Unstoppable mobilisation

Gavrilo Princip is third from the right, seated, front row, in the Sarajevo courtroom. Left to right: Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilic, and Misko Jovanovic.
Gavrilo Princip is third from the right, seated, front row, in the Sarajevo courtroom. Left to right: Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilic, and Misko Jovanovic.

At his first interrogation, the Austrian judge later described Gavrilo Princip, “the young assassin” as “undersized, emaciated, sallow, sharp-featured” and commented that it was hard to believe that such a frail-looking boy could have committed a crime so bold and momentous. Yet there was no denying that he had done the deed and the world would never be the same because of it.

Though Princip admitted that his murder had been planned and armed in Belgrade, capital of Serbia, he and his associates refused or were unable to name the real authors, Serbian military intelligence and the Black Hand secret terrorist organisation. Moreover, the Serbian government denied all responsibility and retaliated by blaming the Austrians for what had happened at Sarajevo! Such wilful arrogance, deceit and evasion served only to strengthen those in the Vienna authorities, military and civilian, who wanted to crush the Serbs. Sarajevo ended what little hope there remained of peace between Austria-Hungary and Serbia: it was a trump card for the hawks and a fatal blow to the few remaining doves.

The only obstacle now to direct action was if the Germans opposed it. What would be the Kaiser’s reaction? Austria’s leaders agreed that it would be unsafe to provoke the Russians into joining
Serbia if they did not first have a cast-iron guarantee of
support from Berlin.

William’s response when presented with a personal appeal from Franz Joseph was that he did not believe that the Russians would intervene. A war with Serbia could be confined to the Balkans. On July 5 he told his war minister, Falkenhayn, that there was no need to start preparations and the following day, before he left for his holidays, he said the same to his secretary of state for the navy. He thought it most unlikely that Tsar Nicholas would side with “regicides” and anyway Russian rearmament would not be completed before 1917. There was nothing for Germany to fear before then.

On the other hand, less complacent Berliners were alive to and increasingly alarmed by Russia’s massive war preparations. The Tsar had always been able to call on an almost unlimited number of troops, but by 1914 the construction of new, strategic railways (financed by French loans) to the frontiers with Austria-Hungary and Germany made possible their rapid and massive deployment. There were 200 million Russians and only 65 million Germans.

In Vienna, on July 7, it was agreed that Serbia should be presented with an ultimatum it could not accept thereby giving Austria the right to declare war. However, it was now revealed that a substantial part of the Austro-Hungarian army was on summer harvest leave and would not be returning to service until July 25. Accordingly, the 48-hour ultimatum would have to be delayed until July 23. Also, between July 20 and 23, President Poincare and Prime Minister Viviani of France would be in St Petersburg and thereby “heighten the likelihood of military intervention by Russia and France”.

Poincare’s visit to St Petersburg confirmed and solidified France’s 20-year alliance with Russia. From his conversations with Tsar Nicholas it is clear that Kaiser William had misunderstood and greatly underestimated a Russian reaction to a war between Austria and Serbia.

On the evening of July 23 as Poincare set sail in the battleship France for his return voyage home, the Austrians handed in their ultimatum to the Serbs. Of its ten demands, one was that Serbia should permit Austro-Hungarian officials to enter their country to investigate the origins of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. This was the one demand no sovereign state could accept and the Austrians knew it. British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, described the document as “most formidable” and Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, said that it was “most insolent”. Though the Serbs were given only 48 hours to comply, they might conceivably have given way on all points, but the news from St Petersburg stiffened their resolve to stand fast. On July 28, Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war on Serbia.

What would the Russians do? The answer from St Petersburg was clear and decisive. The Russians would not abandon their Slav “brothers in blood”, even if Germany backed Austria. Indeed, the order to mobilise the Russian army would be seen in Berlin as much anti-German as anti-Austrian. Though the Russians pretended that it existed, they had no plan to mobilise against Austria-Hungary alone.

In fact, for the Russians there was far more at stake than honouring promises or fulfilling debts to Slav “little brothers”. After so many recent harmful and humiliating defeats, naval and diplomatic, ever since the Japanese war of 1904-5, Nicholas and his advisers were determined to reassert the empire’s great power status in Europe. As Nicholas told the French foreign minister, “We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.”

However, if the Germans were also ready for a great-power showdown, they had an odd way of showing it. On board his royal yacht Hohenzollern, the Kaiser had gone off for his annual Baltic cruise and all the senior military commanders, Moltke, Tirpitz and Falkenhayn, were also on holiday. Their assumption was that a war between Austria and Serbia could be localised. As late as July 29 “Willy” was sending telegrams to “Nicky”, his cousin, in English, pleading with him not to mobilise his army.

But by then it was too late: when the Tsar refused to withdraw the mobilisation command, the Kaiser was told that he had to declare war on Russia on August 1.

To all the combatants, mobilisation meant war. Given the millions of men and mountains of material involved in supplying them, once the order to assemble, board the waiting trains and reassemble at frontiers had been given, the momentum was unstoppable and irreversible. Russian mobilisation therefore marked the end of diplomacy and activated Germany’s Schlieffen Plan.