"Home Before The Leaves Fall..."

National World War I Museum and Memorial

“You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.”
Kaiser Wilhelm II, August 1914, addressing German troops leaving for the front

In the summer of 1914, war was romantic. War was colorful flags, spiked helmets and flashing sabers. War was an adventure. Those called to arms would be heroes, defending their homelands and way of life. The war would be over in days, surely before the leaves fell…


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and Duchess Sofie of Hohenberg, his wife, were assassinated by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The Austro-Hungarian government suspects that Serbia is responsible for the assassination. On July 23 Austria-Hungary provides Serbia with an ultimatum demanding Austro-Hungarian access to Serbia in order to suppress terrorist activities. Serbia refuses and the July Crisis ensues as European leaders attempt to keep the conflict from escalating into a European war.

The Archduke and Duchess Sofie leaving the Town Hall in Sarajevo, Bosnia

Rush To War

Serbia’s refusal of the ultimatum leads to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. The declaration of war triggered a chain reaction of mobilizations and war declarations. Russia came to the aid of its ally, Serbia; Germany, in support of Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia; and France came to the aid of its Russian ally.

Kaiser Wilhelm II giving a war speech from the balcony of the palace, July 29, 1914
French mobilization poster

“…this is a dark day and a dark hour. The sword is being forced into my hand. This war will demand of us enormous sacrifice in life and money, but we shall show our foes what it is to provoke Germany.”

 – Kaiser Wilhelm II, July 31, 1914

French Artillery Officer's Short Tunic

“…during these days the population of Berlin was greatly excited. Every night great crowds of people paraded the streets singing ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ and demanding war.”

 – U.S. Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard, August 1914

“The French women have set to it. They are handing out drinks, writing paper and cigarettes. The general impression is the following: it’s Kaiser Bill who wanted war, it had to happen, we shall never have such a fine opportunity again.”

- Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, French Army

“War is declared. I feel I must leave all, family, home, position. I clasp my wife and three little ones in my arms. The iron gate closes behind me and I almost break into tears – the happiest moments of my life are ended and I go toward the unknown.”

– G.P Capart, served in the Belgian Army until attached to the French Army in December 1914

Invasion – Belgium and France

Belgium would bear the brunt of the first German offensives of the war. The German High Command saw the invasion of Belgium as a “right of transit” to its attack on France. The Belgian King, Albert I, led a small army of 117,000 men in a gallant, but ultimately futile, defense.

Belgian Grenadier's Tunic
A main line of defense for Belgium was the ring of forts around the main city of Liege, centered on Fort Loncin. This colored postcard depicts the German storming and capture of Fort Loncin on August 15, 1914.
Belgian soldiers with machine gun carts pulled by dogs.

“Sire you will learn with sorrow that the Loncin fort was blown up yesterday at about twenty minutes past Five, burying under its ruins the greater part of the garrison, perhaps four-fifths.”

– Lt. Gen. Gerard Leman to King Albert of Belgium

“On the morning of the 25th [August, 1914] we beat a retreat. This immensely bitter disappointment, the stifling heat, the difficulties of marching along a road encumbered by artillery and convoys and the dysentery with which I was stricken make this day live in my memory as one of the most painful days I have known.” – Sgt. Marc Bloch, 272nd Regiment of Infantry, French Army

French enlisted man's greatcoat and trousers

“The French uniform is a dark blue tunic with the bright red trousers. This dress obviously presents a most excellent target, whilst the Germans with their gray field uniforms and gray headgear merge into their environment.” – Sven Hedin, Swedish observer with the German Armies

German Model 1907 Field Tunic

Offensives & Counter-Offensives in the East

The Eastern and Balkan Fronts from August to December 1914 witnessed fighting from Riga on the Baltic Sea to the Rumanian front. Serbia was invaded on August 12, 1914 by Austro-Hungarian forces. Russia stood against Germany, primarily in East Prussia, and Austria-Hungary from Galicia into Russian Poland. Between August 17 and 31 the German and Russian armies clashed at Tannenberg, north of  Warsaw, ending with a German victory against the Russian invasion. Russia was faced with a second front in the Caucasus Mountains after the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Austrian soldiers including some Muslim soldiers.

“Each soldier in addition to his heavy rifle, bayonet, ammunition, and spade, each soldier was burdened with a knapsack containing emergency provisions in the form of tinned meats, coffee extract, sugar, salt, rice, and biscuits, together with various tin cooking and eating utensils; furthermore a second pair of shoes, extra blouse, changes of underwear, etc. On top of this heavy pack a winter overcoat and part of a tent were strapped, the entire weight…fifty pounds.”

– Fritz Kreisler, Austrian 3rd Army Corps, 1914

Austrian Ulan (Cavalry) Tunic
Stereograph of Russian troops being reviewed
Turkish soldiers with firearms

Tommies go to War! 

Great Britain was honor-bound to defend Belgium when Germany invaded in August 1914. Almost immediately, soldiers and sailors from the British Empire headed for Europe. By the end of August, over 300,000 men volunteered to serve.

Watch fob 
British Standard 1902 Field Service Dress Uniform

“Thomas Atkins” was a generic name used on sample enlistment forms for the British Army as early as the 19th century. By default, all British soldiers soon became “Tommies,” though Scotsmen preferred “Jock” and Welshmen, “Taff.” The average British soldier was paid one shilling a day (5 pennies in today’s British currency).

British Mk. III SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfiled) Rifle

“You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades against the invasion of a common enemy. […] Do your duty bravely, fear God, Honour the King.” – Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, August 9, 1914.

Arrival of the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Gosport, England
The gear of a British soldier

Soldiers of the Empires

The conflict spread rapidly from the Balkans to engulf all of Europe, which then mobilized its commonwealths and colonies around the world. Britain and France enlisted over 3 million soldiers and laborers from Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. The British Commonwealth nations of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa all recruited troops to support the Allies.

British Native African soldiers from the Gold Coast
French North African Zouave Uniform

Counter-Attack and the Race to the Sea

Germany hoped to quickly capture Paris, then rush its troops to its eastern border to defeat Russia. But French and British forces stopped the Germans at the Marne River, north of Paris. Each army’s attempts to outflank the other stalemated, forming the “Western Front,” a non-continuous 400-mile stretch from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps.

British soldiers taking cover behind a wall

Over 600 Paris taxis made two 45 mile trips in convoy moving 6,000 men to the Marne River front. The military effect was limited but the psychological effect was great—the war became the French “peoples’ war.”

French cavalry near the Somme River

Into the Trenches

Throughout September and October of 1914 trench warfare began on the Western Front. By November the Germans gave up their offensive as winter and stormy weather set in. On the Eastern Front, a vast Russian army encountered a much smaller force of Germans and Austro-Hungarians, but by the year’s end neither side gained an advantage. The ‘short war,’ that many across Europe had greeted joyfully, dragged on.

German soldiers in a trench
French front-line trench near Maucort, France
Credits: Story

Senior Curator — Doran Cart
Curator of Education — Lora Vogt
Collections & Education Intern — Jeremy Murray
Registrar — Stacie Petersen
Made possible in part by the generous support of the William T. Kemper Foundation and the Regnier Family Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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