JUNE 28, 1914, was the Feast of Saint Vitus, an important holiday in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The city was decorated with flags displaying the two-headed eagle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a blazing sun shone down on the throngs of people in the streets. A small procession of four automobiles moved slowly along, making its way toward the city hall. In the second car, wearing a military helmet covered with green feathers, sat the old emperor’s heir Archduke Francis Ferdinand. He was Paying a state visit to this province of the empire he would one day inherit. Beside him, shielding herself from the hot sun with a parasol, sat his wife, the Countess Sophie.
Near the Cumuria Bridge, a bomb came hurtling through the air. It missed the archduke and his wife, but exploded in the street, and flying splinters injured some of the archduke’s party and a number of bystanders. The procession went on to the city hall, where the archduke shouted at the mayor:
“One comes here for a visit and is received with bombs. Mr. Mayor, what do you say? It’s outrageous. All right, now you may speak.”
The mayor, who had been in the first car of the procession and had not seen the bombing, read his speech of welcome. The archduke made a little speech in reply. Then, in spite of the danger of another bombing, he decided to go to the hospital and see the injured persons.
Again the four cars set out, but at an intersection the first two made a wrong turn. As the cars stopped to turn around, a young man on the street raised a pistol and fired two shots one at the archduke and the other at his wife. At first it seemed as if the bullets had missed them and the cars sped away. Suddenly blood spurted from the archduke’s mouth and the countess slumped in her seat. In a few minutes she was dead and the archduke died soon after.
The young Bosnian who had fired the shots belonged to a Serbian secret society and it turned out that several high officials in the Serbian army and government had some knowledge of the assassination plot. Although the world was shocked by the murders, no one expected it would lead to war. After all, there was always “trouble in the Balkans,” and this crisis would blow over, as had the others in the past.
The leaders of Austria-Hungary decided that it was time they stamped out the Yugoslav freedom movement, which was threatening to tear the empire apart. They would do this by clamping down hard on Serbia. They would not, however, annex Serbia; there were already too many troublesome Slavs in the empire. The big question was: would they have the support of Germany? They sent a messenger to Berlin to find out.
The kaiser himself informed the messenger that Austria-Hungary “could depend on the complete support of Germany.” Reassured, the Austro-Hungarian leaders sent a stiff note to the Serbian government. They demanded that Serbia put down all propaganda against the empire and to do this with the help of the empire’s police agents who would be stationed in Serbia. They also demanded that their own men be allowed to help hunt down and punish the archduke’s murderers. Serbia was given forty-eight hours to reply.
The Serbian leaders immediately telegraphed St. Petersburg. They were counting on Russian support, even to the point of war. Surely, they reasoned, the Russians would not dare back down in this crisis as they had in the past, for fear of losing all of their influence in the Balkans, but before replying, the Russians consulted the French and the French, terrified of finding themselves alone in a war with mighty Germany, were determined to keep Russia as an ally and pledged their support to the Russians.
When the Serbs were sure that Russia and France were behind them, they draw up a reply to the Austro-Hungarian note and delivered it just two minutes before the forty-eight-hour time limit expired. They agreed to some of the demands, but refused to allow Austro-Hungarian police on their soil. Both countries mobilized troops and on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
Russia prepared to defend Serbia by attacking Austria-Hungary and Russian generals began to assemble troops along the Austro-Hungarian border. Expecting that Germany would soon come to the aid of its partner, they also assembled troops along the German border. The Germans demanded that the Russians withdraw their army. Receiving no reply to their demand, they declared war on Russia on August 1. Then, sure that the French would go to the aid of Russia, they declared war on France on August 3.
From the start of the crisis, Germany had acted in the reckless hope that Great Britain would not come into the war. Britain was still not bound by any military agreement and as late as August 3 the French did not know for certain that the British would join them.
The British were bound to the French just the same, especially by naval agreements. To counterbalance the growing German navy, the British had concentrated their warships in the North Sea. By agreement with France, the French fleet was concentrated in the Mediterranean, watching over British interests there while the British fleet watched over French interests in the north. France’s north coast was therefore open to attack unless the British navy defended it.
Great Britain’s duty to France was clear — so clear that the Germans could not really have failed to see it. What aroused the British people to fury was Germany’s invasion of Belgium. The army which Germany hurled against the French was so huge that part of it had to cross low-lying Belgium to reach France. The Belgians protested, but the Germans brushed their protests aside and marched into the little country, which had not fought a war since its foundation almost a century before.
In Great Britain, sympathy for Belgium swept all other considerations aside and on August 4, the British declared war on Germany. World War I had begun. Most ordinary Europeans did not want war, although those who had most to gain and least to lose, such as the Serbs, were more ready to fight than those who had much to lose and little to gain, such as the French and British. Nor was any government really eager for war, although some behaved more recklessly than others. The alliance system, which arose out of the fear each power felt for its own safety, tended to drag all of them into any quarrel that broke out between any two. In some countries, notably Germany and Russia, war-minded army officers were powerful enough to block the efforts of civilian officials to keep the peace.
Even these officers might have worked for peace if they could have foreseen the kind of war that was coming. In August of 1914, few people believed that the war would last longer than a few weeks, or, at most, a few months. Still fewer had any idea that millions of men would die –choked by poison gas, riddled by bullets from machine guns and rifles, blown to bits by grenades and shells from enormous cannons — in the most terrible war the world had yet known., It would take four years for the Allies — the Entente powers and the countries that joined them — to defeat Germany, Austria-Hungary‚ Turkey and Bulgaria, which were known as the Central Powers.