The storm was brewed in Russia through the malevolent French President, Raymond Poincare, as St Petersburg became the focal point of meaningful decision making in Europe from mid July 1914. That is not to infer that Czar Nicholas II or his foreign minister, Sazonov, suddenly asserted themselves and stood determined to see this through. Far from it. At each stage, the Secret Elite placemen were physically present to continually reassure the czar and Sazonov that they were making the right decisions, reinforcing them in the certainty that their actions were being forced on them by Austria, and behind Austria, mendacious Germany. The Secret Elite knew that Sazonov would make the defence of Serbia an issue of national pride, and that the aggressive Russian response would draw Germany into the trap of a European war. Paléologue and Buchanan, the French and British ambassadors in St Petersburg, were there to constantly embolden him and keep him from wavering from this course. The lure of the greatest prize drew the Russians on to recklessness. The golden carrot of Constantinople was almost within their reach. This is what they had been secretly promised by Grey and the British foreign office. It was an empty promise, but served its purpose well.

Poincare with Czar Nicholas at St Petersburg

Poincaré’s presidential visit had been scheduled to renew promises of a joint attack on Germany that would destroy their common enemy. Reports of his private conversations with the czar were carried in the press, but no word was written about the substance of the discussions. [1] Indeed, French diplomatic telegrams were altered and suppressed after the war, to conceal the true nature of Poincaré’s visit.[2] His sole purpose was to reassure the czar and Sazonov that France would stand beside them, and to encourage them to begin military preparations immediately for war with Germany. Every Russian at court in St Petersburg believed that the enemy was Germany and that war would be the outcome. The Russian military greeted him enthusiastically. They too were convinced that war was ‘inevitable’ and Poincaré’s endorsement was precisely what they wanted to hear.[3]

Ambassador Buchanan sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in London on 24 July, summarising Poincaré’s visit: ‘The French ambassador gave me to understand that France would not only give Russia strong diplomatic support, but would, if necessary, fulfil all the obligations imposed on her by the alliance.’ [4] Poincaré and Sazonov had agreed the deal. When Russia went to war against Germany and Austria, France would fulfil her commitment to Russia. This telegram explicitly proved that by 24 July Sir Edward Grey knew that his world war was ordained.

In the Foreign Office, Buchanan’s telegram was subjected to minute scrutiny, and the private notes attached to it demonstrated the inner convolutions of Secret Elite thinking.[5] Sir Eyre Crowe’s surgical analysis cut to the heart of the matter. Whatever the merits of the Austrian case against Serbia, he believed it would be ‘impolitic’ to interfere in St Petersburg or Paris, ‘dangerous’, even. Dangerous? As in, any intervention from Britain might stop them starting a war?

Put all of this into perspective. Austria had suffered assassination, humiliation and taunts from Serbia, but that didn’t count. Russia and France had agreed that they would stand together and go to war, which seemed perfectly reasonable to Sir Eyre Crowe, so Britain should simply let that happen.

The anti-German Eyre CroweHe phrased his diplomatic comments in the following way: ‘The point that matters is whether Germany is or is not absolutely determined to have this war now.’[6] His twisted logic flew in the face of what he already knew. It was not Germany that was determined to ‘have this war now’; it was the Secret Elite. Crowe’s reasoning contained an awesome revelation: “Our interests are tied up with those of France and Russia in this struggle, which is not for the possession of Serbia, but one between Germany aiming at a political dictatorship in Europe, and the Powers who desire to retain individual freedom. [7]

Ask yourself this question: what were the coincident interests between Britain and Russia? Shared ambition that could only come to blows in Persia? No, it was war with Germany. Would Britain ever have seriously contemplated giving Russia possession of the Straits? No. Was Russia a land of individual freedoms? No. The very notion of the czarist empire being associated with freedoms was ludicrous. Not one single Jewish Member of the British Parliament was free to travel into Russia.[8] This twisted, illogical bias was nothing more than the bile of Secret Elite philosophy. Crowe ended his minute with a recommendation that the fleet be mobilised as soon as any of the Great Powers made their first step to war, but Edward Grey had previously checked that point with Winston Churchill. The fleet was ready and waiting for the coming storm.

