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The Final Weeks before the Conflict

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1.4The Final Weeks before the Conflict

Tuchman (1962, p.22) states that “Europe was as a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.” On the ground of the Austro-German Alliance, Germany was bound to support Austria in war against Russia. Due to the treaty between France and Russia, both sides would go against Germany and that meant that in any war Germany would have to fight on two fronts – against France and Russia. Schlieffen´s12 plan allowed six weeks and seven-eighths of the German army to defeat France and one-eighth would stand on the eastern frontier against Russia until it would be joined by the mass from the western front. The German army consisted of 8 million men and needed space to manoeuvre and in 1899 this plan added the violation of Belgium neutrality. (Tuchman, 1962, p.22-25). When Schlieffen´s plan was adopted, it presumed that Russia would have to maintain large forces in the Far East to stand guard against Japan. “German diplomacy, despite a certain record for clumsiness, was expected to overcome the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, an unnatural alliance as Germany regarded it, and keep Japan neutral as a constant threat to Russia´s rear.” (Tuchman, 1962, p.80). This German plan with the Triple Alliance, for crossing into the Belgium territory, and the Triple Entente played a critical part in the forthcoming conflict.

On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot dead along with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by a Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia. It is believed that this event sparked the outbreak of World War I. (Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated, n.d.). Austria presented an ultimatum to Belgrade and Serbia accepted all the demands except the ones that would affect its sovereignty. “Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, commented that he had "never before seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.” (Duffy, 2009a). As Hanak (1962, p.36-37) points out England did not view this event as something important and recognized it as a crisis in the Near East, but in the time following the ultimatum, the press became convinced that Britain was on the verge of war and started providing explanations to the readers why Britain needed to intervene. Also expressing the desperation was the Liberal newspaper, The Westminster Gazette, issued on August 1:
The spectacle of Europe being driven by the hard logic of its diplomatic system to a struggle which no one wants and catastrophe which everyone foresees has no historical analogies and none of the glittering accessories which we associate with the idea of nations going forth to war. Three hundred million people today lie under the spell of the fear and fate. Is there no one to break the spell, no gleam of light on this cold, dark scene? (Hanak, 1962, p.37)
Sir Edward Grey, personally, played a very significant role on August 1, 1914. At first he was not sure if Britain´s involvement in a possible war would be backed by the Cabinet, and he allegedly made a diplomatic agreement with German ambassador, Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky. Preston (2014a) describes that Grey telephoned Prince Lichnowsky with an offer asking “whether Germany could give an assurance that France would not be attacked if it remained neutral in a war between Germany and Russia.” Lichnowsky passed the message to Germany with his interpretation suggesting that the offer concerned the neutrality not only of Britain, but also of France. When this telegram arrived in Berlin, Germany had already ordered mobilisation. The Kaiser reacted: “Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our army to the East.” and sent his telegram to Buckingham Palace accepting the offer. Sir Grey was summoned to Buckingham Palace to explain this offer to George V. After a conversation the King sent a telegram back to Berlin stating:
In answer to your telegram just received, I think there must be some misunderstanding as to a suggestion that passed in friendly conversation between Prince Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey this afternoon when they were discussing how actual fighting between German and French armies might be avoided while there is still a chance of some agreement between Austria and Russia. Sir Edward Grey will arrange to see Prince Lichnowsky early tomorrow morning to ascertain whether there is a misunderstanding on his part.” (Statement of Sir Edward Grey on the Lichnowsky Despatches., n.d.).
When this telegram reached Berlin, the Kaiser stressed: “Now we can do what we want.” Earlier that day, after the Cabinet session, Sir Grey met Paul Cambon, the French Ambassador in London, informing him that no decision had been reached. The Ambassador expressed his deep worries: “They are going to desert us.” (Preston, 2014a). When they met again the following day, Sir Grey was reminded of the Treaty of London of 1867 signed by the Great Powers that guaranteed Luxembourg´s neutrality. (Preston, 2014b).

After German troops reached the French border on August 2, 1914, a telegram from the Tsar was delivered to George V stating: “I trust your country will not fail to support France and Russia in fighting to maintain the balance of Power in Europe. God bless and protect you.” The following day Sir Edward Grey delivered a remarkable speech13 in Parliament claiming that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved. He also strongly emphasised that Germany cannot be allowed to cross the English Channel or the German army to cross the area of neutral Belgium. (Preston, 2014b)

Two days later Britain declared war on Germany. George V used his royal prerogative of declaring war. On August 4, 1914, "the king held a privy council at Buckingham Palace which was attended only by one minister and two court officials ... The cabinet played no part once it had resolved to defend the neutrality of Belgium ...” (Kettle, 2005).

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