broker deals among themselves; in 1914 it seemed to Austrians that the Concert of Europe could no longer be relied upon to protect Austria-Hungary’s interests.
The discussions between Franz Ferdinand and Wilhelm at Konopischt did not just concern foreign policy. Like so many of Austria-Hungary’s difficulties, the policy with regard to the Balkans carried significant domestic implications. Vienna needed an ally in the region and the obvious candidate seemed to be Romania. It had a wartime army of up to 600,000 men, a powerful consideration when Austria-Hungary’s own peacetime military strength was only 415,000. Its king, Carol, was a member of the Hohenzollern family, the royal dynasty of Prussia. And it was, at least secretly, affiliated to the Triple Alliance of which not only Germany and Austria-Hungary were members but also Italy. However, Austria-Hungary’s possible affections for Romania had little prospect of being reciprocated. The obstacle was Transylvania, ethnically Romanian but part of Hungary. Determined to hold on to power, the Magyars rejected constitutional reform for non- Magyars. They were a thorn in Franz Ferdinand’s flesh in another way, too. The compromise between Austria and Hungary was subject to renewal every ten years. Franz Ferdinand had thought long and hard about the options for the future governance of the empire. He had entertained both federalism and trialism – a three-way split which would create a south Slav unit alongside those of Austria and Hungary. The latter might appease the Bosnians, Croats and even Serbs, but for the Magyars either solution would mean a loss of power. By 1914 his instincts were veering back towards centralisation under Austro-German domination.
The Kaiser was inclined to take a less jaundiced view of the Magyars. He had met their prime minister, István Tisza, in March, and had been sufficiently impressed to declare that the Magyars were honorary Teutons. What the Konopischt discussions boiled down to was whether Tisza could be persuaded to take a more enlightened approach to the Romanians, in the hope that Romania would then be induced to join an Austro-Hungarian Balkan league. What they were not – despite the presence in the Kaiser’s entourage of the head of the German naval office, Alfred von Tirpitz – was a war council. Franz Ferdinand did not believe Austria-Hungary could wage war in the Balkans without triggering Russian intervention, but when he pressed Wilhelm for Germany’s unconditional support the latter withheld it. The archduke was no warmonger himself: he recognised that an Austrian campaign against Serbia might push the suspect loyalties of the empire’s south Slavs beyond breaking point.
The Kaiser left Konopischt on 13 June 1914. On the following morning, a Sunday, Aerenthal’s successor as foreign minister, Leopold Berchtold, and his wife, Nandine, came for the day. Sophie and Nandine had been childhood friends. They, too, toured the garden and inspected the archduke’s art collection. Meanwhile, their husbands reviewed Franz Ferdinand’s discussion with the Kaiser. Both agreed that the time had come for a fresh initiative in the Balkans, designed to create an alliance favourable to Austria- Hungary and to isolate Serbia.
Berchtold returned to Vienna and entrusted the task of formulating this policy to Franz von Matscheko, one of a group of hawkish and thrusting officials in the Foreign Ministry. Aerenthal had tended to keep these men in check; Berchtold’s more conciliar style gave them their head. Matscheko accepted that Romania might be Vienna’s logical ally, but could see little hope of immediate progress on that front. He therefore concluded that the empire’s most likely partner was Bulgaria. Tisza and the Magyars were supportive. Bulgaria had no joint frontier with the Dual Monarchy, but it did lie along Serbia’s eastern border. It could also block Russia’s overland route to Constantinople and the Dardanelles. Matscheko stressed Russia’s aggression, its espousal of pan-Slavism, and its close relations with Serbia. The tone of Matscheko’s memorandum was shrill, but its policy was to use diplomacy, not war. Its intended readership lay principally in Germany: the Kaiser had to be persuaded to favour Bulgaria rather than Romania as an ally, and, as Austria-Hungary lacked the floating capital, the German money market would have to provide the financial inducements to woo the Bulgarian government.
