German generals had been howling for military mobilization for days already, but when they learned of Russia’s now general (full) mobilization, their demands became ever more intense. They argued, to Kaiser Wilhelm, that Russia’s military was too big a threat to Germany to simply stand idle . . . they had to mobilize their own troops in order to properly meet this threat. Wilhelm, however, had to weigh this argument against the realization that Germany was not yet at war, but a mobilization may very well prompt war not only with Russia, but also with France and perhaps England as well. He therefore attempted a compromise, declaring a State of Impending War in which the borders and lines of communications were secured, and troops on leave were recalled. Unless something drastically changed, Germany would fully mobilize the next day.
The problem is that everyone was now hemmed in by their own military planners. Every nation had drawn up plans in the event of war, but the military planners had assumed, because of the treaties among nations, that the next war would be massive in scale, and thus their plans for mobilization made preparations accordingly. Now that a crisis in the Balkans had developed, the nations’ leaders now faced the painful truth that these plans were drastically limiting their choices: no war at all, or a massive war which would envelop all of Europe:
-Russia and Germany were appealing to Austria-Hungary to advance only as far as Belgrade in its war on Serbia, but Austria-Hungary had no military plans prepared for such a move, and its leaders worried that attempting a modification would confuse and disorder their military.
-Russia had initially ordered only a partial mobilization in hopes of intimidating Austria-Hungary and yet not provoking Germany, but this had to be upgraded to a general mobilization when the Russian military staff told the Tsar that a partial mobilization would only confuse and disorder their military.
-Germany had for years faced prospect of Russia’s military on its eastern borders and France’s on its West, and so had constructed a war plan against both nations simultaneously. When the Kaiser suggested that France had not yet made any aggressive moves, the German military staff reminded him that their plan for winning “the war” necessitated mobilizing against France and Russia simultaneously, and any alterations to the plan could cause a disastrous confusion for Germany’s military.
“All options except the military ones were shutting down. Power was moving into the hands of the soldiers and away from diplomats and politicians. The soldiers were motivated mainly by fear. And . . . fear is a bad counselor.”
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 71.
And so, Germany took steps to try to limit Britain’s involvement, asking them to promise their neutrality in the upcoming war in exchange for Germany’s promise to restore the borders of Belgium and France once the war had ended. One of the worst ever diplomatic moves, it had the opposite effect: nobody had talked about Belgium up to this point, and so Britain (specifically, foreign secretary Edward Grey), felt insulted by this offer . . . to promise to stand idle while Belgium’s neutrality was violated? Instead, Grey asked both Germany and France to promise to respect Belgium’s neutrality if war began. France quickly gave its assurance, but Germany’s lack thereof proved a major step in Britain’s entry into the war.
Finally, Germany issued a double-ultimatum (of which both parts were rejected by their respective recipients): German mobilization must follow unless Russia suspended all war measures within twelve hours, and France was asked for a declaration of neutrality. The first part hoped to avert war. The second part was meant to legitimize a German invasion of France if war began . . . when war began.