Outbreak of the First World War

TIn 1879 Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed to form a Dual Alliance. This became the Triple Alliance when in 1882 it was expanded to include Italy. The three countries agreed to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia. According to Basil Liddell Hart: "In regard to Britain, Bismarck's aim seems to have been to keep her in friendly isolation from Germany and unfriendly isolation from France. His feelings towards Britain oscillated between friendship and contempt." He had respect for Benjamin Disraeli but despised William Gladstone. (1)

Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, became very concerned about the dangers posed by Germany. He sent his leading journalist, George W. Steevens, to report on the country: "The German army is the most perfectly adapted, perfectly running machine. Never can there have been a more signal triumph of organization over complexity... The German army is the finest thing thing of its kind in the world; it is the finest thing in Germant of any kind... In the German army the men are ready, and the planes, the railway-carriages, the gas for the war-balloons, and the nails for the horseshoes are all ready too... Nothing overlooked, nothing neglected, everything practised, everything welded together, and yet everything alive and fighting... And what should we ever do if 100,000 of this kind of army got loose in England?" (2)

Northcliffe became convinced that Britain would have to go to war with Germany and urged the government to increase its spending on defence: "This is our hour of preparation, tomorrow may be the day of world conflict... Germany will go slowly and surely; she is not in a hurry: her preparations are quietly and systematically made; it is no part of her object to cause general alarm which might be fatal to her designs." (3)

Linley Sambourne, Fidgety Wilhelm (1st February, 1896)
Linley Sambourne, Fidgety Wilhelm (1st February, 1896)

France felt threatened by this alliance. Britain was also concerned by the growth in the German Navy. In the 1890s it became clear that Germany had a policy to challenge British naval supremacy. In 1904 the two countries signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding). The objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived threat of Germany. Three years later, Russia, who feared the growth in the German Army, joined Britain and France to form the Triple Entente. Some members of the opposition, such as David Lloyd George, raised doubts about this agreement and suggested "a friendly bilateral relationship between Britain and Germany". (4)

Illustration from Neil Demarco's The Great WarTriple Alliance Resources in 1914

The agreement was signed by Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary. In contrast to the Triple Alliance, the terms of the Entente did not require each country to go to war on behalf of the others, but stated that they had a "moral obligation" to support each other. As Keith Robbins pointed out, the agreement upset some politicians: "It went against the grain for some Liberals that their government should conclude a treaty with a government which had suppressed the parliamentary Duma in Russia.... Grey himself claimed that a frequent source of friction and possible cause of war had been removed. His critics suggested that he too readily accepted Russian assurances. Taken as a whole, however, the Russian agreement was a further recognition that in the twentieth century the British empire was not in a position to take on simultaneously all powers that might be thought to challenge its pre-eminence. Some feared Germany more, some feared Russia more. Either way, Grey supposed that in his first years of office he had steered a course which retained for Britain freedom of decision while removing a prospect of total isolation." (5)

Dreadnought Arms Race

Britain's first dreadnought was built at Portsmouth Dockyard between October 1905 and December 1906. It was the most heavily-armed ship in history. She had ten 12-inch guns (305 mm), whereas the previous record was four 12-inch guns. The gun turrets were situated higher than user and so facilitated more accurate long-distance fire. In addition to her 12-inch guns, the ship also had twenty-four 3-inch guns (76 mm) and five torpedo tubes below water. In the waterline section of her hull, the ship was armoured by plates 28 cm thick. It was the first major warship driven solely by steam turbines. It was also faster than any other warship and could reach speeds of 21 knots. A total of 526 feet long (160.1 metres) it had a crew of over 800 men. It cost over £2 million, twice as much as the cost of a conventional battleship.

HMS Dreadnought (1906)
HMS Dreadnought (1906)

Germany built its first dreadnought in 1907 and plans were made for building more. The British government believed it was necessary to have twice the number of these warships than any other navy. David Lloyd George had a meeting with the German Ambassador, Count Paul Metternich, and told him that Britain was willing to spend £100 million to frustrate Germany's plans to achieve naval supremacy. That night he made a speech where he spoke out on the arms race: "My principle is, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, less money for the production of suffering, more money for the reduction of suffering." (6)

Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, used his newspapers to urge an increase in defence spending and a reduction in the amount of money being spent on social insurance schemes. In one letter to Lloyd George he suggested that the Liberal government was Pro-German. Lloyd George replied: "The only real pro-German whom I know of on the Liberal side of politics is Rosebery, and I sometimes wonder whether he is even a Liberal at all! Haldane, of course, from education and intellectual bent, is in sympathy with German ideas, but there is really nothing else on which to base a suspicion that we are inclined to a pro-German policy at the expense of the entente with France." (7)

