For a whole month since the assassination of Austria's crown prince and his wife, the German Emperor Wilhelm II and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg had done their very best to entice the Austro-Hungarian Empire to attack Serbia in retaliation. Both knew that this would produce a general war, one, that the Emperor believed he could win. Germany would finally have dominance over the continent and room to expand eastward into a weak and defeated Russia. However, as the plan came to fruition and as the European nations marched towards the abyss, Wilhelm II suddenly had second thoughts. Serbia had basically agreed to most of Austria's demands. On July 28th, in a handwritten note to German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, Emperor Wilhelm II admitted: “I am convinced that on the whole the wishes of the Danube Monarchy have been acceded to. The few reservations that Serbia makes in regard to individual points could, according to my opinion, be settled by negotiation.” The grandson of Queen Victoria, the cousin of Czar Nicholas, the man who had fired Chancellor Prince Bismarck, had set Europe on fire and now, as the flames shot up into the sky, he began to see the inevitable existence of his imperial fingerprints on the criminal diplomacy of July 1914. Although it took historical forensics until the 1960s to fully understand the detailed circumstances of the outbreak of the Great War, British, Italian, French, and American diplomats knew the truth. The guilt for the world war lay squarely in the lap of the Austrian and German governments.
On that day, July 28th 1914, the massive armies that had assembled all across Europe took on an unstoppable dynamic. Austria invaded Serbian territory in the morning of that fateful day. Russia mobilized its armies on the next day, two days later full mobilization orders swept through German barracks. On August 1st, Germany declared war against Russia. The ball so aptly described by the Saxonian official barely a month ago now started rolling. France and England joined the war within a week in order to support Russia. Wilhelm’s misgivings had come too late. Still holding out for England’s neutrality Emperor Wilhelm II tried to modify the war planning. He ordered troop deployment on the western front to be halted and to only proceed on the Russian front. Professor Hans Delbrueck, an influential politician, military historian, imperial tutor, and fierce critic of Germany’s war strategy, encapsulated the dynamic of what the emperor had set in motion: “The final war plan … could not be altered... Deployment could not be stopped for technical reasons.” Independent of the diplomatic situation leading up to mobilization, once set in motion, Germany had to attack France first, then Russia. On August 4th, German troops marched through neutral Belgium in order to circumvent the significant French fortifications along the German-French border. The attack plan unreeled statically.
The Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s war plan that formed the basis for a European war scenario with two fronts, proved to be fatally flawed. General Field Marshall Count Alfred von Schlieffen had developed his plan in 1905 as Chief of the General Staff. In its basic outline, von Schlieffen constructed a scenario in which Germany defeated France in a “Blitzkrieg” by outflanking her defending army along the Rhine. The plan called for the violation of Belgian and Dutch neutrality. The German forces were to march through Belgium into northern France and cut the critical supply lines to the North Sea ports. At the same time, a smaller portion of the German army would secure the eastern front while Russia mobilized.
The two main prerequisites for this war plan to work were British neutrality and the element of surprise that was to prevent France from stopping the German advance while Russia took her time to mobilize. Neither of these prerequisites fell into place. As a result of the Austro-Hungarian squabbles with Serbia, Russia partially mobilized on the 28th of July, three days before German mobilization. On August 4th, England declared war against Germany as a result of Germany’s violation of Belgium’s borders. Von Schlieffen, who had died in 1913, must have turned in his grave. The diplomatic work to prepare his war scenario had utterly failed. Wilhelm II and his military advisers received bogus information from Albert Ballin, Ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, and Foreign Secretary von Jagow with respect to England’s resolve to not let Germany conquer Central Europe. Britain did join the Entente powers France and Russia, while an important German ally, Italy, bailed, and declared neutrality. Belgium offered serious resistance and slowed the German advance to a crawl. On the Russian front, Germany scored impressive victories in the first weeks of the war but none of the battles were decisive. The Russian armies kept up the pressure on Germany. The worst-case scenario, a two-frontal war with stagnant lines, had become a reality within weeks of Germany’s declarations of war against both France and Russia.