WWI: The Beginning of the Rest of the War

Today is Hiroshima Day. On 6th August 1945, a nuclear bomb was dropped on an inhabited city as an act of war for the first time in human history.

On 6th August 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia, and Serbia declared war on Germany.

The Royal Serbian Ministry for Foreign Affairs wrote to the German legation at Niš:

The Royal Serbian Ministry for Foreign Affairs has the honour to inform the Imperial Legation that, in view of the state of war which now exists between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and of that between Russia and Germany, the ally of Austria-Hungary, the Royal Serbian Government, in view of the solidarity of her interests with Russia and her allies, considers the mission of Baron Gieslingen, the Imperial German Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary, to be at an end. The Royal Serbian Government requests His Excellency to leave Serbian territory with the staff of the Legations. The necessary passports are enclosed herewith.

Doctor M. Yovanovitch, the Serbian Chargé d’Affaires at Berlin, wrote to Nikola P. Pašić, the Serbian Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs:

On the occasion of my visit to the Under-Secretary of State, M. Zimmermann, for the purpose of breaking off diplomatic relations, he stated, in the course of conversation, that Germany had always cherished friendly feelings towards Serbia, and that he regretted that owing to the political groupement our relations had to be broken off. He blames Russia only, as the instigator of Serbia, for the developments which have occurred, and which will have grave consequences for all nations. If Russia, at the last moment–just when it appeared possible that an armed convict might be avoided–had not ordered the mobilisation of her whole forces, there would have been no war, for Germany had used her whole influence in Austria-Hungary in order to bring about an understanding with Russia. Austria-Hungary would have probably been satisfied with the occupation of Belgrade, when negotiations would have begun with a view to regularising the relations between Serbia and Austria.

At 6pm on this day, Count Frigyes Szapáry de Szapár, Muraszombat et Széchy-Sziget, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador at St. Petersburg presented this Note to Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov, the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs:

On the instructions of his Government, the undersigned the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador, has the honour to inform his Excellency the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs as follows: “Vu l’attitude menaçante prise par la Russie dans le confit entre la Monarchie austrohongroise et la Serbie et en presence du fait qu’en suite de ce conflit la Russie d’après une communication du Cabinet de Berlin a cru devoir ouvrir les hostilités contre l’Allemagne et que celle-ci se trouve par conséquent en état de guerre avec ladite Puissance, l’Autriche-Hongrie se considère également en état de guerre avec la Russie à partir du present moment.”


“In view of the threatening attitude adopted by Russia in the conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and Servia; and of the fact that, according to a communication from the Berlin Cabinet, Russia has seen fit, as a result of that conflict, to open hostilities against Germany; and whereas Germany is consequently at war with Russia; Austria-Hungary therefore considers herself also at war with Russia from the present moment.”

Count von Berchtold telegraphed from Vienna to Count von Mensdorff, the Austro-Hungarian Minister at London.

I have received Your Excellency’s telegram of the 4th August.

I ask you to assure Sir E. Grey that we will in no case open hostilities against Great Britain without a previous formal declaration of war, but that we also expect that Great Britain will observe towards us a similar attitude, and that she will not undertake any hostile act against us before formally declaring war.

Yov. M. Yovanovitch, who was the Serbian Minister at Vienna, wrote at length to Nikola P. Pašić, the Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs:

From June 17th [30th June in Julian Calendar – Serbia at the time used the Orthodox dating system] the Serbian Legation at Vienna was practically surrounded by police and gendarmes, while the staff were under constant police supervision. Our movements and our communications with the outer world were, as you can imagine, rendered extremely difficult; the attitude of the population towards the Legation and its staff was inclined to be menacing.

After the beginning of July (o.s.) even telegraphic communication with you became difficult, while matters developed with such rapidity that I was unable to report to you some of the events which preceded our armed conflict with Austria-Hungary. I accordingly do so now.

Up to the end of June (o.s.) the whole question of the Serajevo outrage appeared to be developing normally. At the commencement of July, however, a change took place as regards the question of the consequences of the Serajevo affair. There were no tangible proofs that a radical change had taken place, but it was to some extent indicated by certain vague signs and symptoms which betrayed the existence of some hidden intentions. First of all, the Vienna and Budapest press, in conformity with instructions issued by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, ceased to publish reports of the magisterial enquiry relating to the Serajevo outrage. The press began also to represent the whole matter as a question which must be settled between Serbia and Austria-Hungary alone–eventually by war.

Moreover, statements to this effect were communicated to the leading Vienna newspapers by the German Embassy. Exceptions were: the semi-official Fremdenblatt, which was, in general, more moderate in the tone of its articles; Die Zeit; and the Arbeiter Zeitung.

Simultaneously with this new attitude on the part of the press, a very unsettled condition of affairs developed on the Bourse, such as it had not witnessed during the whole course of recent events in the Balkans. In private conversations also and in high financial circles the “settlement with Serbia” was declared to be the only way out of the general financial and economic crisis prevailing in Austria-Hungary ever since the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under secret instructions it was ordered that gold should be gradually withdrawn from circulation, and a corresponding rise in exchange took place.

