On this day in history… 28th July 1914

28th July has been an important day on and off throughout the centuries but perhaps no more crucial than in 1914 when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The declaration came exactly one month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had been killed, along with his wife, by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. The day is one of the most relevant in military history as it effectively began the hostilities that were to become the First World War.

It is widely acknowledged that the gravity of the response to the killing perhaps had more to do with Austria-Hungary feeling threatened by Serbian ambition and the instability of the Balkans region. As a result, it was decided that the best way to deal with the murder was to prepare for a military invasion of Serbia. Austria-Hungary first went to Germany to ensure that it would be supportive of the invasion – and an ally – and then on 23rd July Serbia was presented with an ultimatum by Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany. That ultimatum contained numerous requirements, among them the suppression of all anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia and allowing Austria-Hungary to carry out its own investigation into the killing of the archduke and his wife.

Although Serbia actually agreed to most of the demands in the ultimatum – except one – diplomatic relations were dissolved on 25th July and after that the big powers of Europe began to stack up on either side of the dispute. Russia, Serbia’s main supporter in the Balkans, also began to take steps towards mobilising its own military might against Austria-Hungary and Germany continued to put pressure on Austria-Hungary not to agree to any of the compromise proposals that were being advocated by countries like Britain and France.

When all attempts at heading the conflict off had failed, Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia on 28th July 1914. The next day British naval official Winston Churchill wrote to his wife “My darling one and beautiful, everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse,” and, unfortunately he was right, as what followed was almost four years of death and destruction. From 28th July 1914, the First World War rumbled on until 11 November 1918 and was one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. More than nine million combatants were killed and by the end of the conflict four imperial powers had completely ceased to exist – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. So, 28th July is indeed a most memorable date in world history, if for rather sombre reasons.

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