A Popular History of The Great War/Volume 1/Chapter 2
← The World Drift to War
|A Popular History of The Great War (1933)
Edited by Sir John Alexander Hammerton
The Outbreak of War →
As already stated, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his morganatic wife, the duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered at Serajevo on June 28, but it was almost a month before the attention of Europe was turned to this crime. The crisis which it provoked really began on July 23 when the Austrian government, having learned that it could count upon support from Berlin, sent a peremptory note to Serbia. This lengthy document contained a number of requests intended partly as reparations for the crime at Serajevo and partly as safeguards against further outrages. The 23rd was a Thursday, and a reply was requested within 48 hours, i.e. before Saturday, the 25th, was out.
The Serbian ministers took counsel with Russia, and, having done so, returned their answer. It was thoroughly conciliatory. All the Austrian demands save two were conceded, and with sound reason the Serbian government asserted that to accept these two would be to infringe the sovereignty of the country and to violate its constitution. The two clauses to which exception was taken were the one in which Serbia was asked "to accept the collaboration in Serbia of representatives of the Austro-Hungarian government in the repression of the subversive movement directed against the territorial integrity of the monarchy," and the other in which Austria-Hungary demanded that delegates from that country should take part in the judicial proceedings against the accessories to the plot at Serajevo. On these two points Serbia suggested reference to the international court at The Hague. Short of abject submission, the Serbian government could hardly have gone further, but her enemies were in no mood for discussion or delay. At ten o'clock on the evening of Saturday, the 25th, the Austrian minister in Belgrade, having stated that the Serbian reply was unacceptable, asked for his passports and left the city. The formal declaration of war followed in three days. The British government, which had been carefully watching the march of events, was foremost in seeking to keep the peace, or at least to localise the dispute. Sir Edward Grey, then foreign minister, proposed to Germany, France and Italy that a conference should be held, but Germany refused on the ground that Russia and Austria were intending to negotiate. Thus two precious days, the 26th and 27th, passed. On the 29th Austrian troops began to bombard Belgrade, and on the 30th the position was definitely worse. Russia and Belgium started to mobilize their armies; Britain and Germany took steps to have their fleets in readiness for action. Negotiations went on during the day, but the results were negative. Britain refused to consider the informal German proposal that she should remain neutral on condition that, a successful war being assumed, Germany made no conquests in Europe at the expense of France, and undertook to respect Belgian integrity if she did not side against Germany. Equally Britain refused to give the French ambassador in London a definite understanding to fight for France and Russia.
The position on the morning of July 31 was summarised in a telegram sent by Sir Edward Grey to Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassador in Berlin. This diplomatic extract, like several others that are mentioned in this chapter, is taken from the official white paper.
- I hope that the conversations which are now proceeding between Austria and Russia may lead to a satisfactory result. The stumbling block hitherto has been Austrian mistrust of Servian assurances, and Russian mistrust of Austrian intentions with regard to the independence and integrity of Servia. It has occurred to me that, in the event of this mistrust preventing a solution being found by Vienna and St. Petersburg, Germany might sound Vienna, and I would undertake to sound St. Petersburg, whether it would be possible for the four disinterested Powers to offer to Austria that they would undertake to see that she obtained full satisfaction of her demands on Servia, provided that they did not impair Servian sovereignty and the integrity of Servian territory. As your Excellency is aware, Austria has already declared her willingness to respect them. Russia might be informed by the four Powers that they would undertake to prevent Austrian demands going the length of impairing Servian sovereignty and integrity. All Powers would, of course, suspend further military operations or preparations. You may sound the secretary of state about this proposal.
- I said to German ambasssador this morning that if Germany could get a reasonable proposal put forward which made it clear that Germany and Austria were striving to preserve European peace, and that Russia and France would be unreasonable if they rejected it, I would support it at St. Petersburg and Paris, and go the length of saying that if Russia and France would not accept it, His Majesty's Government would have nothing more to do with the consequences; but, otherwise, I told German ambassador that if France became involved we should be drawn in. You can add this when sounding chancellor or secretary of state as to proposal above.