Austria presented the ‘Note’ to Serbia once Poincaré and the French delegation had departed St Petersburg on 23 July. The delay was futile. The French and Russians had already made their fateful, but still secret, tryst and Sazonov’s commitment to protect Serbia was absolute. All had been determined long before the Austrian demands became public.[9] Berchtold insisted that the Note was non-negotiable ‘We cannot be satisfied with anything less than their unconditional acceptance within the stated terms; otherwise we should be obliged to draw further consequences.’ [10] The consequences were not as he imagined.

Baron von Gieslingen, the Austro-Hungarian minister at Belgrade, handed the Note to the Serbian government at 6 p.m. on Thursday, 23 July. It comprised ten demands that had been leaked over the preceding weeks and, as far as Berchtold was aware would be acceptable in the courts of Europe. A 48-hour deadline was set for an unequivocal acceptance of every point. Every demand was already known to the Secret Elite agents, including the timescale for a reply.

Berchtold and his advisors were totally unprepared for what happened next. Despite all of the international support and encouragement that they had been given over the preceding weeks, what followed was an orchestrated overreaction from Russia, France and Britain, whose well-coordinated pretence at outrage was completely at odds with previous statements. Those who had encouraged strong Austrian action now declared that, rather than aiming for justice from Serbia, Austria was abusing the situation as a pretext to provoke a war. The argument turned in a most bizarre way. Austria was accused of having presented ‘no evidence ’ of the Serbian complicity, and they insisted that ‘more time ’ ought to be given for the Serbian Reply. [11] It was a sham, a blatant attempt to gain additional time for the Russian and French military preparations. [12] Austria remained unmoved and insisted on a reply within 48 hours.

On 24 July, Austro-Hungarian ambassadors were subject to verbal abuse when they presented their demands on Serbia to the entente governments. In St Petersburg, Sazonov exploded at the Austrian ambassador, constantly interrupting his attempt to explain the Note. ‘I know what you want. You want to go to war with Serbia . . . you are setting fire to Europe.’[13] Point by point, Sazonov challenged and rejected every part of the Austrian Note. His lack of perspective made nonsense of his tantrum, but since he already had detailed knowledge of the demands, it was a sham.

Count Mensdorff

Sir Edward Grey met with Count Mensdorff, the Austrian ambassador to Britain, at Downing Street on the morning of 24 July. Given that he was not known to rush to judgement, Grey’s immediate pronouncement that the Note was ‘the most formidable document that has ever been addressed from one state to another’ [14] was ridiculous. When Mensdorff tried to explain the merits of the case, Grey rejected the arguments as ‘not our concern’. He could hardly have been more dismissive. This too was a sham.

It was different in Paris. With all the senior ministers who might have dealt with the Austrian explanation literally at sea, the Note was handed to the minister of justice, whose moderate and unemotional reaction was in complete contrast to the paroxysms elsewhere. No one had thought to give him sight of the entente’s official script. With near indecent haste, Paul Cambon, the French ambassador at London, was ordered back to France to hold the fort at Quai D’Orsay.

While the entente foreign ministers orchestrated as close to a perfect storm of indignation as they could muster, several British newspapers considered the Austrian demands to be perfectly justified. The Manchester Guardian, the Daily News and the Daily Chronicle all voiced a reasoned understanding of the Austrian position. Of the conservative newspapers, the Daily Telegraph was the most impartial. It supported the Austrians in ‘demanding full and prompt repudiation of all those nefarious schemes which have politics as their excuse and murder as their handmaid’. [15] The Manchester Guardian deeply regretted that Russia was prepared to threaten ‘extreme measures’ if strong Austrian action was forced upon Serbia. As its editorial explained, Austria had a good reason to be overbearing towards Serbia, but ‘Russia’s threat of war is a piece of sheer brutality, not disguised by her sudden discovery of the sacredness of the balance of power in Europe’. [16] It was a sarcastic but justified rebuff to the Russian presumption of interest in Serbian affairs. Predictably, The Times was batting for the other side. An editorial, published two days before the Note was handed over, under the heading, ‘A Danger to Europe’, supported the Russians and cast doubt on Austrian intentions to localise the war. [17] As ever, the voice of the Secret Elite was a step ahead.

