The Guns of August

First, my thanks to Deborah for recommending this book!

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, is the first (it probably won't be the last) book on the Great War (the First World War) for which I have written a marginal commentary. Tuchman, incidentally, is surprisingly only the sixth female author about whose work I have written some kind of post. I have written essays on each of J. K. Rowling's books in the Potter septet, and have written marginal commentaries on works by Emma Donoghue, Kate Pullinger, Debbie Macomber, and Jeannette Walls. Once I have finished the marginal commentary on Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, the ratio of 'boys vs. girls' in terms of authors on whose works I shall have written posts will be twenty-nine to seven, or just over four to one.

The edition of The Guns of August from which I am quoting passages is the edition published in 2012 by the Library of America (the publisher is Literary Classics of the United States); the book was published originally in 1962 by MacMillan. This book also includes The Proud Tower, Tuchman's work on the quarter-century preceding the First World War. Incidentally, Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919 (a great book; MacMillan, by the way, is a Canadian and great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George), is the editor of the Library of America edition of The Guns of August and The Proud Tower. As an editorial note, all italics in passages quoted are original to this edition of The Guns of August; save one or two most consist of quotes from or scraps of other languages.

Tuchman's style reminds me of that of Piers Brendon in The Dark Valley: in fairness I should say that his style is reminiscent of hers. Both The Dark Valley and The Guns of August are written in a novelistic, witty style. And, even though The Guns of August takes a closer look at a shorter period of time than Brendon's work, it is still to an extent panoramic.

My focus with respect to The Guns of August will be on its opening chapters, as to how Tuchman skillfully builds dramatic tension, despite the fact that the results of the deliberations, arguments, diplomatic to-and-fro, and so on, which characterised the opening act of the War, are well known. '[O]n Juy 28 [Austria] declared war on Serbia, on July 29 bombarded Belgrade. [p. 89]' With those acts, the Great War began. But it was not to envelop Western Europe until the beginning of August, when one by one Germany, France, and Great Britain (responding to the German violation of Belgian neutrality) were 'dragged... forward' over 'the brink' by 'the pull of military schedules. [ibid.]' Tuchman might have put it as Brendon did when he wrote, 'One by one... the great powers slid into the fiery chasm of conflict. [The Dark Valley, p. 689]'

It is a credit to Tuchman's craft that she is able to generate dramatic tension about events the course of which are known; actually, this is one of the appeals of well-written works of history, I think. In any case, let's see if we can't perceive some of the means by which Tuchman enables us to enter into the tense, calamitous decisions (and, to coin a word 'indecisions') that provoked the definitive historical event of the twentieth century.

As the war began, confusion, hesitation and anguish prevailed among the decision-makers of each of the Great Powers.

