The Franco-Prussian War, of 1871, ended with the defeat of France, who was forced to hand over her Eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. This war was the prelude to a period of hostility in Europe that was to last until the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the European summer of 1914, two great European alliances found themselves in a state of fury against each other. The initial main protagonists were Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the one side, and France, the British Empire and Russia on the other. Against the backdrop of plumed and helmeted Emperors and Generals, both sides possessed, by way of machine guns and high explosive artillery, weapons of terrible destruction. The origins of this war lay in the complicated cocktail of greed, fears, prejudices and misunderstandings of the early 1900’s. In 1914, Europe was still widely perceived as the financial, cultural and political centre of the world. The major European powers, however, were engaged in an arms race. Each was trying to acquire colonial possessions in the under-developed world.


In the late 19th Century, Bismarck had forged modern Germany out of a collection of smaller nation states and in doing so had upset the balance of power in Europe. Using her strengthening industrial power, she had built up both an army and navy of formidable size and capability. The two former players, France and Russia, concerned at Germany’s intentions formed a defensive alliance in 1894. Great Britain, alarmed at the German navy’s potential threat to the British domination of the world’s shipping routes aligned herself with France, whose fear of German aggression was nourished by her yearning for the return of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Russia, with its population of 125 million had a vast resource of manpower and massive landmasses, but she lacked the technological skills and an industrialised state. In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed the dual alliance to help each other should the other be attacked.


Within this background of alliances stood two faltering empires, the glories of the Turkish Empire, now widely recognised as the sick man of Europe, were already only a memory. The Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted of a ramshackle collection of states in the South of Europe. Austria-Hungary was particularly suspicious of the independent country of Serbia, who she saw as the effective leader of an international Slav terrorist movement. This was fermenting unrest between the 23 million Serbs living in the Empires’ territory. By 1914, the tensions in Europe had reached a dangerous level and, the very alliances, formed to protect the peace, now sucked the great nations of Europe into war.


Now we must turn to the Balkans. The Turkish Empire was disintegrating, and Russia confronted Austria-Hungary, the ally of Germany, the other power seeking to move into her area of interest. Here in this cauldron, with their different nationalities, religions, and languages, an incident in a city called Sarajevo set alight the tinderbox and the world went to war. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph who had ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1848. Ferdinand had chosen the 28th June 1914 to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, and a part of his uncles’ empire. In Sarajevo that day, several young revolutionaries had come for assassinating the Archduke. One of these, a 19-year-old tuberculoid student called Gavrillo Principp was sitting in a café when the Archdukes’ car took a wrong turning and had to reverse back past him. Principp, seizing this historic opportunity fired two shots at 5 yards range, killing both the Archduke and his wife Sophie. These two fatal shots were the opening salvo of the Great War.





August 4th


His Majesty’s Government informed the German Government on August 4th, 1914, that, unless a satisfactory reply to the request of His Majesty’s Government for an assurance that Germany would respect the neutrality of Belgium was received by midnight of that day, His Majesty’s Government would feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold that neutrality and the observance of a treaty to which Germany was as much a party as Great Britain.

The result of this communication having been that His Majesty’s Ambassador at Berlin had to ask for his passports, His Majesty’s Government have accordingly formally notified the German Government that a state of war exists between the two countries as from 11 p.m. to-day.

Foreign Office

August 4th, 1914

Published in London Gazette of August 7th, 1914

August 12th


Diplomatic relations between France and Austria being broken off, the French Government have requested His Majesty’s Government to communicate to the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador in London the following Declaration:-

Après avoir déclare la guerre a Serbie et pris ainsi la première initiative des hostilités en Europe, le Gouvernement austro-hongrois s’est mis, sans aucune provocation du Gouvernement de la République Française, en état de guerre avec la France;

1o – Après que l’Allemagne avait successivement déclare la guerre à la Russie et à la France, il est intervenu dans ce conflit en déclarant la guerre à la Russie qui combattait déjà aux cotes de la France.

2o – D’après de nombreuses informations dignes de foi, l’Autriche a envoyé des troupes sur la frontière allemande, dans des conditions qui constituent une menace directe à l’égard de la France.

En présence de cet ensemble de faits, le Gouvernement français se voit oblige de déclarer au Gouvernement austro-hongrois qu’il va prendre toutes les mesures qui lui permettront de répondre a ces actes et a ces menaces.

In communicating this Declaration accordingly to the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador, His Majesty’s Government have declared to His Excellency that the rupture with France having been brought about in this way, they feel themselves obliged to announce that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Austria-Hungary as from midnight.

Foreign Office

August 12th, 1914

Published in the London Gazette August 14th, 1914

Translation of French text:-

Having declared war on Serbia and taken the first hostile initiative in Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Government, without any provocation by the French Government is at war with France.

1st After Germany successively declared war on Russia and France she has intervened in this conflict by declaring war on Russia who is already fighting by France’s side.

2nd According to reliable information, Austria has sent her troops to the German border which constitutes a direct threat to France.

In the light of these facts, the French Government sees itself forced to declare to the Austro-Hungarian Government that she will take all proper measures to respond to these acts and threats.