ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, August 2, a few hours before the German ultimatum was delivered in Brussels, Grey asked the British Cabinet for authority to fulfill the naval engagement to defend the French Channel coast. No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard and fast and specific decision. Through the long afternoon the Cabinet squirmed uncomfortably, unready and unwilling to grasp the handle of final commitment.
In France war came and was accepted as a kind of national fate, however deeply a part of the people would have preferred to avoid it. Almost in awe, a foreign observer reported the upsurge of “national devotion” joined with an “entire absence of excitement” in a people of whom it had so often been predicted that anarchical influences had undermined their patriotism and would prove fatal in the event of war. Belgium, where there occurred one of the rare appearances of the hero in history, was lifted above herself by the uncomplicated conscience of her King and, faced with the choice to acquiesce or resist, took less than three hours to make her decision, knowing it might be mortal.
Britain had no Albert and no Alsace. Her weapons were ready but not her will. Over the past ten years she had studied and prepared for the war that was now upon her and had developed, since 1905, a system called the “War Book” which left nothing to the traditional British practice of muddling through. All orders to be issued in the event of war were ready for signature; envelopes were addressed; notices and proclamations were either printed or set up in type, and the King never moved from London without having with him those that required his immediate signature. The method was plain; the muddle was in the British mind.
The appearance of a German fleet in the Channel would have been no less direct a challenge to Britain than the Spanish Armada of long ago, and the Sunday Cabinet reluctantly agreed to Grey’s request. The written pledge which that afternoon he handed to Cambon read, “If the German Fleet comes into the Channel or through the North Sea to undertake hostile operations against the French coasts or shipping, the British Fleet will give all protection in its power.” Grey added, however, that the pledge “does not bind us to go to war with Germany unless the German fleet took the action indicated.” Voicing the real fear of the Cabinet, he said that as England was uncertain of the protection of her own coasts, “it was impossible safely to send our military forces out of the country.”
M. Cambon asked whether this meant Britain would never do so. Grey replied that his words “dealt only with the present moment.” Cambon suggested sending two divisions for “moral effect.” Grey said that to send so small a force or even four divisions “would entail the maximum risk to them and produce the minimum of effect.” He added that the naval commitment must not become public until Parliament could be informed on the next day.
Half in despair but yet in hope, Cambon informed his government of the pledge in a “very secret” telegram which reached Paris at 8:30 that night. Though it was but a one-legged commitment, far less than France had counted on, he believed it would lead to full belligerency, for, as he later put it, nations do not wage war “by halves.”
But the naval pledge was only wrung from the Cabinet at the cost of the break that Asquith had been trying so hard to prevent. Two ministers, Lord Morley and John Burns, resigned; the formidable Lloyd George was still “doubtful.” Morley believed the dissolution of the Cabinet was “in full view that afternoon.” Asquith had to confess “we are on the brink of a split.”
Churchill, always ready to anticipate events, appointed himself emissary to bring his former party, the Tories, into a coalition government. As soon as the Cabinet was over he hurried off to see Balfour, the former Tory Prime Minister, who like the other leaders of his party believed that Britain must carry through the policy that had created the Entente to its logical, if bitter, end. Churchill told him he expected half the Liberal Cabinet to resign if war were declared. Balfour replied that his party would be prepared to join a coalition, although if it came to that necessity he foresaw the country rent by an antiwar movement led by the seceding Liberals.
Up to this moment the German ultimatum to Belgium was not yet known. The underlying issue in the thinking of men like Churchill and Balfour, Haldane and Grey was the threatened German hegemony of Europe if France were crushed. But the policy that required support of France had developed behind closed doors and had never been fully admitted to the country. The majority of the Liberal government did not accept it. On this issue neither government nor country would have gone to war united. To many, if not to most Englishmen, the crisis was another phase in the old quarrel between Germany and France, and none of England’s affair. To make it England’s affair in the eyes of the public, the violation of Belgium, child of English policy, where every step of the invaders would trample on a treaty of which England was architect and signatory, was required. Grey determined to ask the Cabinet next morning to regard such invasion as a formal casus belli.
That evening as he was at dinner with Haldane, a Foreign Office messenger brought over a dispatch box with a telegram which, according to Haldane’s account, warned that “Germany was about to invade Belgium.” What this telegram was or from whom it came is not clear, but Grey must have considered it authentic. Passing it to Haldane, Grey asked him what he thought. “Immediate mobilization,” Haldane replied.
They at once left the dinner table and drove to Downing Street where they found the Prime Minister with some guests. Taking him into a private room, they showed him the telegram and asked for authority to mobilize. Asquith agreed. Haldane suggested that he be temporarily reappointed to the War Office for the emergency. The Prime Minister would be too busy next day to perform the War Minister’s duties. Asquith again agreed, the more readily as he was uncomfortably conscious of the looming autocrat, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, whom he had already been urged to appoint to the empty chair.
Next morning, Bank Holiday Monday, was a clear and beautiful summer day. London was crammed with holiday crowds drawn to the capital instead of the seashore by the crisis. By midday they were so thick in Whitehall that cars could not get through, and the hum of milling people could be heard inside the Cabinet room where the ministers, meeting again in almost continuous session, were trying to make up their minds whether to fight on the issue of Belgium.