The first of August 1914 was an especially overwhelming day. In Berlin, it was (vainly) hoped that Belguim would not resist the violation of its neutrality, nor Great Britain declare against Germany in response to that violation. It was also hoped that Germany would not, in the end, be subject to a two-front war.
[Moltke the Elder's] enviable calm was not present today in the palace. Face to face no longer with the specter but the reality of a two-front war, the Kaiser was as close to the "sick Tom-cat" mood as he thought the Russians were. More cosmopolitan and more timid than the archetypal Prussian, he had never actually wanted a general war. He wanted greater power, greater prestige, above all more authority in the world's affairs for Germany but he preferred to obtain them by frightening rather than by fighting other nations. He wanted the gladiator's rewards without the battle, and whenever the prospect of battle came too close, as at Algericas and Agadir, he shrank.
As the final crisis boiled, his marginalia on telegrams grew more and more agitated: "Aha! the common cheat," "Rot!" "He lies!" "Mr. Grey is a false dog," "Twaddle!" "The rascal is crazy or an idiot!" When Russia mobilized he burst into a tirade of passionate foreboding, not against the Slav traitors but against the unforgettable figure of the wicked uncle: "The world will be engulfed in the most terrible of wars, the ultimate aim of which is the ruin of Germany. England, France and Russia have conspired for our annihilation . . . that is the naked truth of the situation which was slowly but surely created by Edward VII. . . . The encirclement of Germany is at last an accomplished fact. We have run our heads into the noose. . . . The dead Edward is stronger than the living I!"
Conscious of the shadow of the dead Edward, the Kaiser would have welcomed any way out of the commitment to fight both Russia and France and, behind France, the looming figure of still-undeclared England. [pp. 92-3]
Commentary: The Moltke to whom Tuchman refers at the opening of this passage (in her book it begins 'His', the reflexive pronoun referring to Moltke who was mentioned in the previous paragraph) was not the same Moltke who now commanded the General Staff at the beginning of the War, but Moltke the Elder, who led the Prussian armies to victory against Denmark, the Austrian Empire, and France. Moltke the Elder, at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, was, Tuchman writes, 'found lying on a sofa reading Lady Audley's Secret. [p. 92]' His nephew and successor as Chief of the General Staff at one remove, Moltke the Younger, was not as imperturbable as his uncle, and at several points Tuchman refers to the younger Moltke by the unflattering nickname (if memory serves, bestowed on him by the Kaiser) of 'gloomy Julius'. I doubt you could make that the brand name of a chain serving fruit smoothies. Incidentally, Lady Audley's Secret was a sensational Victorian novel (of sufficient fame to warrant being recently published as an Oxford World Classic), and it is somewhat refreshing to picture a Prussian mastermind reclining upon a sofa reading a trashy novel as if he were in the middle of a summer getaway to the cottage, instead of, you know, launching the war that would lead to France's most humiliating defeat. I don't mean that Lady Audley's Secret is necessarily a 'trashy' novel; just that that is the sort of thing Moltke's behaviour brings to mind.
Both Moltke the Younger and the Kaiser (Wilhelm II) were conscious of living in the shadow of their respective uncles, and their responses to this were in character. Moltke appeared to do his best to fulfill the expectation that he wouldn't live up to his uncle, while the Kaiser fulminated against the memory of his. In any event it is remarkably fortuitous, from the perspective of history, that the German war effort was directed by a monarch whose bark was worse than his bite, and a gloomy pessimist. Given how very close the Germans came to winning the War in the fall of 1914, despite fighting on two fronts, despite making mistake after mistake, despite dragging Great Britain into the war by her heels, had one or the other of these two men been made of sterner stuff (particularly Moltke, since the conduct of the war was his primary responsibility), the history of Europe would have turned out very differently.
Edward VII, though a scoundrel and a scandal (one can only imagine what the rags what have done with him had they been around in Edwardian England), was, as the Kaiser's outburst pointed out, the man chiefly responsible for shifting Britain's gears toward engaging in an entente, if not outright alliance, with two of its oldest foes, France and Russia, against the rising power of imperial Germany.
'Algericas' and 'Agadir' refer to the conference that followed the first Moroccan crisis and the centre of attention during the second, respectively. In both crises German plans to secure her interests and to defeat one or another enemy at the negotiating table were thwarted. Both crises also could have led to a general war. Tuchman suggests that German failure in these instances was in part due to the blustering character of the Kaiser.
On another note, it is worth looking at the Kaiser's blaming of Edward and of Germany's enemies for the War. (Tuchman hardly spares the Allies, but leaves us in no doubt that ultimate responsibility for starting the War, if not for how it turned out, may be laid at the feet of the German Empire.)  In the first place, it is a notorious act of displacement of blame. (On the other hand, the Kaiser's shrill prophecy that 'the world will be engulfed in the most terrible of wars' was prescient.) In the second, it should demonstrate beyond any doubt the extent to which relationships between families can affect events beyond the familial sphere. Wilhelm's jealousy of his uncle, which did not die at Edward's own death, bled into his feeling for England. There have been writings on the failure of Europe's network of bluebloods to make peace, but that failure stems in large part from the Kaiser's desire to humiliate his dead uncle by means of humiliating his living proxy, England. Had Wilhelm not been motivated by jealousy and resentment of the English king, he might have developed a foreign policy that did not alienate Great Britain from Germany. Everyone's initial 'foreign policy' is made in interaction with her closest intimates, members of her family, and the circle first widens to include relations by blood or marriage. Our 'foreign policy' to deal with the rest of the world is, for better or for worse, devised in that milieu, and few of us are able to change that policy, or not without exceedingly great effort. This is not to say, of course, that the Kaiser's resentment of his uncle was a direct cause of the War, but it was the motivation behind several actions by the Kaiser that soured Britain on Germany.
There was, Tuchman reports, a way out of Germany's commitment to fight both Russia and France:
At the last moment one was offered. A colleague of Bethmann's came to beg him to do anything he could to save Germany from a two-front war and suggested a means. For years a possible solution for Alsace had been discussed in terms of autonomy as a Federal State within the German Empire. If offered and accepted by the Alsatians, this solution would have deprived France of any reason to liberate the lost provinces. ... But... [u]ntil 1911 no constitution had ever been granted [Alsace] and autonomy never. Bethmann's colleague now urged him to make an immediate public, and official offer for a conference on autonomy for Alsace. This could be allowed to drag on without result, while its moral effect would force France to refrain from attack while at least considering the offer. Time would be gained for Germany to turn her forces against Russia while remaining stationary in the West, thus keeping England out.
The... proposal... may [have been] apocryphal. ... The opportunity was there and the Chancellor could have thought of it for himself. But to seize it required boldness, and Bethmann, behind his distinguished façade of great height, somber eyes, and well-trimmed imperial, was a man, as Theodore Roosevelt said of Taft, "who means well feebly." Instead of offering France an inducement to stay neutral, the German government sent her an ultimatum at the same time as the ultimatum to Russia. They asked France to reply within eighteen hours whether she would stay neutral in a Russo-German war, and added that if she did Germany would "demand as guarantee of neutrality the handing over to us of the fortresses of Toul and Verdun which we shall occupy and restore after the war is over"—in other words, the handing over of the key to the French door.
Baron von Schoen, German ambassador in Paris, could not bring himself to pass on this "brutal" demand at a moment when, it seemed to him, French neutrality woud have been such a supreme advantage to Germany that his government might well have offered to pay a price for it than exact a penalty. ... When Schoen, at 11:00 a.m. on August 1, asked for France's reply he was answered that France "would act in accordance with her interests." [pp. 93-4]
Commentary: 'Bethmann' refers to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, Germany's leading minister at the time of the War. Tuchman's reference to Roosevelt's jibe about Taft suggests that Bethmann was not likely to have the verve to suggest something so daring as a conference on Alsace, or, rather, to persist in advocating for such a thing against the obduracy of the General Staff. The object of the French war plan was to liberate Alsace and the part of Lorraine that had been annexed by the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Indeed, had the Germans given Alsace-Lorraine relative autonomy as a Federal State well before the War, they would have effectively nullified France's casus belli, since France could hardly invade its former province if the latter territory appeared to enjoy an extended degree of freedom; even less could France afford to attempt to outflank the Germans by violating Belgium's neutrality, for then Great Britain would have sided against, instead of with, her. (Tuchman elsewhere relates how the French war plan relied on the Germans being the first to violate Belgium's neutrality.) As is soon to be evident, however, flexibility by Germany was impossible, for the foreign policy dog was being wagged by its Army tail. The ultimatum sent to France, with its demand for Toul and Verdun (the latter fortress later to be the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Great War), was clearly designed to precipitate a fight.
The German ambassador to England, meanwhile, sent word that the British might be kept out of the War (it later proved that he had misinterpreted something said by Sir Edward Grey, Britain's Foreign Minister).
In Berlin just after five o'clock [on the first of August] a telephone rang in the Foreign Office. ... [It was Moltke, who wanted to know whether things could start.] At that moment a telegram from London, just decoded, broke in upon the planned proceedings. It offered hope that if the movement against France could be instantly stopped Germany might safely fight a one-front war after all. Carrying it with them Bethmann and Jagow dashed off on their taxi trip to the palace.
