On the afternoon of August 3, 1914, two days after declaring war on Russia, Germany declared war on France, pursuing a long-standing strategy devised by the former Chief of Staff of the German army, Alfred von Schlieffen, for a war on two fronts against France and Russia. Hours later, France made its own declaration of war against Germany, preparing its troops to enter the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which it had confiscated from Germany in the settlement that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
With Germany officially at war with France and Russia, a conflict originally centered in the tumultuous Balkan region – with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the ensuing clash between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Serbia’s powerful Slavic supporter, Russia, had erupted into full-scale war. Also on August 3, the first wave of German troops gathered on the border of neutral Belgium, which, in accordance with the Schlieffen plan, would be crossed by German armies en route to an invasion of France. The day before, Germany had presented Belgium and its sovereign, King Albert, with an ultimatum demanding the passage of the German army on its territory.
This threat to Belgium, whose perpetual neutrality had been mandated by a treaty concluded by the European powers – including Britain, France and Germany – in 1839, united a divided British government in opposition to the aggression German. Hours before Germany declared war on France on August 3, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Gray appeared before Parliament and convinced a divided British government and nation to back the Britain entered the war if Germany violated Belgian neutrality.
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“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we won’t see them again in our lifetime, ”Gray remarked to a friend on the night of August 3. The next day Britain sent its own ultimatum to Berlin: stop the invasion of Belgium or face war with Britain as well. A response was requested before midnight that evening. That day, at noon, King Albert finally launched a concerted appeal for help to France and Great Britain, guarantors of Belgium’s neutrality under the Treaty of 1839. Do it earlier, appeal too soon to the French and the British, would have risked violating the neutrality of his country before Germany did so. When London received no response to its ultimatum – the first German troops had in fact crossed the Belgian border at Gemmerich, 30 miles from the fortress city of Liege, that morning – Britain declared war on Germany.
In August 1914, as the great European powers prepared their armies and navies for battle, no one was preparing for a long struggle – both sides counted on a short and decisive conflict that would end in their favor. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm assured the troops leaving for the front line in the first week of August 1914. Although some military leaders, including the head of state- German Major Helmuth von Moltke and his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, foresaw a longer conflict, they did not change their war strategy to prepare for this eventuality. One man, Britain’s controversial new Secretary of War Lord Horatio Kitchener, acted on his belief that the war would be lasting, insisting from the start of the war – against considerable opposition – on the need to strengthen the forces British armies. . “A nation like Germany,” Kitchener argued, “after forcing the issue, will only give in after being crushed. It will take a long time. No one alive knows how long.