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1. Relax, inhale, and think of Horace Wells

Many students, when asked by a teacher or professor to volunteer in front of the class, shy away, avoid eye contact, and try to seem as plain and unremarkable as possible. The same is true in dental school – unless it comes to laughing gas.

As a fourth year dental student, I’ve had times where I’ve tried to avoid professors’ questions about anatomical variants of nerves, or the correct way to drill a cavity, or what type of tooth infection has symptoms of hot and cold sensitivity. There are other times where you cannot escape having to volunteer. These include being the first “patient” to receive an injection from one of your classmate’s unsteady and tentative hands. Or having an impression taken with too much alginate so that all of your teeth (along with your uvula and tonsils) are poured up in a stone model.

But volunteering in the nitrous oxide lab … that’s a different story. The lab day is about putting ourselves in our patients’ shoes, to be able to empathize with them when they need to be sedated. For me, the nitrous oxide lab might have been the most enjoyable 5 minutes of my entire dental education.

In today’s dental practice, nitrous oxide is a readily available, well-researched, incredibly safe method of reducing patient anxiety with little to no undesired side effects. But this was not always the case.

The Oxford Textbook of Anaesthesia for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery argues that “with increasingly refined diets [in the mid-nineteenth century] and the use of copious amounts of sugar, tooth decay, and so dentistry, were on the increase.” Prior to the modern day local anesthesia armamentarium, extractions and dental procedures were completed with no anesthesia. Patients self-medicated with alcohol or other drugs, but there was no predictable or controllable way to prevent patients from experiencing excruciating pain.

That is until Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut started taking an interest in nitrous oxide as a method of numbing patients to pain.

474px-Wells_Horace
Dr Horace Wells, by Laird W. Nevius. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wells became convinced of the analgesic properties of nitrous oxide on December 11, 1844 after observing a public display in Hartford of a man inhaling the gas and subsequently hitting his shin on a bench. After the gas wore off, the man miraculously felt no pain. With inspiration from this demonstration and a strong belief in the analgesic (and possibly the amnestic) qualities of nitrous oxide, on December 12, Wells proceeded to inhale a bag of the nitrous oxide and have his associate John Riggs extract one of his own teeth. It was risky—and a huge success. With this realization that dental work could be pain free, Wells proceeded to test his new anesthesia method on over a dozen patients in the following weeks. He was proud of his achievement, but he chose not to patent his method because he felt pain relief should be “as free as the air.”

This discovery brought Wells to the Ether Dome at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Before an audience of Harvard Medical School faculty and students, Wells convinced a volunteer from the audience to have their tooth extracted after inhaling nitrous oxide. Wells’ success came to an abrupt halt when this volunteer screamed out in pain during the extraction. Looking back on this event, it is very likely that the volunteer did not inhale enough of the gas to achieve the appropriate anesthetic effect. But the reason didn’t matter—Wells was horrified by his volunteer’s reaction, his own apparent failure, and was laughed out of the Ether Dome as a fraud.

The following year, William Morton successfully demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic for dental and medical surgery. He patented the discovery of ether as a dental anesthetic and sold the rights to it. To this day, most credit the success of dental anesthesia to Morton, not Wells.

After giving up dentistry, Horace Wells worked unsuccessfully as a salesman and traveled to Paris to see a presentation on updated anesthesia techniques. But his ego had been broken. After returning the U.S, he developed a dangerous addiction to chloroform (perhaps another risky experiment for patient sedation, gone awry) that left him mentally unstable. In 1848, he assaulted a streetwalker under the influence. He was sent to prison and in the end, took his own life.

This is the sad story of a man whose discovery revolutionized dentists’ ability to effectively care for patients while keeping them calm and out of pain. As a student at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine, it is a point of pride knowing that Dr. Wells made this discovery just a few miles from where I have learned about the incredible effects of nitrous oxide. My education has taught me to use it effectively for patients who are nervous about a procedure and to improve the safety of care for patients with high blood pressure. This is a day we can remember a brave man who risked his own livelihood in the name of patient care.

Featured image credit: Laughing gas, by Rumford Davy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. Laying to rest a 224 year-old controversy

The disease that carried Mozart off 224 years ago today was as sudden as it was mysterious. It struck during a year in which he was uncommonly healthy and also spectacularly productive. Only its essential elements are known, the most striking of which was progressive swelling (i.e., edema) of the entire body, ultimately so profound that a few days before Mozart died he was unable to make the smallest movement and had to be fitted with a gown that opened at the back to facilitate changing. By then, according to his son, Carl Thomas, he also had a stench so awful (likely due to retained urinary waste products), that “an autopsy was rendered impossible.” Although Mozart was the disorder’s most notable victim, he was by no means its only one. According to Dr. Eduard Vincent Guldener von Lobes, one of several consulting physicians: “A great number of inhabitants of Vienna were at this time laboring under the same complaint, and the number of cases which terminated fatally, like that of Mozart’s, was considerable. I saw the body after death, and it exhibited no appearances beyond those usual in such cases.” Von Lobes’ statement was recently confirmed by Zeger, Weigl and Steptoe, who found a marked increase in “deaths from edema among young men” recorded in Vienna’s official daily register in the weeks surrounding Mozart’s death compared with previous and following years.

Although over 100 different diagnoses have been proposed as the cause of Mozart’s fatal illness, none fits its character, course, and epidemiological characteristics better than acute glomerulonephritis – acute inflammation of the microscopic filters of the kidneys (the glomeruli) induced by a preceding streptococcal infection. Mozart, in fact, was no stranger to streptococcal infections and their complications. He had a series of severe illnesses as a child, which were almost certainly recurrent episodes of strep throat and streptococcus-induced acute rheumatic fever. Therefore, if his final, fatal illness was acute, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, it would have been just one of many times his life could have been cut short by an encounter with streptococci. However, unlike acute rheumatic fever, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis is typically a benign disorder of young children, which virtually always resolves fully in a matter of weeks. How then, could acute, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis explain not just Mozart’s death, but also those of the many other young Viennese men who died of “edema” during the winter of 1791/2?

The answer lies with the particular species of streptococcus responsible for the cases of acute glomerulonephritis. Streptococcus pyogenes is the species of streptococcus responsible for the vast majority of acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (also “strep throat’ and rheumatic fever) – those benign cases, involving children who recover completely after relatively brief illnesses. There is, however, another rarer form of post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, a much severer form, which attacks and sometimes kills adults. It’s caused by a different species of streptococcus, Streptococcus equi, the agent responsible for “strangles,” a highly contagious infection of horses. The bacterium also attacks cows, and in rare instances in which humans are infected, consumption of milk or milk products from S. equi-infected cows is responsible. The infection produces an illness typical of acute glomerulonephritis, in which over 90% of the victims are adults. One in 50 dies, even with the best care available today. One in 20 requires renal dialysis to recover, which, of course, was not available in Mozart’s day.

In the final analysis, of the myriad diagnoses proposed to date, only an epidemic of acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis caused by milk or cheese contaminated with S. equi, explains both the clinical and the epidemiological features of Mozart’s fatal illness.

Headline image credit: Mozart family portrait, circa 1780. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. Big state or small state?

As we head towards another General Election in 2015, once again politicians from the Right and Left will battle it out, hoping to persuade the electorate that either a big state or small state will best address the challenges facing our society. For 40 years, Germans living behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had first-hand experience of a big state, with near-full employment and heavily subsidized rent and basic necessities. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell, and East Germany was effectively taken over by West Germany in the reunification process, they were plunged into a new capitalist reality. The whole fabric of daily life changed, from the way people voted, to the brand of butter they bought, to the newspapers that they read. Circumstances forced East Germans to swap Communism for Capitalism, and their feelings about this change remain quite diverse.

Initially, East Germans flooded across the border, bursting with excitement and curiosity to see what the West was like – a ‘West’ that most had only known through watching Western television. For some, sampling a McDonald’s hamburger – the ultimate symbol of Western capitalism – was high on the to-do list, for others it was access to Levi’s jeans or exotic fruit that was particularly novel.

Berlin Wall, November, 1989, by gavinandrewstewart. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Going over the Berlin Wall, November, 1989, by gavinandrewstewart. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

At the same time as delighting in consumer improvements however, many East Germans felt ambivalent about the wider changes. Decades of state propaganda that painted Western societies as unjust places where homelessness, drugs and unemployment were rife, had left its mark, and many East Germans felt unsure and slightly fearful of what was to come.

From a position of full employment in 1989, 3 years after reunification 15% of East Germans were out of work. For those who struggled to put bread on the table after reunification, the advantages of having a wider range of goods to buy remained a largely theoretical gain. For others however, reunification led to greater freedom to pursue individual career choices that were not dictated by the state’s needs.

The end of East Germany’s ‘big state’ model led to the disbanding of its Secret Police, the Stasi, which had rooted out opposition to the State’s dictates. In the 1980s, 91, 000 people worked for the Stasi full time and a further 173, 000 acted as informers. To enforce socialism, they tapped people’s phones, wired their houses, trailed suspects and even collected smell samples in jars, so that sniffer dogs could track their movements.

For those who were made to feel vulnerable and afraid by a regime that watched, trailed and threatened to imprison them, such as political opponents, Christians, environmental activists or other non-conformists, the fall of the Wall and the end of the GDR most often brought relief: the Western set-up allowed for greater freedom of expression and greater freedom of movement.

berlin wall juggling
Juggling on the Berlin Wall, by Yann Forget. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

For the majority of East Germany though, this was not how they felt: since many say they had no idea of the extent to which the Stasi was intertwined with daily life, the end of the GDR did not bring with it a sense of relief. In fact, many East Germans felt that there were many things the West could learn from the GDR, and were resentful at the lack of openness to incorporating any East German policies or practices in the reunification process.

Leaving a Communist society behind and joining an existing Capitalist one brought concrete advantages for East Germans, but it simultaneously threw up a whole new set of challenges. For East Germans, unfamiliar cultural norms in reunited Germany, and also the absence of their usual way of life was profoundly unsettling. As one East German woman put it in a diary entry from December 1989:

“Everywhere is becoming like a foreign land. I have long wished to travel to foreign parts, but I have always wanted to be able to come home … The landscapes remain the same, the towns and villages have the same names, but everything here is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.”

This view was echoed my many East Germans, who were conscious that they, for example, dressed differently from their Western compatriots, didn’t know how to pronounce items on the McDonalds menu when they were ordering and didn’t know how to work coin-operated supermarket trolleys in the West. With the fall of the Wall, a whole way of life evaporated. The certainties on which day to day routines had been built ceased to exist.

Swapping Communism for Capitalism has prompted diverse reactions from East Germans. Few would wish to return to the GDR, even if it were possible. However while many delight in having greater individual choice about what they eat, where they go, what they do and what they say, they often also have a wistful nostalgia for life before reunification, where the disparity between rich and poor was smaller and the solidarity between citizens seemed to be greater.

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4. Beethoven and the Berlin Wall

The collapse of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago this month prompted a diverse range of musical responses. While Mstislav Rostropovich celebrated the momentous event by giving a very personal, impromptu performance of Bach’s Cello Suites in front of the Wall two days after it had been breached, David Hasselhoff regaled Berliners from atop of what remained of the Wall on New Year’s Eve of 1989 with a glitter-studded rendition of his chart hit “Looking for Freedom.” The values ascribed in the West to the demise of communism were captured especially clearly in the role assigned to Beethoven during this heady period. From the free concert of the First Piano Concerto and Seventh Symphony that was offered to the newly-liberated East Germans by West Berlin’s flagship Philharmonic Orchestra three days after the fall of the Wall to Leonard Bernstein’s performances of the Ninth Symphony in the East and West of the city a month later, the message was consistent; Beethoven’s music was deemed to embody both the triumph of liberal democracy and the unification of a once-divided people. This symbolism was particularly apparent in Bernstein’s two concerts. While the emancipation of East Germany was reflected in his substitution of “Freiheit” (freedom) for “Freude” (joy) in the choral finale, the performances themselves staged a musical act of universal brotherhood; the orchestra compromised of musicians from both Germanies and all four of the Allied powers, and the events were broadcast live across the globe.

Such unironic celebrations of the universal Beethoven obscured the complex relationship that East Germans had with the composer. Cultural policy in the German Democratic Republic was driven by an Enlightenment conviction in the transformative, unifying, and humanizing powers of art, and from the outset the government had harnessed Beethoven as a pivotal figure in their plans to implement state socialism. His revolutionary zeal was hailed as a template for East German citizens and his heroic style as the ultimate expression of socialist ideals. This narrative persisted in official portrayals of the composer for the duration of the state’s forty-year existence. Beyond the sphere of official rhetoric, however, Beethoven’s reception was far more conflicted. As the promised socialist utopia failed to materialize and the chasm widened between the rhetoric of revolution propagated by the party and the realities of life in the socialist state, Beethoven was approached increasingly not as an iconic statesman but as a vehicle for exploring of the problematic position of art and the artist in East German society.

An early example of this phenomenon can be observed in Reiner Kunze’s 1962 poem “Die bringer Beethovens” (the bringers of Beethoven), in which Beethoven serves as an allegory for totalitarianism rather than Enlightenment humanism. Published in the 1969 collection sensible wege, the poem relates the battle of “the man M.” against the faceless “bringers of Beethoven,” who inculcate the masses by subjecting them to a recording of the Fifth Symphony. The man attempts to resist this indoctrination by retreating inside his house only to have the bringers first fix loudspeakers over his windows, and then force their way in armed with the record. He responds by beating them with an iron ladle. A trial follows at which he is judged to be redeemable. Redemption, however, inevitably lies in the Fifth Symphony to which he is sentenced to listen. His punishment kills him, but death provides no release: at his funeral his children request that none other than the Fifth Symphony be played.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Photo by Gavin Stewart. CC BY 2.0 via gavinandrewstewart Flickr.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Photo by Gavin Stewart. CC BY 2.0 via gavinandrewstewart Flickr.

