Primary Documents - British Ambassador's Reaction in Vienna to Austria's Ultimatum, 27 July 1914

Arrest of Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo Reproduced below is the text of the official report to Sir Edward Grey (the British Foreign Secretary) made by the British Ambassador in Vienna, Sir Maurice de Bunsen.

In his report de Bunsen made clear his belief that the Austro-Hungarian government was set upon war with Serbia from the outset, crafting their ultimatum to Serbia in such a manner as to make war inevitable.

The day following de Bunsen's statement - on 28 July 1914 - Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Official Report by Sir Maurice de Bunsen
British Ambassador in Vienna in 1914

The delivery at Belgrade on the 23rd of July of the Austrian note to Serbia was preceded by a period of absolute silence at the Ballplatz (note: Office of the Austrian Ministry of State.).

Except Herr von Tschirschky (note: German Ambassador at Vienna), who must have been aware of the tenor, if not of the actual words of the note, none of my colleagues were allowed to see through the veil.  On the 22nd and 23rd of July, M. Dumaine, French Ambassador, had long interviews with Baron Macchio, one of the Under-Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, by whom he was left under the impression that the words of warning he had been instructed to speak to the Austro-Hungarian Government had not been unavailing, and that the note which was being drawn up would be found to contain nothing with which a self-respecting State need hesitate to comply.

At the second of these interviews he was not even informed that the note was at that very moment being presented at Belgrade, or that it would be published in Vienna on the following morning.  Count Forgach, the other Under-Secretary of State, had indeed been good enough to confide to me on the same day the true character of the note, and the fact of its presentation about the time we were speaking.

So little had the Russian Ambassador been made aware of what was preparing that he actually left Vienna on a fortnight's leave of absence about the 20th of July.  He had only been absent a few days when events compelled him to return.  It might have been supposed that Duke Avarna, Ambassador of the allied Italian Kingdom, which was bound to be so closely affected by fresh complications in the Balkans, would have been taken fully into the confidence of Count Berchtold during this critical time.

In point of fact his Excellency was left completely in the dark.  As for myself, no indication was given me by Count Berchtold of the impending storm, and it was from a private source that I received on the 15th of July the forecast of what was about to happen which I telegraphed to you the following day.

It is true that during all this time the Neue Freie Presse and other leading Viennese newspapers were using language which pointed unmistakably to war with Serbia.  The official Fremdenblatt, however, was more cautious, and till the note was published, the prevailing opinion among my colleagues was that Austria would shrink from courses calculated to involve her in grave European complications.

On the 24th of July the note was published in the newspapers.  By common consent it was at once styled an ultimatum.  Its integral acceptance by Serbia was neither expected nor desired, and when, on the following afternoon, it was at first rumoured in Vienna that it had been unconditionally accepted, there was a moment of keen disappointment.

The mistake was quickly corrected, and as soon as it was known later in the evening that the Serbian reply had been rejected and that Baron Giesl (note: Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade) had broken off relations at Belgrade, Vienna burst into a frenzy of delight, vast crowds parading the streets and singing patriotic songs till the small hours of the morning.

The demonstrations were perfectly orderly, consisting for the most part of organized processions through the principal streets ending up at the Ministry of War.  One or two attempts to make hostile manifestations against the Russian Embassy were frustrated by the strong guard of police which held the approaches to the principal embassies during those days.

The demeanour of the people at Vienna and, as I was informed, in many other principal cities of the Monarchy, showed plainly the popularity of the idea of war with Serbia, and there can be no doubt that the small body of Austrian and Hungarian statesmen by whom this momentous step was adopted gauged rightly the sense, and it may even be said the determination, of the people, except presumably in portions of the provinces inhabited by the Slav races.

There had been much disappointment in many quarters at the avoidance of war with Serbia during the annexation crisis in 1908 and again in connection with the recent Balkan, war.  Count Berchtold's peace policy had met with little sympathy in the Delegation.  Now the floodgates were opened, and the entire people and press clamoured impatiently for immediate and condign punishment of the hated Serbian race.

The country certainly believed that it had before it only the alternative of subduing Serbia or of submitting sooner or later to mutilation at her hands.  But a peaceful solution should first have been attempted.  Few seemed to reflect that the forcible intervention of a Great Power in the Balkans must inevitably call other Great Powers into the field.

So just was the cause of Austria held to be, that it seemed to her people inconceivable that any country should place itself in her path, or that questions of mere policy or prestige should be regarded anywhere as superseding the necessity which had arisen to exact summary vengeance for the crime of Serajevo.

The conviction had been expressed to me by the German Ambassador on the 24th of July that Russia would stand aside.  This feeling, which was also held at the Ballplatz, influenced no doubt the course of events, and it is deplorable that no effort should have been made to secure by means of diplomatic negotiations the acquiescence of Russia and Europe as a whole in some peaceful compromise of the Serbian question by which Austrian fears of Serbian aggression and intrigue might have been removed for the future.

Instead of adopting this course the Austro-Hungarian Government resolved upon war.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A 'corkscrew' was a metal post for supporting a wire entanglement, with a twisted base enabling it to be screwed into the ground, removing the need for a hammer, the use of which could attract enemy fire.

- Did you know?

Primary Docs