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.
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.
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’.”
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
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