Primary Documents - British Reaction to Austria's Ultimatum, 27 July 1914

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary Reproduced below is the text of the reaction of Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, to news that the Austro-Hungarian government regarded Serbia's reply to their ultimatum of 23 July 1914 unsatisfactory.

Grey stated to Count Mensdorff - the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Britain - that he felt Serbia's response sufficient and was consequently disappointed at Austria-Hungary's apparent lack of patience in seeking a diplomatic solution.

The day following Grey's statement - on 28 July 1914 - Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Official Statement by Sir Edward Grey
British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1914

Foreign Office, July 27, 1914

Count Mensdorff told me by instruction to-day that the Serbian Government had not accepted the demands which the Austrian Government were obliged to address to them in order to secure permanently the most vital Austrian interests.

Serbia showed that she did not intend to abandon her subversive aims, tending towards continuous disorder in the Austrian frontier territories and their final disruption from the Austrian Monarchy. Very reluctantly, and against their wish, the Austrian Government were compelled to take more severe measures to enforce a fundamental change of the attitude of enmity pursued up to now by Serbia.

As the British Government knew, the Austrian Government had for many years endeavoured to find a way to get on with their turbulent neighbour, though this had been made very difficult for them by the continuous provocations of Serbia.  The Serajevo murder had made clear to every one what appalling consequences the Serbian propaganda had already produced and what a permanent threat to Austria it involved.

We would understand that the Austrian Government must consider that the moment had arrived to obtain, by means of the strongest pressure, guarantees for the definite suppression of the Serbian aspirations and for the security of peace and order on the southeastern frontier of Austria.  As the peaceable means to this effect were exhausted, the Austrian Government must at last appeal to force.

They had not taken this decision without reluctance.  Their action, which had no sort of aggressive tendency, could not be represented otherwise than as an act of self-defence.  Also they thought that they would serve a European interest if they prevented Serbia from being henceforth an element of general unrest such as she had been for the last ten years.

The high sense of justice of the British nation and of British statesmen could not blame the Austrian Government if the latter defended by the sword what was theirs, and cleared up their position with a country whose hostile policy had forced upon them for years measures so costly as to have gravely injured Austrian national prosperity.

Finally, the Austrian Government, confiding in their amicable relations with us, felt that they could count on our sympathy in a fight that was forced on them, and on our assistance in localizing the fight, if necessary.

Count Mensdorff added on his own account that, as long as Serbia was confronted with Turkey, Austria never took very severe measures because of her adherence to the policy of the free development of the Balkan States.  Now that Serbia had doubled her territory and population without any Austrian interference, the repression of Serbian subversive aims was a matter of self-defence and self-preservation on Austria's part.  He reiterated that Austria had no intention of taking Serbian territory or aggressive designs against Serbian territory.

I said that I could not understand the construction put by the Austrian Government upon the Serbian reply, and I told Count Mensdorff the substance of the conversation that I had had with the German Ambassador this morning about that reply.

Count Mensdorff admitted that, on paper, the Serbian reply might seem to be satisfactory; but the Serbians had refused the one thing - the cooperation of Austrian officials and police - which would be a real guarantee that in practice the Serbians would not carry on their subversive campaign against Austria.

I said that it seemed to me as if the Austrian Government believed that, even after the Serbian reply, they could make war upon Serbia anyhow, without risk of bringing Russia into the dispute.  If they could make war on Serbia and at the same time satisfy Russia, well and good; but, if not, the consequences would be incalculable.

I pointed out to him that I quoted this phrase from an expression of the views of the German Government.  I feared that it would be expected in St. Petersburg that the Serbian reply would diminish the tension, and now, when Russia found that there was increased tension, the situation would become increasingly serious.

Already the effect on Europe was one of anxiety.  I pointed out that our fleet was to have dispersed to-day, but we had felt unable to let it disperse.  We should not think of calling up reserves at this moment, and there was no menace in what we had done about our fleet; but, owing to the possibility of a European conflagration, it was impossible for us to disperse our forces at this moment.

I gave this as an illustration of the anxiety that was felt.  It seemed to me that the Serbian reply already involved the greatest humiliation to Serbia that I had ever seen a country undergo, and it was very disappointing to me that the reply was treated by the Austrian Government as if it were as unsatisfactory as a blank negative.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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