The July Crisis
The other potential recipient of Matscheko’s memorandum was Franz Ferdinand himself. He never received it. Matscheko completed his labours on 24 June 1914. By then the archduke was en route for Bosnia, where he was due to attend the manoeuvres of the 15th and 16th Army Corps. He was joined there by his wife, and on Sunday, 28 June, a glorious summer day, the couple made a formal visit to Sarajevo. It was their wedding anniversary. It was also a day of commemoration for the Serbs: the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo in 1389, a terrible defeat redeemed by a single Serb, who had penetrated the Ottoman lines and killed the Sultan. Now, as then, security was lax. A private shopping visit two days earlier had passed without incident; indeed, the archduke had been well received and surrounded by dense throngs. But by the same token there was little secrecy about this occasion.
A group of students and apprentices, members of a revolutionary organisation called Young Bosnia, had crossed over from Serbia in order to assassinate the heir apparent. Although supplied with arms by Serb military intelligence, they were amateurish and incompetent. One of their number, Nedeljko Cabrinovi´c, threw a bomb at the archduke’s car. It rolled off the back and wounded those who were following and a number of bystanders. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie went on to the town hall and then decided to visit the injured officers. Thus the planned route was changed. The driver took the wrong turning at the junction of Appel quay and Franzjosefstrasse. One of the putative assassins, a nineteen-year-old consumptive, Gavrilo Princip, was loitering on the corner, having concluded that he and his colleagues had failed. He was therefore amazed to see the archduke’s car in front of him and braking. He stepped forward and shot both the archduke and his wife at point-blank range. They died within minutes.
Matscheko’s memorandum now took on a very different complexion from that in which it had been originally framed. The automatic reaction in Vienna, as in the other capitals of the world, was that Serbia was behind the assassination. ‘The affair was so well thought out’, Berchtold informed the German ambassador, ‘that very young men were intentionally selected for the perpetration of a crime, against whom only a mild punishment could be decreed.’2 Berchtold exaggerated. Serbia was in the middle of an election and its prime minister, Nikola Paåi´c, had enough domestic problems on his plate without compounding them. But principal among these were civil–military relations. The head of Serb military intelligence, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevi´c, code-named Apis, was one of a group of officers who had murdered the previous king in 1903. An enthusiastic promoter of the idea of a greater Serbia and a member of a secret terrorist organisation, the Black Hand, he was ‘incapable of distinguishing what was possible from what was not and perceiving the limits of responsibility and power’.3 He resisted Paåi´c’s attempts to subordinate the army to political control, and his sponsorship of Princip and his friends showed that he had been – in this respect, at least – successful. Paåi´c himself, caught between an enemy within and an enemy without, was dilatory in his response to the events in Sarajevo. The accusation of Serb complicity stuck.
In Austria-Hungary, the most powerful advocate of restraint, Franz Ferdinand, was dead. On 30 June Berchtold proposed a ‘final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia’. Franz Josef, now almost eighty-four, agreed. His eyes were moist, less because of personal grief (like others, he had found Franz Ferdinand difficult) than because he realised the potential implications of the assassination for the survival of the empire. The issue was its continuing credibility, not only as a regional player in the Balkans but also as a multi- national state and a European great power. If it lacked the authority even to be the first, it could hardly aspire to be the second.
For the first time since he had taken up office in 1906, the chief of the general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, found himself in step with the Foreign Ministry. Conrad had never fought in a war but he had studied it a great deal. As a social Darwinist, he believed that the struggle for existence was ‘the basic principle behind all the events on this earth’.4 Therefore Austria-Hungary would at some stage have to fight a war to preserve its status. ‘Politics’, he stated, ‘consists precisely of applying war as method.’5 In other words, state policy should be geared to choosing to fight a war at the right time and on the best terms. The Bosnian crisis in 1908–9 had been one such opportunity. Conrad had demanded a preventive war with Serbia. He went on to do so repeatedly, according to one calculation twenty-five times in 1913 alone. Both Aerenthal and Franz Ferdinand had kept Conrad in check, using his bellicosity when they needed it to send a diplomatic signal and marginalising him when they did not.
