Caption: Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie leave the Sarajevo Guildhall after reading a speech on June 28 1914. They were assassinated five minutes later. (Copyright: Karl Tröstl, Europeana 1914 - 1918)

On 23 August 1914 Scottish soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force found themselves in combat with the German army outside the Belgian town of Mons, yet just a few months earlier, few would have likely ever imagined they would end the summer this way.

The situation in Europe in 1914 which led to the First World War was a complex and volatile one. Military and imperial powers were expanding rapidly, while smaller nations like Serbia sought to throw off the influence and control of unwanted imperial powers.

Alongside this, alliances and treaties were reached between various nations over the course of the previous few decades which would ultimately pull them into the war, one after another. The debate rages to this day as to the full impact of European political circumstances on the outbreak of war, and indeed if it would even have been possible to avoid such a conflict.

Britain, France and Russia were bound by the Triple Entente, while Britain also had a military agreement with Japan and a 75 year old treaty of defence with Belgium. Germany and Austria-Hungary had allied in 1873, and both were also allied to Italy, who themselves had a secret alliance with the French.

Russia had allied itself to the small nations of the Balkans, who had been themselves involved in recent wars with the crumbling Ottoman Empire. A single spark could easily ignite this powder keg: a spark that came in Sarajevo.

Caption: Daylight reconnaissance by the Royal Scots as they creep between a field and a hedge in no man's land. (Copyright: The National Library of Scotland)

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie were shot while driving through Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian-Serb nationalist. Within minutes both the Archduke and his wife were dead.

Austria-Hungary partially blamed the death of the Archduke on Serbia itself, implying the government backed the assassination, and on July 23 issued a harsh ultimatum to Serbia.

The Austria-Hungarian authorities knew Serbia could not accept its terms, and intended to use this as an excuse for war between themselves and Serbia, fully expecting it to remain a small scale conflict in that region. So when the ultimatum was duly rejected, despite Serbia acceding to almost all of its demands, Austria –Hungary declared war against them on 28 July 1914.

With this act, the intricate European web of alliances fatefully came into play. Germany had already backed Austria-Hungary early in July and Russian forces mobilised on 30 July to support Serbia.

On 1 August Germany and France began to mobilise their forces and by the end of the day Germany had formally declared war on Russia. The next day fighting begins on the Franco-German border and war is officially declared between the two on 3 August.

Germany then invaded Belgium on 4 August, hoping to outflank the French, and by the end of the day Britain and its Empire had declared war on Germany in support of Belgium.

The last of the initial declarations of war in 1914 came from Japan against Germany on 23 August, although further countries would continue to become involved throughout the conflict, such as Turkey on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary at the end of October 1914 and the United States in April 1917.

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