Monday, 28 July 2014

Countdown to War, Day 31. 28 July: hovering on the edge

One hundred years ago today, on Tuesday 28 July 1914, Martin the Mancunian railwayman might have taken some hope from the first article he and his fellow tracklayers read in the Manchester Guardian.

Europe’s hopes of avoiding a great war over the Austro-Servian dispute rose yesterday. Fighting had not begun, although soldiers of the confronting States fired at one another on the Danube, and every day’s delay multiplies the chance of successful mediation by the other Powers.

Sir Edward Grey, in the House of Commons yesterday, said he had instructed the British Ambassadors at Paris, Berlin, and Rome to ask the Governments if they would be willing to arrange for their Ambassadors in London to meet him to endeavour to find an arrangement of the present difficulties. He had not yet received complete replies. The cooperation of the four Powers was essential. The efforts of one Power alone to preserve peace must be quite ineffective.

The four Powers not directly involved might be able to persuade Russia and Austria to hold back from actual military operations.

Austria was disdainful of Serbia’s reply to its Note, but:

Otherwise the news fromVienna also suggests a brighter prospect. Austria apparently is not disinclined to a peaceful issue.

It seemed that France and Germany were working well together, and agreed that the key was to obtain a compromise in St Petersburg and Vienna. For the first time since the 24th, when he’d read about the harshness of the terms in Austria’s note to Serbia, Martin felt that there was a real hope that war might be averted altogether. Not just war spilling over into other countries, but any kind of war at all, even between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

The Guardian leader writer was unequivocal on the subject.

We want peace in Europe, but we want England to be and remain at peace even more. We wish that all Englishmen would think and say the same. Most of them certainly do. But there are some who, while anxious for European peace, still think that if we cannot share the blessings of peace with others we must share with them the curses of war.

It was true, Martin agreed, that there would always be warmongers, keen on involvement in war. But there must be a massive majority against it in Britain today, as the paper seemed to imply. No government could possibly resist such a huge groundswell of opinion and take us into war despite of it. Could it? Surely not.

An excellent point had been made by a Labour MP, John Robert Clynes, at a public meeting in Manchester. He was:

...profoundly sorry for the absence of a properly constituted court before which quarrelling nations could be required to bring their case, just as quarrelling individuals were required to bring theirs before a court of justice. It was astonishing in these days of a so-called high civilisation that the act of a fanatic or a fool should bring nations to such a state of disturbance as was evident now throughout Europe.

“That’s true,” said Martin, “those murders in Sarajevo were terrible, but I thought they’d just lead to police action. You know, arrests, a trial, a bit of a show of punishing the guilty. But a whole Continent thinking about war? It doesn’t make sense.”

“That’s because you keep leaving Great Power politics out of the picture,” replied the Cynic, “Russia and France have got a reckoning to settle with Germany. Germany’s got grievances to resolve with everyone else. No one gives a damn about the Sarajevo business. But they need a pretext, and it provides one.”

At the time of the first ever Labour government in 1924
Jimmy Thomas, Ramsay MacDonald, John Robert Clynes and Arthur Henderson 
“Well, I’m proud of the Labour Party,” Martin retorted, nettled. “At least it’s got its head screwed on. The Tories are nowhere. Maybe Labour can be the real Opposition to the Liberals. Opposition on the Left – that’d be good, wouldn’t it? It’d make Britain a different kind of place to live.”

“Yes, maybe. I shouldn’t get your hopes up, though. When people get into government, they become the government, and they behave like the government. Whichever party they come from.”

Martin shook his head. And turned to the news that Lancashire had secured a convincing victory over Gloucestershire. Much needed and all the more satisfactory for that.

Some good news, then, on a mixed news day.


Anonymous said...

That Ramsay Macdonald chap strikes me as someone who will do the Labour Party proud.


David Beeson said...

A man of principle. His pacifism cost him his parliamentary seat in 1918. It's that refusal to compromise on essentials that will mark him, I'm sure.