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1. A Q&A with John Ferling on the American Revolution

John Ferling is one of the premier historians on the American Revolution. He has written numerous books on the battles, historical figures, and events that led to American independence, most recently with contributions to The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook. Here, he answers questions and discusses some of the lesser-known aspects of the American Revolution.

What was the greatest consequence of the American Revolution?

The greatest consequence of the American Revolution stemmed from Jefferson’s master stroke in the Declaration of Independence. His ringing declaration that “all men are created equal” and all possess the natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has inspired generations hopeful of realizing the meaning of the American Revolution.

What was the most underrated battle of the Revolutionary War?

King’s Mountain often gets lost in the shuffle, but if Washington’s brilliant Trenton-Princeton campaign was crucially important, King’s Mountain was no less pivotal. Washington’s victory was America’s first in nearly a year, King’s Mountain the first of significance in three years. Trenton-Princeton was vital for recruiting a new army in 1777; King’s Mountain stopped Britain’s recruitment of southern Tories in its tracks. Enemy losses were nearly identical at Trenton-Princeton and King’s Mountain. Finally, Sir Henry Clinton thought the defeat at King’s Mountain was pivotal, and soon thereafter he told one of his generals that with the setback “all his Dreams of Conquest quite vanish’d.”

Sketch of the Battle of Trenton by Andreas Wiederholt (b. 1752?). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sketch of the Battle of Trenton by Andreas Wiederholt (b. 1752?). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the one unanswered question about the American Revolution you’d most like answered?

The war in the South in 1780 and 1781 is shot through with mysteries. Why did Benjamin Lincoln stay put in Charleston in 1780? He might have withdrawn to the interior, as did those defending against Burgoyne’s invasion, or he might have made a stand behind the Ashley River — as Washington did on the Brandywine — and then retreated to the interior.

Why in the summer that followed did Horatio Gates immediately take the field when his army was so unprepared and he faced no immediate threat? Why did Gates in August at Camden position his men so that the militia faced Cornwallis’s regulars?

Why in 1781 did not Sir Henry Clinton order General Cornwallis back to the Carolinas or summon him and most of his army to New York?

With all the mistakes, maybe the biggest mystery of the war is how anyone won.

What is your favorite quote by a Revolutionary?

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Aside from the egalitarian and natural rights portions of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, I have two favorite quotations from revolutionaries. One is that of Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts. When asked why he had soldiered on the first day of the war, he responded: “[W]hat we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” My second favorite is Washington’s remark on learning of Lexington and Concord: a “Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast.”

Aside from John and Abigail, what was the best husband-wife duo of the Revolution?

If “best” means the duo that best aided the American Revolution, I am sure there must have been countless nameless men who bore arms while their spouses at home made bullets. But of those with whom I am familiar, I opt for Joseph and Esther Reed. He played an important role in Pennsylvania’s insurgency, served in the army and as Washington’s secretary, played a crucial role in the Continental Army’s escape after the Second Battle of Trenton, sat in the Continental Congress, and was the chief executive of his state for three years. She organized the Ladies Organization in Philadelphia in 1780 and published a broadside urging women not to purchase unnecessary consumer items, but instead to donate the money that they saved to aid the soldiery in the Continental army. Altogether, her campaign raised nearly $50,000 in four states.

What was the most important diplomatic action of the war?

The greatest consequence of the American Revolution stemmed from Jefferson’s master stroke in the Declaration of Independence. His ringing declaration that “all men are created equal” and all possess the natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has inspired generations hopeful of realizing the meaning of the American Revolution.

What is your favorite Revolutionary War site (battlefield, home, museum, etc.) to visit today?

If limited to choosing only one site, it would be Mount Vernon. For one thing, George Washington seemed to have a hand in almost everything that occurred in America from 1753 until his death in 1799. In addition, he was a farmer, a pursuit that is alien to most of us today. Mount Vernon includes an informative museum, a functioning distillery and mill, farm land, animals, gardens, and of course the mansion, which opens a window onto the life of a wealthy Virginia planter. Those who lived there as slaves are not overlooked and slavery at Mount Vernon is not whitewashed. Nearly a full day is required to take in everything and at day’s end a visitor who comes without much understanding of the man and his time will leave having received a decent and illuminating introduction to Washington and eighteenth century life and culture.

Mount Vernon by Ad Meskens. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Mount Vernon by Ad Meskens. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Propaganda was important during the Revolution. What is your favorite propaganda item?

Had there been an Abraham Zapruder armed with a motion picture camera on Lexington Green on 19 April 1775, we might know precisely what occurred when the first shot was fired in the Revolutionary War. But we will never know if that shot was fired accidentally, whether it was fired by British soldiers following orders, or as some alleged if it was fired by a colonist in hiding. What is known is that soon after that historic day the Massachusetts Committee of Safety deposed witnesses of the bloody event, from which it cobbled together an account showing that the regulars opened fire after being commanded to “Fire, by God, Fire.” That account circulated before the official British report was published. In a day when knowledge of who fired the first shot to launch a war was still important, the Massachusetts radicals had scored a propaganda master stroke.

If you could time travel and visit any American city, colony, or state for one year between 1763 and 1783, which would you choose?

I would choose to be living in Boston in 1763. I would like to know what people in the city were thinking about Anglo-America prior to the Sugar and Stamp Acts and how many had ever heard of The Independent Whig. I would like to visit grog shops to discover whether there was a hint of rebellion among the workers and whether they thought Samuel Adams would ever amount to anything. While there, perhaps I could catch a game at Fenway when the St. Louis Browns come to town.

In your opinion, what was George Washington’s biggest blunder of the war?

A book about Washington’s blunders would be large, but his most baffling mistake occurred in September and October 1776. Although fully aware that he was soon to be trapped in Harlem Heights by a superior British army and utterly dominant Royal Navy, Washington made no attempt to escape his snare. His letters at the time indicate an awareness of his dilemma. They also suggest that in addition to his customary indecisiveness, Washington was not just thoroughly exhausted, but in the throes of a black depression. These assorted factors likely explain his potentially fatal torpor. He and the American cause were saved from the looming disaster by the arrival of General Charles Lee, whose advice Washington still respected. Lee took one look and urged Washington to get the army out of the trap. Washington listened, and escaped.

In your opinion, who was the most overrated revolutionary?

Franklin is the most overrated. He was not unimportant – indeed, I think he was a very great man – but as he was abroad for years, he played a minor role in the insurgency between 1765 and 1775. Furthermore, while Franklin was popular in France, Vergennes was a realist who acted in the interest of his country. It is ludicrous to think that Franklin pulled his strings.

Who was the most underrated revolutionary?

General Nathanael Greene is so underrated that many today are unaware of him. But he was the general that Washington turned to for good advice, made personal sacrifices to try to straighten out the quartermaster corps, and waged an absolutely brilliant campaign in the Carolinas between January and March 1781. It was his heroics in the South that helped drive Cornwallis to take his fateful step into Virginia, and to his doom. Had it not been for Greene, it is difficult to envision a pivotal allied victory on the scale of Yorktown in 1781, and without Yorktown the war would have had a different ending, possibly one that did not include American independence.

Was American independence inevitable?

Chatham and Burke knew how independence could be avoided, but it involved surrendering much of Parliament’s power over the colonists. Burke also glimpsed the possibility of using proffered concessions to play on the divisions in the Continental Congress, which included many delegates who opposed a break with Britain. Burke’s notion might have worked. But from the beginning the great majority in Parliament thought that in a worst case scenario the use of force would bring the colonists to heel. Given the political realities of the day, war appears to have been virtually inevitable. Even so, independence very likely would have been prevented had Britain had an adequate number of troops in America in April 1775 or a capable general to lead the campaign for New York in 1776, someone like Earl Cornwallis.

A version of this Q&A first appeared on the Journal of the American Revolution.

John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. He is a leading authority on late 18th and early 19th century American history. His latest book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, was published in October 2013. He is the author of many books, including Independence, The Ascent of George Washington, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of IndependenceSetting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, John Adams: A Life, and A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. The month that changed the world: Monday, 20 July to Thursday, 23 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


The French delegation, led by President Raymond Poincaré and the premier/foreign minister René Viviani, finally arrived in Russia. They boarded the imperial yacht, the Alexandria, while a Russian band played the ‘Marseillaise’ – that revolutionary ode to the destruction of royal and aristocratic privilege. The tsar and his foreign minister welcomed the visitors before they travelled to Peterhof where a spectacular banquet awaited them.

While the leaders of republican France and tsarist Russia were proclaiming their mutual admiration for one another, the Habsburg emperor was approving the terms of the ultimatum to be presented to Serbia three days later. No one was to be forewarned, not even their allies: Italy was to be told on Wednesday only that a note would be presented on Thursday; Germany was not to be given the details of the ultimatum until Friday – along with everyone else.

