Military history



War is … an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.


“SINCE I HAVE BEEN AT THE FOREIGN OFFICE,” ARTHUR NICOLSON noted at Whitehall in May 1914, “I have not seen such calm waters.”1 Europe had, in fact, refused to tear itself to pieces over troubles in faraway lands: Morocco in 1905–06 and in 1911; Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908–09; Libya in 1911–12; and the Balkans in 1912–13. The Anglo-German naval arms race had subsided, as had the fears about the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway, since Berlin had run out of money for such gargantuan enterprises. Russia had overcome its war with Japan (1904–05), albeit at a heavy price in terms of men and ships lost and domestic discontent. Few desolate strips of African or Asian lands remained to be contested, and Berlin and London were preparing to negotiate a “settlement” of the Portuguese colonies. France and Germany had not been at war for forty-three years and Britain and Russia for fifty-eight.

Partition of the Continent by 1907 into two nearly equal camps—the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia—seemed to militate against metropolitan Europe being dragged into petty wars on its periphery. Kurt Riezler, foreign-policy adviser to German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, cagily argued that given this model of great-power balance, future wars “would no longer be fought but calculated.”2 Guns would no longer fire, “but have a voice in the negotiations.” In other words, no power would risk escalating minor conflicts into a continental war; instead, each would “bluff” the adversary up the escalatory ladder, stopping just short of war in favor of diplomatic settlement. Peace seemed assured.


Domestically, for most well-off and law-abiding Europeans, the period prior to 1914 was a golden age of prosperity and decency. The “red specter” of Socialism had lost much of its threat. Real wages had shot up almost 50 percent between 1890 and 1913. Trade unions had largely won the right to collective bargaining, if not to striking, and their leaders sat in parliaments. Many workers had embraced social imperialism, believing that overseas trade and naval building translated into high-paying jobs at home. Germany had paved the path toward social welfare with state-sponsored health insurance, accident insurance, and old-age pensions. Others followed. Women were on the march for the vote. To be sure, there was trouble over Ireland, but then official London hardly viewed Ireland as a European matter.

Paris, as usual, was the exception. The capital had been seething with political excitement since January 1914, when Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, had launched a public campaign to discredit Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux—ostensibly over a new taxation bill.3 When Calmette published several letters from Caillaux’s personal correspondence, Henriette Caillaux became alarmed. First, that correspondence could make public her husband’s pacifist stance vis-à-vis Germany during the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911; second, she knew that it included love letters from her to Joseph that showed she had conducted an affair with him at a time when he was still married. The elegant Madame Caillaux took matters into her own hands: On 16 March she walked into Calmette’s office, drew a revolver from her muff, and shot the editor four times at point-blank range. Her trial on charges of murder dominated Paris in the summer of 1914. Two shots fired by a Serbian youth at Sarajevo on 28 June paled in comparison.

Gavrilo Princip’s murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Habsburg throne, and his morganatic wife, Sophie Chotek, caused no immediate crisis in the major capitals. The dog days of summer were upon Europe. There ensued a mad rush to escape urban heat for cooler climes.4 French president Raymond Poincaré and prime minister René Viviani were preparing to board the battleship France for a leisurely cruise through the Baltic Sea to meet Tsar Nicholas II at St. Petersburg. Kaiser Franz Joseph took the waters at Bad Ischl. Wilhelm II was about to board the royal yacht Hohenzollern for his annual cruise of the Norwegian fjords. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was off to the family estate at Hohenfinow to play Beethoven on the grand piano and to read Plato (in the original Greek). Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow saw no need to curtail his honeymoon at Lucerne.

Nor were military men much concerned. German chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke struck out for Karlsbad, Bohemia, to meet his Austro-Hungarian counterpart, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn was off to vacation in the East Frisian Islands. Navy Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz left Berlin for St. Blasien, in the Black Forest. Habsburg war minister Alexander von Krobatin took the cure at Bad Gastein.

Even the less prominent escaped the July heat. Sigmund and Martha Freud, like Moltke and Conrad, vacationed at Karlsbad. V. I. Lenin left Cracow to hike in the Tatra Mountains. Leon Trotsky took solace in a small apartment in the Vienna Woods. Adolf Hitler was back in Munich after a military court-martial at Salzburg had found the draft dodger unfit for military service (“too weak; incapable of bearing arms”).5

But had the exodus of European leaders been all that innocent? Or had some deeper design lain at its root? The first move in what is popularly called the July Crisis rested with Vienna. Few in power lamented the passing of Franz Ferdinand. He was too Catholic; he detested the Czechs, Magyars, and Poles within the empire; and he distrusted the ally in Rome. But the spilling of royal blood demanded an official response.

FOR MORE THAN HALF a dozen years prior to 1914, Conrad von Hötzendorf had pressed war on his government as the only solution to the perceived decline of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. Daily, the frail, thin, crew-cut chief of the General Staff had stood at his desk and drafted contingency war plans against “Austria’s congenital foes” Italy and Serbia as well as against Albania, Montenegro, and Russia, or against combinations of these states. Each year, he had submitted them to Kaiser Franz Joseph and to Foreign Minister Aloys Lexa Count Aehrenthal. And each year, these two had steadfastly refused to act.

Why, then, was July 1914 different?6 Conrad saw the murders at Sarajevo as a Serbian declaration of war. He cared little about the high school lads who had carried out the plot and about the secret organization “Union or Death,” or the “Black Hand,” that had planned it; his real enemy was Belgrade. He was determined not to let the last opportunity pass by “to settle accounts” with Serbia. He was haunted by the empire’s failure to use the annexationist crisis over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908–09 to crush Serbian annexationist aspirations. There was also a personal motive: He informed his mistress Virginie “Gina” von Reininghaus that he was anxious to return from a war “crowned with success” so that he could “claim” her “as my dearest wife.” Honor was at stake as well. While the war might be a “hopeless struggle” against overwhelming odds, Conrad informed Gina on the day of the Sarajevo killings, it had to be fought “because such an ancient monarchy and such an ancient army cannot perish ingloriously.”7 In a nutshell, Conrad’s position in July 1914, in the words of the new foreign minister, Leopold Count Berchtold, was simply: “War, war, war.”8

By 1914, Franz Joseph shared Conrad’s “war at any price” mind-set. Serbian arrogance had to be rooted out, by force if necessary. The kaiser was plagued by nightmares—of Solferino, where in 1859 he had led Austrian armies to defeat at the hands of France and Piedmont-Sardinia; and of Königgrätz, where in 1866 his forces had been routed by those of King Wilhelm I of Prussia. Thus in July 1914, Franz Joseph was prepared to draw the sword. Honor demanded no less. “If we must go under,” he confided to Conrad, “we better go under decently.”9

That left the foreign minister. In the past, Berchtold, like Aehrenthal, had resisted Conrad’s demands for war. But diplomacy had brought no security. Thus, Berchtold, emboldened by the hard-line stance of a small cohort of hawks at the Foreign Office, endorsed military measures. Just two days after the Sarajevo murders, he spoke of the need for a “final and fundamental reckoning” with Serbia.10 And he worked out a set of assumptions to underpin his decision: Early and decisive action by Berlin would deter possible Russian intervention and “localize” the war in the Balkans.