By the summer of 1914 Conrad thought the increasing tensions in his relationship with the archduke meant that his remaining time in office was likely to be short. This worried him for personal as well as professional reasons. He was deeply in love with Gina von Reininghaus, who was married and the mother of six children. In a country as devoutly Catholic as Austria, divorce seemed to be out of the question – unless Conrad could return victorious from a great war. Certainly Conrad’s response to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was more visceral than rational. He favoured war, although he believed that ‘It will be a hopeless fight’. ‘Nevertheless’, he wrote to Gina, ‘it must be waged, since an old monarchy and a glorious army must not perish without glory.’6
The shift from certainty in the value of a preventive war against Serbia in 1909 to reliance on hazard in 1914 was the reflection of two considerations. The first was the poor state of the army Conrad led. For this both he and his erstwhile mentor, Franz Ferdinand, were wont to blame the Magyars. In 1889 the annual contingent of conscripts was set at 135,670 men. This fixed quota meant that the size of the joint Austro- Hungarian army did not grow in step with the expansion of the population or with the increase in size of other armies. But not until 1912 did Hungary approve a new army law, which permitted an addition of 42,000 men. It was too little too late: the lost years could not be made up. The trained reservists available to other powers in 1914, discharged conscripts who ranged in age from their early twenties up to forty, were simply not there in Austria-Hungary’s case. Its field army was half the size of France’s or Germany’s. Nor had it compensated for its lack of men with firepower: each division had forty-two field guns compared with fifty-four in a German division, and the good designs to be found among some of the heavier pieces had not been converted to mass production. The two territorial armies, the Landwehr for Austria and the Honved for Hungary, had only twenty-four field guns per division, but the deficiencies of the regular army meant that they had to be used as part of the field army from the outset of the war. Austria-Hungary had no reserve if the war expanded or became protracted.
In military terms Austria-Hungary was already more a regional power by July 1914 than a European one. Its army was good only for a war in the Balkans, and it was not really capable of fighting more than one power at a time. Therefore Russia’s attitude was crucial to Austro-Hungarian calculations. In 1909 Russia had not been a major player, as its humiliating acceptance of the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzogovina testified. It had been defeated by Japan in 1904, and revolution had followed in 1905. But the Bosnian crisis marked the point at which the resuscitation of the Russian army began. By 1914 it, too, was twice the size of the Austro-Hungarian army.
If Austria-Hungary was going to fight a Balkan war, it needed Germany to protect its back against Russia. German support could do two things: it could deter Russia from intervention on the side of Serbia and it could support Vienna in its pursuit of Bulgaria as its Balkan ally. The Matscheko memorandum was revised and sharpened for German consumption. The new version gave greater emphasis to Russia’s aggressiveness, played on the uncertainties of Romania’s position, and stressed the need for action as soon as possible. However, it still did not specify war, and neither did the personal letter from Franz Josef to the Kaiser that was drafted to accompany it.
On the evening of 4 July 1914 Berchtold’s chef de cabinet, Alexander, Graf von Hoyos, boarded the train for Berlin. He carried both the latest version of the Matscheko memorandum and the Emperor’s letter to the Kaiser. Hoyos was another of the young hawks in the Foreign Ministry: convinced that Austria-Hungary must dominate the Balkans, he had been an advocate of armed intervention against Serbia in the First Balkan War. On his arrival in the German capital, he gave the Emperor’s personal letter and Matscheko’s memorandum to Count Szögyény, Austria’s ambassador, who delivered them to the Kaiser over lunch in Potsdam on 5 July. Meanwhile, Hoyos briefed Arthur Zimmermann, the deputy foreign minister. The murders had triggered in Wilhelm both principled outrage and personal loss. He was uncharacteristically decisive. Of course, he declared, Austria-Hungary should deal quickly and firmly with Serbia, and certainly such action would have Germany’s support. His only reservation was the need to consult his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, a fifty-seven-year-old product of the Prussian bureaucracy, described by his secretary as ‘a child of the first half of the 19th century and of a better cultivation’.7 The latter duly attended a crown council, a meeting convened by the Kaiser, that same afternoon, as did Zimmermann and Erich von Falkenhayn, the Prussian minister of war. At last Berlin pledged its support for Vienna’s determination to create a Balkan league centred on Bulgaria. What Austria-Hungary did with Serbia was its own affair, but it should be assured that if Russia intervened it would have Germany’s backing. On the following morning, 6 July, Bethmann Hollweg conveyed the conclusions of the crown council to the Austrian representatives and Hoyos returned to Vienna.
Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary has become known as the ‘blank cheque’. Indubitably it was a crucial step in the escalation of the Third Balkan War into a general European war. But the Kaiser’s crown council had formed no view that that was the inevitable outcome of a crisis which it had helped to deepen but which – at least for the moment – it did little to direct or control. Bethmann Hollweg, the key German player in the following weeks, was gripped by a fatalism which seems to have been the product of three factors: the recent death of his wife, the growing power of Russia, and the solidarity of the Triple Entente. In 1892 Russia had allied with France, a seemingly impossible combination of autocracy and republic. German frustration and incomprehension had deepened when Britain came to understandings with both powers, France in 1904 and Russia in 1907. Anglo-French hostility had been one of the givens of European international relations throughout all of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth. Anglo-Russian enmity was fuelled by competition in Central Asia and British sensitivities about the security of their hold on India. From Bethmann Hollweg’s perspective the Triple Entente was therefore a brittle and friable compact. If he had a clear policy in July 1914, it seems to have been to disrupt the Entente.
He was, however, playing with the possibility of major war. All hinged on Russia’s response. At their meeting the Kaiser had told Szögyény that ‘Russia . . . was in no way ready for war and would certainly ponder very seriously before appealing to arms’.8 The German ambassador in St Petersburg fed such optimism. Russia would stay out of any war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia because it had not yet recovered from the events of 1904–5 and it could not risk another revolution. Conservatives in St Petersburg were indeed arguing along these lines. But that thought reckoned without the open sore of the Bosnian crisis and the pressures of liberal nationalists, who saw Russia as the protector of all Slavs. The second line of argument accepted that Russia would indeed support Serbia, but that neither France nor Britain would, and that therefore the solidarity of the Triple Entente would be disrupted. That would be a major diplomatic coup. It would moreover trigger a Russo-German war sooner rather than later – a preventive war fought for reasons similar to those developed by Conrad in relation to Serbia. One of the assumptions of 1914 was that tsarist Russia was a sleeping giant about to awake. Its government had been liberalised in response to the 1905 revolution and its annual growth rate was 3.25 per cent. Between 1908 and 1913 its industrial production increased by 50 per cent, an expansion which was largely fuelled by defence-related output. Russia’s army was already the biggest in Europe. By 1917 it would be three times the size of Germany’s.
The irony of the crown council of 5 July is that Germany’s principal spokesman for preventive war, the chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke the younger, was taking the waters in Baden-Baden. Moltke was the nephew of the military architect of the victories in 1866 and 1870, but, a theosophist, he possessed a more artistic and less decisive temperament than his forebear. Many observers expected him to be replaced in the event of war. One man canvassed as his successor was the senior soldier present at the meeting, the minister of war, Erich von Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn wrote to Moltke to tell him not to hurry back, as he was not convinced ‘that the Vienna government had taken any firm resolution’. What it had in mind seemed not to be war but ‘“energetic” political action such as the conclusion of a treaty with Bulgaria . . . Certainly in no circumstances will the coming weeks bring a decision.’9 Falkenhayn himself promptly went on leave. Moltke did not return until 25 July and Falkenhayn until 27 July. Falkenhayn’s judgement and Bethmann Hollweg’s readiness to gamble were fed more by their knowledge of the recent past than by an awareness of Vienna’s fresh resolve. The immediate significance of the ‘blank cheque’ was not in what it said about German assumptions but in the use made of it by Hoyos when he returned to Austria’s capital. He played both sides off against each other. On 7 July, as soon as he arrived, he attended a ministerial council and presented what he had heard in Potsdam as pressure from Germany for action. In 1913 Austria-Hungary had been treated as of no account because it did not enjoy Germany’s backing; it should therefore act while it could. The main doubter was Tisza. The Hungarian leader was opposed to any strike on Serbia, ostensibly for fear of Russian intervention but above all because the defeat of Serbia would jeopardise the existing Austro-Hungarian balance: the pressure for a tripartite solution, which recognised a south Slav entity, would be irresistible. But the south Slav challenge to Magyar supremacy was real enough whether there was war with Serbia or not, and popular feeling over the assassinations was running as high in Budapest as in Vienna. By 14 July his fellow Magyar Stephan Burian had won Tisza round to the idea of an Austrian strike on Serbia.
