1914: Countdown to catastrophe

From 23 July to 4 August 1914, Britain was transformed from a nation willing to watch a European war from the sidelines to a determined combatant. Nigel Jones follows the fateful diplomatic wrangling that pitched the country into conflict...

A photograph of a crowd in Berlin celebrating Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany's proclamation of war against Great Britain, August 1914. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

As the high summer of 1914 reached its broiling climax, for the first time in the century since Napoleon’s downfall, Europe stood on the brink of a general war. The diplomatic fallout from the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife at Sarajevo on 28 June had taken a month to splutter from a spark into a fatal flame, but by the end of July, ultimatums had been issued, reservists called up and armies mobilised. In Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg, long-prepared war plans were put into action.

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Only in London were ruling statesmen seemingly oblivious to the gathering storm. On 23 July, as Austria’s lethal ultimatum to Belgrade (responding to the assassination by demanding the virtual surrender of Serbia’s national independence) was sent, the British government was preoccupied with another conflict rather closer to home. Protestants in Ulster, armed with smuggled German rifles, had flocked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force to resist the government’s Irish Home Rule Bill. Meanwhile in the south, nationalists, also armed with smuggled German weapons, were organising in the rival Irish Volunteers: the island seemed on the brink of civil war.

c1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As an anxious cabinet discussed the Ulster crisis on 24 July, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey interrupted to read out the text of a dispatch he had just received: Austria’s ultimatum. As the impact of his quietly spoken words sank in, “The dreary spires and steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone,” recalled First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, “faded back into the squalls and mists… and a strange light began to play upon the map of Europe.”

Could Britain avoid the European war that was about to break out between Germany and Austria on one side, and Serbia’s protector Russia and her ally France on the other? True to his political motto, ‘wait and see’, Liberal prime minister HH Asquith dithered for a week after receiving news of the Austrian ultimatum.

Always inclined to obfuscate and dawdle in the knowledge that most political crises blew over in a short time, Asquith’s attitude as Europe slid towards war was that of the ostrich: hoping against hope that it would all go away. “Happily,” he complacently concluded to his constant confidante and mistress Venetia Stanley on 24 July, after acknowledging that a European war looked increasingly likely, “there seems to be no reason why we should be anything other than spectators.”

At 62, the ageing Asquith’s obsession with Venetia, who, 35 years his junior, was a friend and contemporary of his daughter Violet, distracted him from the drama at hand. He wrote long, passionate and indiscreet daily letters to her – sometimes during cabinet meetings – which are one of our most important historical sources on the crisis.

Asquith’s own bland irresolution was bolstered by the fears of the City of London that war would mean a financial crash; by the initial refusal of the Conservative opposition to commit themselves to the conflict; and by the knowledge that half of his own cabinet – 10 out of 20 ministers – opposed British involvement in the coming war.

Austria ups the ante

But as Britain marked time, across the Channel the war clouds darkened. On 25 July, having received from its German ally a secret assurance – subsequently known as ‘the blank cheque’ – that Berlin would support Vienna in whatever action she chose to take against Serbia, Austria upped the ante. Rejecting Serbia’s conciliatory answer to the ultimatum, and having already withdrawn its diplomats from Belgrade, Austria moved troops to the banks of the river Danube marking the border with Serbia. On the same day, Grey belatedly sought to defuse the growing crisis by proposing a European summit conference in which Britain would act as an impartial mediator between Austria and Serbia.

Grasping at this straw, Germany’s anglophile ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, eagerly told Berlin the good news. Keen to avoid a war on two fronts, against Russia and France, a grateful Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose inherent instability saw him bouncing from belligerent aggression to nervous pusillanimity and back again, summoned his army chief of staff, Hellmuth von Moltke, to the imperial palace. Waving Lichnowsky’s telegram, the ‘Supreme Warlord’ ordered Moltke to turn around his troops, already boarding train transports to invade Luxembourg, Belgium and France, and ship them hundreds of miles to the east to face Russia.

An aghast Moltke, appalled by the ‘All Highest’s’ ignorance of military realities, almost collapsed. When he had recovered, he icily informed the kaiser that his order was impossible. The German invasion of western Europe was already under way. According to meticulously calculated railway timetables, hundreds of thousands of men were streaming across the Rhine towards their jumping-off points for the assault. It was simply not feasible to halt the avalanche in its tracks and reverse it by 180 degrees. A disconsolate kaiser bowed to the inevitable. The Schlieffen-Moltke Plan to knock out France with an unprovoked violation of Belgian neutrality would proceed on schedule.

Wilhelm draws the sword

It was Germany’s attack on Belgium that would change everything for Britain. Before Berlin took that disastrously reckless gamble, the London government – even the Francophile Grey – was resisting sustained French pressure to convert the Entente Cordiale of 1904, and subsequent military ‘conversations’ between the two nations’ top military brass, into a formal agreement to co-operate in the event of war.

