Bring all the powers together. It worked before.

Special to The Great War Project

(26 July) With Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia now expired, and Belgrade’s unwillingness to accept all its demands, many expect war to break out on this day a century ago.

It does not.

British leaders especially do not believe war is inevitable. The British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey goes fly-fishing (it’s Sunday after all), precisely a century ago.

But Sir Edward embraces a suggestion from the British under-secretary. Peace talks have averted war in the Balkans before. It happened before. Why wouldn’t it happen now?

And so from the Foreign Office in London, cables go out to Britain’s embassies in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Serbia and Austria-Hungary with this message: it’s time for peace talks to resolve the quarrel between Vienna and Belgrade.

Among the big powers, the response to the peace conference proposal is unenthusiastic. Germany does not want it. The German ambassador to Russia runs into the Russian foreign minister Serge Sazonov, on a train to their country homes (it’s Sunday as well in Russia). The German ambassador seizes on the opportunity to argue against the peace conference, calling it “unwieldy.”

Austria-Hungary’s goal “is not to swallow Serbia,” he tries to sooth Sazonov, “but only to give her a well-merited lesson.” Sazonov appears conciliatory.

At the same time, Germany rejects Britain’s peace conference proposal. Historians now say, a century ago, Berlin from the wings is telling Vienna, declare war on Serbia now.

In Berlin, Germany’s chief of the general staff, Gen. Helmuth von Moltke, is hard at work at his desk (after a month at a spa) secretly planning his next move – an ultimatum to Belgium. Based on a plan fashioned years before known as the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke is plotting the invasion of Belgium and a war with France.

But he is not happy. Circumstances, he believes, are not as advantageous for Germany as they should be by now. By this Sunday he expects that Vienna has already smashed Serbia. Nothing of the sort has taken place.

That Sunday, a century ago, turns out to be a day of much talk and no action. The world is still on the precipice. But one historian writes of this moment, “There was still a chance for diplomacy to avert a cataclysm.”