But would Berlin play the role of gallant second? During past Balkan crises, Wilhelm II and his advisers had refused to back Habsburg initiatives with military force. Would July 1914 confirm that pattern? Berchtold, knowing that he needed diplomatic and military backing from Berlin, on 4 July dispatched Alexander Count Hoyos, his chef de cabinet, to sound out what the German position would be in the event that Vienna took actions to “eliminate” Serbia as a “political power factor in the Balkans.”11 It was a clever move, given the kaiser’s well-known propensity for personal diplomacy. In meetings the next two days with Wilhelm II, Bethmann Hollweg, Falkenhayn, and Undersecretary of the Foreign Office Arthur Zimmermann, Hoyos and Habsburg ambassador László Count Szögyény-Marich obtained promises of “full German backing” for whatever action Vienna took against Belgrade. There was no time to lose. “The present situation,” the kaiser noted, “is so favorable to us.” Diplomats and soldiers “considered the question of Russian intervention and accepted the risk of a general war.”12 Austria-Hungary could count on “Germany’s full support” even if “serious European complications”—war—resulted. And in the apparent interest of “localizing the war” in the Balkans, Berlin was ready to point to the soon-to-be-vacationing Wilhelm II, Moltke, and Falkenhayn as “evidence” that Germany would be “as surprised as the other powers” by any aggressive Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia.13

Having obtained what is often referred to as a blank check from Germany, Austria-Hungary was free to plot its actions. On 7 July, Berchtold convened a Common Council of Ministers at Vienna and apprised those present of Berlin’s staunch support, “even though our operations against Serbia should bring about the great war.”14 War Minister von Krobatin favored war “now better than later.” Austrian premier Karl Count Stürgkh demanded “a military reckoning with Serbia.” Conrad von Hötzendorf as always was set on war. Only Hungarian premier István Tisza demurred. He desired no more Slavic subjects, given that his Magyars were already a minority within their half of the empire. And he feared that an attack on Serbia would bring on “the dreadful calamity of a European war.” But within a week he joined the majority view—on condition that Belgrade be handed a stringent ultimatum that would allow Habsburg officials to enter Serbia to hunt down the assassins.

The final decision for war was made at a special Common Council of Ministers convened at Berchtold’s residence on 19 July. It was quickly decided to hand the ultimatum, carefully crafted by the foreign minister’s staff to assure rejection, to Belgrade on 23 July and to demand acceptance within forty-eight hours. The day after the Common Council, Berchtold advised Conrad and Krobatin to begin their planned summer holidays “to preserve the appearance that nothing is being planned.”15 Tisza’s countryman István Count Burián laconically noted: “The wheel of history rolls.”16 Serbia rejected the ultimatum on 25 July. Sir Maurice de Bunsen, Britain’s envoy to Vienna, informed Whitehall: “Vienna bursts into a frenzy of delight, vast crowds parading the streets and singing patriotic songs till the small hours of the morning.”17

Berchtold visited Franz Joseph at Bad Ischl. He informed the kaiser that Serbian gunboats had fired on Habsburg troops near Temes-Kubin (Kovin). It was a lie, but it served its purpose. “Hollow eyed,” the aged Franz Joseph signed the order for mobilization. His only recorded comment, delivered “in a muffled, choked voice,” was “Also, doch!” (“So, after all!”) Was it said in conviction? Or in relief? The next day, mobilization began and civil liberties were suspended. Vienna, in the words of historian Samuel R. Williamson Jr., “clearly initiated the violence in July 1914” and “plunged Europe into war.”18 It had set the tempo, defined the moves, and closed off all other options. In doing so, it was motivated by fear—of Pan-Slavic nationalism, of losing the military advantage to Serbia (and Russia), and of forfeiting Germany’s promised support.

WHY WAR IN 1914? Why had Germany not drawn the sword during crises in 1905, 1908, 1911, 1912, or 1913? What made 1914 different? The answer lies in the seriousness of the Austro-Hungarian request for backing and in the changed mind-set at Berlin. First, a few myths need to be dispelled. Germany did not go to war in 1914 as part of a “grab for world power” as historian Fritz Fischer19 argued in 1961, but rather to defend (and expand) the borders of 1871. Second, the decision for war was made in late July 1914 and not at a much-publicized “war council” at Potsdam on 8 December 1912.20 Third, no one planned for a European war before 1914; the absence of financial or economic blueprints for such an eventuality speaks for itself. And Germany did not go to war with plans for continental hegemony; its infamous shopping list of war aims was not drawn up by Bethmann Hollweg21 until 9 September, when French and German forces had squared off for their titanic encounter at the Marne River.

This having been said, Berlin issued Vienna the famous blank check on 5 July. Why? Neither treaty obligations nor military algebra demanded this offer. But civilian as well as military planners were dominated by a strike-now-better-than-later mentality. Time seemed to be running against them. Russia was launching its Big Program of rearmament, scheduled to be completed by 1917. Could one wait until then? Wilhelm II mused on the eve of the Sarajevo murders.22 The Anglo-French-Russian Entente Cordiale encircled Germany with what it perceived to be an iron ring of enemies. More, there circulated in public and official circles dire prognostications of what Bethmann Hollweg summarized for the Reichstag in April 1913 as the “inevitable struggle” between Slavs and Teutons—what historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen called the classical rhetoric of “inevitable war.”23

On 3 July, when Ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky cabled Vienna’s decision to avenge the Sarajevo killings, Wilhelm II noted “now or never” on the report.24 Three days later, the kaiser promised Austria-Hungary “Germany’s full support” even if “serious European complications” resulted from this—and advised Vienna not to “delay the action” against Belgrade. Pilloried in the press for having been too “timid” and for having postured like a “valiant chicken” during past crises, Wilhelm on 6 July three times assured his dinner guest, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, that this time he would not “cave in.”