In London, Sir Edward Grey remained in the dark. He was optimistic; he told the German ambassador on Monday that a peaceful solution would be reached. It was obvious that Austria was going to make demands on Serbia, including guarantees for the future, but Grey believed that everything depended on the form of the demands, whether the Austrians would exercise moderation, and whether the accusations of Serb government complicity were convincing. If Austria kept its demands within ‘reasonable limits’ and if the necessary justification was provided, it ought to be possible to prevent a breach of the peace; ‘that any of them should be dragged into a war by Serbia would be detestable’.

Raymond Poincaré, President of France, public domain

On Tuesday the Germans complained that the Austrians were keeping them in the dark. From Berlin, the Austrian ambassador offered Berchtold his ‘humble opinion’ that the Germans ought to be given the details of the ultimatum immediately. After all, the Kaiser ‘and all the others in high offices’ had loyally promised their support from the first; to treat Germany in the same manner as all the other powers ‘might give offence’. Berchtold agreed to give the German ambassador a copy of the ultimatum that evening; the details should arrive at the Wilhelmstrasse by Wednesday.

That same day the French visitors arrived in St Petersburg, where the mayor offered the president bread and salt – according to an old Slavic custom – and Poincaré laid a wreath on the tomb of Alexander III ‘the father’ of the Franco-Russian alliance. In the afternoon they travelled to the Winter Palace for a diplomatic levee. Along the route they were greeted by enthusiastic crowds: ‘The police had arranged it all. At every street corner a group of poor wretches cheered loudly under the eye of a policeman.’ Another spectacular banquet was held that evening, this time at the French embassy.

Perhaps the presence of the French emboldened the Russians. The foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, warned the German ambassador that he perceived ‘powerful and dangerous influences’ might plunge Austria into war. He blamed the Austrians for the agitation in Bosnia, which arose from their misgovernment of the province. Now there were those who wanted to take advantage of the assassination to annihilate Serbia. But Russia could not look on indifferently while Serbia was humiliated, and Russia was not alone: they were now taking the situation very seriously in Paris and London.

But stern warnings in St Petersburg were not repeated elsewhere. In Vienna the French ambassador believed as late as Wednesday that Russia would not take an active part in the dispute and would try to localize it. The Russian ambassador there was so confident of a peaceful resolution that he left for his vacation that afternoon. The Russian ambassador in Berlin had already left for vacation and had yet to return; the French ambassador there returned on Thursday. The British ambassador was also absent and Grey saw no need to send him back to Berlin.

In Rome however, San Giuliano had no doubt that Austria was carefully drafting demands that could not be accepted by Serbia. He no longer believed that Franz Joseph would act as a moderating influence. The Austrian government was now determined to crush Serbia and seemed to believe that Russia would stand by and allow Serbia to ‘be violated’. Germany, he predicted, ‘would make no effort’ to restrain Austria.

By Thursday, 23 July, twenty-five days had passed since the assassination. Twenty-five days of rumours, speculations, discussions, half-truths, and hypothetical scenarios. Would the Austrian investigation into the crime prove that the instigators were directed from or supported by the government in Belgrade? Would the Serbian government assist in rooting out any individuals or organizations that may have provided assistance to the conspirators? Would Austria’s demands be limited to steps to ensure that the perpetrators would be brought to justice and such outrages be prevented from recurring in the future? Or would the assassination be utilized as a pretext for dismembering, crushing or abolishing the independence of Serbia as a state? Was Germany restraining Austria or goading it to act? Would Russia stand with Serbia in resisting Austrian demands? Would France encourage Russia to respond with restraint or push it forward? Would Italy stick with her alliance partners, stand aside, or join the other side? Could Britain promote a peaceful resolution by refusing to commit to either side in the dispute, or could it hope to counterbalance the Triple Alliance only by acting in partnership with its friends in the entente? At last, at least some of these questions were about to be answered.

At ‘the striking of the clock’ at 6 p.m. on Thursday evening the Austrian note was presented in Belgrade to the prime minister’s deputy, the chain-smoking Lazar Paču, who immediately arranged to see the Russian minister to beg for Russia’s help. Even a quick glance at the demands made in the note convinced the Serbian Crown Prince that he could not possibly accept them. The chief of the general staff and his deputy were recalled from their vacations; all divisional commanders were summoned to their posts; railway authorities were alerted that mobilization might be declared; regiments on the northern frontier were instructed to prepare assembly points for an impending mobilization. What would become the most famous diplomatic crisis in history had finally 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. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Raymond Poincaré, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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8. The month that changed the world: Monday, 13 July to Sunday, 19 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


Two weeks after the assassination, by Monday, 13 July, Austria’s hopes of pinning the guilt directly on the Serbian government had evaporated. The judge sent to investigate reported that he had been unable to discover any evidence proving its complicity in the plot. Perhaps the Russian foreign minister was right to dismiss the assassination as having been perpetrated by immature young men acting on their own. Any public relations initiative undertaken by Austria to justify making harsh demands on Serbia would have to rely on its failure to live up to the promises it had made five years ago to exist on good terms with Austria-Hungary.

Few anticipated an international crisis. Entente diplomats remained convinced that Germany would restrain Austria, while the British ambassador in Vienna still regarded Berchtold as ‘peacefully inclined’ and believed that it would be difficult to persuade the emperor to sanction an ‘aggressive course of action’. Triple Alliance diplomats found it difficult to envision a robust response from the Entente powers to any Austrian initiative: the cities of western Russia were plagued by devastating strikes; the possibility of civil war in Ulster loomed as a result of the British government’s home rule bill; the French public was already absorbed by the upcoming murder trial of the wife of a cabinet minister.

Austria and Germany tried to maintain an aura of calm. The chief of the Austrian general staff left for his annual vacation on Monday; the minister of war joined him on Wednesday. The chief of the German general staff continued to take the waters at a spa, while the Kaiser was encouraged not to interrupt his Baltic cruise. But behind the scenes they were resolved to act. On Tuesday Tisza assured the German ambassador that he was now ‘firmly convinced’ of the necessity of war: Austria must seize the opportunity to demonstrate its vitality; together with Germany they would now ‘look the future calmly and firmly in the face’. Berchtold explained to Berlin that the presentation of the ultimatum would be have to be delayed: the president and the premier of France would be visiting Russia on the 20-23 of July, and it was not desirable to have them there, in direct contact with the Russian government, when the demands were made. But Berchtold wanted to assure Germany that this did not indicate any ‘hesitation or uncertainty’ in Vienna. The German chancellor was unwavering in his support: he was determined to stand by Austria even if it meant taking ‘a leap into the dark’.

German statesman and diplomat Gottlieb von Jagow

One of the few discordant voices was heard from London, where Prince Lichnowsky was becoming more assertive: he tried to warn Berlin of the consequences of supporting an aggressive Austrian initiative. British opinion had long supported the principle of nationality and their sympathies would ‘turn instantly and impulsively to the Serbs’ if the Austrians resorted to violence. This was not what Berlin wished to hear. Jagow replied that this might be the last opportunity for Austria to deal a death-blow to the ‘menace of a Greater Serbia’. If Austria failed to seize the opportunity its prestige ‘will be finished’, and its status was of vital interest to Germany. He prompted a German businessman to undertake a private mission to London to go around the back of his ambassador.

The German chancellor remained hopeful. Bethmann Hollweg believed that Britain and France could be used to restrain Russia from intervening on Serbia’s behalf. But the support of Italy was questionable. In Rome, the Italian foreign minister argued that the Serbian government could not be held responsible for the actions of men who were not even its subjects. Italy could not offer assistance if Austria attempted to suppress the Serbian national struggle by the use of violence – or at least not unless sufficient ‘compensation’ was promised in advance.

From London Lichnowsky continued to insist that a war would neither solve Austria’s Slav problem nor extinguish the Greater Serb movement. There was no hope of detaching Britain from the Entente and Germany faced no imminent danger from Russia. Germany, he complained, was risking everything for ‘mere adventure’.

These warnings fell on deaf ears: instead of reconsidering Germany’s options the chancellor lost his confidence in Lichnowsky. Instead of recognising that Italy would fail to support its allies in a war, the German government pressed Vienna to offer compensation to Italy sufficient to change its mind. By Saturday, the secretary of state was explaining that this was Austria’s last chance for ‘rehabilitation’ and that if it were to fail its standing as a Great Power would disappear forever. The alternative was Russian hegemony in the Balkans – something that Germany could not permit. The greater the determination with which Austria acted, the more likely it was that Russia would remain quiet. Better to act now: in a few years Russia would be prepared to fight, and then ‘she will crush us by the number of her soldiers.’

On Sunday morning the ministers of the Austro-Hungarian common council gathered secretively at Betchtold’s private residence, arriving in unmarked cars. This time there was no controversy. After minimal discussion the terms of the ultimatum to be presented to Serbia were agreed upon. Count Hoyos recorded that the demands were such that no nation ‘that still possessed self- respect and dignity could possibly accept them’. They agreed to present the note containing them in Belgrade between 4 and 5 p.m. on Thursday, the 25th. If Serbia failed to reply positively within 48 hours Austria would begin to mobilize its armed forces.

