Presented byProf. Margaret MacMillanHistorian

How the world went to war

In the summer of 1914, Europe went to war. It began a conflict that would engulf almost the entire world. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand pushed existing animosities and alliances into the most catastrophic war the world had ever seen.

How did this happen? In recent times Europe had stepped back from the precipice; in 1914 there would be no peace or compromise. As grave events spiralled out of control Europe could not step back from the brink.

28 June

Archduke assassinated

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Margaret MacMillan describes the events leading up to Franz Ferdinand's assassination. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 28 June (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 89k)

Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot dead while on a state visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

His killer was the 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, backed by Serbian terrorist organisation, ‘the Black Hand’, and joined by a group of other would-be assassins. One of them threw a bomb at the Archduke's motorcade in a first, unsuccessful, attempt on his life. But, when a fateful mistake meant Franz Ferdinand’s driver took the car directly to the street corner where Princip was standing, his two shots killed the Archduke and his wife, Sophie Chotek.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 28 JuneFollow the story of the assassination live on 28 JuneThe view from Sarajevo – a Month of Madness on Radio 4

Thank God this Bosnian trip is nearly over

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

29 June

Austria-Hungary wants revenge

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Margaret MacMillan explains how the Serbian government tried to distance itself. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 29 June (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 83k)

In Sarajevo, Serbian shops were destroyed during riots to shouts of “death to the Serbian murderers.”

Although Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination, the Serbian government tried to distance itself claiming it had tried to warn Austria of a plot. The Austrian chief of military staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, wanted war, but the foreign secretary was more cautious, fearing that Serbia’s long time ally Russia would be angered by any attack and be forced to step in. But perhaps Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally Germany would back them against Russia.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 29 June

30 June

Britain and Germany united

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Margaret MacMillan describes sporting competition between the German and British navies. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 30 June (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 86k)

At the German naval base of Kiel it was the last day of the Royal Navy’s visit.

Over the last few days German and British navies had carried out joint manoeuvres. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, a cousin of the British King, George V, was proud to be an admiral of the British fleet. Although there were some suspicions between the two nations they parted ways on good terms.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 30 JuneDiary of a British Naval Commander, Kiel, 1914

Comrades in the past and always

Message from the British admiral to his German counterpart

5 July

Germany promises to back Austria-Hungary

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Margaret MacMillan explains how the Kaiser promises support for Austria-Hungary. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 5 July (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 89k)

When he learnt of Austria-Hungary’s wish to attack Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm pledged Germany's support, even if it meant war with Russia.

This became known as Germany’s ‘blank cheque’, which would guarantee any action they decided to take against Serbia. The Kaiser explained: “Should a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia be unavoidable, Austria-Hungary can rest assured that Germany, your old faithful ally, will stand at your side.” Perhaps he was unaware what the consequences could be for Europe.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 5 JulyGermany's July crisis – a Month of Madness on Radio 4Biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II

This time I shall not give in. This time I shall not give in

Kaiser Wilhelm II

7 July

Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia delayed

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Margaret MacMillan describes Prime Minister, Tisza's rejection of plans for a quick attack on Serbia. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 7 July (Radio 4).

Transcript (PDF 87k)

With Germany's backing some Austrian ministers were in favour of a quick attack on Serbia.

However any plan needed the approval of both Austrian and Hungarian leaders, but the Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza was not convinced. He was afraid an attack on Serbia would spark a war with its much larger neighbour, Russia. Instead the ministers agreed to draw up an ultimatum to Serbia - some wanted to make it so harsh the Serbs would be forced to reject it, and trigger war between the two countries. This delay could allow time for Russia to join the fray.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 7 JulyRead the Austrian Ministerial Council Minutes, 7 July

9 July

Britain tries to deter Germany

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Sir Edward Grey meets the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, clip from 37 Days (BBC Two).

Transcript (PDF 89k)

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, told the German ambassador that Britain had not promised to aid France or Russia in a European war.

In 1907 Britain moved into a closer friendship with France and Russia, as part of the ‘Triple Entente’. Grey was aware of Germany's support for Austria-Hungary and hinted at collaboration between the French and British military. He explained that British public opinion would make it very difficult for him to stay out if events in the Balkans escalated. But his softly-softly approach would not be enough to hold Germany back.

37 Days: the complex story of the final weeks before WWI

19 July

Secret plans made to strike

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Prof. Christopher Clark explores how militant voices swayed decision-makers in Vienna in 1914. Clip from Month of Madness, episode two (Radio 4).

Transcript (PDF 86k)

Austria-Hungary’s ministers gathered for a secret meeting in Vienna, where they made the final decision to issue an ultimatum to Serbia.

