July 23, 1914

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Le Temps (Paris, 23 Juillet 1914)
Source: gallica.bnf.fr

This was the super-ultimatum. In the words of the British Foreign Secretary, it constituted “the most formidable document ever addressed by one state to another.” It was also the nonultimatum. Though its tone left no doubt over the consequences of noncompliance, it did not mention the possibility of war, and therefore arrived at the Austrian Embassy in Belgrade labeled as a mere “demarche with a time limit.”

And there were other fine aspects to Berchtold’s game. The sledgehammer message came phrased in fastidious diplomatic French, the last such “final notice” to be written in that language. Last but not least, Berchtold used precision timing, always important in a theatrical enterprise. Belgrade relied on two principal protectors, Russia and France. Just then the French Head of State was finishing his visit with the Tsar. Berchtold did not want the two to react jointly when the “demarche with a time limit” struck. Through German diplomatic sources, Berchtold had learned that President Poincare would end his stay at the Russian capital in the early afternoon of Thursday, July 23. By 5 P.M. he would be floating away on the cruiser France. Berchtold instructed the Austrian Ambassador in Belgrade to deliver the “demarche” at 6 P.M. sharp.

Frederic Morton, Thunder at Twilight, Ch. 32

Thursday, July 23, 1914.

Review at Krasnoe Selo this morning. Sixty thousand men took part. A magnificent pageant of might and majesty. The infantry marched past to the strains of the Marche de Sambre et Meuse and the Marche Lorraine.

What a wealth of suggestion in this military machine set in motion by the Tsar of all the Russias before the President of the allied republic, himself a son of Lorraine!

The Tsar was mounted at the foot of the mound upon which was the imperial tent. Poincaré was seated on the Tsaritsa’s right in front of the tent. The few glances he exchanged with me showed me that our thoughts were the same.

This evening we had a farewell dinner on the France. The moment it was over the French squadron was to prepare to leave for Stockholm.

The Tsaritsa had made a point of coming with the Tsar. All the grand dukes and grand duchesses were there.

About seven o’clock a momentary squall did some slight damage to the floral decorations of the deck but the table looked very fine all the same. It had indeed a kind of terrifying grandeur with the four gigantic 30 mm. gun raising their huge muzzles above the heads of the guests. The sky was soon clear again; a light breeze kissed the waves; the moon rose above the horizon.

Conversation between the Tsar and the President never ceased.

In the distance the Grand Duchess Anastasia raised her champagne glass towards me more than once, indicating with a sweep of her arm the warlike tackle all about us.

As the second entrée was about to be served a servant brought me a note from Viviani, scribbled on a menu: "Be quick and prepare a communiqué for the press."

Admiral Grigorovitch, Naval Minister, who was next to me, whispered in my ear:

"It seems to me you’re not left in peace for a minute!"

I took my own and my neighbour’s menus and hastily drew up a note for Havas Agency, using the neutral and empty phraseology suitable for documents of this kind. But to end up I alluded to Serbia in the following terms:

The two governments have discovered that their views and intentions for the maintenance of the European balance of power, especially in the Balkan Peninsula, are absolutely identical.

I sent my note to Viviani who read it and then shook his head at me across the table.

At length the toasts were reached. Poincaré delivered his concluding phrase like a trumpet call:

The two countries have the same ideal of peace in strength, honour and self-respect.

These last words – words to be heard really to be appreciated – were followed by thunderous applause. The Grand Duke Nicholas, the Grand Duchess Anastasia and the Grand Duke Nicholas Michailovich turned flaming eyes upon me.

As we were rising from the table Viviani came up to me:

"I don’t much like the last sentence of your note: I think it involves us a little too much in Russia’s Balkan policy . . . Wouldn’t it be better to leave it out?"

"But you can’t publish an official report of your voyage and pretend not to know that there are serious differences, a threat of open conflict between Austria and Serbia. It might even be thought that you were engaged in some scheme here which you dare not mention."

"That’s true. Well, give me another draft."

A few minutes later I brought him this version:

The visit which the President of the Republic has just paid to H.M. the Emperor of Russia has given the two friendly and allied governments an opportunity of discovering that they are in entire agreement in their views on the various problems which concern for peace and the balance of power in Europe has laid before the Powers, particularly in the East.

"Excellent !" said Viviani.

We immediately went to discuss the matter with the President of the Republic, the Tsar, Sazonov and Isvolsky. All four unreservedly approved the new draft and I sent it at once to the Havas Agency.

The time for departure was approaching. The Tsar told Poincaré he would like to continue the discussion a few minutes longer.

"Suppose we go on the bridge, Monsieur le President?… It will be quieter."

