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War history: In the wake of the centenary commemorations, we look at the dramatic events that disrupted the long hot summer of 1914

12:53 05 August 2014

As German troops massed on his border, King Albert I of Belgium appealed to King George V for British support in maintaining his countrys sovereignty.

As German troops massed on his border, King Albert I of Belgium appealed to King George V for British support in maintaining his countrys sovereignty.

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Imagine. One hundred years ago. War had just broken out in Europe.
A war whose awfulness could not be predicted. Galloway’s resident military historian, Mike Peters, looks at the series of dramatic events that disrupted the long hot summer of 1914

A cartoon by FH Townsend, published in the satirical magazine Punch 100 years ago, depicting Belgium standing firm against German invasion.A cartoon by FH Townsend, published in the satirical magazine Punch 100 years ago, depicting Belgium standing firm against German invasion.

Last week our timeline reached the end of July, 1914. Germany and Russia had declared war and all eyes immediately turned westward. The question was: what would happen next? The French had already issued orders for the mobilisation of their armed forces, but what would Great Britain do?

On August 1, 1914, German troops marched into the tiny Duchy of Luxembourg. Alarmed by the escalation of the crisis, Italy declared itself neutral. At home, the Royal Navy – the largest naval force in the world – issued mobilisation papers to activate all naval reservists. British ships were preparing for war.

The momentum of events accelerated dramatically and on August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on France.

Belgium refused Germany free passage for its troops through its territory. Threatened by German troops massing on his border, King Albert I of Belgium appealed directly to King George V for British support in maintaining his country’s sovereignty and neutrality.

Sir Edward Grey reflected that the war would cast a shadow over Europe that would not be lifted in his lifetime.Sir Edward Grey reflected that the war would cast a shadow over Europe that would not be lifted in his lifetime.

In 1839 the major powers had signed the Treaty of London, a formal agreement that guaranteed the neutrality of the small Belgium state against aggression.

While Britain possibly could hold back on the vague commitments made under the entente cordiale agreements with Russia and France, the London Treaty was viewed by the Foreign Office as morally binding.

In addition, the prospect of German ships and submarines operating from Belgian ports against British merchant shipping was not a palatable one.

As events spiralled in Europe, Britons were enjoying a summer bank holiday. In order to prevent a panic run on the banks and the stock exchange; the bank holiday was extended until August 7.

The coronation portrait of George V by Sir Luke Fildes. The king of Belgium made a direct appeal to his counterpart across the North Sea for British support against German aggression.The coronation portrait of George V by Sir Luke Fildes. The king of Belgium made a direct appeal to his counterpart across the North Sea for British support against German aggression.

Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, addressed the House of Commons on August 3. His speech encapsulated the dilemma posed by the possibility of the German army marching through neutral Belgium:

“Last week I stated that we were working for peace not only for this country but to preserve the peace of Europe… It now appears from the news I have received today – which has come quite recently, and I am not yet quite sure how far it has reached me in an accurate form – that an ultimatum has been given to Belgium by Germany, the object of which was to offer Belgium friendly relations with Germany on condition that she would facilitate the passage of German troops through Belgium.

“We were sounded in the course of last week as to whether if a guarantee were given that, after the war, Belgium integrity would be preserved, that would content us. We replied that we would not bargain away whatever interests or obligations we had in Belgian neutrality.

“We have an interest in the independence of Belgium which is wider than that which we may have in the literal operation of the guarantee. It is found in the answer to the question whether, under the circumstances of the case, this country – endowed as it is with influence and power – would quietly stand by and witness the preparation of the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become participators in the sin.

The leader of the Labour Party, Ramsey MacDonald, in 1914 argued against Britain waging war on Germany and its allies.The leader of the Labour Party, Ramsey MacDonald, in 1914 argued against Britain waging war on Germany and its allies.

“We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside. Foreign trade is going to stop, not because the trade routes are closed but because there is no trade at the other end…

“I do not believe for a moment that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war; to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite to us – if that had been the result of the war – falling under the domination of a single power.”

At the end of the session in the House of Commons, MPs voted overwhelmingly for war.

A number spoke against Sir Edward Grey. The most outspoken objector was the leader of the Labour Party, Ramsey MacDonald, who warned against war: “I think he (Grey) is wrong; I think the government he represents and for which he speaks is wrong. I think the verdict of history will be that they are wrong. We shall see.”

On the evening of August 3, the day before Britain officially declared war on Germany, Sir Edward Grey stood at the window of his office in Whitehall, watching the gas lamps being lit in London. He knew that war in Europe was now inevitable and he was deeply affected by the failure, including his own failure as foreign secretary, to stop it. Moreover, he foresaw that such a war would have terrible consequences far beyond that of the military conflict itself.

And so, as the lamps were being lit in London, he was moved to observe, by way of metaphor, that the light of Europe was being extinguished and that the coming war would cast a shadow over Europe that would not be lifted in his lifetime.

Great Britain and the rest of the world was about to step into the abyss.

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