In the years that followed, alternative readings of Beethoven became increasingly prominent. Characteristic, for instance, is Reiner Bredemeyer’s short piece for orchestra and piano Bagatellen für B. of 1970, which sets the opening chords of the “Eroica” Symphony against the Bagatelles op. 119, no. 4 and op. 126 no. 2. Bredemeyer’s focus on the Bagatelles was a pointed challenge to the socialist Beethoven. Grounded in the femininity of the nineteenth-century drawing room rather than the revolutionary public sphere, these piano miniatures represented a significant affront to the one-dimensional heroic portrayals of the composer that dominated in the German Democratic Republic. A similar confrontation can be observed in Horst Seemann’s 1976 biopic Beethoven – Tage aus einem Leben. Here Beethoven is depicted not as a socialist deity, but as a very human and conflicted individual, plagued by failed love affairs, domestic ineptitude, and an inability to reconcile himself with society around him.

Driving these works was a pointed questioning of the social and political efficacy of art. Striking in this context are the opening scenes of Seemann’s film, which cut between a live performance of Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” and a gory re-enactment of the Battle of Vittoria itself. Far from heralding the symphony as a revolutionary force, however, this juxtaposition of concert hall and battlefield exposes the fallacy of the Beethoven myth. Graphic images of wounded and dying soldiers sit uncomfortably with frames of the concert audience, who clap delightedly in response to the music and eat chocolates as they listen. Art serves here not as a harbinger of political change but simply as a mode of entertainment.

The demise of the German Democratic Republic did little to quell this disillusioned perspective, and the triumphant narratives of Beethoven that resurfaced in 1989 stood decidedly at odds with the prevailing mood among East German artists. Crucially, the euphoria that accompanied the fall of the Wall was tempered for the latter group by a sense of a loss, a loss not for their repressive country but for the ideals and hopes that this country had once promised. Key among these was the notion that art could serve as a force for good and play a profound role in effecting social reform. From this perspective, the failure of the German Democratic Republic was not just a failure of socialism. It was also a failure of art. As Bredemeyer observed in a 1992 interview with reference to the East German composer Hanns Eisler: “If music is an instrument of intervention in the sense of Eisler … then I have to say, very well then. Eisler lost, I too; it doesn’t work anymore.”

Headline image credit: Partly destructed Berlin Wall with border police, view from west, Brandenburg Gate in the background in November 1989. Photo by Stefan Richter. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. Reading up on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

“This is a historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The GDR is opening its borders … the gates in the Berlin Wall stand open.”
—Hans Joachim Friedrichs, reporting for the Tagesthemen, 9 November 1989

On 9 November 1989, at midnight, the East German government opened its borders to West Germany for the first time in almost thirty years: a city divided, families and friends separated for a generation, reunited again. For much of its existence, attempting to cross the wall meant almost certain death, and around 80 East Germans were killed in the attempt, shot down by the border guards as they tried to make their escape. With this announcement, however, the gates were thrown open.

The mood was euphoric. East Germans surged through the opened gates, shouting and cheering, to be met by the West Germans on the other side. That same night, they began dismantling the barrier which had kept them apart together, chipping away the bricks to keep as mementos. The fall of the Wall — an ugly scar across Berlin, adorned in barbed wire and patrolled by guards with machine guns — was a pivotal event in German history. A nation crippled by the most devastating conflict in living memory, and then carved up and separated from itself by the victors, could finally shrug off the long shadow cast by a dark history, and look toward a brighter, unified future.

The seismic consequences of the demolition were also felt well beyond the borders of Germany, and, along with the slow rusting and decay of the Iron Curtain, helped to spell the end for the USSR. In just two years after the wall’s demolition, the Soviet Union would cease to exist, thus ending the era we now call the Cold War. A period of around fifty years, marked by suspicion, space rockets, assassinations, espionage, show trials, paranoia, and propaganda, and which brought the world to the brink of destruction with the Cuban Missile Crisis, was finally at an end.

To mark the 25th anniversary of this momentous moment, we’ve compiled a selection of free chapters and articles across our online resources, which shed further light on the history behind the wall, what it meant to live in a city divided by it, and how the USSR declined and eventually fell.

‘Walled in: 13 August 1961’ in Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power by Patrick Major

On Sunday 13 August 1961, the wall was erected. This chapter, drawing on first-hand accounts, examines the initial reactions to the wall. As quoted in the chapter, one source describes the atmosphere of the day the wall went up as if “East Berlin was dead. It was as if a bell‐jar had been placed over it and all the air sucked out. The same oppressiveness which hung over us, hung over all Berlin. There was no trace of big city life, of hustle and bustle. Like when a storm moves across the city. Or when the sky lowers and people ask if hail is on the way.”

‘Escape tunnels, death, and the commemoration of the GDR’s hero-victims’ in Death at the Berlin Wall by Pertti Ahonen

Whilst taking very little direct action against the wall, the West did offer covert assistance to groups of East Berlin activists trying to provide escape routes for those who wanted it. One of these groups was led by Rudolf Müller and his associates, who had dug a tunnel underneath the wall and were busy ferrying through escapees when a group of East German soldiers surprised them. Though they escaped unscathed, the confrontation left a twenty-one year-old soldier – Egon Schultz – dead. This chapter examines how Schultz and his death became idealised and politicised by the East German state, transforming him into a hero-victim of the ‘socialist frontier.’

Berlin Wall on 16 November 1989. Photo by Yann. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Berlin Wall on 16 November 1989. Photo by Yann. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘The final phase, 1980–90’ in The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction by Robert J. McMahon

In the early 1980s the USSR was struggling with a war in Afghanistan, economic problems, and changes of leadership. From the middle of the 1980s, Soviet policy changes under Gorbachev ended the arms race and eventually relinquished control of Eastern Europe, bringing about an end to the Cold War and the USSR. This chapter looks at these final years of the Cold War, and explores the impact of Reagan and Gorbachev.

‘Gorbachev and the Reversal of History’ in The Rise and Fall of Communism in Russia by Robert Daniels

One of the key factors in the demise of the USSR was the USSR itself – or, rather, the reforms of Gorbachev. With twin policies of ‘perestroika’ (literally ‘restructuring’) and ‘glasnost’ (a policy calling for increased transparency in the Soviet Union), Gorbachev began the slow process toward democratization, dismantling the totalitarian psychology that had marked previous Soviet regimes and paving the way for progressive reforms.

‘The Collapse of the East German State’ in Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century by Sharon Erickson Nepstad

Gorbachev’s policies, coupled with Hungary opening its borders to tens of thousands of East Germans, left the state with a crisis on its hands. When it decided to close its Hungarian borders, many citizens took to the streets to protest in what quickly became a large movement. Troops were sent to forcibly dispel the protesters, but their use of non-violent tactics made it difficult to justify the use of force, leading many of the troops to defy orders and defect. As the momentum for the movement grew, the strength of the state declined, leading to the fall of the wall and the eventual dismantling of East Germany.

‘The End of the Cold War’ in The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War by Nicholas Guyatt

Guyatt examines different historical perspectives on what caused the end of the Cold War, as well as the psychological, strategic, and political effects of its aftermath. Was it the press statement made by Gorbachev’s spokesman after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the tensions, which spread “from Yalta to Malta,” were over that marked the War’s official end? Perhaps the end came with Gorbachev’s statement to the United Nations announcing the end of Soviet Union military force to subdue the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact in 1988. The article explores these catalysts, among others, to present a comprehensive look at the War’s end and its resulting feelings of anxiety, fear, and “triumphalism” that abounded in Western Europe.

‘After the Fall of the Wall: Living Through the Post-Socialist Transformation in East Germany’ in After the Fall of the Wall: Life Courses in the Transformation of East Germany, ed. Martin Diewald, Anne Goedicke, and Karl Ulrich Mayer

As the wall came down, Germans were faced with a new challenge: how to forge a new, modern Germany. Linking the ‘macro’ worlds of institutional change to the ‘micro’ worlds of the lives and individual histories of its citizens, this chapter paints a fascinating portrait of once socialist and totalitarian state transitioning into the democratic Federal Republic of Germany.

‘Making Room for November 9, 1989?: The Fall of the Berlin Wall in German Politics and Memory’ in Twenty Years After Communism by Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik

The dismantling of the wall, which was both a symbolic and literal division between East and West, could have served as a potent symbol for a unified Germany and played an integral part in its foundation myth, yet this was not the case. Why was this? Charting the reasons behind this – including the pre-existing German fields of memory left by its dark past – the chapter explains why the fall of the wall is likely to remain a “muted, tempered memory” in German politics.

What books would you add to our Berlin Wall reading list?

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6. Band Aid (an infographic)

On this day in 1984, musical aficionados from the worlds of pop and rock came together to record the iconic ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ single for Band Aid. The single has gone down in history as an example of the power of music to help right the wrongs in the world. The song leapt to the number one spot over the Christmas of 1984, selling over a million copies in under a week and totalling sales of three million by the end of that year. The Band Aid super-group featured the cream of eighties pop, including David Bowie, Phil Collins, George Michael, Sting, Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney.

The sales target for the single was £70,000, all of which was to be donated to the African famine relief fund. With support from Radio 1 DJs and a Top of the Pops Christmas Special, sales sky-rocketed and Geldof, feeling the strength of public opinion behind him, went toe-to-toe with the conservative government in an attempt to have tax on the single waived. Margaret Thatcher initially refused the plea, but as public outcry grew, Thatcher caved-in to public demands and the tax on sales worth nearly £9 million was donated back to charity.

Bob Geldof and a host of artists old and new have re-recorded the single to help raise funds to stem the Ebola crisis. Our infographic marks the 30th anniversary of the original recording and illustrates the movers and shakers that made this monumental milestone in pop history possible.

Band-Aid-30th-Infographic-Blog

To view free articles examining the cause, the people, and the music, you can open the graphic as a PDF.

Headline image credit: Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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7. The month that changed the world: Tuesday, 4 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, has been blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War. This is the final installment.

By Gordon Martel


At 6 a.m. in Brussels the Belgian government was informed that German troops would be entering Belgian territory. Later that morning the German minister assured them that Germany remained ready to offer them ‘the hand of a brother’ and to negotiate a modus vivendi. But the basis for any agreement must include the opening of the fortress of Liege to the passage of German troops and a Belgian promise not to destroy railways and bridges.

At the same time the British government was protesting against Germany’s intention to violate Belgian neutrality and requesting from the Belgian government ‘an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with, and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany’.

In Berlin they had already anticipated British objections. The German ambassador in London was instructed to ‘dispel any mistrust’ by repeating, positively and formally, that Germany would not, under any pretence, annex Belgian territory. He was to impress upon Sir Edward Grey the reasons for Germany’s decision: they had ‘absolutely unimpeachable’ information that France was planning to attack through Belgium. Germany thus had no choice but to violate Belgian neutrality because it was for them a matter ‘of life or death’.

The assurance was received in London at almost the same moment that the Foreign Office received news that German troops had begun their advance into Belgium.

Two of the four cabinet ministers who had threatened to resign now changed their minds: the news that the Germans had entered Belgium and announced that they would ‘push their way through by force of arms’ had simplified matters.

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace after war was declared. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace after war was declared. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

At 10.30 a.m. Grey instructed the British minister in Brussels that Britain expected the Belgians to resist any German pressure to induce them to depart from their neutrality ‘by any means in their power’. The British government would support them in their resistance and was prepared to join France and Russia in immediately offering to the Belgian government ‘an alliance’ for the purpose of resisting the use of force by Germany against them, along with a guarantee to maintain Belgian independence and integrity in future years.

At 2 p.m. Grey instructed the ambassador in Berlin to repeat the request he had made last week and again this morning that the German government assure him that it would respect Belgian neutrality. A satisfactory reply was required by midnight, Central European time. If this were not received in time the ambassador was to request his passports and to tell the German government that ‘His Majesty’s Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a Treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves’.

Before the ambassador could present these demands, the German chancellor addressed the Reichstag, making a long, impassioned speech defending the government’s decision to go to war:

‘A terrible fate is breaking over Europe. For forty-four years, since the time we fought for and won the German Empire and our position in the world, we have lived in peace and protected the peace of Europe. During this time of peace we have become strong and powerful, arousing the envy of others. We have patiently faced the fact that, under the pretence that Germany was warlike, enmity was aroused against us in the East and the West, and chains were fashioned for us.’

A defence of German diplomacy during the crisis followed. Russia alone had failed to agree to ‘localize’ the crisis, to contain it to one that concerned only Austria and Serbia. Germany had warmly supported efforts to mediate the dispute and the Kaiser had engaged the Tsar in a personal correspondence to join him in resolving the differences between Russia and Austria. But Russia had chosen to mobilize all of her forces directed against Austria even though Austria had mobilized only against Serbia. And then Russia had chosen to mobilize all of her forces, leaving Germany with no choice but to mobilize as well.

France had evaded giving a clear answer to the question of whether it would remain neutral in the event of war between Russia and Germany. And then, in spite of promises to keep mobilized French forces 10 kilometres from the frontier with Germany ‘Aviators dropped bombs, and cavalry patrols and French infantry detachments appeared on the territory of the Empire!’

