ONE PRIME OBJECTIVE governed French policy: to enter the war with England as an ally. To ensure that event and enable her friends in England to overcome the inertia and reluctance within their own Cabinet and country, France had to leave it clear beyond question who was the attacked and who the attacker. The physical act and moral odium of aggression must be left squarely upon Germany. Germany was expected to do her part, but lest any overanxious French patrols or frontier troops stepped over the border, the French government took a daring and extraordinary step. On July 30 it ordered a ten-kilometer withdrawal along the entire frontier with Germany from Switzerland to Luxembourg.
Premier René Viviani, an eloquent Socialist orator, formerly chiefly concerned with welfare and labor, proposed the withdrawal. He was a curiosity in French politics, a Premier who had never been Premier before, and was now Acting Foreign Minister as well. He had been in office barely six weeks and had just returned the day before, July 29, from a state visit to Russia with President Poincaré. Austria had waited until Viviani and Poincaré were at sea to issue her ultimatum to Serbia. On receiving this news the French President and Premier had eliminated a scheduled visit to Copenhagen and hurried home.
In Paris they were told German covering troops had taken their places a few hundred meters from the frontier. They knew nothing as yet of the Russian and Austrian mobilizations. Hopes still flourished of a negotiated settlement. Viviani was “haunted by a fear that war might burst from a clump of trees, from a meeting of two patrols, from a threatening gesture … a black look, a brutal word, a shot!” While there was still even the least chance of settling the crisis without war, and in order to leave the lines of aggression clear if war came, the Cabinet agreed upon the ten-kilometer withdrawal. The order, telegraphed to corps commanders, was designed, they were told, “to assure the collaboration of our English neighbors.” A telegram informing England of the measure went out simultaneously. The act of withdrawal, done at the very portals of invasion, was a calculated military risk deliberately taken for its political effect. It was taking a chance “never before taken in history,” said Viviani, and might have added, like Cyrano, “Ah, but what a gesture!”
Withdrawal was a bitter gesture to ask of a French Commander in Chief schooled in the doctrine of offensive and nothing but the offensive. It could have shattered General Joffre as Moltke’s first experience of the war shattered him, but General Joffre’s heart did not break.
From the moment of the President’s and Premier’s return, Joffre had been hounding the government for the order to mobilize or at least take the preliminary steps: recall of furloughs, of which many had been granted for the harvest, and deployment of covering troops to the frontier. He deluged them with intelligence reports of German premobilization measures already taken. He loomed large in authority before a new-born Cabinet, the tenth in five years, whose predecessor had lasted three days. The present one was remarkable chiefly for having most of France’s strong men outside it. Briand, Clemenceau, Caillaux, all former premiers, were in opposition. Viviani, by his own evidence, was in a state of “frightful nervous tension” which, according to Messimy, who was once again War Minister, “became a permanent condition during the month of August.” The Minister of Marine, Dr. Gauthier, a doctor of medicine shoved into the naval post when a political scandal removed his predecessor, was so overwhelmed by events that he “forgot” to order fleet units into the Channel and had to be replaced by the Minister of Public Instruction on the spot.
In the President, however, intelligence, experience, and strength of purpose, if not constitutional power, were combined. Poincaré was a lawyer, economist, and member of the Academy, a former Finance Minister who had served as Premier and Foreign Minister in 1912 and had been elected President of France in January, 1913. Character begets power, especially in hours of crisis, and the untried Cabinet leaned willingly on the abilities and strong will of the man who was constitutionally a cipher. Born in Lorraine, Poincaré could remember as a boy of ten the long line of spiked German helmets marching through Bar-le-Duc, his home town. He was credited by the Germans with the most bellicose intent, partly because, as Premier at the time of Agadir, he had held firm, partly because as President he had used his influence to push through the Three-Year Military Service Law in 1913 against violent Socialist opposition. This and his cold demeanor, his lack of flamboyance, his fixity, did not make for popularity at home. Elections were going against the government, the Three-Year Law was near to being thrown out, labor troubles and farmers’ discontent were rife, July had been hot, wet, and oppressive with windstorms and summer thunder, and Mme. Caillaux who had shot the editor of Figaro was on trial for murder. Each day of the trial revealed new and unpleasant irregularities in finance, the press, the courts, the government.