Although the jingoistic Northcliffe Press – including the establishment Times and the popular Daily Mail – were urging the government to stand up to Germany, the three leading liberal newspapers, the Daily News, Daily Chronicle and Manchester Guardian, were all against British intervention. And Asquith knew that he could not carry his own cabinet – let alone the Liberal party in the country – into war unless Germany committed an act of outright aggression. Obligingly, this is what Germany was planning to do. With German troops seemingly poised to violate Belgian neutrality – guaranteed by international treaty – reluctant warriors in Britain who had been hesitating, now fell into the parade of war.

Asquith, though hesitant about going into coalition with his Tory enemies, was cautiously and covertly in touch with the Conservative leaders. At a secret meeting on 30 July he agreed to a Tory proposal to kick the Ulster question into the long grass by putting Home Rule on the statute book, but not actually bringing it into force, until what the prime minister was still calling ‘the Eastern Crisis’ between Austria and Serbia, was settled.

The same day, Jean Jaurès, the leader of the French Socialist party and Europe’s leading pacifist and internationalist, was assassinated by a nationalist fanatic as he sat in a Paris cafe. All over Europe, Jaurès’ fellow socialists such as Kurt Eisner in Germany, Robert Blatchford in Britain and Charles Péguy in France, put patriotism before international brotherhood and supported their various national governments. After the Reichstag’s Social Democratic majority voted for war credits, with only the future leader of German communism, Karl Liebknecht, dissenting, the kaiser exulted: “I see no more parties – only Germans.”

In Britain, which had the luxury of the English Channel as a barrier against foreign invasion, pacifist feeling was still strong. Labour’s founding father, James Keir Hardie, addressed an anti-war meeting in Trafalgar Square, while the future first Labour prime minister, James Ramsay MacDonald, and his future chancellor, Philip Snowden, urged the country to stay out. Increasingly, however, their voices were those of a small minority.

On 31 July, James W Gerard, America’s ambassador to Germany, sent the imperial chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, a despairing message: “Your Excellency: is there nothing that my country can do? Nothing that I can do towards stopping this dreadful war?” There was no reply, and the next day, 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia.

In London, the first faltering steps down the slippery slope of war were taken. Warning telegrams were issued to all naval and military vessels and bases across the empire to be ready for war; Churchill ordered the fleet, which had been on manoeuvres off Portland on the Channel coast, to stay together. Writing to his wife, Clementine, he confided a guilty secret: “While everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse, I am interested, geared up and made happy…”  Meanwhile the cabinet instructed Grey to inform France that Britain could not guarantee joining the coming conflict – but would not promise Germany to stay out of it either if her vital interests were threatened.

A German weeps

The cabinet was now meeting daily, even on the hitherto sacrosanct sabbath, and on Sunday 2 August, Asquith received a breakfast visit from an “emotional” German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, who “wept… and implored me not to side with France”. Asquith replied that Britain would stay out so long as Germany refrained from invading Belgium and did not use the Channel ports to attack France. Lichnowsky, Asquith informed Venetia Stanley, “was bitter against his government in not restraining Austria and seemed quite heartbroken”.

At 11am, with reports arriving that German forces were massing on the Belgian border, the cabinet convened and Grey was authorised to harden Britain’s stance, telling the French ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, that Britain would not permit Germany “to make the Channel coast the base for hostile operations”. This reaffirmation of Britain’s traditional foreign policy of allowing no single power to dominate western Europe, was too much for the cabinet’s only working-class member, John Burns, president of the Board of Trade, who resigned immediately.

Asquith was determined to hold his government and pacifically minded party together, and, with his usual emollience, he persuaded other members of the cabinet’s ‘peace party’ who were minded to quit along with Burns, to delay doing so.

Army recruits take the oath in White City, London, December 1914. “Creating an army more or less from scratch was a recipe for disastrous losses,” claims Niall Ferguson. (Getty Images)

That night, as he returned to Downing Street from a dinner with three of his children and a couple of his closest colleagues, war fever was already raging. Not concealing his disdain, Asquith reported to Venetia: “There were large crowds perambulating in the streets and cheering the king in Buckingham Palace and one could hear the distant roaring as late as 1 or 1.30 in the morning. War, or anything that seems likely to lead to war, is always popular with the London mob. You remember Sir R[obert] Walpole’s remark: ‘Now they are ringing the bells; in a few weeks they’ll be wringing their hands.’ How one loathes such levity.”