It was true that Germany’s decision to enter Belgium was a violation of international law, but there was no choice: ‘A French attack on our flank on the lower Rhine might have been disastrous’. And Germany would set right the wrong once ‘our military aims have been attained’.

‘We are fighting for the fruits of our works of peace, for the inheritance of a great past and for our future. The fifty years are not yet past during which Count Moltke said we should have to remain armed to defend the inheritance that we won in 1870. Now the great hour of trial has struck for our people. But with clear confidence we go forward to meet it. Our army is in the field, our navy is ready for battle–, and behind them stands the entire German nation– the entire German nation united to the last man.’

At almost the same moment Poincaré was addressing the French Chamber of Deputies. But indirectly, as the constitution prohibited the president from addressing the deputies directly. The minister of justice read his speech for him:

‘France has just been the object of a violent and premeditated attack, which is an insolent defiance of the law of nations. Before any declaration of war had been sent to us, even before the German Ambassador had asked for his passports, our territory has been violated.’….

‘Since the ultimatum of Austria opened a crisis which threatened the whole of Europe, France has persisted in following and in recommending on all sides a policy of prudence, wisdom, and moderation. To her there can be imputed no act, no movement, no word, which has not been peaceful and conciliatory.’….

‘In the war which is beginning, France will have Right on her side, the eternal power of which cannot with impunity be disregarded by nations any more than by individuals. She will be heroically defended by all her sons; nothing will break their sacred union before the enemy; today they are joined together as brothers in a common indignation against the aggressor, and in a common patriotic faith.’

‘Haut les coeurs et vive la France!’

At Buckingham palace at 10.45 the king had convened a meeting of the Privy Council for the purpose of authorizing the declaration of war. They waited for 11 p.m. to come, and when Big Ben struck they were at war. Meanwhile people had begun gathering outside the palace. When news began to spread throughout the crowd that war had been declared the excitement mounted; and when the king, the queen, and their eldest son appeared on the balcony ‘the cheering was terrific.’

By the end of the day five of the six Great Powers of Europe were at war, along with Serbia and Belgium. Diplomacy had failed. The tragedy had begun.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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8. The 150th anniversary of Newlands’ discovery of the periodic system

The discovery of the periodic system of the elements and the associated periodic table is generally attributed to the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Many authors have indulged in the game of debating just how much credit should be attributed to Mendeleev and how much to the other discoverers of this unifying theme of modern chemistry.

In fact the discovery of the periodic table represents one of a multitude of multiple discoveries which most accounts of science try to explain away. Multiple discovery is actually the rule rather than the exception and it is one of the many hints that point to the interconnected, almost organic nature of how science really develops. Many, including myself, have explored this theme by considering examples from the history of atomic physics and chemistry.

But today I am writing about a subaltern who discovered the periodic table well before Mendeleev and whose most significant contribution was published on 20 August 1864, or precisely 150 years ago. John Reina Newlands was an English chemist who never held a university position and yet went further than any of his contemporary professional chemists in discovering the all-important repeating pattern among the elements which he described in a number of articles.

 John Reina Newlands. Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
John Reina Newlands. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Newlands came from Southwark, a suburb of London. After studying at the Royal College of chemistry he became the chief chemist at Royal Agricultural Society of Great Britain. In 1860 when the leading European chemists were attending the Karlsruhe conference to discuss such concepts as atoms, molecules and atomic weights, Newlands was busy volunteering to fight in the Italian revolutionary war under Garibaldi. This is explained by the fact that his mother was Italian descent, which also explains his having the middle name Reina. In any case he survived the fighting and set about thinking about the elements on his return to London to become a sugar chemist.

In 1863 Newlands published a list of elements which he arranged into 11 groups. The elements within each of his groups had analogous properties and displayed weights that differed by eight units or some factor of eight. But no table yet!

Nevertheless he even predicted the existence of a new element, which he believed should have an atomic weight of 163 and should fall between iridium and rhodium. Unfortunately for Newlands neither this element, or a few more he predicted, ever materialized but it does show that the prediction of elements from a system of elements is not something that only Mendeleev invented.

In the first of three articles of 1864 Newlands published his first periodic table, five years before Mendeleev incidentally. This arrangement benefited from the revised atomic weights that had been announced at the Karlsruhe conference he had missed and showed that many elements had weights differing by 16 units. But it only contained 12 elements ranging between lithium as the lightest and chlorine as the heaviest.

Then another article, on 20 August 1864, with a slightly expanded range of elements in which he dropped the use of atomic weights for the elements and replaced them with an ordinal number for each one. Historians and philosophers have amused themselves over the years by debating whether this represents an anticipation of the modern concept of atomic number, but that’s another story.

More importantly Newlands now suggested that he had a system, a repeating and periodic pattern of elements, or a periodic law. Another innovation was Newlands’ willingness to reverse pairs of elements if their atomic weights demanded this change as in the case of tellurium and iodine. Even though tellurium has a higher atomic weight than iodine it must be placed before iodine so that each element falls into the appropriate column according to chemical similarities.

The following year, Newlands had the opportunity to present his findings in a lecture to the London Chemical Society but the result was public ridicule. One member of the audience mockingly asked Newlands whether he had considered arranging the elements alphabetically since this might have produced an even better chemical grouping of the elements. The society declined to publish Newlands’ article although he was able to publish it in another journal.

In 1869 and 1870 two more prominent chemists who held university positions published more elaborate periodic systems. They were the German Julius Lothar Meyer and the Russian Dmitri Mendeleev. They essentially rediscovered what Newlands found and made some improvements. Mendeleev in particular made a point of denying Newlands’ priority claiming that Newlands had not regarded his discovery as representing a scientific law. These two chemists were awarded the lion’s share of the credit and Newlands was reduced to arguing for his priority for several years afterwards. In the end he did gain some recognition when the Davy award, or the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for chemistry at the time, and which had already been jointly awarded to Lothar Meyer and Mendeleev, was finally accorded to Newlands in 1887, twenty three years after his article of August 1864.

But there is a final word to be said on this subject. In 1862, two years before Newlands, a French geologist, Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois had already published a periodic system that he arranged in a three-dimensional fashion on the surface of a metal cylinder. He called this the “telluric screw,” from tellos — Greek for the Earth since he was a geologist and since he was classifying the elements of the earth.

Image: Chemistry by macaroni1945. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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9. Dmitri Mendeleev’s lost elements

Dmitri Mendeleev believed he was a great scientist and indeed he was. He was not actually recognized as such until his periodic table achieved worldwide diffusion and began to appear in textbooks of general chemistry and in other major publications. When Mendeleev died in February 1907, the periodic table was established well enough to stand on its own and perpetuate his name for upcoming generations of chemists.

The man died, but the myth was born.

Mendeleev as a legendary figure grew with time, aided by his own well-organized promotion of his discovery. Well-versed in foreign languages and with a sort of overwhelming desire to escape his tsar-dominated homeland, he traveled the length and breadth of Europe, attending many conferences in England, Germany, Italy, and central Europe, his only luggage seemingly his periodic table.

Dmitri Mendeleev, 1897. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mendeleev had succeeded in creating a new tool that chemists could use as a springboard to new and fascinating discoveries in the fields of theoretical, mineral, and general chemistry. But every coin has two faces, even the periodic table. On the one hand, it lighted the path to the discovery of still missing elements; on the other, it led some unfortunate individuals to fall into the fatal error of announcing the discovery of false or spurious supposed new elements. Even Mendeleev, who considered himself the Newton of the chemical sciences, fell into this trap, announcing the discovery of imaginary elements that presently we know to have been mere self-deception or illusion.

It probably is not well-known that Mendeleev had predicted the existence of a large number of elements, actually more than ten. Their discoveries were sometimes the result of lucky guesses (like the famous cases of gallium, germanium, and scandium), and at other times they were erroneous. Historiography has kindly passed over the latter, forgetting about the long line of imaginary elements that Mendeleev had proposed, among which were two with atomic weights lower than that of hydrogen, newtonium (atomic weight = 0.17) and coronium (Atomic weight = 0.4). He also proposed the existence of six new elements between hydrogen and lithium, whose existence could not but be false.

Mendeleev represented a sort of tormented genius who believed in the universality of his creature and dreaded the possibility that it could be eclipsed by other discoveries. He did not live long enough to see the seed that he had planted become a mighty tree. He fought equally, with fierce indignation, the priority claims of others as well as the advent of new discoveries that appeared to menace his discovery.

In the end, his table was enduring enough to accommodate atomic number, isotopes, radioisotopes, the noble gases, the rare earth elements, the actinides, and the quantum mechanics that endowed it with a theoretical framework, allowing it to appear fresh and modern even after a scientific journey of 145 years.

Image: Nursery of new stars by NASA, Hui Yang University of Illinois. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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10. Shamrock and Saltire: Irish Home Rule and the Scottish Referendum, 1914-2014

This is the centenary year of the enactment of the third Home Rule Bill, as well (of course) as the year of the Scottish referendum on independence. Yet the centenary conversation in Ireland and the somewhat more vigorous debate upon Scots independence, have been conducted — for the most part — quite separately.

While it would be wrong to push the analogies too far, there are some striking similarities – and some differences – between the debate on Home Rule in 1912-14, and the current debate upon Scottish independence. These similarities (and indeed distinctions) might well give food for thought to the protagonists within the Scottish ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ camps — and indeed there is evidence that both Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond have ruminated accordingly.

One critical difference between Ireland in 1914 and Scotland in 2014 is that of militancy — Ireland on the eve of the First World War being an armed camp comprising the Ulster and Irish Volunteer movements, opponents and proponents of Home Rule, as well as the British Army. The Scottish political debate has not been militarised, and there is no evidence that it will become so (the Scottish National Liberation Army, for example, has never posed a significant threat). Modern Scottish nationalism has developed as a wholly constitutional and pacific phenomenon.

Of course mainstream Scottish nationalism has only recently, through successive Holyrood elections, emerged as a majority phenomenon. But it has never had to encounter the challenge (faced by Irish nationalism a century ago) of returning a majority of elected representatives, while being lengthily resisted in London.

One aspect of the Irish experience in 1914 was that a fraught constitutional debate, heightened political expectations, and the delaying or disappointment of those expectations (with Unionist resistance and the onset of War), combined to make a highly volatile political chemistry. The hardening expectations of change across Scotland in 2014 mean that national (as well as social and economic) aspirations may need to be quickly and sensitively addressed, whatever the result of the referendum.

Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, inspecting members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF were founded in 1913 by the Ulster Unionist Council to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Q 81759 Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Party, inspecting members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF were founded in 1913 by the Ulster Unionist Council to resist the implementation of Home Rule. Q 81759 Imperial War Museums. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

One critical dimension of this militancy in 1914 was the trenchant support given to Ulster Unionist paramilitarism by the British Conservative leadership — this in part a symptom of the profound divisions in British and Irish politics and society precipitated by the debate over Home Rule. It is striking that both the Home Rule issue in 1914 and the referendum in 2014 have each attracted an unusually broad range of declarations of allegiance from a complex array of interest groups and individuals. In 1914 there was a high level of ‘celebrity’ endorsement and intervention over Home Rule: taking literary figures alone, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came out as a Home Ruler, while Rudyard Kipling was a strong Unionist. In 2014 Irvine Welsh has declared in favour of independence, while J.K. Rowling is against. Ian Rankin provides a case-study in the complexity (and profundity) of division: he is an agnostic on the issue, but is clear that his characters would have strong opinions. So, Inspector Rebus joins the unionists of 2014 (though the actor Ken Stott, most recent of the TV Rebuses, is reportedly in the ‘yes’ camp).

The analogies between Home Rule and the debate on Scottish independence extend much further than the ‘A’ list, however. The substantial strength and challenge of Home Rule sentiment produced striking intellectual movement before and in 1914 — just as the strength of the movement for Scots independence has produced similar movement a century later.

In 1912-14 the constitutional impasse over Home Rule in fact helped to stimulate support for (what was then called) ‘federalism’ among some of the Unionist elite, including even Edward Carson. In terms of the (nearly) equally weighted forces fighting over Scottish independence, Gordon Brown has now moved to embrace the idea of a federal United Kingdom; and he has been joined or preceded by others, including (for example) the Scottish Conservative journalist, David Torrance. Discussion of a possible English parliament was broached prominently in 1911-1914 and again in 2014. Both in 1914 and in 2014 it appears that the constitutional shape of the ever-malleable United Kingdom is once again in transition — but because unionists are now shifting no less then nationalists.

And indeed some Scots Nationalists have moved towards embracing at least some of the symbols of the British connection. John Redmond, the Home Rule leader, emphasised monarchy and empire in his vision of Irish autonomy during the Home Rule era, partly through personal conviction, and partly in terms of subverting unionist arguments. In similar vein, Alex Salmond (despite a strong tradition of republican sentiment within the SNP), has embraced the ‘union of the crowns’ as SNP strategy, and has in recent years referred deferentially to the Queen (‘of Scots’), and her central place in an independent nation.

Here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s century-old debate on Home Rule speaks to the current condition of Scotland. Indeed here, as elsewhere, Ireland’s wider experience of Union chimes with that of the Scots.

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11. A role model for black feminism: Harriet Ross Tubman

Harriet Ross Tubman’s heroic rescue effort on behalf of slaves before and during the Civil War was a lifetime fight against social injustice and oppression.