One day the French woke up to find Mme. Caillaux on page two—and the sudden, awful knowledge that France faced war. In that most passionately political and quarrelsome of countries one sentiment thereupon prevailed. Poincaré and Viviani, returning from Russia, drove through Paris to the sound of one prolonged cry, repeated over and over, “Vive la France!”
Joffre told the government that if he was not given the order to assemble and transport the covering troops of five army corps and cavalry toward the frontier, the Germans would “enter France without firing a shot.” He accepted the ten-kilometer withdrawal of troops already in position less from subservience to the civil arm—Joffre was about as subservient by nature as Julius Caesar—as from a desire to bend all the force of his argument upon the one issue of the covering troops. The government, still reluctant while diplomatic offers and counter-offers flashing over the wires might yet produce a settlement, agreed to give him a “reduced” version, that is, without calling out the reservists.
At 4:30 next day, July 31, a banking friend in Amsterdam telephoned Messimy the news of the German Kriegesgefahr, officially confirmed an hour later from Berlin. It was “une forme hypocrite de la mobilisation” Messimy angrily told the Cabinet. His friend in Amsterdam had said war was certain and Germany was ready for it, “from the Emperor down to the last Fritz.” Following hard upon this news came a telegram from Paul Cambon, French ambassador in London, reporting that England was “tepid.” Cambon had devoted every day of the past sixteen years at his post to the single end of ensuring England’s active support when the time came, but he had now to wire that the British government seemed to be awaiting some new development. The dispute so far was of “no interest to Great Britain.”
Joffre arrived, with a new memorandum on German movements, to insist upon mobilization. He was permitted to send his full “covering order” but no more, as news had also come of a last-minute appeal from the Czar to the Kaiser. The Cabinet continued sitting, with Messimy champing in impatience at the “green baize routine” which stipulated that each minister must speak in turn.
At seven o’clock in the evening Baron von Schoen, making his eleventh visit to the French Foreign Office in seven days, presented Germany’s demand to know what course France would take and said he would return next day at one o’clock for an answer. Still the Cabinet sat and argued over financial measures, recall of Parliament, declaration of a state of siege, while all Paris waited in suspense. One crazed young man cracked under the agony, held a pistol against a café window, and shot dead Jean Jaurès, whose leadership in international socialism and in the fight against the Three-Year Law had made him, in the eyes of superpatriots, a symbol of pacifism.
A white-faced aide broke in upon the Cabinet at nine o’clock with the news. Jaurès killed! The event, pregnant with possible civil strife, stunned the Cabinet. Street barricades, riot, even revolt became a prospect on the threshold of war. Ministers reopened the heated argument whether to invoke Carnet B, the list of known agitators, anarchists, pacifists, and suspected spies who were to be arrested automatically upon the day of mobilization. Both the Prefect of Police and former Premier Clemenceau had advised the Minister of Interior, M. Malvy, to enforce Carnet B. Viviani and others of his colleagues, hoping to preserve national unity, were opposed to it. They held firm. Some foreigners suspected of being spies were arrested, but no Frenchmen. In case of riot, troops were alerted that night, but next morning there was only deep grief and deep quiet. Of the 2,501 persons listed in Carnet B, 80 per cent were ultimately to volunteer for military service.
At 2:00 A.M. that night, President Poincaré was awakened in bed by the irrepressible Russian ambassador, Isvolsky, a former hyperactive foreign minister. “Very distressed and very agitated,” he wanted to know, “What is France going to do?”
Isvolsky had no doubts of Poincaré’s attitude, but he and other Russian statesmen were always haunted by the fear that when the time came the French Parliament, which had never been told the terms of the military alliance with Russia, would fail to ratify it. The terms specifically stated, “If Russia is attacked by Germany or by Austria supported by Germany, France will use all her available forces to attack Germany.” As soon as either Germany or Austria mobilized, “France and Russia, without previous agreement being necessary, shall mobilize all their forces immediately and simultaneously and shall transport them as near the frontiers as possible .… These forces shall begin complete action with all speed so that Germany will have to fight at the same time in the East and in the West.”
