Monday, 4 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 38. 4 August: German incursions in France; a fateful session of the House of Commons

One hundred years ago today, on Tuesday 4 August 1914, Martin and his mates would have discovered from the Manchester Guardian that the Continental Powers had taken another fatal step the day before.

Reuter’s Agency is informed by Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, that he is authorised by the Imperial Chancellor to state officially that all news about a German invasion of French soil is without foundation.... On the other hand, several official reports had been received about French troops crossing the German frontier...

Reuter’s Agency is requested by the French Embassy to deny officially German allegations of an alleged violation of German territory by French officers.

“The fog of war,” said Martin.

“Its first casualty,’ replied the Cynic and, when Martin looked blank, added, “the truth.”

Reuter’s further reported:

A German patrol entered French territory, and came into collision with a French force near Joncheray. The officer in command of the invaders killed one of the French soldiers, whereupon he himself was slain by one of the dead men’s comrades...

This morning a fairly strong force of German cavalry advanced towards Suarée... three kilometres from the frontier...

According to official telegrams received here... German troops advanced on Herzerange and Langlaville, in the neighbourhood of Longwy.

A welcome cup of water served by a peasant woman
to French soldiers on the march
“So what’s happening?” asked a voice.

“No one seems to know,” replied the reader, and read a quotation from a French official in an article on “the spirit of France”

”The state of Franco-German relations is unprecedented. Germany has not only violated the neutrality of Luxemburg, but has also entered French territory at two points... Yet the German Ambassador remains in Paris...”

“So – are they at war or aren’t they at war?”

“Of course they’re at war,” said the Cynic, “it doesn’t suit the Germans to admit it yet so they’ve left the Ambassador in place.”

“They’re not feeling cheerful in Vienna, apparently,” went on the reader.

Government quarters here contemplate the situation as superlatively critical...

To-day everybody seems to feel that the life of Austria-Hungary as a State may depend upon the outcome of the impending struggle, and in any case the sacrifices of blood and money which it will impose on the population far exceed anything foreseen when only Servia was pitted against the Dual Monarchy.

“Yes,” said the Cynic, “Austria-Hungary’s bitten off more than it can chew, fighting Germany’s battles with France and Russia, instead of just its own with little Serbia.”

“Italy’s staying neutral,” said Martin pensively, “so it can be done.”

“What, you’re still clinging on to that hope, are you?” asked the Cynic, “here, pass me the paper.”

The Cynic leafed through until he’d found an article headlined “A Fateful Sitting of the Commons.”

Leading members of the Liberal Government but leading hawks
David Lloyd George (left) and Winston Churchill
Rather less than two hours sufficed to-day for the essential passages of the strangest, the most moving, and in every sense of the word the most fateful sitting of Parliament within living memory...

As Ministers came to their seats those whose names had been associated with rumours of resignation were greeted with general cheering. Both Mr. Churchill and Mr. Lloyd George were thus welcomed, and it was noted that the part taken in their ovation by the Opposition was particularly marked. Some time passed before Mr. Asquith joined his colleagues. Even in cheering their careworn leader members scrutinised his grave and impassive face with eager curiosity, as if in search of some sign of hope. None was visible.

Not much to smile about
The last Liberal Prime Minister,  Herbert Asquith
He would be replaced by Lloyd George at the end of 1916
The Cynic paused. 

“Churchill and Lloyd George are the war party in government. Everyone thought they’d resign if we decided on neutrality. They haven’t so now they’re being cheered by the war party in the Commons, the Tories.”

He went on.

... Sir Edward Grey rose to take the nation into the confidence of the Cabinet...

On the surface the earlier part of his statement seemed to be a justification for neutrality or relative inaction... in commenting on the obligations in honour by which France was tied to Russia in the war, Sir Edward Grey frankly admitted that such obligations could not apply in the same way to this country... Even so, our long-standing friendship with France – “And with Germany,” interjected a Liberal member – had led to arrangements which, in Sir Edward’s opinion, involved us in certain responsibilities.

Of those, the heaviest turned out to be the undefended condition of the northern and western coasts of France, due to the withdrawal of the French fleet to the Mediterranean. Here a hypothetical case was presented – the possible event of an attack on those coasts by the German fleet and of ourselves looking on as dispassionate spectators. With greater energy than he had hitherto shown, Sir Edward, raising his voice and speaking with unusual emphasis, utterly dismissed the latter hypothesis and declared that in such an event we could not possibly stand aside. Amid the general cheering evoked by this declaration the Nationalists made their voices unmistakably heard. “Hurrah for France!” shouted Mr. William Redmond...

William Redmond?” asked Martin.

“Brother of John,” explained the Cynic, “also an MP. What? You thought the Irish were above dynastic politics? Just because they want to be rid of us doesn’t make them any better. You watch: Ireland will have just the same kind of trotters in the trough behaviour as anywhere else, in or out of the United Kingdom.”

“And now they want us in this war...” said Martin.

“It’s all going to come down to Belgium,” went on the Cynic.

... there was the more serious question of the invasion of Belgian territory – a question, as the Minister showed, which earlier in the crisis had been the subject of unsatisfactory diplomatic negotiations...

“Didn’t anybody speak out against?” asked Martin.

“Of course they did. Your mate for one,” answered the Cynic and went on reading.

Some impatience was shown while Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, in his firm yet temperate manner, was giving voice to the determination of the Labour party to have no part in a policy of war...

“Well, at least we can count on Labour,” sighed Martin, “one party that’ll never take this country to war against the will of its people.”

“Probably best never to use the word never, young man,” said the Cynic.

...the House listened in sombre stillness to speech after speech from the Liberal benches, all, with scarcely an exception, severely critical of the Foreign Minister’s arguments and actions.

“A Liberal government has lost the support of Liberal MPs,” said Martin sadly.

“And has to rely on the Tory Opposition to take us into war.”

The Cynic held up the paper to show another headline:


War Office announce the intended proclamation.

“We’re mobilising already,” he said, “how long can it be?”

“It’s already happening,” said a young man who’d just walked in, “it’s on the telegraph back at the station.”

“What do you mean?” asked Martin.

“The authorities are taking control of the railways. We work for the government now.”

There was a shocked silence broken by the Cynic laughing.

“So now our jobs will be to keep the cannon fodder moving round the country. Until we become cannon fodder ourselves.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing this series, David. it was full of facts, but I also appreciated the analysis. Balance was provided by titbits about cricket, the suffragette movement and similar things.

Well done.


David Beeson said...

Thanks to you San. But it's not quite over: the news of 4 August wasn't covered until the 5th, so there'll be one more tomorrow, and I've also planned a postscript. Nearly there, but still a couple to go...