Kaiser Wilhelm II gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in October 1908 where he outlined his policy of increasing the size of his navy: "Germany is a young and growing empire. She has a world-wide commerce which is rapidly expanding and to which the legitimate ambition of patriotic Germans refuses to assign any bounds. Germany must have a powerful fleet to protect that commerce and her manifold interests in even the most distant seas. She expects those interests to go on growing, and she must be able to champion them manfully in any quarter of the globe. Her horizons stretch far away. She must be prepared for any eventualities in the Far East. Who can foresee what may take place in the Pacific in the days to come, days not so distant as some believe, but days at any rate, for which all European powers with Far Eastern interests ought steadily to prepare?" (8)

Grey replied to these comments in the same newspaper: "The German Emperor is ageing me; he is like a battleship with steam up and screws going, but with no rudder, and he will run into something some day and cause a catastrophe. He has the strongest army in the world and the Germans don't like being laughed at and are looking for somebody on whom to vent their temper and use their strength. After a big war a nation doesn't want another for a generation or more. Now it is 38 years since Germany had her last war, and she is very strong and very restless, like a person whose boots are too small for him. I don't think there will be war at present, but it will be difficult to keep the peace of Europe for another five years." (9)

Leonard Raven-Hill, Poker and Tongs (8th January, 1908)
Leonard Raven-Hill, Poker and Tongs (8th January, 1908)

Lloyd George complained bitterly to H. H. Asquith about the demands being made by Reginald McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty, to spend more money on the navy. He reminded Asquith of "the emphatic pledges given by us before and during the general election campaign to reduce the gigantic expediture on armaments built up by our predecessors... but if Tory extravagance on armaments is seen to be exceeded, Liberals... will hardly think it worth their while to make any effort to keep in office a Liberal ministry... the Admiralty's proposals were a poor compromise between two scares - fear of the German navy abroad and fear of the Radical majority at home... You alone can save us from the prospect of squalid and sterile destruction." (10)

Lord Northcliffe had consistently described Germany as Britain's "secret and insidious enemy", and in October 1909 he commissioned Robert Blatchford, to visit Germany and then write a series of articles setting out the dangers. The German's, Blatchford wrote, were making "gigantic preparations" to destroy the British Empire and "to force German dictatorship upon the whole of Europe". He complained that Britain was not prepared for was and argued that the country was facing the possibility of an "Armageddon". (11)

Lloyd George was constantly in conflict with McKenna and suggested that his friend, Winston Churchill, should become First Lord of the Admiralty. Asquith took this advice and Churchill was appointed to the post on 24th October, 1911. McKenna, with the greatest reluctance, replaced him at the Home Office. This move backfired on Lloyd George as the Admiralty cured Churchill's passion for "economy". The "new ruler of the King's navy demanded an expenditure on new battleships which made McKenna's claims seem modest". (12)

The Admiralty reported to the British government that by 1912 Germany would have 17 dreadnoughts, three-fourths the number planned by Britain for that date. At a cabinet meeting David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill both expressed doubts about the veracity of the Admiralty intelligence. Churchill even accused Admiral John Fisher, who had provided this information, of applying pressure on naval attachés in Europe to provide any sort of data he needed. (13)

Admiral Fisher refused to be beaten and contacted King Edward VII about his fears. He in turn discussed the issue with H. H. Asquith. Lloyd George wrote to Churchill explaining how Asquith had now given approval to Fisher's proposals: "I feared all along this would happen. Fisher is a very clever person and when he found his programme in danger he wired Davidson (assistant private secretary to the King) for something more panicky - and of course he got it." (14)

In 1909 the British Parliament authorized an additional four dreadnoughts, hoping that Germany would be willing to negotiate a treaty about battleship numbers. If this did not happen, an additional four ships would be built. In 1910, the British eight-ship construction plan went ahead, including four Orion-class super-dreadnoughts. Germany responded by building three warships, giving the United Kingdom a superiority of 22 ships to 13. Negotiations began between the two countries but talks foundered on the question on whether British Commonwealth battlecruisers should be included in the count. (15)

Germany: "Donnerwetter! It's rock. I thought it was going to be paper." Leonard Raven-Hill, Solid (2nd August, 1911)
Germany: "Donnerwetter! It's rock. I thought it was going to be paper."
Leonard Raven-Hill, Solid (2nd August, 1911)