- I spent an hour with secretary of state urging him most earnestly to accept your proposal and make another effort to prevent terrible catastrophe of a European war. He expressed himself very sympathetically towards your proposal, and appreciated your continued efforts to maintain peace, but said it was impossible for the Imperial Government to consider any proposal until they had received an answer from Russia to their communication of today; this communication, which he admitted had the form of an ultimatum, being that, unless Russia could inform the Imperial Government within twelve hours that she would immediately countermand her mobilization against Germany and Austria, Germany would be obliged on her side to mobilize at once.
- I asked his Excellency why they had made their demand even more difficult for Russia to accept by asking them to demobilize in south as well. He replied that it was in order to prevent Russia from saying all her mobilization was only directed against Austria. His Excellency said that if the answer from Russia was satisfactory he thought personally that your proposal merited favourable consideration, and in any case he would lay it before the emperor and chancellor, but he repeated that it was no use discussing it until the Russian Government had sent in their answer to the German demand. He again assured me that both the emperor William, at the request of the emperor of Russia, and the German foreign office had even up till last night been urging Austria to show willingness to continue discussions — and telegraphic and telephonic communications from Vienna had been of a promising nature — but Russia's mobilization had spoilt everything.
Sir E. Goschen's reply contains a reference to the most momentous happening of the 31st, the first of the five days of excitement and anxiety more intense than anything that living generations had experienced — the German ultimatum to Russia. Sent off during the day this demanded that Russia should at once demobilize her forces, and gave her only twelve hours in which to reply.
Almost at the same hour, fully aware of the Franco-Russian alliance, Germany turned to the other partner. France was asked by the German ambassador in Paris what would be her attitude in the event of war between Germany and Russia. The answer was that "France would act as her own interests required." Only one interpretation could be placed upon this reply which followed a message sent by the president to Russia stating that "France would fulfil her obligations under the alliance."
Meanwhile troops were being moved, and the neutrality of Belgium was clearly in danger. Britain was not pledged, as many believed, to go to war in defence of Belgium's neutrality, but the matter concerned her both for sentimental and for practical reasons. Before the day was out, therefore, Sir E. Grey sent notes, identical in form, to the German and French governments asking that the neutrality of the little kingdom should be respected. He also acquainted Sir F. Villiers, the British ambassador in Brussels, with what he had done. The two documents were worded as follows:
- I still trust that the situation is not irretrievable, but in view of prospect of mobilization in Germany it becomes essential to His Majesty's Government, in view of the existing treaties, to ask whether French (German) Government are prepared to engage to respect neutrality of Belgium so long as no other Power violates it. A similar request is being addressed to German (French) Government. It is important to have an early answer.
- In view of existing treaties, you should inform minister for foreign affairs that, in consideration of the possibility of a European war, I have asked French and German Governments whether each is prepared to respect the neutrality of Belgium provided it is violated by no other Power. You should say that I assume that the Belgian Government will maintain to the utmost of their power their neutrality, which I desire and expect other Powers to uphold and observe. You should inform the Belgian Government that an early reply is desired.
- Neutrality of Belgium, referred to in your telegram of 31st July to Sir F. Bertie. I have seen secretary of state, who informs me that he must consult the emperor and the chancellor before he could possibly answer. I gathered from what he said that he thought any reply they might give could not but disclose a certain amount of their plan of campaign in the event of war ensuing, and he was therefore very doubtful whether they would return any answer at all. His Excellency, nevertheless, took note of your request. It appears from what he said that German Government consider that certain hostile acts have already been committed by Belgium. As an instance of this, he alleged that a consignment of corn for Germany had been placed under an embargo already. I hope to see his Excellency again to-morrow to discuss the matter further, but the prospect of obtaining a definite answer seems to me remote. In speaking to me to-day the chancellor made it clear that Germany would in any case desire to know the reply returned to you by the French Government.
The matter was also discussed between Sir E. Grey and the German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, and the nature of this conversation will be seen from Sir E. Grey's telegram of August 1 to Sir E. Goschen.
