“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans (1888)” –Otto Von Bismarck
One hundred years ago this 28th of July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Panic would grip the residents of Belgrade, as they began to shut their market stalls and shops, and grabbed as much food as possible before fleeing for the safety of their shelters, even escape from the city itself. Then, by the early hours of the 29th, the first shell of the war was fired on Belgrade from across the river Sava. Thunderous explosions could be heard as Austrian gunboats steamed down the Sava and the Danube. Along a greater front, Austria used its heavy artillery to bombard Serbian towns, in particular, the capital itself.
From this undertaking, it is fair to say, Europe began its descent into darkness. Russia had warned that it would support her ally Serbia, if Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. It wasn’t about to make the same mistake it did in 1908, when it failed to stand by Serbia as Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. For that reason, on the 29th July Russia ordered at first a partial mobilization, then a general mobilization as she realized it had to be all or nothing in its support for Serbia. This, of course, aggravated Germany who issued Russia an ultimatum to stand down. France quickly jumped to the aid of Russia by reaffirmed that she would support her. The Germans extremely irritable by now, also issued France an ultimatum demanding her neutrality and the surrender of the fortified towns of Toul and Verdun in this delicate moment. Unfortunately, Germany was sadly mistaken that France would kowtow to its demands. France rightly so rejected Germany’s ultimatum and issued a general mobilization on 1st of August. So Germany declared war on Russia on August 1st and France on the 3rd of August, attacking it via Luxembourg and Belgian. Britain angered by the taking of neutral Belgian and the attack on France declared war on Germany on the 4th of August.
From the moment Britain declared war on Germany, the die was cast and war became inevitable. As I had previously said, in this series, war came, in part, because of poor political decision making, suspicion and a misdirected sense of honour. A dozen or more reasons of the cause of war could also be easily outlined. In the end, all the Great Powers in a frenzied few days were swept up by a wave of military considerations. In a little over a month, the war would grow and spread so quickly that all hell would break loose !
Across the world news broke of the latest calamity, to strike Europe and the Great Powers in the early days of August 1914. This is the front page story of The New York Herald.
Notes and Further Reading:
Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism,War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, Penquin Books, 2000.
Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914, William Collins, 2013.
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August, Penguin Books, 2014.
Photo credit: The header image is an Austrian shallow-draft naval monitors steam down the river Sava and the Danube for Belgrade, 1914.