Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

Austro-Hungary and Serbia

The Serbian-Skoda Arms Deal and the Pig War.

The immediate origins of the War occurred in Serbia. There, too, arms sales directly drove the route towards conflict. The shooting at Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary receives all the publicity, but it was another arms dispute that really drove the conflict between Austro-Hungary and Serbia. At its centre was Skoda, one of the really big munitions companies, primarily supplying the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its main factory was at Pilsen, south west of Prague. It was taken over by Emil Skoda in 1869 and fashioned into a large steel and weapons unit, strongly supported and promoted by the Austro-Hungarian State, especially the Royal family. It was making weapons for an empire and was in the top league along with Vickers, Armstrong, Schneider and Krupp. In the decade before the First World War, Serbia was under considerable pressure from Austro-Hungary to buy Skoda field and mountain guns. Skoda wanted this sale in what was effectively their back yard and set out to get the order, using diplomatic pressure from the Austro-Hungarian State. In May 1903 the king of Serbia, Alexander Obrenovich and his wife were assassinated by a group of junior army officers, and replaced by King Peter I. This was supposed to be linked in some murky way with the Skoda arms deal which was on the point of being made. But the deal did not happen. The king was murdered and Skoda did not get the deal. As Grant points out in his study Rulers, guns and money, “Indeed, Skoda’s fortune was so tightly bound up with the fate of the king that Trappen [Skoda’s General Director] was the last civilian to speak with the king before the king’s murder.” [i] Probably, the new armed junta was worried that Serbia was becoming too dependent on Austro-Hungarian arms, broke the link and repudiated the order. If you rely on your potential enemy to supply your weapons, you are sunk; anyone can see that. “More shells? Sorry, we are out of stock just now, while our guns are shooting at you. Try us again next year.”

When this set back occurred the negotiations for the big order of cannon became more and more tense. The Serbians said the French Schneider 75mm guns or Krupp’s cannon were better, but they were also more expensive, and Skoda produced outstanding weapons, especially its large howitzers. In a convoluted pattern of negotiations, Schneider-Le Creusot, Krupp and Skoda and most of the banks of Europe prepared to provide a loan which took a couple of years to bargain. Skoda was now worried; if they did not get the deal, the big boys of western Europe would dominate their local market and they therefore were determined that “their” Government would negotiate hard to get the Skoda order through, which they did. As a result the so-called “Pig War” of 1906-9 broke out. A customs embargo by Austro-Hungary was so called because of a French proposal that bank loans to pay for Schneider guns could be repaid by the large-scale export of Serbian pigs. The French got pork and the Serbians got guns. In retaliation the Austrians closed their borders to Serbian pork and tried to bring Serbia into line. Up to that time, selling pork to Austrians was Serbia’s major export. The economy suffered badly from the embargo, but then other countries, notably Germany, discovered that they very much liked pork, especially at low prices, and began importing pigs in large quantities. As a result the embargo did not work; for a while Germany and Austro-Hungary had different interests. The Serbians would not give in, and eventually recruited Russia as an ally against Austro-Hungary. The forming of this alliance was almost a practice run for the First World War, when Russia was supporting Serbia against Austro-Hungary. Other munitions tensions were present. For example, Mausers and 50,000 rifle barrels were ordered from the Austrian arms firm, Stehr. But in 1908 in the Pig War, Austro-Hungary suspended delivery of the last 15,000 rifle barrels.[ii] If Austro-Hungary used their muscle at this point, they could do so again, especially if Serbia and Austro-Hungary were on opposite sides.

Eventually the “Pig War” merged into the Bosnian Crisis involving Bosnia-Herzegovena and Bulgarian independence, which was even more tense, and by this time the Serbians were adamantly opposed to buying Skoda weapons. This long confrontation around weapons’ purchase was thus a major contributor to the poor relationship between the two countries most directly involved in the outbreak of the Great War. In the unstable build-up to the assassination in 1914 and Austro-Hungary’s reaction, Skoda’s pressure to sell weapons played a major part.[iii]

The High Command’s Military Strategy.

Then, as everyone knows, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand took place. It offered the opportunity to Austro-Hungary to attack its troublesome neighbour, Serbia, and it looked to Germany for support so that it did not have outside trouble from Russia or anyone else. The Habsburg Empire claimed it was not seeking territory, and probably the conflict was the result of this long stand-off on arms. The Kaiser was asked for his support, and on the 6th July, the Kaiser sent the fateful telegraph through Bethman-Hollweg with the famous last paragraph.

Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence. The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship. 

The “blank cheque” to Austro-Hungary became the event which turned the handle to open the door to a European War. Even this is understandable given the Kaiser’s sympathy with the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph and the assassination of his son. After all Emperors must stick together. Wilhelm was an unfortunate individual, locked into the militaristic world of admirals and generals and autocracy from which Germany was departing and he succumbed to an understandable personal loyalty. Yet, this decision was backed by the German High Command, in particular the Minister for War, Erich von Falkenhayn and others who were consulted. In this sense the German High Command wished the conflict to be carried out, initially by Austro-Hungary, but with any necessary German support. They also were willing to fight Russia because they were aware that Russia was unprepared, and might not want to fight at the time. They were the ones who said “Yes” to war.