Vienna still did not act. Much of the army was on leave, its peasant soldiers released to help bring in the harvest. Their labours would, of course, be vital in feeding the army and its horses when it mobilised. As the date for the latter Conrad suggested 12 August, but he was persuaded to accept 23 July. The president of France, Raymond Poincaré, and his prime minister, René Viviani, were due to make a state visit to Russia which would end on that day. The French Third Republic, the outcome of Napoleon III’s defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, was notorious for the instability of its ministries, and hence for the inconsistencies of its policies. But Poincaré, a Lorrainer, who served as prime minister and foreign secretary before beginning a seven-year term as president, gave direction to France’s foreign policy. He firmly believed that the solidarity of the alliance system in Europe helped create a balance which prevented war. In the diplomatic machinations that had accompanied the First Balkan War in the autumn of 1912, he had more than once affirmed France’s support for Russia’s position in the Balkans. But what he intended as a solidification of the Entente could be interpreted by the Russians as a promise of backing should they find themselves at war with Austria-Hungary over Serbia. Berchtold took the view that it was best not to precipitate a crisis when the leaders of the two states would have the opportunity of direct conversation to concert their plans. When Poincaré heard the news of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia he was already on the way home, aboard the France in the Baltic Sea.
By then any stir caused by the killings in Sarajevo in the rest of Europe had begun to die down. It was the summer, and Falkenhayn and Moltke were not alone in going on holiday. In France and Britain domestic events dominated the newspaper headlines. The trial of Madame Caillaux, wife of the former radical prime minister Joseph Caillaux, began on 20 July. She had shot the editor of Le Figaro, who had published the love letters exchanged between herself and her husband: on 28 July the gallant French jury acquitted her on the grounds that this was a crime passionel. In Britain, the cabinet was preoccupied with the threat, rather than the actuality, of violence: the commitment of the Liberal government to home rule for Ireland promised to drive Ulster loyalists into rebellion. By comparison with the situation at home, that abroad looked more peaceful than for some years. On 18 May 1914, Sir Arthur Nicolson, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, and a former ambassador to St Petersburg, wrote: ‘I do not myself believe there is any likelihood of an open conflict between Russia and Germany.’10 And for those who considered the implications of a possible Austro-Hungarian response to the murder of their heir apparent, the general feeling was that the Serbs were a bloodthirsty and dangerous crew. Even on 31 July the British prime minister, H. H. Asquith, told the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Serbs deserved ‘a thorough thrashing’.
By then Austria-Hungary and Serbia were at war. At 6 p.m. on 23 July, the Austro- Hungarian ambassador to Serbia delivered an ultimatum, demanding that the Serb government take steps to extirpate terrorist organisations operating from within its frontiers, that it suppress anti-Austrian propaganda, and that it accept Austro-Hungarian representation on its own internal inquiry into the assassinations. The Austro-Hungarian government set a deadline of forty-eight hours for Serbia’s reply, but the ambassador had packed his bags before it had expired.
Germany’s role on 24 July was to work to contain the effects of the ultimatum. Given the widespread perception that Austria-Hungary was in the right and Serbia in the wrong, that should not have been too difficult. But it rested on a fundamental miscalculation. Nobody in the Triple Entente was inclined to see Austria-Hungary as an independent actor. Vienna had taken a firm line because it was anxious to capitalise on Germany’s backing while it had it. Those on the opposite side took account of that weakness in Austria-Hungary and rated Austro-German solidarity somewhat higher than Vienna itself was inclined to. If Austria-Hungary wanted Germany to cover its back, it could not so easily escape the imputation that it was Germany’s stalking horse. The conflict with Serbia would not be localised because by July 1914 the experience of earlier crises had conditioned statesmen to put events in the broader context of European international relations.
