Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (1848-1916), Chief of the German General Staff in 1914. He nearly had a nervous breakdown on August 1 when the Kaiser ordered German forces east towards Russia, despite years of military planning to the contrary.
August 1, Berlin—-With the Russians having already mobilized two days prior, the pressure from the German military (especially Chief of Staff von Moltke) to conduct their own mobilization was mounting. However, German military planning called for the vast majority of their forces to be sent westwards—-through Belgium and Luxembourg into France. This raised two diplomatic issues. First, France had not yet mobilized, and so it was not yet clear whether the French (let alone the British) would intervene, despite their alliance with Russia. Secondly, an invasion of neutral Belgium before Germany was at war with anybody would be difficult to justify, especially the British.
In an attempt to deal with the latter problem, Germany had sent Russia a 24-hour ultimatum the previous day, saying that they would mobilize and declare war unless Russia ceased its mobilization. The Russians declined to do so (citing technical reasons), and at 5PM the Kaiser ordered mobilization. An hour later, German ambassador Pourtalès delivered the German declaration of war to Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov, though news of this did not reach Berlin until 11PM at the earliest.
Shortly after 5PM, however, a telegram reached the Germans from their ambassador Lichnowsky in London. He reported that he had heard from British Foreign Minister Grey “that in case we did not attack France, England would remain neutral and would guarantee France’s neutrality.” If true, this would be great news for the Germans, as they would not have to fight a two-front war.
This did, however, pose problems for German military plans and their entire schedule of mobilization, which was entirely based on an attack against France. The Kaiser’s pronouncement that “We shall simply march the whole army east!” sent von Moltke into a shock. Based on the original timetable, German cavalry forces had already crossed into Luxembourg at 7 PM, with infantry soon to follow. Upon hearing this, the Kaiser immediately ordered that the forces in Luxembourg be recalled (despite the protests of von Moltke), which they were at 7:30.
That afternoon, however, Lichnowsky and Grey had realized that they had misunderstood each other; Grey could certainly not offer assurances that the French would stay neutral, not could he in the event that Belgium was violated. Following up on this later conversation, King George V sent a telegram to the Kaiser that “I think there must be some misunderstanding” and that he could guarantee neither British nor French neutrality.
The Kaiser read this telegram at 11PM, and almost immediately gave Moltke free reign to continue the deployment of the mobilized armies as planned. German forces once again crossed into Luxembourg before midnight, and had occupied the whole country within 24 hours.
Sources: Wiliam Jannen, The Lions of July; Europe’s Last Summer, David Fromkin.
The German Emperor, Wilhelm II, and the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, exchanged telegrams in the immediate run-up to the outbreak of war between 29 July 1914 and 1 August 1914.
Tsar to Kaiser
1 August 1914
Peter’s Court, Palace, 1 August 1914
Sa Majesté l’Empereur
I received your telegram. Understand you are obliged to mobilise but wish to have the same guarantee from you as I gave you, that these measures do not mean war and that we shall continue negotiating for the benefit of our countries and universal peace deal to all our hearts. Our long proved friendship must succeed, with God’s help, in avoiding bloodshed. Anxiously, full of confidence await your answer.
Kaiser to Tsar
1 August, 1914
Berlin, 1 August 1914
Thanks for your telegram. I yesterday pointed out to your government the way by which alone war may be avoided.
Although I requested an answer for noon today, no telegram from my ambassador conveying an answer from your Government has reached me as yet. I therefore have been obliged to mobilise my army.
Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram. As a matter of fact I must request you to immediatly [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers.
The German Emperor, Wilhelm II, and the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, exchanged telegrams in the immediate run-up to the outbreak of war between 29 July 1914 and 1 August 1914.Kaiser to Tsar
31 July 1914
Berlin, 31. July 1914
On your appeal to my friendship and your call for assistance began to mediate between your and the austro-hungarian Government. While this action was proceeding your troops were mobilised against Austro-Hungary, my ally. thereby, as I have already pointed out to you, my mediation has been made almost illusory.
I have nevertheless continued my action.
I now receive authentic news of serious preparations for war on my Eastern frontier. Responsibility for the safety of my empire forces preventive measures of defence upon me. In my endeavours to maintain the peace of the world I have gone to the utmost limit possible. The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilized world will not be laid at my door. In this moment it still lies in your power to avert it. Nobody is threatening the honour or power of Russia who can well afford to await the result of my mediation. My friendship for you and your empire, transmitted to me by my grandfather on his deathbed has always been sacred to me and I have honestly often backed up Russia when she was in serious trouble especially in her last war.
The peace of Europe may still be maintained by you, if Russia will agree to stop the milit. measures which must threaten Germany and Austro-Hungary.
WillyTsar to Kaiser
31 July 1914 (this and the previous telegram crossed)
Petersburg, Palace, 31 July 1914
Sa Majesté l’Empereur, Neues PalaisI thank you heartily for your mediation which begins to give one hope that all may yet end peacefully.
It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilisation. We are far from wishing war. As long as the negotiations with Austria on Servia’s account are taking place my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this. I put all my trust in Gods mercy and hope in your successful mediation in Vienna for the welfare of our countries and for the peace of Europe.
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