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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Image credit: Gottlieb von Jagow, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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9. The month that changed the world: Monday, 6 July to Sunday, 12 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


Having assured the Austrians of his support on Sunday, the kaiser on Monday departed on his yacht, the Hohenzollern, for his annual summer cruise of the Baltic. When his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, met with Count Hoyos and the Austrian ambassador in Berlin that afternoon, he confirmed that Germany would stand by them ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’. He agreed that Russia was attempting to form a ‘Balkan League’ which threatened the interests of the Triple Alliance. He promised to seize the initiative: he would begin negotiations to bring Bulgaria into the alliance and he would advise Romania to stop nationalist agitation there against Austria. He would leave it to the Austrians to decide how to proceed with Serbia, but they ‘may always be certain that Germany will remain at our side as a faithful friend and ally’.

In London the German ambassador, now back from a visit home, arranged to meet with the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, on Monday afternoon. Prince Lichnowsky aimed to persuade Grey that Germany and Britain should co-operate to ‘localize’ the dispute between Austria and Serbia. Lichnowsky explained that the feeling was growing in Germany that it was better not to restrain Austria, to ‘let the trouble come now, rather than later’ and he reported that Grey understood Austria would have to adopt ‘severe measures’.

On Tuesday the Austrian government met in Vienna to determine precisely how far and how fast they were prepared to move against Serbia. The meeting went on for most of the day. The emperor did not attend; in fact, he left the city that morning to return to his hunting lodge, five hours away, where he would remain for the next three weeks. Berchtold, in the chair, told the assembled ministers that the moment had come to decide whether to render Serbia’s intrigues harmless forever. He assured them that Germany had promised its support in the event of any ‘warlike complications’.

The Triple Alliance

The ministers agreed that vigorous measures were needed. Only the Hungarian minister-president expressed any concern. Tisza insisted that they prepare the diplomatic ground before taking any military action, otherwise they would be discredited in the eyes of Europe. They should begin by presenting Serbia with a list of demands: if these were accepted they would have achieved a splendid diplomatic victory; if they were rejected, he would vote for war. Berchtold and the others disagreed: only by the exertion of force could the fundamental problem of the propaganda for a Greater Serbia emanating from Belgrade be eliminated. The argument went on for hours, but Tisza had the power of a virtual veto: Austria-Hungary could not go to war without his agreement. Reluctantly, the ministers agreed to formulate a set of demands to present to Serbia. These should be so stringent however as to make refusal ‘almost certain’.

On Wednesday, 8 July, officials at the Ballhausplatz began working on the draft of an ultimatum to be presented to Serbia. They were in no hurry. The chief of the general Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorff, had determined that, with so many conscript soldiers on leave to assist in the gathering of the harvest, it would be impossible to begin mobilization before 25 July. The ultimatum could not be presented until 22-23 July.

By Thursday in Berlin they were beginning to envision a diplomatic victory for the Triple Alliance. The secretary of state, Gottlieb von Jagow, just returned from his honeymoon, told the Italian ambassador that Austria could not afford to be submissive when confronted by a Serbia ‘sustained or driven on by the provocative support of Russia’. But he did not believe that ‘a really energetic and coherent action’ on their part would lead to a conflict. From London, Prince Lichnowsky reported that Sir Edward Grey had reassured him that he had made no secret agreements with France and Russia that entailed any obligations in the event of a European war. Rather, Britain wished to preserve the ‘absolutely free hand’ that would allow it to act according to its own judgement. Grey appeared confident, cheerful and ‘not pessimistic’ about the situation in the Balkans.

Meeting with the German ambassador in Vienna on Friday, Berchtold sketched some preliminary ideas of what the ultimatum to Serbia might consist of. Perhaps they might demand that an agency of the Austro-Hungarian government be established at Belgrade to monitor the machinations of the ‘Greater Serbia’ movement; perhaps they might insist that some nationalist organizations be dissolved; perhaps they could stipulate that certain army officers be dismissed. He wanted to be sure that the demands went so far that Serbia could not possibly accept them. What did they think in Berlin?

Berlin chose not to think anything. The ambassador was instructed to inform Berchtold that Germany could take no part in formulating the demands. Instead, he was advised to collect evidence that would show the Greater Serbia agitation in Belgrade threatened Austria’s existence.

At the same time the fourth – but secret – member of the Triple Alliance, Romania, was warning that it would not be able to meet its obligations to assist Austria. Romanians, the Hohenzollern king advised, were offended by Hungary’s treatment of its Romanian population: they now regarded Austria, not Russia, as their primary enemy. King Karl did not believe the Serbian government was involved in the assassination and complained that the Austrians seemed to have lost their heads. Berlin should exert its influence on Vienna to extinguish the ‘pusillanimous spirit’ there.

By the end of the week Italy had added its voice to the chorus of restraint. The foreign minister, the Marchese di San Giuliano, insisted that governments of democratic countries (such as Serbia) ‘could not be held accountable for the transgressions of the press’. The Austrians should not be unfair, and he was urging moderation on the Serbians. There seemed every reason to believe that peace would endure: the British ambassador in Vienna thought the government would hesitate to take a step that would produce ‘great international tension’, and the Serbian minister there had assured him that he had no reason to expect a ‘threatening communication’ from Austria.

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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Image credit: Map highlighting the Triple Alliance. By Nydas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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10. The month that changed the world: Monday, 29 June to Sunday, 5 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 it was Sunday, news of the assassination rocketed around the capitals of Europe. By evening Princip and Čabrinović had been arrested, charged, taken to the military prison and put in chains. All of Čabrinović’s family had been rounded up and arrested, along with those they employed in the family café; Ilić was arrested that afternoon. The remaining conspirators fled the city but within days six of the seven had been captured.

On Sunday evening crowds of young Croatian and Muslim men gathered and marched through Sarajevo, singing the Bosnian anthem and shouting ‘Down with the Serbs’. About one hundred of them stoned the Hotel Europa, owned by a prominent Serb and frequented by Serbian intellectuals. The next morning Croat and Muslim leaders held a rally to demonstrate their support for Austrian rule. They sang the national anthem of the monarchy and carried portraits of the emperor. Sporadic demonstrations quickly escalated into full-scale rioting. Crowds began smashing windows of Serbian businesses and institutions, ransacking the Serbian school, stoning the residence of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo and besieging the homes of prominent Serbs.

The people of Vienna had remained calm when news of the assassination arrived on Sunday, but by Monday afternoon a crowd gathered at the Serbian legation and police had to be called in. Behind the scenes the chief of Austria-Hungary’s general staff argued that they must ‘draw the sword’ against Serbia. Leading Viennese newspapers however argued against a campaign of revenge. The emperor returned to Vienna from his hunting lodge on Monday, blaming himself for the killings: God was punishing him for permitting Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie.

By Tuesday the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, was convinced that the conspiracy had been planned in Belgrade. But what would he propose to do? Would he agree to ‘draw the sword’ against Serbia? Or might he be satisfied with Serbian promises to act against those involved in the conspiracy? His choice would rest largely upon the advice he received from his German allies: he could not risk war without German support.

Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, public domain

The German ambassador in Vienna preached restraint. Meeting with Berchtold on Tuesday, Heinrich von Tschirschky advised him not to act in haste, to first decide exactly what he wished to achieve and to weigh his options carefully. Neither of their other allies – Italy and Romania – were likely to support an energetic response. In Berlin, a leading official at the Wilhelmstrasse (the German foreign office), confided to the Italian ambassador his fear that the Austrians might adopt ‘severe and provocative’ measures and that Germany would be faced with the task of restraining them.

On Wednesday Serbia’s prime minister instructed his representatives to explain that his government had taken steps to suppress anarchic elements within Serbia, and that it would now redouble its vigilance and take the severest measures against them: ‘Serbia will do everything in her power and use all the means at her disposal in order to restrain the feelings of ill-balanced people within her frontiers.’

Might this satisfy the Austrians? Ambassador Tschirschky could not envision them demanding more than that Serbia should cooperate in an investigation into the assassination. At the same time, the Hungarian minister-president, István Tisza, was urging the emperor not to use the assassination as an excuse for a ‘reckoning’ with Serbia: it could be fatal to proceed without proof that the Serbian government had been complicit in the plot.

Few expected Count Berchtold to act decisively. He was widely regarded as intelligent but weak, charming but cautious. No one expected him to undertake anything adventurous, and he now appeared to fulfil these expectations. Before making any crucial decisions Berchtold revised an existing memorandum that advised how to meet the growing threat of Russia in the Balkans and turned it into a plea for German support in Austria’s coercion of Serbia. He then drafted a ‘personal’ letter to be sent from the emperor to the kaiser. On Thursday Franz Joseph wrote the letter in his own hand: the crime committed against his nephew (no mention of the duchess) had resulted directly from the agitation conducted by ‘Russian and Serbian Panslavists’ who were determined to weaken the Triple Alliance and ‘shatter my empire’. The Serbian government aimed to unite all south-Slavs under the Serbian flag, which was a lasting danger ‘to my house and to my countries’.