Over at the War Office Lord Haldane was already sending out the mobilization telegrams calling up Reservists and Territorials. At eleven o’clock the Cabinet received news of Belgium’s decision to pit her six divisions against the German Empire. Half an hour later they received a declaration from the Conservative leaders, written before the ultimatum to Belgium was known, stating that it would be “fatal to the honor and security of the United Kingdom” to hesitate in support of France and Russia. Russia as an ally already stuck in the throats of most Liberal ministers. Two more of them—Sir John Simon and Lord Beauchamp—resigned, but the events in Belgium decided the pivotal Lloyd George to stay with the government.
At three o’clock that afternoon of August 3, Grey was due in Parliament to make the government’s first official and public statement on the crisis. All Europe, as well as all England, was hanging on it. Grey’s task was to bring his country into war and bring her in united. He had to carry with him his own, traditionally pacifist, party. He had to explain to the oldest and most practiced parliamentary body in the world how Britain was committed to support France by virtue of something that was not a commitment. He must present Belgium as the cause without hiding France as the basic cause; he must appeal to Britain’s honor while making it clear that Britain’s interest was the deciding factor; he must stand where a tradition of debate on foreign affairs had flourished for three hundred years and, without the brilliance of Burke or the force of Pitt, without Canning’s mastery or Palmerston’s jaunty nerve, without the rhetoric of Gladstone or the wit of Disraeli, justify the course of British foreign policy under his stewardship and the war it could not prevent. He must convince the present, measure up to the past, and speak to posterity.
He had had no time to prepare a written speech. In the last hour, as he was trying to compose his notes, the German ambassador was announced. Lichnowsky entered anxiously, asking what had the Cabinet decided? What was Grey going to tell the House? Would it be a declaration of war? Grey answered that it would not be a declaration of war but “a statement of conditions.” Was the neutrality of Belgium one of the conditions? Lichnowsky asked. He “implored” Grey not to name it as one. He knew nothing of the plans of the German General Staff, but he could not suppose a “serious” violation was included in them, although German troops might traverse one small corner of Belgium. “If so,” Lichnowsky said, voicing the eternal epitaph of man’s surrender to events, “that could not be altered now.”
They talked standing in the doorway, each oppressed by his own urgency, Grey trying to leave for some last moments of privacy in which to work on his speech, Lichnowsky trying to hold back the moment of the challenge made explicit. They parted and never saw each other officially again.
The House had gathered in total attendance for the first time since Gladstone brought in the Home Rule Bill in 1893. To accommodate all the members extra chairs were set up in the gangway. The Diplomatic Gallery was packed except for two empty seats marking the absence of the German and Austrian ambassadors. Visitors from the Lords filled the Strangers’ Gallery, among them Field Marshal Lord Roberts, so long and vainly the advocate of compulsory military service. In the tense hush when, for once, no one bustled, passed notes, or leaned over benches to chat in whispers, there was a sudden clatter as the Chaplain, backing away from the Speaker, stumbled over the extra chairs in the aisle. All eyes were on the government bench where Grey in a light summer suit sat between Asquith whose bland face expressed nothing and Lloyd George whose disheveled hair and cheeks drained of all color made him look years older.
Grey, appearing “pale, haggard and worn,” rose to his feet. Though he had been a member of the House for twenty-nine years and on the Government bench for the last eight, members on the whole knew little—and the country much less—of his conduct of foreign policy. Questions put to the Foreign Secretary rarely succeeded in trapping Grey into a clear or definitive answer, yet his evasiveness, which in a more adventurous statesman would have been challenged, was not regarded with suspicion. So noncosmopolitan, so English, so county, so reserved, Grey could not be regarded by anyone as a mettlesome mixer in foreign quarrels. He did not love foreign affairs or enjoy his job but deplored it as a necessary duty. He did not run over to the Continent for weekends but disappeared into the country. He spoke no foreign language beyond a schoolboy French. A widower at fifty-two, childless, nongregarious, he seemed as unattached to ordinary passions as to his office. What passion broke through his walled personality was reserved for trout streams and bird calls.
Speaking slowly but with evident emotion, Grey asked the House to approach the crisis from the point of view of “British interests, British honor and British obligations.” He told the history of the military “conversations” with France. He said that no “secret engagement” bound the House or restricted Britain’s freedom to decide her own course of action. He said France was involved in the war because of her “obligation of honor” to Russia, but “we are not parties to the Franco-Russian alliance; we do not even know the terms of that alliance.” He seemed to be leaning so far over backward to show England to be uncommitted that a worried Tory, Lord Derby, whispered angrily to his neighbor, “By God, they are going to desert Belgium!”
Grey then revealed the naval arrangement with France. He told the House how, as a consequence of agreement with Britain, the French fleet was concentrated in the Mediterranean, leaving the northern and western coasts of France “absolutely undefended.” He said it would be his “feeling” that “if the German fleet came down the Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside and see this going on practically within sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing!” Cheers burst from the Opposition benches, while the Liberals listened, “somberly acquiescent.”
To explain his having already committed Britain to defend France’s Channel coasts, Grey entered into an involved argument about “British interests” and British trade routes in the Mediterranean. It was a tangled skein, and he hurried on to the “more serious consideration, becoming more serious every hour,” of Belgian neutrality.
To give the subject all its due, Grey, wisely not relying on his own oratory, borrowed Gladstone’s thunder of 1870, “Could this country stand by and witness the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history and thus become participators in the sin?” From Gladstone too, he took a phrase to express the fundamental issue—that England must take her stand “against the unmeasured aggrandizement of any power whatsoever.”
