Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Month That Changed the World: July 1914
reviewed by David Beer

The Month That Changed the World: July 1914
by Gordon Martel
Oxford University Press, 2014

Gordon Martel’s opening statement that "This is not another book on the 'origins' of the First World War" is apt and accurate. It was this claim that first encouraged me to read his book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Its 400 pages passed quickly; I only slowed down at times when I referred to one of the endnotes, studied one of the portraits, or looked back to the four pages listing the principal characters. Martel’s prose flows clearly and easily, and it’s not hard to see how he is presenting his story (as he warns us) in the tone of a detective story rather than a history.

Fateful Day: 28 June 1914, Sarajevo

An almost 50-page Prologue, “The Long European Peace,” provides background for Martel’s story and prepares us for the “crime scene.” Two dominant and conflicting threads prevail: (1) the certainty in most people’s minds that war was a thing of the past, and (2) the ongoing scurrying of diplomats and military leaders to make secret alliances and war plans. Then the main characters are presented: Wilhelm II, Franz Joseph I, Nicholas II, Raymond Poincaré, and Sir Edward Grey. Their backgrounds, viewpoints, strengths, and weaknesses, not to mention very human foibles, make for fascinating reading. Prime figures that they are, however, they’re not the main perpetrators. These appear in the following chapters.

After the Prologue the book is divided into four parts. The first two chapters in Part One, “The Killing” and “The Reaction,” describe events that we may already be familiar with. However, Martel presents these details in a refreshing and almost exciting manner, and I found myself eager to find out what was going to happen next. More actors appear on the scene, ones we have met before plus some less familiar ones. Gavrilo Princip is central to events now, but is surrounded by a host of fellow conspirators and supporters. Their backgrounds and motivations are fully described (even if their names are unpronounceable) and we’re given details of their actions and the resulting climactic event. Then follows much diplomatic debating, indecision, and subversion by another set of leading characters we come to know well —Austrian, German, French, Russian, British, and others. But this is still a gathering of facts for the detective narrator, who after all is on the trail of the main crime — the Great War.

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The “rumors, speculations, discussions, half-truths and hypothetical scenarios” (p. 156) greatly muddy the wandering trail leading up to the delivery of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia at 6 p.m. on Thursday 23 July. But the next eight days, 24–31 July, tend to concentrate matters, and Martel fine-tunes Part Two of his book into eight chapters, one for each of these days. We see the full text of Austria’s ultimatum and also the Serbian reply, but swirling around these key documents for over a week are a host of hourly intrigues, demonstrations, hopes, denials, lies, misinformation, wavering—a veritable catalog of vacillations. Attempts to localize the quarrel—to limit it to Austria and Serbia—make little headway, and the threat of European mobilization becomes real. We may already be aware of some of the events covered in these chapters, but the author relates them with splendid clarity and without judgment—we are still gathering the facts, just the facts, leading up to a terrible crime that might be prevented at any point during these eight days.

We then move to Part Three: “Days of Decision,” where the events of 1–4 August are given even higher resolution. Forty pages describe how peace now hangs in the balance. The suspense is palpable, particularly since Martel clearly shows what an agonizingly fine line now divides war and peace—in spite of being “extraordinary close to war,” the involved nations “were also extraordinarily close to peace” (p.361). Belgian neutrality is discussed, cabinets deliberate, ambassadors suggest, ministers propose, and armies prepare. The desperate hope is voiced that nations might allow their fully mobilized armies to simply face each other without attacking. Public anti-war sentiment gradually begins to dissipate while religious sentiment increases—especially in Russia—with prayers not only for peace but also for victory. On the last day, 4 August, Sir Edward Grey, meeting with the American ambassador at 3 p.m. sadly confesses that “the efforts of a lifetime” had now come to nothing: “I feel like a man who has wasted his life” (p. 394).

The final section of the book, Part Four: "The Aftermath," is subtitled “Making Sense of the Madness” and is perhaps the author’s most powerful chapter. He doesn’t analyze the causes of the war or try to assign blame. Instead he gives an excellent account of how the war was rationalized by the involved countries—both immediately after its outbreak and in the decades following its conclusion. From the start every government claimed to have acted purely in self-defense, and as Martel points out, “The explanations and excuses, justifications and recriminations that began to flow in the first days of August would soon turn into a flood” (p. 402). This flood continues even today. Mountains of documents, millions of pages, have been analyzed and hundreds of books written on what caused the war, who was responsible, and what lessons were learned. Martel gives an excellent survey of this literature and of the key figures who were to “play the blame game” over the years. Finally he reviews events that spawned the Second World War, and paraphrasing A.J.P. Taylor observes that “Men do learn from their mistakes: they learn how to make new ones” (p. 422).

French Attacking at Morhange, 14 August 1914

This is a different kind of book than others you might have read on the beginnings of the war, such as T. G. Otte’s July Crisis, David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer, or Michael Neiberg’s Dance of the Furies. These are all excellent books and belong in the library of anyone who studies the origins of the Great War. Gordon Martel’s book is a first-rate addition to these volumes, giving as it does a highly readable and dispassionate account of the almost innumerable events that took place—or did not take place — in that fateful month leading up to the crime of killing and maiming millions of human beings

David Beer


  1. This I have to read. Like so many assassinations, this one is also steeped in questions that I think will be answered among those pages.

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  3. My Belgium grandmothers father sold the family farm in Belgium and moved to Rochester New York in 1910. He had four sons who had gone to France to help with the harvest. They witnessed French Army practice in the fields. They came home and told their father there was going to be a war. He did not want his sons to die so he moved. There was a sense among common people that some cataclysm was coming. My mother's parents left Galicia a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910. They left for new opportunities in the United States. They thought life in the Empire was okay. There was an air of adventure and sense of change among people who no longer wished to be ruled by "Divine Right". My Dutch grandfather left because his brother sent a one way ticket to the USA. I am glad they all got away in time.