Setting the World on Fire: The Start of World War I

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Setting the World on Fire: The Start of World War I

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863–1914) of Austria, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, Countess Sophie, paid an official visit to Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina had been annexed (claimed) by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908, but Serbians within Bosnia-Herzegovina, encouraged by the neighboring country of Serbia, rebelled against Austro-Hungarian rule in frequent protests and civil disturbances. The Serbs did not like Austria-Hungary's claim to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which they thought should belong to them. Archduke Franz Ferdinand's visit, which included a review of Austrian troop strength in the province, was intended to remind protestors of the power of Austria-Hungary. Instead, it offered Serbian rebels the chance they needed to start a war.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife set off on their tour of Sarajevo in a convertible car with the top down. Despite warnings of an assassination plot, the couple had little protection. Soon the warnings became reality. A member of the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group, launched a small bomb toward

the car. The driver of the car sped forward; Sophie ducked; and Franz Ferdinand knocked the bomb off the back of the car and into the street behind him. The bomb exploded, destroying the next car and wounding several of its occupants and some bystanders. Franz Ferdinand continued on, passing by several other would-be assassins, each of whom missed his opportunity to kill the archduke.

After a brief speech by the shaken mayor at the town hall, the royal party continued on its auto tour. Their first stop was to be the hospital where the injured people from the morning's bombing were taken, but the chauffeur did not know the way. After taking a wrong turn, he stopped to turn the car around. Standing nearby was Gavrilo Princip (1894–1918), a nineteen-year-old Bosnian student and the lone remaining hope of the Black Hand plot. Princip stepped onto the running board of the archduke's car, raised his pistol, and fired two shots. Historian James L. Stokesbury describes the scene in A Short History of World War I: "The Archduke

opened his mouth and a gout of blood spilled over his tunic. He turned to his wife, begged her not to die, and collapsed. He had been shot in the neck. She was hit in the lower stomach and bleeding internally; she was already dead. Within minutes, so was he." Police seized Princip immediately and hauled him off to prison; in the commotion Princip was unable to swallow the cyanide pill he had carried which would have guaranteed him a quick death.

Austria-Hungary's Decision

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife was an affront that demanded an answer. But how would Austria act? Would this single event be enough to bring the long-simmering tensions in Europe to a boil? (See Chapter 1 for a description of those tensions.) In the month after the assassination, the response of Austria-Hungary and all the other powers in Europe would turn this single event in a distant province into the spark that started World War I.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife were quickly buried. Some within the Austrian Empire were not sad to see him go. This nephew of Austrian emperor Franz Josef I had few friends in positions of power and had been widely distrusted by those close to the emperor. Some within the emperor's administration hoped that a quick investigation and prosecution of the terrorists would settle the issue. But others saw the assassination as an opportunity for Austria-Hungary to teach Serbia a lesson and gain more power in the Balkans (a group of countries occupying the Balkan Peninsula, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia as well as Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece, and Turkey). The leader of Austria's armed forces, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, was ready to wage war on Serbia—a war he had longed for. And Conrad von Hötzendorf (often known simply as Conrad) had the ear of the emperor.

Conrad and others within the Austrian military blamed Serbia for the assassination. The terrorist group behind the attack, the Black Hand, was led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the head of Serbian military intelligence; and the Serbian ambassador to Austria seemed to have known about the assassination plot beforehand. To the Austrians, this was evidence enough that Serbia was trying to undermine Austrian power in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Before Austria-Hungary entered into war, however, it wanted to check with Germany. (Germany and Austria-Hungary had been allied for years; for details on their alliance, see Chapter 1.)

On July 5, Emperor Franz Josef wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm, the leader of Germany, seeking his support for Austro-Hungarian efforts against Serbia: "The bloody deed was not the work of a single individual but a well organized plot whose threads extend to Belgrade [the capital of Serbia]…. [T]here can be no doubt thatits policy of uniting all Southern Slavs under the Serbian flag encourages such crimes and the continuation of this situation is a chronic peril for my House and my territories. My efforts must be directed to isolating Serbia and reducing her size," wrote Franz Josef, as quoted by Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett in The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. The Germans assured the Austro-Hungarians that they had Germany's full backing; neither side thought that Russia would be willing to go to war to protect its Serbian ally. The stage was set for Austria to act.

