02 August 1914 – The Belgian Ultimatum

As the armies of Europe mobilize for war, the July crisis in the East is replaced with a new crisis in the West when the Kaiser sends an ultimatum to Albert I, the King of Belgium, demanding freedom of movement through that coastal nation’s territory — and threatening to treat the neutral country as a hostile power should they resist. The German high command has a complex, demanding war plan designed to circumvent France’s fortified frontier with a rapid advance through Luxembourg and Belgium. Across the English Channel, Britain guarantees Belgian neutrality. What began as a controversy between Austria and Serbia now involves five additional nations — thanks to the very alliances that have kept the peace in Europe for decades.

Even as Britain’s cabinet is still debating how to respond to the July crisis while unaware of this new crisis, the Admiralty is moving swiftly under Winston Churchill’s orders to take possession of two dreadnoughts that had been under construction for the Ottoman Empire. One of them is nearly complete, with five hundred Turkish sailors waiting nearby to sail her home. Of course, this angers the Turks, whose neutrality is balanced on a knife edge, and now a seventh nation tips towards war. It will not be the last.

In Munich, a young Adolf Hitler is still riding high from yesterday’s joyous public celebration of the Kaiser’s mobilization order. After the war, he would write: “I am not ashamed to say that, overcome with rapturous enthusiasm, I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven…for granting me the good fortune of being allowed to live at this time.” Tomorrow, he will request to be enlisted in the Bavarian Army despite having failed a physical for the Austrian army earlier this year. His name will later become synonymous with the horrors of a second war, because this one will not be enough to resolve the tensions sparking this conflagration.

Why blog about the Great War? Because if humans were a rational species, it ought to have been the last war ever fought. Hitler’s sequel is three times as murderous and fought in a truly global theatre, so the Great War instead loses its name and becomes World War I. Between these wars, there is a Twenty Years Crisis which diplomacy and best intentions will also fail to resolve. As you watch the news from Ukraine and Gaza today, remember that a Great War can happen again, regardless of how enlightened we think we are, because the international systems girding our precarious global peace are still far weaker than the crises we invent to test them.

A German "Big Bertha" 420mm cannon used in the siege of Antwerp.

A German “Big Bertha” 420mm cannon used in the siege of Antwerp.