Prince Henry of Prussia, the younger brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, had a meeting with their cousin, King George V at Sandringham in December, 1912. Henry asked George if Germany declared war on France and Russia, would Britain come to their assistance? When he reported back to the Kaiser he said he was convinced that "Britain was peace-loving; but that also she might, under certain circumstances, side with Germany's foes." Kaiser replied "that settles it, we can now go ahead a bully France." (16)

In the spring of 1913, it was announced that Germany now had an army of 661,000. However, Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, told a friend a few months later that he had no interest in starting a war: "I am fed with war and the clamour for war and with the perennial armaments. It is high time that the great nations calmed down again and occupied themselves with peaceful pursuits, or there will be an explosion which no one desires and which will be to the detriment of all." (17)

In the early summer of 1914 it was announced that the Kiel Canal, which would enable German ships to move safely and swiftly from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea. The Daily Mail created a great deal of anti-German feeling. It also made repeated calls for the Liberal government to introduce military conscription, so as not to be dependent in the event of war on a small professional army. In one article the newspaper described the Germans as "Huns" and therefore "created the image of a terrifying, ape-like savage that threatened to rape and plunder all of Europe, and beyond". (18)

Serbia did not regain independence from Turkey until 1878, and established a monarchy in 1882. Geographically a land-locked state, Serbia had the Austro-Hungarian Empire on its borders in the north, and Romania and Bulgaria in the east. To the south lay Macedonia and the northern shores of Greece, including the major port of Salonika. Serbia was an overwhelmingly rural society. It had few mineral or industrial resources and had less than 10,000 people employed in manufacturing.

Serbian encouragement of Slav separatist movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia angered the government of Austria-Hungary. Serbia received support from Russia in this policy. Tsar Nicholas II wanted to unite the Slav people under his leadership. In 1914 the Russian Army was the largest army in the world (5,971,000) and in case of war could mobilize 12,000,000 men. However, Russia's poor roads and railways made the effective deployment of these soldiers difficult.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

When it was announced that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was going to visit Bosnia in June 1914, members of the Black Hand group began to make plans to assassinate the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the chief of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian General Staff sent three members of the Black Hand group based in Belgrade, Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez, to Sarajevo to carry out the deed.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Dutchess Sophieat Sarajevo on 28th June, 1914.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie
at Sarajevo on 28th June, 1914.

Just before 10 o'clock on Sunday, 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie von Chotkovato arrived in Sarajevo by train. General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was waiting to take the royal party to the City Hall for the official reception. In the front car was Fehim Curcic, the Mayor of Sarajevo and Dr. Gerde, the city's Commissioner of Police. Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie were in the second car with Oskar Potiorek and Count von Harrach. The car's top was rolled back in order to allow the crowds a good view of its occupants.

At 10.10, when the six car possession passed the central police station, Nedjelko Cabrinovic hurled a hand grenade station at the archduke's car. The driver accelerated when he saw the object flying towards him and the grenade exploded under the wheel of the next car. Two of the occupants, Eric von Merizzi and Count Boos-Waldeck were seriously wounded. About a dozen spectators were also hit by bomb splinters.

Franz Ferdinand's driver, Franz Urban, drove on extremely fast and other members of the Black Hand group on the route, Cvijetko Popovic, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilic and Trifko Grabez, were unable to fire their guns or hurl their bombs at the Archduke's car.

After attending the official reception at the City Hall, Franz Ferdinand asked about the members of his party that had been wounded by the bomb. When the archduke was told they were badly injured in hospital, he insisted on being taken to see them. A member of the archduke's staff, Baron Morsey, suggested this might be dangerous, but Oskar Potiorek, who was responsible for the safety of the royal party, replied, "Do you think Sarajevo is full of assassins?" However, Potiorek did accept it would be better if Duchess Sophie remained behind in the City Hall. When Baron Morsey told Sophie about the revised plans, she refused to stay arguing: "As long as the Archduke shows himself in public today I will not leave him."

In order to avoid the city centre, General Oskar Potiorek decided that the royal car should travel straight along the Appel Quay to the Sarajevo Hospital. However, Potiorek forgot to tell the driver, Franz Urban, about this decision. On the way to the hospital, Urban took a right turn into Franz Joseph Street. One of the conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, was standing on the corner at the time. Oskar Potiorek immediately realised the driver had taken the wrong route and shouted "What is this? This is the wrong way! We're supposed to take the Appel Quay!".

