July 1914

‘An imperial power must do something when the heir to its throne is assassinated.’ (1)

Indeed. The chances of Austria-Hungary letting bygones be bygones in the case of the archduke’s assassination were always going to fall on the side of ‘not happening in a million years’. Slav nationalism had been the thorn in her side for years, and with the rest of Europe looking on to see how the empire would handle this particular blow, the time to re-assert power had been forced upon her. It was hoped-and mainly expected-at first that this reassertion of power would be limited to the Balkans, and that the rest of Europe would be able to carry on as normal. As Stefan Zweig wrote in his autobiography, even the people of Vienna showed ‘no special shock or dismay’ (2) at the killing, carrying on with their lives in the assumption that ‘the name and person of Franz Ferdinand would [soon] have disappeared from history for ever’ (3). The majority of politicians carried on with their summer holidays. The public carried on with their lives. It would be weeks before telegrams started flying, before newspapers started suggesting, before everyone started wondering…before realisation dawned that things might not quite be so simple after all.

Exactly one month passed between the Archduke’s assassination and Austro-Hungarian action. Another week still would pass before this action would lead to European war. Countless discussions between countless figures took place in those five weeks-because, believe it or not, getting a whole continent from a state of peace (uneasy as it was) to war is not an easy task. There is no way for me to cover the hundreds of small stories that accompany the overarching tale, and so I will mainly be sticking to a general timeline of events-as always, if you read this and want more, then just about any of the books referenced here or in the link above will have you covered.

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June 1914

‘I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry.’

-Private Baldrick, 1917 (1)

Imagine, if you will, a game of Jenga. Two opponents sit nervously, carefully, slowly pulling blocks out of a steady structure. Every block weakens the structure just a little more. Suddenly, a third person reaches over and, in an act of recklessness, interrupts the game. He pulls out a block and, seemingly in an instant, the game is over as the tower comes crashing down.

I’ll assume that it didn’t take you long to figure out that the above is a (very) clumsy analogy of the events of June 28th 1914. When, on that beautiful summer morning in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke of Austria Hungary, he did not cause World War One. It is obvious, especially with the benefit of hindsight, that decades of treaties, war games and negative propaganda were never likely to end peacefully. What we can say without doubt though, is that Princip’s actions that day caused war to break out when it did. It is for that reason that, while the public at large may not necessarily know anything about him, or even why his murder sparked a world war, almost everybody knows the name Franz Ferdinand.

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Austria-Hungary, 1900-1914

‘We in Austria were keenly aware that we were at the heart of the area of unrest.’ (1)

And so, our five month tour of the war’s main belligerents comes to its last stop: Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was even bigger than you might imagine, bringing together the modern-day countries of Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bosnia (from 1908) and Croatia, plus regions of Poland, Romania and Italy, to create one vast, ramshackle whole-or, as Geert Mak puts it, ‘a crazy quilt of nationalities bound together by an elderly emperor’ (2). It is certainly correct that Franz Josef I, the Habsburg emperor, was old: aged 70 in 1900, and 84 by the time war broke out, he was in fact the oldest emperor in the world (3). By the terms of his role, though, he was-on the whole-a good one. He cared about his people(s), he cared about his dynasty, and he cared about his empire, and he took great care to protect each of these elements from danger. Unfortunately for Franz Josef I, however, the rest of the world (and indeed, many of those peoples that he himself believed in) were not quite as convinced of the viability of his Empire as he was…

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Russia 1900-1914

‘There had always been an element of bluff in Russia’s claim to be a European power’ (1)

In the interests of transparency, I will admit this straightaway: I am a Russophile. I can talk about modern Russian history until begged to stop, and even then, it’s unlikely I actually will stop. I spent my 27th birthday in Moscow in -20C temperatures seeing the body of Lenin and visiting the grave of Stalin’s second wife. I once forced my husband to go hungry because I had spent the last of our money on tickets to the Communist Museum in Prague. I even gave my child a Russian middle name. It is an astonishing country with astonishing history, and I literally cannot believe that I am about to attempt to cover fifteen years of that history (fifteen years which, incidentally, are part of one of the most turbulent centuries of any country in the history of the world) in just two thousand words*. Again, in the interests of transparency: there is no way-absolutely no way-I am going to do this period of Russian history justice. What I will hopefully do, though, is provide an entertaining summary which might-if I manage it well enough-encourage you to go out and learn more. That has always been the aim of this blog, but in the case of Russia, I really cannot stress it enough: take what I give you, and run with it. Go the library, watch documentaries on YouTube, rent Battleship Potemkin on DVD…your brain will thank you for it, I promise.

ECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION

So. Now that is out of the way, let us get back to Margaret Macmillan’s statement above; a statement which, in 1900, seemed more true than ever. Russia entered the twentieth century as the biggest country in the world, inhabited by 126 million people (2). She was ‘gigantic, lumbering and inefficient, economically and technologically backward’ (3). And, having only abolished serfdom (simple translation: the ownership of peasants by landowners) in 1861, she was now attempting a massive economic transformation aimed at modernising the country to the levels of Britain, France, the USA et al,

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France 1900-1914

‘The Universal Exposition was…, the French declared, a ‘symbol of harmony and peace’ for all of humanity.’ (1)

Is it a cliché to begin the story of early twentieth century France with a statement on the 1900 World’s Fair? Of course. A huge cliché, in fact. In a lot of ways, though, the very presence of the Exposition was itself a cliché. Had the First World War never really happened, been merely a figment of someone’s imagination, presented to the world through a blockbuster movie or television drama, the idea of a triumphant fair celebrating peace and friendship amongst the world’s nations would have been tossed away with other early screenplay drafts. That the century began at all with this exposition is far-fetched enough, but that it took place in the very country that saw the worst that humanity had to offer from 1914 onwards…well, that’s just ridiculous.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The 1900 World Fair, for those of you who don’t know, was an enormous event hosted by Paris in which countries of the world were invited to exhibit their greatest treasures and triumphs, and where major scientific breakthroughs of the day could be shown off in the name of Progress. It was an enormous undertaking by the French, and not a wholly successful one; while there were over 50 million visitors (2), this was considerably less than expected. Some put this down to high admission costs, but I personally choose to believe that everyone else simply noticed the huge shadow of dramatic irony lurking over the event and decided to give it a miss.
To our eyes now, the holding of this event seems sad, if not even a little disturbing. Were both the French, and the human race in general, really so oblivious to what was approaching? Fourteen years is a long time, yes, but you would almost bloody hope that a war as destructive as World War One wouldn’t just happen overnight. Of course though, as we have already explored in the past few months, this was almost the case. Life was carrying on as normal, in Britain, in Germany and yes…in France too. In the case of the French, however, there is a case to be made that the apparent naivety presented by the Universal Exposition was not as entirely unknowing as it seemed.

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Germany 1900-1914

‘…Imperial Germany, the most complex and problematic power of them all’ (1)

None of the great European powers, no matter how much they might have argued otherwise in the years after 1918, was a passive observer in the events that led up to the Great War. Some, though, were more active than others and, again, despite arguments that they might have made to the contrary, Germany were certainly up there as one of the most active. It’s not surprising, really; having only become a unified country in 1871, she had a lot to catch up on if she wanted to be the world power her leaders believed her capable of. Germany’s rise in status between 1871 and 1900 was remarkable enough, but she entered the twentieth century wanting more…and she did so with a ruler who believed entirely in her ability to achieve all that she deserved.

KAISER WILHELM II

‘…it was the misfortune not only of Germany but of the entire world that at this juncture the House of Hohenzollern should have produced, in Wilhelm II, an individual who in his person embodied three qualities that can be said to have characterised the contemporary German ruling elite: archaic militarism, vaulting ambition, and neurotic insecurity.’ (2)

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Britain 1900-1914

‘Today, the period before the outbreak of the First World War is often regarded as idyliic: the time before the fall, the good old days…a beautiful, intact society about to be shattered by the forces driving it inexorably towards disaster’

(Philip Blom, ‘The Vertigo Years’) (1)

