Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

Peace or War

"War is the national industry of Prussia."


"The whole of Germany is charged with electricity," reported an American after a visit to Berlin in the summer of 1914. "It only needs a spark to let the whole thing off."

The spark was struck sooner than he imagined—struck in Bosnia, lately one of the Balkan States.

It was Sunday morning the 28th of June 1914, and the little town of Serajevo, the capital of Bosnia, which had but six years ago passed under the rule of Austria-Hungary, was early astir, for was not the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, nephew of the Emperor and heir to the throne, coming to inspect the troops in the capital?

Sad, lonely, unpopular, and profoundly distrusted at his uncle's court at Vienna, the Archduke and his wife were received by the Governor of Bosnia and his staff, and motors conveyed the royal party through the uneven streets of the strange little city.

It was crowded with people, of whom not a few were Serbians, and known to be full of conspirators, but no precautions were taken to safe-guard the Archduke. Progress was slow, and the motors made their way leisurely to the Town Hall. Suddenly a black parcel fell into the open hood of the Archduke's car. As he pushed it off it exploded, slightly wounding his aide-de-camp. The would-be assassin was arrested. The Archduke was very angry.

"I am here to pay you a visit," he expostulated to the Burgomaster, "and I am greeted with bombs. The fellow will get the Golden Cross of Merit for this," he added bitterly.

An address of welcome was then read as arranged, and the Archduke made his formal reply. He then proposed to drive to the hospital to visit his wounded aide-de-camp. They tried to dissuade him. The streets were narrow and no proper guard could be kept. There was danger in the air.

But the heir to Austria's throne was determined, and a motor containing the Governor, the Archduke, and his wife started forth. It was not yet eleven o'clock and the car was moving slowly along, when a young man pushed his way through the motley crowd and fired three pistol shots into the car.

The Archduke Francis Ferdinand, hit at close range, fell dead. His wife, a bullet in her side, died a few minutes later. The whole city was suddenly hushed and awed, and the Burgomaster, in an impassioned speech, laid the ghastly crime at Serbia's door. Europe was startled and horrified by the news, but no one dreamed that the dramatic events of that June morning were to rank among the most fateful moments of history.

Silence fell, the whole situation was full of mystery and misgiving. The Emperor Francis Joseph left Vienna, the Kaiser started on a yachting cruise, the French President left Paris to fulfil his engagement with Russia. But in the light of future events, the event was of world-wide importance.

It was 20th July 1914 when the historic meeting took place between Tsar Nicholas II. and the President of the French Republic. The great warship France brought the head of the French State to the little harbour of Peterhof, where the Tsar, on his favourite little yacht Alexandra, was awaiting him. To the mingled strains of the "Marseillaise" and the "Russian National Anthem," Monsieur Poincare stepped on board the yacht to be received by the Tsar of all the Russias. For three days, banquets, receptions, reviews and other brilliant functions were the order of the day. At the end of the time, the news flashed through Europe that "the visit which the President of the French Republic has just paid to His Majesty the Emperor of Russia has given the two friendly and allied governments an opportunity of discovering, that they are in entire agreement in their views on the various problems which make for peace and the balance of power in Europe."

Monsieur Poincare had not reached France on his way home, when on 23rd July a thunderbolt fell.

Austria-Hungary had presented an ultimatum to Serbia!

A reply was demanded within forty-eight hours. According to the ultimatum, the matter under dispute was not given as the Archduke's murder—that crime only ranked as one of a long list of offences,—but Austria demanded no less than the submission of all Serbia to her Protectorate. As she had annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina six years before, so now she willed that Serbia should come under her sway. Her whole existence was at stake. The fact that Germany was behind Austria and had given her a free hand in this matter created a dangerous situation. The eyes of Europe were turned on Serbia. What would she reply? She accepted eight of the ten Austrian conditions, hard though they were, and her submission was almost complete.