Most people are aware of her role as what historian John Hope Franklin considered the greatest conductor for the Underground Railroad. However, her rescue effort also included her work as a cook, nurse, scout, spy, and soldier for the Union Army. As a nurse, she cared for black soldiers by working with Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who was in charge of front line hospitals. Over 700 slaves were rescued in the Tubman-led raid against the Confederates at the Combahee River in South Carolina. She became the only woman in U.S. history to plan and lead both white and black soldiers in such a military coup.

It is the latter activity which caused black feminists in Roxbury, Massachusetts to organize themselves during the seventies as the Combahee River Collective. When Tubman died, she was given a military burial with honors. It is also Tubman’s work as an abolitionist, advocate for women’s suffrage, and care for the elderly that informs black feminist thought. It is only fitting that we remember the life of this prominent nineteenth century militant social reformer on the 165th anniversary of her escape from slavery on 17 September 1849.

The Runaway

Tubman was born into slavery around 1820 to Benjamin and Harriet Ross and given the name Araminta. She later took her mother’s name, Harriet. As a slave child, she worked in the household first and then was assigned to work in the fields. Her early years as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland were traumatic and she was sickly. An overseer threw an object that accidentally hit Tubman in the head. The head injury she sustained caused her to have seizures and blackouts all of her life. She even had visions and this combined with her religiosity caused her to believe that she was called by God to lead slaves to freedom. It is believed that her work in the fields gave her the physical stamina to make her rescues. She was married in 1844 to John Tubman, a free black man, but her anxiety about being sold caused her to run away to Philadelphia and leave John behind. Runaways were rare among slave women, but prevalent among slave men.

Harriet Tubman by H. Seymour Squyer, 1848 - 18 Dec 1905 (National Portrait Gallery). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Tubman by H. Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 (National Portrait Gallery). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Abolitionist

Between 1846 and 1860, Tubman successfully rescued close to 300 family members and other slaves. She became part of a network of prominent abolitionists who created escape havens for passage from the South to Northern cities and then on to Canada. The recent award winning film, Twelve Years a Slave reminds us that even free blacks were subject to being turned in as a runaway after passage of The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Tubman was bothered by this new law and was eager to go directly to Canada where she herself resided for a time. She made anywhere from 11 to 19 rescue trips. The exact count is unclear because such records were notkept in this clandestine social movement. Maryland plantation owners put a $40,000 bounty on Tubman’s head. She was never caught and she never lost a passenger. Like Patrick Henry, her motto was give me liberty or give me death. She carried a pistol with her and threatened to shoot any slave who tried to turn back. The exodus from slavery was so successful that the slaves she led to freedom called her Moses. She was such a master of disguise and subterfuge that these skills were used after she joined the Union Army. It has also been reported that the skills she developed were so useful to the military that her scouting and spy strategies were taught at West Point. She purchased a home in Auburn, New York where she resided after the Civil War. Her husband, John Tubman, died after the war, and she married Nelson Davis, another Civil War veteran. From her home in Auburn, she continued to help former slaves.

The Social Reformer

Historian Gerda Lerner once described Tubman as a revolutionist who continued her organizing activities in later life. Tubman supported women’s suffrage, gave speeches at organizing events for both black and white women, and was involved in the organizing efforts of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. After a three decade delay, Tubman was given $20 a month by the government for her military service. Tubman lived in poverty, but her mutual aid activities continued. She used her pension and money from fundraising activities to provide continued aid to freed slaves and military families. She died in 1913 in the home she established for the elderly and poor, the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, now a National Historic Monument.

Harriet Ross Tubman escaped from slavery, but remembered those she left behind. She was truly an historic champion for civil rights and social justice.

Heading image: Underground Railway Map. Compiled from “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Willbur H. Siebert Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. Celebrating 60 years of CERN

2014 marks not just the centenary of the start of World War I, and the 75th anniversary of World War II, but on 29 September it is 60 years since the establishment of CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research or, in its modern form, Particle Physics. Less than a decade after European nations had been fighting one another in a terrible war, 12 of those nations had united in science. Today, CERN is a world laboratory, famed for having been the home of the world wide web, brainchild of then CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee; of several Nobel Prizes for physics, although not (yet) for Peace; and most recently, for the discovery of the Higgs Boson. The origin of CERN, and its political significance, are perhaps no less remarkable than its justly celebrated status as the greatest laboratory of scientific endeavour in history.

Its life has spanned a remarkable period in scientific culture. The paradigm shifts in our understanding of the fundamental particles and the forces that control the cosmos, which have occurred since 1950, are in no small measure thanks to CERN.

In 1954, the hoped for simplicity in matter, where the electron and neutrino partner a neutron and proton, had been lost. Novel relatives of the proton were proliferating. Then, exactly 50 years ago, the theoretical concept of the quark was born, which explains the multitude as bound states of groups of quarks. By 1970 the existence of this new layer of reality had been confirmed, by experiments at Stanford, California, and at CERN.

During the 1970s our understanding of quarks and the strong force developed. On the one hand this was thanks to theory, but also due to experiments at CERN’s Intersecting Storage Rings: the ISR. Head on collisions between counter-rotating beams of protons produced sprays of particles, which instead of flying in all directions, tended to emerge in sharp jets. The properties of these jets confirmed the predictions of quantum chromodynamics – QCD – the theory that the strong force arises from the interactions among the fundamental quarks and gluons.

CERN had begun in 1954 with a proton synchrotron, a circular accelerator with a circumference of about 600 metres, which was vast at the time, although trifling by modern standards. This was superseded by a super-proton synchrotron, or SPS, some 7 kilometres in circumference. This fired beams of protons and other particles at static targets, its precision measurements building confidence in the QCD theory and also in the theory of the weak force – QFD, quantum flavourdynamics.

Cern - Public Domain
The Globe of Science and Innovation. CC0 via Pixabay

QFD brought the electromagnetic and weak forces into a single framework. This first step towards a possible unification of all forces implied the existence of W and Z bosons, analogues of the photon. Unlike the massless photon, however, the W and Z were predicted to be very massive, some 80 to 90 times more than a proton or neutron, and hence beyond reach of experiments at that time. This changed when the SPS was converted into a collider of protons and anti-protons. By 1984 experiments at the novel accelerator had discovered the W and Z bosons, in line with what QFD predicted. This led to Nobel Prizes for Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer, in 1984.

The confirmation of QCD and QFD led to a marked change in particle physics. Where hitherto it had sought the basic templates of matter, from the 1980s it turned increasingly to understanding how matter emerged from the Big Bang. For CERN’s very high-energy experiments replicate conditions that were prevalent in the hot early universe, and theory implies that the behaviour of the forces and particles in such circumstances is less complex than at the relatively cool conditions of daily experience. Thus began a period of high-energy particle physics as experimental cosmology.

This raced ahead during the 1990s with LEP – the Large Electron Positron collider, a 27 kilometre ring of magnets underground, which looped from CERN towards Lake Geneva, beneath the airport and back to CERN, via the foothills of the Jura Mountains. Initially designed to produce tens of millions of Z bosons, in order to test QFD and QCD to high precision, by 2000 its performance was able to produce pairs of W bosons. The precision was such that small deviations were found between these measurements and what theory implied for the properties of these particles.

The explanation involved two particles, whose subsequent discoveries have closed a chapter in physics. These are the top quark, and the Higgs Boson.

As gaps in Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements in the 19th century had identified new elements, so at the end of the 20th century a gap in the emerging pattern of particles was discerned. To complete the menu required a top quark.

The precision measurements at LEP could be explained if the top quark exists, too massive for LEP to produce directly, but nonetheless able to disturb the measurements of other quantities at LEP courtesy of quantum theory. Theory and data would agree if the top quark mass were nearly two hundred times that of a proton. The top quark was discovered at Fermilab in the USA in 1995, its mass as required by the LEP data from CERN.

As the 21st century dawned, all the pieces of the “Standard Model” of particles and forces were in place, but one. The theories worked well, but we had no explanation of why the various particles have their menu of masses, or even why they have mass at all. Adding mass into the equations by hand is like a band-aid, capable of allowing computations that agree with data to remarkable precision. However, we can imagine circumstances, where particles collide at energies far beyond those accessible today, where the theories would predict nonsense — infinity as the answer for quantities that are finite, for example. A mathematical solution to this impasse had been discovered fifty years ago, and implied that there is a further massive particle, known as the Higgs Boson, after Peter Higgs who, alone of the independent discoveries of the concept, drew attention to some crucial experimental implications of the boson.

Discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN in 2012 following the conversion of LEP into the LHC – Large Hadron Collider – is the climax of CERN’s first 60 years. It led to the Nobel Prize for Higgs and Francois Englert, theorists whose ideas initiated the quest. Many wondered whether the Nobel Foundation would break new ground and award the physics prize to a laboratory, CERN, for enabling the experimental discovery, but this did not happen.

CERN has been associated with other Nobel Prizes in Physics, such as to Georges Charpak, for his innovative work developing methods of detecting radiation and particles, which are used not just at CERN but in industry and hospitals. CERN’s reach has been remarkable. From a vision that helped unite Europe, through science, we have seen it breach the Cold War, with collaborations in the 1960s onwards with JINR, the Warsaw Pact’s scientific analogue, and today CERN has become truly a physics laboratory for the world.

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13. “A Bright But Unsteady Light”

Edgar Allan Poe died 165 years ago today in the early morning of 7 October 1849. Only a few details of the illness that extinguished his “bright but unsteady light” are known because his physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran, used the illness to promote his own celebrity and in the process denied posterity an accurate clinical description. One of his later accounts, one summarized by Charles Scarlett, Jr. in the Maryland Historical Magazine (1978; 73: 360-75) came to my attention shortly after returning to Baltimore after 14 years at the Dallas VA Hospital in 1988. I was so taken by Moran’s fascinating and detailed description of Poe’s final days, I decided to use it as the subject of a clinical conference that has long been my favorite – the Clinical Pathologic Case Conference (CPC) Conference. This would prove to be the first of an ongoing series of historical CPCs devoted to the likes of Alexander, Columbus, Mozart and Lenin, stretching over two decades and spawning too-numerous-to-count articles in the international press, scores of manuscripts published in medical journals, and two books.

The clinicopathological conference is a standard medical conference designed to teach physicians and physicians-in-training basic medical concepts and clinical problem-solving techniques. It is a case-based exercise, in which the featured speaker and the audience struggle together to diagnose a particularly challenging illness of some patient using only the information included in a clinical summary prepared especially for the conference. That clinical summary, distributed well in advance of the conference, typically contains all of the medical information pertaining to the case in question, except for the definitive, diagnostic test result. That result, known only to the conference organizers, is revealed at the very end of the conference as a validation or repudiation of the presenter’s conclusions. To my knowledge, our “Poe Historical CPC” was the first to use an historical, rather than a current, patient as the subject of the conference.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story "Descent into the Maelstrom" by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Descent into the Maelstrom” by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1995, during this first Historical CPC at the University of Maryland, Dr. R. Michael Benitez concluded that Poe died of rabies resulting from an unrecorded and most likely unrecognized animal exposure prior to his hospitalization in Baltimore. His diagnosis became a media sensation covered in venues as diverse as Science magazine and the answer to the final Jeopardy question of the TV show of the same name. Benitez based his diagnosis on evidence of autonomic instability (dilating and contracting pupils and an irregular pulse which alternated between rapid and slow), fluctuating delirium, and hydrophobia (suggested by Poe’s adamant refusal of alcohol and difficulty swallowing water) included in Moran’s later descriptions of the terminal illness.

Rabies, in fact, has much in common with Moran’s later description of Poe’s final illness. It is a viral encephalitis (i.e., an infection of the brain) marked by acute onset of confusion, hallucinations, combativeness, muscle spasms and seizures, all of which tend to wax and wane during the course of the illness. Autonomic instability marked by alternating tachycardia (racing pulse) and bradycardia (slow pulse), profuse sweating, lacrymation, and salivation are also characteristic. The infection is virtually always fatal, with a median survival time after the onset of symptoms of four days. Poe died four days after being admitted to the hospital.

Moran gave no such indication of autonomic instability or hydrophobia in the letter he wrote to Mrs. Clemm a month after her son-in-law’s death. Only decades later, most likely relying on memory alone, does he mention a “very low pulse” and that his famous patient’s “pulse which had been as low as fifty was rising rapidly, though still feeble and variable.”

Many diagnoses have since been offered to explain Poe’s death. The earliest and most persistent has been that of alcohol-induced delirium tremens. Moran’s later case summary, one almost certainly written to satisfy his public’s appetite for ever more moving and ironic details of his patient’s final hours, has generated several more. These include homicide, carbon monoxide poisoning, suicide, syphilis, and mercury intoxication, reflecting more an unwillingness on the part of the proposers to accept an ordinary disease as the cause of Poe’s death than any convincing clinical evidence of such disorders.

Given numerous well-documented instances of Poe’s refractory alcohol abuse and its adverse effects on his physical and mental health prior to his departure from Richmond in late September of 1849, and the nature of the illness described by Moran in his letter of 15 November 1849 to Poe’s mother-in-law, one need look no further than delirium tremens as an explanation for his death. Whether his last bout with alcohol was the result of “cooping,” his own inability to control the craving that had for so many years driven him to drink, or a second (successful) attempt at suicide will never be known. However, if one ignores Moran’s later expanded description of Poe’s final illness, which deviates so spectacularly from his initial description in his letter to Maria Clemm a month after his patient’s death, neither rabies, homicide, mercury intoxication, nor, for that matter, any of the myriad other explanations proposed in the century and a half since Poe’s death, offers a better fit than delirium tremens.

