Two weeks went by with no news from Austria. George still struggled with the Irish rebellion, Nicholas was still sunning himself on a Baltic cruise with his family and Wilhelm was still enjoying his annual yachting trip along the Norwegian coast. All three cousins were totally unaware that Austria was desperately trying to find evidence to incriminate Serbia in the assassination.
At midnight on 19th July, the matter was taken out of their hands. The Austrians had delivered their ultimatum to Serbia and the ferocity of the demand stunned Europe. Austrian officers were to be allowed to enter Serbia to conduct their own investigation, all Serb nationalist societies were to be disbanded and all Serbian military officers, regarded as anti-Austrian, were to be dismissed. The Serbs had 48 hours to respond.
The demands made Russia sit up and take notice. With Russia and Serbia sharing borders, this new ultimatum meant that war against Russia could be imminent and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergie Sazonov, was sure it was the Germans were the ones stirring the pot. They were the ones who were encouraging Austria, they were the ones who had built up their army and navy and they were the ones who wanted to dominate the continent. Convinced that if Russia did not make a stand she would be laughed at by other powers, he called a meeting of Russian Council Ministers to discuss possible action and with his ministers backing, Sazonov tried to head off the conflict.
There was nothing threatening in the wording of his letter. He politely asked the Austrians to extend the deadline and recommended the Serbs to accept as many Austrian demands as they could. As an afterthought, he suggested everything be adjudicated at neutral grounds in The Hague. Then he appealed to the German Foreign Office to mediate, sure in the knowledge that Germany was Austria’s backup.
His reply from the German ambassador was not what he expected at all. The ambassador insisted that Germany knew nothing about the ultimatum and that this conflict was between Serbia and Austria and had nothing to do with Germany. The Austrians were simply teaching Serbia a lesson and if Russia wished to intervene, they should negotiate with Austria directly and not through Germany.
Nicholas dreaded a conflict and he was sure that Wilhelm did as well. While the countdown ticked on, he tried to continue life as usual. He played tennis, canoed with his daughters and had tea with relatives. But inside, he was sick with worry.
When Wilhelm returned on 27th July, he was shaken to discover that Austria had ordered a partial mobilisation of its army before Serbia had even had time to reply to the ultimatum. Not just that, but his army chiefs were arguing over what they would do next. Most of them were convinced it was time to fight and if they did, Germany would have two aggressors simultaneously, France and Russia. Their plan was to knock out France early then wheel around and attack Russia, who was known to be slow to mobilise its huge army.
Wilhelm knew the plan would have devastating consequences. Firstly, regardless of whether France was even involved, it would be invaded. The same went for the neutral states of Luxembourg and Belgium, who were en route to France. Secondly, the plan meant Germany would have to mobilise before anyone else did and rush in to eliminate France. All Wilhelm could hope for was that Serbia backed down.
He didn’t have to wait long. The Serb’s reply to the ultimatum came the next day. It was breathtakingly humble and had acceded to everything the Austrians could reasonably have asked. Everyone, including Wilhelm, breathed a sigh of relief.
But not for long.
Four days later, on August 1st, while the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtales, was having lunch with the British ambassador George Buchanan in St Petersburg, explaining to him that the Germans assumed the Russians would not want to get involved, news from the Austrian government arrived. Austria had rejected the Serb reply to the ultimatum and they refused Sazonov’s requests for mediation.
With Serbia agreeing to everything that Austria demanded, their answer could only mean that Austria meant to engage in a war all along. It also meant that they would expect the backing of Germany in their declaration of outright war on Serbia, which in turn would flow down to war on Russia who supported Serbia.
There was nothing Nicholas could do. He had to protect his country and the only way to do that was to order the partial mobilisation of Russian troops along his borders. The plan was to move Russian soldiers to the Austrian frontier while carefully keeping them away from the German borders so as not to give offence to the over-excitable Wilhelm.
On a beautiful sunny August bank holiday weekend in England, the world fell to pieces. As George was telling his wife that he’d have to cancel his annual trip to Goodwood Races and was regretting the loss of his weekend sailing at Cowes, Sir Edward Grey was telling Parliament that the minute the conflict spread beyond Austria and Serbia, it would become the greatest catastrophe that had ever befallen Europe. He did not need to tell Parliament that he now believed that Britain had an obligation to come to France’s aid. George had been so preoccupied with the escalating civil war in Ireland due to the introduction of Home Rule two years before, he did not realise they were on the brink of war in Europe. Initially sympathetic to making Serbia pay for its role in the assassination, Sir Edward Grey was now determined to prevent the war. He hoped, was actually convinced, that Berlin’s intentions were honourable and they had no wish either to support a war. He endorsed the request for the matter to go to The Hague.