In his own words he continued: “I ask the House from the point of view of British interests to consider what may be at stake. If France is beaten to her knees … if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence and then Holland and then Denmark … if, in a crisis like this, we run away from these obligations of honor and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty … I do not believe for a moment that, at the end of this war, even if we stood aside, we should be able to undo what had happened, in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite us from falling under the domination of a single power … and 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.”
He placed before them the “issue and the choice.” The House, which had listened in “painful absorption” for an hour and a quarter, broke into overwhelming applause, signifying its answer. The occasions when an individual is able to harness a nation are memorable, and Grey’s speech proved to be one of those junctures by which people afterward date events. Some dissent was still vocal, for, unlike the continental parliaments, the House of Commons was not to be exhorted or persuaded into unanimity. Ramsay MacDonald, speaking for the Laborites, said Britain should have remained neutral; Keir Hardie said he would raise the working classes against the war; and afterward in the lobby, a group of unconvinced Liberals adopted a resolution stating that Grey had failed to make a case for war. But Asquith was convinced that on the whole “our extreme peace lovers are silenced though they will soon find their tongues again.” The two ministers who had resigned that morning were persuaded to return that evening, and it was generally felt that Grey had carried the country.
“What happens now?” Churchill asked Grey as they left the House together. “Now,” replied Grey, “we shall send them an ultimatum to stop the invasion of Belgium within 24 hours.” To Cambon, a few hours later, he said, “If they refuse, there will be war.” Although he was to wait almost another twenty-four hours before sending the ultimatum, Lichnowsky’s fear had been fulfilled; Belgium had been made the condition.
The Germans took that chance because they expected a short war and because, despite the last-minute moans and apprehensions of their civilian leaders over what the British might do, the German General Staff had already taken British belligerency into account and discounted it as of little or no significance in a war they believed would be over in four months.
Clausewitz, a dead Prussian, and Norman Angell, a living if misunderstood professor, had combined to fasten the short-war concept upon the European mind. Quick, decisive victory was the German orthodoxy; the economic impossibility of a long war was everybody’s orthodoxy.
“You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” the Kaiser told departing troops in the first week of August. A diarist of German court society recorded on August 9 that Count Oppersdorf came in that afternoon and said things could not last ten weeks; Count Hochberg thought eight weeks, and after that, “You and I will be meeting again in England.”
A German officer leaving for the Western Front said he expected to take breakfast at the Café de la Paix in Paris on Sedan Day (September 2). Russian officers expected to be in Berlin about the same time; six weeks was the usual allowance. One officer of the Imperial Guard asked the opinion of the Czar’s physician whether he should pack at once his full-dress uniform to wear for the entry into Berlin or leave it to be brought by the next courier coming to the front. An English officer who, having served as a military attaché in Brussels, was considered au courant, was asked, upon joining his regiment, his opinion of the duration. He did not know, the officer replied, but he understood there were “financial reasons why the Great Powers could not continue for long.” He had heard it from the Prime Minister “who told me that Lord Haldane told him so.”
In St. Petersburg the question was not whether the Russians could win but whether it would take them two months or three; pessimists who suggested six months were considered defeatists. “Vasilii Fedorovitch (William, son of Frederick, that is, the Kaiser) has made a mistake; he won’t be able to hold out,” solemnly predicted the Russian Minister of Justice. He was not so very wrong. Germany had not planned on the need to hold out for long and upon entering the war had a stockpile of nitrates for making gunpowder sufficient for six months and no more. Only the later discovery of a method for fixing nitrogen out of the air enabled her war effort to continue. The French, gambling on a quick finish, risked no troops on what would have been a difficult defense of the Lorraine iron basin but allowed the Germans to take it on the theory that they would regain it with victory. As a result they lost 80 per cent of their iron ore for the duration and almost lost the war. The English, in their imprecise fashion, counted vaguely on victory, without specifying when, where, or how, within a matter of months.
Whether from instinct or intellect, three minds, all military, saw the dark shadow lengthening ahead into years, not months. Moltke, foretelling the “long, wearisome struggle,” was one. Joffre was another. Questioned by ministers in 1912 he had said that if France won the first victory in a war, German national resistance would then commence, and vice versa. In either case other nations would be drawn in, and the result would be a war of “indefinite duration.” Yet neither he nor Moltke, who were their countries’ military chiefs since 1911 and 1906 respectively, made any allowance in their plans for the war of attrition which they both foresaw.
The third—and the only one to act upon his vision—was Lord Kitchener, who had no part in the original planning. Hastily recalled to become War Minister on August 4, as he was about to board a Channel steamer to take him to Egypt, he brought forth from some fathomless oracular depths of his being the prediction that the war would last three years. To an incredulous colleague he said it might last even longer, but “three years will do to begin with. A nation like Germany, after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. That will take a very long time. No one living knows how long.”
Except for Kitchener who, from his first day in office insisted on preparing an army of millions for a war lasting years, no one else made plans reaching ahead for more than three or six months. In the case of the Germans, the fixed idea of a short war embraced the corollary that in a short war English belligerency would not matter.
