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First World War - The Road To War

We all know that Britain went to war in 1914 resulting in an unthinkable loss of life. 

We examine the political decision making of the time made under considerable pressure. How were these now infamous historical events viewed by the people who faced ultimatums and difference of opinion both in the British cabinet and Parliament about what should be done.

Another Balkan Conflict

On the 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip a Bosnian Serb.

Austria-Hungary had occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina since the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. In response to the ailing Ottoman Empire and the interests of Russia, Britain and Austria-Hungary, the Congress of Berlin had sought to re-draw the Balkans. Previous Russian gains were lost leading to its humiliation, while Austria-Hungary increased its influence in the region. Serbia was given international recognition as an independent Principality (it became a Kingdom in 1882).  Much of the ethnic Slav population remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. The Treaty failed to bring stability to the Balkans.

In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In 1912 Serbia was a member of the Balkan League along with Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro.  In the First Balkan War the Balkan League took most of the Ottoman Empire’s remaining European territories. 1913 saw a Second Balkan War. Bulgaria attacked Serbian and Greek forces in a dispute over the jointly conquered territory of Macedonia.

By the end of these short Balkan wars Serbia had increased its territory which now included central and northern Macedonia and Kosovo. Austria had forced Serbia to give up its conquests in Albania.

These conflicts had remained as local Balkan wars and had not drawn the great European powers into military action.

Furthermore, acts of terrorism were seen as common place in the Balkans. Assassination was not considered unusual. The Serbian King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga had been assassinated in 1903.

Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (Austria-Hungary was a dual monarchy) did not particularly like his nephew the Archduke Franz Ferdinand or his wife, who was considered a commoner. There was a lack of mourning in Austria at their deaths.

Therefore, when news of the assassination reached Britain it did not cause great concern.

There were, what seemed at the time, more important domestic issues to consider. Women’s suffrage, widespread industrial action and especially the tensions over Home Rule for Ireland, occupied Parliament and the Press.

Ultimatum To Serbia

Encouraged by Germany, particularly with the offer of unconditional support, the so called ‘Blank Cheque’, Austria-Hungary presented a list of demands to Serbia on Thursday 23 July 1914. It required a response by 6pm on Saturday July 25.

The July Ultimatum implied that the Serbian Government was involved in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Its terms were deliberately harsh to make it hard, if not impossible, for Serbia to accept them. Austria-Hungary wanted to provoke Serbia into a small-scale local war so it could end its influence in the Balkans. Serbia conceded to virtually all of the demands except the participation of Austria-Hungary in its own internal inquiry as this would violate its constitution.

On 25 July orders were given for the general mobilisation of Serbian forces. Russia began preparations to mobilise against Austria-Hungary. After accepting Serbia’s response, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Serbia, Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, broke off diplomatic relations and left the country, as he had been instructed.

The British Response

At this time, the main focus of discussion in Cabinet meetings was still about the situation in Ireland.

The Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey telegraphed the British Ambassadors in Paris, Berlin and Rome. Grey was trying to arrange a conference in London with the Ambassadors from Germany, France and Italy. The intention was to seek a diplomatic solution and have Austria-Hungary, Russia and Serbia suspend military operations while talks were ongoing. Grey believed that Serbia’s reply to the ultimatum was enough to form the basis of a generally acceptable peace settlement. Unfortunately the conference would not take place.

On 26 July First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the Fleet and the naval reservists to remain at Portland after completing training exercises in the Channel. On 27 July Churchill put the Navy on alert. British warships in the Mediterranean were to be prepared to follow potentially hostile ships.

Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia on July 28.

Winston Churchill ordered the Fleet at Portland to sail at high speed and without lights to the main naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Churchill also requisitioned two dreadnoughts on Tyneside that had been destined for the Turkish navy.

Lord Kitchener who had been travelling to Dover for his return to Egypt was hastily recalled to London. Kitchener would be made Secretary of State for War.

Precautionary steps were taken to prepare each government department in case war was declared. However, the Cabinet still remained uncertain as to what course of action Britain should take.

Alliances and Agreements

Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed a defensive alliance, the Dual Alliance, in 1879. In the event of an attack by Russia each country would come to the others assistance. If one of them were to be attacked by another European power, such as France, then the other would at least remain neutral. This became the Triple Alliance in 1882 with the addition of Italy. On 2 August 1914 Italy announced its position of neutrality. Italy argued that as the Triple Alliance was a defensive agreement it was not obliged to assist Austria-Hungary and Germany who were clearly the aggressors. Italy had also entered into a secret alliance with France. In 1915 Italy was persuaded to enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente.

