First World War Centenary: A Time Line
by Dr John Weste, Director, South Australian Parliament Research Library
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Taking a wrong turn, the Archduke’s car, lacking a reverse gear, had to be laboriously pushed back to the main thoroughfare. Almost stationary, the imperial couple were a perfect target, and Gavrilo Princip (it was the group of assassins’ second attempt that morning) fired twice. The first shot passed through the Archduke’s neck and the second pierced his wife’s abdomen (Sophie Chotek, created the Duchess of Hohenberg, was a descendant of provincial and impoverished Czech nobility. Too common a lineage for the imperial Hapsburg family, this love match was viewed with distaste and their children were excluded from the imperial succession). Both the Archduke and the Duchess were dead within minutes.
The successful assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a radical Serbian nationalist who first mooted an assassination attempt when news of the Archduke’s tour to Sarajevo was made public in March 1914. Princip took advantage of his links with the Serbian Black Hand, a shadowy group dedicated to the formation of a Greater Serbia, which provided weapons, training and papers. The Black Hand was in turn under the guidance of Serbian Military Intelligence. The assassination provoked Austrian anger though little in the sense of a forlorn loss (apart from his poor choice in marriage, the Archduke was regarded as a cold and prickly fellow of whom few, including Kaiser Franz Joseph, felt warmly) and officials soon rounded up a number of men connected to the attempt.
Suspecting Serbian involvement, Austria needed to take some form of action, but the difficulty lay in what. To do nothing would show Vienna as weak and, moreover, a flaccid response would only further impress upon Germany the relative weakness of its Austrian ally. To do something ran the risk of Russian intervention underlying its status as the leading nation amongst the Slavic states. Austria could perhaps deal with Serbia alone, but certainly not Russia, hence the importance of German support. Germany’s push for Austria to take firm action, yet failure to remain fully informed of, and involved in, Austrian decision-making is described as the “blank cheque” allowing Vienna to take reckless measures it never would have alone.
Negotiations, plotting, threats and counter-threats consumed the major European capitals over July 1914, hence the popular term, the ‘July Crisis’. Germany made clear its support for Austria while Russia made equally clear its refusal to accept the humiliation or extinction of an independent Serb kingdom. Both France and the UK were initially distracted by domestic concerns (a political scandal of love affairs and murder for the former and Ireland for the latter), but positions hardened as President Raymond Poincare visited St Petersburg to impress upon the Tsar France’s backing as per the Russo-French Alliance.
These meetings took place in the context of complex and rigid mobilisation plans: to launch a military campaign on one day required that concrete steps to call up men, and then move them and military materiel to where they were required, be taken much in advance. Definite steps to prepare for fighting ran the risk of signalling a definite intent to fight and, once it had begun, how long could a neighbouring state wait before mobilising itself? And how credibly, for example, could Germany accept a Russian promise that its mobilisation was directed at Austria-Hungary only and not the German Empire? Alliance obligations and mobilisation plans helped enforce a sense of narrowing options upon the participants as time progressed.
On 23 July, Austria-Hungary issued the Kingdom of Serbia with an ultimatum and demanded a response within 48 hours. The terms were humiliating, yet Serbia agreed to all but those few which brought its existence as a sovereign state into question. Even so, Serbia’s failure to agree fully to all ten demands prompted Austria-Hungary to declare war on 28 July 1914. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, followed by a declaration of war on France on 3 August. The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 4 August, Austria-Hungary on Russia on 6 August and, also on the same day, Serbia on Germany. By the end of the first week of August, only two of the recognised Anglo-European great powers, the United States and Italy, remained neutral. European conflict necessarily dragged in the colonial empires and finally, to emphasise the global nature of this war, on 23 August, Japan declared war on Germany.
Germany invaded Luxembourg and, on 2 August, requested Belgium’s permission to allow troops to cross Belgian territory to outflank the French Army and invade France from its northern borders as per the prescripts of the Schlieffen Plan. Belgium, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by the Great Powers, refused to grant permission. Germany invaded regardless on 4 August to considerable outrage. The German invasion and occupation of parts of Belgium were at times brutal as symbolised by the torching of quarters of the City of Leuven on 25 August. These acts partially reflected the nervousness of inexperienced conscripts but, when wedded to the violation of Belgian neutrality, had significant propaganda value for the Allies who tonitruously contrasted Belgian pluck with German larceny.
For Australia, the key issue was the imperial one, namely what were Great Britain’s intentions? Loyalty to King and Empire prevailed as federal Labor leader, Andrew Fisher, (and prime minister as of 17 September) promised Australia would “stand behind the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and our last shilling.” His Commonwealth Liberal Party counterpart, Joseph Cook, declared that when “the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war”.
Recruitment began almost instantly for what became known as the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Most South Australians who enlisted at this time went to either the 10th Battalion or the 3rd Light Horse Regiment.
[NOTE: South Australians also went to the 16th Battalion, 27th Battalion, 32nd Battalion, 43rd Battalion, 48th Battalion, 50th Battalion, 52nd Battalion, 9th Light Horse Regiment and 11th Light Horse Regiment].
The infantry were trained and accommodated at the Mitcham military camp, now Colonel Light Gardens. The first few months of war saw both military success and failure for the nation. Australia lost its first submarine, the AE1, in September in waters near Papua New Guinea (the wreck has never been found despite a number of attempts, the most recent of which took place over early September 2014). Also that month, Australian marines occupied Germany’s New Guinea possessions. In November, HMAS Sydney fatally crippled SMS Emdem at the Battle of Cocos Islands.
Visit the gallery of South Australian photographs from the SA Parliament Research Library Collection from 1914 here