“If only someone had told me beforehand that England would take up arms against us!” wailed the Kaiser during lunch at Headquarters one day later in the war. Someone in a small voice ventured, “Metternich,” referring to the German ambassador in London who had been dismissed in 1912 because of his tiresome habit of predicting that naval increases would bring war with England no later than 1915. In 1912 Haldane had told the Kaiser that Britain could never permit German possession of the French Channel ports, and reminded him of the treaty obligation to Belgium. In 1912 Prince Henry of Prussia had asked his cousin King George point-blank “whether in the event of Germany and Austria going to war with Russia and France, England would come to the assistance of the two latter powers?” King George had replied, “Undoubtedly yes, under certain circumstances.”
In spite of these warnings the Kaiser refused to believe what he knew to be true. According to the evidence of a companion, he was still “convinced” England would stay neutral when he went back to his yacht after giving Austria a free hand on July 5. His two Corpsbrüder from student days at Bonn, Bethmann and Jagow, whose qualification for office consisted chiefly in the Kaiser’s sentimental weakness for brothers who wore the black and white ribbon of the fraternity and called each other du, comforted themselves at intervals, like devout Catholics fingering their beads, with mutual assurances of British neutrality.
Moltke and the General Staff did not need Grey or anyone else to spell out for them what England would do, for they already counted on her coming in as an absolute certainty. “The more English the better,” Moltke said to Admiral Tirpitz, meaning the more who landed on the Continent the more would be netted in decisive defeat. Moltke’s natural pessimism spared him the illusions of wishful thinking. In a memorandum he drew up in 1913 he stated the case more accurately than many Englishmen could have done. If Germany marched through Belgium without Belgian consent, he wrote, “then England will and must join our enemies,” the more so as she had declared that intention in 1870. He did not think anyone in England would believe German promises to evacuate Belgium after defeating France, and he felt sure that in a war between Germany and France, England would fight whether Germany went through Belgium or not, “because she fears German hegemony and true to her policy of maintaining a balance of power will do all she can to check the increase of German power.”
“In the years immediately preceding the war, we had no doubt whatever of the rapid arrival of the British Expeditionary Force on the French coast,” testified General von Kuhl, a General Staff officer of the top echelon. The Staff calculated that the BEF would be mobilized by the tenth day, gather at embarkation ports on the eleventh, begin embarkation on the twelfth, and complete the transfer to France on the fourteenth day. This proved to be almost dead reckoning.
Nor was Germany’s naval staff under any illusions. “England probably hostile in case it comes to war,” the Admiralty telegraphed as early as July 11 to Admiral von Spee on board the Scharnhorst in the Pacific.
Two hours after Grey finished speaking in the House of Commons, that event took place which had been in the back of every mind on both sides of the Rhine since 1870 and in the front of most since 1905. Germany declared war on France. To Germans it came, said the Crown Prince, as the “military solution” of the ever-increasing tension, the end of the nightmare of encirclement. “It is a joy to be alive,” rejoiced a German paper on that day in a special edition headlined “The Blessing of Arms.” Germans, it said, were “exulting with happiness .… We have wished so much for this hour .… The sword which has been forced into our hand will not be sheathed until our aims are won and our territory extended as far as necessity demands.” Not everyone was exulting. Deputies of the left, summoned to the Reichstag, found each other “depressed” and “nervous.” One, confessing readiness to vote all war credits, muttered, “We can’t let them destroy the Reich.” Another kept grumbling, “This incompetent diplomacy, this incompetent diplomacy.”
For France the signal came at 6:15 when Premier Viviani’s telephone rang and he heard the American ambassador, Myron Herrick, tell him in a voice choked with tears that he had just received a request to take over the German Embassy and hoist the American flag on its flagpole. He had accepted the charge, Herrick said, but not the flag raising.
Knowing exactly what this meant, Viviani waited for the imminent arrival of the German ambassador, who was announced a few moments later. Von Schoen, who had a Belgian wife, entered in visible distress. He began by complaining that on the way over a lady had thrust her head through the window of his carriage and insulted “me and my Emperor.” Viviani, whose own nerves were strung taut with the anguish of the last few days, asked if this complaint was the purpose of his visit. Schoen admitted he had a further duty to perform and, unfolding the document he carried, read its contents, which, as he was the “soul of honor” according to Poincaré, were the cause of his embarrassment. In consequence, it read, of French acts of “organized hostility” and of air attacks on Nuremberg and Karlsruhe and of violation of Belgian neutrality by French aviators flying over Belgian territory, “the German Empire considers itself in a state of war with France.”
Viviani formally denied the charges which were included less to impress the French government, who would know they had not taken place, than to impress the German public at home that they were the victims of French aggression. He escorted von Schoen to the door and then, almost reluctant to come to the final parting, walked with him out of the building, down the steps, as far as the door of his waiting carriage. The two representatives of the “hereditary enemies” stood for a moment in mutual unhappiness, bowed wordlessly to each other, and von Schoen drove away into the dusk.
In Whitehall that evening, Sir Edward Grey, standing with a friend at the window as the street lamps below were being lit, made the remark that has since epitomized the hour: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
At six o’clock on the morning of August 4, Herr von Below paid his last visit to the Foreign Office in Brussels. He delivered a note saying that in view of the rejection of his Government’s “well intentioned proposals,” Germany would be obliged to carry out measures for her own security, “if necessary by force of arms.” The “if necessary” was intended to leave an opening for Belgium still to change her mind.