- I told the German ambassador to-day that the reply of the German Government with regard to the neutrality of Belgium was a matter of very great regret, because the neutrality of Belgium affected feeling in this country. If Germany could see her way to give the same assurance as that which had been given by France it would materially contribute to relieve anxiety and tension here. On the other hand, if there were a violation of the neutrality of Belgium by one combatant while the other respected it, it would be extremely difficult to restrain public feeling in this country. I said that we had been discussing the question at a Cabinet meeting, and as I was authorised to tell him this I gave him a memorandum of it. He asked me whether, if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgian neutrality, we would engage to remain neutral. I replied that I could not say that; our hands were still free, and we were considering what our attitude should be. All I could say was that our attitude would be determined largely by public opinion here, and that the neutrality of Belgium would appeal very strongly to public opinion here. I did not think that we could give a promise of neutrality on that condition alone.
- The ambassador pressed me as to whether I could not formulate conditions on which we would remain neutral. He even suggested that the integrity of France and her colonies might be guaranteed. I said that I felt obliged to refuse definitely any promise to remain neutral on similar terms, and I could only say that we must keep our hands free.
- I have communicated the substance of the above telegram to the secretary of state, and spent a long time arguing with him that the chief dispute was between Austria and Russia, and that Germany was only drawn in as Austria's ally. If, therefore, Austria and Russia were, as was evident, ready to discuss matters and Germany did not desire war on her own account, it seemed to me only logical that Germany should hold her hand and continue to work for a peaceful settlement. Secretary of state said that Austria's readiness to discuss was the result of German influence at Vienna, and, had not Russia mobilized against Germany, all would have been well. But Russia, by abstaining from answering Germany's demand that she should demobilize, had caused Germany to mobilize also. Russia had said that her mobilization did not necessarily imply war, and that she could perfectly well remain mobilized for months without making war. This was not the case with Germany. She had the speed and Russia had the numbers, and the safety of the German Empire forbade that Germany should allow Russia time to bring up masses of troops from all parts of her wide dominions. The situation now was that, though the Imperial Government had allowed her several hours beyond the specified time, Russia had sent no answer. Germany had therefore ordered mobilization, and the German representative at St. Petersburg had been instructed within a certain time to inform the Russian Government that the Imperial Government must regard their refusal to answer as creating a state of war.
In his telegram Sir E. Goschen reported the German case with regard to Russia, whose hasty mobilization, so Germany's leaders believed, was a main cause of the trouble. Her refusal to demobilize had aggravated it, and before the telegram reached London, perhaps before it was dispatched, Germany had carried out her threat, and about five o'clock on Saturday, August 1, had declared war on an empire with which she had been at peace for almost exactly 100 years.
On the same evening France and Germany issued orders for a general mobilization, and so ended a week of alternate hopes and fears. Sunday, August 2, with Germany and Russia at war and France and Germany hurrying soldiers to the frontiers, was an eventful day all over Europe, not least so in London. Ministers, who were in consultation almost continuously, decided to mobilize the fleet and call out the naval reserves, while Sir John Jellicoe, with sealed orders, was sent to take command in place of Sir George Callaghan. During the morning Sir Edward Grey saw the French ambassador and gave him the following undertaking:
- I am authorised to give the assurance that if the German fleet comes into the Channel or through the North Sea to undertake hostile operations against the French coast or shipping the British fleet will give all the protection in its power.
Immediately afterwards Mr. Churchill and the French naval attaché in London prepared a plan for the mutual cooperation of the two navies. The effect of these anxious hours on the mind is well described by Sir Edward Grey in his book, "Twenty-Five Years."
- The strain for every member of the Cabinet must have been intense. In addition to Cabinets, I had the strain of holding conversations of great moment with ambassadors, of dictating after each the summary of it that appeared eventually as a telegram or dispatch to the British ambassador at Berlin or Paris, or elsewhere. Some telegrams were not dictated, but were written with my own hand. Communications vitally important at this moment were daily being received through foreign ambassadors in London, verbally, or through British ambassadors abroad by telegram. These, however critical, had to be considered and dealt with promptly, for every hour mattered.