Bethmann Hollweg likewise adopted a belligerent stance.25 Shortly after his meeting with the Austrians on 5 July, the chancellor informed Riezler that Russia “grows and grows and weighs on us like a nightmare.” According to Hoyos, Bethmann Hollweg bluntly stated that “were war unavoidable, the present moment would be more advantageous than a later one.” Two days later, the chancellor assured Vienna that he regarded a coup de main against Serbia to be the “best and most radical solution” to the Dual Monarchy’s Balkan problems. For he had worked out a “calculated risk.” If war came “from the east” and Germany entered it to preserve the Habsburg Empire, “then we have the prospect of winning it.” If Russia remained idle, “then we have the prospect of having outmaneuvered the Entente in this matter.” On 11 July, Bethmann Hollweg summarized his rationale for war: “A quick fait accompli and then friendly [stance] toward the Entente; then we can survive the shock.” Whatever dark fate loomed over the Continent, the “Hamlet” of German politics was resigned to war. To have abandoned Austria-Hungary in July 1914, he wrote in his memoirs, would have been tantamount to “castration” on Germany’s part.26

That left Moltke.27 As early as 1911, he had informed the General Staff, “All are preparing themselves for the great war, which all sooner or later expect.” One year later, he had pressed Wilhelm II for war with Russia, “and the sooner the better.” During his meeting with Conrad von Hötzendorf at Karlsbad on 12 May 1914, Moltke had lectured his counterpart that “to wait any longer meant a diminishing of our chances.” The “atmosphere was charged with a monstrous electrical tension,” Moltke averred, and that “demanded to be discharged.”28 Two months before the Sarajevo tragedy, he had confided to Foreign Secretary von Jagow that “there was no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle.” To be sure, Moltke feared what he called a “horrible war,” a “world war,” one in which the “European cultural states” would “mutually tear themselves to pieces,” and one “that will destroy civilization in almost all of Europe for decades to come.”29But he saw no alternative. On 29 July, he counseled Wilhelm II that the Reich would “never hit it again so well as we do now with France’s and Russia’s expansion of their armies incomplete.”

How was the decision for war reached? The gravity of the moment hit Berlin with full force after Vienna handed Belgrade its ultimatum on 23 July—and Prime Minister Nikola Pašić rejected it two days later. This greatly alarmed leaders in St. Petersburg, who felt that Austria-Hungary with this move was threatening Russia’s standing as a great power and who believed that they needed to show solidarity with the “little Slavic brother,” Serbia, to show resolve. On 29–30 July, Berlin learned first of Russia’s partial mobilization and then of its general mobilization. War Minister von Falkenhayn truncated his holidays on 24 July and rushed back to the capital. Austria-Hungary, he quickly deduced, “simply wants the final reckoning” with Serbia. Moltke returned from Karlsbad two days later. Wilhelm II left the fjords of Norway and was back in Berlin by 27 July. He hastily convened an ad hoc war council. Falkenhayn tersely summed up its result: “It has now been decided to fight the matter through, regardless of the cost.”30

What historian Stig Förster has described as the bureaucratic chaos of the imperial system of government31 was fully in evidence in Berlin as the July Crisis entered its most critical stage. Bethmann Hollweg was in a panic to pass responsibility for the coming “European conflagration” on to Russia, and he drafted several telegrams for “Willy” to fire off to his cousin “Nicky,” calling on Tsar Nicholas II to halt Russian mobilization—to no avail. Moltke and Falkenhayn raced in staff cars between Berlin and Potsdam. At times, they demanded that Wilhelm II and Bethmann Hollweg declare a state of “pre-mobilization;” at other times, they counseled against it. The chancellor conferred with the generals throughout 29 July. Moltke first lined up with the hawk Falkenhayn and pushed for the immediate declaration of a “threatening state of danger of war;” then he sided with Bethmann Hollweg and urged restraint. The chancellor sat on the fence, now supporting Falkenhayn, now Moltke, prevaricating on the issue of mobilization. At one point, he even dashed off a missive to Vienna asking its armies to “halt in Belgrade.”

In fact, Bethmann Hollweg was waiting for the right moment to play his trump card. Shortly before midnight on 29 July, he called Ambassador Sir Edward Goschen to his residence and made him an offer: If Britain remained neutral in the coming war, Germany would offer London a neutrality pact, guarantee the independence of the Netherlands, and promise not to undertake “territorial gains at the expense of France.”32 Goschen was flabbergasted by what he called the chancellor’s “astounding proposals;” a livid Sir Edward Grey, secretary of state for foreign affairs, called them “shameful.” With that, Bethmann Hollweg ruefully informed the Prussian Ministry of State the next day that “the hope for England [was now] zero.”33

Bethmann Hollweg withdrew behind a veil of fatalism. “All governments,” he moaned, had “lost control” over the July Crisis. Europe was rushing headlong down the steep slope to war. “The stone has begun to roll.”34 The night of 30 July, at Moltke’s insistence, the chancellor agreed to institute a state of emergency, the precondition for mobilization.

Around 2 PM on 31 July, Wilhelm II ordered the government to issue a decree stating that a “threatening state of danger of war” existed. Falkenhayn rushed to the palace through cheering crowds to sign the decree and to record the high drama. “Thereupon the Kaiser shook my hand for a long time; tears stood in both of our eyes.”35 The decision brought relief and joy to official Berlin.36 The strain and stress of the past few days lay behind. At the Chancellery, Bethmann Hollweg, ever the pessimist, worried about what he termed a “leap into the dark,” but concluded that it was his “solemn duty” to undertake it. At the Navy Cabinet, Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller crowed: “The mood is brilliant. The government has managed brilliantly to make us appear the attacked.” At the General Staff, Moltke detected “an atmosphere of happiness.” At the Prussian War Office, Bavarian military plenipotentiary Karl von Wenninger noted “beaming faces, shaking of hands in the corridors; one congratulates one’s self for having taken the hurdle.” Berlin was about “to begin the most serious, bloody business that the world has ever seen.” Wenninger took “malicious delight” while riding in the Grunewald to note that “the army would soon expropriate the superb steeds of the city’s wealthy Jews.”37

Wilhelm II signed the order for general mobilization at 5 PM on 1 August—in the Star Chamber of the Neues Palais at Potsdam, on the desk made from the planking of Horatio Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, a present from his grandmother Queen-Empress Victoria. Cousins “Nicholas and Georgie,” he informed his inner circle, “have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it.”38 Champagne was served to celebrate the momentous moment.

