Mobilisation meant war. In the first decades of the twentieth century, all of the Great Powers knew that the general mobilisation of the armed forces of a major power signalled its intent on war. Plans for bringing together regular army units, conscripts and reserves, equipping these troops and transporting them to border assembly points had been worked out with great precision. Modern railway systems were the key. The entire process had to be conducted by rail and the general staffs had worked for years to perfect their timetables.

Russian Mobilisation in 1914 was a slow affair

From the moment the command to mobilise was given, everything had to move at fixed times, in precise order, down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge within a given time. [1] Each action in the mobilisation process led logically to the next, in lockstep precision, combining in a practically irreversible escalation to war. In terms of strategic planning, the assumption was that the advantage lay always with the offence, and that speed was of the essence. European leaders believed that a one-to-three-day lead in mobilisation was militarily significant for the course of the war, leaving vulnerable anyone who delayed. [2]

The Franco-Russian Alliance was clearly based on the assertion that mobilisation meant war. [3] Both Russian and French general staffs not only viewed mobilisation as an outright act of war but also insisted that all normal operational decisions be based on that assumption. [4] It is important to clarify that the Russian and French governments understood precisely what mobilisation meant when the decisions were taken in July 1914. Once the order was given and the machinery for mobilisation set in motion, there was little possibility of stopping it.

The kaiser and his military advisors observed the same rule that general mobilisation was the first decisive step towards war. They knew they had no choice but to respond in kind if a general Russian mobilisation was ordered. In such a scenario, the moment Germany mobilised in self-defence, the Franco-Russian Alliance would be triggered. The French would mobilise to support Russia, and Germany would be faced with war on two fronts. This was no secret. Both alliances knew precisely how the other would react in the event of war.

Germany was to be compelled to fight war on two fronts and would be greatly outnumbered by the combined forces of Russia, France and Britain. The czar’s army alone was much larger than that of the kaiser, though neither better trained nor equipped. With her more modern road and rail networks, Germany’s advantage lay in the rapidity of her mobilisation. In comparison, Russia’s military machine was slow, cumbersome and burdened by inefficiency. A mobilisation across the vast lands of the Russian empire, with inadequate infrastructure, less-developed railroad systems near the German frontiers and inefficient local military authorities was necessarily slow. Russia’s strategic aim was to reduce this natural German advantage by keeping her mobilisation secret for as long as possible.

Within hours of Poincare’s departure from St Petersburg on 23 July, the success of his mission became clear. Russia began mobilising her vast armies and took an irrevocable step towards war in Europe. The Secret Elite’s agent had accomplished his prime objective. At the meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers held at three o’clock on 24 July, they decided to mobilise 1,100,000 men in the four southern military districts of Odessa, Kiev, Moscow and Kazan, together with both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets. [5] The czar further agreed that preparation should be made for the mobilisation of 13 army corps at a date to be determined by Sazonov. The minister of war was authorised to ‘proceed immediately to gather stores of war materiel’ and the minister of finance directed to call in at once all Russian money in Germany and Austria. This, remember, was still 24 July, the day before the Serbian Reply was due for submission. [6]

Immediately after the meeting ended, Foreign Minister Sazonov lunched with ambassadors Buchanan and Paléologue at the French Embassy. These were the Secret Elite’s diplomatic enforcers, who ensured that London and Paris were kept fully updated. Sazonov confirmed that the czar had approved both the mobilisation of over 1 million men and the Russian navy.

Russian Mobilisation

The imperial order (ukase) was not to be made public until he, Sazonov, considered that the moment had arrived to enforce it, but all the necessary preliminary preparations for the mobilisation had already begun. [7] Sazonov confirmed that Russia was prepared to ‘face all the risks’, and Paléologue reiterated Poincaré’s ‘blank cheque’, placing France unreservedly on Russia’s side. Poincaré had explicitly instructed Paléologue to reassure Sazonov by prompt and persistent promises of French support. [8] The French ambassador informed Sazonov that he had also received a number of telegrams from the minister in charge of foreign affairs, and that not one of them displayed the slightest sign of hesitation. Russia was mobilising for war, and France placed herself unreservedly by her side. [9] Sazonov was thus constantly reassured that France would stand shoulder to shoulder with Russia.

The following morning, 25 July, the Russian Council of Ministers rubber-stamped the military plans and confirmed their readiness for war. [10] Telegrams were sent out in secret ciphers, halting military manoeuvres throughout the Russian empire. Military divisions were instructed to return immediately from their summer camps to their regular quarters. Troops were to be equipped and prepared for transportation to their designated areas on the frontiers. [11] Cadets undergoing training at the St Petersburg Military Academy were immediately promoted to the rank of officer, and new cadets enrolled. A ‘state of war’ was proclaimed in towns along the frontiers facing Germany and Austria, and a secret order given for the ‘Period Preparatory to War’. [12] This enabled the Russia military command to take extensive measures for mobilisation against Germany without a formal declaration of war.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, ambassadors and chargés d’affaires, ministers and imperial officials continued the pretence that they sought a peaceful resolution to the Austro-Serbian crisis and bought precious time for the military. Russia had begun a secret mobilisation in incremental stages before the Pasic government in Serbia had even responded to the Austrian Note.