Equally exciting was the day in Paris, where ministers had just informed Russia that France was prepared to fulfill her obligations under the alliance. During the night or early in the morning German soldiers entered French territory and French airmen flew over German and Belgian soil, at least so it was asserted. A French corporal was killed by a German, and there were other incidents. The German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, made the most of these happenings, and describing them as "the most serious violation of neutrality imaginable," he prepared, between one and two p.m., a declaration of war which was delivered in Paris at six p.m., and was couched in the following terms:
- The German administrative and military authorities have established a number of flagrantly hostile acts committed on German territory by French military aviators. Several of these have openly violated the neutrality of Belgium by flying over the territory of that country. One has attempted to destroy buildings near Wesel; others have been seen in the district of the Eifel, one has thrown bombs on the railway near Karlsruhe and Nurnberg. I am instructed, and I have the honour to inform your Excellency that, in the presence of these acts of aggression, the German empire considers itself in a state of war with France in consequence of the acts of this latter Power.
On this Sunday, in preparation for what was now regarded in Germany as inevitable, German troops entered the grand duchy of Luxemburg. Belgium was treated with slightly more ceremony. This took the form of a request for permission to march troops through that country, adding that dire consequences would follow a refusal. Twelve hours were given for the reply, which came with promptitude in the form of an emphatic negative. Thereupon German troops, in pursuance of the plan of campaign, entered Belgian territory, while the king of the Belgians made a dignified appeal to Great Britain for diplomatic intervention. The facts are set out in the following dispatch (dated August 4) from Sir E. Grey to Sir E. Goschen:
- The King of the Belgians has made an appeal to His Majesty the King for diplomatic intervention on behalf of Belgium in the following terms: "Remembering the numerous proofs of your Majesty's friendship and that of your predecessor, and the friendly attitude of England in 1870 and the proof of friendship you have just given us again, I make a supreme appeal to the diplomatic intervention of your Majesty's Government to safeguard the integrity of Belgium."
- His Majesty's Government are also informed that the German Government have delivered to the Belgian Government a note proposing friendly neutrality entailing free passage through Belgian territory, and promising to maintain the in dependence and integrity of the Kingdom and its possessions at the conclusion of peace, threatening in case, of refusal to treat Belgium as an enemy. An answer was requested within twelve hours. We also understand that Belgium has categorically refused this as a flagrant violation of the law of nations.
- His Majesty's Government are bound to protest against this violation of a treaty to which Germany is a party in common with themselves, and must request an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany. You should ask for an immediate reply.
On the same day, Tuesday, August 4, Great Britain took the decisive step. Following diplomatic usage her final communication to Germany was in the form of a note to her ambassador in Berlin, who was instructed to convey its purport to the German chancellor. Its gravity was evidenced from the statement therein that if a satisfactory reply was not received within a stated time the ambassador must ask for his passports. The hour mentioned for the reply was 12 o'clock at night, but owing to the difference in time this was equivalent to 11 o'clock in London. When that hour struck neither the satisfactory reply nor indeed any reply had been received, and consequently Great Britain and Germany were at war.
The exact text of the ultimatum, for so it may be called, was:
- We hear that Germany has addressed note to Belgian minister for foreign affairs stating that German Government will be compelled to carry out, if necessary by force of arms, the measures considered indispensable. We are also informed at that Belgian territory has been violated at Gemmenich. In these circumstances, and in view of the fact that Germany declined to give the same assurance respecting Belgium as France gave last week in reply to our request made simultaneously at Berlin and Paris, we must repeat that request, and ask that a satisfactory reply to it and to my telegram of this morning be received here by twelve o'clock to-night. If not, you are instructed to ask for your passports, and to say that His Majesty's Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves.