Headline image credit: A photograph (taken by C.T. Tatman in 1904) of a daguerreotype (taken by Edwin H. Manchester in 1848) of Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. The Road to Ypres

Time passes quickly. As we track the progression of events hundred years ago on the Western Front, the dramas flash by. In the time it takes to answer an e-mail the anniversary of another battle has come and gone.

We have celebrated the fumbling British skirmishes at Mons and Le Cateau in late August, but largely forgotten the French triumph at the Battle of the Marne which first stemmed and threw back the German wheeling attack through Belgium into Northern France under the Schlieffen Plan. We have already bypassed the spirited Franco-British attempts at the Battle of the Aisne in September to take the Chemin des Dames. The Race to the Sea was under way: the British and German Armies desperately trying to turn their enemy’s northern flank.

Throughout, the performance of the British Expeditionary Force has often been exaggerated. Imaginative accounts of Germans advancing in massed columns and being blown away by rapid rifle fire are common. A rather more realistic assessment is that the British infantry were steadfast enough in defence, but unable to function properly in coordination with their artillery or machine guns. The Germans seemed to have a far better grip of the manifold disciplines of modern warfare.

Yet everything changed in October. The Germans were scraping the barrel for manpower and decided to throw new reserve formations into the battle. Young men with the minimum of training, incapable of sophisticated battle tactics. They were marched forward in a last gambler’s throw of the dice to try and break through to the Channel Ports. To do that they needed first to capture the small Belgian city of Ypres.

One might have thought that Ypres was some fabled city, fought over to secure untold wealth or a commanding tactical position. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ypres was just an ordinary town, lying in the centre of the fertile Western Flanders plain. Yet the low ridges to the east represented one of the last feasible lines of defence. The British also saw the town, not as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone to more strategically important locations pushing eastwards, such as the rail centre at Roulers or the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. For both sides Ypres was on the road to somewhere.

The battle began in mid-October and soon began to boil up. Time and time the Germans hurled themselves forward, the grey-green hordes pressing forwards and being shot down in their hundreds. The British had learnt many lessons and this was where they finally proved themselves worthy adversaries for the German Army. On the evening of 23 October young Captain Harry Dillon was fighting for his life:

A great grey mass of humanity was charging, running for all God would let them, straight on to us not 50 yards off. Everybody’s nerves were pretty well on edge as I had warned them what to expect, and as I fired my rifle the rest all went off almost simultaneously. One saw the great mass of Germans quiver. In reality some fell, some fell over them, and others came on. I have never shot so much in such a short time, could not have been more than a few seconds and they were down. Suddenly one man – I expect an officer – jumped up and came on. I fired and missed, seized the next rifle and dropped him a few yards off. Then the whole lot came on again and it was the most critical moment of my life. Twenty yards more and they would have been over us in thousands, but our fire must have been fearful, and at the very last moment they did the most foolish thing they possibly could have done. Some of the leading people turned to the left for some reason, and they all followed like a great flock of sheep. We did not lose much time, I can give you my oath. My right hand is one huge bruise from banging the bolt up and down. I don’t think one could have missed at the distance and just for one short minute or two we poured the ammunition into them in boxfuls. My rifles were red hot at the finish. The firing died down and out of the darkness a great moan came. People with their arms and legs off trying to crawl away; others who could not move gasping out their last moments with the cold night wind biting into their broken bodies and the lurid red glare of a farm house showing up clumps of grey devils killed by the men on my left further down. A weird awful scene; some of them would raise themselves on one arm or crawl a little distance, silhouetted as black as ink against the red glow of the fire. [p. 287-288, Fire & Movement, by Peter Hart]

Some of the Germans had got within 25 yards of Dillon’s line. It had been a close run thing and after they had been relieved by the French later that night the French reported that some 740 German corpses littered the ground in front of his trenches. This was the real war: not a skirmishes like the earlier battles, this was the real thing.

Ypres at the close of World War I. In the center is the cathedral tower. At the right, the Cloth Hall. Collier's New Encyclopedia, v. 10, 1921, between pp. 468 and 469 (3rd plate). Via Wikimedia Commons.
Ypres at the close of World War I. In the center is the cathedral tower. At the right, the Cloth Hall. Source: Collier’s New Encyclopedia, v. 10, 1921, between pp. 468 and 469 (3rd plate). British Official Photo, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The German attacks continued, followed as day follows night, by French and British counter-attacks to restore the situation. The Germans nibbled at the Allied line but were unable to achieve anything of importance. Yet for all the sound and fury, over the next few days the front line stayed relatively static. The German troops were flagging in their efforts. After one last effort on 11 November the Germans threw in the towel. They would not break through the Allied lines in 1914. The British and French lines had held. Battered, bruised, but unbroken. The First Battle of Ypres had confirmed the strategic victory gained by the French at the Marne. The German advance in the west had been blocked, if they sought victory in 1915 they would have to look to the east and attack Russia.

The 1914 campaign would prove decisive to the war. The utter failure of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to secure the rapid defeat of France, meant that Germany would be condemned to ruinous hostilities on two fronts. This was the great turning-point of the whole war. The pre-war predictions from the German strategists that they could not prevail in a long-drawn out war against the combined forces of France and Russia proved accurate, especially when the British Empire and United States joined the fight. The German Army fought with a sustained skill and endurance, but after 1914, the odds really were stacked against them.

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15. The month that changed the world: Friday, 24 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


By mid-day Friday heads of state, heads of government, foreign ministers, and ambassadors learned the terms of the Austrian ultimatum. A preamble to the demands asserted that a ‘subversive movement’ to ‘disjoin’ parts of Austria-Hungary had grown ‘under the eyes’ of the Serbian government. This had led to terrorism, murder, and attempted murder. Austria’s investigation of the assassination of the archduke revealed that Serbian military officers and government officials were implicated in the crime.

A list of ten demands followed, the most important of which were: Serbia was to suppress all forms of propaganda aimed at Austria-Hungary; the Narodna odbrana was to be dissolved, along with all other subversive societies; officers and officials who had participated in propaganda were to be dismissed; Austrian officials were to participate in suppressing the subversive movements in Serbia and in a judicial inquiry into the assassination.

When Sazonov saw the terms he concluded that Austria wanted war: ‘You are setting fire to Europe!’ If Serbia were to comply with the demands it would mean the end of its sovereignty. ‘What you want is war, and you have burnt your bridges behind you’. He advised the tsar that Serbia could not possibly comply, that Austria knew this and would not have presented the ultimatum without the promise of Germany’s support. He told the British and French ambassadors that war was imminent unless they acted together.

Sergey Sazonov, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sergey Sazonov, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But would they? With the French president and premier now at sea in the Baltic, and with wireless telegraphy problematic, foreign policy was in the hands of Bienvenu-Martin, the inexperienced minister of justice. He believed that Austria was within its rights to demand the punishment of those implicated in the crime and he shared Germany’s wish to localize the dispute. Serbia could not be expected to agree to demands that impinged upon its sovereignty, but perhaps it could agree to punish those involved in the assassination and to suppress propaganda aimed at Austria-Hungary.

Sir Edward Grey was shocked by the extent of the demands. He had never before seen ‘one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.’ The demand that Austria-Hungary be given the right to appoint officials who would have authority within the frontiers of Serbia could not be consistent with Serbia’s sovereignty. But the British government had no interest in the merits of the dispute between Austria and Serbia; its only concern was the peace of Europe. He proposed that the four ‘disinterested powers’ (Britain, Germany, France and Italy) act together at Vienna and St Petersburg to resolve the dispute. After Grey briefed the cabinet that afternoon, the prime minister concluded that although a ‘real Armaggedon’ was within sight, ‘there seems…no reason why we should be more than spectators’.

Nothing that the Austrians or the Germans heard in London or Paris on Friday caused them to reconsider their course. In fact, their general impression was that the Entente Powers wished to localize the dispute. Even from St Petersburg the German ambassador reported that Sazonov’s reference to Austria’s ‘devouring’ of Serbia meant that Russia would take up arms only if Austria seized Serbian territory and that his wish to ‘Europeanize’ the dispute indicated that Russia’s ‘immediate intervention’ need not be anticipated.

Berchtold made his position clear in Vienna that afternoon: ‘the very existence of Austria-Hungary as a Great Power’ was at stake; Austria-Hungary must give proof of its stature as a Great Power ‘by an outright coup de force’. When the Russian chargé d’affaires asked him how Austria would respond if the time limit were to expire without a satisfactory answer from Serbia, Berchtold replied that the Austrian minister and his staff had been instructed in such circumstances to leave Belgrade and return to Austria. Prince Kudashev, after reflecting on this, exclaimed ‘Alors c’est la guerre!

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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16. The month that changed the world: Saturday, 25 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


Would there be war by the end of the day? It certainly seemed possible: the Serbs had only until 6 p.m. to accept the Austrian demands. Berchtold had instructed the Austrian representative in Belgrade that nothing less than full acceptance of all ten points contained in the ultimatum would be regarded as satisfactory. And no one expected the Serbs to comply with the demands in their entirety – least of all the Austrians.

When the Serbian cabinet met that morning they had received advice from Russia, France, and Britain urging them to be as accommodating as possible. No one indicated that any military assistance might be forthcoming. They began drafting a ‘most conciliatory’ reply to Austria while preparing for war: the royal family prepared to leave Belgrade; the military garrison left the city for a fortified town 60 miles south; the order for general mobilization was signed and drums were beaten outside of cafés, calling up conscripts.

Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl, Austria: the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Kaiserville, Bad Ischl, Austria. By Blue tornadoo CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl, Austria: the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Kaiserville, Bad Ischl, Austria. By Blue tornadoo CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How would Russia respond? That morning the tsar presided over a meeting of the Russian Grand Council where it was agreed to mobilize the thirteen army corps designated to act against Austria. By afternoon ‘the period preparatory to war’ was initiated and preparations for mobilization began in the military districts of Kiev, Odessa, Moscow, and Kazan.

Simultaneously, Sazonov tried to enlist German support in persuading Austria to extend the deadline beyond 6 p.m., arguing that it was a ‘European matter’ not limited to Austria and Serbia. The Germans refused, arguing that to summon Austria to a European ‘tribunal’ would be humiliating and mean the end of Austria as a Great Power. Sazonov insisted that the Austrians were aiming to establish hegemony in the Balkans: after they devoured Serbia and Bulgaria Russia would face them ‘on the Black Sea’. He tried to persuade Sir Edward Grey that if Britain were to join Russia and France, Germany would then pressure Austria into moderation.

How would Britain respond? Sir Edward Grey gave no indication that Britain would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Russians in a conflict over Serbia. His only concern seemed to be to contain the crisis, to keep it a dispute between Austria and Serbia. ‘I do not consider that public opinion here would or ought to sanction our going to war over a Servian quarrel’. But if a war between Austria and Serbia were to occur ‘other issues’ might draw Britain in. In the meantime, there was still an opportunity to avert war if the four disinterested powers ‘held the hand’ of their partners while mediating the dispute. But the report he received from St Petersburg was not encouraging: the British ambassador warned that Russia and France seemed determined to make ‘a strong stand’ even if Britain declined to join them.

When the Austrian minister received the Serb reply at 5:58 on Saturday afternoon, he could see instantly that their submission was not complete. He announced that Austria was breaking off diplomatic relations with Serbia and immediately ordered the staff of the delegation to leave for the railway station. By 6:30 the Austrians were on a train bound for the border.

That evening, in the Kaiservilla at Bad Ischl, Franz Joseph signed the orders for mobilization of thirteen army corps. When the news reached Vienna the people greeted it with the ‘wildest enthusiasm’. Huge crowds began to form, gathering at the Ringstrasse and bursting into patriotic songs. The crowds marched around the city shouting ‘Down with Serbia! Down with Russia’. In front of the German embassy they sang ‘Wacht am Rhein’; police had to protect the Russian embassy against the demonstrators. Surely, it would not be long before the guns began firing.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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17. The month that changed the world: Sunday, 26 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


When day dawned on Sunday, 26 July, the sky did not fall. Shells did not rain down on Belgrade. There was no Austrian declaration of war. The morning remained peaceful, if not calm. Most Europeans attended their churches and prepared to enjoy their day of rest. Few said prayers for peace; few believed divine intervention was necessary. Europe had weathered many storms over the last decade. Only pessimists doubted that this one could be weathered as well.

In Austria-Hungary the right of assembly, the secrecy of the mail, of telegrams and telephone conversations, and the freedom of the press were all suspended. Pro-war demonstrations were not only permitted but encouraged: demonstrators filled the Ringstrasse, marched on the Ballhausplatz, gathered around statues of national heroes and sang patriotic songs. That evening the Bürgermeister of Vienna told a cheering crowd that the fate of Europe for centuries to come was about to be decided, praising them as worthy descendants of the men who had fought Napoleon. The Catholic People’s Party newspaper, Alkotmány, declared that ‘History has put the master’s cane in the Monarchy’s hands. We must teach Serbia, we must make justice, we must punish her for her crimes.’

Kaiser Wilhelm

Just how urgent was the situation? In London, Sir Edward Grey had left town on Saturday afternoon to go to his cottage for a day of fly-fishing on Sunday. The Russian ambassadors to Germany, Austria and Paris had yet to return to their posts. The British ambassadors to Germany and Paris were still on vacation. Kaiser Wilhelm was on his annual yachting cruise of the Baltic. Emperor Franz Joseph was at his hunting lodge at Bad Ischl. The French premier and president were visiting Stockholm. The Italian foreign minister was still taking his cure at Fiuggi. The chiefs of the German and Austrian general staffs remained on leave; the chief of the Serbian general staff was relaxing at an Austrian spa.

