Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 39. 5 August: Britain declares war and an era ends

One hundred years ago today, on Wednesday 5 August 1914, Martin and his tracklayer mates reading the Manchester Guardian, found confirmation that the axe had finally fallen the day before. Britain was at war.

“England declares war on Germany” screamed the headline.

“Presumably it’s us too,” grumbled the Scotsman.

Great Britain declared war on Germany at 11 o’clock last night.

The Cabinet yesterday delivered an ultimatum to Germany. Announcing the fact to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said: “We have repeated the request made last week to the German Government that they should give us the same assurance in regard to Belgian neutrality that was given to us and Belgium by France last week. We have asked that it should be given before midnight.”

Midnight German time was 11:00 p.m. in Britain.

Another article made clear why the appeal for Belgian neutrality had been made. And why it had never stood the slightest chance of being heeded.

The Prime Minister of Belgium announced in the Belgian Chamber yesterday that Belgian territory had been violated by the German forces.

The British Foreign Office was informed by the Belgian Minister in London shortly before noon that the German forces had crossed to Belgian soil

German troops occupying Ostend
“So that’s it,” said Martin, “We’re in. Like it or not. For better or for worse.”

“For worse,” said the Cynic.

“And all over Belgium!” another voice piped up.

“Nothing to do with Belgium,” said the Cynic, “it’s Germany wanting a bigger role in the world. Much bigger. And France and Russia thinking she’d only get it at their expense.”

“And the Austrian Archduke?” asked Martin.

“A pretext for Austria-Hungary to take on Serbia. And that was’s the pretext for this one.”

“I still don’t see what on earth it has to do with us.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with us but it does now.”

There was a silence as the men reflected on what the future held in store. Not that they were likely to guess the full impact the war would have.

Firstly, it would end in two separate defeats. The first would be suffered by Russia: despite the huge numbers of men it could call on, “to die in heaps” as the Guardian had said, they were hopelessly outmatched by German discipline, training and arms. Russia’s defeat led to the seizure of power by the Communists and 70 years of tension with the Capitalist world.

The second defeat was suffered by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

For the Dual Monarchy, defeat spelled dissolution. Hungary was separated from Austria, but also lost two-thirds of its territory. Austria was reduced to its German-speaking heartland. The Balkan Slavs, including Bosnia where the Archduke and his wife were murdered, merged with Serbia. That was a triumph for the Serb nationalists. The King of Serbia even took the throne of the new country, though as a sop to other groups, it was eventually given a neutral name, Yugoslavia, the land of the Southern Slavs.

As for Germany, the Kaiser lost his throne and went into exile. The country felt itself betrayed not beaten, and crushed by the reparations the victors forced it to pay. The bitterness and resentment led to the Nazis taking power as a violent revanchist movement, intent on reversing the losses of the First World War by fighting a Second. Neither that war nor the Holocaust need have happened had the first war not been fought.

The Empires on the winning side lost out too. France and Britain were sucked dry by the cost of the war. Because they were victors, they clung on to their colonies for another generation, but the writing was on the wall.

Domestically, the war also brutally altered Britain’s destiny.

Asquith remained at the head of a Liberal government, the last Liberal Prime Minister, until May 1915 when he brought leading Conservatives into a coalition. A little over eighteen months later, he was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by David Lloyd George, who saw the war through to victory. The National government, as the Coalition was known, fought and won the 1918 election as a bloc under Lloyd George, with Asquith’s Liberals running against them; by 1922, the Tories had had their fill of the National Liberals and dropped them. Labour took over as the second largest party, forming its first government, as a minority, in 1924.

Liberals never again formed a government of their own.

Winston Churchill had started his career as a Conservative before holding a series of Ministerial posts in the Liberal Party; Arthur Balfour, Tory Prime Minister at the turn of the Century, just before the Liberals came to office, said “I thought Winston Churchill was a young man of promise, but it appears he is a young man of promises.” In 1925, Churchill returned to the Conservatives, a move on which he later commented “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

A young man of promise or a young man of promises?
Women’s suffrage was delayed for the period of the war. In 1918, however, after a war in which women had played a crucial role in keeping the industrial machine going, they at last won the right to vote at age 30 subject to a property qualification; practically all men were given the vote at 21, as Martin had hoped. 

The suffrage was made equal between the sexes ten years later. 

We saw Irish Home Rule being put on the back burner as war broke out. It would never become an option again: the traditional Nationalists were outflanked by more committed and radical movements demanding full independence. The divisions within the island, however, were never addressed, so when the British government was at last forced to let Ireland go, it retained six of the nine counties in Ulster, where Edward Carson had raised the cry of “No Surrender” to rally the Protestant Loyalist forces.

The war cost 37 million casualties, 17 million of them dead. Was Martin one of them?

British soldiers heading off
It’s hard to say. Out of five and a half million who fought, 700,000 were killed. That he fought I have no doubt. I suspect he wouldn’t have joined up voluntarily, given his views, but in 1916 conscription was introduced and as a healthy young man in a line of work that wouldn’t have exempted him, he would certainly have been called up.

However, I’ve found no trace of him in any prominent position in the post-war National Union of Railwaymen or Labour Party. Did he merely fail in his ambitions to go into union or national politics, or was he one of the 700,000 dead? Or perhaps one of the 750,000 who were permanently disabled? There’s no way of knowing.

And then there were Martin’s more parochial hopes. On 4 August 1914, Lancashire’s arch-rivals Yorkshire notched up a commanding lead in their latest match. They wrapped up the game on the 5th, the day Martin read about the declaration of war.

The season ended with Surrey winning the County Championship. Lancashire was eleventh out of sixteen, in the bottom half of the table and well behind Yorkshire, which came fourth.

“Like I said,” explained Martin, “It turned into a lousy year, 1914.”


Anonymous said...

The series was eminently readable. I again thank you.


David Beeson said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed putting it together. Though I'm also quite glad it's finished...

Anonymous said...

Your fan base can allow you (grudgingly) one day off after your labours, but we won't put up with more.