A series of diplomatic maneuverings in July 1914 led to an ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to Serbia, and to war.

At 6:00pm on 23 July, the Austro-Hungarian Minister in Belgrade, Wladimir Giesl, delivered a 48–hour ultimatum to the Serbian Foreign Ministry. In addition to declaring that the Serbian Government was guilty of tolerating the existence of a subversive movement in Serbia the ultimatum demanded that Belgrade would have to accept the annexation of Bosnia. It was asked to issue an official apology in the Serbian press.

In addition, some ten separate demands forced the Serbian Government, for example, to suppress all publications which might incite hatred and contempt of the Monarchy; to dissolve the organization Narodna Odbrana; to eliminate anti-Habsburg teaching materials; to assist Austrian organs to suppress subversive movements in Serbia; to conduct a judicial enquiry against all participants in the 28 June plot; to arrest two Serbian government officials, ‘who have both been compromised by the results of the enquiry’; and to dismiss and punish the border guards who assisted in the smuggling of weapons into Bosnia.

“It must come to war”

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Sir Edward Grey in 1914Baron Giesl had been instructed: ‘However the Serbs react to the ultimatum, you must break off relations and it must come to war.’ At 6 o’clock on the evening of the 25th, Giesl and the rest of the Austrian delegation hastily left Belgrade.

However, the Serbian response to the ‘unacceptable’ ultimatum astonished everyone and has generally been regarded as a brilliant diplomatic move. The Belgrade Government agreed to most of the demands, making Austria’s predetermined decision to reject Belgrade’s response look suspicious in the eyes of those European powers who wanted to try to preserve the peace.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey suggested (repeatedly) that the issue could be resolved at the conference table, but his mediation proposals were only given half-hearted support by Berlin and not taken up by Vienna. France and Russia, as well as Germany and Austria-Hungary, now tried to convince Grey to declare Britain’s position if a European war were to result from the crisis.

Both sides hoped their hand would be strengthened with a clear declaration from London that it would either fight on the side of the Entente or remain neutral. But Britain, preoccupied with the Irish question, refused until the very end of July to commit to its allies.

Britain, France and Russia respond

In the crucial last days of July, Britain’s decision-makers were torn between their fear of either Germany or Russia winning a war on the continent. It would have had grave consequences for Britain if Russia had managed to win the war without British support. But if Germany had won, Britain would have faced a Germany-dominated Europe. Grey was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Nonetheless, the ambivalence of Sir Edward Grey’s policy should not really be seen as a cause of the war, not least because his hesitant attitude was motivated by the desire to avoid an escalation of the crisis. Moreover, the British public and the majority of the Cabinet were not ready to go to war over Serbia. Eventually, Belgium’s demise provided a reason to become involved in continental affairs. Until that point Grey had feared that a definite promise of support might have led France or Russia to accept the risk of war more willingly, and had consistently refused to declare Britain’s hand one way or the other.

In France, decision-making was hampered by the fact that the senior statesmen were abroad for many of the crucial days of the crisis. France’s attitude vis-à-vis its Russian ally has been much scrutinized by historians. Did its leaders offer support to Russia too readily, or did they even put undue pressure on their ally to seize this opportunity? France was also caught uncomfortably between two stools, wanting to assure its ally of support while trying to ensure that Britain would support it. This desire even affected its military plans. Nothing should suggest to the Entente partner that France might be responsible for the onset of hostilities, and mobilisation measures were postponed until reliable news had been received of German moves, while French troops were deliberately withdrawn ten kilometres behind the border to ensure that hostile acts would not even occur accidentally.

For Russia’s decision-makers, having initially been reassured by Vienna’s pretence of calm, the surprise at the ultimatum was all the greater. The text of the ultimatum suggested to Foreign Minister Sergeij Sazonov immediately that war would be ‘unavoidable’. In a meeting of the Council of Ministers on 24 July, the Ministers discussed the fact that demands had been made of Serbia which were ‘wholly unacceptable to the Kingdom of Serbia as a sovereign state’.

Nonetheless, the decision was made to advise Serbia not to offer any resistance to any armed invasion. Vienna was to be asked to extend the time limit, and permission for mobilization was sought to cover all eventualities. On 25 July measures for a partial mobilization were decided on which begun on 26 July. Much has been made of this early decision by historians who attribute war guilt to Russia. However, Russia’s decision-makers were at pains to stress that this mobilisation did not make war unavoidable. At the same time, the Russian Government was keen to support Britain’s mediation proposals and to press the British government to decide if the country would become involved in a potential war on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance.

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German newspaper reporting the mobilisation of forcesThe prospect of Russia’s support was a great relief to Prime Minister Nikola Pašić in Belgrade, and it has been argued that Serbia’s rejection of parts of the ultimatum may have been made on the basis of this support.

However, it would have been impossible for Pašić to accept all of Austria-Hungary’s conditions, not least because of Serbia’s recent military successes. Public opinion would arguably not have condoned such an outwardly visible expression of weakness, even if the Prime Minister had been inclined towards acceptance.

Moreover, an investigation of the background of the assassination would have led the Austrians to Dragutin Dimitrijević, the head of the Serbian Military Intelligence, and the ‘Black Hand’ organisation which had been behind the assassination.

The demand of an Austrian-led enquiry was unacceptable because it would have revealed that the Serbian Government had prior knowledge of the plot and had failed to prevent the murder from taking place.

Declaration of war

Only at the very last minute, when it was clear that Britain, too, would become involved if war broke out, did the German Chancellor try to restrain the Austrians, but his mediation proposals arrived far too late.

Austria had declared war on Serbia on 28 July, and thus set in motion a domino-effect of mobilisation orders and declarations of war by Europe’s major powers, and its decision-makers were unwilling to stop their war against Serbia in order to make negotiations possible.

By 1 August, Germany found itself at war with Russia, as predicted.

By the time Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 August, following Germany’s invasion of neutral Luxembourg on 2 August and Belgium on 4 August (necessitated by Germany’s deployment plan, the so-called Schlieffen Plan), the Alliance powers (without Italy, which had decided to stay neutral) faced the Entente powers in the ‘great fight’ that had been anticipated for such a long time, but whose scale and outcome nobody had quite imagined.