But Austria was demanding unconditional surrender—she would be satisfied with nothing less, and Serbia could give no more.

It was Sunday, 26th July, when Austria began to move her troops toward the Serbian border, and Serbia began to mobilise. Two days later Austria declared war, and soon Serbia's capital, Belgrade, was occupied by Austrian troops.

It still seemed possible that the struggle should be localised and no other countries entangled in the dispute. But behind Serbia stood Russia—and Russia could hardly be expected to sit still and watch that independent little State become subject to Austria or perhaps to allow other Balkan States to be swallowed up without an effort to save them!

She began to mobilise on the Austrian frontier. Now indeed alarm broke forth in Europe. If Russia fought for Serbia and Germany for Austria, what would be the attitude of the other Powers? There was the Republic of France and the Commonwealth of Britain to be reckoned with yet. "As soon as there is a ten to one chance in favour of war, we must forestall our opponent and commence hostilities without more ado, and mercilessly crush all resistance." Such was the opinion of young Germans in 1913.

That Germany had been preparing for a European war for years past is certain. Secret preparation, the creation of giant guns, the arming of the German colonies, all pointed to war sooner or later, and, "While the world still slept and others were busy with securities for peace, the German General Staff had selected its maps for the coming battlefields." France, they realised, was "awake but unready; and the British people were neither ready nor awake," neither would they believe in the "creeping shadows "and "broken lights "of the European situation.

The Kaiser returned from his cruise to Berlin, shocked at Russia's war-like preparations. He at once telegraphed to the Tsar begging him to keep the peace.

The Tsar replied by begging the Kaiser to restrain Austria from her hasty action in avenging the murder of the Archduke. "In Russia," he added, "the indignation, which I share, is tremendous." A more serious communication between the two countries followed. Unless Russia would stop all military preparations, Germany would be forced to declare war on her in support of Austria. All hopes of peace gradually waned, and on 1st August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia.

Meanwhile Great Britain was working desperately to prevent the war spreading. The intervention of Russia on behalf of Serbia involved her new ally France. If only France and Great Britain could remain neutral, the conflict might yet be localised. But the skies were swiftly darkening, the war fever was spreading. On 3rd August Germany declared war on France.

What was the attitude of Great Britain? What of the Entente Cordiale? All hopes of peace now diminished with Germany's next move. The Kaiser suddenly announced his intention of marching through Belgium to France, and if Belgium opposed his advance, the army would "hack" its way through to Paris.

Now long ago in 1839 a treaty had been signed in London by which Austria, France, Great Britain, and Russia had promised to guarantee the independence of Belgium as a neutral State. Germany knew this treaty and only recently the German Minister of War had announced, "Germany will not lose sight of the fact that Belgium is guaranteed by international treaty."

Germany was about to disregard the treaty.

Albert, King of the Belgians, made a supreme appeal to England. Would she too disregard this treaty? England replied that she felt the treaty to be a sacred obligation, advised Belgium to resist by force any German invasion, and promised support.

"So, when the challenge rang,

'The War-Lord comes; give room!'

Fearless to arms you sprang

Against the odds of doom.

"So strong in faith you dared

Defy the giant, scorn

Ignobly to be spared,

Though trampled, spoiled, and torn."

"We are in a state of necessity, and necessity knows no laws," replied the Germans to the expostulation of the Powers. "But the wrong that we are committing we will try to make good as soon as our military goal is reached," they added.

The hours passed heavily on. The Germans were already at the Belgian frontier, when the British ultimatum was presented requesting Germany to withdraw her troops at once.

It was late on 4th August. Germany had not expected this of England.

"Just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation, who desired nothing better than to be friends with her."

If a solemn compact was to be treated as a scrap of paper, who could ever believe in the honour of England again?

Her honour was at stake.

The Germans refused to withdraw their troops. At midnight, 4th August 1914, Great Britain too had joined in the World War.

"Come the three corners of the world in arms

And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue

If England to itself do rest but true."

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