The driver put his foot on the brake, and began to back up. In doing so he moved slowly past the waiting Gavrilo Princip. The assassin stepped forward, drew his gun, and at a distance of about five feet, fired several times into the car. Franz Ferdinand was hit in the neck and Sophie von Chotkovato in the abdomen. Princip's bullet had pierced the archduke's jugular vein but before losing consciousness, he pleaded "Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!" Franz Urban drove the royal couple to Konak, the governor's residence, but although both were still alive when they arrived, they died from their wounds soon afterwards. (19)

Divided Liberal Government

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not immediately cause a reaction in Britain. David Lloyd George admitted that he heard the news he suspected that it would result in a war in the Balkans but did not believe such a conflict would involve Britain. He also pointed out that the Cabinet, although it was meeting twice a day, because of the crisis in Ireland, they did not even discuss the issue of Serbia and the assassination for another three weeks. (20)

Lloyd George told C. P. Scott that there is "no question of our taking part in any war in the first instance... and knew of no minister who would be in favour of it". In a letter a few days later to King George V he described the impending conflict as "the greatest event for many years past" but he added "happily there seems no reason why we should be anything other than a spectator". H. H. Asquith, instructed Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to "inform the French and German ambassadors that, at this stage, we were unable to pledge ourselves in advance either under all conditions to stand aside or in any conditions to join in." (21)

On 23rd July, 1914, George Buchanan, the British ambassador to Russia, wrote to Sir Edward Grey, about the discussions he had following the assassination: "As they both continued to press me to declare our complete solidarity with them, I said that I thought you might be prepared to represent strongly at Vienna and Berlin danger to European peace of an Austrian attack on Serbia. You might perhaps point out that it would in all probability force Russia to intervene, that this would bring Germany and France into the field, and that if war became general, it would be difficult for England to remain neutral. Minister for Foreign Affairs said that he hoped that we would in any case express strong reprobation of Austria's action. If war did break out, we would sooner or later be dragged into it, but if we did not make common cause with France and Russia from the outset we should have rendered war more likely." (22)

Grey replied to Buchanan on the 25th July: "I said to the German Ambassador that, as long as there was only a dispute between Austria and Serbia alone, I did not feel entitled to intervene; but that, directly it was a matter between Austria and Russia, it became a question of the peace of Europe, which concerned us all. I had furthermore spoken on the assumption that Russia would mobilize, whereas the assumption of the German Government had hitherto been, officially, that Serbia would receive no support; and what I had said must influence the German Government to take the matter seriously. In effect, I was asking that if Russia mobilized against Austria, the German Government, who had been supporting the Austrian demand on Serbia, should ask Austria to consider some modification of her demands, under the threat of Russian mobilization." (23)

Several members of the Black Hand group interrogated by the Austrian authorities claimed that three men from Serbia, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, Milan Ciganovic, and Major Voja Tankosic, had organised the plot. On 25th July, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government demanded that the Serbian government arrest the men and send them to face trial in Vienna. Nikola Pasic, the prime minister of Serbia, told the Austro-Hungarian government that he was unable to hand over these three men as it "would be a violation of Serbia's Constitution and criminal in law". Three days later Austro-Hungarian declared war on Serbia. (24)

Despite these events, Sir Edward Grey was still confident that war could be avoided and departed for a fishing holiday in Hampshire. On 26th July, 1914, Prince Henry of Prussia, had another meeting with King George V. Later that day he wrote a letter to his brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, that George had told him: "We shall try all we can to keep out of this, and shall remain neutral." Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Commander of the German Navy, doubted the value of such a remark, however, the Kaiser replied: "I have the word of the a King, and that is enough for me." (25)

On 28th July, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The following day the Kaiser promised to Britain that he would not annex any French territory in Europe provided the country remained neutral. This offer was immediately rejected by Sir Edward Grey in the House of Commons. On 30th July, Grey wrote to on Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg: "His Majesty's Government cannot for one moment entertain the Chancellor's proposal that they should bind themselves to neutrality on such terms. What he asks us in effect is to engage and stand by while French colonies are taken and France is beaten, so long as Germany does not take French territory as distinct from the colonies. From the material point of view the proposal is unacceptable, for France, without further territory in Europe being taken from her, could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy. Altogether apart from that, it would be a disgrace to us to make this bargain with Germany at the expense of France, a disgrace from which the good name of this country would never recover. The Chancellor also in effect asks us to bargain away whatever obligation or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could not entertain that bargain either." (26)

C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, made it clear what he thought of the conflict. "Not only are we neutral now, but we could, and ought to remain neutral throughout the whole course of the war... We wish Serbia no ill; we are anxious for the peace of Europe. But Englishmen are not the guardians of Serbia well being, or even of the peace of Europe. Their first duty is to England and to the peace of England... We care as little for Belgrade as Belgrade does for Manchester." (27)