Once again the Austrians rejected the offer. Then they bombed Belgrade.
In the early hours of that morning, George had made a last attempt to shut down the war. Dressed in a brown dressing gown over a nightshirt, he read a telegram sent from Berlin stating that despite Wilhelm’s readiness to mediate, Russia had already mobilised. George forwarded the German message on to Nicholas and added: ‘I cannot help thinking that some misunderstanding has produced this deadlock. I am most anxious not to miss any possibility of avoiding the terrible calamity, which at present threatens the whole world. I therefore make a personal appeal to you, my dear Nicky, to remove the misapprehension, which I feel must have occurred, and to leave still open grounds for negotiation and possible peace. If you think I can in any way contribute to that all-important purpose, I will do everything in my power to assist in reopening the interrupted conversations between the Powers concerned.’
But Nicholas was a hard man to get hold of in his isolated home outside of St Petersburg. By the time the British ambassador had managed to deliver the message, war had already been declared on Russia and Wilhelm was no longer answering telegrams. Things had begun to move quickly in a downward spiral.
The nightmare began on 4th August 1914. Austria declared war and as Europe watched in shock, Germany invaded Luxembourg followed by Belgium the next day.
How Britain came to fight alongside Russia and against Germany is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century but in the space of a month, Britain and Germany found themselves at war against each other nonetheless. Because of blood connections, they had been traditional allies, allies that they shared many historical events, not to mention family ties, for over two hundred years. In that month, between the assassination of Franz Joseph and the outbreak of World War 1, control had gradually slipped out of the fingers of Wilhelm, Nicholas and George. What happened was the beginning of a terrible family tragedy that dragged the world into an abyss. Their friendships, and above all, their poisonous rivalries would play a key role in the realignment of Europe.
As war seemed unstoppable, Nicholas and Wilhelm exchanged urgent telegrams, each appealing to the other to stop the conflict. Nicholas still hoped that if Germany pulled its support from Austria, war could be stopped. He also sent a letter to George asking for support from Britain if the Russians found themselves at war and assured George he was doing everything he could to avoid it. Wilhelm telegrammed Nicholas back and assured him that Germany was doing its best to try to bring about an agreement.
What Wilhelm didn’t know was that while he was reassuring his Russian cousin, his Foreign Office had advised the Austrians to go to war.
When Wilhelm summoned his military leaders on 29th August, most of the army chiefs were keen to go to the next level and prepare for mobilisation. Wilhelm argued hotly against it and announced that he had received a message telling him that Britain would try to keep out of the conflict. But that afternoon, the foreign office received a telegram from Sir Edward Grey stating that if Germany and France became involved in the war, Britain would not be able to remain aloof.
It was far from being a threat but coming straight after news that the Russians were mobilising, the foreign minister was convinced that the conflict was escalating too fast. He sent three desperate telegrams to Vienna asking the Austrian army to stop when they got to Belgrade. Unbeknownst to him, the German Chief of Staff, Helmuth Moltke, had already telegrammed the Austrian Chief of Staff telling him to go to full mobilisation. By then it was too late for the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, to change the course of history.
It was a horrible instance of the confusion in the German government. In a final effort to head off British involvement, Bethmann-Hollweg asked the British to remain neutral and if they did, the Germans would not invade Holland and while perhaps invading France, the Germans wouldn’t take any British territories.
It was almost as if Germany had admitted that they were going to invade France.
Meanwhile, still under the illusion that he could mediate between Russia and Austria and that the Austrians would stop at Belgrade, Wilhelm sent another telegram to Nicholas, begging him to remain a spectator.
Nicholas cabled back asking for clarification but when he didn’t receive an answer, he sent another one stating that he had allowed partial mobilisation to go ahead. He did, however, promise that Russian troops would not take the offensive as long as talks with Austria continued.
As you can imagine, when Wilhelm got the message, he took it rather badly. Very badly. He flew into a ferocious tantrum. In a panic, he assumed that Russia was ahead of him and that he would never stand for. What he should have realised, if he was thinking clearly, was that Russia, like the Austrians, took weeks to get their troops ready. Nicholas’ threat of mobilisation was just a warning that they might do something. Nicholas' idea of mobilisation meant that they would march up and down their borders waving their guns in the air indefinitely. But when Germany said ‘mobilisation’, they actually meant ‘war’.
That evening, two days after the telegram had arrived, Wilhelm was shown the telegram of Grey’s warning that if France became involved, Britain would as well. Once again, he exploded. Everyone was ganging up on him. Where was George’s promise of neutrality? Where was Nicholas' promise of being a spectator? For Wilhelm, Grey’s warning and Russia’s mobilisation brought back old anxieties.