That afternoon the American Minister, Brand Whitlock, who had been called to take over the German Legation, found von Below and his First Secretary, von Stumm, slumped in two chairs, making no effort to pack up and seeming “nearly unstrung.” Smoking with one hand and mopping his brow with the other, Below sat otherwise motionless while two aged functionaries with candles, sealing wax, and strips of paper proceeded slowly and solemnly around the room sealing the oaken cupboards which held the archives. “Oh the poor fools!” von Stumm kept repeating, half to himself, “Why don’t they get out of the way of the steam roller. We don’t want to hurt them but if they stand in our way they will be ground into the dirt. Oh, the poor fools!”
Only later did anyone on the German side ask himself who had been the fools on that day. It had been the day, Count Czernin, the Austrian Foreign Minister, discovered afterward, of “our greatest disaster”; the day, even the Crown Prince mournfully acknowledged long after the fact, “when we Germans lost the first great battle in the eyes of the world.”
At two minutes past eight that morning the first wave of field gray broke over the Belgian frontier at Gemmerich, thirty miles from Liège. Belgian gendarmes in their sentry boxes opened fire. The force detached from the main German armies for the assault upon Liège under the command of General von Emmich consisted of six infantry brigades, each with artillery and other arms, and three cavalry divisions. By nightfall they had reached the Meuse at Visé, a name that was to become the first in a series of ruins.
Up to the moment of invasion many still believed that self-interest would divert the German armies around Belgium’s borders. Why should they deliberately bring two more enemies into the field against them? As no one supposed the Germans to be stupid, the answer that suggested itself to the French mind was that the German ultimatum to Belgium was a trick. It was not intended to be followed by actual invasion but designed to “lead us into being the first to enter Belgium,” as Messimy said, in an order forbidding French troops to cross the line “even by so much as a patrol or a single horseman.”
Whether for this reason or some other, Grey had not yet sent England’s ultimatum. King Albert had not yet appealed to the guarantor powers for military aid. He, too, feared that the ultimatum might be a “colossal feint.” If he called in the French and British too soon, their presence would drag Belgium into the war in spite of herself, and at the back of his mind was a worry that once established on Belgian soil his neighbors might be in no hurry to leave. Only after the tramp of German columns marching on Liège had put an end to all doubt and left him no choice, did the King, at noon on August 4, make his appeal for “concerted and common” military action by the guarantors.
In Berlin, Moltke was still hoping that after the first shots fired for honor’s sake the Belgians might be persuaded “to come to an understanding.” For that reason Germany’s final note had simply said “by force of arms” and for once refrained from declaring war. When Baron Beyens, the Belgian ambassador, came to demand his passports on the morning of the invasion, Jagow hurried forward asking, “Well, what have you to say to me?” as if expecting a proposal. He reiterated Germany’s offer to respect Belgian independence and pay for all damages if Belgium would refrain from destroying railroads, bridges, and tunnels and let German troops pass through freely without defending Liège. When Beyens turned to go, Jagow followed him hopefully, saying, “Perhaps there will still be something for us to talk over.”
In Brussels one hour after the invasion began, King Albert, in unadorned field uniform, rode to meet his Parliament. At a brisk trot the little procession came down the Rue Royale led by an open carriage in which were the Queen and her three children, followed by two more carriages and, bringing up the rear, the King alone on horseback. Houses along the way were decked with flags and flowers; an exalted people filled the streets. Strangers shook each other’s hands, laughing and crying, each man feeling, as one recalled, “united to his fellow by a common bond of love and hate.” Wave on wave of cheers reached out to the King as if the people in one universal emotion were trying to say he was the symbol of their country and of their will to uphold its independence. Even the Austrian Minister, who had somehow forgotten to absent himself and with other diplomats was watching the procession from the Parliament windows, was wiping tears from his eyes.
Inside the hall, after members, visitors, and the Queen and court were seated, the King came in alone, tossed his cap and gloves onto the lectern in a businesslike gesture and began to speak in a voice only faintly unsteady. When, recalling the Congress of 1830 that created an independent Belgium, he asked, “Gentlemen, are you unalterably decided to maintain intact the sacred gift of our forefathers?” the deputies, unable to control themselves, stood up with shouts of “Oui! Oui! Oui!”
The American Minister, describing the scene in his diary, tells how he watched the King’s twelve-year-old heir in his sailor suit, listening with an absorbed face and eyes fixed on his father, and how he wondered, “What are the thoughts in that boy’s mind?” Almost as if he had been granted a glimpse into the future, Mr. Whitlock asked himself, “Will this scene ever come back to him in after years? And how? When? Under what circumstances?” The boy in the sailor suit, as Leopold III, was to surrender in 1940 to another German invasion.
In the streets, after the speech was over, enthusiasm became delirious. The army, hitherto condemned, were heroes. The people shouted, “Down with the Germans! Death to the assassins! Vive la Belgique indépendante!” After the King had gone, the crowds shouted for the War Minister, ordinarily, regardless of his identity, the most unpopular man in the government by virtue of his office. When M. de Broqueville appeared on the balcony, even that suave man of the world wept, overcome by the fervent emotion shared by everyone who was in Brussels on that day.
