July 1914: Countdown to War: Books

Article excerpt

July 1914: Countdown to War. By Sean McMeekin. Icon, 560pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9781848315938. Published 4 July 2013

Historians and journalists are engaged in a countdown to war, which, almost 100 years later, parallels that of the summer of 1914 - even if this time it is publishing, rather than mobilisation, timetables that impel the ticking-off of the dates on the calendar. Rightly so, for, if we shall spend the next four years working our way through the bloody battles of the Marne, Ypres, the Somme and Gallipoli on to the Allied victory in 1918, the great question is why, after decades of peace, European civilisation self-destructed, plunging its states into fratricidal conflict.

Few people in Britain were concerned that the assassination of an Austrian archduke whom most people had never heard of, in a Balkan town they had to reach for an atlas to correctly place on the map, could lead to a general European war. Still less was it imaginable that Britain would be involved. Indeed, for most of July, in most of Europe, there was little apprehension of the serious consequences that would result from the event in Sarajevo on 28 June.

There were few clouds on the international horizon. The British public was concerned with the Irish Question; the French were relishing a delicious scandal, the murder of the editor of Le Figaro by the wife of the finance minister after he had published letters between the minister and his mistress; Anglo-German relations seemed to be improving - the Royal Navy had recently paid a visit to Kiel and been given hospitality by the German navy; the capitals of Europe were emptying as monarchs and statesmen departed for their yachts or estates, and humbler citizens for seaside resorts; and even the Austro-Hungarian government had yet to take a decisive move to avenge Franz Ferdinand's death. Yet a slow fuse had been lit that would lead to the out-break of the First World War in early August.

In this detailed account of the events and decisions that marked the road to war, Sean McMeekin demonstrates how, during what seemed a peaceful summer month, something that might have ended (at worst) in just another bloody Balkan battle led instead to the outbreak of the greatest conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. …