These terms appeared unequivocal but, as Isvolsky had anxiously queried Poincaré in 1912, would the French Parliament recognize the obligation? In Russia the Czar’s power was absolute, so that France “may be sure of us,” but “in France the Government is impotent without Parliament. Parliament does not know the text of 1892 .… What guarantee have we that your Parliament would follow your Government’s lead?”
“If Germany attacked,” Poincaré had replied on that earlier occasion, Parliament would follow the Government “without a doubt.”
Now, facing Isvolsky again in the middle of the night, Poincaré assured him that a Cabinet would be called within a few hours to supply the answer. At the same hour the Russian military attaché in full diplomatic dress appeared in Messimy’s bedroom to pose the same question. Messimy telephoned to Premier Viviani who, though exhausted by the night’s events, had not yet gone to bed. “Good God!” he exploded, “these Russians are worse insomniacs than they are drinkers,” and he excitedly recommended “Du calme, du calme et encore du calme!”
Pressed by the Russians to declare themselves, and by Joffre to mobilize, yet held to a standstill by the need to prove to England that France would act only in self-defense, the French government found calm not easy. At 8:00 next morning, August 1, Joffre came to the War Office in the Rue St. Dominique to beg Messimy, in “a pathetic tone that contrasted with his habitual calm,” to pry mobilization from the government. He named four o’clock as the last moment when the order could reach the General Post Office for dispatch by telegraph throughout France in time for mobilization to begin at midnight. He went with Messimy to the Cabinet at 9:00 A.M. and presented an ultimatum of his own: every further delay of twenty-four hours before general mobilization would mean a fifteen-to twenty-kilometer loss of territory, and he would refuse to take the responsibility as Commander. He left, and the Cabinet faced the problem. Poincaré was for action; Viviani, representing the antiwar tradition, still hoped that time would provide a solution. At 11:00 he was called to the Foreign Office to see von Schoen who in his own anxiety had arrived two hours early for the answer to Germany’s question of the previous day: whether France would stay neutral in a Russo-German war. “My question is rather naïve,” said the unhappy ambassador, “for we know you have a treaty of alliance.”
“Evidemment,” replied Viviani, and gave the answer prearranged between him and Poincaré. “France will act in accordance with her interests.” As Schoen left, Isvolsky rushed in with news of the German ultimatum to Russia. Viviani returned to the Cabinet, which at last agreed upon mobilization. The order was signed and given to Messimy, but Viviani, still hoping for some saving development to turn up within the few remaining hours, insisted that Messimy keep it in his pocket until 3:30. At the same time the ten-kilometer withdrawal was reaffirmed. Messimy telephoned it that evening personally to corps commanders: “By order of the President of the Republic, no unit of the army, no patrol, no reconnaissance, no scout, no detail of any kind, shall go east of the line laid down. Anyone guilty of transgressing will be liable to court-martial.” A particular warning was added for the benefit of the XXth Corps, commanded by General Foch, of whom it was reliably reported that a squadron of cuirassiers had been seen “nose to nose” with a squadron of Uhlans.
At 3:30, as arranged, General Ebener of Joffre’s staff, accompanied by two officers, came to the War Office to call for the mobilization order. Messimy handed it over in dry-throated silence. “Conscious of the gigantic and infinite results to spread from that little piece of paper, all four of us felt our hearts tighten.” He shook hands with each of the three officers, who saluted and departed to deliver the order to the Post Office.