But all had not gone as smoothly as the mere recitation of events would indicate. Late on the afternoon of 1 August, Moltke headed back to Berlin after the kaiser had signed the mobilization order. He was ordered to return to the Neues Palais at once. An important dispatch had arrived from Karl Prince von Lichnowsky in London: Grey had assured the ambassador that London would “assume the obligation” of keeping Paris out of the war if Germany did not attack France. “Jubilant mood,” the chief of the General Staff noted.39 An ecstatic Wilhelm II redirected Moltke, “Thus we simply assemble our entire army in the east!” Moltke was thunderstruck. The deployment of an army of millions could not simply be “improvised,” he reminded the kaiser. The Aufmarschplan represented the labor of many years; radically overturning it at the last minute would result in the “ragged assembly” of a “wild heap of disorderly armed men” along the Russian frontier. In a highly agitated state, Wilhelm II shot back: “Your uncle [Moltke the Elder] would have given me a different answer.”

The evening ended with a desultory debate as to whether 16th Infantry Division (ID), the first-day vanguard of the Schlieffen-Moltke assault in the west, should immediately cross into Luxembourg. Moltke insisted that it should to prevent the French from seizing Luxembourg’s vital rail marshaling points. Bethmann Hollweg demanded that they be held back to give Lichnowsky time to seal the deal with Britain. Wilhelm II ordered the 16th to stand down. “Completely broken” by this open humiliation, Moltke feared that the kaiser was still clinging to hopes for peace. “I console Moltke,” Falkenhayn devilishly wrote in his diary.40 In fact, Moltke arrived home that night a “broken” man. His wife, Eliza, was shocked at his appearance, “blue and red in the face” and “unable to speak.” “I want to conduct war against the French and the Russians,” Moltke muttered, “but not against such a Kaiser.” She believed that he suffered a “light stroke” that night. The tension of the day finally broke forth in a torrent of “tears of despair.”41 When Gerhard Tappen, chief of operations, presented him with the order to keep 16th ID on German soil, Moltke refused to sign the document.

Then another bolt out of the blue: At 11 PM, Moltke was ordered to return to Potsdam. The kaiser, already in a nightgown, informed him that King-Emperor George V had just cabled that he was unaware of the Lichnowsky-Grey discussion and that the matter rested on a misunderstanding. Wilhelm II dismissed Moltke. “Now you can do what you wish.” Moltke ordered 16th ID to cross into Luxembourg.

It was an inauspicious start. The Younger Moltke had never wanted to measure himself against his great-uncle, the architect of Otto von Bismarck’s wars of unification. The kaiser’s acid comment concerning the Elder Moltke’s possible “different answer” had unnerved him. One can only wonder if, on that 1 August 1914, his mind did not wander back to Königgrätz, where on 3 July 1866, during a critical part of the battle, Bismarck had held out a box of cigars to the Elder Moltke to test his nerves: Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke had passed the test by picking the Iron Chancellor’s best Cuban.

FRENCH DECISIONS MADE DURING the July Crisis, in the words of historian Eugenia C. Kiesling, “mattered rather little.” For whatever course Paris took, “France would be dragged into an unwanted war.”42 In the face of the frenetic diplomatic actions at Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg, French policy makers in July 1914 were content to make no decision at all. Most were interested merely in making sure that Paris was not seen as pursuing an aggressive policy, one that could possibly encourage war. In President Poincaré’s well-chosen words, “It is better to have war declared on us.”43

But this does not mean that France was without a policy in 1914. France had sketched out a secret military alliance with Russia in 1892. Formally signed by Nicholas II two years later, it called on each side to assist the other “immediately and simultaneously” if attacked by Germany—France with 1.3 million and Russia with 800,000 men.44 Thus, even to discuss the matter of support for Russia during the July Crisis risked arousing suspicions concerning French reliability. If Paris as much as hinted that it had a “free hand” in shaping its course of action, then this would imply the same for St. Petersburg. Neither side, of course, was willing to jeopardize Europe’s only firm military alliance.

The main issue concerns the French diplomatic mission to Russia. At 5 AM on 16 July, President Poincaré, Premier Viviani, and Pierre de Margerie, political director of the French Foreign Ministry, boarded the battleship France at Dunkirk. They shaped a course for the Baltic Sea to conduct state visits to Russia and to the Scandinavian countries. Was it “design” or “accident”?45 Was it sheer lack of responsibility, given the escalating crisis over the murders at Sarajevo and the certain but still undetermined Austro-Hungarian response? Was it a gross miscalculation, given that radio transmission was still in its infancy? And just what did French leaders hope to accomplish in St. Petersburg? Whatever the case, they had intentionally isolated themselves from the decision-making process.

It was an uneasy voyage. Poincaré, shocked at the degree of naïveté exhibited by his premier concerning foreign policy, spent the days at sea lecturing Viviani on European statecraft. Viviani, for his part, was preoccupied by what bombshells might be revealed at the Caillaux trial—and by the whereabouts of his mistress from the Comédie française. On 20 July, the French delegation boarded the imperial yacht Alexandria in Kronstadt Harbor and set off for discussions at the Peterhof. The talks continued at the Winter Palace, in the capital, where massive strikes reminded the French visitors of the fragility of the tsar’s empire. No formal record of the discussions has ever been found.

Through interception and decryption of Austro-Hungarian diplomatic telegrams by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s code breakers, French and Russian leaders became aware that Vienna was planning a major action against Serbia. But they hardly needed such clandestine information: On 21 July, the Habsburg ambassador to Russia, Friedrich Count Szápáry, informed the French president that Austria-Hungary was planning “action” against Belgrade. Poincaré’s blunt warning that Serbia “has some very warm friends in the Russian people,” that Russia “has an ally France,” and that “plenty of complications” were to be “feared” from any unilateral Austrian action against Serbia46 apparently fell on deaf ears. For on 23 July, after having made sure that the French had departed Kronstadt, Vienna delivered its ultimatum to Belgrade.