On that memorable summer evening it was only known that Sir E. Goschen had delivered his fateful message. A little later to the British public were informed of the way in which he had discharged his momentous task and the incidents connected as therewith. The ambassador's dispatch to Sir Edward Grey giving an account of the interviews with the chancellor and his subordinates and his departure from Berlin, although long, is well worthy of reproduction; indeed it could hardly be omitted the from any reliable history of the Great War. Furthermore it sets forth the German case for violating the neutrality of Belgium.
- In accordance with the instructions contained in your telegram of the 4th inst. I called upon the secretary of state that afternoon and enquired, in the name of His Majesty's Government, whether the Imperial Government would refrain from violating Belgian neutrality. Herr von Jagow at once replied that he was very sorry to say that his answer must be "No" as, in consequence of the German troops having crossed the frontier that morning, Belgian neutrality had already been violated.
- Herr von Jagow again went into the reasons why the Imperial Government had been obliged to take this step, namely, that they had to advance into France by the quickest and easiest way, so as to be able to get well ahead with their operations and endeavour to strike some decisive blow as early as possible. It was a matter of life and death for them, as if they had gone by the more southern route they could not have hoped, in view of the paucity of roads and the strength of the fortresses, to have got through without formidable opposition entailing great loss of time. This loss of time would have meant time gained by the Russians for bringing up their troops a to the German frontier. Rapidity of action was the great German asset, while that of Russia was an inexhaustible supply of troops. I pointed out to Herr von Jagow that this fait accompli of the violation of the Belgian frontier rendered, as he would readily understand, the situation exceedingly grave, and I asked him whether there was not still time to draw back and avoid possible consequences which both he and I would deplore. He replied that, for the reasons he had given me, it was now impossible for them to draw back.
- During the afternoon I received your further telegram of the same date and, in compliance with the instructions therein contained, I again proceeded to the Imperial Foreign Office and informed the secretary of state that unless the Imperial Government could give the assurance by twelve o'clock that night that they would proceed no further with their violation of the Belgian frontier and stop their advance, I had been instructed to demand my passports and inform the Imperial Government that His Majesty's Government would have to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a treaty to which Germany was as much a party as themselves.
- Herr von Jagow replied that to his great regret he could give no other answer than that which he had given me earlier in the day, namely that the safety of the Empire rendered it absolutely necessary that the Imperial troops should advance through Belgium. I gave his Excellency a written summary of your telegram and, pointing out that you had mentioned twelve o'clock as the time when His Majesty's Government would expect an answer, asked him whether, in view of the terrible consequences which would necessarily ensue, it were not possible even at the last moment that their answer should be reconsidered. He replied that if the time given were even twenty-four hours or more, his answer must be the same. I said that in that case I should have to demand my passports. This interview took place at about seven o'clock. In a short conversation which ensued Herr von Jagow expressed his poignant regret at the crumbling of his entire policy and that of the chancellor, which had been to make friends with Great Britain, and then, through Great Britain, to get closer to France. I said that this sudden end to my work in Berlin was to me also a matter of deep regret and disappointment, but that he must understand that under the circumstances and in view of our engagements, His Majesty's Government could not possibly have acted otherwise than they had done.
- I then said that I should like to go and see the chancellor, as it might be, perhaps, the last time I should have an opportunity of seeing him. He begged me to do so. I found the chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty's Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word —"neutrality," a word which in war time had so often been disregarded — just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her. All his efforts in that direction had been rendered useless by this last terrible step, and the policy to which, as I knew, he had devoted himself since his accession to office had tumbled down like a house of cards. What we had done was unthinkable; it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants. He held Great Britain responsible for all the terrible events that might happen.
- I protested strongly against that statement, and said that, in the same way as he and Herr von Jagow wished me to understand that for strategical reasons it was a matter of life and death to Germany to advance through Belgium and violate the latter's neutrality, so I would wish him to understand that it was, so to speak, a matter of "life and death" for the honour of Great Britain that she should keep her solemn engagement to do her utmost to defend Belgium's neutrality if attacked. That solemn compact simply had to be kept, or what confidence could anyone have in engagements given by Great Britain in the future? The Chancellor said: "But at what price will that compact have been kept. Has the British Government thought of that?" I hinted to his Excellency as plainly as I could that fear of consequences could hardly be regarded as an excuse for breaking solemn engagements, but his Excellency was so excited, so evidently overcome by the news of our action, and so little disposed to hear reason that I refrained from adding fuel to the flame by further argument.