The Serbian Reply was carefully crafted and moderate in character. [18] It not only won the approval and sympathy of the entente powers but also of neutrals everywhere. It even commanded the admiration of Berchtold, who described the Reply as ‘the most brilliant example of diplomatic skill which I have ever known’, but he added that though it appeared to be reasonable, it was ‘wholly worthless in content’. [19] The diplomatic language certainly had all the hallmarks of a professional tactician. Pasic had previously relied on Hartwig, the Russian ambassador, whose untimely death ought to have left him bereft of ideas. Yet, out of nowhere, this comparative nonentity apparently produced a masterstroke of international diplomacy. Pasic was reputedly a lost, floundering soul without his Russian mentor, so who was behind the Serbian Reply? Belgrade had immediately appealed to Sazonov, Paléologue and the czar for help. [20] Behind the scenes, the telegraph lines between London, Belgrade, St Petersburg and Paris nearly went into meltdown. Sir Edward Grey telegraphed Belgrade on Friday evening (24 July) at 9.30 p.m. to advise the Serbs on how they should respond. He specifically suggested that they ‘give a favourable reply on as many points as possible within the limit of time, and not to meet Austria with a blank negative ’. He wanted them to apologise, express regret for the conduct of their officials and reply in a manner that represented the best interests of Serbia. Grey refused to give any further advice without liaising directly with Russia and France. [21] His time-serving words covered the fact that Britain, France and Russia had already agreed their joint position.

The input from London, Paris and St Petersburg represented a massive public-relations offensive on behalf of Serbia. The Reply was couched in very conciliatory language, with feigned humility and apparent openness and sincerity. European opinion still sided with Austria rather than Serbia, and that would have been reinforced had the Serbs presented an arrogant or insulting reply. Serbia had to be reinvented as a brave and helpless little nation that had gone beyond the boundary of national dignity in surrendering to Austria’s harsh demands. Of all the diplomatic ruses before the war began, there was no cleverer ‘subterfuge than the planning of the Serbian response to Austria’. [22]

To the unwitting, it appeared as though all points bar two had been accepted and that ‘poor little Serbia’ had yielded to the immense and unfair pressure from her neighbour. Kaiser Wilhelm, for example, returned from his three-week cruise and hailed the Serbian Reply as ‘a triumph of diplomacy’ when he first read it. [23] Wilhelm jotted on it: ‘a brilliant performance for a time-limit of only 48 hours. This is more than one could have expected!’ [24] He was convinced that the Austrians would be satisfied and that the few reservations Serbia had made on particular points would be cleared up by negotiation. Kaiser Wilhelm’s immediate and spontaneous response clearly indicated his belief, indeed his joy, that all risk of war had been removed. ‘With it [the Serbian response] every reason for war falls to the ground.’ [25]

Wilhelm’s analysis was sadly naive. He accepted the Serbian concessions at face value, but the Austrians did not. While the Serbian response appeared to consent to virtually every Austrian demand, it was so hedged with qualifications that the Austrians were bound to take umbrage. Only two of Austria’s demands were accepted in their entirety, while the answers to the others were evasive. [26] Reservations and lies had been carefully disguised by skilful dissembling. The most important Austrian demand was rejected outright. Berchtold insisted that judicial proceedings be taken against everyone associated with the assassination plot and that Austro-Hungarian police officers be directly involved in the investigations. Serbia baulked at this, claiming that such an intrusion would be a violation of her constitution. That was not the case. The Austrians had demanded that their police be allowed to assist in the investigation of the crime, not that its officials be allowed to participate in internal Serbian court procedures. There were numerous precedents for such cross-border police involvement. [27] But the Serbs nailed their colours to this spurious assertion and claimed that the Austrian Note was an infringement of their sovereignty.