At four o’clock the first poster appeared on the walls of Paris (at the corner of the Place de la Concorde and the Rue Royale, one still remains, preserved under glass). At Armenonville, rendezvous of the haut-monde in the Bois de Boulogne, tea dancing suddenly stopped when the manager stepped forward, silenced the orchestra, and announced: “Mobilization has been ordered. It begins at midnight. Play the ‘Marseillaise.’” In town the streets were already emptied of vehicles requisitioned by the War Office. Groups of reservists with bundles and farewell bouquets of flowers were marching off to the Gare de l’Est, as civilians waved and cheered. One group stopped to lay its flowers at the feet of the black-draped statue of Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde. The crowds wept and cried “Vive l’Alsace!” and tore off the mourning she had worn since 1870. Orchestras in restaurants played the French, Russian, and British anthems. “To think these are all being played by Hungarians,” someone remarked. The playing of their anthem, as if to express a hope, made Englishmen in the crowd uncomfortable and none more so than Sir Francis Bertie, the pink and plump British ambassador who in a gray frock coat and gray top hat, holding a green parasol against the sun, was seen entering the Quai d’Orsay. Sir Francis felt “sick at heart and ashamed.” He ordered the gates of his embassy closed, for, as he wrote in his diary, “though it is‘Vive l’Angleterre’ today, it may be ‘Perfide Albion’ tomorrow.”
In London that thought hung heavily in the room where small, white-bearded M. Cambon confronted Sir Edward Grey. When Grey said to him that some “new development” must be awaited because the dispute between Russia, Austria, and Germany concerned a matter “of no interest” to Great Britain, Cambon let a glint of anger penetrate his impeccable tact and polished dignity. Was England “going to wait until French territory was invaded before intervening?” he asked, and suggested that if so her help might be “very belated.”
Grey, behind his tight mouth and Roman nose, was in equal anguish. He believed fervently that England’s interests required her to support France; he was prepared, in fact, to resign if she did not; he believed events to come would force her hand, but as yet he could say nothing officially to Cambon. Nor had he the knack of expressing himself unofficially. His manner, which the English public, seeing in him the image of the strong, silent man, found comforting, his foreign colleagues found “icy.” He managed only to express edgily the thought that was in everyone’s mind, that “Belgian neutrality might become a factor.” That was the development Grey—and not he alone—was waiting for.
Britain’s predicament resulted from a split personality evident both within the Cabinet and between the parties. The Cabinet was divided, in a split that derived from the Boer War, between Liberal Imperialists represented by Asquith, Grey, Haldane, and Churchill, and “Little Englanders” represented by all the rest. Heirs of Gladstone, they, like their late leader, harbored a deep suspicion of foreign entanglements and considered the aiding of oppressed peoples to be the only proper concern of foreign affairs, which were otherwise regarded as a tiresome interference with Reform, Free Trade, Home Rule, and the Lords’ Veto. They tended to regard France as the decadent and frivolous grasshopper, and would have liked to regard Germany as the industrious, respectable ant, had not the posturings and roarings of the Kaiser and the Pan-German militarists somehow discouraged this view. They would never have supported a war on behalf of France, although the injection of Belgium, a “little” country with a just call on British protection, might alter the issue.
Grey’s group in the Cabinet, on the other hand, shared with the Tories a fundamental premise that Britain’s national interest was bound up with the preservation of France. The reasoning was best expressed in the marvelously flat words of Grey himself: “If Germany dominated the Continent it would be disagreeable to us as well as to others, for we should be isolated.” In this epic sentence is all of British policy, and from it followed the knowledge that, if the challenge were flung, England would have to fight to prevent that “disagreeable” outcome. But Grey could not say so without provoking a split in the Cabinet and in the country that would be fatal to any war effort before it began.
Alone in Europe Britain had no conscription. In war she would be dependent on voluntary enlistment. A secession from the government over the war issue would mean the formation of an antiwar party led by the dissidents with disastrous effect on recruiting. If it was the prime objective of France to enter war with Britain as an ally, it was a prime necessity for Britain to enter war with a united government.
This was the touchstone of the problem. In Cabinet meetings the group opposed to intervention proved strong. Their leader Lord Morley, Gladstone’s old friend and biographer, believed he could count on “eight or nine likely to agree with us” against the solution being openly worked for by Churchill with “daemonic energy” and Grey with “strenuous simplicity.” From discussions in the Cabinet it was clear to Morley that the neutrality of Belgium was “secondary to the question of our neutrality in the struggle between Germany and France.” It was equally clear to Grey that only violation of Belgium’s neutrality would convince the peace party of the German menace and the need to go to war in the national interest.
