By the end of 1918, no country had ever seen a war on such a scale as World War One, or the “Great War” as it was known at the time. When the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary sparked conflict in Europe, the United States watched closely from across the Atlantic as relations on the continent began to deteriorate. The United States would refrain from direct involvement in the war until 1917, but national newspapers such as the Washington Post frequently reported on the conflict and kept the American public up to date with the situation. 

The beginning of World War One was depicted in the newspapers in the United States in detail as events unfolded, reporting on notable incidents such the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. By analyzing Washington Post newspaper reports from the time, taken from our archive, we can see how the public would have first read about the outbreak of war in Europe. 

This post takes you through genuine newspaper headlines from 1914, exploring the impact of these headlines and interestingly revealing how citizens from the time would have discovered news of the war. Reading genuine World War One newspaper articles is a fascinating way of learning about the war, since we can discover historical events through the eyes of those witnessing it unfold at the time.

Turn the page to: 

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo
Image: Wikimedia Commons

While there were many factors that caused the First World War, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the catalyst that began the conflict in Europe. The Washington Post reported on the event on Monday, June 29, 1914, writing the headline: 

“Heir to Austrian Throne, Archduke Ferdinand, and Wife Slain By Assassin”

The newspaper goes on to state that: 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Autro-Hungarian throne, and his morganatic wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated today while driving through the streets of Sarayevo, the Bosnian capital. A youthful Servian student fired the shots which added another to the long list of tragedies that has darkened the reign of Emperor Francis Joseph.”

The subheading of this newspaper issue was “Escape Bomb; Die by Pistol,” which reveals that there were two assassination attempts made. While the Archduke was more alert after the first attempt on his life, the newspaper reports that he was unable to escape the shooting that followed. The “archduke and his wife were mortally wounded,” and they were pronounced dead before they had reached the palace for medical assistance.

As well as reporting on the actual events, the newspaper also wrote about the aftermath of the assassination. The Washington Post claimed that “the bodies will lie in state at the palace here,” and:

“In Sarayevo there is mourning everywhere, with black-draped flags and streamers on all public buildings. The president has sent a message to the emperor, expressing the grief and horror of the whole population at the ruthless crime…” 

The newspaper also wrote that there were anti-Servian demonstrations taking place as well as crowds kneeling and singing the national anthem. 

Interestingly, reporters discussed the response of the assassinators after their conversations with the police. Apparently, “both seemed to glory in their exploit” and “The presence of the duchess in the car caused him to hesitate, but only for a moment,” showing that the Archduke was his main target. 

The newspaper is aware of the potential consequences of the assassination, claiming that “It is feared that the Sarayevo tragedy will still further embitted the none too friendly relations existing between Austria and Servia.” It would be this deterioration of relations that would lead to the outbreak of World War 1. 

The newspaper explains the relationship of the two nations to the public, helping readers understand why the assassination was so crucial. It states that:

“Ever since the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 Servian hatred of Austria-Hungary has been steadily increasing. The events of the last Balkan war, when Austria-Hungary stood in the way of Servia’s ardent desire to secure an Adriatic port and openly sided with Bulgaria against her former allies, still further estranged the Servian people.

The Servians were disinclined to believe that the emperor at his advanced age was initiating any anti-Servian policy, and attributed it mainly to the archduke. The archduke also was believed to be a foe to the pan-Servian movement, and it is thought probable some such motives as these may have inspired the plot which culminated so tragically at Sarajevo.”

Declaration of War by Austria-Hungary

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the already deteriorating relations between the Servia and Austria-Hungary, the latter nation soon declared war. The headline of the Washington Post on Wednesday, July 14, 1914, read: 

“War Declared By Austria Against Servia; Russia Will Help Serbs To Resist Invasion; Germany Rejects British Mediation Proposal”

The three-part headline would no doubt hit readers with interesting news concerning the situation in Europe. From simply reading the headline, it seems Russia and Germany are already somewhat involved in a war between two other nations, and that Britain has attempted to mediate the situation. In an official mention of war, the newspaper wrote “The Austro-Hungarian government declared war against Servia today by a manifesto which is one of the briefest of history’s momentous documents.”

