Feature Articles - The July Crisis

The body of Franz Ferdinand lying in state The so-called "July Crisis" actually spans the period from the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914, to the general declaration of war in early August.

Elements within the Austro-Hungarian government had been itching to strike at Serbia during the immediate pre-war years, but had lacked a credible excuse to do so.  Nationalist pan-Slav agitation within Serbia, and which Austria-Hungary suspected was encouraged by the Serbian government, served only to destabilise Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans.

An Excuse for War

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided the Austro-Hungarian government with a ready made excuse to launch what it believed would prove a limited war against the manifestly weaker Serbians.  Ferdinand's death was in any event not greatly mourned either by the government or by the Emperor himself, Franz Josef, with whom he had never been close and with whom he was frequently in political disagreement.

The Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff - and Commander-in-Chief - was Conrad von Hotzendorf.  For years he had been pressing for 'surprise' attacks against Austria-Hungary's enemies, i.e. Serbia and Italy.  With the murder of Ferdinand he pressed the Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, to declare a state of war with Serbia.  Both were united in requesting Franz Josef and Prime Minister Tisza to launch an attack against Serbia without first declaring war in early July, thus guaranteeing an element of surprise.

Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Conrad von HotzendorfTisza however argued that retribution against Serbia - whose implication in Ferdinand's murder had not (and even today has not) been proven - should be sought via diplomatic channels.  Tisza was aware of the possibility that war with Serbia could rapidly escalate into a general European conflict as a consequence of the treaty system.

One Treaty after Another

For Russia was bound by agreement with Serbia to protect her in the event of attack.  Further, the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary stated that if either found itself at war with Russia the other would enter the fray to provide assistance.

Similarly, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892 provided for French assistance should Russia find itself at war with either Germany or Austria-Hungary.  And Britain was in effect (as the result of a number of agreements) - although not technically - bound to aid France should she be at war with Germany.

The Austro-Hungarians were inclined to believe, however, that Russia would limit herself to diplomatic vacillations rather than go to war with Austria-Hungary (and therefore with Germany, etc).  Nevertheless, Tisza was keen to ensure that, should the unthinkable occur and Austria-Hungary actually found herself at war with Russia, Germany would prove willing to honour her treaty obligations.

Germany's Blank Cheque

Germany, who to all intents and purposes appeared to be spoiling for confrontation, offered what became known as "the blank cheque" to Austria-Hungary on 6 July.  In this diplomatic communication from the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, Austria-Hungary was promised unconditional support from Germany regardless whatever action Austria-Hungary decided to take in punishing Serbia.

The Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz JosefThere is little doubt that this note from Germany was the first clear indication that Germany was agreeable to war with - at least - France and Russia; she hoped however to avoid war with Britain.

Much encouraged by this emphatic show of support, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July that effectively revoked Serbia's national sovereignty.

The ultimatum, which was nominally intended as a means of apprehending Franz Ferdinand's murderers, was confidently expected to be rejected by the Serbians.

An Ultimatum to Serbia

Consequently plans for war began to be set in place in Vienna.  The Austro-Hungarian Emperor, who understood what issuance of the ultimatum inevitably meant, had to be reluctantly persuaded to approve its despatch.

Astonishingly however, Serbia consented to virtually all of Austria-Hungary's demands bar a number of minor clauses.  Dissent on these however was seized upon by Austria-Hungary as the necessary pretext for a formal declaration of war on 28 July 1914.

The Month of Holidays

It was unfortunate that events took place during the month of July - a holiday month when politicians and diplomats were away from their desks.  By the time the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum had been issued on 23 July - and after a cooling-off period had been allowed by the Austro-Hungarians, who remained anxious to avoid a general conflagration - both the French Prime Minister, Rene Viviani, and President, Raymond Poincare, were away from France on a diplomatic mission to Russia.   There, at St. Petersburg, they reaffirmed their support for the Tsar, Nicholas II, in his backing of Serbia.

Another power - Italy - was, as a signatory of the Triple Alliance, supposedly bound to assist Germany and Austria-Hungary in the event of war, but had separately signed a secret alliance with France that effectively removed her from the equation.  In any event, both she and Turkey gave every indication of being unwilling to become involved during the course of July.

British Disinterest?

The German Kaiser, Wilhelm IIWith the dominoes starting to fall, it remained unclear what position Britain would take.  The German Kaiser was inclined to believe that Britain would look to her interests first and foremost and remain above the fray - after all, she had no obvious quarrel with either Austria-Hungary or Germany, at least in this matter.

Nevertheless, Britain was practically committed to France's defence; and the French went to some lengths to ingratiate themselves with the British during July.  Yet the British government was aware that in order to enter the war a better reason than vague commitments to France would be necessary in order to convince British public opinion.

In the event Britain's guarantee to maintain Belgian neutrality - agreed at the 1839 Treaty of London - served its purpose.  Although there was much disagreement within the British political elite concerning war, it was this guarantee that brought Britain into the war on 4 August.

Public Disinterest

The general populace was, in most cases, largely unaware of the imminence of war until the end of the month.  Enjoying the warmth of a golden summer, Europe's citizens turned their attention chiefly to news of more local importance.

However, with Austria-Hungary's ultimatum of 23 July - and her declaration of war with Serbia five days later, the approach of war was rapidly hastened.  The day after Serbia received Austria-Hungary's declaration of war, 29 July, the capital Belgrade was placed under bombardment.

Mobilisation of Armies

Russia mobilised the following day, 30 July, as did Austria-Hungary.  The French, unwilling to start hostilities themselves, and painfully aware that this might serve only to alienate British sympathies, chose to withdraw their troops some 10 km all along the German border.

Nicholas II, the Russian TsarOn 31 July Germany demanded of Russia that she immediately demobilise, while requiring from France - with an answer expected within 12 hours - a declaration of neutrality in the event of war with Russia.  Germany's justification - that of self-defence - was regarded dimly by the French government, who replied that France would act in accordance with her own interests.

Panic across Europe

With no answer received to Germany's ultimatum the next day from Russia, both Germany and France ordered mobilisation on 1 August.  Stock exchanges panicked and many were closed.  Later that evening Germany formally declared war with Russia, despite Wilhelm's twelfth-hour panicked decision to try and abort the German invasion of Belgium and France (ignored by his Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke).

Germany delivered an ultimatum to Belgium on the evening of 2 August, requiring that she remain neutral while German troops occupied the country while en route for France.  The following day the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, announced to Parliament that Britain would fight to defend Belgian neutrality if necessary.  At last Britain had openly stated her position.

The Belgian King, Albert I, declared on 3 August his rejection of Germany's ultimatum.  The next day, 4 August, German troops invaded Belgium.  Britain demanded a "satisfactory" explanation from Germany to be delivered by 11pm (UK time) for her decision to march into Belgian territory at Gemmerich.  When it was not forthcoming at the appointed hour, Britain completed the European line-up by announcing a state of war with Germany.

Popular Enthusiasm

Initial reaction to the news of war among the European populace was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, far more so than expected (particularly in Austria-Hungary, where the various nationalities came together in an unexpected show of patriotic unanimity).

The war was, by general, agreement, likely to be over by Christmas.

Click here to view a map of pre-war Europe.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

"Boche" was a disparaging term used to describe anything German.

- Did you know?