Two notes are essential to understanding Germany’s actions of August 1, 1914:
-Back in 1914, mobilizing an army put immense logistical and personnel forces into motion. It took a great deal of planning, and a great deal of time to properly mobilize an army in a way to properly prepare it for war.
-Due to the alliance between Russia and France, Germany knew that it would have a strong enemy on either side during the next war, and thus had to draw up a plan to deal with both.
German war planners figured that their only chance of winning the next war would be to quickly mobilize their army and defeat France (or at least cripple it) before Russia had completed their mobilization. Therefore, Russia’s and (to a small degree) France’s preparations for war put Germany in a very threatened position: Germany knew that the clock had started on the limited opportunity to fight a one-front war against France . . . an opportunity they considered essential to their ultimate victory. Germany had therefore considered Russian mobilization an inherent act of war, for it directly impacted their plans for war.
Hence the reasoning behind Germany’s double ultimatum the day before: 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 was the only action at this point which could have somehow prevented war. The second part was simply meant to legitimize a German invasion of France if war began.
So when at midday Russia failed to respond to Germany’s ultimatum, the German army’s high command persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm to approve a declaration of war against Russia.
France had to be asked again to respond to the ultimatum, with French premier René Viviandi giving their cold, calculated reply in the late afternoon: “France will have to regard her own interests.” An hour later, at the intense urging of General Joseph Joffre, the French government ordered a general mobilization, and the German order for mobilization followed only fifteen minutes later.
That evening, German ambassador to Russia, Freidrich von Pourtalés, met with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazanov in St. Petersburg, Russia. He asked for Russia’s response to the ultimatum. Sazanov replied that while it was not possible to stop Russia’s mobilization, they wished to keep open negotiations with Germany. Pourtalés responded by handing him a note with Germany’s declaration of war. The two men embraced, and burst into tears. Sazonov then told Pourtalés:
“This was a criminal act of yours. The curses of the nations will be upon you.”
“We were defending our honor,” Pourtalés replied.
“Your honor was not involved.”