Serbia, moreover, played its hand with considerable adroitness. It disarmed criticism by professing its readiness to go as far in its compliance with Austria-Hungary’s demands as was compatible with its status as an independent country. It therefore could not accept Austria-Hungary’s participation in any internal inquiry, as this would be in ‘violation of the Constitution and of the law of criminal procedure’. By accepting all the terms save this one, Paåi´c swung international opinion his way. He needed all the help he could get. Militarily Serbia had been weakened by the two Balkan wars, which had depleted the army’s munitions stocks and inflicted 91,000 casualties. Although its first-line strength on mobilisation rose to 350,000 men, there were only enough up-to-date rifles (ironically, German Mausers) for the peacetime strength of 180,000, and in some infantry units a third of the men had no rifles at all. On 31 May 1914 the minister of war had embarked on a reconstruction programme phased over ten years, and the Austro-Hungarian military attaché in Belgrade concluded that it would take four years for the Serb army to recover. But Paåi´c had to act. Weakness on the international stage might have severe domestic consequences, not least on his election campaign. He was clear in his own mind that Austria-Hungary was squaring up for a fight. On the afternoon of 25 July he ordered the army to mobilise.
Serbia had therefore moved to a military response before the diplomatic tools had been exhausted. But it was not the first power in the July crisis to do so. On receipt of the ultimatum, Prince Alexander of Serbia immediately appealed to the Tsar of Russia. The Russian council of ministers met on the following day, 24 July. Sergey Sazonov, Russia’s foreign minister and a career diplomat, ‘a man of simple thought’ and an anglophile,11 said that Germany was using the crisis as a pretext for launching a preventive war. The minister of the interior confounded those in Berlin and Vienna who believed that Russia would be deterred from responding by the fear of revolution: he declared his conviction that war would rally the nation. And the ministers for the army and navy, the recipients of so much funding over the previous five years, could hardly confess the truth: that their services were not yet ready. The council approved orders for four military districts to prepare for mobilisation.
Mobilisation was not, of course, the same as war. It had been used in previous crises as a buttress to diplomacy, a form of brinkmanship rather than a step in an inevitable escalation. But in those earlier confrontations developments had been spread over months. In 1914 the key decisions were taken in the space of one week. The pace of events was such that there was no time to clarify the distinction between warning and intent.
Serbia therefore knew it would not face Austria-Hungary alone. But over the next few days Conrad seemed reluctant to absorb that point. His was not an army capable of fighting Russia as well as Serbia if the former decided to support the latter. In 1909, during the Bosnian crisis, Conrad had sought clarification as to what the German army would do in such an eventuality. Moltke had told him that if Germany faced a two-front war, against Russia and France simultaneously, the bulk of the German army would concentrate against France first. However, he reassured Conrad with regard to the latter’s principal worry: he said that the German 8th Army in East Prussia would draw in the Russians, who would be committed by their alliance with France to attack Germany. What this reassurance hid was Moltke’s own worries about the security of East Prussia. The German general staff planned to use the shield of the Masurian Lakes to enable it to fight an offensive-defence against the Russians, who would be forced by the lakes to advance in two eccentric directions. The effect would be to use German territory as a battlefield, and if the 8th Army was not quickly reinforced from the west it might have to fall back as far as the line of the River Vistula or even of the Oder. The German army would have abrogated its principal duty: the defence of the fatherland. Moltke therefore sought a quid pro quo for his reassurance of Conrad: he wanted an Austrian attack into Poland from Galicia, directed between the Bug and the Vistula. Moltke added the carrot that the Germans, once they were reinforced from the west, would push into Poland from the north and the River Narew. This idea – of enveloping Russian Poland – appealed to the strategic imaginations of generals educated through the histories of Napoleon’s campaigns and of the wars of German unification. Envelopment on this scale was deemed likely to produce decisive success in short order. To Conrad the theorist, the idea was irresistible. The two armies would link at Siedlitz, east of Warsaw.