- As I was leaving he said that the blow of Great Britain joining Germany's enemies was all the greater, that almost up to the last moment he and his Government had been working with us and supporting our efforts to maintain peace between Austria and Russia. I said that this was part of the tragedy which saw the two nations fall apart just at the moment when relations between them had been more friendly and cordial than they had been for years. Unfortunately, notwithstanding our efforts to maintain peace between Russia and Austria, the war had spread and had brought us face to face with a situation which, if we held to our engagements, we could not possibly avoid, and which unfortunately entailed our separation from our late fellow-workers. He would readily understand that no one regretted this more than I.
- After this somewhat painful interview I returned to the embassy and drew up a telegraphic report of what had passed. This telegram was handed in at the Central Telegraph Office a little before 9 p.m. It was accepted by that office but apparently never dispatched. At about 9.30 p.m. Herr von Zimmermann, the under-secretary of state, came to see me. After expressing his deep regret that the very friendly official and personal relations between us were about to cease, he asked me casually whether a demand for passports was equivalent to a declaration of war. I said that such an authority on international law as he was known to be must know as well or better than I what was usual in such cases. I added that there were many cases where diplomatic relations had been broken off, and, nevertheless, war had not ensued; but that in this case he would have seen from my instructions, of which I had given Herr von Jagow a written summary, that His Majesty's Government expected an answer to a definite question by twelve o'clock that night and that in default of a satisfactory answer they would be forced to take such steps as their engagements required. Herr Zimmermann said that that was, in fact, a declaration of war, as the Imperial Government could not possibly give the assurance required either that night or any other night.
- In the meantime, after Herr Zimmermann left me, a flying sheet issued by the Berliner Tageblatt was circulated stating that Great Britain had declared war against Germany. The immediate result of this news was the assemblage of an exceedingly excited and unruly mob before His Majesty's Embassy. The small force of police which had been sent to guard the Embassy was soon overpowered, and the attitude of the mob became more threatening. We took no notice of this demonstration as long as it was confined to noise, but when the crash of glass and the landing of cobblestones into the drawing-room, where we were all sitting, warned us that the situation was getting unpleasant, I telephoned to the Foreign Office an account of what was happening. Herr von Jagow at once informed the chief of police, and an adequate force of mounted police, sent with great promptness, very soon cleared the street. From that moment on we were well guarded, and no more direct unpleasantness occurred.
- After order had been restored Herr von Jagow came to see me and expressed his most heartfelt regrets at what had occurred. He said that the behaviour of his countrymen had made him feel more ashamed than he had words to express. It was an indelible stain on the reputation of Berlin. He said that the flying sheet circulated in the streets had not been authorised by the Government; in fact, the chancellor had asked him by telephone whether he thought that such a statment should be issued, and he had replied: "Certainly not until the morning."
- It was in consequence of his decision to that effect that only a small force of police had been sent to the neighbourhood of the Embassy, as he had thought that the presence of a large force would inevitably attract attention and perhaps lead to disturbances. It was the "pestilential Tageblatt," which had somehow got hold of the news, that had upset his calculations. He had heard rumours that the mob had been excited to violence by gestures made and missiles thrown from the Embassy, but he felt sure that that was not true (I was able soon to assure him that the report had no foundation whatever), and even if it was, it was no excuse for the disgraceful scenes which had taken place. He feared that I would take home with me a sorry impression of Berlin manners in moments of excitement. In fact, no apology could have been more full and complete.
