The first skirmish.

“Is there no one to break the spell?”

Special to The Great War Project

(1 August) Now Germany moves swiftly and decisively to force the issue.

Berlin delivers an ultimatum to Russia: reverse your own mobilization, by noon on this day a century ago. If you refuse, we Germany will mobilize.

A German officer announces general mobilization, Berlin, 1 August 1914

A German officer announces general mobilization, Berlin, 1 August 1914

At the same time Berlin threatens war against France if it refuses Germany’s demand, set to expire in a few hours, to remain neutral.

At noon, there is no response from Russia. Berlin allows one more hour to elapse. Still no word from St. Petersburg. Germany declares war on Russia.

Writes one historian, the meaning of this step is “unmistakable….for Germany, mobilization meant war – within twenty-four hours if not before.”

Its meaning is clear to General von Moltke, the chief of the general staff and the single most powerful voice in Berlin for war during this terrible week of political confusion. “This war will turn into a world war,” he says. “Few can have any idea of the extent, the duration, and the end of this war.”

Crowds gather in Berlin. Tensions are high. According to one journalist, “the air was electric with rumor.”

On this day a century ago, Moltke orders the German army to invade Luxemburg, the little nation through which Germany plans to seize Belgian territory in order to attack Paris. The plan: knock France out quickly, then turn to the east for the more important war with Russia.

At 7 that evening, the first skirmish. German soldiers seize a railroad station and telegraph office across the border in Luxemburg.

In London this fateful night, an evening newspaper announces: “Three hundred million people today lie under the spell of fear and fate.

“Is there no one to break the spell?”

Newspapers in Berlin tell a different story. Headlines shout: “The War that Russia Thrust on Us.” The government issues a statement: Russia attacked us first. Of course, the German public has no doubts.

Russia, according to historians, changes the name of its German-sounding capital St. Petersburg to the more Russian sounding Petrograd.

After ten days of diplomatic maneuvering, filled with numerous moments when war could have been averted – numerous calls for peace talks, innumerable moments of misunderstanding and bad intelligence, war finally comes to Europe.

Many say it was inevitable. Looking back over these ten days of growing crisis, it does not appear to have been inevitable.