Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, soon to be, all be it briefly, Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III depicted as Siegfried from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Popular and handsome, intelligent and liberal, the Crown Prince was very much the conquering hero after leading armies in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars.
Much has been made by scholars and historians of the so-called “blank cheque”, or promise of diplomatic and, ultimately, military support, given by Germany to Austria-Hungary during the July crisis of 1914. Indeed, many have argued for Germany’s” war guilt”, primary if not sole responsibility for starting the Great War, and cited this as crucial, irrefutable evidence.
Never mind that the guarantee given in early July to the Austrian envoy, Count Hoyos, by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisors supposed that Vienna would move against Serbia quickly, before the Russians even realized what was afoot, and while European opinion was still sympathetic after the assassinations in Sarajevo. In the event, the Austrians didn’t even deliver their ultimatum to Belgrade until 23 July, almost three whole weeks later. More importantly, the decision makers in Berlin anticipated and planned for a localized conflict in the Balkans. After the fateful council meeting of 6 July the Kaiser departed for his annual North Sea cruise not to return until 27 July, while his ministers, both civilian and military, also went on holiday, leaving the capital. After the Serbian response to the Austrian note on 25 July, a partial acceptance of the demands levied, Wilhelm enthusiastically declared that as far as he could see there existed “no more reason for war.” Germany was, in fact, the last of the Great Powers to mobilize, almost a whole week after Russia began to implement mobilization procedures (the Period Preparatory to War). Even the most Germanaphobe historians must agree that Austria-Hungary had a legitimate right to respond to such an egregious act of terrorism, plotted on Serbian soil and with the fill support of the Serbian army and many elements within the government itself. German support for Austrian policy is Southeastern Europe was actually strikingly unusual and atypical; for the previous thirty five years, since the conclusion of the Dual Alliance in 1879, Berlin had always sought to restrain Habsburg ambitions in the Balkans so as not to alienate Russia. That sort of caution was not, however, exercised by Russia and her ally, France.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazanov and war minister Sukhomlinov inaugurated the Period Preparatory to War, an essential partial mobilization, in a Council of Ministers meeting, on 25 July, before Austria had mobilized or even declared war on Serbia. Five days later, when Tsar Nicholas II decreed full mobilization, he did so in the full knowledge that such an action would necessarily and inevitably provoke a reciprocal German mobilization, not just to protect her Austrian ally but her own territory in East Prussia. The Russians would have never acted so boldly aggressive had it not been for the explicit support of France for their belligerant, expansionist policy on the Balkan peninsula. Unlike the Austro-German Alliance, which was primarily defensive, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, by contrast, had been converted since the turn of the century into an offensive pact; indeed German cries of “Einreisung!” were not by nature baseless. Following the two Morrocan crises of 1905 and 1911, the rival armed political and military blocs in Europe had hardened. Unsure of British support in the event of a general conflagration and dependent upon Russian cooperation, French politicians such as President of the Republic Raymond Poincarè, former prime minister Theophile Déclassé and ambassador to St Petersburg Maurice Paleologue made a Faustian bargain, binding French security against Germany to Russian pan-slavist policy in Southern Europe. Bismarck was correct, as always, when he remarked that the next Great War would begin over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And just as dangerous and disastrous for Europe as the “blank cheque” supposedly given by Germany to Austria was the one given to Russia by France.
It’s easy for us now to assume that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 must have immediately seized the interest of Europe, knowing now the grave consequences that stemmed from that event. In fact, press comment across the continent was rather subdued in the early days of July. Even the bellicose Parisian papers limited themselves to sympathetic comment for the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Josef. All of France was absorbed, and would remain so until the very final days of the crisis, with murder trial of Madame Caillaux. The wife of former prime minister Joseph Caillaux, who was himself disgraced after his handling of the Agadir affair of 1911 but looking for a comeback, had murdered the editor of the Figaro newspaper after he published scandalous love letters written between the couple while they were still married to other people. Caillaux had championed a policy of conciliation towards Germany and been forced out of office because of it as nationalist and belligerent attitudes hardened throughout the country. He was replaced in the premiership by Raymond Poincarè, whose support of Russian Balkan policy as President did much to exacerbate the international situation and it is perhaps fitting that his final public humiliation took place on the eve of the Great War he worked so had worked so hard to avoid 3 years earlier.
The mood of distraction was very similar in Britain. In May of 1914 the House of Commons had passed a Home Rule bill for Ireland which the Liberal cabinet was threatening to enact by Royal Assent over the rejection of the House of Lords. The resulting furor was one that cut across every strata of British society. It was not until the 26th of July, the day after the expiration of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia that there was any cabinet discussion about the crisis in Central Europe. As First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill later wrote about those heady days: “The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland and a strange light began by perceptible gradations to fall on the map of Europe.” This was especially significant because, unlike in France or Germany or Russia, the British public was completely ignorant of their country’s commitments on the continent and the extent of her alliances. Only the London Times was in favor of intervention in the coming European war, all other press commentary, both Liberal and Tory, was unanimous in its resolve to remain neutral. Even the government, the cabinet itself, was unaware of Foreign Minister Edward Grey’s pro-Entente policy. Since 1905 and the first Morrocan Crisis, British foreign policy had been controlled in secret by Grey and a small clique of Liberal Imperialist ministers and their allies in the army and navy to the exclusion of the rest of the cabinet, parliament and the public.
Even Kaiser Wilhelm II, often accused of militarist and expansionist ambitions, didn’t envisage the conflict resulting from the Sarajevo murders to be anything more than a limited, local war in the Balkans. He saw no reason to cut short or cancel his North Sea cruise in early July. The war that had so long been planned for by the Great Powers, the war which had almost exploded two or three times in the last two years, tool all of the policy makers, not to mention the general populace, by surprise.