On August 1 the crack was visible and widening in Cabinet and Parliament. That day twelve out of eighteen Cabinet members declared themselves opposed to giving France the assurance of Britain’s support in war. That afternoon in the lobby of the House of Commons a caucus of Liberal M.P.s voted 19 to 4 (though with many abstentions) for a motion that England should remain neutral “whatever happened in Belgium or elsewhere.” That week Punch published “Lines designed to represent the views of an average British patriot”:
Why should I follow your fighting line
For a matter that’s no concern of mine? …
I shall be asked to a general scrap
All over the European map,
Dragged into somebody else’s war
For that’s what a double entente is for.
The average patriot had already used up his normal supply of excitement and indignation in the current Irish crisis. The “Curragh Mutiny” was England’s Mme. Caillaux. As a result of the Home Rule Bill, Ulster was threatening armed rebellion against autonomy for Ireland and English troops stationed at the Curragh had refused to take up arms against Ulster loyalists. General Gough, the Curragh commander, had resigned with all his officers, whereupon Sir John French, Chief of General Staff, resigned, whereupon Colonel John Seely, Haldane’s successor as Secretary of War, resigned. The army seethed, uproar and schism ruled the country, and a Palace Conference of party leaders with the King met in vain. Lloyd George talked ominously of the “gravest issue raised in this country since the days of the Stuarts,” the words “civil war” and “rebellion” were mentioned, and a German arms firm hopefully ran a cargo of 40,000 rifles and a million cartridges into Ulster. In the meantime there was no Secretary of War, the office being left to Prime Minister Asquith, who had little time and less inclination for it.
Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but “paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should do and to act upon it without hesitation. On July 26, the day Austria rejected Serbia’s reply and ten days before his own government made up its mind, Churchill issued a crucial order.
On July 26 the British fleet was completing, unconnected with the crisis, a test mobilization and maneuvers with full crews at war strength. At seven o’clock next morning the squadrons were due to disperse, some to various exercises on the high seas, some to home ports where parts of their crews would be discharged back into training schools, some to dock for repairs. That Sunday, July 26, the First Lord remembered later was “a very beautiful day.” When he learned the news from Austria he made up his mind to make sure “that the diplomatic situation did not get ahead of the naval situation and that the Grand Fleet should be in its War Station before Germany could know whether or not we should be in the war and therefore if possible before we had decided ourselves.” The italics are his own. After consultation with the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, he gave orders to the fleet not to disperse.
He then informed Grey what he had done and with Grey’s assent released the Admiralty order to the newspapers in the hope that the news might have “a sobering effect” on Berlin and Vienna.
Holding the fleet together was not enough; it must be got, as Churchill expressed it in capitals, to its “War Station.” The primary duty of a fleet, as Admiral Mahan, the Clausewitz of naval warfare, had decreed, was to remain “a fleet in being.” In the event of war the British fleet, upon which an island nation depended for its life, had to establish and maintain mastery of the ocean trade routes; it had to protect the British Isles from invasion; it had to protect the Channel and the French coasts in fulfillment of the pact with France; it had to keep concentrated in sufficient strength to win any engagement if the German fleet sought battle; and above all it had to guard itself against that new and menacing weapon of unknown potential, the torpedo. The fear of a sudden, undeclared torpedo attack haunted the Admiralty.
On July 28 Churchill gave orders for the fleet to sail to its war base at Scapa Flow, far to the north at the tip of mist-shrouded Orkney in the North Sea. It steamed out of Portland on the 29th, and by nightfall eighteen miles of warships had passed northward through the Straits of Dover headed not so much for some rendezvous with glory as for a rendezvous with discretion. “A surprise torpedo attack” wrote the First Lord, “was at any rate one nightmare gone forever.”
