A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The day the lights went out

No.2  London, 4 August 1914: Britain declares war on Germany - news that Britain was joining the conflict in Europe was greeted with a delight that would seem inexplicable once the fighting had started. Andy McSmith continues our 100-day series marking the centenary of the First World War

For most Britons, news that the United Kingdom was at war came like a bolt of summer lightning. There had been no need for the Prime Minister to return from Europe waving a piece of paper and promising “peace for our time” – because everyone expected the long peace between Europe’s major powers to continue indefinitely. It had been 43 years since the Franco-Prussian War; 99 years since the British Army had last fought a battle on European soil. The last major conflict involving British soldiers had been 14 years earlier and more than 5,000 miles away, in South Africa.

For those who followed politics, the themes that mattered that summer were the rise of the suffragettes, militant trade unions, and Irish nationalists. For a happy talking point, there had been a royal wedding in Berlin in May 1913 which brought together the three royal cousins – the Kaiser, the Tsar and King George V. Few gave much thought to violence in the Balkans, or Franco-German rivalry in Morocco.

Then, on the last Sunday in June, in a city 1,200 miles away, someone had shot an archduke. Well-informed Britons who read the news presumably wondered if there might be another flare-up in that troubled region of Europe. They could not have imagined that it would affect life at home.

But the story had refused to die down. Five frenetic weeks of high politics, threatening communiqués and mobilisations had culminated on 28 July, a month after the assassination, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.


Suddenly, Europe was  tumbling into a frightening conflict. Serbia had a protector in Russia, whose vast army was being mobilised, while the Austrians had been promised Germany’s support. Winston Churchill wrote to his wife  on 29 July: “My darling one and beautiful, everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse.”

The following Saturday, 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia. The next day, as the German and Russian armies clashed in Poland and East Prussia, there was sporadic violence on what would become the Western Front. The German army rolled into Luxembourg, conquering it in a day. There was shooting and troop movements at points along the Franco-German border, and the Belgians received a threatening demand to permit German troops to cross the frontier.

On Monday afternoon, 3 August, Britain’s MPs reassembled after the weekend break to go through the usual routine of Commons questions, after which the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, came in to deliver a long and sombre statement. “Last week, I stated that we were working for peace not only for this country, but to preserve the peace of Europe,” he announced. “Today, events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved.”

Were France and Germany at war? Was Belgium involved? Had Austria declared war on Russia? He did not know, but at the end of a long account of recent European conflicts and Britain’s efforts to keep the peace, he concluded: “We are now face to face with a situation and all the consequences which it may yet have to unfold” – but what those consequences were, he could not say.

1914: A group of new recruits in training for service in the British Army during World War I 1914: A group of new recruits in training for service in the British Army during World War I (Getty Images)
Afterwards, Sir Edward went back to his desk in the Foreign Office, and worked through the night. As dawn broke, he saw the gaslights in St James’s Park being switched off. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,’’ he is reputed to have said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’’

And so to our moment: the second of 100 with which, over the next three months, we are marking the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. It was now Tuesday 4 August. Germany had declared war on France the previous afternoon and, despite being denied permission to enter Belgium, the German army marched across the border anyway, in order to invade France from the north. Belgium was first recognised as a sovereign state in 1839, when Britain and France signed a treaty in London guaranteeing to protect its independence. “Never, since 1839, has a more solemn hour struck for Belgium: the integrity of our territory is threatened,” Albert, King of the Belgians, told his parliament.

In London, the Commons assembled at 2.45pm for the routine business of questions of ministers, which not even a gathering war could stop. At 3.30pm, the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, stepped up to the Dispatch Box, to read out the telegrams that had been passing to and fro between London and Berlin. Of the latest one from Berlin, Asquith said: “We cannot regard this as in any sense a satisfactory communication.” The Germans had been given until midnight to withdraw unconditionally from Belgian soil.

As the news spread, a vast crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace, reputedly the largest ever seen in central London. At 8pm, they were rewarded by the sight of King George, Queen Mary, and their eldest son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, emerging on the balcony to wave. The cheering could be heard a mile away. Soon afterwards, police officers went through the crowd calling for quiet, because the King was holding a solemn meeting inside. The crowd obediently fell silent. When the deadline imposed on Berlin ended, at 11pm GMT, and word went around that the United Kingdom was officially at war, the King and Queen and Prince of Wales reappeared on the balcony, and the crowd burst into a hearty rendition of the national anthem, and cheered and clapped, as hats were thrown in the air.

1914: A lone soldier with a bicycle stands amid the remains of a German motor convoy which lines a country lane after an attack by French field guns in the battle of the Aisne in France 1914: A lone soldier with a bicycle stands amid the remains of a German motor convoy which lines a country lane after an attack by French field guns in the battle of the Aisne in France (Getty Images)
Two days later, the Prime Minister would tell Parliament that it was “with the utmost reluctance and infinite regret” that “His Majesty’s government have been compelled to put this country in a state of war with what for many years… has been a friendly power”. But the truth was that, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted gloomily, “average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war”.

Few suspected how long, destructive and costly in human lives it would be. With Germany and its ally, Austria-Hungary, facing war on two fronts, and Britain in unchallenged control of the sea, a quick victory seemed certain. Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames later wrote: “The general feeling throughout the country was one of elation and excitement, and a confident certainty (shared even in some well-informed quarters) that it would ‘all be over by Christmas’.”

Read more: Assassination of an Archduke

That feeling could not have been more wrong. Some 85,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force were dead by Christmas, the first victims of an industrialised war that would claim nearly a million British lives over the next four years.


First Briton is killed

‘A History of the Great War in 100 Moments’ continues daily, seven days a week, until 12 July. Part 3 will  appear in tomorrow’s Independent on Sunday. ‘Moments’ will be collected online once they have been published and can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform