1914: Countdown to catastrophe

From 23 July to 4 August 1914, Britain was transformed from a nation willing to watch a European war from the sidelines to a determined combatant. Nigel Jones follows the fateful diplomatic wrangling that pitched the country into conflict...

A photograph of a crowd in Berlin celebrating Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany's proclamation of war against Great Britain, August 1914. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

As the high summer of 1914 reached its broiling climax, for the first time in the century since Napoleon’s downfall, Europe stood on the brink of a general war. The diplomatic fallout from the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife at Sarajevo on 28 June had taken a month to splutter from a spark into a fatal flame, but by the end of July, ultimatums had been issued, reservists called up and armies mobilised. In Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg, long-prepared war plans were put into action.

Only in London were ruling statesmen seemingly oblivious to the gathering storm. On 23 July, as Austria’s lethal ultimatum to Belgrade (responding to the assassination by demanding the virtual surrender of Serbia’s national independence) was sent, the British government was preoccupied with another conflict rather closer to home. Protestants in Ulster, armed with smuggled German rifles, had flocked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force to resist the government’s Irish Home Rule Bill. Meanwhile in the south, nationalists, also armed with smuggled German weapons, were organising in the rival Irish Volunteers: the island seemed on the brink of civil war.

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