But this decision needs further analysis. What kind of decision was it? It was not carried out for territory or gain. Rather the underlying German rationale was military strategy and fear. No-one put it better than Lloyd George when trying to calm some British jingoism.

Look at the position of Germany. Her army is to her what our navy is to us – her sole defence against invasion. She has not got a two power standard. She may have a stronger Army than France, than Russia, than Italy, than Austria, but she is between two great Powers who, in combination, could pour in a vastly greater number of troops than she has. Don’t forget that when you wonder why Germany is frightened at alliances and understandings and some sorts of mysterious workings which appear in the Press and hints in “the Times” and “Daily Mail”…Here is Germany in the middle of Europe , with France and Russia on either side, and with a combination of armies greater than hers. Suppose we had a possible combination which would lay us open to invasion – suppose Germany and France, or Germany and Austria, had fleets which, in combination, would be stronger than ours. Would we not be frightened, would we not build, would we not arm? Of course we should. I want our friends, who think that because Germany is a little frightened she really means mischief to us, to remember that she is frightened for a reason which would frighten us in the same circumstances.[iv]

Lloyd George’s empathy, along with European disarmament, would have prevented the Great War. By 1914 German military strategy had to take into account the possibility of attacks from France and Russia. France was the old enemy known to be re-arming on quite a scale. More than that the Russian Empire had a population of some 170 million compared with Germany’s of less than 70 million. As Russia industrialised and armed with the help of both France and Britain, year by year it became a bigger threat to Germany. So the strategy was laid out. Better a war earlier than later. Germany should have the advantage of surprise, because in the long term she had to fight on two fronts, and, third, the Schlieffen Plan whereby she struck in the west before Russia could mobilize in the east were all well understood as the basic German strategy. The obvious point is that these exigencies are all military calculations based on the possibility of going to war, but they predipose the German High Command towards initiating a war. This was merely the outworking of ways of thinking among those who had bought into militarism and war and learned to think in its terms. They had power of policy for the tens of millions who died and were injured and the hundreds of millions who suffered. That is the warning.

The outcome: Austro-Hungary declares War against Serbia.

The result of these tensions occurred in July 1914. By this time the Austro-Hungarian military, was led by Count Franz Conrad von Hözendorf, Chief of the General Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army. He instituted a pattern of intense bullying of Serbia. General Vladimir Giesl, the Austro-Hungarian Minister in Serbia presented the fateful ultimatum at 6pm on July 23rd, 1914, an hour later than the 5pm which was originally intended. Either Serbia would accept or Austro-Hungary would go to war. The 6pm time was because at the later hour the French fleet would have sailed from Kronstadt, and Russia and France would miss the opportunity of immediately arranging co-operative naval action. Thus the military agenda framed even this momentous political event. The ultimatum was presented, demanding a 48 hour, unreserved acceptance to humiliating conditions. 

Everyone was shocked by the terms of the ultimatum. Pasitch, the Serbian Premier, replied with an answer as conciliatory as he could make it. “We have accepted all that we possibly could. For the rest, we rely on the chivalrous honour of an Austrian general – yourself – with whom we have always been content.” Pasitch had hidden his wife and secretary, Von Stork, behind some curtains as witnesses of this fateful conversation. The Serbians had only demurred from allowing Austrian “police”, which was code for the Austrian army, from operating freely in Serbia, effectively agreeing to a military take-over, which obviously they could not accept. With these words the ultimatum was taken as rejected and Austro-Hungary went to war, pushed by their own, and the German, military, led by von Moltke.[v] The French fleet sailed on, but the chain whereby other States – Germany, Russia, France, Britain, Italy, the United States and most of the other countries of the world - be drawn into the war was already forged. With Skoda’s role in Austro-Hungary and the region, the explosion of the First World War was detonated. This should never have been.

It was worse than this. When Austro-Hungary went to war against Serbia it encountered strong resistance and it engaged in atrocities which are beyond mentioning. The Serbs were treated as “Untermenschen”, faced firing squads and were mown down. Archibald Reiss, a Swiss academic criminologist, set about uncovering and recording these events and they were followed by later Nazi brutality. So a whole nation was brutalized beyond our imagination following the declaration of war in 1914, and the effects of that process have come down to the present.

[i] Jonathan A. Grant Rulers, guns and money: the global arms trade in the age of imperialism (Harvard University Press, 2007) 200

[iv] Walter Roch Mr Lloyd George and the War (London: Chatto and Windus, 1920) 14

[v] Times newspaper cutting from Vienna Correspondent. No date.