By Thursday a preliminary police investigation had identified seven principal conspirators. Six of them had been taken into custody. Interrogations of the prisoners already indicated that they could be linked to highly-placed officials in Belgrade. And the Austrian military attaché in Belgrade was sending reports linking the conspiracy to Serbian army officers and to the Narodna Odbrana. The pieces of the puzzle seemed to be fitting into place. That evening the bodies of the archduke and the duchess arrived in Vienna; they were to lie in state at the Hofburg Palace until a requiem mass was said on Saturday. They would then be transported to their final resting-place in the chapel Franz Ferdinand had built for that purpose at his castle in Artstetten.

The politicians and diplomats of the so-called Triple Entente – France, Russia, and Britain – expressed few fears of an impending international crisis in the week following the assassination. When the French cabinet met following the assassination on Tuesday the situation arising from Sarajevo was barely mentioned. The French ambassador in Vienna believed the emperor would restrain those seeking revenge and that Austria was not likely to go beyond making threats. The Russian ambassador agreed: he did not believe that the Austrian government would allow itself to be rushed into a war for which it was not prepared. In London, the permanent under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office doubted that Austria would undertake any ‘serious’ action.

While Entente diplomats were comforting themselves with the thought that Austria would not go beyond words, Berchtold despatched his chef de cabinet, Count Hoyos, to Berlin. He carried with him the emperor’s letter to the kaiser and the long memorandum on the Balkan situation that the foreign minister had revised for the purpose. Hoyos, one of the ‘young rebels’ at the Ballhausplatz (the Austrian foreign office), advocated an aggressive foreign policy as an antidote to the monarchy’s apparent decline. Before leaving for Berlin he told a German journalist that he believed Austria must seize the opportunity to ‘solve’ the Serbian problem. It would be most valuable if Germany promised to ‘cover our rear’.

In Berlin on Sunday 5 July 1914 the Germans seemed prepared to do just that. Although the Kaiser expressed his concern that severe measures against Serbia might lead to serious complications he promised that Austria could rely upon the full support of Germany. He did not believe that the Russians were prepared for war, but even if it came to this he assured the Austrian ambassador that Germany would ‘stand at our side’ and that it would be regrettable if Austria failed to seize the moment ‘which is so favourable to us.’ This would go down in legend as the ‘blank cheque’.

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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Image credit: Count Leopold Berchtold. By Philip de László. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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11. The month that changed the world: Sunday, 28 June 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


At 10 a.m. that morning the royal party arrived at the railway station. A motorcade consisting of six automobiles was to proceed from there along the Appel Quay to the city hall.The first automobile was to be manned by four special security detectives assigned to guard the archduke, but only one of them managed to take his place; local policemen substituted for the others. The next car was to carry the mayor, Fehim Effendi Čurćić, wearing his red fez, and the chief of police, Dr Edmund Gerde – who had warned the military authorities about the dangerous atmosphere in Sarajevo and had advised against proceeding with the visit.

The archduke and the duchess were seated next to one another in the third car, facing General Potiorek (the military governor of Bosnia) and the owner of the limousine, Count Harrach. The archduke and duchess conducted a brief inspection of the military barracks before setting out for the city hall, where they were to be formally welcomed before proceeding to open the new state museum, designed to display the benefits of Austrian rule.

Seven would-be assassins mingled with the gathering crowds for over an hour before the motorcade arrived. Ilić had assigned one of them, Nedeljko Čabrinović, a place across the street from two others stationed in front of the garden at the Mostar Café, situated near the first bridge on the route, the Čumurja. Ilić and another assassin took their places on the other side of the street; Gavrilo Princip was placed 200 yards further along the route, at the Lateiner bridge. All seven were in place when the royal party arrived at the station that morning.

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip

Ten minutes before the motorcade reached the Čumurja bridge a policeman approached Čabrinović, demanding that he identify himself. He produced a permit that purported to have been issued by the Viennese police and asked the policeman which car was carrying the archduke. ‘The third’ he was told. A few minutes later he took out his grenade, knocked off the detonator cap and threw it at the limousine carrying the archduke and the duchess. Because there was a twelve-second delay between knocking off the cap and the explosion, the grenade hit the limousine, bounced off, rolled under the next car, and exploded. General Potiorek’s aide-de-camp was injured, along with several spectators. The duchess suffered a slight wound to her cheek, where she had been grazed by the grenade’s detonator.

Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide capsule and jumped over the embankment into the river. But the cyanide failed and the river had been reduced to a mere trickle in mid-summer. He was captured immediately by a policeman who asked him if he was a Serb. ‘Yes, I am a Serb hero’, he replied.

The procession continued on its way to the splendid new city hall, the neo-Moorish Vijećnica, meant to evoke the Alhambra as part of Austria’s ‘neo-Orientalist’ policy designed to cultivate the support of Bosnia’s Muslims. When the royal party arrived, the mayor began to read the effusive speech he had prepared in their honour – apparently unaware of the near calamity that had just occurred. The archduke interrupted, angrily demanding to know how the mayor could speak of ‘loyalty’ to the crown when a bomb had just been thrown at him. The duchess, playing her accustomed role, managed to calm him down while they waited for a staff officer to arrive with a copy of the archduke’s speech – which was now splattered in blood.

After the speeches and a reception General Potiorek proposed that they either drive back along the Appel Quay at full speed to the station or go straight to his residence, only a few hundred metres away, and where lunch awaited them. But the archduke insisted on first visiting the wounded officer at the military hospital. The duchess insisted on accompanying him: ‘It is in time of danger that you need me.’

The royal couple, along with Potiorek, climbed into a new car, with Count Harrach standing on the footboard to shield the archduke from any other would-be assassins. A first car, with the chief of police and others, was to precede them. In order to reach the hospital the motorcade was forced to retrace its route along the Appel Quay. Princip, who had almost abandoned hopeafter Čabrinović’s arrest, was still waiting near the Lateiner bridge when the two cars unexpectedly appeared in front of him.

The driver of the first car had turned right off the Appel Quay, following the original route to take them to the museum; the driver of the second car followed him. General Potiorek, immediately recognizing the mistake, ordered his driver to stop. The car then began to reverse slowly in order to get back onto the Appel Quay – with Count Harrach now on the opposite side of the car to Princip, who was standing at the corner of Appel Quay and Franz Joseph Street, in front of Schiller’s delicatessen. Seizing the opportunity, Princip stepped out of the crowd. His moment had arrived.

Because it was too difficult to take the grenade out of his coat and knock off the detonator cap, Princip decided to use his revolver instead. A policeman spotted him and tried to intervene, but a friend of Princip’s kicked the policeman in the knee and knocked him off balance. The first shot hit the archduke near the jugular vein; the second hit the duchess in the stomach. ‘Soferl, Soferl!’ Franz Ferdinand cried, ‘Don’t die. Live for our children.’ The duchess was already dead by the time they reached the governor’s residence. The archduke, unconscious when he was carried inside, was also dead within minutes – before either a doctor or a priest could be summoned.

Spectators were attempting to lynch Princip when the police rescued him. He tried to swallow the cyanide capsule, but vomited it up. An Austrian judge, interviewing him almost immediately afterwards, wrote: ‘The young assassin, exhausted by his beating, was unable to utter a word. He was undersized, emaciated, sallow, sharp featured. It was difficult to imagine that so frail looking an individual could have committed so serious a deed.’

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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Image credit: Princip arrest [public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. The month that changed the world: Saturday, 27 June 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, will be 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. His first post focuses on the events of Saturday, 27 June 1914.

By Gordon Martel


The next day was to be a brilliant one, a splendid occasion that would glorify the achievements of Austrian rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Habsburg heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been eagerly anticipating it for months. He envisioned making a triumphal entry into the city of Sarajevo, attired in his uniform as inspector-general of the Austro-Hungarian army, and accompanied by his wife, the duchess. Sophie would be resplendent in a full-length white dress with red sash tied at the waist, she would hold a parasol to shelter from the sun and a fan to cool her; gloves, furs and a magnificent hat would complete the outfit.

The date of Sunday, 28 June had been chosen carefully: it was the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo in 1389, at which the medieval Serbian kingdom had been extinguished by the victorious Turks. Afterwards, Bosnia and Herzegovina remained provinces of the Ottoman empire for almost 500 years, until occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces in 1878 and then annexed in 1908. Thus, on the occasion of the archduke’s visit, the Serbs of Bosnia were asked to pay homage to a member of the royal family that blocked the way to uniting all Serbs in a Greater Serbia. The location was also provocative: the archducal visit to Sarajevo was preceded by military manoeuvres in the mountains south of the city – not far from the frontier with Serbia.