The newspaper also claimed that “British Fleets Are Mobilized,” showing that Britain is already preparing for war. The Russian Czar (King) had also received a message from Emperor William of Germany, who urged that the least disastrous outcome would be if Austria and Servia could be left to settle their situation without interference from other nations. The report then said “The czar immediately replied rejecting the proposal, asserting that Russia would enforce the integrity of Servian territory as if it were Russian.” With Russia determined to interfere and support Servia, the seeds of a widescale war were being sown. 

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Russian Czar Nicholas II
Image: Picryl

At this time, the next steps in Europe were a mystery to America, and it was unknown how far the conflict could spread. The newspaper reported on Britain’s stance at this point, stating that:

There is absolutely no enthusiasm in England for war – no desire for this particular war which confronts Great Britain. Yet there is a general belief that her obligations to her partners in the triple entente, as well as her interests as a great European power, will force her to support Russia and France in any steps they may make.” 

The Washington Post also wrote that there were mixed responses in Paris, with demonstrations both in support of and against the war. 

Germany was also reported to be preparing for war, with battleships and cruisers being ordered back to Kiel from Norwegian waters and that the British government is confronting the war situation with “perfect calmness.”

The Call To Arms 

On Wednesday, July 14, 1914, the Washington Post declared that “Whether the war will be confined to the two countries can not be said, but the feeling on this point in high official circles is optimistic.” Despite this optimism, countries still began to prepare for war. 

Servian citizens were being called to arms, with the Washington Post writing that:

“All Servians between 18 and 60 years of age able to bear arms have been called out, and mobilization is proceeding rapidly, although the peasants, who will have to leave their harvesting, are reported to be much discontented.” 

Here, the newspaper implies that leaving their harvest is what is causing the peasants to be unhappy, rather than the actual fact of having to fight in the war. This makes us wonder how ordinary Servians felt about conscripting – did they willingly sign up or were they largely against war?

The President’s Plea and Impact on American Travelers 

In the Washington Post on Wednesday, July 14, 1914, the publication began to report on the impact on American travelers in Europe. The start of World War One would no doubt have a big effect on their ability to travel around, as well as get back home, due to the mobilization taking place across the continent. The newspaper reported that “Fearing a European war, many Americans who had been planning prolonged continental trips, have temporarily abandoned them and decided to remain in England. London hotels expect large numbers from the continent from now on.” This suggests that the general consensus was that Britain was the safest place, and perhaps the country that seemed less likely to get involved in the conflict at this point. 

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US President Woodrow Wilson
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Later on in the newspaper, reporters claim that “Many American visitors in Berlin announce their intention of returning home immediately, while others are planning to go to London, the fear being general that the war will spread. Berlin bankers report that many American residents today withdrew their holdings.” This shows that American travelers were divided on their next steps – whether they should travel to another part of Europe, or simply return home. While America was uninvolved in the war at this point, conflict was still going to affect some members of the American public. 

On Sunday, August 2, 1914, the American government began to take steps to help anxious Americans. The newspaper wrote that “Active measures for relief of many thousands of Americans in distress in Europe for lack of money or means to return home have been begun by the President and Secretary of State. The President and premier conferred last night on getting money to citizens abroad.” This financial aid would hopefully help American who were stuck in Europe get home, or to a safe space away from conflict. By Tuesday, August 4, 1914, it would be reported that Congress would give $250,000 to help Americans abroad who are “in grave need” of support.

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The Washington Post, Tuesday, August 4, 1914

The following day, the Washington Post reported that: 

“Relief for the tens of thousands of Americans in the war zones of Europe will be extended through every power and influence at the disposal of the United States government. Millions in gold will be sent on a warship for immediate needs, and as many ships as can possibly be gathered from American coastwise trade and drom neutral nations, will be utilized in an effort to bring the 100,000 Americans in Europe back home.” 

The government was committed to supporting Americans overseas and to calm their nerves regarding the outbreak of war on European soil. 

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The President’s Plea For Funds – The Washington Post, Wednesday, August 5, 1914

Countries Start Preparing for War

The Washington Post on Sunday, August 2, 1914 revealed developments in the war situation in Europe, with a report stating “Events in the European crisis developed today with startling rapidity.” 