The telegram, from Prince Lichnowsky, ambassador in London, reported an English offer, as Lichnowsky understood it, "that in case we did not attack France, England would remain neutral and would guarantee France's neutrality."
When the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, telephoned him that morning, in the interval of a Cabinet meeting, Lichnowsky, out of his own anxiety, interpreted what Grey said to him as an offer by England to stay neutral and to keep France neutral in a Russo-German war, if, in return, Germany would promise not to attack France.
Actually, Grey had not quite said that. What, in his ellipsed way, he offered was a promise to keep France neutral if Germany would promise to stay neutral as against France and Russia, in other words, not to go to war against either, pending the results of efforts to settle the Serbian affair. After eight years as Foreign Secretary in a period of chronic "Bosnias," as Bülow called them, Grey had perfected a manner of speaking designed to convey as little meaning as possible; his avoidance of the point-blank, said a colleague, almost amounted to method. Over the telephone, Lichnowsky, himself dazed by the coming tragedy, would have had no difficulty misunderstanding him.
The Kaiser clutched at Lichnowsky's passport to a one-front war. Minutes counted. Already mobilization was rolling inexorably toward the French frontier. The first hostile act, seizure of a railway junction in Luxembourg, whose neutrality the five Great Powers, including Germany, had guaranteed, was scheduled within an hour. It must be stopped, stopped at once. But how? Where was Moltke?  Moltke had left the palace. An aide was sent off, with siren screaming, to intercept him. He was brought back.
The Kaiser was himself again, the All-Highest, the War Lord, blazing with a new idea, planning, proposing, disposing. He read Moltke the telegram and said in triumph: "Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our Army to the East!"
Aghast at the thought of his marvelous machinery of mobilization wrenched into reverse, Moltke refused point-blank. For the past ten years, first as assistant to Schlieffen, then as his successor, Moltke's job had been planning for this day, The Day, Der Tag, for which all Germany's energies were gathered, on which the march to final mastery of Europe would begin. It weighed upon him with an oppressive, almost unbearable responsibility.
Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser's meddling with serious military matters, or with meddling of any kind with the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunition lost in the middle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tracks at specified interval of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.
"Your Majesty," Moltke said to him now, "it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete"—and Moltke closed upon that rigid phrase, the basis for every major German mistake, the phrase that launchd the invasion of Belgium and the submarine war against the United States, the inevitable phrase when military plans dictate policy—"and once settled it cannot be altered."
In fact it could have been altered The German General Staff, though committed since 1905 to a plan of attack upon France first, had in their files, revised each year until 1913, an alternative plan against Russia with all the trains running eastward.
When Moltke's "It cannot be done" was revealed after the war in his memoirs, General von Staab, Chief of the Railway Division, was so incensed by what he considered a reproach upon his bureau that he wrote a book to prove that it could have been done. In pages of charts and graphs he demonstrated how, given notice on August 1, he could have deployed four out of the seven armies to the Eastern Front by August 15, leaving three to defend the West. ...
On the night of August 1, Moltke, clinging to the fixed plan, lacked the necessary nerve. "Your uncle would have given me a different answer," the Kaiser said to him bitterly. The reproach "wounded me deeply," Moltke wrote afterward; "I never pretended to be the equal of the old Field Marshal." Nevertheless he continued to refuse: "My protest that it would be impossible to maintain peace between France and Germany while both countries were mobilized made no impression. Everybody got more and more excited and I was alone in my opinion."
"Crushed," Moltke says of himself, on what should have been the culminating day of his career, he returned to the General Staff and "burst into bitter tears of abject despair." When his aide brought him for his signature the written order canceling the Luxembourg movement, "I threw my pen down on the table and refused to sign." To have signed as the first order after mobilization one that would have annulled all the careful preparations would have been taken, he knew, as evidence of "hesitancy and irresolution." "Do what you want with this telegram," he said to his aide; "I will not sign it."
He was still brooding at eleven o'clock when another summons came from the palace. Moltke found the Kaiser in his bedroom, characteristically dressed for the occasion, with a military overcoat over his nightshirt. A telegram had come from Lichnowsky, who, in a further talk with Grey, had discovered his error and now wired sadly, "A positive proposal by England is, on the whole, not in prospect."
"Now you can do what you like," said the Kaiser, and went back to bed. Moltke, the Commander in Chief who had now to direct a campaign that would decide the fate of Germany, was left permanently shaken. "That was my first experience of the war," he wrote afterward. "I never recovered from the shock of this incident. Something in me broke and I was never the same thereafter."
Neither was the world, he might have added. [A order from the Kaiser by telephone to halt mobilization and forward movement] had not arrived in time. At seven o'clock, as scheduled, the first frontier of the war was crossed, the distinction going to an infantry company of the 69th Regiment under the command of a certain Lieutenant Feldmann. Just inside the Luxembourg border, on the slopes of the Ardennes about twelve miles from Bastogne in Belgium, stood a little town known to the Germans as Ulflingen. Around it cows grazed on the hillside pastures; on its steep, cobblestone streets not a stray wisp of hay, even in August harvest time, was allowed to offend the strict laws governing municipal cleanliness in the Grand Duchy. At the foot of the town was a railroad station and telegraph office where the lines from Germany and Belgium crossed. This was the German objective which Lieutenant Feldmann's company, arriving in automobiles, duly seized.
With their relentless talent for the tactless, the Germans chose to violate Luxembourg at a place whose native and official name was Trois Vierges. The three virgins in fact represented faith, hope, and charity, but History with her apposite touch arranged for the occasion that they should stand in the public mind for Luxembourg, Belgium, and France.
At 7:30 a second detachment in automobiles arrived (presumably in response to the Kaiser's message) and ordered off the first group, saying "a mistake has been made." In the interval Luxembourg's Minister of State Eyschen had already telegraphed the news to London, Paris, and Brussels and a protest to Berlin. The three virgins had made their point. By midnight Moltke had rectified the reversal, and by the end of the next day, August 2, M-1 on the German schedule, the entire Grand Duchy was occupied.
A question has haunted the annals of history ever since: What Ifs might have followed if the Germans had gone east in 1914 while remaining on the defensive against France? General von Staab showed that to have turned against Russia was technically possible. But whether it would have been temperamentally possible for the Germans to have refrained from attacking France when Der Tag came is another matter. [pp. 94-100]
Commentary: Der Tag, The Day, was, as Tuchman briefly touches upon here, and expands upon eariler in The Guns of August, how the Germans viewed the day upon which the war would begin in which they would crush France once and for all. It carries slightly apocalyptic undertones, as though the defeat of France would be the consummation of history. That they called it 'The Day' invites the conclusion that it was inevitable that they would march on France.
If it was not inevitable per se, it was inevitable because the man responsible for making it so, Moltke, could not conceive doing anything else. 'It cannot be done.' But, as Tuchman notes, it could have been. The General Staff had made plans for eight years in which the offensive was taken against Russia, and as General von Staab of the Railway Division later wrote in protest against Moltke's pessimism, of course the German railway network could have shifted gears and, in a mere two weeks, re-deployed more than half of Germany's might on the Western Front against Russia.
It is open to question, however, whether, having re-deployed its armies against Russia the Germans could have changed the nature, or outcome, of the war. One author notes, briefly, that due to the paucity of railroads German military strength could not be maximised in the East as it was in the West and that, before long, Germany would have embroiled in a world war anyway. (As an aside, I think I might like to purchase this book.) The chief battlegrounds on the Western Front would, I suppose, have been on the Franco-German frontier instead of in Belgium and France, but whether much else would have changed, it is impossible to say.
Again, the inability of both the Kaiser and Moltke to live up to the reputations and genius of their predecessors is highlighted. Moltke is 'deeply wounded' by the Kaiser's bitter reproach: 'Your uncle would have given me a different answer.' But he himself admits to not being 'the equal of the old Field Marshal.' Yet, perhaps, had he never tried to live up to Moltke the Elder's genius, he might have made something of himself. The Kaiser, meanwhile, by implication is suggested to be a statesman inferior to his father, the first German Emperor.
It is indeed apposite, as Tuchman puts it, that, so to speak, the violation of neutrality and of the peace was undertaken in a communications and railway hub, Trois Vièrges - the three virgins.
As for the misunderstanding with Grey, it is little wonder, given that 'he had perfected a manner of speaking designed to convey as little meaning as possible,' the German ambassador misunderstood him and sent word that Germany might avoid war with France after all. Germany was doomed to war with France: the only question was whether she would take the offensive against France, according to the doctrines of the Schlieffen Plan, or whether (had Moltke perhaps had the nerve to change his mind) she would fight on the defensive and send her armies east to face the Russian juggernaut.

So much for the lead-up to war in Germany. Meanwhile, the primary motive of the French political leaders was to ensure that she did not appear to be the aggressor in the event of mobilisation for war against Germany, for:
One prime objective governed French policy: to enter the war with England as an ally. To ensure that event and enable her friends in England to overcome the inertia and reluctance within their own Cabinet and country, France had to leave it clear beyond question who was the attacked and who the attacker. The physical act and moral odium of aggression must be left squarely upon Germany. Germany was expected to do her part, but lest any overanxious French patrols or frontier troops stepped over the border, the French government took a daring and extraordinary step. On July 30 it ordered a ten-kilometer withdrawal along the entire frontier with Germany from Switzerland to Luxembourg.
In Paris they were told German covering troops had taken their places a few hundred meters from the frontier. ... Hope still flourished of a negotiated settlement. ... While there was still even the least chance of settling the crisis without war, and in order to leave the lines of aggression clear if war came, the Cabinet agreed upon the ten-kilometer withdrawal. The order, telegraphed to corps commanders, was designed, they were told, "to assure the collaboration of our English neighbors." A telegram informing England of the measure went out simultaneously. The act of withdrawal, done at the very portals of invasion, was a calculated military risk deliberately taken for its political effect. It was taking a chance "never before taken in history," said Viviani, and he might have added, like Cyrano, "Ah, but what a gesture!"
Withdrawal was a bitter gesture to ask of a French Commander in Chief schooled in the doctrine of offensive and nothing but the offensive. It could have shattered General Joffre as Moltke's first experience of the war shattered him, but General Joffre's heart did not break.
... Joffre had been hounding the government [since July 29] for the order to mobilize or at least take the preliminary steps: recall of furloughs, of which many troops had been granted for the harvest, and deployment of covering troops to the frontier. He deluged them with intelligence reports of German premobilization measures already taken. ...
Joffre told the government that if he was not given the order to assemble and transport the covering troops of five army corps and cavalry toward the frontier, the Germans would "enter France without firing a shot." He accepted the ten-kilometer withdrawal of troops already in position less from subservience to the civil arm—Joffre was about as subservient by nature as Julius Caesar—as from a desire to bend all the force of his argument upon the one issue of the covering troops. The government, still reluctant while diplomatic offers and counter-offers flashing over the wires might yet produce a settlement, agreed to give him a "reduced" version, that is, without calling out the reservists.
At 4:30 next day, July 31, a banking friend in Amsterdam telephoned Messimy the news of the German Kriegesgefahr, officially confirmed an hour later from Berlin. It was "une forme hypocrite de la mobilisation," Messimy angrily told the Cabinet. His friend in Amsterdam had said war was certain and Germany was ready for it, "from the Emperor down to the last Fritz." Following hard upon this news came a telegram from Paul Cambon, French ambassador in London, reporting that England was "tepid." Cambon had devoted every day of the past sixteen years at his post to the single end of ensuring England's active support when the time came, but he had now to wire that the British government seemed to be awaiting some new development. The dispute so far was of "no interest to Great Britain."
Joffre arrived, with a new memorandum on German movements, to insist upon mobilization. He was permitted to send his full "covering order" but no more, as news had also come of a last-minute appeal from the Czar to the Kaiser. ...
At seven o'clock in the evening Baron von Schoen, making his eleventh visit to the French Foreign Office in seven days, presented Germany's demand to know what course France would take and said he would return next day at one o'clock for an answer. ...
At 2:00 a.m. that night, President Poincaré was awakened in bed by the irrepressible Russian ambassador, Isvolsky, a former hyperactive foreign minister. "Very distressed and very agitated," he wanted to know, "What is France going to do?"
... Poincaré assured him that a Cabinet would be called within a few hours to supply the answer. At the same hour the Russian military attaché in full diplomatic dress appeared in Messimy's bedroom to pose the same question. Messimy telephoned to Premier Viviani who, though exhausted by the night's events, had not yet gone to bed. "Good God!" he exploded, "these Russians are worse insomniacs than they are drinkers," and he excitedly recommended "Du calme, du calme et encore du calme!"
Pressed by the Russians to declare themselves, and by Joffre to mobilize, yet held to a standstill by the need to prove to England that France would act only in self-defense, the French government found calm not easy. At 8:00 next morning, August 1, Joffre came to the War Office... to beg Messimy, in "a pathetic tone that contrasted with his habitual calm," to pry mobilization from the government. He named four o'clock as the last moment when the order could reach the General Post Office for dispatch by telegraph throughout France in time for mobilization to begin at midnight. ...
[T]he Cabinet faced the problem. Poincaré was for action; Viviani... still hoped that time would provide a solution. At 11:00 he was called to the Foreign Office to see von Schoen who in his own anxiety had arrived two hours early for the answer to Germany's question of the previous day: whether France would stay neutral in a Russo-German war. "My question is rather naïve," said the unhappy ambassador, "for we know you have a treaty of alliance."
"Evidemment," replied Viviani, and gave the answer prearranged between him and Poincaré. "France will act in accordance with her interests." As Schoen left, Isvolsky rushed in with news of the German ultimatum to Russia. Viviani returned to the Cabinet, which at last agreed upon mobilization. The order was signed... but Viviani, still hoping for some saving development to turn up within the few remaining hours, insisted that Messimy keep it in his pocket until 3:30. At the same time the ten-kilometer withdrawal was reaffirmed. ...
At 3:30, as arranged, General Ebener of Joffre's staff, accompanied by two officers, came to the War Office to call for the mobilization order. Messimy handed it over in dry-throated silence. "Conscious of the gigantic and infinite results to spread from that little piece of paper, all four of us felt our hearts tighten." He shook hands with each of the three officers, who saluted and departed to deliver the order to the Post Office. [pp. 102-8]
Commentary: Due to her need to secure British assistance and in the hopes of avoiding looking like the aggressor, France's government postponed mobilisation, although not so long as to give the Germans a free hand on the frontier. In the event, France's near-defeat in the fall of 1914 resulted not from her delay in mobilising her armies, but from the ill-conceived and disastrous 'doctrine of the offensive,' in which Staff officers such as Joffre were schooled, from the inability of the French military to perceive the threat of the German right flank, and from the lack of recognition that Germany's active forces, unlike those of France, included her reserves. (All of these Tuchman goes on to discuss.)
It is remarkable that the French ambassador to Great Britain, Paul Cambon, spent sixteen years energetically working to ensure that, in the event of war, Britain would side, as promised, with France and Russia, yet, for all that, he very nearly had nought to show for his prodigious efforts. The French tried their utmost to avoid committing to war without the English alongside, but in the end had to stick their necks out on behalf of their certain ally, Russia, without the certain hope that their uncertain ally, England, would join in. The French position in this respect is easy to understand. Even though, in the event, they underestimated the extent of German might, they would have known, roughly what the German plan on the Western Front entailed (sweeping across the Channel and encircling the French left flank while enveloping Paris). Russia had vast armies at her disposal, but was poorly organised, and, moreover, those vast armies were far, far away. It would be a long time before the benefit of the Russian menace to Germany would be felt - and, in the event, after Tannenberg, the Russian menace would never be so great as to compel Germany to seek terms or sue for peace. The French needed security against German envelopment now, and the only source of that security was Britain. Thus, the French and Russians both needed to hear from Britain that she would fight, which is why the French took particular care to avoid looking like the aggressor.
Meanwhile, there is a certain irony in Premier Viviani's reaction to the 'insomniac' Russians bursting in at all hours seeking assurance that France would fight: ' "Good God!" he exploded, "these Russians are worse insomniacs than they are drinkers," and he excitedly recommended "Du calme, du calme et encore du calme!" ' Excitedly recommending calm, eh? In any case, with the knowledge of German mobilisation there was no question as to whether France would go to war; the only question was by whose side she would fight.