The Austrian Ultimatum

Had Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia right away, World War I might never have happened. After all, Austria-Hungary would only have been avenging an act of terrorism for which most nations, including Russia, believed Serbia was responsible. But Austria-Hungary did not act right away. Hungarians within the government did not want an all-out war, and they restrained the Austrians. What Austria-Hungary did instead was issue an ultimatum, a diplomatic message that promised penalties if certain conditions were not met. The Austrian ultimatum of July 23, 1914, presented a long list of demands. The Serbian government was asked to renounce all anti-Austrian propaganda (information provided to convince people of a viewpoint), to arrest and punish any Serbian officials involved in the assassination, and to allow Austro-Hungarian officials to enter Serbia to oversee the investigation within Serbia. The Serbian government agreed to most of the conditions, but they could not allow Austria-Hungary to conduct an investigation on Serbian soil; it would amount to giving up Serbia's self-governance. Therefore, on July 25, the Serbians offered their partial acceptance of the ultimatum and proposed that the problem items be open to discussion. The Austro-Hungarians, who insisted that the Serbs accept the entire ultimatum, took the Serb response as a complete rejection of the ultimatum and decided to go to war.

The Coming of War

Following Serbia's refusal of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, events moved very quickly. Russia decided that it must not allow its Serbian ally to be attacked, and on July 25 Russia issued a preliminary mobilization order—in other words, it asked its armed forces to prepare to go to war. On July 25 the French government promised to support its Russian allies. (For more on European alliances, see Chapter 1.) On July 26 Great Britain offered to help settle the dispute before it turned into war, but Austria declared that the dispute was now a matter of national honor and refused to enter into a diplomatic discussion. Though Germany had hoped to avoid war, it was ready to honor its commitment to Austria and awaited the beginning of hostilities to prompt its troops into action.

On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. Though few Austrian troops were prepared to go into battle, the Austrians began an artillery bombardment of the Serbian capital of Belgrade the next day. According to Winter and Baggett, the Russian foreign minister announced to the Austrian ambassador, "This means a European war. You are setting Europe alight." He was soon proved correct. Nicholas II, czar (also spelled tsar; leader) of Russia, ordered the Russian military to mobilize for war—then quickly withdrew his order when the Germans indicated that they would try to hold off the Austrians. But Russian mobilization was on again by July 30, fueled by the Russian generals' desire to go to war. The next day Germany offered Russia an ultimatum of its own: halt Russian mobilization or the Germans would declare war on Russia. When the Russians ignored the ultimatum, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1. Austria declared war on Russia on August 6.

France and Britain Jump In

The involvement of Germany and Russia in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was nearly inevitable. Germany had openly declared its support for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia had deep cultural ties to Serbia that it felt compelled to honor. If Russia went to war with Germany, French involvement was also inevitable, for France had been an ally of Russia since 1894, when the two countries joined in an alliance in which they shared military plans and forged strong economic links. Their goal was to contain the growing power of the German and Austro-Hungarian alliance. Even had Germany not openly attacked France in the early days of the war, the French would have joined with the Russians.

Britain had no such formal alliance with France or Russia, but it preferred those countries to the Germans and had agreed to assist France in the case of German aggression. Germany hoped to avoid British involvement, for it did not want to have to fight Great Britain as well. Early on, Germany offered not to keep any French or Belgian territory it gained in war if the British would remain neutral, but Britain refused this offer. On August 3 German troops crossed over into tiny Luxembourg and neutral Belgium to begin their attack on France, and Britain declared war on Germany the next day.

Within days of the Austrian bombing of Belgrade, all of the major combatants had declared war. Throughout Europe, people believed that this war would be like the others that had periodically erupted in Europe over the last half century: short and not terribly bloody. The war plans of every country called for a short campaign, and most expected that, following a brief period of fighting, the diplomats would settle issues and peace would return. But the conditions that had allowed for short wars no longer existed, and Europe—and the rest of the world—soon found itself in a much larger war than the various countries had imagined when making their ill-fated war plans.