Could calm be maintained? Contradictory evidence seemed to be coming out of St Petersburg. It seemed that some military steps were being initiated – but what these were to be remained uncertain. Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, met with both the German and Austrian ambassadors on Sunday – and both noted a significant change in his demeanour. He was now ‘much quieter and more conciliatory’. He emphatically insisted that Russia did not desire war and promised to exhaust every means to avoid it. War could be avoided if Austria’s demands stopped short of violating Serbian sovereignty. The German ambassador suggested that Russia and Austria discuss directly a softening of the demands. Sazonov, who agreed immediately to suggest this, was ‘now looking for a way out’. The Germans were assured that only preparatory measures had been undertaken thus far – ‘not a horse and not a reserve had been called to service’.

By late Sunday afternoon, the situation seemed precarious but not hopeless. The German chancellor worried that any preparatory measures adopted by Russia that appeared to be aimed at Germany would force the adoption of counter-measures. This would mean the mobilization of the German army – and mobilization ‘would mean war’. But he continued to hope that the crisis could be ‘localized’ and indicated that he would encourage Vienna to accept Grey’s proposed mediation and/or direct negotiations between Austria and Russia.

By Sunday evening more than 24 hours had passed since the Austrian legation had departed from Belgrade and Austria had severed diplomatic relations with Serbia. Many had assumed that war would follow immediately, but there had been no invasion of Serbia or even a declaration of war. The Austrians, in spite of their apparent firmness in refusing any alteration of the terms or any extension of the deadline, appeared not to know what step to take next, or when additional steps should be taken. When asked, the Austrian chief of staff suggested that any declaration of war ought to be postponed until 12 August. Was Europe really going to hold its breath for two more weeks?

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Kaiser Wilhelm, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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18. The month that changed the world: Monday, 27 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


By the time the diplomats, politicians, and officials arrived at their offices in the morning more than 36 hours had elapsed since the Austrian deadline to Serbia had expired. And yet nothing much had happened as a consequence: the Austrian legation had packed up and left Belgrade; Austria had severed diplomatic relations with Serbia and announced a partial mobilization; but there had been no declaration of war, no shots fired in anger or in error, no wider mobilization of European armies. What action there was occurred behind the scenes, at the Foreign Office, the Ballhausplatz, the Wilhelmstrasse, the Consulta, the Quai d’Orsay, and at the Chorister’s Bridge.

Some tentative, precautionary, steps were taken. In Russia, all lights along the coast of the Black Sea were ordered to be extinguished; the port of Sevastopol was closed to all but Russian warships; flights were banned over the military districts of St Petersburg, Vilna, Warsaw, Kiev, and Odessa. In France, over 100,000 troops stationed in Morocco and Algeria were ordered to metropolitan France; the French president and premier were asked to sail for home immediately. In Britain the cabinet agreed to keep the First and Second fleets together following manoeuvres; Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, notified his naval commanders that war between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente was ‘by no means impossible’. In Germany all troops were confined to barracks. On the Danube, Hungarian authorities seized two Serbian vessels.

Winston Churchill with the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Winston Churchill with the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the day the Serbian reply to the Austrian ultimatum was communicated throughout Europe. Austria appeared to have won great diplomatic victory. Sir Edward Grey thought the Serbs had gone farther to placate the Austrians than he had believed possible: if the Austrians refused to accept the Serbian reply as the foundation for peaceful negotiations it would be ‘absolutely clear’ that they were only seeking an excuse to crush Serbia. If so, Russia was bound to regard it as a direct challenge and the result ‘would be the most frightful war that Europe had ever seen’.

The German chancellor concluded that Serbia had complicated things by accepting almost all of the demands and that Austria was close to accomplishing everything that it wanted. The Kaiser who arrived in Kiel that morning, presided over a meeting in Potsdam at 3 p.m. where he, the chancellor, the chief of the general staff, and several more generals reviewed the situation. No dramatic decisions were taken. General Hans von Plessen, the adjutant general, recorded that they still hoped to localize the war, and that Britain seemed likely to remain neutral: ‘I have the impression that it will all blow over’.

The question of the day, then, was whether Austria would be satisfied with a resounding diplomatic victory. Russia seemed prepared to offer them one. In St Petersburg on Monday Sazonov promised to go ‘to the limit’ in accommodating them if it brought the crisis to a peaceful conclusion. He promised the German ambassador that he would they ‘build a golden bridge’ for the Austrians, that he had ‘no heart’ for the Balkan Slavs, and that he saw no problem with seven of the ten Austrian demands.

In Vienna however, Berchtold dismissed Serbia’s promises as totally worthless. Austria, he promised, would declare war the next day, or by Wednesday at the latest – in spite of the chief of the general staff’s insistence that war operations against Serbia could not begin for two weeks.

Grey was distressed to hear that Austria would treat the Serb reply as if it were a ‘decided refusal’ to comply with Austria’s wishes. The ultimatum was ‘really the greatest humiliation to which an independent State has ever been subjected’ and was surely enough to serve as foundation of a settlement.

By the end of the day on Monday, uncertainty was still widespread. Two separate proposals for reaching a settlement were now on the table: Grey’s renewed suggestion for à quatre discussions in London, and Sazonov’s new suggestion for bilateral discussions with Austria in St Petersburg. Germany had indicated that it was encouraging Austria to consider both suggestions. The German ambassador told Berlin that if Grey’s suggestion succeeded in settling the crisis with Germany’s co-operation, ‘I will guarantee that our relations with Great Britain will remain, for an incalculable time to come, of the same intimate and confidential character that has distinguished them for the last year and a half’. On the other hand, if Germany stood behind Austria and subordinated its good relations with Britain to the special interests of its ally, ‘it would never again be possible to restore those ties which have of late bound us together’.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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19. The month that changed the world: Tuesday, 28 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


Kaiser Wilhelm received a copy of the Serbian reply to the Austrian demands in the morning. Reading it over, he concluded that the Habsburg monarchy had achieved its aims and that the few points Serbia objected to could be settled by negotiation. Their submission represented a humiliating capitulation, and with it ‘every cause for war’ collapsed. A diplomatic solution to the crisis was now clearly within sight. Austria-Hungary would emerge triumphant: the Serbian reply represented ‘a great moral success for Vienna’.

In order to assure Austria’s success, to turn the ‘beautiful promises’ of the Serbs into facts, the Kaiser proposed that Belgrade should be taken and held hostage by Austria. ‘The Serbs,’ he pointed out, ‘are Orientals, and therefore liars, fakers and masters of evasion.’ An occupation of Belgrade would guarantee that the Serbs would carry out their promises while satisfying satisfying the honour of the Austro-Hungarian army. On this basis the Kaiser was willing to ‘mediate’ with Austria in order to preserve European peace.

In Vienna that morning the German ambassador was instructed to explain that Germany could not continue to reject every proposal for mediation. To do so was to risk being seen as the instigator of the war and being held responsible by the whole world for the conflagration that would follow.

Berchtold began to worry that German support was about to evaporate. He responded by getting the emperor to agree to issue a declaration of war on Serbia just before noon. For the first time in history war was declared by the sending of a telegram.

The bombardment of Belgrade by Austro-Hungarian monitor. By Horace Davis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The bombardment of Belgrade by Austro-Hungarian monitor. By Horace Davis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The German chancellor undertook a new initiative to place the responsibility for a European war on Russia: he encouraged Kaiser to write directly to the Tsar, to appeal to his monarchical sensibilities. Such a telegram would ‘throw the clearest light on Russia’s responsibility’. At the same time he rejected Sir Edward Grey’s proposal for a conference in London in favour of ‘mediation efforts’ at St Petersburg, and trusted that his ambassador in London could get Grey ‘to see our point of view’.

At the Foreign Office in London they were skeptical. Officials concluded that the Austrians were determined to find the Serbian reply unsatisfactory, that if Austria demanded absolute compliance with its ultimatum ‘it can only mean that she wants a war’. What Austria was demanding amounted to a protectorate. Grey denied the German complaint that he was proposing an ‘arbitration’ – what he was suggesting was a ‘private and informal discussion’ that might lead to suggestion for settlement. But he agreed to suspend his proposal as long as there was a chance that the ‘bilateral’ Austro-Russian talks might succeed.

The news that Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia reached Sazonov in St Petersburg late that afternoon. He immediately arranged to meet with the Tsar at the Peterhof. After their meeting the foreign minister instructed the Russian chief of the general staff to draft two ukazes – one for partial mobilization of the four military districts of Odessa, Kiev, Moscow and Kazan, another for general mobilization. But the Tsar, who remained steadfast in his determination to do nothing that might antagonize Germany, would go no further than authorize a partial mobilization aimed at Austria-Hungary. He did so in spite of the warnings from his military advisers who told him that such a mobilization was impossible: a partial mobilization would result in chaos, make it impossible to prosecute a successful war against Austria-Hungary and render Russia vulnerable in a war with Germany.

A partial mobilization would, however, serve the requirements of Russian diplomacy. Sazonov attempted to placate the Germans by assuring them that the decision to mobilize in only the four districts indicated that Russia had no intention of attacking them. Keeping the door open for negotiations, he decided not to recall the Russian ambassador from Vienna – in spite of Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia. Perhaps there was still time for the bilateral talks in St Petersburg to save the situation.

That night Belgrade was bombarded by Austro-Hungarian artillery: two shells exploded in a school, one at the Grand Hotel, others at cafés and banks. Offices, hotels, and banks had been closed. The city had been left defenceless.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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20. The month that changed the world: Wednesday, 29 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


Before the sun rose on Wednesday morning a new hope for a negotiated settlement of the crisis was initiated. The Kaiser, acting on the advice of his chancellor, wrote directly to the Tsar. He hoped that Nicholas would agree with him that they shared a common interest in punishing all of those ‘morally responsible’ for the dastardly murder of the Archduke, and he promised to exert his influence to induce Austria to deal directly with Russia in order to arrive at an understanding.

At 1 a.m. Nicholas appealed to Wilhelm for his assistance: ‘An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country.’ The indignation that this had caused in Russia was enormous and he anticipated that he would soon be overwhelmed by the pressure being brought to bear upon him, forcing him to take ‘extreme measures’ that would lead to war. To avoid this terrible calamity, he begged Wilhelm, in the name of their old friendship, ‘to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.’

The question of the day on Wednesday was whether Austria-Hungary and Russia might undertake direct discussions to settle the crisis before further military steps turned a local Austro-Serbian war into a general European one.

The New York Times, 29 July 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times, 29 July 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The German general staff summarized its view of the situation: the crime of Sarajevo had led Austria to resort to extreme measures ‘in order to burn with a glowing iron a cancer that has constantly threatened to poison the body of Europe’. The quarrel would have been limited to Austria and Serbia had not Russia begun making military preparations. Now, if the Austrians advanced into Serbia, they would face not only the Serbian army but the vastly superior strength of Russia. Thus, they could not contemplate fighting Serbia without securing themselves against an attack by Russia. This would force them to mobilize the other half of their army – at which point a collision between Austria and Russia would become inevitable. This would force Germany to mobilize, which would lead Russia and France to do the same – ‘and the mutual butchery of the civilized nations of Europe would begin’.

In other words, unless a negotiated settlement could be reached quickly, war seemed inevitable.

Berchtold pleaded with Berlin that only ‘plain speech’ would restrain the Russians, i.e. only the threat of a German attack would stop them from taking military action against Austria. And there were signs that Russia was wary of war. The Austrian ambassador reported that Sazonov was desperate to avoid a conflict and was ‘clinging to straws in the hope of escaping from the present situation’. Sazonov promised that if they were to negotiate on the basis of Sir Edward Grey’s proposal, Austria’s legitimate demands would be recognized and fully satisfied.

At the same time, Sazonov was pleading for British support: the only way to prevent war now was for Britain to warn the Triple Alliance that it would join its entente partners if war were to break out.

But Grey refused to make any promises. When he met with the French ambassador later that afternoon, he warned him not to assume that Britain would again stand by France as it had in 1905. Then it had appeared that Germany was attempting to crush France; now, ‘the dispute between Austria and Serbia was not one in which we felt called to take a hand’. Earlier that day the British cabinet had decided not to decide; Grey was to inform both sides that Britain was unable to make any promises.

At 4 p.m. the German general staff received intelligence that Belgium was calling up reservists, raising the numbers of the Belgian army from 50,000 to 100,000, equipping its fortifications and reinforcing defences along the frontier. Forty minutes later a meeting at the Neue Palais in Potsdam, the Kaiser and his advisers decided to compose an ultimatum to present to Belgium: either agree to adopt an attitude of ‘benevolent neutrality’ towards Germany in a European war or face dire consequences.

Simultaneously, Bethmann Hollweg decided to launch a bold new initiative. He proposed to the British ambassador that Britain agree to remain neutral in the event of war in exchange for a German promise not to seize any French territory in Europe when it ended. He understood that Britain would not allow France to be crushed, but this was not Germany’s aim. When asked whether his proposal applied to French colonies as well, the chancellor replied that he was unable to give a similar undertaking concerning them. Belgium’s integrity would be respected when the war ended –as long as it had not sided against Germany.

Yet another German initiative was taken in St Petersburg. At 7 p.m. the German ambassador transmitted a warning from the chancellor that if Russia continued with its military preparations Germany would be compelled to mobilize, in which case it would take the offensive. Sazonov replied that this removed any doubts he may have had concerning the real cause of Austria’s intransigence.

