It feels like we’ve been commemorating the outbreak of the Great War for a long time. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was marked over a month ago but the outbreak of the war that this triggered is not yet upon us. As one commentator said recently, the war had a rolling start. It was a World war – or, at least to begin with, a European one – and was the culmination of a chain of events, each of whose significance will depend on where you live.
In these islands, we may not have marked Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia (July 28) nor Germany’s declaration of war on Russia (August 1), nor even the German declaration of war on France, (August 3) – although these are all important events that helped drag the continent closer and closer to all out war.
For us, the most important link in the chain is not the last (the final declaration of war won’t be for another three weeks, or three years if you include America’s entry) but it is, perhaps, the one that tipped the balance past the point of no return.
On August 4, Germany issued an ultimatum to neutral Belgium, demanding to be allowed to pass through their territory in order to outflank the French armies forming to meet them. Britain, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality under a treaty that went back to 1839, in turn issued an ultimatum to Germany, threatening war if they refused to back down from Belgium. Germany refused and so Britain’s declaration of war came into effect at midnight, central European time, on Tuesday August 4, 1914.
The last of the great European powers had joined the fray. There would be no going back.