A Great War Imperial German Ersatz Bayern Filzhelm, typical one piece construction, (the rear visor split) with gilt brass fittings, including helmet plate, visor trim and fixed spike, complete with liner
In Aug 1914 the declaration of war resulted in the mobilization of the armies of the German-speaking contingents fighting together as the Imperial German Army. With mobilization for a modern war, the German Armies found themselves unable to quickly equip millions of soldiers. A shortage of cow hide from Argentina combined with the excessive draw upon German industry to outfit the massive army being mobilised, resulted in a severe shortage of leather for manufacturing Pickelhauben. To meet with this immediate shortage, the Germans began in 1914 manufacturing helmets from Ersatz (substitute) materials.
As the felt hat manufacturing industry was well established in Germany for hundreds of years, the hat industry stepped in to fill the void by producing Pickelhaube out of pressed and blocked felt manufactured from rabbit fur or shredded wool. One advantage to the Filzhelme (felt helmets) was that they were normally pressed from one-piece of felt which significantly reduced production time. Other industries met the challenge by producing helmets from Eisenblech (tin plate), Stahlblech (steel), Vulcanfibre (pressed fibre), cork, pressed paper, and other materials. Helmets can be found with brass or silver fittings and eventually M1915 grey steel fittings as the M1915 Pickelhaube was introduced. Surviving examples of Ersatz Pickelhauben can be found with or without front visor trims, rear spines, or Kokarden
The coup d’etat of December 1851 by which Louis Napoleon overthrew the French Second Republic and declared, a year later, himself emperor greatly alarmed the other European Powers. Had the menace of Bonapartism returned to stalk the continent?
Louis Napoleon, now Emperor Napoleon III, declared shortly thereafter that “the Empire means Peace,” engaging in a public relations blitz, even charming Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. However, his primary, overarching foreign policy goal was the redress and reversal of the Vienna Treaty of 1815 which had ended the reign of his illustrious uncle. Whatever his assurances of peace, French soldiers were soon fighting and dying in the Crimean War (1853-56). Napoleon used the crisis in Turkey to win British support and to disrupt the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria. This allowed him, in 1859, to help Piedmont secure the unification of Italy, securing Nice and Savoy for France in the process.
For all of his initial success he failed to understand the shifting nature of the politics of European diplomacy. Always a supporter of the establishment of liberal nation states, under French auspices, of course, he initially supported similar agitation for unification in Germany. He sat idly by as Prussia defeated Austria for leadership of the German Bund in 1866, not realizing the grave threat to French power and prestige inherent in strong, unified German Reich until it was too late and he was forced to surrender to Otto Von Bismarck at Sedan in 1870.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord.
Representing the restored Bourbon monarchy of a defeated France at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), Talleyrand, no stranger to the art of diplomatic maneuver, ingenuously insinuated himself into the inner councils of the victorious Allies. By first championing the cause of the smaller nations excluded by the secret clause of the Treaty of Paris and then gaining access to the critical Statistics Committee, he turned the Big Four (Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia) into the Big Five of the peace conference. Talleyrand, a former servant of the Revolution and then later Napoleon, believed in 1815 that France needed rest and peace more than anything and sought to create an equitable balance of power among the nations of Europe. He formed a powerful block along with Castlereigh of England and Metternich of Austria to resist the radical designs of Tsar Alexander of Russia, particularly on the important question of Poland.
Talleyrand would die in 1838 but as one of the principal architects of a peace that would last until the First World War, his influence would continue to be felt during the following two centuries.
The Taking of the Malakov Redoubt; A British Officer Salutes the French Flag by Vernet.
The Crimean War saw British and French soldiers fighting together for the first time in living memory and many hoped this would help erase the bitter memories on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars.
General Bonaparte’s nephew, the French Emperor Napoleon III, certainly hoped this was so as he aimed to obliterate the Vienna settlement of 1815 and reassert French prestige on the world stage. It was with this goal in mind that Napoleon welcomed the diplomatic crisis in Turkey between Catholic and Orthodox Christians over control of the Holy Places. He relished the chance to confront Russia and her overweeningly reactionary Tsar, Nicholas I; Russia after all was the senior partner in the Holy Alliance against revolutionary change on the continent and the keeper, by force of arms, as in the heady days of 1848-50, of the terms of the Vienna treaty. Napoleon’s ambitions not just for France but in Italy, Germany and, of course, Poland would necessitate an open break with Russia and he seized the opportunity to weaken and humiliate Tsarist regime.
France and Russia weren’t the only Western Powers to have an interest in the affairs if Ottoman Turkey. Britain, in addition to protestant religious sympathies for the Christians of the empire, held considerable economic interests in Turkey. The English had been supporting the Turks to against the Russians for the previous 20 years, sitting as they did astride the route eastwards to India. Napoleon knew that he would need British support whatever he decided to do and pursued an English alliance unswervingly, using the difficulties in Palestine as a pretext for concerted action.
Old rivalries don’t vanish overnight, of course. The primary reason the English cabinet sent their fleet to Constantinople after the Turkish declaration of war in October 1853 was that Aberdeen and Palmerston couldn’t abide the thought of the French, who had done the same some weeks earlier, being left unsupervised in that part of the world. And there would be disputes between the British and French armed forces over the conduct of the war itself, especially as the French took the lead in the campaign in the Crimea. However victory, even one as uninspiring as the one achieved during the Crimean War is an effective bonding agent and the alliance forged in 1853-1856 laid the foundation of a workable partnership that was to survive both the war and the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870 and find its final expression in the Entente Cordiale of the early 20th century.