Short Fuze to the Great War

July 1, 2014

One thing after another went wrong on the morning of June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, capital of the Austrian province of Bosnia. The motorcade carrying Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, through the city got lost.

The driver of the open touring car in which the archduke and his wife, Duchess Sofie, were riding made a wrong turn onto a narrow street. The car had no reverse gear and had to be pushed back to the main thoroughfare.

By purest chance, it had come to a complete stop exactly in front of Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, 19, who had been assigned to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Princip was an inexperienced marksman, armed with an underpowered .32 caliber handgun. Nevertheless he managed, with two shots, to kill the archduke and the duchess.

The assassin had been recruited and equipped by anti-Austrian factions in Serbia. The Serbian government was not party to the act but was almost certainly aware of the plot. Serbia wanted to break Bosnia away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and make it part of a greater Slavic nation in the Balkans. More than 40 percent of Bosnians were ethnic Serbs.

There was widespread rejoicing and celebration in Serbia at the success of the assassination. Official condolences did little to moderate the public jubilation and commentary in Serbian nationalist press. The Serbian government was not as innocent as it claimed.

Sarajevo was the spark that led to World War I. On the day of the assassination, Europe was at peace. Less than six weeks later, it was at war. Austria-Hungary, with the full backing of Germany, declared war on Serbia, causing Serbia’s ally, Russia, to mobilize. Germany issued an insulting “double ultimatum” to Russia and its ally, France, to stand down and stay out of it. In August, Germany invaded Belgium, en route to attack France. This drew in Great Britain.

The men who started the war did not understand what they were bringing down on themselves and the world. The Germans expected it to be a short war. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told departing troops the first week in August.

The war would last more than four years, eventually drawing in 32 nations, including faraway Guatemala and Siam, although not all of them were engaged in combat. When it finally ended, some 9.5 million had been killed and more than 15 million wounded.

It was known as the “Great War” and was not generally called “World War I” until the approach of World War II in 1939. On the 100th anniversary of its beginning, historians are still struggling to understand how and why it happened.

Breakup of the Old Empires

Nearly all of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals was divided into two armed camps in 1914, a situation that evolved from the breakup of the old empires that had dominated the continent for centuries.

The Ottoman Empire, which once ruled as far north as Poland, was already known as “the sick man of Europe.” Only the Turkish homeland and parts of the Middle East remained under its control. Loss of the Balkans left a power vacuum that Austria and Russia were competing to fill.

The Hapsburg Empire in 1914 consisted of the “dual monarchy” of Austria-Hungary in which Hungary was decidedly the junior partner. The empire was still large but its southern boundaries had been rolled back by insurrections in Italy. More important, Austria had been defeated in a short war with Prussia in 1866 and displaced as leader of the Germanic states by the newly established Second Reich in Germany. Smarting from its decline, the Hapsburg Empire annexed Bosnia in 1908.

The Romanov Empire in Russia, ruled by the weak Czar Nicholas II, survived an attempted revolution in 1905 but the next one, already developing, would bring it down. The Slavic states in the Balkans, especially Serbia, looked to Russia as their patron and protector.

France was in an awkward position. Its strength had been broken by the defeat of Napoleon a century before. It was soundly beaten again in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and forced to cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. With its choice for alliances severely limited, France—the only republic in Europe—signed a pact with czarist Russia in 1894. France hoped to contain Germany. Russia mainly wanted to offset Hapsburg influence in the Balkans.

Germany, which had given its neighbors ample cause for alarm, worried about “encirclement” and struck a military alliance with the diminished Austria-Hungary. Thus 1914 began with the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary—squared off against Russia and France with a rambunctious Serbia stirring up trouble on the southern flank.

Italy was allied, at least nominally, with the Central Powers, which were trying to pull the Ottoman Turks into their camp as well. It was uncertain whether Great Britain, which had mutual defense arrangements with France, would engage in the developing crisis or stay out.

Teutonic Intrigues

Austria in 1914 was a regional power, no longer a continental one. Despite its decline—or perhaps because of it—the Austrians had adopted an aggressive stance, particularly in regard to the upstart Serbs. The Hungarian half of the dual monarchy was more inclined toward moderation.

Franz Ferdinand had not been popular in the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. The previous heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide, and Franz Ferdinand had emerged as next in line. His uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, 84, resented and disliked him. After the assassination, Franz Ferdinand and Sofie were buried with little fanfare and little mourning.

Nevertheless, hotheads at the Hapsburg court were ready to use the assassination as a pretext to act. The most strident of them was Field Marshal Franz Conrad, the army chief of staff. He had proposed war with Serbia more than 25 times and each time had been blocked by Franz Ferdinand, who was now dead.