The plan was no plan – and whatever rationality it had in 1909 was forfeit by 1914. First, it assumed that the Germans would be sufficiently free from the campaign in France to despatch reinforcements to the east in a matter of weeks. To keep Conrad quiet Moltke suggested three to four weeks would be needed to defeat the French, and ten days to redeploy to the east, although these were not the planning assumptions of the German general staff. Second, no joint operational studies were conducted by the two armies in advance of hostilities. By 1913 and 1914 Moltke was more cautious in his promises to Conrad, but the latter did not hear him: each was reassured by the thought that the other would take the major burden against Russia. And, third, the idea took no account of the transformation effected in the capabilities and intentions of the Russian army in the intervening five years.
Conrad had assumed that it would take Russia thirty days to mobilise, but in February 1914 Moltke warned him (accurately enough) that two-thirds of the Russian army would be mobilised by the eighteenth day. Thus the Austrians and Germans were losing time. They also lost space. Given its need to face Asia as well as Europe, Russia adopted a system of territorial mobilisation: the army’s higher formations – or corps – would be stationed in their recruiting areas and would mobilise by incorporating the reservists from those areas. This was exactly the model adopted in Germany and France. But its effect – given Russia’s geographical configuration in the west – would be to forfeit its defence of Poland. There would be nothing for the Austro-German scheme of envelopment to envelop.
To all intents and purposes Conrad had abandoned the fiction of the Siedlitz manoeuvre by 1914. This did not stop him later using it as a stick with which to beat his German ally when trying to transfer blame for his own failings. His first obligation, as he saw it, was to deal with Serbia. He reckoned that he needed eight divisions to hold the Austro-Serb frontier but twenty divisions to invade and defeat Serbia. This left a minimum of twenty- eight divisions to face the Russians in Galicia. He therefore created a reserve of twelve divisions which could go either to Serbia and be added to the eight already holding the frontier, or to Galicia if Russia supported Serbia and so increase the force there to forty divisions. This reserve, the 2nd Army, would not be mobilised and deployed in Galicia until between the twenty-first and twenty-fifth days of mobilisation. Given the increasing speed of the Russians’ mobilisation and the growing volume of intelligence suggesting that their first priority would be to attack Germany so as to give direct aid to France, Conrad decided not to try to anticipate the Russian concentration but to hold his Galician force back, refocusing his plans for the Russian front to the north and west, and forcing the Russians to come further before making contact. The effect would be to blunt the Austrian offensive from Galicia. The difficulty inherent in the whole conception was that Austrian railway construction over the previous three decades had been predicated on a deployment to east and south. If the 2nd Army were shifted from Serbia to Galicia, the railway communications would place it on the Austrian right, not on the left. The difficulty of redeploying troops from Serbia to Galicia was evident by 1909. But nothing was done to improve the situation as neither Austria nor Hungary would accept responsibility for the cost of new track. In 1912–13 the railway department of the general staff assured Conrad that he could replace a decision to mobilise against Serbia by one for mobilisation against Russia. What he could not do was to mobilise against both simultaneously.
On 25 July Franz Josef ordered mobilisation against Serbia only, to begin on 28 July. On that day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The guns mounted in the fortress of Semlin fired across the Danube, and from the river itself monitors of the Austro- Hungarian navy lobbed shells into the Serb capital. The hospital was hit. ‘Windows were shattered to smithereens’, Dr Slavka Mihajlovi?c reported, ‘and broken glass covered many floors. Patients started screaming. Some got out of their beds, pale and bewildered. Then there was another explosion, and another one, and then silence again. So, it was true! The war had started.’12
In Vienna the previous night, Josef Redlich, a professor of law and later a government minister, went out to a restaurant. ‘We heard the band, which played patriotic songs and marches without real spirit. There were not many on the streets and the mood was not really enthusiastic: on the other hand the loud sounds and tones of the national anthem carried through the warm summer night from the Ringstrasse and the city centre, where enormous crowds were demonstrating.’13 This was not the euphoria that many later remembered, but nor was it a rejection of war. What enthused the Viennese crowds was the promise of a quick victory over Serbia; what restrained them was the fear of a great European war. Their wishful thinking reflected Conrad’s: this was to be the Third Balkan War, not the First World War.