At a Cabinet meeting on Friday, 31st July, more than half the Cabinet, including David Lloyd George, Charles Trevelyan, John Burns, John Morley, John Simon and Charles Hobhouse, were bitterly opposed to Britain entering the war. Only two ministers, Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill, argued in favour and H. H. Asquith appeared to support them. At this point, Churchill suggested that it might be possible to continue if some senior members of the Conservative Party could be persuaded to form a Coalition government. (28)

On 1st August, Asquith wrote in his diary that his government was badly divided on the issue of war: "Lloyd George, all for peace, is more sensible and statesmanlike for keeping the position still open. Grey declares that if an out-and-out and uncompromising policy of Non-intervention at all costs is adopted he will go. Winston very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilization... Of course, if Grey went, I should go, and the whole thing would break up." (29)

Churchill wrote to Lloyd George after the Cabinet meeting: "I am most profoundly anxious that our long co-operation may not be severed... I implore you to come and bring your mighty aid to the discharge of our duty. Afterwards, by participating, we can regulate the settlement." He warned that if Lloyd George did not change his mind: "All the rest of our lives we shall be opposed. I am deeply attached to you and have followed your instructions and guidance for nearly 10 years." (30)

On 1st August the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Walter Cunliffe, visited Lloyd George to inform him that the City was totally against British intervening in the war. Lloyd George later recalled: "Money was a frightened and trembling thing. Money shivered at the prospect. Big Business everywhere wanted to keep out." Three days later The Daily News argued that it would help business if Britain kept out of the war, "if we remained neutral we should be able to trade with all the belligerents... We should be able to capture the bulk of their trade in neutral markets." (31)

Later that day Grey told the French Ambassador in London that the British government would not stand by and see the German Fleet attack the French Channel Ports. When he heard what had happened, John Burns immediately resigned as he now knew war was inevitable. Charles Trevelyan, John Morley and John Simon also handed in letters of resignation with "at least another half-dozen waited upon the effective hour". (32)

Lloyd George did not submit a resignation letter but he remained unconvinced that Britain should go to war over this issue. His friend, George Riddell, pointed out that he was coming under great pressure from pacifists in the Liberal Party. (33) H. H. Asquith argued: "Some ministers believed that we should declare now and at once that in no circumstances would we take a hand. There is no doubt that, for the moment, that is the view of the bulk of the party. Lloyd George - all for peace - is more sensible and statesmanlike, keeping the position open." (34)

However, in a letter to his wife, Lloyd George admitted he would support the war if Germany invaded Belgium: "I am moving through a nightmare world these days. I have fought hard for peace and succeeded, so far, in keeping the Cabinet out of it, but I am driven to the conclusion that if the small nationality of Belgium is attacked by Germany all my traditions and even my prejudices will be engaged on the side of war." (35)

Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, heard about this dispute in Cabinet and wrote to Asquith giving him support on this matter: "Lord Lansdowne (leader of the House of Lords) and I feel it our duty to inform you that in our opinion as well as in that of all the colleagues whom we have been able to consult, it would be fatal to the honour and security of the United Kingdom to hesitate in supporting France and Russia at the present juncture; and we offer our unhesitating support to the Government in any measures they may consider necessary for that object." (36)

The leaders of the Labour Party, especially Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie, did not give their support for a war. Hardie made a speech on 2nd August, 1914, where he called on "the governing class... to respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy... Down with class rule! Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!" (37)

Belgian Neutrality

On 2nd August, 1914, the German government wrote to the Belgian government: "Reliable information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany. The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany."

The letter went on to argue that to defend itself, Germany the right of free passage across Belgium for its troops. "It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory... Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind them selves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full." (38)

The following day the Belgian government replied: "The intentions attributed to France by Germany are in contradiction to the formal declarations made to us on August 1, in the name of the French Government. Moreover, if, contrary to our expectation, Belgian neutrality should be violated by France, Belgium intends to fulfil her international obligations and the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader... The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law. The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe." (39)

F. H. Townsend, Punch Magazine (August, 1914)
F. H. Townsend, Bravo Belgium (12th August, 1914)

Winston Churchill now was to time to make it clear that Britain would it could to protect Belgium from Germany: "I would act in such a way as to impress Germany with our intention to preserve the neutrality of Belgium. So much is still unknown as to the definite purpose of Germany that I would not go beyond this. Moreover, public opinion might veer round at any moment if Belgium is invaded, and we must be ready to meet this opinion." (40)

On 3rd August, 1914, Germany declared war on France. That afternoon Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, made the first official statement on the crisis. "The French fleet is now in the Mediterranean, and the northern and western coasts of France are absolutely undefended. The French fleet being concentrated in the Mediterranean, the situation is very different from what it used to be, because the friendship which has grown up between the two countries has given them a sense of security that there was nothing to be feared from us. My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside."