Yet, even with France's best efforts to avoid being cast as the aggressor, and Germany's to step up to the plate in that respect, it was not clear that Great Britain would fight.
Orchestras... [in Paris] restaurants played the French, Russian, and British anthems. ... The playing of their anthem, as if to express a hope, made Englishmen in the crowd uncomfortable and none more so than Sir Francis Bertie, the... British ambassador who... was seen entering the Quai d'Orsay. Sir Francis felt "sick at heart and ashamed." He ordered the gates of his embassy closed, for, as he wrote in his diary, "though it is 'Vive l'Angleterre' today, it may be 'Perfide Albion' tomorrow."

In London that thought hung heavily in the room where small, white-bearded M. Cambon confronted Sir Edward Grey. When Grey said to him that some "new development" must be awaited because the dispute between Russia, Austria, and Germany concerned a matter "of no interest" to Great Britain, Cambon let a glint of anger penetrate his impeccable tact and polished dignity. Was England "going to wait until French territory was invaded before intervening?" he asked, and suggested that if so her help might be "very belated."
Grey... was in equal anguish. He believed fervently that England's interests required her to support France; he was prepared, in fact, to resign if she did not; he believed events to come would force her hand, but as yet he could say nothing officially to Cambon. ... He managed only to express edgily the thought that was in everyone's mind, that "Belgian neutrality might become a factor." That was the development Grey—and not he alone—was waiting for.
Britain's predicament resulted from a split personality evident both within Cabinet and between the parties. The Cabinet was divided, in a split that derived from the Boer War, between Liberal Imperialists represented by Asquith, Grey, Haldane, and Churchill, and "Little Englanders" represented by all the rest. Heirs of Gladstone, they, like their late leader, harbored a deep suspicion of foreign entanglements and considered the aiding of oppressed peoples to be the only proper concern of foreign affairs, which were otherwise regarded as a tiresome interference... . They tended to regard France as the decadent and frivolous grasshopper, and would have liked to regard Germany as the industrious, respectable ant, had not the posturings and roarings of the Kaiser and the Pan-German militarists somehow discouraged this view. They would never have supported a war on behalf of France, although the injection of Belgium, a "little" country with a just call on British protection, might alter the issue.
Grey's group in the Cabinet, on the other hand, shared with the Tories a fundamental premise that Britain's national interest was bound up in the preservation of France. The reasoning was best expressed in the marvelously flat words of Grey himself: "If Germany dominated the Continent it would be disagreeable to us as well as to others, for we should be isolated." In this epic sentence is all of British policy, and from it followed the knowledge that, if the challenge were flung, England would have to fight to prevent that "disagreeable" outcome. But Grey could not say so without provoking a split in the Cabinet and in the country that would be fatal to any war effort before it began.
Alone in Europe Britain had no conscription. In war she would be dependent on voluntary enlistment. A secession from the government over the war issue would mean the formation of an antiwar party led by the dissidents with disastrous effect on recruiting. If it was the prime objective of France to enter war with Britain as an ally, it was a prime necessity for Britain to enter war with a united government.
This was the touchstone of the problem. In Cabinet meetings the group opposed to intervention proved strong. Their leader, Lord Morley, Gladstone's old friend and biographer, believed he could count on "eight or nine likely to agree with us" against the solution being openly worked for by Churchill with "daemonic energy" and Grey with "strenuous simplicity." From discussions in the Cabinet it was clear to Morley that the neutrality of Belgium was "secondary to the question of our neutrality in the struggle between Germany and France." It was equally clear to Grey that only violation of Belgium's neutrality would convince the peace party of the German menace and the need to go to war in the national interest.
On August 1 the crack was visible and widening in Cabinet and Parliament. That day twelve out of eighteen Cabinet members declared themselves opposed to giving France the assurance of Britain's support in war. That afternoon in the lobby of the House of Commons a caucus of Liberal M.P.s voted 19 to 4 (though with many abstentions) for a motion that England should remain neutral "whatever happened in Belgium or elsewhere." That week Punch published "Lines designed to represent the views of an average British patriot.":
Why should I follow your fighting line
For a matter that's no concern of mine? . . .