Having prepared the fleet for action, Churchill turned his abounding energy and sense of urgency upon preparing the country. He persuaded Asquith on July 29 to authorize the Warning Telegram which was the arranged signal sent by War Office and Admiralty to initiate the Precautionary Period. While short of the Kriegesgefahr or the French State of Siege which established martial law, the Precautionary Period has been described as a device “invented by a genius … which permitted certain measures to be taken on the ipse dixit of the Secretary of War without reference to the Cabinet … when time was the only thing that mattered.”
Time pressed on the restless Churchill who, expecting the Liberal government to break apart, went off to make overtures to his old party, the Tories. Coalition was not in the least to the taste of the Prime Minister who was bent on keeping his government united. Lord Morley at seventy-six was expected by no one to stay with the government in the event of war. Not Morley but the far more vigorous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, was the key figure whom the government could not afford to lose, both for his proved ability in office and his influence upon the electorate. Shrewd, ambitious, and possessed of a spellbinding Welsh eloquence, Lloyd George leaned to the peace group but might jump either way. He had suffered recent setbacks in public popularity; he saw a new rival for party leadership arising in the individual whom Lord Morley called “that splendid condottierre at the Admiralty”; and he might, some of his colleagues thought, see political advantage in “playing the peace-card” against Churchill. He was altogether an uncertain and dangerous quantity.
Asquith, who had no intention of leading a divided country into war, continued to wait with exasperating patience for events which might convince the peace group. The question of the hour, he recorded in his passionless way in his diary for July 31, was, “Are we to go in or stand aside. Of course everybody longs to stand aside.” In a less passive attitude, Grey, during the Cabinet of July 31 almost reached the point-blank. He said Germany’s policy was that of a “European aggressor as bad as Napoleon” (a name that for England had only one meaning) and told the Cabinet that the time had come when a decision whether to support the Entente or preserve neutrality could no longer be deferred. He said that if it chose neutrality he was not the man to carry out such a policy. His implied threat to resign echoed as if it had been spoken.
“The Cabinet seemed to heave a sort of sigh,” wrote one of them, and sat for several moments in “breathless silence.” Its members looked at one another, suddenly realizing that their continued existence as a government was now in doubt. They adjourned without reaching a decision.
That Friday, eve of the August Bank Holiday weekend, the Stock Exchange closed down at 10:00 A.M. in a wave of financial panic that had started in New York when Austria declared war on Serbia and which was closing Exchanges all over Europe. The City trembled, prophesying doom and the collapse of foreign exchange. Bankers and businessmen, according to Lloyd George, were “aghast” at the idea of war which would “break down the whole system of credit with London at its center.” The Governor of the Bank of England called on Saturday to inform Lloyd George that the City was “totally opposed to our intervening” in a war.
That same Friday the Tory leaders were being rounded up and called back to London from country houses to confer on the crisis. Dashing from one to the other, pleading, exhorting, expounding Britain’s shame if the shilly-shallying Liberals held back now, was Henry Wilson, the heart, soul, spirit, backbone, and legs of the Anglo-French military “conversations.” The agreed euphemism for the joint plans of the General Staffs was “conversations.” The formula of “no commitment” which Haldane had first established, which had raised misgivings in Campbell-Bannerman, which Lord Esher had rejected, and which Grey had embodied in the 1912 letter to Cambon still represented the official position, even if it did not make sense.
It made very little. If, as Clausewitz justly said, war is a continuation of national policy, so also are war plans. The Anglo-French war plans, worked out in detail over a period of nine years, were not a game, or an exercise in fantasy or a paper practice to keep military minds out of other mischief. They were a continuation of policy or they were nothing. They were no different from France’s arrangements with Russia or Germany’s with Austria except for the final legal fiction that they did not “commit” Britain to action. Members of the government and Parliament who disliked the policy simply shut their eyes and mesmerized themselves into believing the fiction.
