World War I: Declaration of War (August 1-4, 1914)

declaration of war
Figure 1.--There were no radios in 1914. War was announced in public gaterings like this. Here German officers announced to the Berlin public that Germany is at war.

Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but ther personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (Aufudy 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of brining Britain and the Empire with its immenense military and material resources into the War. After the War, the Allies demanded that Germany accept the guilt for launching the War. Some authors have laid the blame for the War largely on Germany. [Fischer] Other historians are more inclined to ascribe the blame to other countries as well seeing war in most instances as a reciprocal event. [Strachan]

Terrorism (June 1914)

Terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. War had been brewing in Europe for decades. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs.

Balkans Crisis (July 1914)

Austria-Hungary was shocked. Offiacials debated on how to respond. The constrait was Russian asurances to Serbia. Austrian officials hesitated to act because of Russian commitments to Serbia. The Austrians had no desire to launch a general European war which was reflected in their war planning, but they wanted to punish Serbia. Invading Serbia was one thing. War with Russia was something very different. The Austrian military party, headed by Count Berchtold, eventually convinced the government of the need for a punitive policy toward Serbia. Austria's principa; ally was Germany. The two has formed the Dual Alliance. Austria assumed that the Germans would enter the War if the Russians declared war. The Austrians sought German reasurances. The German Government gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs (July 6). The Germans assured Austria-Hungary of support in case the Russians declared war. Essentially the Kaiser was writing the Austrians a blank check. Up until this point war could have been avoided. This was a critical decission by Germany, it was the principal decession that led to World War I. Austria-Hungary would not by itself dared to go to war against Russia. In addition, Russia had a treaty with France. Suddenly the Germans turned a regional crisis into a major European crisis involving France. This freed Austria's hand as officials did not believe that Russia would risk war with Germany. The Austrians with German backing decided to settle accounts permanently with Serbia in the Balkans. The Austrians delayed ammouncing their plans for 3 weeks, in part because a substantial portion of the Army as was traditional was on leave. Soldiers were given permission to return home to help with the harvest. (The lack of farm labor was to cause major food shortages in both Austria-Hungary and Germany during the War.)

Ultimatum to Serbia (July 23)

Austria-Hungary delivered its Ultimatum to Serbia consisting of a long list of onerous demands (July 23). The Austrians saw the Serbian Government as responsibe for the assasination. They demanded to be allowed to participate in the investigation and judicial process in Sebia. The Serbians were willing to accept the demands, except Austrian participation in an investigation. Serbian officials claimed that this violated their Constitution. Sergei Sazonov assured the Serbs of Russian backing. The Austrians assured of German support rejected the Serbian reply (July 26). Sir Edward Grey (later Lord Grey of Fallodon) attempted to mediate, suggesting a general European conference, but it was too late.

Austria Declares War on Serbia (July 28)

The Austrians rejected Lord Grey's attempt to mediate the dispute. Austria-Hungary severed diplomatic relations and declared war (July 28). The next day, Austrian artillery began to shell Belgrade (July 29).

Russian Mobilization (July 30)

After Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia had to decide whether to honor its commitments to the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia ordered general mobilization (July 30). France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany believed that Russian mobilization was a serious threat and that it thus had to strike before the mobilization had been completed. Russia had a larger army than Germany, but Germany could mobilize faster. The German Government delivered an ultimatum to Russia, demanding that the Russians stop mobilisation within 12 hours (July 31).

Willie-Nikki Telegrams (July 29- August 1)

Tsar Micholas and Kaiser Wilhelm exchanged letters and telegrams in an effort to prevent war (July 29 - August 1). Their personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy.

Germany Declares War on Russia (August 1)

When the ultimatum expired, Germany declared war on Russia (August 1).

Luxembourg (August 2)

The neutrality of Luxembourg had been guaranted by the Great Powers. German forces occupied neutral Luxembourg (August 2). This was the first step in executing the Schlieffen Plan, the planned attack on France through Belgium.

Ultimatum to Belgium

The Germans delivered another ultimatum, this time to neutral Belgium. The Germans demanded free passage for its army across Belgium. The French frontier forts posed a serious obstacle to the Germany Army. Attacking through Belgium was a way of avoiding those obstacles. The Belgians rejected the German demands. Kaiser Wilhelm II at this stage had second thoughts. He discussed canceling the invasion of Belgium with German Chief of General Staff Moltke. The Kaiser not only had family ties to the Tsar, but also to the British royal family. Moltle who was was focused on execiting the Schlieffen Plan could hardly believe his ears. He told the Kaiser essentially that the Schlieffen Plan had been set in motion and could not now be stopped, in part because it would cause chaos in the rail schedule.

Germany Declares War on France (August 3)

France was tied by treatty to Russia. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize and the French launched an offensive. Germany declared war on France (August 3). The Germans had already set the Schlieffen Plan in motion.

