In 1869, Germany had yet to come into its own as an independent nation. Forty-five years later, she was one of the Great Powers, of Europe.
Alarmed by the aggressive growth of her historic adversary, the French government had by that time increased compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the advantage conferred by a German population of some 70 million, contrasted 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 public life with a succession of women, who were not Mrs Caillaux. One of them was Henriette Raynouard. By 1911, Madame Raynouard had become the second Mrs 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.
On March 16, 1914, Madame Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the paper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark. Gaston Calmette was dead before the night was through.
It was the crime of the century. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ever ask for. It was the OJ trial, version 1.0, and the French public was transfixed.
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, following 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 to heel.
Having given Austria his personal assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of her 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, little more that a bald pretext for war. Czar Nicholas wired Vienna as late as the 27th proposing an international conference concerning Serbia, but to no avail. Austria responded that same day. It was too late for such a proposal.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia the following day, the day on which Madame Caillaux was acquitted of the murder of Gaston Calmette, on the grounds of being a “crime of passion”.
As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia. For her part, Imperial Germany feared little more than a two-front war, with the “Russian Steamroller” to the east, and the French Republic to the west. Germany invaded neutral Belgium in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which she sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the far larger Russian adversary.
On August 3, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey announced before Parliament, his government’s intention to defend Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.
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 every eight minutes.
This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which a single day’s fighting could produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined. Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred and four years ago, today. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, were only days away.