Saturday, August 2, 2014


Der Anfang

 August 2nd is a Saturday this year. In 1914, the 2nd was a Sunday, and an unusual one in London, because the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had called his Cabinet into session at No. 10 Downing Street -- a thing that had never happened before in British history.

It had been a difficult week, a difficult month. On June 28, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian empire, had been shot with his wife in Sarajevo.  The Serbian government was behind the assassination; Austria was determined to "crush the nest of vipers", and Imperial Germany had given the Hapsburg empire promises of support that amounted to a 'blank check'.

German Students Marching To Volunteer, August 1914
But, Imperial Russia stood behind the Serbs (protectors in spirit, if not fact, of Slavic peoples in the Balkans). They were also allied with Republican France -- if Austria were to attack Serbia and the Germans stood with them, Russia could go to war with Austria and Germany in the east, and France would attack from the west.

Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, Denmark and Scandinavia, and Italy were neutral in all this. So was the Empire of Great Britain -- but no one expected them to stand by in a general European war.

Soldiers Of France's 5th Infantry Regiment, August 1914
Austria-Hungary had mobilized its army and sent the Serbian government an ultimatum -- a sham, and everyone knew it. On July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia, its gunboats began shelling Belgrade, and Austrian troops crossed the Serbian border.

Russia ordered a general mobilization, and on July 31st the Germans announced a Kriegsgefahr, a general warning that meant preparation for war had begun. Great Britain, still neutral and conflicted, had quietly issued a Warning Telegram that allowed their War Office to take preparatory steps on July 29th.

The British government made a public offer to host a five-power European conference, and help mediate a solution; Austria curtly refused. After two generations of peace a general European war seemed impossible, unthinkable -- but now, seemed impossible to stop.

August 1

Yesterday, August 1st, in 1914, the situation on the Continent quickly deteriorated. Asquith's cabinet had been meeting in London during the day; there had been talk and debate about the crisis in the Commons. In discussion, twelve of Britain's eighteen ministers declared themselves opposed to any support for France should they go to war with Germany. What was the point, they argued, of taking sides in a squabble that had nothing to do with Britain or British interests? and their division mirrored their country's in miniature.

Prime Minister Asquith was "determined not to lead a divided nation into war" -- however, his Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, had declared the Germans as a force in Europe "bad as Napoleon", and intimated that if the government decided to remain neutral in the case of a war, he would have to resign.

At 4:00PM word reached Grey that France had ordered a general mobilization, and at 5:00PM he was told that Germany had followed suit. General mobilizations are serious and expensive -- disruptions in transportation; affect to businesses as reserve soldiers leave work for active service; the effects to financial markets -- and when they occur, mobilizations mean war. They carry a sense of inevitability with them.

The cabinet, in low spirits, separated for dinner.  First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was dining there when  a messenger arrived just after 8:00PM carrying one of the British government's ubiquitous red dispatch boxes. Churchill opened it, took out a single sheet of paper and read it, then told his dinner companions, "Germany has declared war on Russia".

Admiralty House, London
He walked from the Admiralty House to Downing Street, and met with Asquith, Grey, and two other senior ministers.  More bad news had arrived: at about 9:00PM, the British Foreign Office received word from the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg that German troops had crossed their border and seized the main telegraph exchange, a major European communications hub.

Churchill left the Prime Minister's residence, returned to the Admiralty, and at some time after 10:00PM ordered (as a separate act from any order for the army) the British fleet to mobilize.

August 2

10 Downing Street Is The Dark-Grey Building At Center/Right -- In 1914, Other Buildings
In the Immediate Vicinity Held The Home Office, Foreign Office, India Office and Colonial Office
 So on that Sunday, when a general war engulfing the European continent seemed inevitable, the British cabinet met -- an act that had never occurred in British history. The question they faced was the same as it had been the day or the week before: why take the country to war over what amounted to a dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia? How did this involve Great Britain?

Cabinet Room, 10 Downing St.
Even with the clock clearly at two minutes to midnight, all the major combatants mobilized and two out of four (Russia and Germany) having declared war, the majority of Asquith's cabinet still believed a diplomatic miracle could occur to avoid a massive conflict -- because such a thing seemed so unbelievable.

The major topic of discussion that Sunday was the British and German navies -- for decades before 1914, the Germany and Great Britain had been involved in a (principally naval) arms race. If Germany and France went to war, it was likely the German fleet could sail into the English Channel.  On principle, the British couldn't permit it -- but if they moved to block the Germans, such an act might force them into a war with Germany.
Men Outside London's Main Army Recruiting Station, August 1914 (Click To Enlarge)
 The problem Prime Minister Asquith and his cabinet faced was, Britain's government had already quietly committed their country to a de facto alliance with the French. Unfortunately, no one had informed the country, or the Parliament, about any of this.