I shall be asked to a general scrap
All over the European map,
Dragged into somebody else's war
For that's what a double entente is for.
The average patriot had already used up his normal supply of excitement and indignation in the current Irish crisis... [as a result of which due to the resignation from office of its previous occupant] there was no Secretary of War, the office being left to Prime Minister Asquith, who had little time and less inclination for it.
Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but "paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha." He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should do and to act upon it without hesitation. ...
On July 26... [w]hen [Churchill] learned the news from Austria he made up his mind to make sure "that the diplomatic situation did not get ahead of the naval situation and that the Grand Fleet should be in its War Station before Germany could know whether or not we should be in the war and therefore if possible before we had decided ourselves." The italics are his own. ...
Having prepared the fleet for action, Churchill turned his abounding energy and sense of urgency upon preparing the country. ...
Time pressed on the restless Churchill who, expecting the Liberal government to break apart, went off to make overtures to his old party, the Tories. Coalition was not in the least to the taste of the Prime Minister who was bent on keeping his government united. Lord Morley at seventy-six was expected by no one to stay with the government in the event of war. Not Morley but the far more vigorous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, was the key figure whom the government could not afford to lose, both for his proved ability in office and his influence upon the electorate. Shrewd, ambitious, and possessed of a spellbinding Welsh eloquence, Lloyd George leaned to the peace group but might jump either way. ... [H]e might... see political advantage in "playing the peace-card"... . He was altogether an unknown quantity.
Asquith, who had no intention of leading a divided country into war, continued to wait with exasperating patience for events which might convince the peace group. The question of the hour, he recorded in his passionless way in his diary for July 31, was, "Are we to go in or stand aside. Of course everybody longs to stand aside." In a less passive attitude, Grey, during the Cabinet of July 31 almost reached the point-blank. He said Germany's policy was that of a "European aggressor as bad as Napoleon" (a name that for England had only one meaning) and told the Cabinet that the time had come when a decision whether to support the Entente or preserve neutrality could no longer be deferred. He said that if it chose neutrality he was not the man to carry out such a policy. His implied threat to resign echoed as if it had been spoken.
"The Cabinet seemed to heave a sort of sigh," wrote one of them, and sat for several moments in "breathless silence." Its members looked at one another, suddenly realizing that their continued existence as a government was now in doubt. They adjourned without reaching a decision. [pp. 108-13]
Commentary: We shall have more to say about the wrangling and negotiating of the British Cabinet during the lead-up to the War, but let us pause to take stock.
Perfide l'Albion (the British, incidentally, could not win; if the French thought them perfidious for refusing to go to war, the Germans would, in the event, think them perfidious for going to war) faced the difficulty of needing to go to war if, and only if, she could do so under a united government. As Tuchman notes, a split Cabinet and government would have spelled disaster for Britain's war effort. Despite the vote against war under any circumstances (including the violation of Belgian neutrality), it was clear to Asquith and Grey that only Belgium could induce Britain to go to war. They did not yet know that Germany had every intention of invading Belgium and providing a casus belli.
Few of the major players in the Cabinet of Asquith's Liberal government would be well-known today, with the obvious exception of Winston Churchill. Churchill's best efforts in the First World War were those that he pursued before the war began, namely, readying the Navy for action and working energetically to persuade and prepare Britain for war with Germany. His record as First Lord of the Admiralty in prosecuting the war was much less impressive; it was he, after all, who set in motion the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles.
Herbert Henry Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, would begin the war, but not finish it; he would resign late in 1916 and be replaced by David Lloyd George (q.v.). I recall reading a biography about the Asquiths, called (unsurprisingly) The Asquiths, by Colin Clifford. Asquith had a remarkable family; a number of his sons fought in the trenches, and his oldest son was killed at the Somme in 1916. Incidentally, there is a street in Toronto named in Asquith's honour (it was called Bismarck Avenue until the end of the war, at which point it was renamed for him).
David Lloyd George was viewed as an essential member of the government; it was felt that the government could survive any split so long as he remained in Cabinet. But were he to leave (as it was assumed that Lord Morley, a committed disciple of Gladstone, would), it was viewed as disastrous to the prospects of Britain going into the war united - as she must - or, for that matter, to the prospects of the Liberals retaining power. The 'Welsh Wizard' would go on to a controversial career as Prime Minister and in prosecuting the war effort.
Grey, the foreign minister, was not noted for his dynamic personality; his 'epic sentence', his 'marvellously flat words,' namely: 'If Germany dominated the Continent it would be disagreeable to us as well as to others, for we should be isolated', sums him up quite well. We have already seen that he had a penchant for unobtrusive, non-committal talk.
The 'current Irish crisis' was the Home Rule Crisis, deeply unpopular among Unionists; its effect upon British preparations for war in Europe (and it was after all, for all its domestic importance, a sideshow compared to the looming menace of Germany) was crippling, for during the course of the crisis, the Secretary of State for War (one J. E. B. Seely) was forced to resign as a result of the Curragh incident (or Curragh Mutiny, as it has also been called). The Curragh Mutiny occurred in late March of 1914, almost exactly four months before the outbreak of war; that there should be no Secretary of State for War when a European war loomed (even though no one knew when it would begin) was hardly to the good.