German Invasion of Belgium

The next day German troops entered Belgium (August 4). Belgian neutrality had been guaranted by the great powers (Britain, France, and Prussia) in the 19th century. German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in a speech to the Reichstag admitted that the invasion of Luxemburg and Belgium violated of international law, but insisted that Germany was "in a state of necessity, and necessity knows no law." The sinister sound of this statement resonated to us today knowing what we do bout Wotld war II, but the Deputies did nit have our advantage of hindsight. The independence of the Low Lands, however, had been a cornerstone of British foreign policy for centuries. The Schlieffen Plan, however, did not expect such stiff resistance from the Belgians or such rapid British intervention. Even worse for the Germans, the rapid of advance of the Russian forced the Germans to divert forces east.

Britain Declares War on Germany (August 4)

It was not a forgone conclusion that the British would join France in a war with Germany. They had not joined France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870). In fact the British were concerned that the French were trying to draw them in a war against Germany. The French on the eve of war went to St. Petersburg to encourage Tsarist officials. The British War Cabinent decided against war if the Germans invaded France. The British were committed to a defnsive alliance, but the French were taking a beligerant approach. In the end the Germans were determined to activate the Schlifen Plan which projected a massive invasion through Belgium to avoid French defeneses. The Germans were sure that this wouls gain them a rapid victory before the British could make a meaningful contribution. The British attitude toward Germany in 1914 was very different than it had been in 1870. Kaiser Wilhem II had managed because of his belicose statemenbs and decision to build a highseas fleet had steadily eroded the German image in British public opinion. The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. The German Schlieffen Plan called for attacking France before Russia could fully mobilize. The German Army on August 2 marched into Luxembourg, and soon crossed into neutral Belgium (August 4). The German invasion of Belgium was an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. The invasion of neutral Belgium outraged the British public. Britain not only had a special relationship with Belgium since the 1830s, but had actual treaty obligation to insure Belgian neutrality that were negotiated when Belgium was created. King Leopold I had been largely responsible for bringing Albert and Vicoria together and was a family confident. For Britain the violation of Belgian neutality was the causus bellum for the declaration of war. [Gilbert] Britain may well of joined France had Germany not attacked throygh Belgium, but it was the invasion of Belgium that caused the British declaration of war. The British Government voted for war after receiving an "unsatisfactory reply" to British ultimatum that Belgian neutrality had to be kept neutral (August 4). Britain declared war on behalf of the whole British Empire including the Dominions. They were at war automatically when Britain went to war. The Dominions were to play an important role in the War. Australia, Canada, and India played a substantial military role. The resources of the Dominions also supported the Allied war effort. German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg told British British ambassador Sir Edward Goschen that he was astonished that the British would go to war over the 1839 treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium, referring to the treaty dismissively as a "scrap of paper," a statement that when made public further outraged public opinion, not only in Britain, but the the United States as well. The Government ordered The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) immediately dispatched to France, following plans aprepared before the War with the French High Command. It was at first a small force, but it was a professional force and helped slow the German advance through Belgium and prevented them drom seizing key Channel ports. Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allies.

German Offensive (August 1914)

The Germans to their surprise were seriously delayed by the Belgian Army. And the Belgians were soon joined by the smallm but effective BEF. The Germans were also shocked by the Russian Army's advance into East Prussia and how swiftly the BEF reached France and Belgium. The BEF formed on the left flank of the French Army. The French had committed the bulk of its army to a disastrous offensive into Alsace-Lorraine and first clashed with the German army near Mons in southern Belgium. The German invasion force forced the Allies into a strategic retreat. The Germans were convinced they could take Paris before either the British or Russians could intervene. The valiant resistance of the hoplessly outgunned Belgian Army under King Albert I helped slow the advancing Germans who had weakened their right wing, in part because of the Russian offensive.

Other Countries

Other countries entered the War in the weeks after the fighting broke out. Montenegro and Japan joined the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, and Belgium). The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). The war had within days become the most widespead conflict since the Napoleonic Wars.

German Strategic Calculations

The German gamble to win the War by a quick strike through Belgium before Britain could effectively intervene proved to be a dreadful mistake. A key goal of Bismarck's policies was to keep Russia and France separated. Kaisee Wilhelm dimissed Bismarck and ignored this key principle. Even so, Germany with its powerful army would have been able to prevail over the French and Germams. And France alone would have been unable to blockade Germany. Adding Britain to the calculation was a dreadful strategic miscalculation. The Kaiser was to make a second disastrous gamble in 1917, renewing unrestricted sunmarine warfare, believing they could win the War before America could train and transport an army to France.

Post-War Recriminations

After the War, the Allies demanded that Germany accept the guilt for launching the War. Some authors have laid the blame for the War largely on Germany. [Fischer] Other historians are more inclined to ascribe the blame to other countries as well seeing war in most instances as a reciprocal event. [Strachan]


Fischer, Fritz.

Gilbert, Martin. World War I.

Strachan, Hew. The First World Wa (Viking, 2004), 354p. Strachan offers an excellent brief review of some of the lesser known campigns. This volume is a condensed version of a three volume work he is preparing.


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Created: 1:47 AM 1/11/2007
Last updated: 11:42 PM 1/11/2007