On the same day in Paris, French soldiers in red trousers and big-skirted dark blue coats, buttoned back at the corners, chanted as they marched through the streets, ending with a triumphant yell on the last “Oh!” One-armed General Pau, whose lost limb gave him an extra popularity, rode by wearing the green and black ribbon of the veterans of 1870. Cavalry regiments of cuirassiers with glistening metal breastplates and long black horsehair tails hanging down from their helmets were conscious of no anachronism. Following them came huge crates housing airplanes and wheeled platforms bearing the long narrow gray-painted field guns, the soixante-quinzes that were France’s pride. All day the flow of men, horses, weapons and matériel poured through the huge arched portals of the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est.C’est l’Alsace et la Lorraine
Down the boulevards, empty of vehicles, marched companies of volunteers with flags and banners proclaiming their purpose: “Luxembourg will never be German!” “Rumania rallies to the Mother of the Latin races,” “Italy whose freedom was bought with French blood,” “Spain the loving sister of France,” “British volunteers for France,” “Greeks who love France,” “Scandinavians of Paris,” “Slav peoples at the side of France,” “Latin American lives for the mother of Latin American culture.” Roars and cheers greeted the banner that proclaimed, “Alsatians going home.”
At a joint session of the Senate and Chamber, Viviani, pale as death and looking as if he were suffering physically and mentally, surpassed his own capacity for fire and eloquence in a speech that was acclaimed, like everybody’s on that day, as the greatest of his career. He carried with him in his portfolio the text of France’s treaty with Russia but was not questioned about it. Ecstatic cheers greeted his announcement that Italy, “with the clarity of insight possessed by the Latin intellect,” had declared her neutrality. As expected, the third member of the Triple Alliance, when the test came, had side-stepped on the ground that Austria’s attack on Serbia was an act of aggression which released her from her treaty obligations. Relieving France of the need to guard her southern frontier, Italy’s neutrality was worth an extra four divisions, or 80,000 men.
After Viviani had spoken, a speech by President Poincaré, who was precluded by office from attending Parliament in person, was read for him while the whole audience remained standing. France stood before the universe for Liberty, Justice, and Reason, he said, characteristically altering the traditional French trinity. Messages of sympathy and good will from every part of what he pointedly called the “civilized” world were pouring in on her. As the words were being read, General Joffre, “perfectly calm and wholly confident,” came to make his farewell to the President before leaving for the front.
Rain was pouring on Berlin as the Reichstag deputies assembled to hear the Kaiser’s speech from the throne. Beneath the windows of the Reichstag, where they came for a preliminary meeting with the Chancellor, they could hear the ceaseless clippety-clop of horseshoes on pavement as squadron after squadron of cavalry trotted through the glistening streets. Party leaders met Bethmann in a room adorned by a huge picture which exhibited the gratifying spectacle of Kaiser Wilhelm I trampling gloriously on the French flag. He was shown, together with Bismarck and Field Marshal Moltke, prancing upon the battlefield of Sedan while a German soldier in the foreground stretched a French flag beneath the hoofs of the Emperor’s horse. Bethmann expressed concern for unity and exhorted the deputies to “be unanimous” in their decisions. “We shall be unanimous, Excellency,” a spokesman for the Liberals replied obediently. The all-knowing Erzberger who, as rapporteur of the Military Affairs Committee and a close associate of the Chancellor, was considered to have his ear to Olympus, bustled among his fellow deputies assuring them that the Serbs would be beaten “by this time next Monday” and that everything was going well.
After services in the cathedral the deputies marched in a body to the palace where the entrances were guarded and roped off and credentials were examined at four different stages before the people’s representatives were finally seated in the Weisser Saal. Entering quietly, accompanied by several generals, the Kaiser sat down on the throne. Bethmann, in the uniform of the Dragoon Guards, took his speech from the royal portfolio and handed it to the Kaiser, who stood up, looking small beside the Chancellor, and read it, his helmet on his head and one hand resting on his sword hilt. Without mentioning Belgium he declared, “We draw the sword with a clear conscience and with clean hands.” The war had been provoked by Serbia with the support of Russia. Hoots and cries of “Shame!” were evoked by a discourse on Russian iniquities. After the prepared speech, the Kaiser raised his voice and proclaimed, “From this day on I recognize no parties but only Germans!” and called upon party leaders, if they agreed with these sentiments, to step forward and shake his hand. Amid “wild excitement” all did, while the rest of the assembly erupted in cheers and shouts of fervent rejoicing.
At three o’clock members reconvened in the Reichstag to hear an address by the Chancellor and to perform the remainder of their duty which consisted first of voting war credits and then adjournment. The Social Democrats agreed to make the vote unanimous, and spent their last hours of parliamentary responsibility in anxious consultation whether to join in a “Hoch!” for the Kaiser which they satisfactorily resolved by making it a Hoch for “Kaiser, People, and Country.”
Everyone, as Bethmann rose to speak, waited in painful expectancy for what he had to say about Belgium. A year ago Foreign Minister Jagow had assured a secret session of the Reichstag steering committee that Germany would never violate Belgium, and General von Heeringen, then War Minister, had promised that the Supreme Command in the event of war would respect Belgium’s neutrality as long as Germany’s enemies did. On August 4 deputies did not know that their armies had invaded Belgium that morning. They knew of the ultimatum but nothing of the Belgian reply because the German government, wishing to give the impression that Belgium had acquiesced and that her armed resistance was therefore illegal, never published it.