As the days wore on, the Cabinet came no closer to bridging the gap between the two groups, a gap widened by the views of the 'average British patriot' (see above) and of other, more professional, men:
That Friday... the Stock Exchange cloed down at 10:00 a.m. in a wave of financial panic... which was closing Exchanges all over Europe. The City trembled, prophesying doom and the collapse of foreign exchange. Bankers and businessmen, according to Lloyd George, were "aghast" at the idea of war which would "break down the whole system of credit with London at its center." The Governor of the Bank of England called on Saturday to inform Lloyd George that the City was "totally opposed to our intervening" in a war.
... The formula of "no commitment" which Haldane had first established... still represented the official position, even if it did not make sense.
It made very little. ... The Anglo-French war plans, worked out in detail over a period of nine years, were not a game... . They were a continuation of policy or they were nothing. They were no different from France's arrangements with Russia... except for the final legal fiction that they did not "commit" Britain to action. Members of the government and Parliament who disliked the policy simply shut their eyes and mesmerized themselves into believing the fiction.
M. Cambon, visiting Opposition leaders after his painful interview with Grey, now dropped diplomatic tact altogether. "All our plans are arranged in common. Our General Staffs have consulted. You have seen all our schemes and preparations. Look at our fleet! Our whole fleet is in the Mediterranean in consequence of our arrangements with you and our coasts are open to the enemy. You have laid us wide open!" He told them that if England did not come in France would never forgive her and ended with a bitter cry, "Et l'honneur? Est-ce-que l'Angleterre comprend ce que c'est l'honneur?"
Honor wears different coats to different eyes, and Grey knew it would have to wear a Belgian coat before the peace group could be persuaded to see it. That same afternoon he dispatched two telegrams asking the French and German governments for a formal assurance that they were prepared to respect Belgian neutrality "so long as no other power violates it." Within an hour of receiving the telegram in the late evening of July 31, France replied in the affirmative. No reply was received from Germany.
Next day, August 1, the matter was put before the Cabinet. Lloyd George traced with his finger on a map what he thought would be the German route through Belgium, just across the near corner, on the shortest straight line to Paris; it would only, he said, be a "little violation." ... When Grey asked for authority to implement the promises made to the French Navy, Lord Morley, John Burns, Sir John Simon, and Lewis Harcourt proposed to resign. ... Grey left the room to speak to—and be misunderstood by—Lichnowsky on the telephone, and unwittingly to be the cause of havoc in the heart of General Moltke. He also saw Cambon and told him "France must take her own decision at this moment without reckoning on an assistance we are not now in a position to give." He returned to the Cabinet while Cambon, white and shaking, sank into a chair... . "Ils vont nous lâcher" (They are going to desert us), he said. To the editor of The Times who asked him what he was going to do, he replied, "I am going to wait to learn if the word 'honor' should be erased from the English dictionary."
In the Cabinet no one wanted to burn his bridges. Resignations were bruited, not yet offered. Asquith continued to sit tight, say little, and await developments as that day of crossed wires and complicated frenzy drew to a close. That evening Moltke was refusing to go east, Lieutenant Feldmann's company was seizing Trois Vierges in Luxembourg, Messimy over the telephone was reconfirming the ten-kilometer withdrawal, and at the Admiralty the First Lord was entertaining friends... . ... [A] messenger brought in a red dispatch box—it happened to be one of the largest size. ... Churchill opened it... and read the... line... "Germany has declared war on Russia." He... "went straight out like a man going to a well-accustomed job."
Churchill walked... to Downing Street... and found the Prime Minister upstairs with Grey, Haldane, now Lord Chancellor, and Lord Crewe, Secretary for India. He told them he intended "instantly to mobilize the fleet notwithstanding the Cabinet decision." Asquith said nothing but appeared, Churchill thought, "quite content." Grey... said to [Churchill], "I have just done a very important thing. I have told Cambon that we shall not allow the German fleet to come into the Channel." ...
Both [Churchill's] order and Grey's promise to make good the naval agreement with France were contrary to majority Cabinet sentiment. On the next day the Cabinet would have to ratify these acts or break apart, and by that time Grey expected a "development" to come out of Belgium. Like the French, he felt he could count on Germany to provide it. [pp. 113-6]
Commentary: Tuchman's discussion of the widespread acceptance of the 'legal fiction' of 'no commitment', with her reference to 'members of the government and Parliament shutting their eyes or mesmerising themselves into believing the fiction' (para.), most sounds like Brendon (in The Dark Valley) at this point. Very shortly, of course, a 'development' would come out of Belgium, provided by Germany, which would, if not prevent a split in Cabinet, at least keep in government the men who mattered most. They failed to see what was evidently right before their eyes because they refused to look, or most of them did, anyhow.
What is interesting is how well Cambon grasps Grey's point: 'Ils vont nous lâcher.' The threat of English desertion of the Triple Entente may well have been realised. Grey said, 'France must take her own decision at this moment without reckoning on an assistance we are not now in a position to give,' which is not quite the same as, 'We're going to desert you,' but it carries the risk. Grey had just asked if he could implement promises made to the French Navy, and four members of Cabinet proposed to resign. They knew, of course, that if Britain went through with supporting the French Navy, even in so passive a role as defending the Channel coast, she would be dragged into war against Germany - not unlike how Roosevelt later used the U. S. Navy to help drag America into the Second World War.
Churchill, however, proposed to risk the break in the Cabinet by going ahead and mobilising the fleet, 'notwithstanding the Cabinet decision.' No doubt he felt, like Grey, that 'he could count on Germany to provide' a 'development' in Europe that would tip most of the dissenting members of Cabinet toward supporting war.