Poincaré received word of the ultimatum on board the France the next day. From Stockholm, he set course for Copenhagen, where on 27 July he received several cables urging him to return to Paris at once. He complied—after sending off a telegram to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov assuring him that France was “ready in the interests of the general peace wholeheartedly to second the action of the Imperial Government.”47 French ambassador Maurice Paléologue unofficially assured Sazonov of “the complete readiness of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.”48

Poincaré, Viviani, and Margerie landed at Dunkirk on Wednesday, 29 July. The president, fearing what he termed Viviani’s “hesitant and pusillanimous” character, at once assumed control of foreign affairs. But by then, events had already spun out of his control. On 28 July, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, and the next day its river monitors shelled Belgrade. Two days later, Russia posted red mobilization notices (ukases) in St. Petersburg. Poincaré called a meeting of the Council of Ministers for the morning of 30 July to assess the situation. While no minutes of the meeting were kept, Abel Ferry, undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, committed the main points of the “impressive cabinet” to his diary. “For the sake of public opinion, let the Germans put themselves in the wrong.” There was no panic among the group of “solemn” ministers. “Cabinet calm, serious, ordered.” For the time being, there was little to be done. “Do not stop Russian mobilization,” Ferry summed up. “Mobilize, but do not concentrate.”49At the army’s insistence, War Minister Adolphe Messimy agreed to establish the couverture, or frontier-covering force, but demanded that it be kept ten kilometers from the frontier to avoid any unintentional contact with the Germans.

On 31 July, Germany declared a state of “imminent danger of war” to exist, and at 6 PM the next day declared war on Russia. On 2 August, as previously noted, Lieutenant Albert Mayer’s Jäger regiment violated French territory at Joncherey. Under the pretext that French airplanes had bombed railways at Karlsruhe and Nürnberg—a claim that the Prussian ambassador at Munich, Georg von Treutler, immediately informed Berlin could not be substantiated—Germany declared war on France at 6:45 PM on 3 August. To Poincaré’s great relief, Rome had announced on 31 July that it considered Vienna’s attack on Serbia to be an act of aggression and hence did not bind it to act on behalf of the Triple Alliance.

Poincaré, who as a child had witnessed the German occupation of Bar-le-Duc, in Lorraine, carried France through the July Crisis with “firmness, resolve and confidence.”50 France appeared to the world as the victim of German aggression. Domestic unity had been maintained. The Russian alliance had been honored. Despite the eternal cry of la patrie en danger and the sporadic looting of German shops in Paris, the president demanded calm and maintained control. On 2 August, he signed the proclamation that a state of emergency existed. The next evening, he again spelled out to his cabinet his “satisfaction” that Germany, and not France, had made the move toward war. “It had been indispensable,” he stated, “that Germany should be led into publicly confessing her intentions.” He allowed himself only one misstep—“at last we could release the cry, until now smothered in our breasts: Vive l’Alsace Lorraine”*—but at the urging of several ministers omitted that xenophobic phrase from his message to Parliament two days later.51

The German declaration of war against France on 3 August spared the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies from having to debate—and much less to approve—a formal declaration of war. That left War Minister Messimy free to compile a “wish list” of war aims: Germany was to lose Alsace-Lorraine, the Saar, and the west bank of the Rhine, thereby greatly reducing its territory. France thus defined its war-aims program a month before Bethmann Hollweg did likewise for Germany.

Poincaré next proclaimed a union sacrée (“No, there are no more parties”); it met with near-universal acceptance. The famous declaration of a newfound “sacred union” was in fact read by Minister of Justice Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu-Martin in the Senate and by Prime Minister Viviani in the Chamber of Deputies, since the president did not have the right to address those bodies directly. Then Poincaré silenced critics who feared that Britain would remain aloof from the continental madness about to take place. London, he assured his colleagues, would join the war. “The English are slow to decide, methodical, reflective, but they know where they are going.”52

BRITAIN’S LEADERS WERE CONCERNED first and foremost with the security of the empire. Continental Europe was far removed from their innermost concerns. In early July 1914, Whitehall was busily redrafting terms of the entente with Russia. Britain’s security lay in the power of the Royal Navy and in its geographical separation from the Continent. Its army was small and trained to deploy “east of Suez.” London was beset by what historian Paul Kennedy has famously called “imperial overstretch,”53 that is, with mustering the power required to maintain the greatest empire since the days of Rome—and concurrently to meet the industrial and naval challenges of up-and-comers such as Germany, Japan, and the United States. As well, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith had come to power to undertake a sweeping program of social reforms, and it faced daunting challenges at home with regard to Irish Home Rule, labor unrest, and women’s suffrage. Not surprisingly, then, the double murders at Sarajevo initially hardly registered at Whitehall. Surely, Europe could survive a possible third Balkan war.

State Secretary Grey was slow to appreciate the potential danger of the Balkan situation. His mind was on his upcoming vacation, to fly-fish for stippled trout in the river Itchen. His critics later charged him with failing to avoid a European war owing to his timidity, his studied aloofness, and his failure to inform Berlin that London would not allow it to invade France unpunished.54 David Lloyd George after the war spoke of Grey in the July Crisis as “a pilot whose hand trembled in the palsy of apprehension, unable to grip the levers and manipulate them with a firm and clear purpose.”55 At the Foreign Office, Sir Eyre Crowe simply called Grey “a futile useless weak fool.”56

He was none of these. He appreciated the Austro-German threat. He was determined to stand by France and Russia. Belgium’s “perpetual” neutrality, guaranteed by the great powers by 1839, was to Grey neither a “legal” nor a “contractual” matter, but rather a power-political calculation. He played for time. He urged caution on the involved parties. He offered four-power mediation. Above all, he was uncertain of how the cabinet would react to war over Sarajevo.