British hackles rise

On the morning of 3 August, Asquith heard from three of his ministers – John Morley, John Simon and Lord Beauchamp – declaring that they were resigning in protest at Britain joining the war. But once more he persuaded them to delay announcing their move to avoid the government publicly breaking up at a moment of supreme national peril. He was heartened by the support of his influential chancellor, David Lloyd George, a radical Liberal who had led opposition to the Boer War a decade before. As a Welshman, Lloyd George was a keen defender of the rights of small nations, and Germany’s belligerence towards Belgium had propelled him out of the pacifist camp.

Opinion across the country was rapidly hardening, with the City and the Tory opposition falling into line as the smoothly pacifying Asquith assumed the unwelcome role of war leader.

The Commons sat that afternoon and heard Grey, speaking for an hour, carefully lay out the steps that had reluctantly led the nation to war. His speech, said Asquith “…for the moment reduced our extreme peace-lovers to silence, tho’ they will soon find their tongues again”.

The moderate Irish nationalist leader, John Redmond, made a conciliatory offer that all troops garrisoning Ireland could withdraw to fight in Europe, leaving the island to be defended jointly by the Irish Volunteers and their bitter enemies, the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Asquith finally agreed to the urgent pleas of the cabinet’s leading hawk, Winston Churchill, to mobilise the Royal Navy. The former war secretary Richard Haldane, despite his notorious Germanophilia, gave similar orders to the army. The nation’s leading soldier, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, was recalled from a ship at Dover, bound for Egypt, so he could take nominal charge of the war effort.

Grey returned to the Foreign Office from parliament through cheering crowds, and that evening made his famous observation, as he watched a lamplighter in St James’s Park from his office window: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

The die is cast

In Berlin the following day, the kaiser, dressed in full military uniform complete with gleaming top boots and shining helmet, attended the Reichstag. “We draw the sword,” declared Wilhelm, “with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Meanwhile, the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, announcing that “necessity knows no law”, informed the Reichstag that Belgium had rejected a German demand for free passage of its armies across Belgian territory, and that consequently German troops had crossed the frontier by force, with the first soldiers moving across the border at Gemmerich near Liège at 8 that morning.

Germany’s leading writers put their pens at the service of the national cause, with the novelist Thomas Mann writing to his brother Heinrich that he felt “the deepest sympathy for this loathed, enigmatic and fated Germany… which has at least assumed the responsibility of destroying the world’s most degraded police state” [ie Russia]. Hermann Hesse wrote to a friend that he “esteemed the moral value of war rather highly,” adding: “To be torn out of a dull capitalistic peace was good for many Germans.”

These bellicose feelings, and the idea that the war was a healthy reaction to the corruption of too long a peace, were curiously echoed by poets in England, including three who would die in the coming conflict. Rupert Brooke’s sonnet Peace thrilled: “Now God be thanked who has matched us with his hour/ And caught our youth, /And wakened us from sleeping…” Edward Thomas in his poem The Trumpet responded: “To the old wars/ Arise! Arise!” In France, where he was tutoring a French family, Wilfred Owen, who would become the war’s premier poet of protest and pity before dying in its last week, callously told his mother that the conflict’s casualty lists would “effect a little useful weeding,” little knowing that he would become one of the ‘weeds’.

At that morning’s cabinet meeting in London, definite news was received that Germany had declared war on France and invaded Belgium. This was enough to choke off any further cabinet resignations, apart from that of John Morley, Lord President of the Council, who insisted on going.

Invoking the fact that both Britain and Germany had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, the cabinet immediately issued an ultimatum, demanding that unless German forces withdrew from Belgium by midnight Berlin time (11pm in London), the two countries would be at war. “Winston,” Asquith told Venetia “…who has got on all his war-paint, is longing for a sea fight in the early hours of tomorrow morning… The whole thing fills me with sadness… we are on the eve of horrible things.”

The British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen, presented the cabinet’s ultimatum to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in person. The German statesman was thunderstruck. “Just for a word, ‘neutrality’ – a word that in wartime has so often been disregarded – just for a scrap of paper, Great Britain is going to make war on a kindred nation, which desires nothing more than to be friends with her?” he demanded incredulously. Goschen made no reply, but asked for passports for himself and his staff to leave the country.

With the die cast at last, Asquith, Grey and their colleagues sat in the cabinet room in Downing Street, silently smoking and waiting for the deadline to expire. The windows were thrown open to the sultry summer night and the distant noise of the celebrating crowds. Then, as the chimes of Big Ben rang out, signalling the first seconds of the greatest war the world had known, the prime minister’s wife, Margot, saw Winston Churchill “with a happy face striding towards the double doors of the cabinet room”. Britain’s leading 20th-century warlord was taking up his post.

Nigel Jones’s Peace and War: Britain in 1914 is published by Head of Zeus, which reissued an updated version of his biography Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth in 2014.

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This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine