July 20, 1914 The Coming Crisis

There would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. This would be a cataclysm that would change a century.  Few realized it on this date, 103 years ago today. The collision was only days away.

On the eve of 1870, the German nation existed only as an agglomeration of 22 independent German states. On the eve of WWI, Germany was one of the five Great Powers of Europe.

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of its historic adversary, France had by that time increased its period of compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the advantage which a population of 70 million conferred on Germany, compared with a French population of 40 million.

Joseph Caillaux was a left-wing politician, once Prime Minister of France and, by 1913, a cabinet minister under the more conservative administration of French President Raymond Poincare.

Never too discreet with his personal conduct, Caillaux paraded through his public life with a succession of mistresses. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, both were divorced and Madame Raynouard had become Henriette Caillaux.

A relative pacifist, many on the French right considered Caillaux to be too “soft” on Germany. One of them was Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, who regularly excoriated the politician.

affairecaillaux_thumbOn March 16, 1914, the now-second Mrs Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the newspaper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark. Gaston Calmette would be dead before the night was through.

It was the crime of the century.  The OJ trial version 1.0.  The French public was captivated as the trial began, 102 years ago, today.

The British public was similarly distracted, by the latest in a series of Irish Home Rule crises.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 nations, 20 Parliamentary groups and 27 political parties, desperately needed to bring the Balkan peninsula into line after the June 28 assassination of the heir-apparent to the dual monarchy.

That individual Serbians were complicit in the assassination is beyond doubt, but so many government records of the era have disappeared that it’s impossible to determine official Serbian complicity. Nevertheless, Serbia had to be brought into line.

Having given Austria his assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of its Slavic ally, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany left on a summer cruise in the Norwegian fjords. The Kaiser’s being out of touch for those critical days in July, has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in naval history.


The Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd, a bald pretext for the war it declared on the 28th. The same day, Madame Caillaux was acquitted on the grounds that hers was a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion.

In the days that followed, entangling alliances and mutual distrust reigned over the European continent. As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia, as Germany began implementation of its long-standing strategy of a lightning defeat of France, before wheeling to face the much larger “Russian steamroller”.

Pre-planned timetables took over.  France alone would have 3,781,000 military men under orders before the middle of August, arriving at the western front on 7,000 trains, arriving as often as one every eight minutes.

There would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. The coming storm would resemble the near-simultaneous detonation of a continent.  A cataclysm which would destroy everything in its path and irrevocably alter the following century.  Few realized it, as this warm summer day came and went, 103 years ago today.   The four horsemen of the apocalypse, cometh.  The collision was only days away.

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