Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The 28th June 1914 not only marked the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in which the Ottoman army defeated the Serbians at tremendous human cost, it commemorated the 14th wedding anniversary of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Crucially, it would also mark the beginning of the July Crisis in the lead up to the First World War.

Despite receiving warnings of an assassination plot which threatened to murder the Archduke in Sarajevo, Bosnia, the visit went ahead. Upon leaving the railway station the Archduke and his wife were tailed by assassins. After one failed attempt, a message containing a change in route instructing the driver to avoid Franz Joseph Street where the final assassin eagerly awaited did not arrive in time. The Archduke and Sophie were fired at point blank range by a Serbian nationalist. Despite attempts to save them, neither survived and the future heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was pronounced dead at roughly 10.45am.

At this time, fearing opposition in their mission to silence Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph and his government appealed to Germany for backing to which the Kaiser responded by guaranteeing full support if countries, namely Russia, interfered.

An ultimatum was sent to the Serbian government on the 23rd July brazenly demanding conditions such as the suppression of activities directed against the Austro-Hungarian government and most controversially the annexation of several Serbian provinces to compensate for the death of Franz Ferdinand. Giving the Serbian government only 48 hours to respond and deeming their objections to the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials in the assassination inquiry insufficient, the Austro-Hungarian government immediately rejected the reply and prepared for military action. As predicted, Serbia’s Slavic connection with Russia meant that when the Serbian government appealed to Russia for support, it was guaranteed. The prospect of war between more than three countries became almost unavoidable.

In reaction to the increasingly serious international situation British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, suggested an urgent European Peace Conference. Nevertheless, on the 27th July the question of British action began to gain leverage. Pressure on the British government grew from France and Russia to declare support, Germany was asking for British neutrality and Grey’s lack of commitment was straining the government’s ability to prepare for the reality of war. German threat to Belgian neutrality proved the turning point in Grey’s policy. Following the principle of the entente, Grey concluded that such an aggressive move would force Britain to declare war. Despite this cautious diplomacy receiving a backlash of British criticism when Germany declared war on France on the 3rd August and invaded Belgium, Britain declared war a day later.

The July Crisis demonstrates the unrest of many European powers in 1914 as they questioned the possibility of war. It consolidated Austro-Hungarian distrust of Serbia, made apparent the alliances of France, Germany and Russia, and further shows how close Britain came to remaining neutral. It is possible to argue for the contingency and ‘what ifs’ of such events which took place during the July Crisis, meaning that the declaration of war in August 1914 could never have materialized. Nevertheless, at this point the Crisis had escalated to a point of no return.