Prologue II: The crisis that lead to disaster
June, July & August 1914
To use a cliché, the spark that ignited the powder keg of Europe came on the 28th of June, 1914, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a member of the underground pan-Serb-nationalist group the 'Black Hand', Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student who was part of a group of no less than fifteen would-be assassins. Initially the Archduke's death caused no major stir across Europe beyond riots in Sarajevo. The Archduke was an unpopular man, especially in his native Austria-Hungary. This was to change however with the subsequent actions of the Austrian leadership, actions which were backed up with full promise of military support from Germany.
In what is now called the July Crisis, Austria send a 10-point ultimatum to Serbia whom they ostensibly deemed responsible for the Archduke's assassination, though with evidence we now have regarding German foreign policy of the period and despite the current fashion of apologism for the war it seems likely that this was a deliberate ruse to spark a war in which Wilhelm II hope Germany would gain hegemony over Europe.
The Serbian government agreed to all but 1 of the 10 points, on the basis that the 10th would violate the Serbian constitution (regarding Austrian participation in their judicial activities) and fully expected a renewed ultimatum or at least time to alter the constitution to allow it. There is no doubt that the Serbia government fully intended to capitulate rather than start a war with a Great Power, the decision however was no longer in their hands. Outraged that their 10-point plan had not been accepted in it's entirety, and egged on by the German Kaiser, Austria formally broke off diplomatic relations with Serbia on the 25th of July and on the 28th issued the fateful declaration of war.
Following a breakdown in telegram communications between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian government mobilised its military reserves on the 30th of July, In 1909 Russia had pledged to uphold and guarantee Serbian independence in return for Serbia's acceptance of the 'Bosnia annexation'. The following day Germany demanded that Russia stop it's mobilisation and stand down her armed forces, but was met with a stubborn rejection, on the grounds that a demobilization would have made it impossible for Russia to re-activate her military schedule in the short term. Germany declared war against Russia on the 1st of August and two days later against France, who was allied with Russia as part of the 'Entente' alliance.
The alliances established over the decades after the Franco-Prussian war were a tangled web, broadly defined pre-war in two blocs. The Central Powers was formed up of Germany, Austria and Italy, whilst the Triple Entente consisted of France, Russia and Britain. In the actual event of war these alliances were not actually activated in the initial outbreak, but the Russian mobilisation and Germany's declaration of war against France were almost certainly motivated by the fear of the opposing alliance being brought into play. As it turned out France was brought into war by German declaration, Italy refused to partake in an offensive war when their obligations were only defensive, and Britain only formally entered when Belgian neutrality was compromised on the 4th of August. As a result of British intervention Japan followed suit under the terms of their alliance, declaring war on the Central Powers themselves on the 23rd of August. Both the British and Japanese Expeditionary Forces were to see extensive front-line service against the Germans and serve with distinction throughout the war.
Britain's real reason for joining the war is now generally accepted by academics as being that they could not actually afford to remain neutral, and that this was because of two major reasons, one being related to economic realities, the other to diplomacy and plain pride. Firstly, without the French and Russian assistance afforded by their alliance, British colonies in Africa and India would be under threat, and any German occupation of French Atlantic ports would be an even larger threat to British trade as a whole. Secondly, they simply could not afford to allow Germany to establish hegemony over Europe and become the premier Great Power. The amount of power and prestige that stood to be lost was simply too much for nation of proud and nationalistic people with a rich history of glory and triumph. Britain had always stood up to attempts of one power or another to achieve hegemony over Europe. Britain was certainly not a nation of cowards, and stood by her friends in times of need. Above all however, Britain had always prevailed.
Timeline of events
# 23rd of July: Austria-Hungary ultimatum to Serbia.
# 28th of July: Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
# 31st of July: Russia begins mobilization.
# 1st of August: Germany declares war on Russia.
# 2nd of August: German troops occupy Luxembourg.
# 3rd of August: Germany declares war on France.
# 4th of August: Germany invades neutral Belgium; Britain declares war on Germany in response.
# 6th of August: Montenegro sides with its traditional ally, Serbia, and declares war on Austria-Hungary.
# 10th of August: Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia.
# 12th of August: Britain and France declare war on Austria-Hungary.
# 23rd of August: Japan declares war on Germany.
The man that lit the final fuse- Gavrilo Princip