M. Cambon, visiting Opposition leaders after his painful interview with Grey, now dropped diplomatic tact altogether. “All our plans are arranged in common. Our General Staffs have consulted. You have seen all our schemes and preparations. Look at our fleet! Our whole fleet is in the Mediterranean in consequence of our arrangements with you and our coasts are open to the enemy. You have laid us wide open!” He told them that if England did not come in France would never forgive her, and ended with a bitter cry, “Et l’honneur? Est-ce-que l’Angleterre comprend ce que c’est l’honneur?”
Honor wears different coats to different eyes, and Grey knew it would have to wear a Belgian coat before the peace group could be persuaded to see it. That same afternoon he dispatched two telegrams asking the French and German governments for a formal assurance that they were prepared to respect Belgian neutrality “so long as no other power violates it.” Within an hour of receiving the telegram in the late evening of July 31, France replied in the affirmative. No reply was received from Germany.
Next day, August 1, the matter was put before the Cabinet. Lloyd George traced with his finger on a map what he thought would be the German route through Belgium, just across the near corner, on the shortest straight line to Paris; it would only, he said, be a “little violation.” When Churchill asked for authority to mobilize the fleet, that is, call up all the naval reserves, the Cabinet, after a “sharp discussion,” refused. When Grey asked for authority to implement the promises made to the French Navy, Lord Morley, John Burns, Sir John Simon, and Lewis Harcourt proposed to resign. Outside the Cabinet, rumors were swirling of the last-minute wrestlings of Kaiser and Czar and of the German ultimatums. Grey left the room to speak to—and be misunderstood by—Lichnowsky on the telephone, and unwittingly to be the cause of havoc in the heart of General Moltke. He also saw Cambon, and told him “France must take her own decision at this moment without reckoning on an assistance we are not now in a position to give.” He returned to the Cabinet while Cambon, white and shaking, sank into a chair in the room of his old friend Sir Arthur Nicolson, the Permanent Under-Secretary. “Ils vont nous lâcher” (They are going to desert us), he said. To the editor of The Times who asked him what he was going to do, he replied, “I am going to wait to learn if the word ‘honor’ should be erased from the English dictionary.”
In the Cabinet no one wanted to burn his bridges. Resignations were bruited, not yet offered. Asquith continued to sit tight, say little, and await developments as that day of crossed wires and complicated frenzy drew to a close. That evening Moltke was refusing to go east, Lieutenant Feldmann’s company was seizing Trois Vierges in Luxembourg, Messimy over the telephone was reconfirming the ten-kilometer withdrawal, and at the Admiralty the First Lord was entertaining friends from the Opposition, among them the future Lords Beaverbrook and Birkenhead. To keep occupied while waiting out the tension, they played bridge after dinner. During the game a messenger brought in a red dispatch box—it happened to be one of the largest size. Taking a key from his pocket, Churchill opened it, took out the single sheet of paper it contained, and read the single line on the paper: “Germany has declared war on Russia.” He informed the company, changed out of his dinner jacket, and “went straight out like a man going to a well-accustomed job.”
Churchill walked across the Horse Guards Parade to Downing Street, entered by the garden gate, and found the Prime Minister upstairs with Grey, Haldane, now Lord Chancellor, and Lord Crewe, Secretary for India. He told them he intended “instantly to mobilize the fleet notwithstanding the Cabinet decision.” Asquith said nothing but appeared, Churchill thought, “quite content.” Grey, accompanying Churchill on his way out, said to him, “I have just done a very important thing. I have told Cambon that we shall not allow the German fleet to come into the Channel.” Or that is what Churchill, experiencing the perils of verbal intercourse with Grey, understood him to say. It meant that the fleet was now committed. Whether Grey said he had given the promise or whether he said, as scholars have since decided, that he was going to give it the next day, is not really relevant, for whichever it was it merely confirmed Churchill in a decision already taken. He returned to the Admiralty and “gave forthwith the order to mobilize.”
Both his order and Grey’s promise to make good the naval agreement with France were contrary to majority Cabinet sentiment. On the next day the Cabinet would have to ratify these acts or break apart, and by that time Grey expected a “development” to come out of Belgium. Like the French, he felt that he could count on Germany to provide it.