The Austrians disregarded warnings of trouble. The Serbian minister in Vienna had suggested to the minister responsible for Bosnian affairs that some Serbs might regard the time and place of the visit as a deliberate affront. Perhaps, he warned, some young Serb participating in the Austrian manoeuvres might substitute live ammunition for blanks – and seize the opportunity to fire at the archduke. Politicians and officials on the spot in Sarajevo had advised that the visit be cancelled; the police warned that they could not guarantee the archduke’s safety, particularly given the lengthy route that that the royal couple were scheduled to take along the Miljačka river from the railway station to the city hall.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand was not to be dissuaded by any warnings. More than high politics was involved in the choice of date for the visit. 28 June was the 14th anniversary of the humiliating ‘oath of renunciation’ that Franz Ferdinand had been forced to swear in order to receive the approval of his uncle – the emperor— of his marriage to Sophie. According to Franz Joseph and Habsburg ‘house rules’, she was unsuitable: her family was merely aristocratic, and neither from the Habsburg family itself nor from one of the ruling dynasties of Europe. When the emperor, after a long and acrimonious battle with his nephew, reluctantly agreed to the marriage he had imposed the humiliating conditions of a ‘morganatic’ marriage: neither Sophie nor her offspring would possess the titles and rights that would normally have come with marriage; neither she nor their children could succeed to the throne. Franz Ferdinand, surrounded by archdukes, archduchesses and court officials, had sworn on a bible to uphold the oath in the Secret Council Chamber at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The ritual humiliation of Sophie had begun: although she was elevated to the status of ‘princess’ (and later to duchess) she would never become royalty. Her place, literally and figuratively, was lower than that of the youngest archduchess: in royal processions her husband would come first, she last, walking alone, without an escort. She was not permitted to sit at the head table at state dinners, could not share the royal box when attending the theatre or the opera. These insults aggrieved the volatile and temperamental archduke who was devoted to his wife.

Franz Ferdinand’s triumphal visit to Sarajevo the next day – on the 14th anniversary of the humiliating oath of renunciation – offered him the opportunity of seeing that Sophie would finally be treated with the respect that she was due. As wife of the inspector-general she was to sit next to him in an open carriage during the journey through the city and take the place of honour next to him when he addressed the dignitaries at city hall. Informally, late Saturday afternoon – the day before the official, ceremonial visit – he and Sophie took a leisurely journey into Sarajevo, where they were warmly welcomed by those who recognized them. The royal couple remained blissfully unaware that they had almost come face-to-face with the young Serb who was planning to kill the archduke the next day.

When the archduke and duchess attended the military ball on Saturday evening that marked the end of manoeuvres, Sophie was able to assure everyone how pleased she was with their reception in town that afternoon. At the same time the 19-year-old Danilo Ilić was meeting with six would-be assassins at a Sarajevo café. While handing out guns and grenades, he warned the others that the police may have discovered their plot. But there was no question of calling it off: such an opportunity as this was unlikely to occur again.

Ilić outlined the plan: the assassins were to be placed at each of the three bridges crossing the river. Their best chance of success would come at these junctions, where a grenade could easily be lobbed into the car carrying the royal couple. After discussing their plan, several of the conspirators visited the grave of Bogdan Žerajić, a young Serb who had been martyred years earlier when he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate the emperor. Legend had it that his dying words were ‘I leave it to Serbdom to avenge me’.

It proved enormously helpful to the conspirators that the plans for the procession on Sunday had been published in the local newspaper, the Bosnische Post – in order to encourage as many spectators as possible to turn out. Earlier that week the Muslim mayor had issued a proclamation calling on the people of the city to demonstrate their affection for the Habsburg heir to the throne: people should decorate their homes, fly the imperial flag and display pictures of the emperor and his nephew. The day was to be a triumph for Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia.

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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Image credit: Franz Ferdinand. By Carl Pietzner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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13. Putting an end to war

By Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel


War is hell. War kills people, mainly non-combatant civilians, and injures and maims many more — both physically and psychologically. War destroys the health-supporting infrastructure of society, including systems of medical care and public health services, food and water supply, sanitation and sewage treatment, transportation, communication, and power generation. War destroys the fabric of society and damages the environment. War uproots individuals, families, and often entire communities, making people refugees or internally displaced persons. War diverts human and financial resources. War reinforces the mistaken concept that violence is an acceptable way of resolving conflicts and disputes. And war often creates hatreds that are passed on from one generation to the next.

During the Korean War, a grief stricken American infantryman whose friend has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background, a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags. Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

War is hell. Yet we, as a society, have sanitized the reality of “war” in many ways. In the absence of a draft, many of us have no direct experience of war and do not even personally know people who have recently fought in war. And the US Congress has long since ceded to the President its authority to declare war.

The government and the media infrequently use the word “war.” Instead, they use many euphemisms for “war,” such as “military campaign” and “armed conflict,” and for the tactics of war, like “combat operations” and “surgical strikes.” Nevertheless, we, as a society, often think in a war-like context. We use “war” as a metaphor: the War on Poverty, the War on Cancer, the War on Drugs. And militaristic metaphors pervade the language of medicine and public health: Patients battle cancer. Physicians fight AIDS. Health care providers addressing especially challenging problems work on the front lines or in the trenches. Public health workers target vulnerable populations. And the main office of the leading professional organization in public health is called “headquarters.”

We envision a world without war and see the need to develop the popular and political will to end war. To create a world without war, we, as a society, would need to stop using sanitized phrases to describe “war” and to stop thinking in a militaristic context. But much more would need to be done to create a world without war.

A central concept in public health for the prevention of disease is the use of a triangle, with its three points labeled “host,” “agents,” and “environment.” This concept could be applied for developing strategies to create a world without war — strategies aimed at the host (people), strategies aimed at agents (weapons of war and the military), and strategies aimed at the environment (the conditions in which people live).

Strategies aimed at people could include promoting better understanding and more tolerance among people and among nations, promoting economic and social interdependency among nations, promoting nonviolent resolution of disputes and conflicts, and developing the popular and political will to prevent war and promote peace.

Strategies aimed at weapons of war and the military could include controlling the international arms trade, eliminating weapons of mass destruction, reducing military expenditures, and intervening in disputes and conflicts to prevent war.

Strategies aimed at improving the conditions in which people live — which often contribute to the outbreak of war — could include protecting human rights and civil liberties, reducing poverty and socioeconomic inequalities, improving education and employment opportunities, and ensuring personal security and legal protections.

War is hell. A world without war would be heavenly.

Barry S. Levy, M.D., M.P.H. is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. Victor W. Sidel, M.D. is Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College, and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Levy and Dr. Sidel are co-editors of the recently published second edition of Social Injustice and Public Health as well as two editions each of the books War and Public Health and Terrorism and Public Health, all of which have been published by Oxford University Press. They are both past presidents of the American Public Health Association.

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14. 1914-1918: the paradox of semi-modern war

By Dennis Showalter


The looming centennial of the Great War has inspired a predicable abundance of conferences, books, articles, and blog posts. Most are built on a familiar meme: the war as a symbol of futility. Soldiers and societies alike are presented as victims of flawed intentions and defective methods, which in turn reflected inability or unwillingness to adapt to the spectrum of innovations (material, intellectual, and emotional), that made the Great War the first modern conflict. That perspective is reinforced by the war’s rechristening, backlit by a later and greater struggle, as World War I—which confers a preliminary, test-bed status.

Homeward bound troops pose on the ship's deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card ("AZO") stock. Public Domain

Homeward bound troops pose on the ship’s deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card (“AZO”) stock. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In point of fact, the defining aspect of World War I is its semi-modern character. The “classic” Great War, the war of myth, memory, and image, could be waged only in a limited area: a narrow belt in Western Europe, extending vertically five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, and horizontally about a hundred miles in either direction. War waged outside of the northwest European quadrilateral tended quite rapidly to follow a pattern of de-modernization. Peacetime armies and their cadres melted away in combat, were submerged by repeated infusions of unprepared conscripts, and saw their support systems, equine and material, melt irretrievably away.

Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa offer a plethora of case studies, ranging from combatants left without rifles in Russia, to the breakdown of British medical services in Mesopotamia, to the dismounting of entire regiments in East Africa by the tsetse fly. Nor was de-modernization confined to combat zones. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and arguably Italy, strained themselves to the breaking point and beyond in coping with the demands of an enduring total war. Infrastructures from railways to hospitals to bureaucracies that had functioned reasonably, if not optimally, saw their levels of performance and their levels of competence tested to destruction. Stress combined with famine and plague to nurture catastrophic levels of disorder, from the Armenian genocide to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Semi-modernity posed a corresponding and fundamental challenge to the wartime relationship of armed forces to governments. In 1914, for practical purposes, the warring states turned over control to the generals and admirals. This in part reflected the general belief in a short, decisive war—one that would end before the combatants’ social and political matrices had been permanently reconfigured. It also reflected civil authorities’ lack of faith in their ability to manage war-making’s arcana—and a corresponding willingness to accept the military as “competent by definition.”