But even then, Wilhelm hesitated. It was his chancellor who insisted that war should be declared even if Russia agreed to negotiate. And it was Wilhelm’s war minister who pressed him to order their own ultimatum to Russia to halt her mobilisation within twelve hours … or else.
The next day, Nicholas sent a last telegram pleading with Wilhelm to negotiate. But it was already too late.
Wilhelm actually did draft another telegram suggesting talks may take place if Russia halted its mobilisation. The problem was that it was not sent until late that evening. By then the German ambassador in Russia had already tearfully delivered the German declaration of war to the Russian ambassador Sazonov.
When Nicholas heard the news, he turned pale and Alexandra began to weep, which set all the daughters crying as well. Later that night, when Wilhelm’s delayed telegram had arrived, Nicholas saw it as duplicity. No one was aware that in the future, this lack of understanding would explode on the battlefields of the First World War.
To his last breath, Wilhelm would always insist that Nicholas had wanted war all along. But George, Nicholas and Alexandra always believed that Wilhelm was responsible for the war. And that was almost true. When it came down to it, he just couldn’t stop it. Forces beyond his power had begun to dictate the direction his country was going. For 26 years, he had built a powerful army, conscious of its own strength. He had initiated a shipbuilding program and that had created bitter hostility with Britain where there had been none before. Virtually every decision he made was a result of weakness and vulnerability and a craving to look powerful and strong to his family in England.
Each of the cousins had duties on 3rd August 1914. George and Mary went for a short drive down the Mall to Trafalgar Square where huge crowds greeted them uproariously. To quieten the crowds, they had to show themselves three times on their balcony.
At the same time, Nicholas appeared on the balcony of the Winter Palace and the vast crowd fell to their knees. The barricades had disappeared and the revolutionaries had melted away. The country had not been so vibrantly alive and united since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.
In Germany, the crowds cheered Wilhelm at the Brandenburg Gate. In a rush of enthusiasm, the Reichstag voted to give its power to the council of German princes, effectively allowing Wilhelm and the army free reign.
While London united and was filled to the bursting point with soldiers, the extended royal family of Europe was anything but united. In Russia, Alexandra was cut off from her sisters and her brother. George's cousin, Ernest of Cumberland who had married Wilhelm’s daughter Victoria, took the German side with his father-in-law. Charles Edward, the British cousin who had inherited the dukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after George's brother Alfred’s death, also took a commission in the German army. The German-born Louis of Battenberg, a British citizen for many decades, was forced to resign his position as Admiral in the British navy due to xenophobia from the tabloid press, the clubs and the public. There had been accusations that he was sending secret signals to German ships and other allegations of allegiance to the Germans and he was being blamed for every ship sunk and every man drowned. No one had forgotten that his wife was the daughter of the Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, and no one had forgotten that his wife’s sister had once caught the eye of her elder cousin Kaiser Wilhelm who had asked her to marry him, despite both being Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. It was Louis Battenberg, along with all of George’s German relations, who lost his peerage and title, and it was Louis who was forced to change his name to the more English name of Mountbatten and retire to the Isle of Wight. It was also Louis' eldest daughter Alice who had married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and who had five children, the youngest being a son by the name of Phillip who would meet, fall in love and marry George’s youngest daughter Elizabeth in the future.
Of the 120 of Queen Victoria’s descendants alive in 1914, 42 were living in enemy countries and 11 would fight against Britain including Alexandra’s own brother. Four years later, there would be no one cheering. In that short amount of time, more than 10 million people would die and Victoria’s extended family would be ripped apart.
England had not forgotten the last cousin’s war, the War of the Roses. They had not forgotten the cruel battles, the harvest of heads that followed and they had certainly not forgotten the sight of wounded and defeated soldiers returning from the battlefields. There was nothing noble about those battles. Nothing like the romantic ballads depicting quixotic knights. During the first cousin’s war, heads were cleaved open by battle-axes and bellies were ripped open by swords. Men swinging great swords, war axes and pikes defended themselves against family members who only a decade ago had been regarded as friends. It was a savage mess of brutish men killing each other for power.
This time, the cousin's war would be more civilised. This time they would use guns and cannons and trench warfare as they scrambled in the mud over barbed wire towards enemy lines, attempting to thrust a bayonet into the armpit or chest of the enemy. But the meadows would still be covered in corpses and the rivers would still run red as the snow fell softly on everything like frozen tears. Men would still hack and stab at each other. This time, instead of white and red roses, there would be blood-red poppies bobbing their heads knowingly.
Sometimes we learn. Sometimes we don’t.