Saturday, 26 July 2014

Countdown to War, Day 29. 26 July: relations broken off between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. What will the Great Powers do? Will Britain stay neutral?

One hundred years ago today, on Sunday 26 July 1914, Martin the young Mancunian railwayman would have been impatient to get his hands on the Observer. He would have wanted to see whether there had been any further intensification of the crisis developing between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. 

The volume of news in the paper wouldn’t have disappointed him, though its contents may have left him far from pleased.

“Diplomatic Relations Broken Off” was the headline over a brief piece recounting that after the Serbian reply to the Austrian Note was delivered at the Belgrade Embassy, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador and the entire legation staff had left Serbia.

“I don’t know much about diplomatic niceties,” Martin told his Minister, who’d dropped the paper round to him and stayed on a few minutes, “but that doesn’t sound like the best way of building good neighbourly relations.”

“It isn’t,” he said, ‘they’re not beating swords into ploughshares. Rather the contrary.”

“But they’re Christian countries... what about turning the other cheek?”

“Christianity doesn’t impose acceptance of injustice you know, Martin. God doesn’t ask of us that we accept what He deems unacceptable.”

Another article talked about “England’s Position”. Sir John Simon, the Attorney General, had spoken at a meeting the night before.

Let us all resolve that whatever may be the difficulties and dangers which threaten peaceful relations in Europe the part which this country plays shall from the beginning to end be the part of a mediator, singly desirous of promoting better and more peaceful relations.

The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Francis Dyke Acland, had also spoken to a public meeting and painted a stark picture.

There was a cloud over Europe, he said, the position being far graver than the position in Ireland. No one could imagine the disasters a war in which great European Power was involved might bring to the whole world... The whole of the influence of this country would be used in the interests of peace.

“Well, I say Amen to that,” Martin remarked. “Yes. We should act as a peacemakers if we can. We mustn't get sucked into a conflict on the Continent. Surely we’re not that stupid. Blessed are the peacemakers, aren’t they?”

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” said the Minister, “and we have friends. We may be called on to stand up for them. With them. And I hope we shan’t be found wanting.”

“That’s a greater duty even than ‘Thous shalt not kill’?”

“Sometimes it can be greater than that,” said the Minister as he picked up his hat and made for the door.

Martin returned to the paper. Graver than Ireland? That was seriously worrying. Why, yesterday Sir Roger Casement, who seemed to be for the Nationalist Irish what Sir Edward Carson was to the Unionists in Ulster, had declared that:

...when the volunteers were equipped with 160,000 rifles and ammunition Home Rule would become a reality. “We stand for an armed Ireland,” he said; “in other words, for a free Ireland.”

That sounded like a pretty desperate mess. And the whole of Europe might be getting into something even worse?

Serb Infantry in 1914
An article headlined “EUROPEAN PEACE IN DANGER” pointed out that many had long said that “the Great War, if it ever came at all, would come with utter unexpectedness.” The situation could still be saved by Serbia backing down: while admitting that “no wise man can approve wholly the unmitigated violence of the Hapsburg [i.e. Austro-Hungarian] ultimatum and the tremendous hazards of its indirect challenge to Russia”, no-one could reasonably side with Serbia. On the contrary, referring to the Sarajevo assassinations of 28 June, “the whole state of things which led to these infamous murders ought to be condemned and repressed with uncompromising sternness by every principal Government in Europe, and, above all, by that of the Tsar.”

Martin understood that the starting point of all this was the Greater Serbia movement, which was doing its utmost to bring all territories Belgrade saw as Serbian under its control. It had seized other areas in earlier Balkan Wars; now it wanted Bosnia. That was bad enough but what made it worse was that it had resorted to terrorist means to achieve its aims, in the assassination of the Archduke and his wife. No one could stand by and allow terrorism to succeed; all the powers had to unite against it. 

The matter was well summed up in a single sentence: “the moral point to remember is that in this business Austria Hungary is fundamentally justified and Servia is fundamentally wrong.”

That being said, Austria in pursuing a legitimate aim was in danger of over-reaching: the ultimatum was too unreasonable and it had awoken a response in Russia, as “with the approval of the Tsar a decision was taken to mobilise at once five Army Corps.”

Punishing Serbia might make sense, but surely not at the cost of threatening the peace of the whole Continent.

What about Britain? The Observer was clear: ”The duty of this country, in the first place, whatever it may be in the end, is to mediate, mediate, mediate.”

Whatever its role might be in the end? Again he was reading words that could both thrill and chill. But he agreed that for now the job was mediation. Work to secure the peace if at all possible.

The French didn’t seem too worried yet. Reuter’s reported that diplomatic circles in Paris regarded the situation as ”very grave, but not desperate”. Apparently, France and Russia had been making joint representations to the Austrians. However, the Germans seemed unhappy about the involvement of France, judging by how vehemently they denied it.

To-day business men and public opinion generally were thrown into a state of tense anxiety by the ominous news from St. Petersburg. The Foreign Office remains calm, and refuses to see in the Russian official declaration that Russia cannot remain an indifferent spectator to the Austro-Servian quarrel anything more than a warning that the fate of Servia is a close concern of Russia’s... The German Government has no knowledge as yet of any intervention by Russia or other Powers. [...] The Vienna statement that the German Ambassador in Paris has presented a Note to the French Government, warning France that intervention by a third Power would bring the two groups of alliances into sharp opposition, is denied...

It seemed that a lot of posturing was going on. Austria-Hungary and Serbia; then Russia with France; now Germany issuing or not issuing warnings. He had a terrible sense of a snowball beginning to gather mass and speed.

Interestingly the Germans too, apparently, thought that Britain wouldn’t become involved if a conflict developed and spread to other countries.

There is naturally much speculation as to the attitude of Great Britain in the case of the conflict spreading beyond Austria and Servia. There is a fairly general expectation that the Irish situation and the lack of public sympathy with Servia will relegate Great Britain to the position of a neutral.

Peacemakers or Belligerents? British Cabinet Ministers in 1914
Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary (left) with Winston Churchill,
First Lord of the Admiralty next to him
British neutrality. British mediation. At least a lot of people seemed to agree that this was the most reasonable stance for Martin’s country to adopt.

In spite of his Minister’s words, Martin wondered whether perhaps God was more inclined to assert “blessed are the peacemakers” just now, rather than “greater love hath no man...”


Anonymous said...

I have been wondering where was Casement in all this Irish stew.

He's finally turned up. He's one of my heroes, not necessarily because of his stand in the Irish question, but because he spoke out for the Congolese.

I fear that something awful is in the offing now.


David Beeson said...

Yes, I think things may get worse.

But then I have the advantage over you - I've read ahead.

Sorry if any of this is a spoiler.