Western Battle Front 1916. From J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill, Francis Trevelyan Miller (eds.): The Story of the Great War, Volume V. New York. Specified year 1916, actual year more likely 1917 or 1918. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The extended stalemate that actually developed had two consequences. A major, unacknowledged subtext of thinking about and planning for war prior to 1914 was that future conflict would be so horrible that the home fronts would collapse under the stress. Instead, by 1915 the generals and the politicians were able to count on unprecedented –and unexpected–commitment from their populations. The precise mix of patriotism, conformity, and passivity underpinning that phenomenon remains debatable. But it provided a massive hammer. The second question was how that hammer could best be wielded. In Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, neither soldiers nor politicians were up to the task. In Germany the military’s control metastasized after 1916 into a de facto dictatorship. But that dictatorship was contingent on a victory the armed forces could not deliver. In France and Britain, civil and military authorities beginning in 1915 came to more or less sustainable modi vivendi that endured to the armistice. Their durability over a longer run was considered best untested.

Even in the war’s final stages, on the Western Front that was its defining theater, innovations in methods and technology, could not significantly reduce casualties. They could only improve the ratio of gains. The Germans and the Allies both suffered over three-quarters of a million men during the war’s final months. French general Charles Mangin put it bluntly and accurately: “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.” In contemplating future wars—a process well antedating 11 November 1918—soldiers and politicians faced a disconcerting fact. The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.

Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College, where he has been on the faculty since 1969. He is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, wrote “World War I Origins,” and blogged about “The Wehrmacht Invades Norway.” He is Past President of the Society for Military History, joint editor of War in History, and a widely-published scholar of military affairs. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013), Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012), Hitler’s Panzers (2009), and Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (2005).

Developed cooperatively with scholars worldwide, Oxford Bibliographies offers exclusive, authoritative research guides. Combining the best features of an annotated bibliography and a high-level encyclopedia, this cutting-edge resource guides researchers to the best available scholarship across a wide variety of subjects.

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15. Ten moments that shook the Roman world, in pictures

By Peter Heather


The Roman Empire at its peak was the first great hemispherical power in human history. Over the years, though, this mighty society was torn apart by internal strife and attacks by rival powers. Below, the renowned historian Peter Heather describes the ten most critical turning points which led to the fall of the Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages.



Peter Heather is Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London. He is the bestselling author of The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, and numerous other works on late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

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Image credits: 1. Coin with profile of Shapur. Permission via GNU license via Wikimedia Commons. 2. Statue of Valens. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 3. “Vandals Plundering,” from Mary Charlotte Yonge’s Young Folks’ History of Rome. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 4. “Sack of Rome by the Visigoths” by JM Sylvestre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 5. Map of Roman territories; Gallia Aquitania highlighted. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 6. Map of the Vandal-Alan Kingdom. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 7. “Attila, the Scourge of God,” by Ulipano Checa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 8. Coin with profile of Avitus. Permission via GNU license via Wikimedia Commons. 9. Cap Bon, site of the Roman defeat. Photo by Sergey Prokopenko. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. 10. “Romulus Augustulus resigns the Crown before Odoacer,” from Mary Charlotte Yonge’s Young Folks’ History of Rome. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. Consequences of the Truman Doctrine

By Christopher McKnight Nichols


On 22 May 1947, President Harry Truman signed the formal “Agreements on Aid to Greece and Turkey,” the central pillars of what became known as the “Truman Doctrine.” Though the principles of the policy were first articulated in a speech to a joint session of Congress on 12 March 1947, it took two months for Truman to line up the funding for Greece and Turkey and get the legislation passed through Congress.

Official portrait of Harry Truman by Greta Kempton

Official portrait of Harry Truman by Greta Kempton

In his March address, Truman reminded his audience of the recent British announcement — a warning, really — that they could no longer provide the primary economic and military support to the Greek government in its fight against the Greek Communist Party, and could not prevent a spillover of the conflict into Turkey. Truman asserted that these developments represented a seismic shift in post-war international relations. The United States, he declared, had to step forward into a leadership role in Europe and around the world. Nations across the globe, as he put it, were confronted with an existential threat. They thus faced a fundamental choice about whether or not states “based upon the will of the majority” with government structures designed to provide “guarantees of individual liberty” would continue. If unsupported in the face of anti-democratic forces, a way of life “based upon the will of a minority [might be] forcibly imposed upon the majority”, a government orientation which he contended depended on “terror and oppression.”

Ultimately, the “foreign policy and the national security of this country,” Truman reasoned, were at stake in the global conflict over democratic governance and thus in the particular tenuous situations confronting Greece and Turkey.

The fates of the two states were intertwined. Both nations had received British aid,  he said. If Turkey and Greece faltered, or “fell” to communists, then the stability of the Middle East would be at risk; thus US assistance also was “necessary for the maintenance of [Turkey’s] national integrity.”

The President therefore made the ambitious proposal that was elemental to his “doctrine”: thereafter “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Truman requested $400 million in assistance for the two nations, in a move that many at the time — and most subsequent scholarship — depicted as marking a sort of de facto onset of the Cold War.

While transformative, the precise significance of Truman’s speech is a subject of debate. As historian John Lewis Gaddis has argued, “despite their differences, critics and defenders of the Truman Doctrine tend to agree on two points: that the President’s statement marked a turning point of fundamental importance in the history of American foreign policy; and that US involvement in the Vietnam War grew logically, even inevitably, out of a policy Truman thus initiated.”

However, Truman’s speech and authorization of funding on which the principles depended was neither a subtle nor a decisive shift toward the strategy of containment as many later politicians and scholars have surmised. As Martin Folly observes in a superb piece on Harry Truman in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History: “It is easy to see the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery as following directly from the Truman Doctrine.” Folly goes on to note that this association is wrong. There is little evidence to support a claim that Truman or his powerful then-Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson conceived of the Doctrine as a first step toward, for instance, the measured but firm anti-Soviet resolution showed in the US response to the Berlin Crisis (in the form of the Berlin airlift) nor was the doctrine directly linked to the Marshall Plan as it developed in the year to come. However, as Folly suggests, the Doctrine “reflect[s] Truman’s own approach to foreign affairs as it had evolved, which was that the United States needed to act positively and decisively to defend its interests, and that those interests extended well beyond the Western Hemisphere.”

The major ideological shift represented by the Truman Doctrine and the aid to Greece and Turkey its its simultaneous rejection of the long-standing injunction to “steer clear of foreign entanglements” and an embrace of a heightened expansion of a sphere of influence logic. For the first time in US history, the nation’s peacetime vital interests were extended far outside of the Western Hemisphere to include Europe and, indeed, much of the world. According to Truman, it is “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

This new logic of pro-active aid and intervention to support “vital interests” (always hotly contested, continually open to interpretation) worldwide undergirds the ways in which the United States continues to debate the nation’s internationalist as well as unilateralist options abroad in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

Wherever one stands on debates over the “proper” US role in the world and contemporary geopolitical challenges, the antecedents are clear. After 1947 American national security—and foreign relations more broadly — were no longer premised on a limited view of protecting the political and physical security of US territory and citizens. Instead, the aid agreement signed on 22 May 1947 clinched a formalized US commitment to (selectively) assist, preserve, intervene, and/or reshape the political integrity, structures, and stability of non-communist nations around the world. The consequences of this aid agreement were profound for the early Cold War and for the shape of international relations in the world today.

Christopher McKnight Nichols  is a professor at Oregon State University and a Senior Editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History.

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Image: Official Presidential Portrait painted by Greta Kempton. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. Reflections on World War I

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, it’s important taking a look back at the momentous event that forever changed the course of world history. Here, Sir Hew Strachan, editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, examines the importance of commemorating the Great War and how perspectives on the war have shifted and changed over the last 100 years.

What might we learn from the centenary commemoration of World War I?

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What is the difference between commemorating the 50th anniversary and the centenary of the World War I?

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What is the difference between the First and Second World Wars?

Click here to view the embedded video.

Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele is a Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner, and a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum. He also serves on the British, Scottish, and French national committees advising on the centenary of the First World War. He is the editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. The first volume of his planned trilogy on the First World War, To Arms, was published in 2001, and in 2003 he was the historian behind the 10-part TV series, The First World War.

Visit the US ‘World War I: Commemorating the Centennial’ page or UK ‘First World War Centenary’ page to discover specially commissioned contributions from our expert authors, free resources from our world-class products, book lists, and exclusive archival materials that provide depth, perspective and insight into the Great War.

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18. The bombing of Monte Cassino

On the 15th of February 1944, Allied planes bombed the abbey at Monte Cassino as part of an extended campaign against the Italians. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529. Over four months, the Battle of Monte Cassino would inflict some 200,000 causalities and rank as one of the most horrific battles of World War Two. This excerpt from Peter Caddick-Adams’s Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, recounts the bombing.

On the afternoon of 14 February, Allied artillery shells scattered leaflets containing a printed warning in Italian and English of the abbey’s impending destruction. These were produced by the same US Fifth Army propaganda unit that normally peddled surrender leaflets and devised psychological warfare messages. The monks negotiated a safe passage through the German lines for 16 February — too late, as it turned out. American Harold Bond, of the 36th Texan Division, remembered  the texture of the ‘honey-coloured Travertine stone’ of the abbey that fine Tuesday morning, and how ‘the Germans seemed to sense that something important was about to happen for they were strangely quiet’. Journalist Christopher Buckley wrote of ‘the cold blue on that late winter morning’ as formations of Flying Fortresses ‘flew in perfect formation with that arrogant dignity which distinguishes bomber aircraft as they set out upon a sortie’. John Buckeridge of 1/Royal Sussex, up on Snakeshead, recalled his surprise as the air filled with the drone of engines and waves of silver bombers, the sun glinting off their bellies, hove into view. His surprise turned to concern when he saw their bomb doors open — as far as his battalion was concerned the raid was not due for at least another day.

Brigadier Lovett of 7th Indian Brigade was furious at the lack of warning: ‘I was called on the blower and told that the bombers would be  over in fifteen minutes… even as I spoke the  roar  [of  aircraft] drowned my voice as the first shower of eggs [bombs]  came down.’ At the HQ of the 4/16th Punjabis, the adjutant wrote: ‘We went to the door of the command post and gazed up… There we saw the white trails of many high-level bombers. Our first thought was that they were the enemy. Then somebody said, “Flying Fortresses.” There followed the whistle, swish and blast as the first flights struck at the monastery.’ The first formation released their cargo over the abbey. ‘We could see them fall, looking at this distance like little black stones, and then the ground  all around  us shook with gigantic shocks as they exploded,’ wrote Harold  Bond. ‘Where the abbey had been there was only a huge cloud of smoke and dust which concealed the entire hilltop.’

The aircraft which committed the deed came from the massive resources of the US Fifteenth and Twelfth Air Forces (3,876 planes, including transports and those of the RAF in theatre), whose heavy and medium bombardment wings were based predominantly on two dozen temporary airstrips around Foggia in southern Italy (by comparison, a Luftwaffe return of aircraft numbers in Italy on 31 January revealed 474 fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft in theatre, of which 224 were serviceable). Less than an hour’s flying time from Cassino, the Foggia airfields were primitive, mostly grass affairs, covered with Pierced Steel Planking runways, with all offices, accommodation and other facilities under canvas, or quickly constructed out of wood. In mid-winter the buildings and tents were wet and freezing, and often the runways were swamped with oceans of mud which inhibited  flying. Among the personnel stationed there was Joseph Heller, whose famous novel Catch-22 was based on the surreal no-win-situation chaos of Heller’s 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, Twelfth Air Force, with whom he flew sixty combat missions as a bombardier (bomb-aimer) in B-25 Mitchells.

After the first wave of  aircraft struck Cassino monastery, a Sikh company of 4/16th Punjabis fell back, understandably, and a German wireless message was heard to announce: ‘Indian troops  with turbans are retiring’. Bond and his friends were astonished when, ‘now and again, between the waves of bombers, a wind would blow the smoke away, and to our surprise we saw the gigantic walls of the abbey still stood’. Captain Rupert Clarke, Alexander’s ADC, was watching with his boss. ‘Alex and I were lying out on the ground about 3,000 yards from Cassino. As I watched the bombers, I saw bomb doors open and bombs began to fall well short of the target.’ Back at the 4/16th Punjabis, ‘almost before the ground ceased to shake the telephones were ringing. One of our companies was within 300 yards of the target and the others within 800 yards; all had received a plastering and were asking questions with some asperity.’ Later, when a formation of B-25 medium bombers passed over, Buckley noticed, ‘a  bright  flame, such  as a  giant  might have produced by striking titanic matches on the mountain-side, spurted swiftly upwards at half a dozen points. Then a pillar of smoke 500 feet high broke upwards into the blue. For nearly five minutes it hung around the building, thinning gradually upwards.’

Nila Kantan of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps was no longer driving trucks, as no vehicles could get up to the 4th Indian Division’s positions overlooking the abbey, so he found himself portering instead. ‘On our shoulders we carried all the things up the hill; the gradient was one in three, and we had to go almost on all fours. I was watching from our hill as all the bombers went in and unloaded their bombs; soon after, our guns blasted the hill, and ruined the monastery.’ For Harold Bond, the end was the strangest, ‘then nothing happened. The smoke and dust slowly drifted away, showing the crumbled masonry with fragments of walls still standing, and men in their foxholes talked with each other about the show they had just seen, but the battlefield remained relatively quiet.’

The abbey had been literally ruined, not obliterated as Freyberg had required, and was now one vast mountain of rubble with many walls still remaining up to a height of forty or more feet, resembling the ‘dead teeth’ General John K. Cannon of the USAAF wanted to remove; ironically those of the north-west corner (the future target of all ground assaults through the hills) remained intact. These the Germans, sheltering from the smaller bombs, immediately occupied and turned into excellent defensive positions, ready to slaughter the 4th Indian Division when they belatedly attacked. As Brigadier Kippenberger observed: ‘Whatever had been the position before, there was no doubt  that the enemy was now entitled to garrison the ruins, the breaches in the fifteen-foot-thick walls were nowhere complete, and we wondered whether we had gained anything.’

Peter Caddick-Adams is a Lecturer in Military and Security Studies at the United Kingdom’s Defence Academy, and author of Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell and Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives. He holds the rank of major in the British Territorial Army and has served with U.S. forces in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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Image credits: (1) Source: U.S. Air Force; (2) Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0004 / Wittke / CC-BY-SA; (3) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J26131 / Enz / CC-BY-SA

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19. Defending the Language with Bullets

By Dennis Baron

“It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”     –Barack Obama

The bumper sticker on the back of a construction worker’s pickup truck caught my eye: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

This homage to education wasn’t what I expected from someone whose bitterness typically manifests itself in vehicle art celebrating guns and religion, but there was more: “If you can read this in English, thank a soldier.”

It was a “support our troops” bumper sticker that takes language and literacy out of the classroom and puts them squarely in the hands of the military.

It’s one thing to say that we owe our national security and the survival of the free world to military might. It’s something else again to be told that we need soldiers to protect the English language.

But according to this bumper sticker, any chink in our armor, any relaxation of our constant vigilance, any momentary lowering of the gun barrel, and we’ll all be speaking Russian, Iraqi, or even Mexican.

Supporters of official English argue that it’s the language of democracy — the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not to mention the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “American Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (it doesn’t matter that Millionaire was a British show first, since Americans were British once themselves). English, goes the claim, is the “social glue” cementing the many cultures that underlie American culture. As Teddy Roosevelt said back in 1918, “This is a nation, not a polyglot boarding house.”

But apparently even the official language laws that states, cities, schools and businesses have put in place aren’t doing the job, so what we really need is to put a gun to people’s heads to make them use English.

Only that won’t work. The large number of translators killed in Iraq, or drummed out of the army for being gay, are two of the many indicators that our armies aren’t keeping the world safe for English.

The linguist Max Weinreich is credited with quipping that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. But guns can’t literally keep a language safe at home any more than they can effectively seal a border to keep other languages out.

In a bold act of regime change and a glaring breach of homeland security, French streamed across the English borders in the 11th century along with the Norman armies, but French soldiers were unable to convert most of the Brits they encountered to the parlez-vous, at least not in the long term.

And while the Royal Navy helped spread English around the globe as part and parcel of the British Empire, what really undergirds English today as an international language isn’t military might, but the appeal of global capitalism, science, computer technology, t-shirts, and good old rock ‘n

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20. A War & Peace podcast


Amy Mandelker has taught at UCLA, University of Southern California, Columbia, Brown, and Princeton Universities. Her books include Framing ‘Anna Karenina’: Tolstoy, the Woman Question & the Victorian Novel and Approaches to World Literature: Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. She has revised the acclaimed Maude translation of War and Peace and recently sat down with Podularity to talk about it. (Read the audio guide breakdown here, where you can also get excerpts from this podcast.) Once you’re done, we welcome you to look back at Amy Mandelker’s blog posts and discover why Nick thinks you should read Tolstoy.

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21. Is Biography Proper History?

By Jonathan Steinberg

When I began my career in academic life as an historian, the answer was a loud No. Biography fell into the category of ‘unserious’ stuff, written by amateurs. Not any more. Big biographies of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Churchill, Lyndon Johnson and many others pour from the pens of the most distinguished academic historians. My Bismarck: A Life, which appears in February in the UK and April in the USA, will, I hope, find readers both in the professional historical profession and among the public. What has changed? Why has biography become respectable as a form of research?