Germany was unwilling to rein in its ambitious ally. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II shared the tendency to be reckless, impulsive, and aggressive. He was related by blood to the other royal houses of Europe. The kaiser, the king of England, and the czarina of Russia were all grandchildren of Queen Victoria. Wilhelm and the czar were great-grandsons of Czar Paul I. The kaiser was on first-name terms with his kin, but that did not keep him from plotting against them.

The kaiser was given to swaggering, blustery behavior and military pretensions. He had more than 300 military uniforms from various countries and changed from one to another several times a day. The seat in his office was a saddle chair. He claimed that the saddle was more comfortable than a regular chair. Wilhem, said historian Margaret MacMillan “told conductors how to conduct and painters how to paint.”

He had dismissed the fabled Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890 in order to take full powers into his own hands. Wilhelm refused to renew a treaty that Bismarck had made with Russia, which opened the door for an alliance between Russia and France. The kaiser brooded that Russia and France were united against Germany but was too self-centered to see why that was so.

Long before Sarajevo, pressures for war were gathering in Germany.

The Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen plan, first laid down in the 1890s by Gen. Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff, was more than a contingency plan. It was the centerpiece of German strategy.

It began with the assumption that Germany was not strong enough to fight France and Russia at the same time. Therefore, Germany would conduct a holding action against Russia and strike hard on the western front, defeating France quickly before the Russians had time to mobilize.

The plan was analyzed and revised every year. The 1906 plan, the last one before Schlieffen retired, allocated six weeks for the defeat of France while an eighth of the German army held the line against Russia.

The French had fortified the Alsace-Lorraine frontier, blocking a frontal attack. Instead, the right wing of the German army would sweep south like a swinging gate, turning the left flank of the French in a classic envelopment. Since 1899, it had been part of the plan to route the invasion through Belgium, even though Germany was party to an agreement guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality. Schlieffen’s last words before he died in 1913 were, “Keep the right wing strong.”

The keeper and advocate of the Schlieffen plan was Gen. Helmuth J. L. von Moltke, the army chief of staff. He was a competent soldier but a pale shadow of his uncle and namesake, “Moltke the Elder,” the great field marshal who led Prussia to victories over Austria and France. Von Moltke’s version of the plan projected a decisive victory over France in 39 days.

The Germans, especially von Moltke, held several fundamental beliefs: War was inevitable and time was not on Germany’s side; in a few years, Russia—which had unlimited manpower—would reach military superiority too strong to challenge; delaying the conflict was not to Germany’s advantage.

The critical element was time. “The French and German armies each required two weeks to complete mobilization before a major attack could begin on the fifteenth day,” said historian Barbara W. Tuchman. “Russia, according to German arithmetic, because of her vast distances, huge numbers, and meager railroads, would take six weeks before she could launch a major offensive, by which time France would be beaten.”

The Balkan Connection

Before he died in 1898, Otto von Bismarck predicted that a great European war would come out of “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” The Iron Chancellor was right.

Under the old structure of alliances, a crisis in the Balkans—a cluster of small nations on the periphery of Europe—would not have spread beyond regional conflict. However, in 1914, a combination of circumstances made the Balkans the trigger for world war.

Russia took pride in its role as champion of the Slavic states that had broken free of the Ottoman Empire. Russia also welcomed an allied presence adjacent to its traditional adversary, Turkey.

Confident of Russian support, Serbia was more defiant of Austria than it might otherwise have been. The critical factor was that the alliance of France and Russia in 1894 created a linkage between France and Russia’s ally, the free-wheeling Serbs. Western Europe had no sympathy for the Serbs in their own right, regarding them as troublemakers.

At the same time, the Germans were encouraging the Austrians to exploit the confrontation with Serbia. The kaiser remarked in marginal notes on a dispatch that it was “high time a clean sweep was made of the Serbs.” On July 5, Germany assured Austria of its full support in whatever action it took against Serbia, a signal remembered in history as the blank check.

On July 23, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia an ultimatum, designed to ensure that the Serbs would reject it. Among other things, it insisted on Austrian participation in Serbia’s internal investigation of the assassination and suppression of the “subversive” Slavic movement.

As expected, the Serbs refused and Russia put its armed forces on increased alert.

On July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia and the next day, Austrian gunboats on the Danube and Sava Rivers bombarded Belgrade.

The last opportunity to head off the conflict was the so-called “Willy-Nicky telegrams”—an exchange of 10 messages between the czar and the kaiser in which the cousins addressed each other by their first names. The exchange was broken off by the kaiser Aug. 1, with a warning that Russia must not commit “the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers.”


The major military forces in Europe were huge conscription armies that could be augmented by the mobilization of trained reservists who had served previously. The only exception was Great Britain, an island nation that relied primarily on the navy for its defense and whose army was comparatively small and consisted of volunteers. The British did not begin conscription until 1916.