Russia had long sought to have a political influence in the Balkans and had close diplomatic ties with Serbia. An independent Serbia was of strategic interest to Russia as it countered the presence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the region. Russia began partial mobilisation against Austria on the 28 July. In 1914 Russia’s western continental borders were with Germany and Austria-Hungary not Poland and the Balkan states as it was at the beginning of World War II.

The Franco-Russian Alliance 1894 stipulated that if Russia were at war with Germany or Austria-Hungary, France would come to their aid. The French President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister René Viviani were on a planned state visit to St Petersburg, Russia during the July Crisis. The President made it clear that France stood behind Russia and its decision to support Serbia, even though this would risk war with Germany.  France delayed mobilisation and kept its forces 10km from the Belgian border so as not to appear as the aggressors.

The 1904 Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding) between Britain and France was a diplomatic agreement, the purpose of which was to resolve colonial disputes in Africa. It also helped strengthen the ties between France and Britain who were traditionally enemies, in the face of rising German imperialism. Britain had decided to end its foreign policy of ‘splendid isolation’ as it now saw Germany as a threat to the stability of the British Empire.

In 1906 Sir Edward Grey had authorised secret talks with the French about what support Britain might offer if they were attacked by Germany.

In 1907, Britain and Russia came to an agreement over territories in Central Asia with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente. This established the Triple Entente between Britain, Russia and France. It sought to counter the threat of the Triple Alliance between the Central Powers.

The Triple Entente did not commit Britain to give military assistance to France or Russia in the event of a German attack. Instead they had a ‘moral obligation’ to support each other.

In response to the naval race between Britain and Germany, an Anglo-French agreement had been drawn up in 1912.  The Anglo-French Naval Convention stipulated that the French Navy would patrol the Mediterranean a vital trade route for the British Empire, while the British Fleet would protect the northern coast of France from German naval attack.  The wording of this agreement did not state what aid, if any, Britain would actually give France in the event of an attack by Germany. It only stated that both governments should discuss what they would be prepared to do together in the event of such aggression.

Under the Treaty of London 1839, the Dutch had given independence to Belgium. From the British perspective it had all been about keeping the balance of power in Europe.  Lord Palmerston, the then Foreign Secretary, had pushed for Belgian independence and neutrality as this was seen as best for British security. Britain did not want the French, their old adversary, on their doorstep. As a signatory to the Treaty, Britain was to guarantee Belgian neutrality.

A Cabinet Divided

There were still members of the Cabinet who hoped that Britain could stay neutral. Prime Minister Asquith had originally believed that Britain could remain as ‘spectators’ in the coming war.

The Cabinet considered what its obligations were to France as part of the Entente and in light of the 1912 Anglo-French Naval Convention.  There was the option of limited intervention, by protecting the coasts of France and its shipping from German attack.  This course of action would only involve the Navy. If Germany were to defeat France this would alter the balance of power in Europe.  Some, such as Winston Churchill, felt that British honour and interests would be damaged if it did not come to France’s aid.

The Cabinet could not decide what treaty obligations there were towards Belgian neutrality. It was not clear what was actually required of Britain as a signatory, especially when it came to military intervention.  Some ministers felt that the passage of the German Army through Belgium was not a sufficient reason to go to war. There was also the threat to British security to consider if Germany were to gain control of the Belgian ports.

The Cabinet were not sure what practical military steps they should take. They were very uncertain over whether to commit the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France.

On the 2 August Germany issued an ultimatum to Belgium. On the pretext that Germany was about to be attacked by France, Germany demanded free passage for its army through Belgium so that it could defend itself. Non-compliance by the Belgian Government would automatically make Belgium an enemy of Germany. They were given twelve hours to respond. The Schlieffen plan required German forces to move through Belgium to attack and defeat France, before Russia could fully mobilise its army.

What position Britain should take in this European conflict had divided the Cabinet. Three Cabinet ministers handed in letters of resignation, Lord President of the Council John Morley; President of the Board of Trade John Burns and the Attorney General Sir John Simon. They believed Britain should remain neutral and not commit to a European War.

Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, who had long supported non-intervention, was persuaded on the issue of Belgian neutrality and its certain attack by Germany.

Sir Edward Grey’s Speech to the House of Commons.

Monday 3 August was a Bank Holiday in Britain. At 3pm the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made the Government’s first formal statement on the crisis to the House of Commons.

While the Government had done all that it could to find a peaceful solution it was now obvious that this was not possible.

The House was to ‘approach this crisis…from the point of view of British interests, British honour and British obligations…’ rather than dwell on where the blame lay.

Grey then set out what obligations Britain had to France.

Grey referred to the Triple Entente as a ‘diplomatic group’, not an alliance.

Reading out a letter that was sent to the French ambassador 22 November 1912, Grey stated that although conversations had taken place between French and British naval and military experts after the Moroccan crises they were not binding engagements upon the Government’. Britain had no obligation to provide France with any such support.

Grey then spoke of what the situation required of Britain with its ‘long-standing friendship’ with France.

Grey described how the French coasts were undefended. Their fleet was in the Mediterranean as they had nothing to fear from Britain. What would happen to British trade routes if the French Fleet were to leave the Mediterranean or if Italy were to ‘depart from her attitude of neutrality’? Grey then told the Commons that the British Fleet ‘will give all the protection in its power’ to protect the French coasts and its shipping from any hostile actions by the German fleet, ‘should the contingency arise’.

Grey then put before the House the Government’s position with respect to Belgium and its neutrality.

Britain could stand aside but ‘… 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…’ Grey then went on to say ‘…For us, with a powerful Fleet…if we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer even if we stand aside.’

Britain could not declare unconditional neutrality due to the commitment made to France, the detrimental effect on British interests if no support were given and the Belgian Treaty obligations.

‘…if we were to say that all those things mattered nothing… we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world, and should not escape the most serious and grave economic consequences’.

Britain’s position had at last been openly declared. Britain would go to war if it was necessary to defend Belgian neutrality.

Parliament’s Reaction

As well as the Cabinet, the British Parliament was also divided on whether or not to go to war.

Andrew Bonar Law and his Conservative Party were in favour of supporting France in a war against Germany. The opposition Leader had publically pledged support to the Government following Grey’s speech to the House on the 3 August.

The Labour Party, led by Ramsay MacDonald was against Britain going to war. He did not believe that war was justified. Britain itself was in no danger, neither was its honour. MacDonald argued that there was no point talking about ‘coming to the aid of Belgium, when…you are engaging in a whole European War which is not going to leave the map of Europe in the position it is in now’.   He did not believe that friendship with France was an acceptable reason for Britain going to war. Grey had also failed to mention how the power of Russia in Europe would be affected by the war.

Sir Edward Grey had referred to Ireland in his speech as that ‘one bright spot’ in the whole situation.  John Redmond MP told the House that all government troops could be removed from Ireland. The North and South Irish would join forces in defence of their country.

The sitting in the House of Commons was suspended until the evening. Sir Edward Grey opened the session with a statement to the House. He had received word of Germany’s request for free passage of its army through Belgium and Belgium’s intention to refuse. Parliament continued debating the British position on the war in Europe. The debate grew more acrimonious and was eventually adjourned at 9.23pm.

The decision to go to war was never put to a vote in Parliament.

It was later that same night that Sir Edward Grey made his famous remark: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ 

4th August 1914

Germany had declared war on France on 3 August. On 4 August the first German troops crossed the Belgian border at Gemmerich.  

King Albert of Belgium formally appealed for British help as a signatory to the Treaty of London.

The Speaker read a statement to the House of Commons from King George V authorising the mobilisation of British forces.

The German Ambassador in London Prince Lichnowsky, delivered a telegram in which Germany maintained that it would not annex Belgium. It had information that France was going to launch an attack on the German Army across Belgium. Germany had to disregard Belgian neutrality to prevent the French advance. The British Government did not consider this a ‘satisfactory communication’.

At 7pm the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen presented Britain’s ultimatum to Germany. Germany was to stop their advance into Belgium and observe the conditions of the Treaty to which Germany was also a signatory.  If not, Britain would be obliged to take all the steps in its power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium. A satisfactory answer was demanded by midnight, Berlin time (11pm in London).

The Cabinet waited in Downing Street for a response from Germany to the ultimatum. German troops continued to advance into Belgium. No reply was received.

As of 11pm, Britain was at war with Germany.