Sazonov, Russian foreign minister

Sir George Buchanan urged Sazonov to be cautious lest Germany got wind of the mobilisation, reacted immediately and Russia was portrayed as the aggressor. [13] Buchanan did not suggest that Sazonov should halt the mobilisation, far from it, but urged him to keep it well hidden from German view. It was vital that the mobilisation be as far advanced as possible before the Germans became aware of the military build-up on their frontiers. Furthermore, the Secret Elite in London needed to be able to portray Germany as the aggressor, to entice Germany into firing the first shots and so avoid a situation where Russia could be blamed for starting the war. At all costs, blame had to be laid at Germany’s door. The British public would never accept war unless Germany was seen as the aggressor. This absolute conviction became Britain’s secret diplomatic mantra.

Although Buchanan later denied it, the French ambassador, Paléologue, even went so far in his memoirs as to recall Buchanan telling him: ‘Russia is determined to go to war. We must therefore saddle Germany with the whole responsibility and initiative of the attack, as this will be the only way of winning over English public opinion to the war.’ [14] The Secret Elite and their agents knew exactly how the unfolding events would have to be manipulated to dupe the British public.

Sir Edward Grey stubbornly insisted throughout the whole crisis that the Austro-Serbian dispute did not concern him. [15] This lie went unchallenged. By making no parliamentary reference to events in that part of the world, he hid the Secret Elite’s diplomatic incitement to war behind a screen of apparent lack of interest in the Austro-Serbian conflict. He consulted daily with Sir Arthur Nicolson and had a powerful anti-German ally in Sir Eyre Crowe. These two almost outbid each other in their distaste for Germany and their indulgence of Russia. [16] Grey’s minders never veered from the Secret Elite doctrine. Inside Grey’s Foreign Office, the Empire loyalists behaved like a swarm of Jesuit zealots pledged to an anti-German inquisition.

Meanwhile in Belgrade, at 3 p.m. on 25 July (three hours before responding to the Austrian Note), Pasic’s government, confident of Russian military support, announced Serbia’s mobilisation against Austria. At 9.30 that same night, the Austrians responded by declaring a partial mobilisation (some 22 divisions) of its army against Serbia. [17] Austria had made it patently clear that in the event of such a mobilisation, war would remain localised and no territorial claims would be made on Serbia. She intended to occupy Belgrade until such time as Serbia agreed to all of their demands.

This Austrian mobilisation was deliberately misrepresented as a direct threat to Russia, and the reason for Russian mobilisation. That is a ridiculous claim. The Russian mobilisation had been agreed in principle before Poincaré left St Petersburg and before Austria had even delivered the Note to Serbia. Another fiction put about was that the Russian mobilisation was meant to act as a deterrent to war. What nonsense. It was the first act of war, and all involved knew it. The notion that it could be seen as a deterrent is groundless. They clearly understood that to order mobilisation was to cross the Rubicon: there could be no turning back. [18]

Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador, offered an interesting insight into what was happening on the streets of the capital:

“At seven in the evening [the 25th] I went to the Warsaw Station [in St Petersburg] to bid farewell to Isvolsky, who was leaving to rejoin his post. Great activity at the terminus, the trains crowded with officers and troops. All this points to mobilisation. We hurriedly exchanged our views of the situation and both arrived at the same conclusion: this time it is war.” [19]

Hour by hour, Russia secretly edged Europe closer to war. [20] Austria had been completely fooled by the diplomatic machinations orchestrated in London and Paris. Berchtold was betrayed, utterly deceived by men he thought he could trust. The czar had been convinced of the need for war by the French President while the British foreign secretary feigned little interest in the disputes in eastern Europe. The events of July 1914 were to have cataclysmic consequences.

[1] Jack Levy, ‘Organisational Routines and the Causes of War’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 2, June 1986, p. 196.
[2] Ibid., p. 195.
[3] Harry Elmer Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p. 354.
[4] Kennan, Fateful Alliance, pp. 250–1.
[5] Memorandum of the day of the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, St Petersburg, 24 July 1914, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 190.
[6] Special Journal of the Russian Council of Ministers, St Petersburg, 24 July
1914, in Geiss, July 1914, pp. 186–7.
[7] Imanuel Geiss, July 1914, p. 214.
[8] Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p. 324.
[9] Buchanan to Grey, St Petersburg, 25 July 1914, BD 125, Geiss, July 1914, p. 214.
[10] Special Journal of the Russian Council of Ministers, St Petersburg, 25 July 1914, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 207.
[11] Sidney B. Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 309.
[12] Stephen J. Cimbala, Military Persuasion: Deterrence and Provocation in Crisis and War, p. 58.
[13] George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, vol. 1, p. 93.
[14] Ibid., p. 94.
[15] Max Montgelas, Case for the Central Powers, p. 129.
[16] Hermann Lutz, Lord Grey and the World War, p. 244.
[17] Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p. 336.
[18] Marc Trachtenberg, ‘The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914’, p. 126.
[19] Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, pp. 302–3.
[20] Trachtenberg, ‘The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914’, pp. 120–50.