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When looking at the origins of the First World War, many different theories suggesting causes over long periods of time have been suggested. This, however, is a look at the political decisions made by countries during the July crisis of 1914 and how those decisions sparked the biggest and most terrible war in the history of mankind.

On the 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a group of Serbian and Croat Nationalists. Few would have thought that the killing of one man could lead to the First World War.

The government of Austria-Hungary was obviously upset at the killing. More importantly, they saw the assassination as an endangerment to the Austria-Hungary state. They suspected that the Serbian government had been involved, and that they were encouraging Nationalist movements, making the Austria-Hungary state less stable. A discussion took place concerning an appropriate response from the Austria-Hungary governments, to the Serb government. They realised this might ultimately involve a military attack, but were worried that the Russians might intervene on the side of the Serbs. They believed that if they could gain the support of the Germans before such an attack, the Russians would not be so keen on joining in. A response to a letter to the Kaiser soon confirmed that they had the support of the Germans.

So it came to be that a note was sent to the Serb government from Austria-Hungary. In it they demanded the suppression of anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia, the dissolution of the Serbian Nationalist Association (Narodna Odbrana), the purging of officers and officials guilty of propaganda, the arrest of officers guilty of propaganda, and of those guilty of aiding and abetting the assassination, and the tightening up of border controls. In addition to these many strongly worded demands, the Austrian-Hungarians also demanded their own involvement in the investigations. The Serbs were given forty eight hours in which to reply.

While the Serbs were deliberating over the ultimatum, members of the German government were advocating swift military action against Serbia in the hope that it would discourage Russia from supporting the Serbs. They did not realise that Russia had broken an Austrian cipher and already had some idea of the intended action.

At 6pm on July 25th, the Serbs reply to the ultimatum was handed over. The Serbs agreed to all the demands apart from the final one, probably because they were frightened that involvement of Austria-Hungary in the investigations would reveal the extent to which the Serbian government had played a part in the assassination of the Archduke. The disagreement on the last point was enough for diplomatic relations to be severed. Serbia, now aware of the danger to their country in such a situation, pleaded with the Russians for help. The Russians complied and partly mobilized their forces.

It was a day before that the British government had become decidedly worried about the whole situation developing in Europe. The implications of war between at least four large, powerful countries had dire possibilities. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, therefore attempted to get England, Germany, France and Italy to unite, as none were directly linked to the situation in Serbia. On the 28th of July, Germany scuppered the chances of this happening, insisting it was up to Austria-Hungary and Russia to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

A day later, Austria-Hungary had issued a formal declaration of war against Serbia, citing an unsatisfactory response to the ultimatum, and insisting that the Serbs had attacked an Austrian outpost (later proved to be false). They could not launch an attack for some days though, as their military resources were not fully prepared.

At around the same time France was preparing her forces, obviously as a show of unity with Russia. This led to Germany issuing France with a warning that a continuation of such movements would lead to the ‘state of imminent danger of war’. At the same time the British Naval fleet were on alert. The German Chancellor then sent a telegram to the Russians warning them that if the mobilization of troops were not stopped Germany would declare war on them. But at the same time the Kaiser sent a note to the Tsar, pleading with him to sort things out with Austria-Hungary, and find a peaceful solution.

Between the 28th and 31st of July the Austrians were receiving conflicting messages from Germany. One would say negotiate, whilst the other would urge for an immediate offensive. Events were now moving that quickly, however that soldiers rather than diplomats were making all the important decisions.

The British government was under pressure from France and Russia to declare support for them, whilst the Germans wished them to declare their neutrality. Many British believed that supporting France and Russia would nullify the threat of war, because it would mean a strong alliance. Others however believed that by remaining neutral, the British could keep others guessing as to their loyalties, and other countries would be less willing to jump headlong into war, with the prospect of Britain joining in on the other side. And so it was that Britain refused to commit herself either way.

On the 31st of July, Russia ordered the general mobilization of troops. In turn the Germans warned them that if they did not suspend their actions within 12hrs war would be declared on them. The Russians refused to back down, and Germany declared war. Austria-Hungary declared war on the Russians later, on August 6th.

The French fully mobilized their military on August 1st. Soon afterwards Germany declared war on them, and passed a note to the neutral Belgians, insisting that German forces should be allowed through Belgium to attack France. The Belgians refused, but the Germans went ahead with their plan anyway. This caused the British to take action – Germany had declared war on France, and Belgian neutrality had been violated. On August 6th, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to France and the First World War had begun proper.

In the space of less than a month Europe had gone from a state of relative peace to all out war. Discovering the origins of such a terrible occurrence should make leading politicians in the modern world aware of how seriously they should consider important issues, rather than rushing straight into military conflict.