Is Living on the Dole Bad for You?: Thursday Focus for July 31, 2014
What THEY Cover Up: Live from La Farine CCXXXI: August 1, 2014

Liveblogging World War I: August 1, 1914: Failing to Shy at the Jump

NewImageChristopher Clark: The Sleepwalkers:

On 31 July, after further wavering over military measures, news arrived from Ambassador Pourtalès in Moscow that the Russians had ordered total mobilization from midnight on the previous evening. The Kaiser now ordered by telephone that the SIDW be declared, and the order was issued to the armed forces by Falkenhayn at 1.00 p.m. on 31 July. The responsibility for mobilizing first now lay squarely with the Russians, a matter of some importance to the Berlin leadership, who were concerned, in the light of pacifist demonstrations in some of the German cities, that there should be no doubt about the defensive character of Germany’s entry into war....

During a meeting at which War Minister Falkenhayn was present, Wilhelm gave a spirited exposé of the current situation, in which the entire responsibility for the impending conflict was laid at Russia’s door. ‘His demeanour and language,’ Falkenhayn noted in his diary, ‘were worthy of a German Emperor, worthy of a Prussian king’ – these were striking words from a soldier at the forefront of those hawks who had excoriated the monarch for his love of peace and his fear of war.

When the Russian government refused to rescind its mobilization order, Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August 1914....

During the last days of July, the German Kaiser’s attention remained focused on Britain. This was partly because, like many Germans, he saw Britain as the power at the fulcrum of the continental system, upon which depended the avoidance of a general war.... The Kaiser was hugely encouraged by a message from his brother Prince Henry of Prussia on 28 July, suggesting that George V intended to keep Britain out of the war.... But anotherR account of the meeting, probably composed by the monarch at the request of Edward Grey, provides more detail. According to this source, when Henry of Prussia asked George V what England would do in the event of a European war, the British monarch replied:

I don’t know what we shall do, we have no quarrel with anyone, and I hope we shall remain neutral. But if Germany declared war on Russia, & France joins Russia, then I am afraid we shall be dragged into it. But you can be sure that I and my Government will do all we can to prevent a European war!

There was, then, a stiff measure of wishful thinking in Henry’s report of the exchange, though we cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that George V adjusted his own account of the meeting to the expectations of the foreign secretary.... Wilhelm was thus shocked to learn, on the morning of 30 July, of a conversation between Grey and the German ambassador, Count Lichnowsky, in which the former had warned that whereas Britain would stand aside if the conflict remained confined to Austria, Serbia and Russia (a bizarre notion), it would intervene on the side of the Entente if Germany and France were to become involved. The ambassador’s dispatch provoked a rush of enraged jottings from the German monarch: the English were ‘scoundrels’ and ‘mean shopkeepers’ who wanted to force Germany to leave Austria ‘in the lurch’ and who dared to threaten Germany with dire consequences while refusing to pull their continental allies back from the fray....

A new dispatch arrived from Lichnowsky. The eagerly awaited 3.30 p.m. appointment with Grey had in the meanwhile taken place but, to the German ambassador’s surprise, Grey had not offered a proposal for British or French neutrality, nor did it seem that he had raised the matter with his colleagues in cabinet. Instead, he merely hinted at the possibility that the German and French armies might ‘in the event of a Russian war, remain facing each other without either side attacking’, and then focused on those German actions that might trigger a British intervention. In particular, Grey warned, ‘it would be very difficult to restrain English feeling on any violation of Belgian neutrality by either [France or Germany].’ Lichnowsky responded with a question that turned the tables on the foreign secretary: would Grey be prepared to give him an assurance of Britain’s neutrality if Germany agreed not to violate Belgian territory? Oddly enough, this overture caught Grey off-guard – he was obliged to state that he could not give any such assurance, since England must keep its hands free. In other words, Grey appeared to be backing away from his earlier proposal. At the same time he revealed – perhaps inadvertently – that he had made his proposal without consulting the French beforehand. In his account of this somewhat inconclusive conversation, Lichnowsky reported simply that the British did not appear prepared to make any engagement that would limit their freedom of action, but that Grey had agreed to enquire into the possibility of a Franco-German armed stand-off....

No one, it seems, had been initiated into the twists and turns of Grey’s operations that day.... What was Grey up to? His communications with Lichnowsky, Cambon and various British colleagues during 1 August are so difficult to unravel that the effort to make sense of them has produced a sub-debate within the war-origins literature. On 29 July, Grey had warned Lichnowsky that Britain might be obliged to take swift action if Germany and France were drawn into the war – this was the warning that elicited the Kaiser’s angry jottings about ‘scoundrels’ and ‘mean shopkeepers’.141 Yet on 31 July he had also warned his ambassador in Paris, Bertie, that the British public could not be expected to support British intervention in a quarrel that was so remote from the country’s own interests.... Whichever view we take – and the disagreement among historians is itself telling – it is clear that Grey’s ambiguities were on the verge of becoming open contradictions. To propose British neutrality, even in the face of a continental war involving France, would have amounted to a crass reversal of the positions the foreign secretary had earlier adopted – so much so, indeed, that it is hard to believe that this was truly his intention....