In the 1960s when I started, the prevailing paradigm came from social sciences. History had to build sociological modes like the totalitarianism model. It had to measure, count and verify. It had to study structures and functions of  the social order, drawn from Marxist analysis or Weberian sociology.  Anything else seemed dangerously uncertain, ill-defined and, worse, ‘subjective’.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought down the whole edifice of social science. Nobody in the spectrum of social studies had a clue that the Soviet Union and its vast empire could vaporize in two years as if it had been a mirage; anything with ‘social’ in its terminologies lost purchase along with socialism. The gap left in the set of tools available to historians has not yet been filled. But there were lives out there to study. Even I, educated in Parsonian structural-functional analysis and a dedicated social scientific historian, had noticed an absurd contrast between my models and a twentieth century reality dominated by huge charismatic individuals: Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Biography established itself, I think, because the social science models left out the power of human personality. Serious historians of National Socialism realized that they had to solve the Hitler problem. The great Hitler biographer, Ian Kershaw, begins his massive 2 volume biography with a section called ‘Reflecting on Hitler’ with these words:

‘The legacy of Hitler belongs to all of us. Part of that legacy is the continuing duty to seek understanding of how Hitler was possible. ..the character of his power – the power of the  Führer . . . a social construct, a creation of social expectations and motivations vested in Hitler by his followers.’ (pp. xiv and xxvi)

Kershaw makes a fundamental and liberating distinction between the life of the man Hitler and the interaction of that life with the category of rule associated with the term Führer or leader, a political, objective reality, which we can study as we can the growth of modern industry or the changes in population.

In writing my book, I worked on the same principle. For the last four decades, since I first lectured on Bismarck as a very junior research fellow at Cambridge, his achievement puzzled me. How had he done it?  Bismarck achieved his feats because his powerful personality disarmed and commanded his supporters and his opponents alike for nearly four decades, but  every individual, no matter how great, works within real parameters. Changes in the international balance of power, over which he had no control made his success possible. The institutional structure of the Kingdom of Prussia after the Revolution of 1848 gave him levers of power. The Prussian army over which Bismarck as a civilian could by definition have no say, made his victories possible.  He needed a general to be Minister of War, who knew he was a genius and found one in Albrecht von Roon (1803-1879). Finally he had to ma

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22. It's Here: The Ides of March

CAESAR 
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.

SOOTHSAYER
Beware the ides of March.

Some might say that the death of Caesar on this day in 44 BCE was the beginning of the end. After expanding the domains of the Roman Republic and consolidating power into a dictatorship, Caesar was stabbed by a group of senators, as famously chronicled in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Rome would go on to become an empire, lasting for another four centuries; even in death, Caesar remained “dictator in perpetuity.”

Caesar Caesar’s most infamous lover, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, was in Rome at the time of his assassination. Caesar had backed her claim to the Egyptian throne after she was exiled by her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIII and his court. Awaiting confirmation of the sustainability of her own ruling power in the aftermath of the death of her most powerful supporter, the much younger Egyptian ruler soon allied herself with Mark Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s grandnephew and recognized heir, even though she had once hoped her own son Caesarion, allegedly fathered by Caesar, would one day assume power in Rome. She later fled back to Egypt to face the military trials of the Roman Civil War caused by Caesar’s death.

Following the smashing success of his biography, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, historian Adrian Goldsworthy has written another masterful study of classical figures, Antony and Cleopatra. Noting that Cleopatra is the only woman to appear on the A-list of Greco-Roman greats, Goldsworthy writes “For all their fame, Antony and Cleopatra receive little attention in formal study of the first century BC…. The fame of Cleopatra may attract students to the subject, but courses are, quite reasonably and largely unconsciously, structured to stress more ‘serious’ topics, and shy away from personalities.”

Antony and Cleopatra Goldsworthy sets out to disprove the legitimacy of this stigma, carefully debunking the myths surrounding Antony and Cleopatra’s legacies to reveal the strength of the political characters’ power and ambition. From their own eponymous Shakespearean play, we might commonly remember the drama and failures of their romance, but Goldsworthy warns that “many want to tell the story [of Cleopatra] differently, turning the sinister seductress into a strong and independent woman struggling as best she could to protect her country.” Of course, by no means does he mean that Cleopatra was not strong and independent—she unanimously was—but rather, romance and the fictional glamour surrounding her has too often turned into debilitating sympathy for her decline. Consequently, we overlook and ignore the profoundly forceful constitution of a woman ruler in a definitive age of men.

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23. The Battle of Midway: a slideshow

There are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and so dramatically as at the Battle of Midway. At dawn of June 4, 1942, a rampaging Japanese navy ruled the Pacific. By sunset, their vaunted carrier force (the Kido Butai) had been sunk and their grip on the Pacific had been loosened forever.

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24. Available Now: Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives

Thought you knew all there was to know about the Second World War? Think again. Today we're celebrating the release of Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives, the new dual biography exploring the lives of WWII's opposing European generals Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel, written by military defense analyst and BBC contributor Peter Caddick-Adams.During the Second World War, British and German

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25. The familiar face of Winston Churchill

By Christopher M. Bell


The steady flow of new books about Winston Churchill should confirm that the famous wartime prime minister is now the best known and most studied figure in modern British history.

Churchill, a tireless self-promoter in his own time, would undoubtedly have taken a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that the legend he helped to craft would endure well into the twenty-first century. Unlike most politicians, he was deeply concerned with how he would be remembered – and judged – by history. And, although the verdict today is by no means universally positive, there is no doubt that he has achieved a level of fame that few can rival.

Academic historians (like me) spend so much time immersed in the study of the past that we cannot help but see it as a crowded place full of familiar faces. And a figure like Churchill is impossible to ignore: his memory, like the man himself, positively demands our attention. But the full-time historian is generally able to tune Churchill out when necessary: for most of us, he remains just one of the many historical actors we must look at to understand the past.

For the public at large, however, the past is a very different place. Most people approach it as they would a party full of strangers: instinctively scanning the crowd as they enter in hopes of spotting a familiar face. But the more time that passes, the more unfamiliar the past becomes – and the fewer faces we are likely to recognize. Our collective historical memory is subject to a natural sort of attrition process. Most of Britain’s leading politicians, statesmen and warriors of the early twentieth-century, many of them household names in their own time, are now barely remembered at all. Lord Kitchener’s famous recruiting poster from the First World War is still instantly recognizable, but every year there are fewer and fewer people who can put a name to the face of a man who in 1914 was better known – and certainly more widely admired – than Churchill.



The process has distinctly Darwinian overtones, as the most famous figures of yesteryear gradually displace their lesser-known rivals – and eventually each other – in the competition for a place in our collective memory of the past. Only a handful of famous twentieth-century Britons can share the historical stage with Churchill and demand anything like equal billing. And even they do not seem to share his seeming immunity to the passage of time. Neville Chamberlain, for example, remains an iconic figure, although for many he is not an important historical actor in his own right so much as a supporting figure in a better-known, and implicitly more important, story: Churchill’s triumphant rise to power in 1940.

Britain has good reason to look back on the Second World War as the “People’s War”, but the fact remains that only one of “the people” could be reliably identified today in a police line-up. And he is recognizable precisely because of his role in this great conflict. Churchill’s near-mythical status was ensured by his leadership in the critical months between the army’s evacuation from Dunkirk and the Royal Air Force’s victory in the Battle of Britain. At a time when Britain’s defeat seemed not only possible but imminent, Churchill rallied and inspired the people as no other contemporary politician could have. In Britain’s national mythology, he almost single-handedly changed the course of the war by sustaining the morale of the British people at the height of the Nazi onslaught, and in so doing ensured Hitler’s ultimate downfall.

Even in 1940, there was already a tendency to regard Churchill as the personification of Britain’s collective war effort and the embodiment of the nation’s heroic defiance of Nazi Germany. Churchill himself once attempted to put his role into perspective when he declared that “It was a nation and a race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” How far Churchill really believed this is debatable. In his speeches and memoirs he consistently downplayed the doubts and fears that pervaded Britain after the fall of France. But he knew better than anyone how close Britain may have come to a negotiated peace with Hitler in 1940 – and how important was his role in preventing this.

As more and more of Churchill’s contemporaries have receded and then disappeared from public memory, the popular association of Churchill with this defining moment in Britain’s history has only grown stronger. He may soon be, if he isn’t already, the last (recognizable) man standing in the history ofBritainduring the first half of the twentieth century.

Churchill believed that history was made by “great men”, and it is hard to imagine him being troubled by this trend. Historians might lament the public’s disproportionate interest in any one particular individual, but this is not to suggest we don’t need any more books about Churchill. The central place he enjoys in our memory of the twentieth century makes it all the more important that the record is as full and accurate as possible. The challenge is to populate that history with real people, and recognize that Churchill was also a supporting character in their stories.

Christopher M. Bell is Associate Professor of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy between the Wars (2000), co-editor of Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century: An International Perspective (2003), and author of Churchill and Sea Power (2012).

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Slideshow image credits: all images by British Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3, 4).

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