The newspaper reported a lot of uncertainty in Europe at this point, claiming that “It is now only a question of how soon a state of actual war will exist between Germany and France,” as well as “…Italy has declared her neutrality. But how long that neutrality can be maintained is an exceedingly debatable question.” In regard to Britain, it was stated that Britain has no formal obligation to defend France should she be involved in the war, but full preparations are being made regardless. The following day, France will officially begin mobilization.

The Washington Post claimed that “War developments in Europe overshadowed all else yesterday and last night in the attention of official Washington,” which shows just how crucial the situation was becoming in Europe. 

The following day, the United States was still unsure of how the war was going to unfold. Reporting was somewhat positive with the newspaper claiming “The marvelous part of it has been the self-restraint that has been preserved by both Great Britain and France. Every effort has been made and exhausted to ensure peace.” This shows that as much as possible was being done to avoid a full-blown war, but the involvement of the two nations in the war was becoming increasingly likely. 

By Tuesday, August 4, 1914, the Washington Post reported that “All the great European powers, except Italy, and most of the secondary powers are mobilizing with all their energy.” As well as this, the newspaper claimed “Already war is reported in progress on land and sea, and, for the first time, in the air.” 

This shows that countries were mobilizing for a different kind of warfare not experienced before. 

German Kaiser Declares War on Russia 

The Washington Post, on Sunday, August 2, 1914, claimed that the German Emperor had sent an ultimatum to Russia, asking her not to mobilize and refrain from involvement. With the ultimatum ignored, Germany had no choice but to mobilize her army too. As a result of this, “The German Ambassador, in the name of his government, sent to the Russian minister of foreign affairs at 7:30 o’clock a declaration of war.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II
Image: Wikimedia Commons

With Germany and Russia now at war, it would become a lot easier for Great Britain and France to be involved, leading Europe into a much more intense conflict. The subheading even stated that:

 “All Europe Trembles at His Declaration of War”

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The Washington Post, Sunday, August 2, 1914

Germany Invades France

On Sunday, August 2, 1914, the Washington Post reported that France had been invaded by German troops, but apparently an official declaration of war hadn’t been given. In terms of war tactics, “Germany is taking the fullest possible advantage of her supposed superiority in rapid mobilization over France.” The newspaper writes that Germany’s tactics were to try and vanquish France before Russia could create “serious trouble” on her northern frontier. 

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The Washington Post, Monday, August 3, 1914

It was on Tuesday, August 4, 1914 that the newspaper would report: “Berlin officially announces that a state of war has been established by France’s aggressions.”

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The Washington Post, Monday, August 3, 1914

The British Position

With Germany invading France and declaring war on Russia, the British position was being closely watched by the United States, with the world still unsure if Britain would be able to escape involvement in the war. With the newspaper reporting on Sunday, August 2, 1914 that “The United Kingdom is thoroughly aroused for war,” it became clear to the American public that the nation was, indeed, fully preparing for conflict. 

Two days later, on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, the Washington Post wrote that “Great Britain mobilizes and awaits, neither belligerent nor neutral. House takes no action.” In London, it is reported that demonstrations in favor of British involvement in the war take place, with processions filling the city’s streets. It would be after the Belgium Ultimatum that the British position would be made a lot more clear. 

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US President Woodrow Wilson (left) with King of England, George V (right)
Image: Picryl

The Belgium Ultimatum

It was on Tuesday, August 4, 1914 that the Washington Post would announce “the most important event in the past 24 hours.” Germany had demanded in the form of a twelve-hour ultimatum, that “the German troops be permitted to cross Belgium to the French frontier, coupled with the promise that Belgium integrity should remain unimpaired at the end of the war and that Belgium should be compensated.” This was a crucial demand made by Germany that would put Britain in an unfortunate position, since the total neutrality of Belgium would be compromised by giving Germany an advantage. 

Belgium refused the demand, “on the grounds of her rights and honor.” After this announcement, the newspaper reported once again on the situation of Britain, claiming that “There is absolutely no doubt that British sentiment is for war. The appeals of the pacifists get no hearing. Not one man in a hundred in London seemingly wants the nation to remain neutral.” 

From this we can gather that much of Britain was positive about war and suggests most were hoping for British involvement. Naturally at this point, the British public would have been unaware of the sheer devastation the war would cause, and the length of time it would go on for, with many thinking it would be a quick victory for the Allies. 