It was six years ago that I became determined to learn more about the Great War. That was when I picked up ‘The Vertigo Years’ and was forced into the shuddering realisation that I had been harbouring, if not the exact impression described by Blom, a similarly ridiculous one. The pre-war generation just wasn’t real to me. They didn’t have hopes, or dreams, or talents, or even problems. In my mind, they sat, like stones, waiting for death and destruction. Of course, having watched the first series of Downton Abbey since done a hell of a lot of research on the subject, I see things differently now. Both the peoples and governments of World War One’s main participants had more than their fair share of issues to contend with in the earliest years of the twentieth century, and even if the threat of war (though between who, no-one really knew) was always in the consciousness, it wasn’t something that ever felt like an overwhelmingly present threat. It was the belief of many in this era, in fact, that not only was war not likely, it simply could not happen; that ‘the technical progress of mankind must inevitably result in an equally moral rise’ (2).

With months to go, then, before the centenary of war actually breaking out, it seems sensible to spend some time exploring each of the individual countries involved in the lighting of the fuse, hopefully resulting in a general picture of where each was with themselves and in relation to other countries in the years preceding the war. None of these posts will provide a complete picture, of course; millions of words have been written on each country in the past hundred years, and still the subjects aren’t exhausted, while I’ll be manically trying to squeeze fourteen years of history into a few blog posts. As I stated in the last post, though, it is simply my aim to start you off with an interesting overview…and if that makes you want to read more on the subject, then all the better.

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Introduction

Telegram sent by Count Leopold von Berchtold (Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister) at 11.10 am to M. N. Pashitch (Serbian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister), who received it at 12.30 pm.

Vienna
28 July 1914

The Royal Serbian Government not having answered in a satisfactory manner the note of July 23, 1914, presented by the Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade, the Imperial and Royal Government are themselves compelled to see to the safeguarding of their rights and interests, and, with this object, to have recourse to force of arms.

Austria-Hungary consequently considers herself henceforward in state of war with Serbia.

Count Berchtold

 

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Presented by the German Ambassador to St. Petersburg

The Imperial German Government have used every effort since the beginning of the crisis to bring about a peaceful settlement.  In compliance with a wish expressed to him by His Majesty the Emperor of Russia, the German Emperor had undertaken, in concert with Great Britain, the part of mediator between the Cabinets of Vienna and St. Petersburg; but Russia, without waiting for any result, proceeded to a general mobilisation of her forces both on land and sea.

In consequence of this threatening step, which was not justified by any military proceedings on the part of Germany, the German Empire was faced by a grave and imminent danger.  If the German Government had failed to guard against this peril, they would have compromised the safety and the very existence of Germany.

The German Government were, therefore, obliged to make representations to the Government of His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias and to insist upon a cessation of the aforesaid military acts. Russia having refused to comply with this demand, and having shown by this refusal that her action was directed against Germany, I have the honour, on the instructions of my Government, to inform your Excellency as follows:

His Majesty the Emperor, my august Sovereign, in the name of the German Empire, accepts the challenge, and considers himself at war with Russia.

*****

Presented by the German Ambassador to Paris

M. Le President,

The German administrative and military authorities have established a certain number of flagrantly hostile acts committed on German territory by French military aviators.

Several of these have openly violated the neutrality of Belgium by flying over the territory of that country; one has attempted to destroy buildings near Wesel; others have been seen in the district of the Eifel; one has thrown bombs on the railway near Carlsruhe and Nuremberg.

I am instructed, and I have the honour to inform your Excellency, that in the presence of these acts of aggression the German Empire considers itself in a state of war with France in consequence of the acts of this latter Power.

At the same time, I have the honour to bring to the knowledge of your Excellency that the German authorities will retain French mercantile vessels in German ports, but they will release them if, within forty-eight hours, they are assured of complete reciprocity.

My diplomatic mission having thus come to an end, it only remains for me to request your Excellency to be good enough to furnish me with my passports, and to take the steps you consider suitable to assure my return to Germany, with the staff of the Embassy, as well as, with the Staff of the Bavarian Legation and of the German Consulate General in Paris.

Be good enough, M. le President, to receive the assurances of my deepest respect.

(Signed) SCIIOEN.

*****

Foreign Office Statement:

Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by His Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium would be respected, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin has received his passport, and His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4th.”