Grey then went on to talk about Belgian neutrality. "Even if by agreement she admitted the violation of her neutrality, it is clear she could only do so under duress. The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent. The one thing they fear is, I think, not so much that their integrity but that their independence should be interfered with. If in this war, which is before Europe, the neutrality of those countries is violated, if the troops of one of the combatants violate its neutrality and no action be taken to resent it, at the end of war, whatever the integrity may be, the independence will be gone."

Grey explained why it was important to defend Belgian independence: "If her independence goes, the independence of Holland will follow. 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, 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 be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any power?" (41)

Declaration of War

That evening an estimated 30,000 people took to the streets. They gathered around Buckingham Palace and eventually King George V and the rest of the royal family appeared on the balcony. The crowd began singing "God Save the King" and then large numbers left to smash the windows of the German Embassy. Frank Owen points out that the previous day the crowds had been calling for a peaceful settlement of the crisis, now they were "clamouring for war". (42)

The following day the Germans marched into Belgium. According to the historian, A. J. P. Taylor: "At 10.30 p.m. on 4th August 1914 the king held a privy council at Buckingham Palace, which was attended only by one minister and two court officials. The council sanctioned the proclamation of a state of war with Germany from 11 p.m. That was all. The cabinet played no part once it had resolved to defend the neutrality of Belgium. It did not consider the ultimatum to Germany, which Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, sent after consulting only the prime minister, Asquith, and perhaps not even him." (43)

Charles Trevelyan, John Burns, and John Morley, all resigned from the government. However, David Lloyd George continued to serve in the cabinet. Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George's private secretary, later claimed: "My own opinion is that Lloyd George's mind was really made up from the first, that he knew that we would have to go in and the invasion of Belgium was, to be cynical, a heaven-sent opportunity for supporting a declaration of war." (44)

The anti-war newspaper, The Daily News, commented: "Among the many reports which are current as to Ministerial resignations there seems to be little doubt in regard to three. They are those of Lord Morley, Mr. John Burns, and Mr. Charles Trevelyan. There will be widespread sympathy with the action they have taken. Whether men approve of that action or not it is a pleasant thing in this dark moment to have this witness to the sense of honour and to the loyalty to conscience which it indicates... Mr. Trevelyan will find abundant work in keeping vital those ideals which are at the root of liberty and which are never so much in danger as in times of war and social disruption." (45)

Bernard Partridge, God (and the women) our shield (September, 1914)
Bernard Partridge, God (and the women) our shield (September, 1914)

The Labour Party was completely divided by the outbreak of the First World War. Those who opposed the war, included Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, John Glasier, George Lansbury, Alfred Salter, William Mellor and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, J. R. Clynes, William Adamson, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort. (46)

Ramsay MacDonald stated that he would not encourage the members of the Labour Party to take part in the war. "Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greeting to the German Socialists. They have laboured increasingly to promote good relations with Britain, as we with Germany. They are no enemies of ours but faithful friends." (47)

On 5th August, 1914, the parliamentary party voted to support the government's request for war credits of £100,000,000. Ramsay MacDonald immediately resigned the chairmanship and the pro-war Arthur Henderson was elected in his place. (48) MacDonald wrote in his diary: "I saw it was no use remaining as the Party was divided and nothing but futility could result. The Chairmanship was impossible. The men were not working, were not pulling together, there was enough jealously to spoil good feeling. The Party was no party in reality. It was sad, but glad to get out of harness." (49)

Primary Sources

(1) George Buchanan, report to Sir Edward Grey about discussions he had with French and Russian officials (23rd July, 1914)

As they both continued to press me to declare our complete solidarity with them, I said that I thought you might be prepared to represent strongly at Vienna and Berlin danger to European peace of an Austrian attack on Serbia. You might perhaps point out that it would in all probability force Russia to intervene, that this would bring Germany and France into the field, and that if war became general, it would be difficult for England to remain neutral. Minister for Foreign Affairs said that he hoped that we would in any case express strong reprobation of Austria's action. If war did break out, we would sooner or later be dragged into it, but if we did not make common cause with France and Russia from the outset we should have rendered war more likely.

(2) Sir Edward Grey, letter to George Buchanan (25th July, 1914)

I said to the German Ambassador that, as long as there was only a dispute between Austria and Serbia alone, I did not feel entitled to intervene; but that, directly it was a matter between Austria and Russia, it became a question of the peace of Europe, which concerned us all. I had furthermore spoken on the assumption that Russia would mobilize, whereas the assumption of the German Government had hitherto been, officially, that Serbia would receive no support; and what I had said must influence the German Government to take the matter seriously. In effect, I was asking that if Russia mobilized against Austria, the German Government, who had been supporting the Austrian demand on Serbia, should ask Austria to consider some modification of her demands, under the threat of Russian mobilization.

