4th AUGUST 1914: THE START OF THE WAR
On 4th August, 1914, at 11.00 p.m., war was declared between the United Kingdom and Germany. Following the assassination of the Archduke and heir to the Imperial Crown of Austria , Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on 28th June, the alliances of Europe had been engaged in a flurry of diplomatic exchanges. Was Gavrilo Princip, the young assassin who fired the shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie an agent of Serbia? Or was he acting independently in pursuit of a dream of South Slav unity? Austria issued Serbia with an ultimatum, to effectively accept their responsibility for this tragic act.
But the complexities of Europe at the time brought into play other countries. Tsarist Russia saw itself as the protector of Slavs, and would be bound to come to Serbia’s aid if attacked by Austria; Austria was allied with Germany. Russia was also allied with France, and France was allied with the United Kingdom. Once any one country started to mobilise, a train was set in motion that it would be difficult to stop.
Historians over the past 100 years have disagreed about the origins of the war – about whether it could have been prevented, about which nation could be blamed as the first aggressor. Countless books have been written that cover in detail the diplomatic discussions, the political discussions in different countries, the responses that may have been justified and those that may have been misunderstood. What is clear is that once the nations of the various alliances moved themselves into position, for attack or for defence, like pieces on a chess board, there was an inevitability about the outcome – war.
Germany’s military plans envisaged a war on two fronts, given the alliance of France and Russia. The map of Europe then was different from today. Russia and Germany shared a border (Poland did not exist as an independent country), and France had lost its territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. If there was a war involving Russia and its French ally, Germany could be attacked from two sides – the German war plans required France to be eliminated as quickly as possible (the Schlieffen Plan) and part of these plans required the German armies on the western front to move speedily through Belgium. But Belgium’s neutrality was guaranteed by the Treaty of London in 1839 – a treaty to which both France and Great Britain were signatories. If Belgium was invaded, Great Britain would be bound to go to war against the invader.
The German invasion of Belgium began on 4th August 1914. Troops crossed the border and attacked the city of Liege. An ultimatum had been given to Germany to respect Belgian neutrality and to withdraw its troops. This was due to expire at midnight, Berlin time, on 4th August. Midnight – 11.00 p.m. in London – came, and there was no withdrawal. The official announcement read:
“Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by his Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium will be respected, his Majesty’s Ambassador to Berlin has received his passports, and his Majesty’s Government declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11 p.m. on August 4, 1914.”