99 years ago today, on August 4, 1914, World War I broke out. Phrasing it that way suggests the coming of war was a singular event–it wasn’t. The storm that broke over Europe began brewing the previous June 28, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and reached a milestone on July 23, when Austria-Hungary telegraphed a diplomatic ultimatum to its enemy, Serbia. But of all days in the history of the outbreak of the war, today, August 4, was the most important.
The crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia escalated in the days following the ultimatum. Pledged as they were to protect their allies, the large powers–France, Russia and Germany–were eventually drawn in. Each side thought the other was bluffing, especially when it came to mobilizing their armies, which was a huge, time-consuming task in 1914. Suffice it to say, the first declaration of war among the major powers was Germany upon Russia, on August 1. The Germans knew this move meant war with France, Russia’s ally. Their military plan called for hurling all their armies against France first–before Russia finished mobilizing–and then shifting their forces back to the east to deal with Russia. Great plan, right?
The problem was this. In order to hit France quickly, the Germans had to march through Belgium, which was neutral. Great Britain had guaranteed to protect Belgium in a treaty dating back to 1839. Kaiser Wilhelm wasn’t concerned. What did England care, after all, about Belgium?
As it turned out they cared a lot. Early in the day on August 4, German armies crossed the Belgian border, beginning the invasion. The Prime Minister of Great Britain, H.H. Asquith, sent an ultimatum to the German government: either begin to pull out troops by 11PM, or suffer the consequences. Eleven o’clock came and went. The Germans were still marching. As of that hour, Great Britain was at war with Germany. This was the true beginning of World War I.
H.H. Asquith, British prime minister.
As he looked out of his office windows that evening, August 4, 1914, Asquith saw a street worker putting out the streetlights. He is said to have commented, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. They will not be lit again in this lifetime.”
World War I killed at least 10 million people, scarred the psyche of Western civilization like nothing before or since, and planted the seed for an even more destructive world war that began 25 years and one month later.
This is a very sad anniversary. May humanity never again travel down this road.