(3) Sir Edward Grey, letter to Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg (30th July, 1914)

His Majesty's Government cannot for one moment entertain the Chancellor's proposal that they should bind themselves to neutrality on such terms. What he asks us in effect is to engage and stand by while French colonies are taken and France is beaten, so long as Germany does not take French territory as distinct from the colonies. From the material point of view the proposal is unacceptable, for France, without further territory in Europe being taken from her, could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy. Altogether apart from that, it would be a disgrace to us to make this bargain with Germany at the expense of France, a disgrace from which the good name of this country would never recover. The Chancellor also in effect asks us to bargain away whatever obligation or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could not entertain that bargain either.

(4) Letter delivered by the German Ambassador at Brussels, Claus von Below-Saleske, to Julien Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs (2nd August 1914)

Reliable information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany.

It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.

In order to exclude any possibility of misunderstanding, the German Government make the following declaration:

(1) Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind them selves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.

(2) Germany undertakes, under the above-mentioned condition, to evacuate Belgian territory on the conclusion of peace.

(3) If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in cooperation with the Belgian authorities, to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops.

(4) Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

The German Government, however, entertain the distinct hope that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Belgian Government will know how to take the necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as those mentioned. In this case the friendly ties which bind the two neighbouring States will grow stronger and more enduring.

(5) Letter delivered by Julien Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs to the German Ambassador at Brussels, Claus von Below-Saleske (3rd August 1914)

This note has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government. The intentions attributed to France by Germany are in contradiction to the formal declarations made to us on August 1, in the name of the French Government.

Moreover, if, contrary to our expectation, Belgian neutrality should be violated by France, Belgium intends to fulfil her international obligations and the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader.

The treaties of 1839, confirmed by the treaties of 1870 vouch for the independence and neutrality of Belgium under the guarantee of the Powers, and notably of the Government of His Majesty the King of Prussia.

Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality.

The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law.

The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe.

Conscious of the part which Belgium has played for more than eighty years in the civilisation of the world, they refuse to believe that the independence of Belgium can only be preserved at the price of the violation of her neutrality.

If this hope is disappointed the Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights.

(6) Sir Edward Grey, speech in the House of Commons (3rd August, 1914)

Last week I stated that we were working for peace not only for this country, but to preserve the peace of Europe. Today events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved. Russia and Germany, at any rate, have declared war upon each other.

Before I proceed to state the position of his Majesty's Government I would like to clear the ground so that, before I come to state to the House what our attitude is with regard to the present crisis, the House may know exactly under what obligations the government is, or the House can be said to be, in coming to a decision on the matter. First of all, let me say, very shortly, that we have consistently worked with a single mind, with all the earnestness in our power, to preserve peace. The House may be satisfied on that point. We have always done it. During these last years, as far as his Majesty's Government are concerned, we would have no difficulty in proving that we have done so. Throughout the Balkan crisis, by general admission, we worked for peace. The cooperation of the great powers of Europe was successful in working for peace in the Balkan crisis. It is true that some of the powers had great difficulty in adjusting their points of view. It took much time and labour and discussion before they could settle their differences, but peace was secured, because peace was their main object, and they were willing to give time and trouble rather than accentuate differences rapidly.

In the present crisis it has not been possible to secure the peace of Europe: because there has been little time, and there has been a disposition - at any rate in some quarters on which I will not dwell - to force things rapidly to an issue, at any rate to the great risk of peace, and, as we now know, the result of that is that the policy of peace as far as the great powers generally are concerned is in danger. I do not want to dwell on that, and to comment on it, and to say where the blame seems to us lie, which powers were most in favour of peace, which were most disposed to risk war or endanger peace, because I would like the House to approach this crisis in which we are now from the point of view of British interests, British honour, and British obligations, free from all passion as to why peace has not yet been preserved....

The French fleet is now in the Mediterranean, and the northern and western coasts of France are absolutely undefended. The French fleet being concentrated in the Mediterranean, the situation is very different from what it used to be, because the friendship which has grown up between the two countries has given them a sense of security that there was nothing to be feared from us. My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside...

But I also want to look at the matter without sentiment, and from the point of view of British interests, and it is on that that I am going to base and justify what I am presently going to say to the House. If we say nothing at this moment, what is France to do with her fleet in the Mediterranean? If she leaves it there, with no statement from us as to what we will do, she leaves her northern and western coasts absolutely undefended, at the mercy of a German fleet coming down the Channel to do as it pleases in a war which is a war of life and death between them. If we say nothing, it may be that the French fleet is withdrawn from the Mediterranean.