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It seems almost too easy: ‘a state of war exists…’.  With hindsight, it is impossible to believe that so few words were required to bring about the deaths of millions of young men.  Even the choice of words fails to add significance.  The language is formal, but not technical.  There are no complex legal phrasings, no subsections. The most carefully chosen words appear to be the laughably polite references to titles: ‘His Majesty the Emperor’, ‘your Excellency’, even remarks of respect.

Serious, significant, subjects do not always require the most serious of language.  In fact, more often than not, you can reach more people, and convey more meaning, with equally well-chosen, but less self-important, words.  Writers want people to read their work.  They want people to enjoy, to appreciate, to learn from their work.  In the case of historians, this is often accompanied by a wish to make a mark in their chosen field; for a particular argument or insight to be considered the argument or insight of that subject.  Understandably, the depth of research  required to achieve these goals lends itself to a certain style of academic writing.  Professional historians, while they contribute untold amounts to the understanding of our world, are not known for their light writing styles, their humour, or their accessibility.  This is a shame.  The history of our world is something that fascinates many of us.  Historical novels, historical dramas and documentaries, museums…all are immensely popular aspects of our society.  Books that tie-in to television documentaries, such as Laurence Rees’ ‘Auschwitz’, suddenly pop up all over public transport during daily commutes.  The general public want to learn about our past.  And yet, their ability to do so is constantly thwarted by a lack of accessible material.  History books are so often weighty tomes, their hundreds of pages covered in tiny print with frequent referrals to even tinier footnotes, and written in a very dry, academic style.  If these books seem too threatening, other options are limited.  There are school-level textbooks, but a thirty year old man might look a little strange reading that on his lunch break in the office (a similar problem arises when you try to enjoy Horrible Histories on the bus.  It’s impossible; you just look odd).  In a similar vein, there are various ‘Teach Yourself’ books; excellently researched and informative these may be, but they are not designed to carry the reader away to another world.  Websites suffer this problem too; the writing is often accessible, but usually divided into hundreds of sections, with little narrative to speak of. The likes of Ian Mortimer have tried to bring history to the masses with time travel guides and humorous storytelling.  These books are limited to certain periods of English history, but still, it is a start.

As you might have realised by this point, this is all a very long-winded way of setting out my intentions in starting this blog. 2014 is now here, and with it-as I assume you already know-the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. Books, articles and websites on the subject have been popping up for months now, and while there is a lot of brilliant reading to be found, much of it is extremely serious, daunting stuff. Anything that tries to be otherwise, meanwhile, is badly written, and as a result, just as difficult to deal with. And so, in a possibly terribly misguided attempt to bridge the gap…here I am.

I am not a professional historian. I do have a First Class degree in History and Literature, having centred most of my degree work on twentieth century European History. I’m a stay-at-home mother now, but history remains a huge passion of mine, and I plan to continue my studies with an MA in European History when the time is right. I believe, and again, this could be terribly misguided of me, that I am very good at writing about history; that I have a talent for making history interesting and enjoyable. I have been researching the First World War for years, both at university and for my own enjoyment, and while I don’t claim to be an expert, my knowledge is fairly in-depth. Of course, there are caveats: most of my research and writing is socially and politically slanted, for example, so anyone looking for detailed military tactics won’t find them here. Also, despite my aims to try and keep this blog as a straightforward, interesting account of factual information, I won’t apologise for the fact that my own interpretations are always likely to shade the writing in one way or another (for the record, I am one of those unpatriotic left-wing cynics that UK education secretary Michael Gove has such an issue with).

So, here we go. The blog will be updated on the 28th of each month, in recognition of that day in the seventh month of 1914 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, and will essentially follow a narrative in which I write about the major events of each month. If you decide to stick with it, then thank you. It is no secret that the First World War was one of the most brutal periods in the history of mankind, and that, therefore, this won’t always be enjoyable reading, but I do hope that I can do this fascinating, interesting, horrendous time justice.

References:

The primary sources at the start of this post were taken from the very excellent website http://www.firstworldwar.com. If this blog isn’t for you, then you could do a lot worse than whiling away some hours there instead.

For other reading on the subject, I will be updating the Recommended Reading page above in the very near future.