One thing we do know for sure: during these days, Grey was operating under extreme pressure. He was getting very little sleep. He had no way of knowing whether or when the cabinet would support his pro-intervention policy, and he was being pressed in different directions by various colleagues, including the anti-interventionists of his own government (who still controlled a majority in cabinet) and the pro-interventionists of the Conservative opposition. One additional source of pressure that may help to explain the prevarications of 1 August was the Russian mobilization order of 30 July. Late in the night of the 31st the German embassy informed London that in response to the Russian order, Berlin had declared the State of Imminent Danger of War, and announced that if Russia did not immediately rescind its order of general mobilization, Germany would be obliged to mobilize its own forces, which in turn would ‘mean war’. This news sounded alarm bells in London. At 1.30 in the morning, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Grey’s private secretary Sir William Tyrrell rushed to Buckingham Palace in a taxi to have the king woken so that he could send a telegram appealing to the Tsar to halt the Russian mobilization. Asquith later described the scene:

The poor king was hauled from his bed and one of my strangest experiences (& as you know I have had a good lot) was sitting with him – he in a brown dressing gown over his night shirt & with copious signs of having been wakened from his ‘beauty sleep’ – while I read the message & the proposed answer. All he did was suggest that it should be made more personal and direct – by the insertion of the words ‘My dear Nicky’ – and the addition at the end of the signature ‘Georgie’!...

On the morning of 29 July, Grey reminded Cambon (much to the latter’s horror) that France was allowing herself to be ‘drawn into a quarrel which [is] not hers, but in which, owing to her alliance, her honour and interest obliged her to engage’; Britain, by contrast, was ‘free of engagements and would have to decide what British interests required the government to do’. ‘Our idea,’ Grey added, ‘had always been to avoid being drawn into war over a Balkan question.’... It clearly unnerved him, at least at this juncture, that a remote quarrel in south-eastern Europe could be accepted as the trigger for a continental war, even though none of the three Entente powers was under direct attack or threat of attack. Grey ultimately remained true to the Ententiste line he had pursued since 1912, but these moments of circumspection remind us of a complicating feature of the July Crisis, namely that the bitter choices between opposed options divided not only parties and cabinets, but also the minds of key decision-makers.

After a morning cabinet meeting on 1 August, Grey explained to a distraught Cambon that the cabinet was quite simply opposed to any intervention. Cambon protested that he would not transmit this message to Paris; he would simply state that no decision had been reached. But there was a decision, Grey retorted. Cabinet had decided that British interests were not deeply enough implicated to justify the sending of an expeditionary force to the continent. Desperate, the French ambassador shifted the ground of the argument: he reminded Grey that under the terms of the naval convention of 1912, France had denuded its northern ports of defences, in effect entrusting the security of its coastline to the Royal Navy. Even in the absence of a formal alliance, he pleaded, ‘does not Britain have a moral obligation to help us, to at least give us the help of your fleet, since it is on your advice that we have sent ours away?’ It is rather extraordinary that Grey needed to be told this by Cambon, but the argument struck home. The foreign secretary acknowledged that a German attack on the French coastline and/or a German violation of Belgian neutrality might alter the complexion of British public opinion. Most importantly of all, he undertook to raise the question of the French coasts in cabinet on the following day. Cambon left this meeting as white as a sheet and close to tears. Staggering into the ambassadors’ room next to Grey’s office, he was guided to a chair by Nicolson, muttering, ‘They are going to drop us. They are going to drop us.’...

The balance of initiative was already shifting by imperceptible degrees in favour of a British continental intervention. On 29 July, the cabinet had agreed to Churchill’s request as First Lord for a precautionary mobilization of the fleet. And on that evening, Asquith managed to convey to Churchill by means of a ‘hard stare’ and a ‘sort of grunt’ his tacit consent to a deployment of the fleet to war stations. On 1 August, without securing the agreement of cabinet (but with the prime minister’s implicit approval) Churchill mobilized his fleet. At the same time, the Conservative opposition started to lobby in earnest for intervention.... On 1 August, shortly after Cambon’s interview with Grey, the Conservative MP George Lloyd paid a call on the French ambassador.... A meeting took place late that night at the home of Austen Chamberlain and by ten o’clock the next morning (2 August), a troupe of prominent Conservatives, including Lansdowne and Bonar Law, the Conservative leaders in the two Houses of Parliament, had been won over to the cause of positive action. A letter was sent to Asquith stating that the opposition would support intervention and warning that a decision for British neutrality would not only damage the country’s reputation, but undermine its security....

It was in the cabinet, however, that the crucial battle would be fought. Here, opinion was still firmly on the side of non-intervention. The majority were suspicious of the Entente with France and deeply hostile to the Convention with Russia.168 ‘Everybody longs to stand aside,’ Asquith told Venetia Stanley on 31 July. At least three quarters of its members, Churchill later recalled, were determined not be drawn into a ‘European quarrel’ unless Britain itself were attacked, ‘which seemed unlikely’.... The cabinet meeting on the morning of 1 August brought a polarization and clarification.... Morley and Simon led the anti-interventionist group.... Churchill, by contrast, was ‘very bellicose’.... Grey appeared likely to resign if the cabinet committed itself to neutrality.... So sure was John Morley of non-intervention that he flaunted the victory of the ‘peace party’ before Churchill, saying: ‘We have beaten you after all’. And yet, by the close of the following day – Sunday 2 August – the British government had taken the crucial steps towards intervention...

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