War Plans

Leading the charge to war in each of the combatant countries were military leaders who were eager to test war plans they had spent years preparing. War plans were detailed instructions for how a country's generals should conduct a war; the plans dictated how many troops should be sent to which areas and in which order. By far the most complicated and ambitious of the war plans belonged to Germany. The German war plan was known as the Schlieffen plan, named after Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913), who was chief of the

German general staff from 1891 to 1905. Schlieffen predicted that Germany would one day be involved in a two-front war against France and Russia (a front is an area of contact between opposing forces in battle). The Schlieffen plan offered a way for Germany to win such a war by first defeating the French and then turning their attention to the Russians.

In the preparatory phase of the Schlieffen plan, Germany would draw the French forces forward in the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany (which had once belonged to France). As French forces committed themselves to battle in the east, the main German force would cross Luxembourg and Belgium and begin entering France all along its northeastern border. Sweeping southward and westward, the Germans would quickly capture Paris (the French capital), cut off French supply lines, and encircle the entire French army. Once they had defeated the French army, the Germans would speed back across Germany on its well-developed rail system and defeat the Russians, who might not yet be organized enough to do battle.

The Schlieffen plan depended on a series of conditions falling into place. First, it assumed that the French would be ready for war quickly and the Russians more slowly; thus, the Germans assumed that they could fight their enemies one at a time. Second, the plan relied on German speed in extending its force all the way to the coast of the English Channel for the push to encircle the French army. The plan failed to account for British involvement, which would naturally come at the far western reaches of the front. If all worked well, however, "the Germans thought the Schlieffen plan guaranteed them victory within three or four months," according to James L. Stokesbury in A Short History of World War I. However, as Stokesbury notes, "what it really guaranteed was that if for some reason they did not win within that time, they would ultimately lose the war."

Austro-Hungarian war plans were not nearly as advanced as those of Germany, but Austria-Hungary also expected that it might have to face the enemy on two fronts. In the southeast, Austria-Hungary would certainly face the Serbs, but the assumed weakness of the Serbian forces allowed Austria-Hungary to post a significant portion of its forces on the northeast frontier with Russia and along the border with Poland. Austro-Hungarian war planners believed that they could quickly shift their troops to the front where they were needed most; in practice, however, this meant that huge numbers of their troops spent the early part of the war marching back and forth between the two fronts, awaiting action. According to Stokesbury, "the Austrians did their best to wear out their armies as soon as possible."

Unlike the Germans, the French could not agree on the best plans for war. In the years before the war, prominent generals had argued over how to prepare for a war with Germany. One-time commander in chief General Victor Michel guessed that the German attack would come through Belgium and proposed that the first French action should be to cut off the Germans in Belgium before they could reach French territory. Michel's plan, which was unpopular with political leaders but turned out to be absolutely correct, cost him his job. His replacement, General Joseph Joffre (1852–1931), called instead for a direct attack on German positions in the formerly French territories of Alsace-Lorraine. (He called for a smaller force to monitor German activities in Belgium.) Joffre's plan was adopted by his country, and it left France highly vulnerable to the German Schlieffen plan. Joffre also underestimated the number of German troops the French armies would face and overestimated the impact that Russian battles would have on the conflict. Joffre's faulty vision of how the war would unfold cost the French dearly in the early stages of the conflict.

The British had not been involved in a war on the European continent in decades, and they were uncertain about how they wanted to commit forces there. Their lone plan was to send an expeditionary force of roughly 100,000 men to assist French troops in any battles they might face on their left flank, the area nearest the coast. Britain asked France to name the minimum number of British troops it would like. According to Stokesbury, French politician Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), unimpressed by the British commitment to the war effort, famously replied, "One, and we shall take good care to get him killed." The thousands of British troops sent to the Continent did in fact die in large numbers during the war.


With war declared, all of Europe prepared for what many thought of as a grand adventure. The soldiers in most of the countries had never seen battle, for Europe had largely been at peace since 1871. But they had heard countless stories about the glory of war and about the honor that would come to soldiers who defended their country. Thus, in the first days of August 1914, much of Europe found itself caught up in the rush of mobilization—the preparation of men and machines for battle.