We are in the presence of a European conflagration; can anybody set limits to the consequences that may arise out of it? Let us assume that to-day we stand aside in an attitude of neutrality, saying, "No, we cannot undertake and engage to help either party in this conflict." Let us suppose the French fleet is withdrawn from the Mediterranean; and let us assume that the consequences -- which are already tremendous in what has happened in Europe even to countries which are at peace -- in fact, equally whether countries are at peace or at war -- let us assume that out of that come consequences unforeseen, which make it necessary at a sudden moment that, in defence of vital British interests, we should go to war; and let us assume which is quite possible--that Italy, who is now neutral...

If Belgium is compelled to submit to allow her neutrality to be violated, of course the situation is clear. Even if by agreement she admitted the violation of her neutrality, it is clear she could only do so under duress. The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent. The one thing they fear is, I think, not so much that their integrity but that their independence should be interfered with. If in this war, which is before Europe, the neutrality of those countries is violated, if the troops of one of the combatants violate its neutrality and no action be taken to resent it, at the end of war, whatever the integrity may be, the independence will be gone.

No, Sir, if it be the case that there has been anything in the nature of an ultimatum to Belgium, asking her to compromise or violate her neutrality, whatever may have been offered to her in return, her independence is gone if that holds. If her independence goes, the independence of Holland will follow. 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, 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 be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any power?

It may be said, I suppose, that we might stand aside, husband our strength, and that, 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 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. 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 it 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 even if we stand aside.

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1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)

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References

(1) Basil Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (1934) page 3

(2) George W. Steevens, The Daily Mail (8th October, 1897)

(3) S. J. Taylor, The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail (1996) page 141

(4) John Grigg, Lloyd George, From Peace To War 1912-1916 (1985) page 128

(5) Keith Robbins, Edward Grey: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) The Times (29th July, 1908)

(7) David Lloyd George, letter to Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe (9th April, 1908)

(8) Kaiser Wilhelm II, interview in The Daily Telegraph (28th October 1908)

(9) Sir Edward Grey, letter published in The Daily Telegraph (1st November, 1908)

(10) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 245

(11) S. J. Taylor, The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail (1996) page 141

(12) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 306

(13) Bentley B. Gilbert, David Lloyd George: Architect of Change (1987) page 365

(14) David Lloyd George, letter to Winston Churchill (3rd January, 1909)

(15) Lawrence Sondhaus, Naval Warfare 1815–1914 (2001) pages 203-204

(16) Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) page 259

(17) S. J. Taylor, The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail (1996) page 143

(18) Martin Gilbert, The First World War (1994) page 4

(19) Hew Strachan, The First World War: A New History (2014) page 9

(20) Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) page 261

(21) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 353

(22) George Buchanan, report to Sir Edward Grey about discussions he had with French and Russian officials (23rd July, 1914)

(23) Sir Edward Grey, letter to George Buchanan (25th July, 1914)

(24) Martin Gilbert, The First World War (1994) page 20

(25) Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) page 259

(26) Sir Edward Grey, letter to Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg (30th July, 1914)

(27) C. P. Scott, Manchester Guardian (29th August, 1914)

(28) Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) page 259

(29) H. H. Asquith, diary entry (1st August, 1914)

(30) Winston Churchill, letter to David Lloyd George (1st August, 1914)

(31) The Daily News (4th August, 1914)

(32) Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) page 266

(33) George Riddell, More Pages from My Diary (1934) page 5

(34) H. H. Asquith, Memoirs and Reflections (1928) page 7

(35) David Lloyd George, letter to Margaret Lloyd George (2nd August, 1914)

(36) Andrew Bonar Law, letter to H. H. Asquith (2nd August, 1914)

(37) Keir Hardie, speech (2nd August, 1914)

(38) Letter delivered by the German Ambassador at Brussels, Claus von Below-Saleske, to Julien Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs (2nd August 1914)

(39) Letter delivered by Julien Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs to the German Ambassador at Brussels, Claus von Below-Saleske (3rd August 1914)

(40) Winston Churchill, letter to David Lloyd George (3rd August, 1914)

(41) Sir Edward Grey, speech in the House of Commons (3rd August, 1914)

(42) Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) page 270

(43) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 27

(44) Frances Lloyd George, The Years That Are Past (1967) page 73

(45) The Daily News (5th August, 1914)

(46) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 43

(47) Ramsay MacDonald, speech (5th August, 1914)

(48) G.D.H. Cole, A History of the Labour Party from 1914 (1948) page 18

(49) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (5th August, 1914)