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Monday, July 28, 2014

100 years ago today Austria declared war on Serbia, the first declaration of World War 1

The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime. 

~Sir Edward Grey (remark, 3 August 1914, on the eve of Britain's declaration of war) 

The War was decided in the first twenty days of fighting, and all that happened 
afterwards consisted of battles which, however formidable and devastating, were but desperate and vain appeals against the decision of Fate. 

~Sir Winston Churchill (Preface to Spears, Liaison 1914) 

When every autumn people said it could not last through the winter, and when every spring there was still no end in sight, only the hope that out of it all some good would accrue to mankind kept men and nations fighting. When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion. 

~Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August, "Afterward") 

Although many consider the opening act of World War I to be the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo - its centennial was just a month ago (28 June) - the first actual declaration of war took place a hundred years ago today, when Austria-Hungary initiated hostilities against Serbia, after the latter rejected a draconian Austrian ultimatum intended to give Austria a free hand in bringing Franz Ferdinand's killers to account. As a result, Russia - self-appointed protector of the "South Slavs" - mobilized against Austria, which panicked the Germans (fearful of a two-front war against both France and her Russian ally) and so it went... 

28 July Austria declares war on Serbia
1 August Germany declares war on Russia
3 August Germany declares war on France
4 August Germany invades Belgium (to attack France)
England declares war on Germany in support of Belgium
6 August Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia
Serbia declares war on Germany
11 August France declares war on Austria-Hungary
12 August England declares war on Austria-Hungary*

After Germany's long-intended encirclement of Paris (under the Schlieffen plan) was thwarted by the French and British in the Battle of the Marne, the struggle on the Western Front devolved into a four-year stalemate in which the principal protagonists faced off across a line of trenches that ran from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Despite the unprecedented bloodbath that ensued, virtually no additional ground was gained by either side before the end of the conflict in November 1918.

Despite the "war-guilt" clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, which held Germany largely responsible for the hostilities and imposed extraordinary penalties and reparations, the causes of the war have been debated endlessly for most of the last century. Of the dozen or so books I've read on the subject, two recent ones have been particularly insightful: The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark (Harper's, 2013) and The War That Ended Peace - The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan (Random House, 2013). I concluded some years ago after a good deal of reading on the subject that although there was certainly enough blame to go around, it was primarily Austria-Hungary that caused the catastrophe because of her reckless determination to settle long-standing scores with Serbia. Nothing I've learned subsequently has much changed that position. Be that as it may... One could argue - and I do - that World War I was the greatest misfortune that ever befell Western civilization. It destroyed the West's belief in inevitable human progress. It brought down the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman empires, bankrupted France and England, and put the British Empire on the skids. It was the proximate cause of the triumph of Communism in Russia and the formation of the Soviet Union, drove the United States into two decades of international isolation, and instilled in Germany a thirst for revenge that led directly to the rise of the Nazis and World War II.

Moreover, in the Middle East, Britain's and France's cack-handed and self-serving division of the remains of the Ottoman Empire was largely responsible for all the turmoil we suffer there today. On hearing the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany's much-maligned Kaiser Wilhelm II noted from exile that,

"The war to end war has resulted in a peace to end peace."

*The United States only joined the Allies on 6 April 1917, provoked beyond endurance by Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare campaign and the German "Zimmermann telegram" (wiki) - intercepted by British intelligence - which promised Mexico the return of her "lost territories" in the southwest United States in return for an alliance with a victorious Germany.

(Text above is adapted from Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email. Leave your email address in the comments if you'd like to be added to his list.)

If you're interested in further information on the subject there are hundreds of books and films - the best books I know of (and unlike Ed, who's recommendations are above, I'm no expert) are Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which won a Pulitzer back when they meant something) and John Keegan's The First World War

Here's the The BBC’s Horrible Histories explanation of how the Brits got involved:


Here's a 6 minute overview of World War I:


This animated map reflects the daily changes over the course of the war:


The Atlantic has a series of photoessays entitled World War I in Photos on various WWI topics.

Previous posts: 

June 28 marks the centennial of the start of World War One: a few quotes/videos/links

1 comment:

  1. Britain's declaration of War against Germany was enacted by a meeting of the Privy Council held on 4 August 1914, attended by George V and against his cousin the Kaiser who but for the accident of female succession might himself have been king of England.

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