“Our troops,” Bethmann informed the tense audience, “have occupied Luxembourg and perhaps”—the “perhaps” was posthumous by eight hours—“are already in Belgium.” (Great commotion.) True, France had given Belgium a pledge to respect her neutrality, but “We knew that France was standing ready to invade Belgium” and “we could not wait.” It was, he said inevitably, a case of military necessity, and “necessity knows no law.”
So far he had his hearers, both the right which despised him and the left which mistrusted him, in thrall. His next sentence created a sensation. “Our invasion of Belgium is contrary to international law but the wrong—I speak openly—that we are committing we will make good as soon as our military goal has been reached.” Admiral Tirpitz considered this the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman; Conrad Haussman, a leader of the Liberal party, considered it the finest part of the speech. The act having been confessed in a public mea culpa, he and his fellow deputies of the left felt purged of guilt and saluted the Chancellor with a loud “Sehr richtig!” In a final striking phrase—and before his day of memorable maxims was over he was to add one more that would make him immortal—Bethmann said that whoever was as badly threatened as were the Germans could think only of how to “hack his way through.”
A war credit of five billion marks was voted unanimously, after which the Reichstag voted itself out of session for four months or for what was generally expected to be the duration. Bethmann closed the proceedings with an assurance that carried overtones of the gladiators’ salute: “Whatever our lot may be, August 4, 1914, will remain for all eternity one of Germany’s greatest days!”
That evening at seven o’clock England’s answer, awaited so long in such anxiety by so many, was finally made definitive. That morning the British government had finally screwed its determination to the sticking point sufficiently to deliver an ultimatum. It arrived, however, in two parts. First, Grey asked for an assurance that German demands upon Belgium would not be “proceeded with” and for an “immediate reply,” but as he attached no time limit and mentioned no sanctions in case of non-reply, the message was not technically an ultimatum. He waited until after he knew the German Army had invaded Belgium before sending the second notice stating that Britain felt bound “to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of the treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves.” A “satisfactory reply” was demanded by midnight, failing which the British ambassador was to ask for his passports.
Why the ultimatum was not sent the night before, immediately after Parliament made plain its acceptance of Grey’s speech, can only be explained by the government’s irresolute state of mind. What sort of “satisfactory reply” it expected, short of the Germans meekly retreating across the frontier they had deliberately and irrevocably crossed that morning, and why England agreed to wait for so fanciful a phenomenon until midnight, can hardly be explained at all. In the Mediterranean that night the lost hours before midnight were to be crucial.
In Berlin, the British ambassador, Sir Edward Goschen, presented the ultimatum in a historic interview with the Chancellor. He found Bethmann “very agitated.” According to Bethmann himself, “my blood boiled at this hypocritical harping on Belgium which was not the thing that had driven England into war.” Indignation launched Bethmann into a harangue. He said that England was doing an “unthinkable” thing in making war on a “kindred nation,” that “it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants,” that as a result of “this last terrible step” England would be responsible for all the dreadful events that might follow, and “all for just a word—‘neutrality’—just for a scrap of paper .…”
Hardly noticing the phrase that was to resound round the world, Goschen included it in his report of the interview. He had replied that, if for strategical reasons it was a matter of life or death for Germany to advance through Belgium, it was, so to speak, a matter of life or death for Britain to keep her solemn compact. “His Excellency was so excited, so evidently overcome by the news of our action, and so little disposed to hear reason,” that he refrained from further argument.
As he was leaving, two men in a press car of the Berliner Tageblatt drove through the streets throwing out flyers which announced—somewhat prematurely, as the ultimatum did not expire until midnight—Britain’s declaration of war. Coming after Italy’s defection, this last act of “treason,” this latest desertion, this one further addition to their enemies infuriated the Germans, a large number of whom immediately became transformed into a howling mob which occupied itself for the next hour in stoning all the windows of the British Embassy. England became overnight the most hated enemy; “Rassen-verrat!” (race treason) the favorite hate slogan. The Kaiser, in one of the least profound of all comments on the war, lamented: “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive she would never have allowed it.”
Germans could not get over the perfidy of it. It was unbelievable that the English, having degenerated to the stage where suffragettes heckled the Prime Minister and defied the police, were going to fight. England, though wide-flung and still powerful, was getting old, and they felt for her, like the Visigoths for the later Romans, a contempt combined with the newcomer’s sense of inferiority. The English think they can “treat us like Portugal,” complained Admiral Tirpitz.
England’s betrayal deepened their sense of friendlessness. They were conscious of being an unloved nation. How was it that Nice, annexed by France in 1860, could settle down comfortably and within a few years forget it had ever been Italian, whereas half a million Alsatians preferred to leave their homeland rather than live under German rule? “Our country is not much loved anywhere and indeed frequently hated,” the Crown Prince noted on his travels.
While the crowds shrieked for vengeance in the Wilhelmstrasse, depressed deputies of the left gathered in cafés and groaned together. “The whole world is rising against us,” said one. “Germanism has three enemies in the world—Latins, Slavs and Anglo-Saxons—and now they are all united against us.”
“Our diplomacy has left us no friend but Austria, and it was we who had to support her,” said another.
“At least one good thing is that it can’t last long,” a third consoled them. “We shall have peace in four months. Economically and financially we can’t last longer than that.”
“One hopes for the Turks and Japanese,” someone else suggested.