Three events rudely interrupted Grey’s insouciance—the tenor of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum (“the most formidable document I have ever seen addressed by one state to another that was independent”) delivered at Belgrade on 23 July; Berlin’s rejection of his offer of mediation by the less interested powers on 28 July; and Russia’s partial mobilization of the military districts of Odessa, Kiev, Moscow, and Kazan the following day. Still, when Grey on 29 July suggested to the cabinet that defense of Belgium and France lay in Britain’s vital interest, the majority rejected this view and, in president of the Board of Trade John Burns’s famous words, “decided not to decide.”57

Although the cabinet kept no formal records of its minutes and votes, historian Keith Wilson has argued that its nineteen members by 1 August fell into three unequal groups: The largest, led by Asquith, was undecided; a smaller middle group of about five demanded an immediate declaration of British neutrality; and only Grey and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill (“the naval war will be cheap”) favored intervention on the Continent.58 Grey was thus in a weak position. A good deal of it was due to his secretiveness. For years, he had studiously avoided formal discussion of whether a German attack on France would involve Britain’s vital security interests. In what historian Elie Halévy has called “an ignorance whose true name was connivance,”59 he had declined even a cursory mention in cabinet of the fact that in 1911 he had, quite on his own, authorized “military conversations” with the French General Staff.

Nor was Asquith more forthcoming. Foreign policy, after all, was Grey’s bailiwick. While the prime minister feared that Vienna’s ultimatum to Belgrade might lead to war between France and Germany and/or between Austria-Hungary and Russia—“a real Armageddon”—he nevertheless saw “no reason why we should be more than spectators.” Ten days later, he shared with the socialite Venetia Stanley his firm conviction that Britain had “no obligations of any kind either to France or Russia to give them military or naval help,” and that it was “out of the question” at this time (2 August) to “dispatch” any “Expeditionary Forces” to France.60 An astute politician, Asquith had taken stock of the deep divisions within the cabinet over the issue of a “continental commitment.” As late as 2 August, he estimated that “a good 3/4 of our own [Liberal] party in the H[ouse] of Commons are for absolute noninterference at any price.”61

But Asquith was also plagued by fear of German domination of the Continent. France was a “long-standing and intimate” friend. Belgium counted on Britain to “prevent her being utilized and absorbed by Germany.” In terms of naked realpolitik, Britain could not “allow Germany to use the Channel as a hostile base.” It was not in the nation’s “interests that France should be wiped out as a Great Power.”62 And how would the country react to a Liberal government that jettisoned the hallowed principle of the balance of power, whereby Britain since the days of Louis XIV had formed coalitions to deny all hegemonic aspirations on the Continent? Yet if he opted for military deployment in Europe, would the substantial stubborn group of ministers that refused to countenance intervention in France bring down his government? And how would even a perceivedrefusal as part of the Triple Entente to stand up against Germany play in Paris? French ambassador Paul Cambon reported the British conundrum to his government, wondering whether the word honor had been “struck out of the English vocabulary.”63 Finally, if Asquith did not back Grey, would the state secretary’s certain resignation bring down the government? “No more distressing moment can ever face a British government,” historian Barbara Tuchman cheekily remarked, “than that which requires it to come to a hard and fast and specific decision.”64

Germany saved Grey and Asquith from their dilemma. During the evening of Sunday, 1 August, news arrived in London that Germany had declared war on Russia and that Germany and France had begun to mobilize their armies. Obviously, whatever war was in the offing could no longer be “localized” in the Balkans. On the morning of 3 August, Belgium rejected the German ultimatum of the previous day to permit its troops unfettered passage through the country. “Poor little Belgium” was later given out as the decisive “moral issue” on which Grey and Asquith rallied the country. Put differently, German violation of Belgian neutrality spared the cabinet what promised to be an unpleasant debate: whether war on the side of France was in Britain’s vital interests. But according to historian Wilson, “poor little Belgium” hardly figured in most of Asquith’s and Grey’s deliberations.

The cabinet in London “never did make a decision for war.” The only decisions taken by Asquith’s ministers were “either to resign (two), or to resign and retract (two) or to remain in office (the rest).”65 The Unionist opposition, led by Andrew Bonar Law and Lord Lansdowne, let it be known that it would support a policy of intervention on behalf of France and Russia—unqualified by any reference to Belgium. Thus emboldened, Grey put his cards on the table at two cabinet meetings on 2 August. “Outraged” that Berlin had spurned his offer of mediation and “marched steadily towards war,”66 he demanded that the country come to the aid of Belgium and France. He declined to inform the ministers that Ambassador von Lichnowsky that morning had assured him that Germany would not invade France if Britain remained neutral.

The confusion that still gripped much of official London as late as 2 August can be gleaned from a telephone call that Field Marshal Sir John French made to Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George and Sir George Riddell of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association as they dined with Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald. “Can you tell me, old chap,” French queried Riddell, “whether we are going to be in this war? If so, are we going to put an army on the Continent, and, if we are, who is going to command it?”67 Resolution came after Riddell conferred with Lloyd George. Britain would be in the war; it would send an army to the Continent; and French would command it.

Grey carried his case in the cabinet, largely it seems, through intervention from an unlikely source: Herbert Samuel, president of the Local Government Board, who argued that the cabinet needed to hold together in the face of the German threat.68 When news arrived that evening that Germany had invaded Luxembourg, the dice were cast: Grey was instructed to inform the House of Commons the next day that a German invasion of Belgium would constitute the casus belli. An antiwar demonstration that day in Trafalgar Square drew only a thin crowd. The bankers in The City alone were opposed to war, fearing that a European war would cause the collapse of the foreign exchange.

At 3 PM on 3 August, Grey, “pale, haggard and worn,” addressed a packed House of Commons. He asked its members to ponder whether it would be in the nation’s interests for France to be “in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees … subordinate to the power of one greater than herself?” The “whole of the West of Europe,” he went on, could fall “under the domination of a single Power.” Britain’s “moral position,” if it stood by and allowed Germany to subjugate Belgium and France, would be “such as have lost us all respect.”69 The House accorded him enthusiastic applause.

The next day, the cabinet learned that Germany had invaded Belgium. A British ultimatum that Berlin withdraw its troops at once, set to expire at midnight German time, went without reply. As Big Ben struck 11 PM, Britain declared war on Germany. While Grey is best remembered for his memorable comment that “the lamps” were “going out all over Europe” and that “we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,”70 more revealing for his rationale in urging war was his comment that Britain would suffer hardly more if it went to war with Germany than if it stayed out. For Grey had adopted the conviction of fellow interventionist Churchill that what was about to come would only be a “short, cleansing thunderstorm,” after which it would be “business as usual.”