Across France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, reservists—trained soldiers who were not serving on active duty—were called to report for service. Throughout the country posters appeared calling reservists to their duty. By the hundreds of thousands, these men left their jobs, farms, and families and reported to military stations; there they exchanged the soft clothes of civilian life for coarse and often ill-fitting military uniforms. Altogether, some four million Russians, three million Austro-Hungarians, four-and-a-half million Germans, and four million French reported for duty.

The sheer scale of mobilization served as a warning about the war-waging capacity of modern nations. During mobilization, the Germans scheduled the movement of troops and supplies on some 11,000 trains; the French, on their less developed railway system, marshaled 7,000 trains into service. Across the warring countries, trains moved at a brisk, efficient pace, carrying men onward to the front. Equally impressive was the number of horses gathered for military service. According to John Keegan, author of The First World War, "Even Britain's little army called up 165,000 [horses], mounts for the cavalry and draught animals for the artillery and regimental transport wagons. The Austrian army mobilized 600,000, the German 715,000, the Russian—with its twenty-four cavalry divisions—over a million."

Off to War!

In cities throughout Europe, the rush to war was greeted with enthusiasm and patriotism. French ambassador to Russia Maurice Paléologue marveled at the devotion that the inhabitants of the Russian city of St. Petersburg showed in responding to the Czar's call to war. Keegan quotes Paléologue: "An enormous crowd had congregated with flags, banners, icons and portraits of the Tsar. The Emperor appeared on the balcony. The entire crowd at once knelt and sang the Russian national anthem. To those thousands of men on their knees at that moment the Tsar was really the autocrat appointed of God, the military, political and religious leader of his people, the absolute master of their bodies and souls." Austrian soldier Adolf Hitler (1889–1945)—who would later gain notoriety as the leader of Germany's Nazi Party—claimed that "[I was] not ashamed to acknowledge that I was carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment and … sank down upon my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such times," according to Keegan. Most Europeans believed in the wisdom of their rulers and gladly obeyed their call to war.

In France, the departure of troop trains to the front occurred in an atmosphere of celebration. A French soldier quoted in Keegan's The First World War remembered the scene:

At six in the morning, without any signal, the train slowlysteamed out of the station. At that moment, quite spontaneously, like a smouldering fire suddenly erupting into roaring flames, an immense clamour arose as the Marseillaise [a French anthem] burst from a thousand throats. All the men were standing at the train's windows, waving their kepis [caps]. From the track, quais [quays] and the neighbouring trains, the crowds waved back…. Crowds gathered at everystation, behind every barrier, and at every window along the road. Cries of "Vive la France! Vive l'armée" ["Long live France! Long live the army"] could be heard everywhere, while people waved handkerchiefs and hats. The women were throwing kisses and heaped flowers on our convoy. The young men were shouting: "Au revoir! Bientôt! " ["Goodbye! See you soon!"]

Kaiser Wilhelm, the German leader, told his departing troops that they would be home "before the leaves have fallen from the trees," according to Zachary Kent, author of World War I: "The War to End Wars." Little did people know that millions of soldiers would never return to their homes, for the war that the soldiers happily marched off to was not the limited war of the nineteenth century but a new kind of war altogether: modern, mechanized warfare, which slaughtered millions and seemed to drag on forever.

The Clash Begins

After drawing the French forces forward in the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany, along France's eastern border, Germany's plan was to cross Belgium in order to attack the French on their northeast border. Germany asked Belgium for free passage across its countryside; the Belgians refused and thus became Germany's first target. The Germans declared war on Belgium on August 4 and almost simultaneously attacked the Belgian fortress town of Liège. The Belgian army, commanded by King Albert I (1875–1934), was willing to fight, but they had never planned to counter an army as strong as Germany's. From a string of solidly built forts surrounding the city, the Belgians fought off the German army. On August 12, however, the Germans finally brought their large artillery (mounted guns that shoot large shells) into the battle, and these large guns proceeded to smash the forts to rubble. By August 16 Belgian resistance at Liège was destroyed, and the Germans began their march across the Belgian countryside.