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The Washington Post, Tuesday, August 4, 1914

The newspaper goes on to say that “The British government regards with the deepest distrust Germany’s violation of Belgium’s neutrality, but makes no declaration as to whether it considers that measure provocation for war.” At this time, we can imagine the public were anxiously waiting for news of Britain’s position and whether the country would declare war. As the newspaper suggests, there’s no doubt that the suspense among the British people was “prolonged indefinitely.”

It was at this point that Germany tried to make an agreement with Britain, suggesting that it would be in her best interest to remain neutral. Apparently, the Washington Post wrote, “Germany would agree to keep her fleet from attacking the northern and western coasts of France if England would pledge neutrality, and argued that England would gain more in the end by standing outside the European war and using her influence as a mediator when the moment was ripe.”

Britain Declares War on Germany

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The Washington Post, Wednesday, August 5, 1914

The American public would have been shocked but maybe not too surprised at the Washington Post’s headline on Wednesday, August 5, 1914. Britain had now declared war on Germany in what the newspaper called a “momentous decision of the British government, for which the whole world has been waiting.” This decision came before the time limit on Britain’s ultimatum to Germany had come to an end, prompted by the attempt to disrupt Belgium’s neutrality. Germany rejected “the request that Belgian neutrality should be respected,” leaving Britain with no other choice but to intervene.

The newspaper included a quote from the King of England in response to the declaration: 

“I shall be strengthened in the discharge of the great responsibility which rests upon me by the confident belief that in this time of trial my empire will be united, calm, and resolute, and trusting in God.”

The Washington Post also incorporated the statement form the British foreign office: 

“Owing to the summary rejection by the German government of the request made by his Britannic majesty’s government that the neutrality of Belgium should be respected, his majesty’s Ambassador at Berlin has received his passports, and his majesty’s government has declared to the German government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany from 11 o’clock p.m., August 4.”

From what the newspaper reported, the mood in Britain was particularly cheery and positive. The Washington Post claimed that “thousands assembled tonight before Buckingham palace until the king and queen, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Mary appeared on the balcony,” when the declaration of war was made public. As well as this, “A proclamation by King George commanding the mobilization of the British army was read today from the steps of the royal exchange. A huge crowd cheered and sang the national anthem.” Britain appeared to be overjoyed and patriotic in response, likely assuming, as mentioned earlier, that the war would be a quick victory for the Allies. 

The United States is Brought Into War 

Three years on and World War One is still raging in Europe. With the exception of providing resources to the Allied forces, the United States had managed to remain isolationist and uninvolved in conflict. However, when German forces had sunk many American merchant ships around the British Isles, the United States had no choice but to intervene. The start of World War One for America therefore began in March 1917, just over a year before the war as a whole would come to an end. 

On Monday, March 19, 1917, the Washington Post reported that: 

Senators believe that by its acts of yesterday Germany has brought about a state of war and that, as a matter of cold fact, the United States is now at war with Germany.” 

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The Washington Post headline on Monday, March 19, 1917

As the public picked up their copies of the Washington Post this morning, they would learn all about their country entering into the war. The newspaper wrote that:

“President Wilson last night, amid scenes of tremendous patriotic enthusiasm, asked Congress to declare that war between the United States and Germany now exists and to take immediate steps, not only for a more thorough national defense, but also “to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”

Similarly to Britain in 1914, the public response to the announcement of war was very positive, even though, in the end, war would rage on much longer than anyone imagined it would. President Wilson suggested that universal military service be raised, starting with a 500,000-man army. 

America’s Prosperity and Outcome of the War 

The First World War would come to an end in 1918, with the Allied forces emerging victorious. America entering the war was a great benefit to the Allies, with resources becoming scarce in Europe, as well as funds, and men, beginning to deplete. 

The United States had an obvious advantage in the war when she joined in 1917 – there was an ocean between her and the conflict taking place in Europe. With no fighting taking place on American soil, the United States came out of the conflict more prosperous than ever with no damage to its infrastructure. While debt ensued in most of Europe, America made considerable money providing resources to the countries, and spent a lot less by entering the war three years later. As a result, a prosperous decade, known as the Roaring Twenties, would take the country by storm as the nation progressed ahead of the world.