07/31/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Week in World War I, August 1-7, 1914, Part I


Russian Soldiers Marching to the Eastern Front, August, 1914

"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Minister, August 1, 1914

Europe Mobilizes

On August 1, in response to the German declaration of war against Russia, the French government ordered a full mobilization. The Germans followed suit. On August 2, Germany and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret treaty pledging mutual support for each other's war aims. On August 3, after Paris had refused to answer Berlin's demand to remain neutral, Germany declared war on France. Simultaneously, Germany informed King Albert's neutral Belgian government that "it would treat it as an enemy" if it did not permit the free transit of German troops across its land. Less than twenty-four hours later, in accordance with the strategy laid out in the latest version of the Schlieffen Plan, Germany invaded Belgium. In London on the stroke of midnight, August 4, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's government, having received no German guarantees to respect Belgium's neutrality, began a full mobilization of the army and fleet and declared war on Germany.

By the first week of August, Europe was in the midst of an all-out mobilization. The term mobilization is used freely to describe the process of calling up reservists in each of the belligerent countries. The process, however, was fundamentally different in each country. German military units were geographically based. Their muster stations and arms depots were local. Once a mobilization order was issued a unit could be assembled, armed and dispatched within 24 hours. Given Germany's extensive and efficient rail network, a military unit could be on the front within 48 hours of being called up.

French mobilization was slower because the composition of French military units were geographically diverse. A tactic designed to insure the loyalty of French troops in the event of a regional disturbance or revolt. Muster stations for French recruits were typically further away, requiring a train journey to the muster station and then, once assembled and armed, a second journey to their designated deployment. That difference meant that French mobilization was, at best, two to three days slower than that of Germany. In both the French and German cases, reservists would have undergone some prior military training.

Russian mobilization was an altogether different process. Russia's western front was organized into six military districts. Each district had a muster station. Typically these were located well back from the front lines, in some cases as much as 200 miles back. Three of these military districts fronted on German territory and three fronted on Austrian territory. In August 1914 there were approximately 5,000 miles of paved roads in Russia, less than one percent of all roads. Russian track mileage was slightly greater than that of Germany, but it had to service an area many times larger. Reservists had to travel long distances to their muster stations, often by foot. It was only after they had arrived at the military depots that they were assigned to their military units. Only then would Russian recruits meet their fellow soldiers and more importantly their officers. Few of those recruits had received prior military training. Over 60% of them were illiterate. Following their activation, military units would then proceed to their front lines, again, typically on foot. The result was that Russian mobilization was inherently far slower than either the French or German process. It took Russia between four and eight weeks to fully mobilize its military. Until it soldiers were ready, Russia relied on standing cavalry units to provide a screen for its forces and to defend its frontiers.

Austrian mobilization was also regionally based. Unlike Germany, however, their regions were broader, often corresponding to provinces. Additionally, as one might expect in a polyglot empire, military units were further broken down by native language. Troops drawn from the Friuli region, for example, were organized into Italian speaking and German speaking regiments. This organizational scheme also meant that Serb units from Hungary, for example, were organized into separate formations from Serb units from Bosnia. The "ethnic, geographic, and language" classification of military units insured that they were not deployed in areas that might create personal conflicts, or divided loyalties, and raise questions about their reliability. Italian speaking troops, for example, were usually deployed on the Eastern Front, far away from their brethren on the Italian front.

Great Britain did not have a large standing army nor did it rely, at least not initially, on a large cadre of reservists that needed to be called up. British mobilization consisted primarily of activating the Royal Navy to its war stations and deploying its standing troops to the front lines.

The process of mobilization was extremely disruptive to civilian life. German mobilization required between five thousand and ten thousand trains. Each train was scheduled at a precise twenty-minute interval, each carrying the maximum number of cars that would fit on the station platform in order to allow all troops to disembark at the same time. French mobilization required between five thousand and eight thousand trains, comparably organized and scheduled. When a mobilization order was given, the entire civilian railroad schedule was suspended and the rail network was turned over to military use.

Some historians have argued that it was the generals and their rush to mobilize that precipitated the war. Had mobilization been delayed, had diplomacy been given a little more time to find a peaceful solution, a general war might well have been averted. This statement is not entirely correct, although there is some element of truth in it.

First of all, the decision to mobilize was not made by the generals but by the civilian authorities. Whether it was a hereditary monarch or a democratic elected prime minister, it was ultimately a decision made by each nation's government not its military leaders. It was a political as much as it was a military decision. In every country, the announcement of a general mobilization was met with spontaneous public celebrations and manifestations of patriotic support for the government.

No doubt there were generals who argued that prudence and an abundance of caution dictated that the decision to mobilize was better made sooner than later. In that sense they were right. The very process of mobilization, and most importantly, the varying speed at which each nation could mobilize, created a significant element of instability. First of all, the decisions to mobilize were by necessity interlocking. If one party mobilized, all of its potential opponents would be hard pressed not to follow suit. The first mobilization made it virtually inevitable that it would trigger a cascading effect. Secondly, the varying speed at which each country mobilized also magnified the instability of the system. A faster mobilization meant a faster deployment and represented a significant tactical opportunity. For Germany, delaying its mobilization meant it was squandering a major battlefield advantage. For France, whose mobilization was three to seven days behind Germany's, delay meant it fell even further behind and its peril was magnified proportionally. Finally, the process of mobilization, once started, was impossible to stop until it had run its course. To stop a mobilization in mid-stride would have produced chaos, with reservists and their units stranded, and would have left that country's forces in disarray. In fact, no military staff had a way of stopping a mobilization in mid-stride. They couldn't have done it even if they had wanted to.

By the first week of August, millions of men were arriving on the front lines. War had been declared. The fuse ignited at Sarajevo, just 33 days ago, had reached its power keg