Sunday, 3 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 37. 3 August: Germany fighting Russia, Luxembourg, maybe France – and Switzerland?

One hundred years ago today, on Monday 3 August 1914, Martin and the other railwaymen in his crew would have found little to raise their spirits in the Manchester Guardian.

“German invasion of Switzerland reported”, they read.

The German army has invaded Switzerland and has occupied the Swiss station of Bale. As every tourist knows, Bale contains two stations, one German and one Swiss. Bale is now entirely in the hands of the Germany army.

“Every tourist knows?” scoffed Martin.

“Come, come, young man,” said the Cynic in a passable Southern accent, “surely you went through Bale when you did your grand tour?”

“Inexplicably,” replied Martin, “my Mum omitted to include Bale on my itinerary.”

Swiss and German border guards pose together in 1915
on the border between Basel, Switzerland and Lörrach, Germany
Switzerland was never invaded, contrary to the Guardian report

“Russians on German Soil” proclaimed an article on early clashes in the East.

Last night Russian patrols made an attack on the railway bridge over the Marthe... The attack was repulsed. Two Germans were slightly wounded. The Russian losses are not known.

In a leader entitled “On the Brink”, the paper again made the case for neutrality.

Saturday and Sunday were the fateful days of a century. On Saturday Germany declared war on Russia. Early the next morning, her troops invaded Luxemburg...

“Luxembourg?” a voice interrupted, “they declared war on Russia so they invaded Luxembourg?”

“Let him read,” came a chorus in reply.

...and in the course of the day they are alleged to have crossed the French frontier at two points not specified. The war party in England will use these facts to work up feeling against Germany as the aggressor and the violator of international law...

A lot of heads nodded. The fact of German aggression was indeed hard to deny.

... but sober Englishmen, while grieving that Germany should have thought fit to take this frightful responsibility, will not let German military opinion of what is best for Germany affect their own judgement of what is best for England. Germany was not free to choose; whether war was to come depended not so much on what she did as on what Russia meant to do.

There was some sense in that. Germany faced specific threats.

With the genius and the brilliancy of France on the one flank and the overwhelming numbers of Russia of the other she felt herself fighting against odds for her very existence...

“There’s an assessment of French strength,” said the man with the paper.

The French army, taken as a whole, has two great assets – it has a great tradition to re-establish...

“Damn right,” a voice interrupted, “after getting the stuffing kicked out of them by the Germans last time.”

...and it has had some experience in its colonial wars. The military system of the French army disposes of twenty-one army corps and a large surplus of colonial troops...

The belief of the French General Staff is that its material both in men and equipment is slightly superior to that of the German army... The French General Staff... maintain that it is the duty of the army to find and definitely establish the path which the enemy proposes to follow, and then adjust your own strategic movement so that you turn your enemy’s momentum to your advantage by refusing him in front and turning his flanks.

“It sounds hopeless for the Germans,
 agreed Martin, their Austrian allies aren’t making much headway against Serbia. The Russians have massive numbers. And the French, on their own, are stronger than the Germans. It’ll all be manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre, turning the enemy’s flank and all that, and Germany won’t last long. So why do the French need us?”

“It won’t be that easy,” said the man with the paper. “The French have one big flaw: they’re French.”

He read on.

France, as a nation, is subject to hysterics. It is only Latin after all.

German troops on patrol on French territory
in the early days of the war
“I keep saying,” came a voice from the back, “we may be joining the wrong side.”

“The paper still reckons neither side’s right for us.” 

He read on from the editorial.

The British Cabinet sat almost all day on Sunday discussing what the policy of this country ought to be. As we write we do not know what decision has been reached. But we are, if possible, more convinced than ever that duty and interest alike demand that this country should not make itself an accessory to the crime against reason and human happiness that is now beginning.

“What, with Germany on the rampage,” someone protested, “they still want us to stay out?”

The Guardian did.

The tide of public indignation against the suggestion that this country should take part in a general European war is rising fast.

The need for giving expression to that feeling is increasingly recognised, and an organisation has been set on foot to co-ordinate and strengthen the demands that Great Britain shall take no part in such a war unless she’s directly attacked.

“That’s right, isn’t it?” said Martin, “we’re facing ‘a crime against reason and human happiness’. Why do we have to get involved?”

“We don’t,” said the Cynic, “but you watch us. We will. We’ll all be accomplices of that crime. And people like us lot will also be the victims.”

Another article carried the headline “England’s Duty”:

It is felt that it is urgent to bring home to the public the importance of showing the strength of the feeling in favour of neutrality. In the absence of such expression the agitation now being maintained in powerful quarters in favour of England’s joining the war may be accepted by the Government and by foreign nations as the general view of the country.

“Exactly,” said Martin, “lots of people want to stay out. That counts.”

“Don’t talk soft,” scoffed the Cynic, “the decision’s been taken already. We’re going in. We’ll know in a day or two.”

“What do you mean? It would be a sad day for this country when a government can take us to war against the will of the majority.”

“Then get ready for sad days.”

There was a sudden burst of laughter from the man with the paper.

“Listen to this,” he called out.

Parliament reduced to plain English Food

The French cooks employed at the House of Commons have all responded to the call to arms. There will be “only plain English fare” on the menu in the dining-room till the end of this session.

“The suffering’s already started...” said Martin.

“Yes,” said the Cynic, “and MPs are going to be taking decisions in a bad mood on unsatisfied stomachs. That’s only going to make things worse.”


Anonymous said...

I didn't know that there were French chefs at the H.o. Commons.


David Beeson said...

Nor did I. Clearly the British upper class had no confidence in British cooking... And didn't like "plain English fare"

David Beeson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.