A further indication was the clumsy explanation given of the reasons which had induced the Minister for War, Krobatin, and the Chief of the General Staff, Hetzendorf, to interrupt their leave of absence and return to Vienna. The Chief of Staff constantly travelled to the south, east, and north of Austria, and at that time had had an interview with the Chief of the German General Staff, Count Moltke, in Bohemia, I believe, at Carlsbad.

All the reserves which had been called out for the June manoeuvres in Bosnia and Herzegovina were kept with the colours beyond the stipulated period.

The number of soldiers belonging to the permanent establishment in Austria-Hungary allowed to go home on short leave of absence in order to gather in the harvest, and to attend to other private affairs, was much larger than is usually the case; at the same time those whose duties were of a military-administrative nature were called upon in ever increasing numbers.

Another indication was the non-committal nature of the answers given to several interpellations in the Hungarian Diet by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza, a statesman who is very clear as a rule in his political statements.

The attitude of the Ballplatz was especially characteristic. None of the usual weekly receptions by Count Berchtold was held. They suddenly ceased at the Ballplatz to discuss the Serajevo outrage with the representatives of foreign countries; or, if discussion did arise, it seemed as if instructions had been issued on the subject; that is to say, it was mentioned to everyone in such a manner as to dispel all apprehensions and suspicion that Austria-Hungary was preparing some serious step against Serbia. They acknowledged that some step would be undertaken at Belgrade as soon as the results of the magisterial enquiry should have sufficiently established the connection between Belgrade and the Serajevo outrage. But, at the same time, it was said that this step would not be such as to give rise to any uneasiness. The Russian Ambassador, who spoke several times on the subject with Count Forgach, in the absence of Count Berchtold, was unable to discover the true nature of Austria’s intentions. M. Schebeko told me that Count Szapary, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador at Petrograd, who, for family reasons, was at that time stopping in Vienna, had said to him that the step to be taken at Belgrade would be of conciliatory character. According to M. Schebeko, Count Szapary had also assured M. Sazonof that the intended Austro-Hungarian Note to Serbia would not be such as to cause Russia any dissatisfactions. The French Ambassador, M. Dumaine, who, under instructions from his Government, had drawn the attention of the Ballplatz to the complications which might arise should the eventual demands which it was intended to make of Serbia not be of a moderate nature, was told by the principal Under-Secretary, Baron Macchio, that the Austro-Hungarian Government, appreciating the friendly and conciliatory action of the French Government, would only put forward such demands, embodied in a note to the Serbian Government, as Serbia would be able to accept without difficulty. I drew the attention of the Ambassadors of the Triple Entente to the fact that such an assurance might well conceal the true nature of the intentions of the Austro-Hungarian Government, and that the Powers of the Triple Entente might then be confronted by certain faits accomplis which Europe would be compelled to accept in order to avoid a general European war.

The line followed by the Ballplatz was, moreover, comparatively successful, as all those of my colleagues whom I saw during that period were more or less dissuaded from believing that Austria-Hungary contemplated any serious step which could provoke European complications. Many of the members of the diplomatic body were so firmly convinced of this that they were preparing at that time to quit Vienna on long leave of absence at various watering places.

Nevertheless, it was known that a note was being drawn up at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs which would contain the accusations against Serbia, and also the demands of Austria-Hungary. This task was entrusted to Count Forgach, formerly Austro-Hungarian Minister in Serbia. At the same time it was universally believed that of the foreign representatives, the German Ambassador, Herr von Tschirsky, was the only one who was kept informed of the note even in its minutest details, while I had reason to believe that he was also co-operating in drafting it. In view of the above, the representatives of the friendly Powers agreed with me in thinking that the note would impose very difficult terms on Serbia, but that there would be no inacceptable demands. When the contents of the note were published all of them were surprised, not to say dumbfounded.

In the same way as the contents of the note were kept secret, a similar amount of secrecy was observed in regard to the date of its presentation. On the very day that the note was presented at Belgrade, the French Ambassador had a prolonged conversation with the Principal Under-Secretary at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs–Count Berchtold was again absent at Ischl–on the subject of the note. Yet Baron Macchio did not tell M. Dumaine that the note would be presented at Belgrade that afternoon, and published in the newspapers on the following day.

On the publication in the Vienna papers on the morning of July 11/24 of the contents of the note, which Baron Giesl had presented to then Serbian Government, a feeling of dejection came over the friends both of Serbia and of the peace of Europe. It was only then realised that serious European complications might ensue, though it was not believed that it was the intention of the Austro-Hungarian Government to provoke them. This feeling of depression was increased by the tone of the articles in the Viennese newspapers, with the exception of Die Zeit and Arbeiter Zeitung and by demonstrations in the streets, which clearly showed that war would be a most welcome solution–a war with Serbia, of course.

On that day, after having two or three conversations, I realised that an armed conflict between Serbia and the Dual Monarchy was inevitable, even should Serbia accept all the demands contained in the Austro-Hungarian Note, from the first to the last. The attitude of the people in the streets towards our Legation was such that I expected even personal attacks upon the members of the staff.