Thus I found myself alone with the Tsaritsa who asked me to take a chair on her left. The poor lady seemed worn out. With a forced smile she said in a tired tone:

"I’m glad I came to-night … I was afraid there would be a storm . . . The decorations on the boat are magnificent . . . The President will have lovely weather for his voyage . . . "

But suddenly she put her hands to her ears. Then with a pained and pleading glance she timidly pointed to the ship’s band quite near to us which had just started on a furious allegro with a full battery of brass and big drums.

"Couldn’t you? … " she murmured.

I guessed the cause of her trouble and signalled sharply to the conductor who did not understand but stopped his band at once.

"Thank you, thank you!" sighed the Tsaritsa.

The young Grand Duchess Olga, who was sitting at the other end of the ship with the rest of the imperial family and the members of the French mission, had been observing us for some minutes with an anxious eye. She suddenly rose, glided towards her mother with graceful case and whispered two or three words in her ear. Then addressing me, she continued:

"The Empress is rather tired, but she asks you to stay with her, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, and to go on talking to her."

I resumed our conversation as she went off with quick, light steps. At that very moment the moon appeared in an archipelago of flaky, slow-moving clouds. The whole Gulf of Finland was lit up. My subject was found for me. I enlarged on the charm of sea voyages. The Tsaritsa listened to me in silence, her gaze vacant and strained, her cheeks livid, her lips motionless and swollen. After ten minutes or so which seemed to me an eternity the Tsar and the President of the Republic came down from the bridge.(2)

It was eleven o’clock. Preparations for the departure were in progress. The guard shouldered arms. Sharp commands rang out. The Alexandria’s launch greeted the France. The farewells were said to the strains of the Russian national anthem and the Marseillaise. The Tsar spoke very warmly to the President of the Republic. I myself said goodbye to Poincaré who kindly asked me to call on him in Paris in a fortnight’s time.

As I was bowing to the Tsar at the top of the gangway he said to me:

"Will you come with me, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur? We can talk undisturbed on my yacht. You’ll be taken straight back to Petersburg."

From the France we transferred to the Alexandria. Only the imperial family accompanied their majesties. The ministers, functionaries, military staffs and my personal staff returned direct to Petersburg in an Admiralty yacht.

It was a splendid night. The milky way stretched, a pure band of silver, into unending space. Not a breath of wind. The France and her escorting division sped rapidly towards the west, leaving behind them long ribbons of foam which glistened in the moonlight like silvery streams.

When the imperial suite was on board Admiral Niloff came to the Tsar for orders. The latter said to me:

"It’s a wonderful night. Suppose we go for a sail."

The Alexandria steered for the coast of Finland.

The Tsar made me sit behind him in the stern of the yacht and told me of the conversation he had just had with Poincaré:

"I’m delighted with my talk with the President. We see absolutely eye to eye. I am not less peace-loving than he, and he is not less determined than I to do everything necessary to prevent the cause of peace being compromised. He fears some Austro-German manoeuvre against Serbia and thinks we should reply with the united front of a common diplomatic policy. 1 think the same. We must show ourselves firm and united in our efforts to find possible solutions and the necessary adjustments. The more difficult the situation becomes the more important will unity and firmness become."

"That policy seems to me the essence of wisdom; I’m afraid we shall have to resort to it before long."

"You are still uneasy?"

"Yes, sire."

"Have you any fresh reason for your apprehension?"

"I have at least one – the unexpected return of my colleague Szapary, and the air of cold and hostile reserve he adopted towards the President of the Republic the day before yesterday. Germany and Austria are preparing a shock for us."

"What can they want? A diplomatic success at the expense of Serbia? To score a point off the Triple Entente? . . . No, no; notwithstanding appearances the Emperor William is too cautious to launch his country on some wild adventure, and the Emperor Francis Joseph’s only wish is to die in peace."

For a minute he sat in silence, lost in thought as if he were following up some vague line of thought. Then he rose and paced the deck.

Around us the grand dukes were standing waiting for the moment to approach their master who grudgingly dispensed a few commonplaces among them. He called them up in turn and seemed to show them an unrestrained frankness, an affectionate familiarity, as if he wanted them to forget that he usually kept them at a distance and made it a rule never to talk politics with them.

The Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich, the Grand Duke Nicholas Michailovich, the Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich and the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna came up to me, congratulating themselves and me that the presidential visit had been so supreme a success. In the court code that meant that the sovereign was satisfied.

The Grand Duchesses Anastasia and Militza, "the two Montenegrins," got me in a corner:

"What a glorious speech the President made It was just what wanted saying, just what we’ve been waiting for so long! Peace in strength, honour and self-respect. Remember those words, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur; they will mark a date in the history of the world… "

At a quarter to one the Alexandria dropped anchor in Peterhof bay.

After leaving the Tsar and Tsaritsa I transferred to the escort yacht, Strela, and was taken to Petersburg which 1 reached at half-past two in the morning. As we sailed up the Neva I was thinking of the eager prophecy of the Montenegrin sybils.

Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs


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