Just five days earlier the one person blocking it changed his mind. Tisza is now in support of war: “It was very hard for me to come to the decision to give my advice for war, but I am now firmly convinced of its necessity”. The ultimatum was approved. If Serbia agreed to its terms, it would come under Austria-Hungary’s control. If it refused, there would be war.

Why did Vienna go to war? Month of Madness on Radio 4

21 July

Russia begins to stir

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Margaret MacMillan describes how the Russian foreign minister warns the Austrian ambassador. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 21 July (Radio 4).

Transcript (PDF 60k)

Having discovered Austria-Hungary’s intentions to threaten Serbia, Russia's foreign minister issued them with a warning.

Russian public opinion was in favour of protecting Serbia, and Sergei Sazonov explained to the Austrian and German ambassadors: "If Austria-Hungary is absolutely determined to disturb the peace, she ought not to forget that she would have to reckon with Europe. In no case should there be any talk of an ultimatum."

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 21 JulyFrance and Russia together - Month of Madness on Radio 4

If Austria-Hungary is absolutely determined to disturb the peace, she ought not to forget that she would have to reckon with Europe

Sergei Sazonov, Russian foreign minister

23 July

The impossible ultimatum

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Margaret MacMillan describes Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 23 July (Radio 4).

Transcript (PDF 62k)

Ignoring Russian warnings, Austria-Hungary issued the Serbian government with its ultimatum.

It blamed Serbian officials for Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and made a series of demands. Among them: Serbia must stop all anti-Austro-Hungarian propaganda and remove anyone deemed guilty of it from office; it must accept Austria-Hungary’s collaboration in suppressing subversive movements within Serbia, and it must allow Austria to direct judicial proceedings against accessories in the assassination plot. In short, Serbia was being asked to hand over sovereignty.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 23 JulyThe ultimatum that triggered war: read it in full

Austria has sent a bullying and humiliating ultimatum to Serbia… we are within distance of a real Armageddon

Herbert Henry Asquith, British Prime Minister

25 July

Serbia concedes, but...

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Prof. Christopher Clark describes how Kaiser Willhelm offered to mediate for peace. Clip from Month of Madness, episode two (Radio 4).

Transcript (PDF 87k)

Serbia's deadline for responding to Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum was 18:00 central European time.

After checking he had Russia’s support in the event of war, the Serbian Prime Minister delivered his reply to the Austrian embassy. Serbia conceded to all of the demands, apart from two. Key among them was the request that Austria-Hungary be allowed to direct judicial proceedings in Serbia - a violation of its constitution. Serbia had effectively rejected the ultimatum and, as planned in Vienna, war was now inevitable.

Not enough? Serbia’s response to Austria-Hungary

26 July

Britain makes a bid for peace

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Sir Edward Grey discusses a proposal for peace with Prime Minister, Henry Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill. Clip from 37 Days (BBC Two).

Transcript (PDF 86k)

The British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey proposed a peace conference to try to stop Europe descending into war.

His plan was that Italy, Germany, France and the UK, the four countries not directly involved in the Balkan crisis, should act as mediators between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and their ally Russia. This offer was met with hostility from the German Kaiser who didn't want to be seen to give in to Britain’s “condescending orders”.

Could war have been avoided in 1914?37 Days: the complex story of the final weeks before WWI

28 July

Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia

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Margaret MacMillan describes the Kaiser's peace plan. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 28 July (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 91k)

With all of their demands not met, Austria-Hungary moves to declare war on Serbia.

Even though they were now at war, the Austrian army was not ready to attack, and would not be for another two weeks. Germany was frustrated with its ally; it had been a month since Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and with each day that passed, sympathy for Austria-Hungary’s cause among other European powers was ebbing away.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 28 JulyNewspaper report - Austria-Hungary's declaration of war

29 July

Can the Royal cousins avert disaster?

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The Tsar and the Kaiser communicate by telegram. Clip from Royal Cousins at War (BBC Two).

Transcript (PDF 30k)

The Tsar agreed to mobilise the Russian army against Austria-Hungary, but before he sent the order he received a telegram from his cousin the Kaiser.

“Nicky, I share your wish that peace should be maintained. It would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the Austro Serbian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed. I think a direct understanding between your government and Vienna possible and desirable and my government is continuing its exertions to promote it.” Russian military plans meant mobilisation had to be against both Austria-Hungary and Germany. The Tsar called it off.

A family at war: the kings of Europe in WW1

30 July

Russia mobilises for war

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Margaret MacMillan describes the Tsar's decison to order mobilisation. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 30 July (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 87k)

Shared blood between Queen Victoria’s grandchildren was not enough to stop the march to war.