A rumor had in fact swept the cafés the previous evening when diners heard distant hurrahs shouted in the streets. As a diarist of the time recorded it: “They came nearer. People listened, then jumped up. The hurrahs became louder; they resounded over Potsdamer Platz and reached the proportions of a storm. The guests left their food and ran out of the restaurant. I followed the stream. What has happened? ‘Japan has declared war on Russia!’ they roared. Hurrah! Hurrah! Uproarious rejoicing. People embraced one another. ‘Long live Japan! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ Endless jubilation. Then someone shouted, ‘To the Japanese Embassy!’ And the crowd rushed away carrying everybody with it and besieged the embassy. ‘Long live Japan! Long live Japan!’ people shouted impetuously until the Japanese Ambassador finally appeared and, perplexed, stammered his thanks for this unexpected and, it would seem, undeserved homage.” Although by next day it was known the rumor was false, just how undeserved was the homage would not be known for another two weeks.
When Ambassador Lichnowsky and his staff subsequently left England, a friend who came to say goodbye was struck by the “sadness and bitterness” of the party at Victoria Station. They were blaming officials at home for dragging them into a war with no allies but Austria.
“What chance have we, attacked on every side? Is no one friendly to Germany?” one official asked mournfully.
“Siam is friendly, I am told,” a colleague replied.
No sooner had England delivered herself of the ultimatum than fresh disputes broke out in the Cabinet over the question whether to send an Expeditionary Force to France. Having declared themselves in, they began to dispute how far in they should go. Their joint plans with the French were predicated on an Expeditionary Force of six divisions to arrive in France between M-4 and M-12 and to be ready for action on the extreme left of the French line by M-15. Already the schedule was disrupted because the British M-1 (August 5), which had been expected to be two days behind the French, was now three days behind, and further delay would follow.
Mr. Asquith’s cabinet was paralyzed by fear of invasion. In 1909 the Committee of Imperial Defence after a special study of the problem had declared that as long as the home army was kept sufficiently strong to make the Germans mount an invasion force of such size that it could not evade the navy, a large-scale invasion was “impractical.” Despite its assurance that the defense of the home islands was adequately guaranteed by the navy, Britain’s leaders on August 4 could not summon up the courage to denude the islands of the Regular Army. Arguments were put forward for sending fewer than six divisions, for sending them later rather than sooner, even for not sending them at all. Admiral Jellicoe was told his planned escort of the Expeditionary Force across the Channel would not be required “for the present.” No button at the War Office automatically put the BEF in motion because the British government could not make up its mind to push it. The War Office itself, without a minister for the last four months, was distracted for lack of a chief. Asquith had progressed as far as inviting Kitchener up to London, but could not yet nerve himself to offer him the post. The impetuous and tempestuous Sir Henry Wilson, whose uninhibited diary was to cause such anguish when published after the war, was “revolted by such a state of things.” So was poor M. Cambon who went, armed with a map, to show Grey how vital it was that the French left should be extended by Britain’s six divisions. Grey promised to bring the matter to the attention of the Cabinet.
General Wilson, raging at the delay which he ascribed to Grey’s “sinful” hesitation, indignantly showed to his friends in the Opposition a copy of the mobilization order which instead of reading “mobilize and embark,” read only “mobilize.” This alone, he said, would delay the schedule by four days. Balfour undertook to spur the government. He told them, in a letter addressed to Haldane, that the whole point of the Entente and of the military arrangements which had flowed from it was the preservation of France, for if France were crushed “the whole future of Europe might be changed in a direction we should regard as disastrous.” Having adopted that policy, the thing to do, he suggested, was “to strike quickly and strike with your whole strength.” When Haldane came to see him to explain the nature of the Cabinet’s hesitations, Balfour could not help feeling they were marked by “a certain wooliness of thought and indecision of purpose.”
That afternoon of August 4, at about the time when Bethmann was addressing the Reichstag and Viviani the Chambre des Députés, Mr. Asquith announced to the House of Commons a “message from His Majesty signed by his own hand.” Mr. Speaker rose from his chair and members uncovered while the Mobilization Proclamation was read. Next, from typewritten copy that trembled slightly in his hand, Asquith read the terms of the ultimatum just telegraphed to Germany. When he came to the words “a satisfactory answer by midnight,” a solemn cheer rose from the benches.
All that was left was to wait for midnight (eleven o’clock, British time). At nine o’clock the government learned, through an intercepted but uncoded telegram sent out from Berlin, that Germany had considered itself at war with Britain from the moment when the British ambassador had asked for his passports. Hastily summoned, the Cabinet debated whether to declare war as of that moment or wait for the time limit set by the ultimatum to expire. They decided to wait. In silence, each encased in his private thoughts, they sat around the green table in the ill-lit Cabinet room, conscious of the shadows of those who at other fateful moments had sat there before them. Eyes watched the clock ticking away the time limit. “Boom!” Big Ben struck the first note of eleven, and each note thereafter sounded to Lloyd George, who had a Celtic ear for melodrama, like “Doom, doom, doom!”
Twenty minutes later the War Telegram, “War, Germany, act,” was dispatched. Where and when the army was to act was still unsettled, the decision having been left for a War Council called for the following day. The British government went to bed a belligerent, if something less than bellicose.
Next day, with the assault on Liège, the first battle of the war began. Europe was entering, Moltke wrote that day to Conrad von Hötzendorff, upon “the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.”