If any further moral position was required, it was provided by Bethmann Hollweg’s comment that the 1839 accord, which guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality, was but “a scrap of paper,” and by his Machiavellian pronouncement in the Reichstag on 4 August that “necessity knows no law.”71Apparently, no one in Berlin remembered Bismarck’s dire warning that a German invasion of Belgium or the Low Countries would constitute “complete idiocy,” as it would immediately bring Britain into such a war.72

In the end, historian Wilson has argued,73 the decision for war resulted from a combination of factors: Grey’s determination to resign if Britain did not opt for war; Asquith’s “determination to follow Grey;” Samuel’s ability to rally the cabinet behind Grey and Asquith; Bonar Law’s and Lord Lansdowne’s timely support for intervention; and the slowness and dysfunction of the noninterventionists in making their case stick. As well, fear of German domination of the Continent, and with it France’s Channel and Atlantic ports, played its role in convincing the Asquith government that it lay in its best interests to uphold the territorial integrity of Belgium and France.

To sum up, decision-making coteries in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and London carefully assessed their situations, weighed their options, calculated the risks, and then decided that war lay in the national interests. These coteries saw their states to be in decline or at least to be seriously threatened. To check that perceived decline and threat, they felt the recourse to arms to be imperative. There was no “unexpected slide” into “the boiling cauldron of war,” as David Lloyd George would later famously claim. The major powers had not simply “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into the conflict, had not “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay.”74 Instead, strategic considerations had been paramount in their deliberations.

BRITISH POET RUPERT BROOKE’S words about “a world grown old and cold and weary” in many ways summarize the much-debated “spirit of 1914.” For, whatever their arguments about the level and the location of war “enthusiasm” in 1914, historians largely agree that the generation of 1914 had grown “cold and weary” of their flaccid times. The “foul peace” (Conrad von Hötzendorf) that Bismarck had imposed on Europe with his pax Germanica was much resented.75 The young in Germany especially were bored by the endless palaver of their fathers and grandfathers at beer halls and wine taverns about their glorious deeds in the wars of 1866 and 1870. Many had taken refuge in youth groups, where they retreated into a mystical past replete with hikes, campfires, guitars, chansons, and medieval castles. July 1914 offered action, chivalry, dash, and daring—in short, relief from boredom and a chance to create their own legends and myths.

The war would be short. Statesmen such as Churchill in Britain, Poincaré in France, and Ottokar Count Czernin in Austria-Hungary used the image of a “thunderstorm” to convey the prevailing mood. Somewhere in northeast France or Russian Poland, there would take place the decisive Armageddon. Few cared for the past dire warnings of outsiders such as the Polish financier Ivan S. Bloch and the German Socialist Friedrich Engels that future wars would be “world wars” that could easily last three or four years. Engels had predicted that armies of “eight to ten million soldiers” would be engaged in such a “world war,” and that they would “decimate Europe as no swarm of locusts ever did,” ending with “famine, pestilence, and the general barbarization of both armies and peoples.”76

Thus, the young volunteered for war. While German published estimates of between 1.3 and 2 million volunteers were grossly exaggerated, military lists revealed a total of 185,000 accepted in 1914.77 Unfortunately, we know little about their motivation. Fortunately, Paul Plaut of the Institute for Applied Psychology at Potsdam realized a research opportunity and sent his staff out into the streets to canvass the volunteers.78 Most allowed that they saw the war as a chance for adventure and action, as an escape from the dreariness of everyday life. Many stated that they were fulfilling their civic “duty;” or defending home and hearth (Heimat) against the foreign threat; or wanting just to be “part of it,” not to miss what they vaguely perceived to be a great historical moment. Some joined up to prove their “patriotism,” others their “manliness.” Only a few offered hatred of the enemy (except “perfidious Albion”) as a reason for enlisting. The minute it got wind of Plaut’s activities, the Prussian army ended the polling.

The literary elite, as always, left their impressions for future generations.79 In Germany, the novelist Thomas Mann, “tired, sick and tired” of Bismarck’s uninspiring peace, saw the war as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope.” His colleague Hermann Hesse was delighted that his countrymen would finally be “torn out of a capitalistic peace” and uplifted by war to a “higher” moral value. The sociologist Max Weber opined that “regardless of the outcome—this war is great and wonderful.” The economist Johann Plenge contrasted the German “ideas of 1914”—duty, order, justice—with the French “ideas of 1789”—liberty, fraternity, equality. Gertrud Bäumer of the Federation of German Women’s Associations called on her sisters to put their demands for greater equality aside during the war: “We are the Volk.” Perhaps best remembered by the next generation was the reaction to the news of war by Adolf Hitler, who volunteered for the Bavarian army. “The war liberated me from the painful feelings of my youth,” he later wrote in Mein Kampf. “I fell down on my knees and thanked heaven with an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune to be alive at this time.”80 Another Habsburg citizen, Franz Kafka, was of a more sober mind-set: The war, he noted, had above all been “caused by a tremendous lack of imagination.”81

Nor was war enthusiasm absent in France.82 On 28 July, the capital was rocked by the sensational news that Madame Caillaux had been acquitted of the murder of Gaston Calmette. Many of France’s best-selling newspapers, such as Le Temps, Le Petit Parisien, and L’Echo de Paris, devoted twice the coverage to the Caillaux trial as they did to the mounting European crisis. Yet when Poincaré and Viviani returned to the capital, they were received by ecstatic crowds chanting, “Vive la France.” Soon those chants changed to “Vive l’armée.”

Britain, in fact, became the first country in which the coming of the war was cheered in the streets even before the cabinet had decided on a “continental commitment.” The third of August was the traditional Bank Holiday Monday. It was a delightfully sunny day. There was drink and entertainment. The next afternoon, as the ministers drove to Parliament to deliver the declaration of war against Germany, they were hailed lustily by what the prime minister called “cheering crowds of loafers & holiday makers.”83General Sir William Birdwood, secretary to the government of India in the Army Department, no doubt spoke for many when, a few months into the war, he recalled: “What a real piece of luck this war has been as regards Ireland—just averted a Civil War and when it is over we may all be tired of fighting.”84

In a country without a tradition of conscription, young men rallied to the colors: 8,193 British men in the first week of August, 43,354 in the second, and 49,982 in the third.85 Most came from the commercial and professional classes, far fewer from the agricultural sector. “Urban civic pride” came to the fore as 224 so-called Pals battalions—made up of friends linked mainly by educational, professional, and recreational ties—were raised locally. Few had any idea of the realities of modern warfare.