The Russians found this confusing, as they had just received another telegram from the Kaiser containing a plea that he should not permit Russian military measures to jeopardize German efforts to promote a direct understanding between Russia and Austria. It was agreed that the Tsar should wire Berlin immediately to ask for an explanation of the apparent discrepancy. At 8.20 p.m. the wire asking for clarification was sent. Trusting in his cousin’s ‘wisdom and friendship’, Tsar Nicholas suggested that the ‘Austro-Serbian problem’ be handed over to the Hague conference.

A message announcing a general mobilization in Russia had been drafted and ready to be sent out by 9 p.m. Then, just minutes before it was to be sent out, a personal messenger from the Tsar arrived, instructing that it the general mobilization be cancelled and a partial one re-instituted. The Tsar wanted to hear how the Kaiser would respond to his latest telegram before proceeding. ‘Everything possible must be done to save the peace. I will not become responsible for a monstrous slaughter’.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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21. The month that changed the world: Thursday, 30 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


As the day began a diplomatic solution to the crisis appeared to be within sight at last. The German chancellor had insisted that Austria agree to negotiate directly with Russia. While Germany was prepared to fulfill the obligations of its alliance with Austria, it would decline ‘to be drawn wantonly into a world conflagration by Vienna’. Bethmann Hollweg was also promising to support Sir Edward Grey’s proposed conference to mediate the dispute. He told the Austrians that their political prestige and military honour could be satisfied by an occupation of Belgrade. They could enhance their status in the Balkans while strengthening themselves against the Russians through the humiliation of Serbia.

But a third initiative, the direct line of communication between the Kaiser and the Tsar, was running aground. Attempting to reassure Wilhelm, Nicholas explained that the military measures now being undertaken had been decided upon five days ago – and only as a defence against Austria’s preparations. ‘I hope from all my heart that these measures won’t in any way interfere with your part as mediator which I greatly value.’

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Chancellor of the German Empire, 1909-1917. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Chancellor of the German Empire, 1909-1917. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilhelm erupted. He was shocked to discover first thing on Thursday morning that the ‘military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago’. He would no longer put any pressure on Austria: ‘I cannot agree to any more mediation’; the Tsar, while requesting mediation, ‘has at the same time secretly mobilized behind my back’.

The German ambassador in Vienna presented Bethmann’s directive to a ‘pale and silent’ Berchtold over breakfast. Austria, with guarantees of Serbia’s good behaviour in the future as part of the mediation proposal, could attain its aims ‘without unleashing a world war’. To refuse mediation completely ‘was out of the question’.

Berchtold did as he was told. He explained to the Russians that his apparent rejection of mediation talks was an unfortunate misunderstanding and that he was now prepared to discuss ‘amicably and confidentially’ all questions directly affecting their relations. He warned, however, that he would not yield on any of points in the note to Serbia.

At noon, Russia announced that it was initiating a partial mobilization. But the Austrian ambassador assured Vienna that this was a bluff: Sazonov dreaded war ‘as much as his Imperial Master’ and was attempting ‘to deprive us of the fruits of our Serbian campaign without going to Serbia’s aid if possible’.

In Berlin, the chief of the German general staff began to panic. A few hours after the Russian announcement he pleaded with the Austrians to mobilize fully against Russia and to announce this in a public proclamation. The only way to preserve Austria-Hungary was to endure a European war. ‘Germany is with you unconditionally’. Moltke promised that a German mobilization would immediately follow Austria’s.

In St. Petersburg the war minister and the chief of the general staff tried to persuade Nicholas over the telephone that partial mobilization was a mistake. The Tsar refused to budge. When Sazonov met with the Tsar at Peterhof at 3 p.m. he argued that general mobilization was essential; war was almost inevitable because the Germans were resolved to bring it about. They could easily have made the Austrians see reason if they had desired peace. The Tsar gave way. At 5 p.m. the official decree announcing general mobilization was issued.

In Paris the French cabinet was also deciding to take military steps. They agreed that – for the sake of public opinion – they must take care that ‘the Germans put themselves in the wrong’. They would try to avoid the appearance of mobilizing while consenting to at least some of the requests being made by the army. Covering troops could take up their positions along the German frontier from Luxembourg to the Vosges mountains, but were not to approach closer than 10 kilometres. No train transport was to be used, no reservists were to be called up, no horses or vehicles were to be requisitioned. Joffre, the chief of the general staff, was displeased. These measures would make it difficult to execute the offensive thrust of his war plan. Nevertheless, the orders went out at 4.55 p.m.

In London Grey bluntly rejected Bethmann’s neutrality proposal of the day before: ‘that we should bind ourselves to neutrality on such terms cannot for a moment be entertained’. Germany was asking Britain to stand by while French colonies were taken and France was beaten in exchange for Germany’s promise to refrain from taking French territory in Europe. Such a proposal was unacceptable ‘for France could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy’. On the other hand, if the current crisis passed and the peace of Europe preserved, Grey promised to endeavour to promote an arrangement by which Germany could be assured ‘that no hostile or aggressive policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia, and ourselves, jointly or separately’.

Shortly before midnight a telegram from King George arrived at Potsdam. Responding to an earlier telegram from the Kaiser’s brother, the King assured him that the British government was doing its utmost to persuade Russia and France to suspend further military preparations. This seemed possible ‘if Austria will consent to be satisfied with [the] occupation of Belgrade and neighbouring Servian territory as a hostage for [the] satisfactory settlement of her demands’. He urged the Kaiser to use his great influence at Vienna to induce Austria to accept this proposal and prove that Germany and Britain were working together to prevent a catastrophe.

The Kaiser ordered his brother to drive into Berlin immediately to inform Bethmann Hollweg of the news. Heinrich delivered the message to the chancellor at 1.15 a.m. and had returned to Potsdam by 2.20. Wilhelm planned to answer the King on Friday morning. The Kaiser noted, happily, that the suggestions made by the King were the same as those he had proposed to Vienna that evening.

Surely a peaceful resolution was at hand?

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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22. The month that changed the world: Friday, 31 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


Although Austria had declared war, begun the bombardment of Belgrade, and announced the mobilization of its army in the south, negotiations to reach a diplomatic solution continued. A peaceful outcome still seemed possible: a settlement might be negotiated directly between Austria and Russia in St Petersburg, or a conference of the four ‘disinterested’ Great Powers in either London or Berlin might mediate between Austria and Russia.

The German chancellor worried that if Sir Edward Grey succeeded in restraining Russia and France while Vienna declined to negotiate it would be disastrous; it would appear to everyone that the Austrians absolutely wanted a war. Germany would be drawn in, but Russia would be free of responsibility. ‘That would place us in an untenable situation in the eyes of our own people’. He instructed the ambassador in Vienna to advise Austria to accept Grey’s proposal.

In Vienna at 9 a.m. Berchtold convened a meeting of the common ministerial council, explaining that the Grey proposal for a conference à quatre was back on the agenda and that the German chancellor was insisting that this must be carefully considered. Bethmann Hollweg was arguing that Austria’s political prestige and military honour could be satisfied by the occupation of Belgrade and other points, while the humiliation of Serbia would weaken Russia’s position in the Balkans.

Berchtold warned that in such a conference France, Britain, and Italy were likely take Russia’s part and that Austria could not count on the support of the German ambassador in London. If everything that Austria had undertaken were to result in no more than a gain in ‘prestige’, its work would have been in vain. An occupation of Belgrade would be of no use; it was all a fraud. Russia would pose as the saviour of Serbia – which would remain intact – and in two or three years they could expect the Serbs to attack again in circumstances far less favourable to Austria. Thus, he proposed to respond courteously to the British offer while insisting on Austria’s conditions and avoiding a discussion of the merits of the case. The ministers agreed.

The British cabinet also met in the morning to consider France’s request for a promise of British intervention before Germany attacked. The cabinet divided into three factions: those who opposed intervention, those who were undecided, and those who wished to intervene. Only two ministers, Grey and Churchill, favoured intervention. Most agreed that public opinion in Britain would not support them going to war for the sake of France. But opinion might shift if Germany were to violate Belgian neutrality. Grey was instructed to request – from both Germany and France – an assurance that they would respect the neutrality of Belgium. They were not prepared to give France the promise of support that it had asked for; one of them concluded ‘that this Cabinet will not join in the war’.

Grey wired to Berlin to ask whether Germany might be willing to sound out Vienna, while he sounded out St Petersburg, on the possibility of agreeing to a revised formula that could lead to a conference. Perhaps the four disinterested Powers could offer to Austria to undertake to see that it would obtain ‘full satisfaction of her demands on Servia’ – provided that these did not impair Serbian sovereignty or the integrity of Serbian territory. Russia could then be informed by the four Powers that they would undertake to prevent Austrian demands from going to the length of impairing Serbian sovereignty and integrity. All Powers would then suspend further military operations or preparations.

Declaration of war from the German Empire 31 July 1914. Signed by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Countersigned by the Reichs-Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Declaration of war from the German Empire 31 July 1914. Signed by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Countersigned by the Reichs-Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Germany’s response was that it could not consider such a proposal until Russia agreed to cease its mobilization. In Berlin at 2 p.m. the the drohenden Kriegszustand (‘imminent peril of war’) was announced. At 3.30 p.m. Bethmann Hollweg instructed the ambassador in St Petersburg to explain that Germany had been compelled to take this step because of Russia’s mobilization. Germany would mobilize unless Russia agreed to suspend ‘every war measure’ aimed at Austria-Hungary and Germany within twelve hours. The time clock was to begin ticking from the moment that the note was presented in St Petersburg.

At 4.15 p.m. Conrad, the chief of the Austrian general staff, telephoned the office of the general staff in Berlin to explain the Austrian position: the emperor had authorized full mobilization only in response to Russia’s actions and only for the purpose of taking precautions against a Russian attack. Austria had no intention of declaring war against Russia. In other words, Russia could mobilize along the Austrian frontier and Austria could match this on the other side. And there the two forces could wait, without going to war.

This prospect terrified Moltke. He replied immediately that Germany would probably mobilize its forces on Sunday and then commence hostilities against Russia and France. Would Austria abandon Germany? Conrad asked if Germany thus intended to launch a war against Russia and France and whether he should rule out the possibility of fighting a war against Serbia without coming to grips with Russia at the same time. Moltke told him about the ultimatums being presented in St Petersburg and Paris, which required answers by 4 p.m. the next day.

At 6.30 p.m. the Kaiser addressed a crowd of thousands gathered at the pleasure gardens in front of the imperial palace. He declared that those who envied Germany had forced him to take measures to defend the Reich. He had been forced to take up the sword but had not ceased his efforts to maintain the peace. If he did not succeed ‘we shall with God’s help wield the sword in such a way that we can sheathe it with honour’.

In London and Paris they continued to hope that a negotiated settlement was possible. Grey suggested that Russia cease its military preparations in exchange for an undertaking from the other Powers that they would seek a way to give complete satisfaction to Austria without endangering the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Serbia. Viviani, the French premier and foreign minister, agreed. He would tell Sazonov that Grey’s formula furnished a useful basis for a discussion among the Powers who sought an honourable solution to the Austro-Serbian conflict and to avert the danger of war. The formula proposed ‘is calculated equally to give satisfaction to Russia and to Austria and to provide for Serbia an acceptable means of escaping from the present difficulty’.

In St. Petersburg that evening the German ambassador, in a private audience with Tsar Nicholas, warned that Russian military measures might already have produced ‘irreparable consequences’. It was entirely possible that the decision to mobilize when the kaiser was attempting to mediate the dispute might be regarded by him as offensive – and by the German people as provocative. ‘I begged him…to check or to revoke these measures’. The Tsar replied that, for technical reasons, it was not now possible to stop the mobilization. For the sake of European peace it was essential, he argued, that Germany influence, or put pressure on, Austria.

In Paris the German ambassador was to ask the French government if it intended to remain neutral in the event of a Russo-German war. An answer was required within 18 hours. In the unlikely case that France agreed to remain neutral, France was to hand over the fortresses of Verdun and Toul as a pledge of its neutrality. The deadline by which France must agree to this demand was set for 4 p.m. the next day

In St. Petersburg, at 11 p.m., the German ambassador presented the 12-hour ultimatum to Sazonov. If Russia did not abandon its mobilization by noon Saturday Germany would mobilize in response. And, as Bethmann Hollweg had already declared, ‘mobilization means war’.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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23. The month that changed the world: Saturday, 1 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


The choice between war and peace hung in the balance on Saturday, 1 August 1914. Austria-Hungary and Russia were proceeding with full mobilization: Austria-Hungary was preparing to mobilize along the Russian frontier in Galicia; Russia was preparing to mobilize along the German frontier in Poland. On Friday evening in Paris the German ambassador had presented the French government with a question: would France remain neutral in the event of a Russo-German war? They were given 18 hours to respond – until 1 p.m. Saturday. In St Petersburg the German ambassador presented the Russian government with another demand: Russia had 12 hours – until noon Saturday – to suspend all war measures against Germany and Austria-Hungary or Germany would mobilize its forces.

But they were also extraordinarily close to peace. Russia and Austria had resumed negotiations in St Petersburg at the behest of Britain, Germany, and France. Austria had declared publicly and repeatedly that it did not intend to seize any Serbian territory and that it would respect the sovereignty and independence of the Serbian monarchy. Russia had declared that it would not object to severe measures against Serbia as long its sovereignty and independence were respected. Surely, when the two of them were agreed on the fundamental principles involved, a settlement was still within reach?