- On the following morning, the 5th August, the emperor sent one of his Majesty's aides-de-camp to me with the following message: "The emperor has charged me to express to your Excellency his regret for the occurrences of last night, but to tell you at the same time that you will gather from those occurrences an idea of the feelings of his people respecting the action of Great Britain in joining with other nations against her old allies of Waterloo. His Majesty also begs that you will tell the king that he has been proud of the titles of British Field Marshal and British Admiral, but that in consequence of what has occurred he must now at once divest himself of those titles." I would add that the above message lost none of its acerbity by the manner of its delivery.
- On the other hand, I should like to state that I received all through this trying time nothing but courtesy at the hands of Herr von Jagow and the officials of the Imperial Foreign Office. At 11 o'clock on the same morning Count Wedel handed me my passports which I had earlier in the day demanded in writing — and told me that he had been instructed to confer with me as to the route which I should follow for my return to England. He said that he had understood that I preferred the route via the Hook of Holland to that via Copenhagen; they had therefore arranged that I should go by the former route, only I should have to wait till the following morning. I agreed to this, and he said that I might be quite assured that there would be no repetition of the disgraceful scenes of the preceding night as full precautions would be taken. He added that they were doing all in their power to have a restaurant car attached to the train, but it was rather a difficult matter. He also brought me a charming letter from Herr von Jagow couched in the most friendly terms. The day was passed in packing up such articles as time allowed.
- The night passed quietly without incident. In the morning a strong force of police was posted along the usual route to the Lehrter Station, while the Embassy was smuggled away in taxi-cabs to the station by side streets. We there suffered no molestation whatever, and avoided the treatment meted out by the crowd to my Russian and French colleagues. Count Wedel met us at the station to say good-bye on behalf of Herr von Jagow and to see that all the arrangements ordered for our comfort had been properly carried out. A retired colonel of the guards accompanied the train to the Dutch frontier and was exceedingly kind in his efforts to prevent the great crowds which thronged the platforms at every station where we stopped from insulting us; but beyond the yelling of patriotic songs and a few jeers and insulting gestures we had really nothing to complain of during our tedious journey to the Dutch frontier.
If the participation of Great Britain in the Great War can be attributed to a single cause, that cause was the violation by Germany of Belgian neutrality. In his War Memoirs, published in The Daily Telegraph in 1933, Mr. Lloyd George asserts that in this matter the British people were united, and that a more resolute attitude on the part of Sir Edward Grey might have averted, or at least localised, the struggle. He thinks that if, in July, Sir Edward had made it quite clear to Germany that Great Britain would regard any violation of Belgium's neutrality as a casus belli, the Kaiser and his advisers would have paused to consider the consequences of the policy they were carrying out.
To pursue this surmise would be unprofitable, but it will be far from unprofitable to examine the nature of the British guarantee to Belgium. On April 19, 1839, a treaty was signed in London between Belgium and five Powers: Great Britain, France, Prussia, Russia, and Austria. A similar treaty was signed by the same five Powers and the Netherlands. In article one of the treaties the five Powers guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. The guarantee was a collective one, and from time to time the question of Great Britain's individual liability under it was considered. In 1870, for instance, during the Franco-Prussian War, when the neutrality was in jeopardy, the law officers of the crown were asked for an opinion. After examining the facts they replied in the following words:
- Whether, in the event of none of the guaranteeing Powers choosing to cooperate with us, Belgium could reasonably expect Great Britain to undertake single-handed a war against great continental Powers is a question into which other elements enter than the strict construction of the treaty and on which we shall not presume to give an opinion. During the progress of this war Great Britain signed a treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium, but this was only for a limited period, and when it expired the position became the "as you were" one of 1839.
The events of the period between the Franco-Prussian and the Great Wars did not make the position of Great Britain any clearer. Had any of these happenings affected in any way the liability incurred under the treaty of 1839? Was Great Britain, or any other signatory Power, obliged singly to take up arms to avert or avenge the violation of Belgium's neutrality? From time to time these and other points were raised, and in 1908, when the entente with France was in being, Sir Edward Grey, the secretary for foreign affairs, asked his advisers to give him an opinion on the following questions:
- How far would England's liability under the treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium be affected if: 1, Belgium acquiesced in the violation of her neutrality; 2, if the other guaranteeing Powers, or of them, acquiesced?