The Secret Elite knew that Austria would not accept the Reply. It was specifically designed to be rejected. No amount of cosmetic wordplay could hide the fact that it did not accede to the Austrian stipulations. The lie that Austria-Hungary deliberately made the Note so tough that Serbia would have no choice but to refuse it has unfortunately been set in concrete by some historians. The myth that the Secret Elite wanted to promulgate, was that Austria was ‘told’ by Germany to attack Serbia. The best lie is the big lie. If Austria was hell-bent on war with Serbia, why did she entertain the gruelling three-week diplomatic route? Freed from extraneous interference the Austrian army was entirely capable of defeating Serbia. Hawks in the Austrian military had demanded an immediate attack, but the diplomats insisted on the long-delayed Note that unwittingly gave Britain, France and Russia time to lay their trap.[28] The Serbian Reply, and Austria’s consequent reaction, sprang that trap.

Sir George William Buchanan in 1915

On 25 July, Sir George Buchanan in St Petersburg penned a strictly confidential telegram to Sir Edward Grey. It arrived in the Foreign Office at 10.30 p.m. The message could not have been clearer: ‘Russia cannot allow Austria to crush Serbia and become the predominant Power in the Balkans, and, secure of support of France, she will face all the risks of war.’[29]

The allegation that Austria wanted to crush Serbia was yet another piece of propaganda manufactured to justify the entente over-reaction. But worse still was the French connection: the blank cheque. ‘Secure of support of France’, Russia was prepared to ‘face all the risks of war’. Buchanan spelled out the absolute reassurances that Poincaré had given to Sazonov. These were in fact more than reassurances; this was an incitement to war. Poincaré was inviting Sazonov to lead the line, promising that both countries would march behind the same banner. It was precisely what the Secret Elite had planned.

It was not the Austrian Note that made war inevitable, it was the Serbian Reply designed to provoke the reaction for which Russia, France and Britain were thoroughly prepared.

[1] Sidney B Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 280.
[2] A detailed analysis of the French official telegrams was printed in 1927 showing the omissions and alterations to original documents that had been approved at the Quai d’Orsay. In particular, details of Poincaré’s visit to St Petersburg and subsequent Russian military manoeuvres were removed. G. Demartial, L’Evangile du Quai d’ Orsay, p. 11.
[3] Harry Elmer Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p. 331.
[4] Buchanan to Grey, 24 July, BD 101, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 196.
[5] Buchanan to Grey 24 July, BD 101. The notes appended to this telegram are particularly valuable. Sir Eyre Crowe at the Foreign Office, a rabid anti-German, advocated immediate preparations to back up France and Russia. The telegram was then passed to the permanent undersecretary, Sir Arthur Nicolson, who added his support to Crowe. Sir Edward Grey responded that he had discussed the matter with Churchill. Layers of support and influence surrounded Grey.
[6] Imanuel Geiss, July 1914, p. 198.
[7] Ibid., p. 199.
[8] Hansard, House of Commons, Debate, 10 July 1914, vol. 64, cc1397–398.
[9] Max Montgelas, British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey, p. 65.
[10] John S Ewart, Roots and Causes of the Wars, vol. II, pp. 1062–3.
[11] Montgelas, British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey, p. 66.
[12] Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p. 200.
[13] Extract from the Austrian Red Book, OD 10616, 24 July 1914, in Geiss,
July 1914, p. 174.
[14] Geiss, July 1914, p. 175. Mensdorff to Berchtold, 24 July 1914.
[15] Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 32.
[16] Manchester Guardian, 25 July 1914.
[17] The Times, 22 July 1914.
[18] Pierre Renouvin, The Immediate Origins of the War, p. 99.
[19] Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 340.
[20] Ibid., p. 337.
[21] Ibid., p. 339.
[22] Barnes, Genesis of the World War, pp. 200–1.
[23] Niall Ferguson, Pity of War, p. 156.
[24] Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 348.
[25] Ferguson, Pity of War, p. 156.
[26] Joseph Ward Swain, Beginning the Twentieth Century. p. 353.
[27] Ewart, Roots and Causes of the Wars, vol. II, p. 1040.
[28] Harry Elmer Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice, p. 47.
[29] Buchanan to Grey, 25 July 1914, BD 125, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 213.