Their hopes were misplaced. On 28 July the Tsar responded to this Balkan crisis as Russia had responded to earlier ones: with the mobilisation of the four military districts facing Galicia. But this was nonsensical both to the military, since the reorganisation of the army meant that each district drew on the resources of others, and to Sazonov, who remained convinced that Germany – not Austria-Hungary – was the real danger. Over the next two days it was to be his counsels which prevailed, not the exchange of cousinly telegrams between the Kaiser and the Tsar. On 30 July the Russian army was ordered to proceed to general mobilisation.
Germany was now facing a general European war. However, right up until 28 July itself Bethmann Hollweg believed that the policy of limitation and localisation might work. On 26 July Sir Edward Grey, the fly-fishing British foreign secretary, tried to reactivate the Concert of Europe by proposing a conference. But, believing the Germans to be the key players, he made the suggestion to Berlin, not Vienna. By the time the Austro-Hungarians knew of it they had opened hostilities. In any case, the Germans were by then as unconvinced as the Austrians of the value of congresses. On 29 July Grey, ‘entirely calm, but very grave’, warned the German ambassador in London that, if the Austro-Serb war were not localised, ‘it would not be practicable’ for Britain ‘to stand aside’. ‘If war breaks out’, he concluded, ‘it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.’14 Both the Kaiser and Bethmann Hollweg were appalled, and at 2.55 a.m. on 30 July Bethmann Hollweg telegraphed Vienna to urge mediation on the basis of a halt in Belgrade. But the Austrians feared another diplomatic defeat and Conrad insisted on the need to settle with Serbia once and for all.
In any case the messages from Berlin to Vienna were now mixed. Moltke had returned to his desk on 25 July, and the minister of war, Falkenhayn, did so on 27 July. The latter was alarmed by Moltke’s lack of resolution, and felt that by 29 July the point had been reached when military considerations should override political. Given the indications of mobilisation elsewhere in Europe, and aware of how crucial time would be because of the dangers to Germany of a two-front war, he wanted the preliminary stages of German mobilisation to be put in hand. Moltke was aware that for Germany, if not for the other powers, mobilisation would mean war. At first, therefore, he respected the chancellor’s wish to await Russia’s response. But by 30 July he was prepared to hold on no longer. Then the Germans heard of the Russian decision to mobilise.
What now worried Moltke was that the Austro-Hungarian army would become so embroiled in Serbia as to be unable to play its part in tying down Russia in the east. So on 30 July, the very day when Bethmann Hollweg was telling the Austrians to halt in Belgrade, Moltke was urging Conrad to mobilise against Russia, not Serbia. Conrad refused to be deflected. However, he asked the Railway Department to find a way to continue the movement of the 2nd Army to Serbia while beginning the mobilisation of the three armies – the 1st, 3rd and 4th – facing Russia. It said it could do so only if the mobilisation against Russia was delayed until 4 August. On 31 July Conrad agreed, but under further pressure from Germany asked that the 2nd Army be redirected to Galicia. He was told it was too late. The movement of the 2nd Army to Serbia would have to be completed or chaos would ensue.
Conrad later blamed the Railway Department for the delayed arrival of the 2nd Army in Galicia. In fact, he had already forfeited any advantages over the Russians in terms of speed by his decision consistently to focus on Serbia and to downplay the Russian front. Given the thrust of Austrian policy, a defensive on the Serbian front was not a political option. On 1 August, the day on which Germany declared war on Russia, he explained his position to Moltke: ‘We could, and must, hold fast to the offensive against Serbia, the more so since we had [sic] to bear in mind that Russia might merely intend to restrain us from action by a threat, without proceeding to war against us’.15 By postponing the commencement of mobilisation against Russia until 4 August, Conrad still ensured that the 2nd Army would arrive in Galicia within twenty-four days of mobilisation, on 28 August.