Saturday, 2 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 36. 2 August: as Germany goes to war against Russia, does God require Britain to fight?

One hundred years ago today, on Sunday 2 August 1914, the Methodist Minister wore a bleak smile when he dropped in on Martin to give him his Observer. The paper confirmed the worst fears of the previous few days.

Germany has declared war with Russia, and France and Germany have both ordered a mobilisation.

Thus has vanished the last hope of European peace, for although, curiously enough, a state of war does not yet exist between Germany and France, or Russia and Austria, it must only be a question of some hours before these Powers take sides in the quarrel.

Russian trenches
The Observer didn’t share the Manchester Guardian’s commitment to neutrality. Nor did it have any ambiguity about which side to choose: the villain was Germany. 

Let us not blind ourselves for a moment by illusions. Our neutrality is impossible. It would be an act of desertion which would prevent any country from ever trusting us as an ally or a friend again... He who is no friend will have no friend. The original cause of the smaller war is nothing. That squalid and hateful pretext has been used with open eyes to force a vaster issue. The Great War is fought by the Central Powers for one object. It is fought for the mastery of Europe under conditions which, if we stood aside, would assure for Germany – by direct and indirect means – the eventual and perhaps the speedy mastery of the Low Countries and the narrow seas.

“We’re expected to fight for the Low Countries?”

“Look at the map, Martin. Belgium’s a stone throw away. That’s why its neutrality matters. We can’t have Germany encamped there.”

But Martin was irritated with the paper. In its previous issue, the Observer had argued that “the moral point to remember is that in this business Austria Hungary is fundamentally justified and Servia is fundamentally wrong.” Seven days on, it was convinced Britain should fight on the Serbian side of the dispute.

It was down to the government now. What would it choose? Again unlike the Guardian, the Observer wasn’t keen on the Liberals.

What will our statesmen do? Our leaders at the moment are the chief members of a Radical Government which, as a whole, is not the best fitted by traditional or political circumstance to uphold the vital interests of Britain with sound judgement and unwavering resolution at this hour.

If the paper felt that the Tories were better suited to take Britain into war, that only strengthened Martin’s inclination to stay well clear of it.

The US was staying out. As was Italy, and it was an ally of Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s: “her obligations under the Triple Alliance only applying to a defensive war, Italy considers herself to be released from her engagement, the war being waged by Austria, supported by Germany, being essentially an offensive war.”

“We’re like the US,” Martin exclaimed, “without a treaty to oblige us to fight. Why would we?”

“Because it means defending our friends and justice. That is an obligation, Martin, whatever alliances or treaties may say.”

“So... thou shalt not kill means nothing?”

“It means a lot. But it has consequences. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did God make man’. By the hand of man, Martin. For shedding the blood of other men. Sometimes the Lord requires that we shed the blood of our fellows.”

“But... what about beating your swords into ploughshares... about blessed are the peacemakers?”

“All that’s true, Martin, in the right time and place. But the Lord also said ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ The gospel isn’t a work of milk and honey, it’s a work of fire and and iron too.”

“And you think it’s a time for fire and iron now, then?”

“I fear it may be. And don’t forget the Lord’s promise: ‘...he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’.”

Martin looked at him steadily and saw in the Minister’s eyes a light of belief he wasn’t sure he shared. And he saw a man of – what? – fifty or more. He wasn’t likely to be called on to lose his life in this cause.

German troops in Ɓowicz, in then-Russian Poland
occupied soon after the outbreak of war
After the Minister had gone, Martin sighed and read on. Serbia was having a torrid time.

...the Austrians continued yesterday heavy artillery firing in the neighbourhood of Belgrade, but have not yet succeeded in crossing the Danube or Sava. Fierce fighting is stated to have occurred between Foca and Selitza, in which the Fourth Servian division and two Austrian divisions were involved...

Other longstanding problems hadn
’t gone away, though it looked as though the disaster of a general European war might put them in the shade. The Observer thought that there could be some reduction in tension in Ireland, especially thanks to the attitude of the Unionists – and there were Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea, the Opposition Conservatives (the Tories) being their British arm.

The Unionist leaders responded with that undeviating patriotism which the present Opposition has invariably shown in every issue of foreign policy...

Unionists had dropped the demand for an immediate election.

Upon the other hand, the question of presenting the Home Rule bill for the King’s signature is deferred...

Great Britain well knows the Ulster Volunteers, in face of foreign danger, to be an Army in reserve for the Union Jack. If the Nationalist Volunteers show anything like the same devotion... to the common cause of the United Kingdom, they will... open up for Ulster, for the rest of Ireland and for their ultimate reunion, hopes which even a week ago seemed unthinkable.

Would the Irish nationalists put aside their demands to make common cause with the mother country at its time of danger? He couldn’t really see it. Especially with Home Rule back off the table. Another news item suggested there would be no let up in their desire for separation from that mother:

The Irish National Volunteers, says a message from Limerick, claim to have succeed in landing 150 rifles at Foynes from an American yacht on the River Shannon, without the intervention of the authorities.

He noticed that the suffragettes, or at least those in Mrs Pankhurst’s group, were showing no inclination to ease their pressure on the authorities. Ironically, they were operating in Ireland too, and with the ferocity typical of that island’s quarrels.

The Women’s Social and Political Union contradicts the statement that instructions have been given for the cessation of Suffragette militancy during the crisis.

Early yesterday morning a charge of dynamite was exploded under the chancel window of the old cathedral at Lisburn, damaging a valuable window and masonry.

Meanwhile, just as international relations were collapsing in general, in London the Transport authorities were still doing their best to improve them.

The sixteen interpreters appointed by the London General Omnibus Company to attend at railway termini connecting with the Continent and other busy traffic centres, commenced their duties yesterday, and their services were much appreciated by foreigners arriving as strangers to London.

Across the Continent, divisions were mobilising against each other. But in London, the bus company had deployed sixteen people to make life easier for tourists. Now that was worth a smile on a sad, tense Sunday evening.

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