After destroying Liège, the Germans moved more quickly across Belgium, facing scattered resistance from the Belgian army. By the end of the third week in August, German forces were approaching the border that divides Belgium and France. France had also launched its first attacks in accordance with its war plan, clashing with the German army in the Alsace-Lorraine region on August 14. By the third week in August, the warring countries found themselves preparing to fight across a broad front that stretched from Switzerland all the way to the Belgian coast on the North Sea. The Germans were preparing to push into France, while the French were joined by the British Expeditionary Force in preparing to counter the German attack. Far to the east, Russian troops prepared to sweep into Germany. War had begun. In the weeks and months to come, all sides would see their war plans in tatters and their goals of speedy victory dashed. They would soon be locked into a war unlike any the world had seen before.

For More Information

Bosco, Peter. World War I. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Clare, John D., ed. First World War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Ross, Stewart. Causes and Consequences of World War I. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.

Sommerville, Donald. World War I: History of Warfare. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Stewart, Gail. World War One. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1991.


DeVoss, David. "Searching for Gavrilo Princip." Smithsonian (August 2000).

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Kent, Zachary. World War I: "The War to End Wars." Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1994.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Winter, Jay, and Blaine Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.

The World War I Document Archive. [Online] (accessed October 2000).

Gavrilo Princip: Killer or Hero?

Little is known of Gavrilo Princip (1894–1918), whose murder of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, is said to have started World War I. One of nine children born to a postman in Obljaj, Bosnia, Princip was never a healthy youth. He attended high school in Sarajevo and Tuzla but traveled to Belgrade in 1912 to attend schools that promoted Serbian nationalism. It was his commitment to Serb nationalism that led Princip to become an assassin.

At the time of the assassination, Serbia had recently freed itself from nearly five hundred years of rule by the Turkish Ottoman Empire and was eager to gather all the Serbs in the region into a single country. Serbia bitterly resented the power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and urged Serbs within Bosnia and Herzegovina, an Austrian province, to resist Austro-Hungarian rule. Serbs hoped that one day Bosnia and Herzegovina would become part of a greater Serbia. Princip hoped that he could encourage revolution against Austria-Hungary by assassinating the Archduke.

Princip was one of six youthful Bosnian members of the Black Hand, a pro-Serbian terrorist group, who lined the streets on June 28, 1914, to attempt to assassinate the archduke. The first would-be assassin, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, lofted a grenade that bounced off the archduke's car and wounded nearly twenty people. Speeding away from this first attack, the archduke passed by Princip and the other attackers without incident. But Princip soon found himself in the right place at the right time when the archduke's car came to a stop right in front of him. Without pause Princip stepped forward and fired the shots that started the war.

Princip was quickly grabbed by police, who probably saved him from murder at the hands of the crowd. He, Cabrinovic, and twenty-three others were eventually tried for plotting the assassination. The Austrian prosecutors who oversaw the trial tried to pin blame on the Serbs, but Princip refused to reveal any assistance he may have received.

Princip's final statement in court, as documented in the court proceedings, was brief: "In trying to insinuate that someone else has instigated the assassination, one strays from the truth. The idea arose in our own minds, and we ourselves executed it. We have loved the people. I have nothing to say in my defense." Princip was sentenced to life in prison. He died of tuberculosis just a few years later, on April 28, 1918, in the Theresienstadt prison.

Since his death, Princip has been lauded as a hero or hated as a villain, depending on the political situation in his homeland. After World War II, Communist leader Josip Tito hailed Princip as a socialist hero and established a museum in his honor in Sarajevo in 1953. The spot where Princip was standing when he fired the fatal bullets was memorialized with footprints set in concrete. But when Serb soldiers began their attack on Sarajevo during regional conflict in the Balkans in 1992, non-Serbian residents of the city destroyed the Princip museum and the memorial footprints as ugly reminders of Serb dominance. In 2000, journalist David DeVoss could find few traces of the museum or the reputation of one of Europe's most famous assassins. Whether Princip will appear again as a Serbian hero depends in large part on the shifting political currents in a region that has endured nearly a century of conflict.