The mobilization system meant that a nation could increase its striking power enormously within a matter of weeks. It is often suggested that mobilization was an act of war, but there is little basis for such a proposition. It was so regarded by some nations in some instances, but not always. Mobilization “had been used in previous crises as a buttress to diplomacy, a form of brinksmanship rather than a step in an inevitable escalation,” said historian Hew Strachan.

Austria and Russia began general mobilization July 30. The French moved their forces forward but held them 10 kilometers back from the Franco-German border to avoid provocation. The French knew about the Schlieffen plan but believed that if the Germans overstrengthened their right wing, the left wing and center in Alsace-Lorraine would be correspondingly weak. They planned to counterattack in the center and cut the German force in half.

Germany issued its arrogant double ultimatum July 31, demanding that Russia suspend “every war measure” within 12 hours and that the French declare neutrality and surrender their fortifications at Verdun and Toul. France and Germany mobilized Aug. 1.

A theory, promoted by Sean McMeekin of Koç University in Istanbul and currently enjoying a boomlet of popularity, holds that “the decision for European war” was made by Russia on the night of July 29 when the czar signed the order for general mobilization to begin the next day. The Germans, “outnumbered and outgunned on both fronts, with Britain primed to intervene against them,” were thus forced to move.

In fact, neither the Russians nor the French had shown any inclination to attack Germany and as tacitly acknowledged by the double ultimatum, there was still time to stop the war.

A War in Full

Time ran out on Aug. 1 when Germany declared war on Russia and invaded Luxembourg, en route to France by way of Belgium. France and Germany declared war on each other Aug. 3.

Germany demanded free passage through Belgium, and when the Belgians did not agree, the Germans responded with a fury of assault and atrocity that shocked the world. They shot hostages and burned a village the first day, then declared collective responsibility for resistance and killed hundreds of civilians in mass executions. The rampage included burning the historic city of Louvain and its collection of medieval manuscripts. When the Germans crossed the border into France Aug. 7, the British had declared war and organized an expeditionary force to join the French defense.

Hardly anything worked out as planned or expected. Russia, still only partially prepared, invaded East Prussia Aug. 12 to open a new front in the war. The German forces, commanded by a political favorite of the kaiser’s, fell back and von Moltke sent two corps and a cavalry division, withdrawn from his offensive in the west, as reinforcements. The Germans prevailed at the battle of Tannenberg, but in violation of Schlieffen’s injunction, von Moltke had fatally weakened his right wing. Von Moltke got within 30 miles of Paris, but no further.

The French abandoned their central strategy and moved to block the German flanking attack from the north. The British and French defeated the Germans at the battle of the Marne in September and that was the end of the Schlieffen plan. The kaiser sacked von Moltke and replaced him with a new commander, but the invasion had failed. The armies on the western front settled down into siege lines in Belgium and northern France, where they remained for the rest of the war.

Austria-Hungary fizzled out. Field Marshal Franz Conrad, the loudest advocate of going to war, launched three unsuccessful invasions of Serbia. In the first month-and-a-half, he lost more than a fourth of his army. He was routed in his foray into Russian Poland and the Germans had to send forces to rescue him. Thereafter, Austria-Hungary was a burden on Germany rather than an effective ally in the war.

The Ottoman Turks, wary of the Russians—who were not averse to using the war to achieve their ancient goal of seizing the Turkish straits as an outlet from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean—joined the Central Powers in October. However, Italy defected to the Allied side in 1915.

The final German defeat was not sealed until after the United States entered the war with fresh resources in 1917.

Footprints in Sarajevo

The Great War brought an end to the old empires on the continent. The Romanovs were overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1918, and the czar and his family were slain. The kaiser was forced into exile in 1918 and the German Reich was replaced by a parliamentary government. The Hapsburg Empire ceased to exist in 1918. Hungary became a separate country, although it lost much of its former territory. Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938. The Ottoman Empire had dissolved by 1923.

The Germans and the Austrians were compelled by the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain in 1919 to acknowledge their responsibility for starting the war. This “guilt clause” was a bone of contention for years, especially in Germany, where repudiating it was one of Adolf Hitler’s main themes in his rise to power.

The one country that got exactly what it wanted out of the Great War was Serbia. In 1918, the Slavic states in the Balkans, including Serbia and Bosnia, were united in the new nation of Yugoslavia. Gavrilo Princip was celebrated as a national hero. In the 1940s, Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito had bronze footsteps and a plaque marking “the first steps toward Yugoslav freedom” placed in the sidewalk near where Princip stood when he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand.

Tito died in 1980 and, beginning in 1991, the Yugoslav union disintegrated amidst ethnic turmoil. Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence in 1992.

The Bosnians destroyed the plaque in Sarajevo and dug up Princip’s footprints.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent article, ” The Semi-Secret Birth of the Luftwaffe,” appeared in the June issue.