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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

July, 1914: Countdown to War — Reviewed by Ron Drees

July, 1914: Countdown to War
by Sean McMeekin
Published by Basic books, 2013

Despite the title, July 1914 begins on June 28 with the assassination of the Archduke and his wife. In addition to the horrendous tragedy familiar to us is the fact that nobody liked the Archduke. He was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne but had married for love far beneath his station, resulting in the ostracism of his wife and general disparagement of himself. For such a horrendous and far-reaching war to be based on his murder is incomprehensible — almost. His murder brought nationalistic hatred to the surface and provided the desired excuse for one nation, Austria, to wreak havoc on another, Serbia.

What followed the assassination was a convoluted interplay between the great and not-so-great powers of Europe, some seeking peace and others an opportunity to pursue their own goals. Diplomatic dispatches were worded in such a way to communicate the truth but not the whole truth, actions were taken covertly to gain an advantage over other nations, intelligence reports were incomplete, leaving recipients unaware of the seriousness of the situation, and national intentions were misunderstood.

Order Now
A poorly thought-out conversation between the Kaiser and Austria's ambassador gave Austria free rein to do as they pleased, and an unacceptable ultimatum was the result. The communication of Austria's ultimatum to Serbia was timed so that France's president and Russia's tsar, an ally of the Slavs in Serbia, would not know about it during their conference. Poincaré would not learn until later because wireless communications with his ship returning from Russia were poor. Later, Russia mobilized, and England, due to poor intelligence, was deceived by misleading Russian statements. This combination of incompetence, deception, and nationalism combined to create the unstoppable avalanche.

Even within the major powers, communication was less than forthright. Churchill ordered the fleet north to Scapa Flow without lights or bothering to inform Foreign Minister Grey. Russia began mobilizing without informing the Tsar. Chancellor Bethmann did not keep the Kaiser informed, playing on Wilhelm's limited attention span and frequent mood changes. Grey would speak to Parliament for ninety minutes and yet left out such details as why France should be supported, what Belgium's rejection of Germany's ultimatum meant, and just what England would do about the situation. Grey uttered many words but did not communicate with Parliament or Germany that England was willing to fight.

Nations distracted by internal problems; behind-the-scenes maneuvering; information withheld or distorted or incompletely presented; leaders who did not comprehend or were ignored; and other irresponsible acts all contributed to the collision. Yes, the troops came home before Christmas — of 1918 — those who survived.

Nikola Pašić, Serbian Prime Minister
His Conciliatory Response to the July Ultimatum
Focused Responsibility for War on Austria-Hungary

So who really started the war? The author absolves Germany of some but not all war guilt and assigns more responsibility to Russia and Austria than previous historians but draws no absolute conclusions. While he has unearthed, deciphered, and revealed more information than previously available, too many documents from various countries have been destroyed or remain unavailable to reach a rock-solid conclusion. Yet, as I read the book, I saw no innocent parties. The amount of guilt varied but all were stained either by omission or commission. What McMeekin has not indicted is the war jubilation of the good citizens of several nations, particularly England, France, and Russia. Perhaps if those good citizens had understood who or how many would die horribly, their leaders might have been less anxious to jump off the deep end.

Mentally tracking the moves and countermoves in this book is a serious challenge. Readers would have been better served if the author had provided a graphic time line of events, including a presentation of diplomatic conclusions and of who became aware and when. Nevertheless, we can read July 1914 for some new information, for the serious challenge of keeping all the events and actors mentally organized, and for an understanding of how communications and travel were so much different and played a significant background role before the world turned inside out.

Ron Drees


  1. The Desire for war- the public joy that can be seen everywhere when it was declaired- in Berlin, In Paris and London. In the posters of the time and the press, While there were voices that railed against it, war fever swept the whole ofEurope- and in 1917 the USA- which is even stranger if you make note that the war had reached some well publicized low points by 1917 and should by that point have been understood for what it was. But War- war in all its bloody colors- real war- that is what they were cheering for in 1914. The survivors in1918 sat mute with grief and shock at what they had done. But by then it was too late.

  2. Political maneuvering, mobilization and press are all inciting, but it begins when shots are fired and a border is crossed. THAT is what Germany did and let slip... After raping Belgium, France and the rest of the world must respond.

  3. It is my understanding that what really started the fighting was when Russia partially mobilized while the Tsar was on his yacht. This caused Germany to initiate its railroad mobilization plan that could not be stopped when the Kaiser got back from his yacht vacation. As part of Germany's mobilization, they crossed over into Luxembourg and Belgium causing the French to declare war. Viola, "toute le monde a la batalle!"