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The fate of the world hinged on one man’s answer.

All of Europe tensed during the fateful summer of 1914 as the Austro- Hungarian Empire determined to eradicate the small Balkan kingdom of Serbia. There was little to covet in Serbia, a land Austrian Emperor Franz Josef characterized as consisting only of plum trees, goat droppings and murderous people. But the Serbs, with their prickly nationalism honed to a razor’s edge by four centuries of Ottoman oppression, had gone too far. Radical elements had set in motion the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

German Kaiser Wilhelm II had given the Austrians a blank check of Germany’s support for their plans to conquer Serbia. (See Hard Choices, July 2012 ACG.) The Russians, on the other hand, rallied to the aid of the little Slavic country, and on July 29 initiated a partial military mobilization aimed only at Austria. This lit the match of German paranoia of a two-front attack by the Russians and their French allies.

The paranoia was the result of Germany’s failure to maintain former chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s alliance with Russia. The Germans had also unnecessarily antagonized the British by building a competing fleet. The French snapped up the Russian alliance, which Britain joined unofficially in the Triple Entente. At the same time, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy allied as the Central Powers.

All the continental major powers possessed large standing armies with deep reserves to be mobilized as war became imminent. Mobilization plans, based on intricate railroad planning, were at the heart of a country’s ability to marshal its strength. It was imperative that no prospective enemy be allowed to mobilize first and hence seize the ability to strike first.

Germany in 1914 had the densest and most efficient railroad network in the world. Thousands of German officers were assigned to make sure that mobilization functioned like clockwork. The German army would have 56 corps, and each one required 6,010 railcars organized into 280 trains running with astounding precision. This incredible machine was in the hands of the very able chief of the General Staff ’s Railway Department, General Herman von Staab.

Germany’s mobilization was tied to its war plan created by the brilliant former chief of the General Staff, the late Alfred von Schlieffen. The plan entailed throwing seven of the eight initially mobilized armies at France, and then after their victory turning everything against Russia. The essence of the Schlieffen Plan was to swing the weight of Germany’s armies through Belgium to sweep around the left flank of the French armies and crush them against their own country’s borders.

The violation of Belgium’s neutrality was seen as a necessity, though Germany was a guarantor of that country’s independence. The problem, which German planners failed to take seriously, was that the British were also guarantors of Belgium, and the German invasion would pose a direct threat to British security. The Germans believed that the British could not intervene in time to affect the fate of France.

The plan became an article of almost mystical belief simply referred to as Der Tag (The Day). The man the Kaiser chose to execute the plan if war came was General Helmuth von Moltke, the nephew and namesake of the legendary field marshal whose mid-19th century victories had created the German Empire. Wilhelm appointed the younger Moltke chief of the General Staff despite the man’s repeated and prescient protestations that he was simply not up to the task. The decision would come to haunt Wilhelm.

As Der Tag neared, the Kaiser was having serious second thoughts, concerned about the consequences of Britain entering the war. On August 1, 1914, the German ambassador to London wired that British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had stated that Britain would guarantee France’s neutrality. Grey had said no such thing, but his vague words had been misinterpreted.

The Kaiser, however, relieved at the thought of only a one-front war, recalled Moltke, who was carrying the signed mobilization order. Overjoyed, he exclaimed to Moltke: “Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our army to the east!” Although presented in his typically bombastic, overbearing manner, Wilhelm was essentially asking Moltke one of history’s most fateful questions: Was it possible to confine the fighting to a one-front war against Russia?

Moltke was shaken to the core. Everything he had devoted his life to for years would be erased. Instead of opportunity, he saw only chaos, replying: “Your Majesty, it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the east it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete and once settled, it cannot be altered.”

Stunned, Kaiser Wilhelm could only say after a strained silence, “Your uncle would have given me a different answer.”

Yet what Moltke did not tell the Kaiser was that a plan for an attack to the east had also been drawn up with all the care lavished on the Schlieffen Plan. Nor did he explain that the German mobilization railroad plans contained yearly exercises that “included rerouting and rescheduling trains to accommodate interruptions in the rail network as well as changing strategic situations.” Moltke did not ask Staab if it were even possible to change the mobilization plans, so sure was he in his rigid and unimaginative mind that it could not be done. Thus the fleeting, unforgiving moment in which “a different answer” to the Kaiser’s question might have confined the war to only Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia had passed.

Britain delivered an ultimatum that an invasion of Belgium meant war. The Germans marched anyway, determined to get at the French. They never realized that France neither wanted a war nor was obligated to go to war to support Russia – the alliance only required that the countries “consult” if an enemy mobilized against either party of the treaty. The French had even withdrawn all their troops 10 kilometers from the German border to indicate that they intended no offensive action.

Only after the war did Staab learn of the Kaiser’s 1914 question and Moltke’s response. He was outraged at the insult to his Railway Department and wrote a book in 1925 showing how in just 10 days he could have moved a million German troops in four armies to the east.


 Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.