Originally posted at Agence France Presse,
In the four days before World War I broke out, the Russian tsar and his cousin the German emperor -- "Willy" and "Nicky" as they nicknamed each other -- traded telegrams in a last-ditch bid to save peace, even as their army chiefs readied for battle.
On July 29, 1914, a day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia's Nicholas II sent the first of these oddly surreal English-language telegrams to Wilhelm II, pledging his affection and commitment to peace.
"I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war," read the first message from Nicholas II, sent hours before Russia ordered a general mobilisation that would in turn pull Germany into the war.
"To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far," the tsar wrote.
Writing the same day, informed that Russia was about to mobilise -- a clear casus belli for Germany's army chiefs -- Wilhelm II pleaded with his cousin to stay out of the Austria-Serbia conflict.
"With regard to the hearty and tender friendship which binds us both from long ago with firm ties, I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you," the German wrote, signing off: "Your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin. Willy".
The first two telegrams crossed one another, like most that followed.
"Willy" went on to urge "Nicky" for "Russia to remain a spectator of the Austro-Serbian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed."
Nicholas thanked Wilhelm for his attempts to mediate, and appealed to "the wisdom and friendship" of his German cousin to put an end to Austria's war preparations.
- 'On your shoulders now' -
But on July 30, Wilhelm -- having received news that Russia was mobilising its troops -- warned Nicholas this would endanger his role as mediator and force Germany to take "preventive measures of defence".
The next day came the admission from Nicholas II that -- while he hopes mediation with Vienna can still bear fruit -- he was powerless to reverse the military march.
"It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria's mobilisation," he wrote, signing off: "Your affectionate, Nicky".
By this point Wilhelm II had become markedly less affectionate, laying the responsibility for the looming disaster squarely with his cousin.
"The whole weight of the decision lies solely on you(r) shoulders now, who have to bear the responsibility for Peace or War," he wrote on July 30.
"The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilised world will not be laid at my door," he warned the following day, with Berlin poised to enter the war.
Still, Nicholas II seemed to believe until the last that war could be averted, sending an SOS on the morning of August 1 in which he asked Wilhelm II to confirm that Germany's mobilisation did not mark the end of efforts for peace.
"Our long proved friendship must succeed, with God's help, in avoiding bloodshed. Anxiously, full of confidence await your answer. Nicky."
But the die had been cast.
"Willy" replied tersely that he could no longer discuss the matter short of "immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable" message calling off the Russian mobilisation -- something he already knew to be impossible.
"As a matter of fact I must request you to immediatly [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers."
That evening, at 7:00 pm, "Willy" declared war on "Nicky" and the "horror", "bloodshed" and "disaster" foretold by the courteous cousins had begun.