Friday, 18 July 2014

Countdown to War, Day 21. 18 July: What's Russia sticking its oar in for? And why's Germany sounding hostile?

One hundred years ago today, on Saturday 18 July 1914, Martin and the other railwaymen in his crew would have opened their Manchester Guardian to read that a movement was gaining steam to reducing the working week for city corporation workers to 48 hours. A meeting had been held, at which:

...the chair was taken by Councillor Davy, who spoke of the work that had always been done by the Labour group in the City Council in advocating the eight-hour day.

An eight-hour day and a six-day week? Everyone in the tracklayer gang agreed in wishing them luck. Who wouldn’t want the working week to be that short?

More generally, most of the news was gloomy. In Ireland, a new organisation rejoicing in the name “Sinn Fein” claimed to have come across a document circulated to police chiefs by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell.

Augustine Birrell
Cartoon by "Spy" for Vanity Fair
Sinn Fein quoted Birrells document:

When preparing your monthly confidential report, for the present please give a concise report in paragraph 1 of the development of the Irish Volunteer force in your county...

Class of persons who are joining.

Is the force now supported by all sections of Nationalists? ... Is it supported by the Roman Catholic clergy? ...

[On the Protestant Ulster Volunteers] The state of party feeling, and whether any change for the better or worse is noticeable.

Is anything known definitely with regard to the proposed establishment of the Provisional Government?

Still, Martin and his friends had become used to Ireland as the source of bad news that never went away. More worrying were reports from the Continent, starting with one from Vienna:

The “Neue Freie Presse” learns with reference to the present tension between Austria and Servia, due to the Bosnian murders, that the Russian Government hopes the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy will not make demands threatening the national independence of Servia, but is willing, in the interests of peace, to support the demands of Austria-Hungary in Belgrade if they are moderate.

The Russians? What were they sticking their noses in for? It was bad enough that there was “tension” between Austria and Serbia without someone else getting stuck in. And he didn’t like talk of “the interests of peace”. Why was anyone saying they were suddenly at risk?

It seemed that Russia also had a “use for England”. Another article revealed that the German newspaper, the Berliner Tageblatt had reported on rumours of an Anglo-Russian naval agreement. And just at the time, as the Guardian had reported before, that Britain was conducting its biggest ever naval review. The German editor seemed to be quite a cynic:

”Certainly,” he says, “the existence of negotiations over a naval agreement between England and Russia have been denied. Not indeed by Sir Edward Grey [the Foreign Secretary], who chose his words wisely, and stated with perfect truth that there were no negotiations for an alliance. It was the ‘Westminster Gazette’ which denied fully and completely all that had been said on the authority of an absolutely reliable and exactly informed Paris source.

What sort of source is absolutely reliable? A spy?

The German paper was convinced the French, allies of Russia and in their Entente Cordiale with Britain, were involved.

No sensible person in Germany will say that the Entente presents an insurmountable obstacle to better Anglo-German relations... [but] it is just because English statesmen and a very large part of the English people have within the last few months shown with undeniable openness of feeling how valuable to them a good and friendly relationship between the English and German nation appears, that those in Germany who have the same desire ... must express their fears when these friendly wishes ... are undermined from a third side with clever measures and proposals.

Poincaré on his visit to Russia
With Tsar Nicholas II on the imperial yacht Alexandria
It seemed that the French President Raymond Poincaré, who was then on a visit to Russia, would be acting as an intermediary in the supposed negotiations with Britain. Would that undermine relations with Germany?

Certainly those ties were close at the moment. It was with a lighter heart that Martin read out another piece.

The “London Gazette” last night contained the announcement that the King has ordained that the children born to their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Brunswick and Luneburg shall at all times hold and enjoy the style and attribute of “highness,” with their titular dignity of prince or princess prefixed to their respective Christian names... and that the designation of the children shall be “a prince (or princess) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.”

“Good thing,” one of Martin’s mates pointed out, “we have to keep the traditions going.”

Martin smiled.

“Good thing,” said another, “I’d rather keep them Germans on our side if things do turn nasty. Bloody good soldiers. And I never did trust the Frogs.”

Martin’s smile faded as he looked at him in some surprise. Solders? Things turning nasty? It was no more than he’d been thinking these last couple of days, but it somehow hurt to have it said out loud.

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