Forget Never

Forget Never

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The lights start to go out

August 3rd 1914
On August 3, Germany declared war on France, and on Belgium on August 4. This act violated Belgian neutrality, the status to which Germany, France, and Britain were all committed by treaty. It was inconceivable that Great Britain would remain neutral if Germany declared war on France; German violation of Belgian neutrality provided the casus belli.

Crowds in the streets of Berlin following the declaration of war against Russia
7am: The Belgian Council of State had broken from its deliberations at 4am. Viscomte Julien Davignon, the Foreign Minister, gave his political secretary, Baron de Gaiffier, Belgium's reply to Germany's ultimatum of the evening before, which he handed to Walter von Below-Saleske at the German Legation. Germany's proposed attack on Belgium's independence, it said, 'constitutes a flagrant violation of international law'.
The Belgian government, if it were to accept the proposals submitted, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray at the same time their duties towards Europe.
11am: In London, Asquith's Cabinet met. Despite the progress of the day before, there were now four ministers on the verge of resigning over Britain's possible intervention - John Burns, John Simon, Lord Beauchamp and John Morley. Discussion continued for three hours over the statement that Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, would make when he addressed the House of Commons that afternoon.
The Cabinet was very moving. Most of us could hardly speak at all for emotion.
- Herbert Samuel, President of the Local Government Board
Sir Edward Grey
2pm: Grey found Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador, waiting for him at the Foreign Office, anxious to know if the Cabinet had decided on a declaration of war. Grey told him they had a 'statement of conditions'.
In the House, the Speaker took his chair at 2.45pm. The bank rate had soared in previous days and there had been queues of people wanting to exchange paper notes for gold. Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, began the business of the day by introducing a Bill to suspend temporarily 'the payment of bills of exchange and payments in pursuance of other obligations’. He then said the City had asked for the bank holiday to be extended by three days. He agreed and said an Order in Council to that effect would be issued that afternoon.
Shortly after, Asquith entered the chamber to cheers and explained that the bank holiday applied only to banks and not to other industries.
Then it was then Grey’s moment. He began by explaining the background to the crisis, a dispute between Austria and Serbia in which France had become involved because of its alliance with Russia. Britain had a friendship with France - the Entente Cordiale conceived in 1904.
A crowd gathers outside Downing Street during the escalating international crisis
Grey had told the French ambassador, he explained to the House, that if there were an attack on France's coast, she would have the support of the Royal Navy. He explained, too, that Britain had asked both France and Germany whether they would respect Belgian neutrality, in accordance with the Treaty of London of 1839; France had said yes, Germany had declined to answer. And now Belgium was threatened with an ultimatum by Germany, and Britain had 'great and vital interests in the independence... of Belgium'.
4.30pm: Grey had spoken for almost an hour, and was nearing his conclusion:
We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside.... 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 point of view. If, in a crisis like this, we run away from those obligations of honour and interest 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 – [cheers] – 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 material strength [Hear, hear].
Sir Edward Grey, addressing the House of Commons
4.40pm: Other members rose to speak after Grey. Predictably, some Liberal and Labour MPs spoke against intervention, Conservatives were mostly in favour. But the previously anti-interventionist Liberal Christopher Addison noted that Grey's speech 'satisfied, I think, all the House, with perhaps three or four exceptions, that we were compelled to participate'.

5pm: Grey returned to the Foreign Office and was cheered by his staff. But in his office, Sir Arthur Nicolson, Permanent Under-Secretary of State, found Grey morose. 'I hate war, I hate war,' he said, banging his fists on his desk.
Prince Lichnowsky, German ambassador in London, took Grey's speech to be an indication that Britain still hoped to remain neutral.
6pm: After alleging that the French had crossed into German territory and had also violated Belgian neutrality, Germany sent its ambassador in Paris, Baron Schoen, to deliver a declaration of war to the French premier Rene Viviani
It is a hundred times better that we were not led to declare war ourselves... It was imperative that Germany, fully responsible for the aggression, should be forced to admit her interests publicly. If France had declared war, the alliance with Russia would have become controversial and French unity and spirit [would have been] broken, and Italy might have been obliged by the Triple Alliance to come in against France.
President Raymond Poincaré, in his diary
A declaration and a mobilisation: how The Daily Telegraph reported the latest developments

7.30pm: The Cabinet met again in London and agreed that Germany must withdraw its ultimatum to Belgium. Afterwards, Grey told Paul Cambon, the French ambassador, that if the Germans did not back down, 'it will be war'.
Later that evening, Grey looked out of his window on to St James's Park, where the gas lamps were being lit. Though he could not recall saying the words later, he made his famous remark:
The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary 

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