Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize
25 July 2014
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Serbia Orders General Mobilization
Saturday 25 July 1914
As the July Crisis slowly progressed from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand through a labyrinthine diplomatic process that finally delivered Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia on Thursday 23 July 1914, very little happened other than consultations, warnings, drafting of documents, and the like. The day after the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary was delivered to Serbia, Serbia made the ultimatum public. The ultimatum had been crafted purposefully to be unacceptable. One could argue that the war already started with the writing of an intentionally unacceptable ultimatum, but the actual military wheels of the conflict began to turn with mobilization.
Due to the nature of the ultimatum, it was already clear that whatever response Serbia gave to Austria-Hungary would be unacceptable. Knowing this, Serbia ordered general mobilization at 3:00 pm on Saturday 25 July 1914. An official response was given to the ultimatum at 5:55 pm — five minutes before the deadline for a response would pass. Emperor Franz Josef signed the mobilization order for Austria-Hungary at 7:23 pm the same day, although it would not begin to take effect for another two days on “Alarm Day” — a preparatory day to give troops time to get ready — with troop movements scheduled to begin on the following day. From this point forward, events would begin to move much more rapidly, pushed along by “boots on the ground.”
In Carte blanche for Austria-Hungary I discussed the continuum of escalations that led to the outbreak of the First World War as an unprecedented global industrialized conflict, any one of which episodes of escalation could be identified as the beginning of the First World War. Certainly the mobilization of Serbia and Austria-Hungary could be identified as the unique moment when the war “really” began, but there are many other contenders for that claim. For a war as catastrophic as the First World War, a sequence of escalations is necessary to pass from an assassination to a global war.
What I find particularly interesting about the mobilizations of Serbia and Austria-Hungary on 25 July 1914, and the many mobilizations that would follow — Russia on 30 July, France on 31 July, Germany on 01 August — was the role played by mobilization in the First World War. On the eve of the First World War, Europe was an armed camp that had been preparing for the next war for decades, and with particular intensity during the immediately previous years. Mobilization plans were a central fact of the war that was expected by everyone.
Planning a major war for years entails a major effort, and for the growing, industrialized nation-states of Europe, with their cities expanding with industrial workers, the grandiose plans for war had to be executed with grandiose means, and this meant the full mobilization for war of an entire society. While in classical antiquity entire societies had been mobilized for war, this took place under very different socioeconomic conditions — the city-state, i.e., the polis, rather than the nation-state was the locus of political and military power. During the medieval and early modern periods, Europe’s wars had largely been fought between professional armies and only rarely with conscripts. When conscripts were used, they were used only in so far as their fighting did not interrupt the centrality of agriculture in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. Peasants would plant in the spring, go to war as conscripts in the summer, and then had to return to their fields in time to harvest. If they failed to do so, everyone would starve.
All of this changed with the industrial revolution and the advent of industrial-technological civilization. The First World War was the first great armed conflict of industrial-technological civilization, and that is why I have been calling it the first global industrialized war in this series of posts. Not only was the new technology of weaponry produced by new industries, but the social organization of war changed radically. Professional armies were seen as the nucleus of a much larger force that could be rapidly expanded on demand. This is the efflorescence of the idea of every man a soldier — i.e., the idea that any citizen of the nation-state could be called away from their plow, lathe, hammer, or desk, put into a uniform, given a rifle, and sent to war to defend the nation.
In order to implement the idea of every man a soldier, it was necessary to mobilize the whole of society for war. This is exactly what all the nation-states of Europe had been planning and preparing to do. Men left their occupations, showed up at a depot where they were issued uniform and arms, given their orders where to report, and the whole of the mobilization for war became an extension of war plans on the battlefield that reached back to the homefront and into the lives of the people. Mobilization, like the war plans of the time, were planned to elapse like clockwork — once put into action, they were widely believed to be irrevocable and unalterable, so that a formal mobilization order was almost equivalent to a declaration of war.
It is possible that the role of mobilization was larger in the First World War than in any war before or after, though it is arguable that at the height of the Cold War the whole of society was continually mobilized for war, as with the famous readiness of the Strategic Air Command. In this instance, mobilization has ceased to disrupt society because mobilization is the social order around which society is constructed. However, this level of readiness is impossible to maintain indefinitely, and is likely to deteriorate. The mobilization of the First World War had the virtue of signaling society at large of a radical shift from business as usual; to this end, disruption served a purpose.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize
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