The French Ambassador, the British Ambassador, and the Russian Chargé d’Affaires held the view that the step taken by Austria-Hungary, should be considered not as a note but as an ultimatum. They disapproved of the form, the contents, and the time limit of the note; they also declared it to be inacceptable.

In the course of conversation with them on the subject of the note I pointed out that those passages in it which dealt with the order by the King to the Army, with the dismissal of officers and Government officials, and especially that which referred to the co-operation of, Austro-Hungarian officials in the “Suppression of the subversive movement in Serbia against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy,” would be inacceptable as not being compatible with the dignity and sovereignty of Serbia. Only a victorious war, I said, could enforce the acceptance of conditions which were so humiliating to an independent State. In reply to their enquiry whether it would not perhaps be better to accept the conditions and avoid war for the present, I said that the Austro-Hungarian Note, which amounted in fact to a declaration of war upon Serbia, was worded in such a way that, even if Serbia should accept all the conditions without reserve, Austria-Hungary would still find an excuse for her army to march into Serbia at any time. It was in the h belief that the conflict would be limited to Serbia and Austria-Hungary that Austria-Hungary had drafted such a note.

To M. Dumaine, Sir M. de Bunsen, and the Russian Chargé d’Affaires, the unexpected character of the note was the cause not only of surprise but also of alarm, in view of the complications which they feared might ensue. The Russian Ambassador. M. Schebeko, previously to the presentation of the note, had stated on several occasions to his colleagues that Russia could not remain indifferent to any step taken by Austria-Hungary, which might have as an object the humiliation of Serbia. He also expressed the same view at the Ballplatz. Hence the apprehension felt by the three Ambassadors, who at once foresaw the possibility of war between Russia and Austria-Hungary.

The day after the note was presented, Prince Koudacheff went to see Count Berchtold to discuss the matter. In reply to his statement, that the note as it stood was inacceptable, and that Russia could not watch with indifference the humiliation of Serbia, Count Berchtold said that Austria-Hungary had been obliged to take this step as her very existence was threatened; that she could not withdraw nor alter the demands made in the note, and that he considered that the matter in dispute concerned Serbia and Austria-Hungary alone and that no other Power had any grounds for interference.

Count Berchtold’s reply did not allow of any further doubts as to the intention of Austria-Hungary to chastise Serbia by force of arms without the consent of the European concert. From conversations which I had at that time with the Ambassadors of the Triple Entente –who, during the whole of that difficult period showed every kindness and attention to me and to the staff of the Legation–it seemed quite clear that Austria-Hungary had been assured, and felt convinced, that the Serbo-Austro-Hungarian conflict would be localised, as she would otherwise not have decided upon a note which undoubtedly meant war. It was also clear that Austria-Hungary was confirmed in this impression especially–and perhaps solely–by Herr von Tchirsky, the German Ambassador in Vienna. Herr von Tchirsky was the only one who thought and even stated publicly, that Russia would remain quiet while Austria-Hungary carried out her punitive expedition against Serbia. He declared that the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs would easily control the Panslavists, in the same way as he had done last year, and that Russia was not disposed at the moment to begin a discussion of the many vexed questions in Europe and Asia which were her main concern. It was necessary, according to Herr von Tchirsky, to give Serbia a lesson. Russia had no right to interfere. As far as Germany, he said, was concerned, she was in the fullest sense of the word conscious of what she was doing in giving Austria-Hungary her support in the matter.

These statements of Herr von Tchirsky have induced many to hold the opinion that Germany desired to provoke a European war, on the ground that it was better to have war with Russia before the latter had completed her military reorganisation, i.e., before the spring of 1917. This point of view had formerly been freely discussed and even written about in Vienna. “The longer the matter is postponed, the smaller will become the chances of success of the Triple Alliance.” On the other hand, rumours from the most authoritative diplomatic sources in Berlin reached me in Vienna, to the effect that the Wilhelmstrasse did not approve of Austria’s policy on this question, and that Herr von Tchirsky has exceeded the instructions given to him.

The Russian Ambassador, M. Schebeko, on his return from Petrograd, did his utmost at the Ballplatz to obtain an extension of the brief time limit given to the Serbian Government for a reply to the Austro-Hungarian Note, and to discover some way which might lead to an exchange of views between Vienna and Petrograd in regard to the whole question, but until July 13/26, when we met, his efforts had proved unavailing. From the conversations I then had with him, I gathered that the Austro-Hungarian Note, in its contents and in its form, was regarded as a challenge to Russia and not to Serbia and that Russia would not permit the humiliation of Serbia, even if war were to be the price.

On the day of my departure from Vienna, M. Schebeko told me that, in spite of the many great difficulties to be overcome, there was a prospect of arriving at a solution by which an armed conflict might be avoided by means of discussion between the Russian Government and Count Szapary. A feeling of depression, however, prevailed in Vienna as soon as reports began to be spread that the Austro-Serbian conflict would bring about a war between Russia and the Dual Monarchy.

Harry Patch, last surviving British WWI veteran
And so it began.

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