For years, the French and British military high commands had met and developed detailed plans for cooperation in case of a war between France and Germany. The British would deploy 100,000 men to the continent within two weeks of a declaration of war, to fight alongside the French Polius. The French were pleased with what they saw as a commitment, an act of honor, from their neighbor across the channel.

The British saw it as discussions about a contingency -- just a general direction, you see. No one had made a formal commitment to do anything, and no one had signed a treaty; the military plans were on the level of a tabletop war game.  The politicos assumed, along with everyone else, that the long peace in Europe would last forever. The plans would never have to be used; the French were kept happy... where was the harm in all that?

Events on the continent since June 28th were threatening to expose the government as having committed Britain to an alliance, and a possible war, without debate or consensus. The public, its elected representatives in the Commons; even King George V would not be amused when they found out -- one more reason Asquith and his cabinet agonized over Britain's position as Europe plummeted into war.

Late on that afternoon, Foreign Secretary Grey asked the cabinet for authority to declare that if the German fleet sailed to attack France's northern ports, Britain's navy would defend the Channel. After arguments on both sides, the Cabinet uncomfortably agreed, and two isolationist ministers resigned forthwith.

While the British cabinet continued to talk, at 7:00PM in Brussels the German ambassador  met with the Belgian Foreign Minister, and delivered a note: Germany had 'reliable information' that France was planning to attack them, through Belgium -- a country which had been as neutral as Switzerland since 1830, that neutrality guaranteed in a document signed by all Europe's major powers.

It would be necessary, the ambassador explained, for the German army to cross Belgium on its way to France.  The Belgian army could 'line the roads' as the Germans marched through, or fight. If they resisted, the Belgians would be regarded as an enemy.  They had twelve hours to respond with 'an unequivocal answer'.

Word of Germany's ultimatum reached Foreign secretary Grey in London over dinner; he drove immediately to 10 Downing Street and urged the Prime Minister to give the order for full military mobilization; Asquith agreed.

The Belgians advised the British and French that they would resist the invasion; as Asquith's orders calling up British reservists were issued, another two ministers in his cabinet, shocked and saddened at what they saw as the folly of the moment, resigned.

Back in Belgium, at 9:00PM its cabinet of ministers met with Albert, King of the Belgians, at the royal palace. Albert was not completely surprised by the German demand -- while visiting Berlin less than a year earlier, he was treated to barely-disguised threats from the Kaiser and leading military officers that if Der Tag ever came and France was to be dealt with, Belgium would be forced to choose a side.

Royal Palace, Brussels, Belgium
 The Belgian army consisted of six divisions of infantry and one of cavalry, roughly 60,000 men -- and Belgium had a series of forts at Liege and Namur which (based on wars of the past) could at least slow the German advance. Over 350,000 men would swing across Belgium, towards France.  The Belgian army had Dog Carts, pulled by actual dogs; the Germans had 380mm and 420mm artillery pieces.

Even so, there was never a doubt in the minds of Albert or his ministers what their response to the German ultimatum would be. "It must be 'no', whatever the circumstances," Albert told them. Another minister said, "Well, if we are to be crushed, let us be crushed gloriously!"

The King and his ministers continued meeting past midnight. Bizarrely, at 1:30AM, the German ambassador reappeared to press for Belgium's standing aside as armies marched through their country, leaving empty-handed after an hour. At 4:00AM the ministers left to prepare the formal response to the Germans.

August 3

At 7:00AM, as the twelve hours of the ultimatum expired, the Belgian Foreign Minister delivered his government's response to the Germans: No.

In London, it was becoming clear that war could not be avoided, and that England was already, whether they liked it or not, involved in that war by it's previous vapid commitment to the French -- and they expected Britain to stand with her. In addition, the British could not allow the Germans free passage through the Channel; but the pending German invasion of neutral Belgium was an intolerable last straw.

At 3:00PM in the Commons, Secretary Grey rose to speak about the coming war and for nearly an hour was eloquent in his explanations as to why Britain could not stand aside. He explained the prior military cooperation with the French (which, given current events, suddenly appeared as sensible policy), and appealed to honor and practicality. When he was finished, the House erupted in applause. The nation, in the Commons, seemed united.

As Grey sat down, Winston Churchill asked him, Now what? "Now we shall send them an ultimatum to cease the invasion of Belgium within 24 hours. If they refuse, there will be war." At 5:00PM in Berlin, Germany issued a declaration of war on France and began their invasion of Belgium.

Not long after learning of Germany's declaration, Secretary Grey stood at the window of the Foreign Office -- believing there was little chance the Germans would stop their invasion -- watched as the gas-lamp streetlights were being lit outside, and said, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

Felix Valloton, "Cemetery, Chalons-Sur-Marne, 1917"
Two days later, on August 5th, as German armies began an assault of the fortress system around Liege in Belgium, the Chief of the German General Staff wrote to the head of Austria-Hungary's general staff, "Europe is entering the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years."

He was too conservative in his estimation. We still live in the world that war helped to create, and will for generations more.


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