Thursday, 31 July 2014

Countdown to War, Day 34. 31 July: will the government want to intervene in a Great War or stay neutral?

One hundred years ago today, on Friday 31 July 1914, Martin and his crew of Manchester track layers would have found the Manchester Guardian grim reading.

It is time that the public should consider whether there is any valid reason why this country should permit herself to be involved in a great European war, if one should break out; and, if there is not, then to take good care to avoid any steps which might lead us into it.

“Oh, hell,” said Martin, “people still feel we should go in.”

“Not the Guardian,” pointed out the Cynic. “But the Times does, and it speaks for the people who run the country.”

“Asquith hasn’t said that.”

“What Asquith runs is the government. More or less: I don’t reckon he has much control over Churchill or Lloyd George, and they’d be up for war. But as for the country, it’s the Tories who run it. After all, they own the country.”

Surely, Martin thought, there had to be some legal framework for war. And there wasn’t. Or at least there was no legal obligation. The paper quoted Asquith, who was asked that very question:

As has been repeatedly stated, this country is not under any obligation, not public and known to Parliament, which compels it to take part in any war. In other words, if war arises between European Powers, there are no unpublished agreements which will restrict or hamper the freedom of the Government or of Parliament to decide whether or not Great Britain should participate in a war.

That seemed clear enough. Britain had no need to take part in a war even if one broke out across Europe.

The Labour Party was taking a lead in ensuring that the country kept clear of the fighting.

At a meeting of the Labour party, held in the House of Commons yesterday, the following resolution was carried unanimously:-

“That the Labour party is gratified that Sir Edward Grey has taken steps to secure mediation in the dispute between Austria and Servia, and regrets that his proposal has not been accepted by the Powers concerned. It hopes, however, that on no account will this country be dragged into the European conflict, in which, as the Prime Minister has stated, we have no direct or indirect interest, and the party calls upon all labour organisations in the country to watch events vigilantly, so as to oppose, if need be, in the most effective way any action which may involve us in war.”

Vigilant. Yes, Martin was happy to be vigilant. And he was glad his Party would be leading the movement to oppose war. Leading the labour movement
, it would represent a redoubtable force. 

Kaiser Wilhelm II visiting his troops
In France, there was uncertainty, principally concerning Germany.

French diplomacy is still in the dark as to whether the present crisis is one which Germany desires, or one which has gone beyond anything she expected. To all appearance the general war which now threatens is not the war which would suit Germany. Has German diplomacy been involved by Austria in worse trouble than she bargained for?

France is ready to mobilise, but has not mobilised. It is believed that Germany is exactly in the same position.

French officers saluting the colours
Russia still hadn’t shown her hand. A lot seemed to hang on her decision.

And then there was a report, from Austria, more chilling than the others: “THE CITY IN FLAMES”.

An official despatch says:- “About midnight machine-gun fire was opened from Belgrade, and in reply the Austro-Hungarian monitors bombarded the city. At one o’clock in the morning a powder magazine in Belgrade blew up.

“At dawn the Servians made another unsuccessful attempt to destroy the bridge, as shots were fired from the Servian Customs-house upon our troops. Our artillery was trained on the building, which was quickly demolished. This was followed by a sound of rifle fire. Simultaneously fires broke out at different points in Belgrade.”

An Austrian Monitor firing
“Jesus. They’re shelling a city. That’s – kids being burned in their beds.”

“Still think you’re going to avoid what’s coming?” said the Cynic, “why should we be spared by people who are prepared to roast kids?”

One of the other railwaymen had picked up the paper. He laughed as he read.

The Dublin correspondent of the Central News, telegraphing last night, says:- It has been reported that at about 10:30 this morning 2,000 rifles were landed at Bullock Harbour, Dalkey, county Dublin, and conveyed into the city. While the work was carried out the police were misled by a jarvey with some game cocks in a basket. The police followed in the track of the game cocks, expecting that a cock fight was to be held.

“What a bunch! A real war’s started and might spread here, and all they can think of is their own miserable fight against us.”

“And what a police force!” chimed in another voice, “spots a cockfight but can’t see rebels smuggling guns.”

Meanwhile, in London, the Metropolitan Police had intervened to prevent publication of a Suffragette poster campaign, under a law of 1869. Martin shook his head. Yes, that was the issue of the day. Stop women using posters to agitate for the vote.

Meanwhile, Belgrade was burning.


Anonymous said...

584Interesting to conjecture what might have happened if Britain had not gone to war.


David Beeson said...

Many do. It seems to me that it might have been a short war culminating in a German victory. There would probably have been no Second World War, possibly no Russian Revolution, though I suspect the Tsar would have fallen anyway (after a defeat). The Continent would have been dominated by Germany, but not a Nazi Germany; with a century to democratise, I'm not sure that Europe would have felt a lot different by now than it does.

Thomas Piketty gives a fascinating analysis of the impact a World War, the Russian Revolution, a Depression and another World War had on reducing the power of capital and increasing equality, a trend reversed in the 1980s. I suspect that those beneficial effects would have been lost too. On the other hand, we might well have avoided the violent deaths of 100-150 million people, including those massacred by the Soviet and Nazi regimes.