Friday, 1 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 35. 1 August: Russian and Germany at war. Any hope still for British neutrality?

One hundred years ago today, on Saturday 1 August 1914, Martin and his tracklayer friends would have been hard put to it to find much good news in the Manchester Guardian.


At least that was a headline that didn’t mince its words.

Europe is very near war. Last night even the firmest friends of peace were almost without hope.

Little doubt remains that all Russia’s forces are being mobilised. In the House of Commons yesterday Mr. Asquith, on the authority of Berlin, announced the extension of the partial Russian mobilisation reported several days ago. He understood that Germany would issue like orders...

A most serious message came yesterday from the meeting-place of the German, Russian, and Austrian frontiers. It reported on what is described as official authority the destruction by the Russians of the neighbouring bridge over the Austro-Russian frontier, between Granitza in Russia and Szczakowa in Austria...

German news is equally grave. Official announcement is made of the suspension of the international train services into the Empire; telephone communication with Denmark and Belgium has been stopped...

Our Paris correspondent, in a late message, says at a Council of Ministers yesterday orders were given for six army corps on the German frontier to mobilise...

Italy is said to have decided to remain neutral...

German troops heading to attack the Russians
“It’s all falling apart,” said Martin.

“Oh, don’t be so gloomy,” exclaimed one of his friends, “It’s time to get stuck in. We’re going to show them who’s boss and we’ll have some fun. It’ll be over by Christmas.”

“Get stuck in?” asked another, “which side would you like us to join?”

“Why – the Germans of course. They’ve got proper soldiers.”

“You haven’t been listening, have you? Ours is the other side. With the Frogs.”

Martin intervened. “Neither side
s our side. The whole thing’s nothing to do with us. We need to stay neutral just like Italy.”

“We’re nothing like Italy,” said the Cynic, “you watch. We’ll go in. It won’t be over by Christmas. And it won’t be fun.”

The Guardian wasn’t yet prepared to give up on British neutrality.

Evidence grows that public opinion is becoming shocked and alarmed at the thought that this country could be dragged into the horrors of a general European war, although she has no direct interest in it and is admittedly bound by no treaty obligations to take part in it.

Martin found it hard to take much encouragement from these words. He was beginning to suspect that the Cynic might be right: the government wanted to go in, and no amount of opposition was going to stop it. Indeed, elsewhere in the Guardian journalists seemed close to that position themselves. The leader writer, in particular, argued that:

... there is in our midst an organised conspiracy to drag us into the war should the attempts of the peace-makers fail. “Conspiracy” we say because it is disloyal to Parliament, which is the constitutional guardian of the national interests in times of crisis. The conspirators prefer the confidence of selected newspaper editors to that of the representatives of the people. The objects of the conspirators are now openly avowed. We are to join in, not under certain conditions or in defence of this or that British interest which may happen to be threatened, but in any case.

Against the conspirators, the Socialist movement on which Martin had counted had taken a serious blow. The Frenchman Jean Jaurès had been one of its most prominent leaders internationally, and a major opponent of war, like Ramsay MacDonald in the British Labour Party. But fate had been less kind to him. There was a report from Paris:

The Government has decided to placard the following proclamation on the walls of Paris:

“Citizens, – 
An abominable attack has just been made on M. Jaurès. The great orator, who was such an ornament of the French public platform, has been basely assassinated. Personally, and in the name of my colleagues, I bow before the fall, so premature, of the Socialist Republican who fought for such a noble cause, and who in these troublous days has, by his authority, supported the action of the Government in the interests of peace.

Jean Jaurès at his best
Jaurès had been a leading contender for socialist collaboration between the peoples of France and Germany to prevent the war.

“Just when we needed him most, he
’s been bumped off,” said Martin.

“Because you thought he was getting somewhere? The people rising? Stopping the war?” asked the Cynic.

In any case, however clear the question of which side Britain was on might be to some people, it really wasn’t that obvious. The leader writer quoted with approval the nineteenth-century politician John Bright, who referred to the long-term objective of British foreign policy, 
the “balance of power”, as a “will o’ the wisp”. However inappropriate that balance was as a goal, a supposed ally of Britains might well overthrow it in the coming war, while the likely enemy might reinforce it.

If Russia wins there will be the greatest disturbance of the balance of power that the world has ever seen. The whole conditions of our continued existence as an Asiatic Power will have be revised, and all over the world, wherever we come into contact with Russia, we shall have a repetition of the self-effacement which we have witnessed in Persia. The victory of Germany, on the other hand, would in effect be a victory for the principle of the balance of power. If we believed in this principle – which we do not, – then we might be for intervention on the side of Germany.

Those urging war seemed particularly concerned with the notion of the “neutrality of Belgium”, now “it is assumed, ... in danger from Germany, and from her alone.”

“I don’t give a damn about the neutrality of Belgium,” declared an older tracklayer in the crew, “just the neutrality of Britain.”

Martin agreed. And it felt to him as though that neutrality wouldn’t be guaranteed for long.

And on top of all that? Another headline proclaimed “Lancashire outplayed by Warwickshire.” The match ended as a draw but only because time ran out. Lancashire had been heading for disaster otherwise.

What a year.


Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty clear now that the lamps are going out!


David Beeson said...

It may be a while before we see them lit again