On 23 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Albert Count Mensdorff (pictured) sent a coded private telegram to the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Leopold Count Berchtold. In his telegram, Mensdorff refers to a conversation he had with the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the subject of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia.
Count Mensdorf to Count Berchtold. London, 23 July 1914.
I have just spoken with Sir Edward Grey and told him that I would bring the circular note [i.e. a copy of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia] tomorrow. In the meantime I will tell him something of the contents in confidence. He promised to speak to none of my colleagues, indeed to no one, before the note had been officially received, and did not make any notes during our conversation.
He told me on his part that he had not spoken to me on the subject as yet, because he felt that Austria- Hungary must regard the affair as something between itself and Servia, and also because he did not know what proof of Servia’s guilt we had obtained. But he had been spoken to on the subject with apprehension, which is not limited to one- group of powers alone. He had answered the questions addressed to him, by saying that all depended upon what proof we had of Servia’s guilt and what kind of satisfaction we would demand. If our grievances are well-founded and the reparation we demand, in Servias’ power, we might hope that Russia would advise moderation. The danger lies in the flaring up of Slav excitement in Russian public opinion.
Though I informed him of the important points of the note, he declined to speak on the contents of it, until he had it in his hands. (Still he looked as if some of our points of view coincided with his own.) I told him I believed that the answer would have to be given within a fixed term, but that I could not tell him its duration until tomorrow. He said he regretted that a term had been fixed for the answer, because it took away the possibility for excitement to abate and for the Powers to influence Belgrade in a conciliatory sense. There would have been time for an ultimatum, when an unsatisfactory answer had been given.
I explained our point of view in detail (the necessity of defending ourselves against incessant subversive undertakings, -which threatened the territory of the monarchy, protection of our vital interests, the total failure of our conciliatory attitude in the past, the fact that Servia has had three weeks’ time to set about an inquiry of its own accord, showing that it repudiated the thought of participating in the crime etc.).
He admitted the difficulty of our position, and spoke seriously of the gravity of the situation. If four great states, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and France were to become involved in a war, a state of things must follow, which would be equal to the bankruptcy of Europe. No more credit would be available, all industrial centres would be in uproar, so that, in most countries, be they victors or defeated, “many a standing institution would be swept away”.
I told him that it was my opinion that in this case notwithstanding our well-known love of peace, we would have to remain firm towards Servia. I told him I trusted his unprejudiced, fair judgment. He declared that a simple remonstrance in Petersburg would not serve in this case. We must be able to prove to Russia that our grievances are well-founded, that a state such as Servia could well comply with our demands. The best thing he could think of would be a direct exchange of opinions between Vienna and Petersburg. He was as cool and unprejudiced as ever, friendly and not without sympathy for our side. But he is undoubtedly very anxious as to the possible consequences.
I fear that he will have much to say against our démarche [i.e. step] having the character of an ultimatum and the shortness of the term.
Source: 1919 Austro-Hungarian Red Book, with minor edits.