Historians have questioned the war euphoria of August 1914.86 Unsurprisingly, Germans and Frenchmen alike viewed the coming of war not as a monolithic, robotic, nationalist bloc, but rather on the basis of their age, class, gender, and locale.87 By and large, war enthusiasm was a product of the educated and professional classes in urban centers. It was driven primarily by students and clerks—and by army and government officials. There were few workers among these crowds. There were more males than females. The enthusiasm came slowly. At first, the crowds that gathered at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris and the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin numbered only in the hundreds, rarely in the thousands. Even at the height of the putative euphoria, the crowd in Berlin reached only thirty thousand, less than 1 percent of the capital’s population. Beyond Berlin, the crowds in cities such as Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Munich, and Nürnberg were perhaps a thousand each.

Observers noted the prevalence of drink among students and a carnival-like atmosphere. But after Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia on 28 July, the public mood became somber, then fatalistic, and finally fearful. Hoarding of food and other essential items became commonplace. Small middle-class investors, mostly women, made a run on the banks, afraid that their savings would soon disappear. Employment levels in major cities plummeted anywhere between 24 and 70 percent as Europe began to retool from consumer to war materials production.88Stories of spies caused near panic. Prussian soldiers in “strange” army uniforms were mistakenly arrested in Nürnberg; Bavarians with “strange accents” in Cologne. In Munich, news reverberated that “several Slavs” had been captured and shot while trying to blow up the army’s ammunition dump at Schleißheim; spies “dressed as nuns” had supposedly tried to dynamite railway bridges; and Russians “dressed up as ladies” apparently had been arrested at the main train station.89 There were also reports of French bombs falling on Nürnberg, flour and water wells poisoned in Strasbourg, Russian spies in Berlin disguised as doctors and nurses, and eighty million francs bound for Russia seized at Stuttgart.90 Especially, rumors of spies in automobiles laden with gold refused to go away. In London, the Metropolitan Police had received almost nine thousand reports of enemy aliens at work; Frederick Lord Roberts estimated their number at eighty thousand.

Not all crowds marched for war. Antiwar demonstrations, in fact, outnumbered those demanding defense of the Vaterland or la patrie. On the day Vienna declared war on Belgrade, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin turned out a hundred thousand antiwar protesters. By 31 July, there had taken place 288 antiwar demonstrations throughout Germany, involving some 750,000 people in 183 cities and villages.91 In Paris, Socialists and Syndicalists mounted seventy-nine demonstrations against the war. But in the end, all 110 SPD Reich stag deputies voted for war credits, as did all 98 Socialist deputies in Paris. Party solidarity and patriotism counted for more than Socialist rhetoric.

The countryside by and large remained calm. The July Crisis found the agricultural sector at a critical stage. Grain and legume fields were maturing, as were fruit orchards and vineyards. Soon, armies of farm laborers would hasten to bring in the produce before the sudden arrival of fall rains. War would mean the conscription of young male labor needed in the villages; the loss of secure urban markets; the requisitioning by the army of hundreds of thousands of horses and wagons; and the likely imposition of price controls. For France, historian Jean-Jacques Becker’s analysis of six rural departments showed that 16 percent of the population received news of mobilization favorably, 23 percent with nonchalance, and 61 percent with reserve.92

The military in France and Germany established control of the domestic agenda. In France, a decree concerning the “state of siege” was signed on 2 August. It gave the military sweeping powers to appoint judges and sub prefects, and to control the press and the telephone system. Anxious to keep politicians from interfering in military operations, the newly constituted Grand quartier général (French military headquarters) also denied the government access to the war fronts. Parliament was prorogued on 3 August. In Germany, Wilhelm II on 1 August declared from the balcony of the City Castle in Berlin, “I no longer know parties, or confessions; today we are all German brothers, and only German brothers.”93 This so-called Burgfrieden did not, however, prevent the resurrection of the Prussian Law of Siege of June 1851. It gave the deputy commanding generals of the Reich’s twenty-five military corps districts powers over recruitment, labor distribution, and the food supply, as well as dissemination of news and information.

It is perhaps safe to say that once mobilization was declared, most people felt a sense of pride and patriotism, exuberance and curiosity, fear and desperation. The war, so long predicted, was finally at hand. Reservists, who had some inkling of what was to come, largely were apprehensive. Wilhelm Schulin, with 29th ID in Württemberg, on 1 August recorded “incredible tension” among the people of his native Öhringen, which quickly turned to “something horribly heavy, dark, a depressing burden” as the troop transports headed for the front.94 Martin Nestler at Chemnitz noted that the reservists of Saxon 12th Jäger “wept” as they reported for duty.95 Still, adventure was in the offing. Sergeant Marc Bloch of French 272d Regiment arrived at Paris’s Gare de Lyon in the “oppressive dog-day heat” of early August full of hope and of pride. “Behold the dawn of the month of August 1914!”96 Within days, he would rue the “terrible and hidden meaning” of those joyous words.

Military leaders took a more philosophical stance once mobilization had been announced. General Hubert Lyautey, a future war minister, saw a brighter future for France “because the politicians have shut up.” Some of his colleagues were delighted that “the Whore,” the republic, would now have to yield to the dictates of “military secrecy.” Others crowed that “the prefects are finished, the deputies don’t matter, the generals can feed on civilian flesh.” Abel Ferry at the Foreign Office detected a sense of restoration of the Old France afoot. “Clericalism has donned uniform,” he wrote, “to make war on the Republic.”97

In Berlin, General von Moltke was pleased that the strain and stress of recent days were a thing of the past. “There was … an atmosphere of happiness.” Crown Prince Wilhelm, the designated commander of Fifth Army, looked forward to a “fresh and jolly” (frisch und fröhlich) campaign. Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Groener, the mastermind of the Reich’s railway mobilization, cheerily wrote his wife that the time had come to deal “not only with the French” but also with Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg and “the rubbish at the Foreign Office.”98 War Minister von Falkenhayn perhaps best summed up the feelings of many senior commanders in Berlin in his diary on 1 August: “Even if we go under as a result of this, still it was beautiful.”99

* A reference to the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, hotly disputed between France and Germany.

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