In London the cabinet met at 11 a.m. for 2 1/2 hours. The discussion was devoted exclusively to the crisis. Ministers were badly divided. Winston Churchill was the most bellicose, demanding immediate mobilization. At the other extreme were those who insisted that the government should declare it would not enter the war under any circumstances. According to the prime minister, Asquith, this was ‘the view for the moment of the bulk of the party’. Grey threatened to resign if the cabinet adopted an uncompromising policy of non-intervention.

H. H. Asquith, British Prime Minister 1908-1916. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One cabinet minister proposed a solution to their dilemma: they should put the onus on Germany. Intervention should depend on whether Germany launched a naval attack on the northern coast of France or violated the independence of Belgium. But his suggestion raised more questions: did Britain have the duty, or merely the right, to intervene if Belgian neutrality were violated? If German troops merely ‘passed through’ Belgium in order to attack France, would this constitute a violation of neutrality? The meeting was inconclusive.

In Berlin the Kaiser was approving the note to be handed to Russia later that day, if it failed to respond positively to the demand that it demobilize: ‘His Majesty the Emperor, my August Sovereign, accepts the challenge in the name of the Empire, and considers himself as being in a state of war with Russia’.

An hour after despatching this telegram another arrived in Berlin from the tsar. Nicholas said he understood that, under the circumstances, Germany was obliged to mobilize, but he asked Wilhelm to give him the same guarantee that he had given Wilhelm: ‘that these measures DO NOT mean war’ and that they would continue to negotiate ‘for the benefit of our countries and universal peace dear to our hearts’.

After meeting with the cabinet, Grey continued to believe that peace might be saved if only a little time could be gained before shooting started. He wired Berlin to suggest that mediation between Austria and Russia could now commence. While promising that Britain abstain from any act that might precipitate matters, he refused to promise that it would remain neutral.

But Grey also refused to promise any assistance to France: Germany appeared willing to agree not to attack France if France remained neutral in a war between Russia and Germany. If France was unable to take advantage of this offer ‘it was because she was bound by an alliance to which we were not parties, and of which we did not know the terms’. Although he would not rule out assisting France under any circumstances, France must make its own decision ‘without reckoning on an assistance that we were not now in a position to give’.

The French ambassador was shocked. He refused to transmit to Paris what Grey had told him, proposing instead to tell his government that the British cabinet had yet to make a decision. He complained that France had left its Atlantic coast undefended because of the naval convention with Britain in 1912 and that the British were honour-bound to assist them. His complaint fell on deaf ears. He staggered from Grey’s office into an adjoining room, close to hysteria, ‘his face white’. Immediately after the meeting he met with two influential Unionists, bitterly declaring ‘Honour! Does England know what honour is’? ‘If you stay out and we survive, we shall not move a finger to save you from being crushed by the Germans later.’

Earlier in Paris General Joffre, chief of the general staff, threatened to resign if the government refused to order mobilization. He warned that France had already fallen two days behind Germany in preparing for war. The cabinet, although divided, agreed to distribute mobilization notices that afternoon at 4 p.m. They agreed, however, to maintain the 10-kilometre buffer zone: ‘No patrol, no reconnaissance, no post, no element whatsoever, must go east of the said line. Whoever crosses it will be liable to court martial and it is only in the event of a full-scale attack that it will be possible to transgress this order’.

By 4 p.m. Russia had yet to reply to the German ultimatum that expired at noon. Falkenhayn, the minister of war, persuaded Bethmann Hollweg to go with him to see the Kaiser and ask him to promulgate the order for mobilization. At 5 p.m., at the Berlin Stadtschloss, the mobilization order sat on a table made from the timbers of Nelson’s Victory. As the Kaiser signed it, Falkenhayn declared ‘God bless Your Majesty and your arms, God protect the beloved Fatherland’.

News of the German declaration of war on Russia spread quickly throughout St Petersburg immediately following the meeting between Pourtalès and Sazonov. Vast crowds began to gather on the Nevsky Prospekt; women threw their jewels into collection bins to support the families of the reservists who had been called up. By 11.30 that night around 50,000 people surrounded the British embassy calling out ‘God save the King’, ‘Rule Britannia’, and ‘Bozhe Tsara Khranie’ [God save the Tsar].

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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24. The month that changed the world: Sunday, 2 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, has been blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


Confusion was still widespread on the morning of 2 August 1914. On Saturday Germany and France had joined Austria-Hungary and Russia in announcing their general mobilization; by 7 p.m. Germany appeared to be at war with Russia. Still, the only shots fired in anger consisted of the bombs that the Austrians continued to shower on Belgrade. Sir Edward Grey continued to hope that the German and French armies might agree on a standstill behind their frontiers while Russia and Austria proceeded to negotiate a settlement over Serbia. No one was certain what the British would do – especially not the British.

Shortly after dawn Sunday German troops crossed the frontier into the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Trains loaded with soldiers crossed the bridge at Wasserbillig and headed to the city of Luxembourg, the capital of the Grand-Duchy. By 8.30 a.m. German troops occupied the railway station in the city centre. Marie-Adélaïde, the grand duchess, protested directly to the kaiser, demanding an explanation and asking him to respect the country’s rights. The chancellor replied that Germany’s military measures should not be regarded as hostile, but only as steps to protect the railways under German management against an attack by the French; he promised full compensation for any damages suffered.

The neutrality of Luxembourg had been guaranteed by the Powers in the Treaty of London of 1867. The prime minister immediately protested the violation at Berlin, Paris, London, and Brussels. When Paul Cambon received the news in London at 7.42 a.m. he requested a meeting with Sir Edward Grey. The French ambassador brought with him a copy of the 1867 treaty – but Grey took the position that the treaty was a ‘collective instrument’, meaning that if Germany chose to violate it, Britain was released from any obligation to uphold it. Disgusted, Cambon declared that the word ‘honour’ might have ‘to be struck out of the British vocabulary’.

The cabinet was scheduled to meet at 10 Downing Street at 11 a.m. Before it convened Lloyd George held a small meeting of his own at the chancellor’s residence next door with five other members of cabinet. They were untroubled by the German invasion of Luxembourg and agreed that, as a group, they would oppose Britain’s entry into the war in Europe. They might reconsider under certain circumstances, however, ‘such as the invasion wholesale of Belgium’.

When they met the cabinet found it almost impossible to decide under what conditions Britain should intervene. Opinions ranged from opposition to intervention under any circumstances to immediate mobilization of the army in anticipation of despatching the British Expeditionary Force to France. Grey revealed his frustration with Germany and Austria-Hungary: they had chosen to play with the most vital interests of civilization and had declined the numerous attempts he had made to find a way out of the crisis. While appearing to negotiate they had continued their march ‘steadily to war’. But the views of the foreign secretary proved unacceptable to the majority of the cabinet. Asquith believed they were on the brink of a split.

After almost three hours of heated debate the cabinet finally agreed to authorize Grey to give the French a qualified assurance. The British government would not permit the Germans to make the English Channel the base for hostile operations against the French.

While the cabinet was meeting in the afternoon a great anti-war demonstration was beginning only a few hundred yards away in Trafalgar Square. Trade unions organized a series of processions, with thousands of workers marching to meet at Nelson’s column from St George’s circus, the East India Docks, Kentish Town, and Westminster Cathedral. Speeches began around 4 p.m. – by which time 10-15,000 had gathered to hear Keir Hardie and other labour leaders, socialists and peace activists. With rain pouring down, at 5 p.m. a resolution in favour of international peace and for solidarity among the workers of the world ‘to use their industrial and political power in order that the nations shall not be involved in the war’ was put to the crowd and deemed to have carried.

 Andrew Bonar Law, British leader of the opposition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Bonar Law, British leader of the opposition. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

If the British cabinet was divided, so however were the people of London. When the crowd began singing ‘The Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’ they were matched by anti-socialists and pro-war demonstrators singing ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. When a red flag was hoisted, a Union Jack went up in reply. Part of the crowd broke away and marched a few hundred feet to Admiralty Arch where they listened to patriotic speeches. Several thousand marched up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, singing the national anthem and the Marseillaise. The King and the Queen appeared on the balcony to acknowledge the cheering crowd. Later that evening demonstrators gathered in front of the French embassy to show their support.

The anti-war sentiment, which was still strong among labour groups and socialist organizations in Britain, was rapidly dissipating in France. On Sunday morning the Socialist party announced its intention to defend France in the event of war. The newspaper of the syndicalist CGT declared ‘That the name of the old emperor Franz Joseph be cursed’; it denounced the kaiser ‘and the pangermanists’ as responsible for the war. In Germany three large trade unions did a deal with the government: in exchange for promising not to go on strike, the government promised not to ban them. In Russia, organized opposition to war practically disappeared.

Shortly before dinner that evening the British cabinet met once again to decide whether they were prepared to enter the war. The prime minister had received a promise from the leader of the Unionist opposition, Andrew Bonar Law, that his party would support Britain’s entry into the war. Now, if the anti-war sentiment in cabinet led to the resignation of Sir Edward Grey – and most likely of Asquith, Churchill and several others along with him – there loomed the likelihood of a coalition government being formed that would lead Britain into war anyway.

While the British cabinet were meeting in London they were unaware that the German minister at Brussels was presenting an ultimatum to the Belgian government at 7.00 p.m. The note contained in the envelope claimed that the German government had received reliable information that French forces were preparing to march through Belgian territory in order to attack Germany. Germany feared that Belgium would be unable to resist a French invasion. For the sake of Germany’s self-defence it was essential that it anticipate such an attack, which might necessitate German forces entering Belgian territory. Belgium was given until 7 a.m. the next morning – twelve hours – to respond.

Within the hour the prime minister took the German note to the king. They agreed that Belgium could not agree to the demands. The king called his council of ministers to the palace at 9 p.m. where they discussed the situation until midnight. The council agreed unanimously with the position taken by the king and the prime minister. They recessed for an hour, resuming their meeting at 1 a.m. to draft a reply.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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25. The month that changed the world: Monday, 3 August 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, has been blogging regularly for us over the past few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel


At 7 a.m. Monday morning the reply of the Belgian government was handed to the German minister in Brussels. The German note had made ‘a deep and painful impression’ on the government. France had given them a formal declaration that it would not violate Belgian neutrality, and, if it were to do so, ‘the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader’. Belgium had always been faithful to its international obligations and had left nothing undone ‘to maintain and enforce respect’ for its neutrality. The attack on Belgian independence which Germany was now threatening ‘constitutes a flagrant violation of international law’. No strategic interest could justify this. ‘The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray at the same time their duties towards Europe.’

Belgian Prime Minister Charles de Brocqueville. By Garitan CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Belgian Prime Minister Charles de Brocqueville. By Garitan CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When the British cabinet reconvened later that morning at 11 a.m. there were now four ministers prepared to resign over the issue of British intervention. Their discussion lasted for three hours, at the end of which they agreed on the line to be taken by Sir Edward Grey when he addressed the House of Commons at 3 p.m. ‘The Cabinet was very moving. Most of us could hardly speak at all for emotion.’

Grey began his address to the House by explaining that the present crisis differed from that of Morocco in 1912. That had been a dispute which involved France primarily, to whom Britain had promised diplomatic support, and had done so publicly. The situation they faced now had originated as a dispute between Austria and Serbia – one in which France had become engaged because it was obligated by honour to do so as a result of its alliance with Russia. But this obligation did not apply to Britain. ‘We are not parties to the Franco-Russian Alliance. We do not even know the terms of that Alliance.’

But, because of their now-established friendship, the French had concentrated their fleet in the Mediterranean because they were secure in the knowledge that they need not fear for the safety of their northern and western coasts. Those coasts were now absolutely undefended. ‘My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside and see this going on practically within sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing!’ The government felt strongly that France was entitled to know ‘and to know at once!’ whether in the event of an attack on her coasts it could depend on British support. Thus, he had given the government’s assurance of support to the French ambassador yesterday.

There was another, more immediate consideration: what should Britain do in the event of a violation of Belgian neutrality? He warned the House that if Belgium’s independence were to go, that of Holland would follow. And what…

‘If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great Power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself’? If Britain chose to stand aside and ‘run away from those obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value…’

‘I do not believe for a moment, that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite to us—if that had been the result of the war—falling under the domination of a single Power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as to have lost us all respect.’

While Grey was speaking in the House the king and queen were driving along the Mall to Buckingham Palace in an open carriage, cheered by large crowds. In Berlin the Russian ambassador was being attacked by a mob wielding sticks, while the German chancellor was sending instructions to the ambassador in Paris to inform the French government that Germany considered itself to now be ‘in a state of war’ with France. At 6 p.m. the declaration was handed in at Paris:

‘The German administrative and military authorities have established a certain number of flagrantly hostile acts committed on German territory by French military aviators. Several of these have openly violated the neutrality of Belgium by flying over the territory of that country; one has attempted to destroy buildings near Wesel; others have been seen in the district of the Eifel, one has thrown bombs on the railway near Karlsruhe and Nuremberg.’

The French president welcomed the declaration. It came as a relief, Poincaré said, given that war was by this time inevitable.

‘It is a hundred times better that we were not led to declare war ourselves, even on account of repeated violations of our frontier…. If we had been forced to declare war ourselves, the Russian alliance would have become a subject of controversy in France, national [élan?] would have been broken, and Italy may have been forced by the provisions of the Triple Alliance to take sides against us.’

When the British cabinet met again briefly in the evening they had before them the text of the German ultimatum to Belgium and the Belgian reply to it. They agreed to insist that the German government withdraw the ultimatum. After the meeting Grey told the French ambassador that if Germany refused ‘it will be war’.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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