Under immense pressure from his foreign minister, the Tsar ordered his armies to prepare for war and mobilise against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although he called it off the previous day the Tsar was convinced Russia must protect Serbia. His ministers advised that if he did not act boldly, the Russian dynasty would be at risk. Fully understanding the consequences, it was not a decision he took lightly.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4, the build up to war: 30 JulyBiography of Tsar Nicholas II

Remember, it's a question of sending thousands and thousands of men to their death

Tsar Nicholas II

31 July

Germany prepares for war on two fronts

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Britain, France and Russia form the "Triple Entente" that 'encircles' Germany. Clip from Royal Cousins at War (BBC Two).

Transcript (PDF 83k)

The Kaiser believed Britain, France and Russia would use the pretext of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to encircle and “annihilate” Germany.

German military plans aimed to deal with this “encirclement” by making a pre-emptive strike against France, through Belgium, before turning the bulk of its forces east to deal with Russia. Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia that unless it called off mobilisation, war will be declared. And, afraid of an attack by France, Germany demanded that its neighbour in the west show friendship towards them by allowing German soldiers to occupy French frontier forts for the duration of war with Russia.

Why did Germany have to attack France and Russia?

There is still hope, although the clouds are black and blacker

Winston Churchill

1 August

Germany declares war on Russia

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Margaret MacMillan describes the Kaiser’s reaction to news from the German ambassador in London. Clip from 1914: Day by Day, 1 August (Radio 4)

Transcript (PDF 88k)

With no word from St. Petersburg the German Chancellor addressed his parliament. Germany would declare war on Russia at 17:00.

As he delivered the declaration, the German ambassador asked Russian foreign minister Sazonov three times whether Russia would back down. Each time the answer was no. The German army was then ordered to mobilise. In the west, France had already begun mobilising its armies in anticipation of German attack. A European war was now inevitable.

1914 Day by Day on Radio 4 the build up to war: 1 August

If the iron dice now must roll, then may God help us

Bethmann-Hollweg, German Chancellor

2 August

Germany tells Belgium to step aside

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The German ultimatum is delivered to Belgium. Clip from 37 Days (BBC Two).

Transcript (PDF 94k)

On the pretext of preventing a French attack, Germany sent an ultimatum to Belgium asking for safe passage through its territory.

If the Belgian government said no, Germany would consider them an enemy. Britain had promised to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality, and if the German demand was rejected, and soldiers crossed its border, Britain would be obliged to act. At 02:30 the following morning, Belgium did exactly that. The ultimatum was rejected. The British government now had to make a terrible decision.

37 Days: the complex story of the final weeks before WWI

3 August

Germany declares war on France

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Prof. Christopher Clark examines the reaction of British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. Clip from Month of Madness, episode two (Radio 4).

Transcript (PDF 85k)

In Paris, the German ambassador delivered Germany’s declaration of war to the French foreign ministry.

France had been careful to do nothing to provoke Germany - positioning its troops 10 km from the German border - but Germany’s military plans were inflexible. They had to defeat France before attacking Russia. In London, Sir Edward Grey made a speech in parliament: “If we do stand aside we would sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world”. Opposition to war in Britain was dying away.

How Britain went to WW1 – Month of Madness on Radio 4

The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary

4 August

Britain sends an ultimatum to Germany

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Then Chancellor, David Lloyd George calls for Britain to act against Germany. Clip from 37 Days (BBC Two).

Transcript (PDF 91k)

As German troops advanced into Belgium, the British cabinet was agreed: it could not stand aside. An ultimatum was sent to Berlin.

The deadline for Germany to reply was 23:00 (GMT). Just after 19:00 the British ambassador, Goschen, went to see the German ambassador with the ultimatum. The German ambassador blamed Britain for "all the terrible events that might happen", but Goschen protested that it was a matter of honour for Britain to protect Belgium's neutrality. As the hour of the deadline approached, an anxious crowd waited outside Downing Street.

Nick Robinson on Lloyd George, Britain’s wartime leader37 Days: the complex story of the final weeks before WWI

4 August

Britain declares war on Germany

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Jeremy Paxman describes the last hours before war was declared. Clip from Britain's Great War (BBC One).

Transcript (PDF 88k)

The Kaiser and his government refused to stop the invasion of Belgium and at 23:00, Britain and Germany were at war.

The European powers were pitted against each other and Britain would drag its global empire into the conflict. An assassination in southern Europe, brought war not only to the wider continent, but to the populations of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America. Many believed the war would be over within months, but the guns did not fall silent for another four years, and millions lost their lives.

Who started WW1? 10 historians give their view

Six months should see the end of it

The Observer newspaper, August 1914