The answer was that "Great Britain was liable for the maintenance of Belgian neutrality whenever Belgium or any of the guaranteeing Powers are in need of, and demand, assistance in opposing its violation."
Such was the view of the high officials of the foreign office, but it was not universally accepted. In his book, "A Short History of the Great War," Professor A. F. Pollard states that "the treaty of 1839 which regulated the international situation of Belgium merely bound the five great signatory Powers not to violate Belgian neutrality without obliging them individually or collectively to resist its violation." Other historians held the same view, but it did not pass without challenge. With some show of reason its opponents asked what a guarantee of this kind was worth. If the Powers who signed the treaty of 1830 had intended nothing more than this it was hardly worth their while to put their signatures to the document. Surely they understood that guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium meant using their utmost might to resist its violation, nothing more or nothing less. The underlying assumption, however, of this opinion was that the Powers acted in concert, but in 1914 they were ranged into two hostile camps, and a different set of circumstances had arisen. How did this affect the position of Great Britain. Had the country in 1839 given a collective or an individual guarantee to Belgium? The terms of the treaty mentioned above seem to indicate that the guarantee was a collective one, but the earl of Clarendon, who as foreign secretary examined the question in 1867, expressed the opinion that it was an individual one. But if the civil law has any bearing on the matter, his point is of little moment. A collective guarantee does not cease to be binding upon a particular signatory because one or more of the other signatories decline to meet their liability.
These varied opinions may be said to cancel each other out, leaving the issue one of practical politics, and as such it was treated by Sir Edward Grey in his memorable speech in the House of Commons on the afternoon of Monday, August 3. He said:
- I ask the House from the point of view of British interests to consider what may be at stake. If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great Power, and becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself — consequences which I do not anticipate, because I am sure that France has the power to defend herself with all the energy and ability and patriotism which she has shown so often — still, if that were to happen, and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone's words come true, that just opposite to us there would he a "common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any Power?" And that Power would be opposite to us. It may be said, I suppose, that we might stand aside, husband our strength, and, whatever happened in the course of this war, at the end of it intervene, with effect, to put things right and to adjust them to our own point of view. If in a crisis like this we run away from those obligations of honour and interests as regards the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value in face of the respect that we should have lost.
- And I do not believe, whether a great Power stands outside this war or not, it is going to be in a position at the end of this war to exert its superior strength. For us, with a powerful fleet, which we believe able to protect our commerce, to protect our shores, and to protect our interests if we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside. We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside. Foreign trade is going to stop, not because the trade routes are closed, but because there is no other trade at the other end.
- Continental nations engaged in war, all their populations, all their energies, all their wealth, engaged in a desperate struggle, cannot carry on the trade with us that they are carrying on in times of peace, whether we are parties to the war or whether we are not. I do not believe for a moment that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the west of Europe opposite to us — if that had been the result of the war — falling under the domination of a single Power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as to have lost us all respect.
Germany had also violated the neutrality of Luxemburg, which was guaranteed by a treaty signed in 1867. On or about August the British liability under this guarantee was examined at the request of Sir Edward Grey, and the conclusions reached can be stated in his own words:
- It was thus made clear that what Luxemburg had was a collective guarantee that no one of the signatory Powers had an obligation to defend Luxemburg, unless all the signatory Powers did so; that no other Power had an obligation to act separately and without the others. This made our position quite clear; the violation of Luxemburg entailed no obligation upon us to take action.
- With regard to the guarantee, I will go somewhat further than the noble earl at the head of the Government, and say that if we had undertaken the same guarantee in the case of Luxemburg as we did in the case of Belgium, we should, in my opinion, have incurred an additional and very serious responsibility. I look upon our guarantee in the case of Belgium as an individual guarantee, and have always so regarded it; but this is a collective guarantee. No one of the Powers, therefore, can be called upon to take single action, even in the improbable case of any difficulty arising.