On the second of August, the Germans indeed informed Belgium that they would be violating her neutrality, using the false pretence of a (fictional) attack by France on German soil as the pretext. (How like the pretext that began the Second World War, when Germany went to war against Poland on the grounds that Polish troops attacked a radio transmitter!)

What followed was the decisive crisis that brought England into the War.
On Sunday afternoon, August 2, a few hours before the German ultimatum was delivered in Brussels, Grey asked the British Cabinet for authority to fulfill the naval engagement to defend the French Channel coast. No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard and fast and specific decision. Through the long afternoon the Cabinet squirmed uncomfortably, unready and unwilling to grasp the handle of final commitment.
... [Britain's] weapons were ready but not her will. Over the past ten years she had... prepared for the war that was now upon her and had developed... a system... which left nothing to the traditional British practice of muddling through. All orders to be issued in the event of war were ready for signature; envelopes were addressed; notices and proclamations were either printed or set up in type, and the King never moved from London without having with him those that required his immediate signature. The method was plain; the muddle was in the British mind.
The appearance of a German fleet in the Channel would have been no less direct a challenge to Britain than the Spanish Armada of long ago, and the Sunday Cabinet reluctantly agreed to Grey's request. The written pledge which that afternoon he handed to Cambon read, "If the German Fleet comes into the Channel or through the North Sea to undertake hostile operations against the French coasts or shipping, the British Fleet will give all protection in its power." Grey added, however, that the pledge "does not bind us to go to war with Germany unless the German fleet took the action indicated." ...
... He [Grey] added that the naval commitment must not become public until Parliament could be informed on the next day.
Half in despair but yet in hope, Cambon informed his government of the pledge in a "very secret" telegram which reached Paris at 8:30 that night. Though it was but a one-legged commitment, far less than France had counted on, he believed it would lead to full belligerency, for, as he later put it, nations do not wage war "by halves."
But the naval pledge was only wrung from the Cabinet at the cost of the break that Asquith had been trying so hard to prevent. Two ministers, Lord Morley and John Burns, resigned; the formidable Lloyd George was still "doubtful." Morley believed the dissolution of the Cabinet was "in full view that afternoon." Asquith had to confess "we are on the brink of a split."
... Up to this moment the German ultimatum was not yet known. The underlying issue in the thinking of men like Churchill... Haldane and Grey was the threatened German hegemony of Europe if France were crushed. But the policy that required support of France had developed behind closed doors and had never been fully admitted to the country. The majority of the Liberal government did not accept it. On this issue neither government nor country would have gone to war united. To many, if not to most Englishmen, the crisis was another phase in the old quarrel between Germany and France, and none of England's affair. To make it England's affair in the eyes of the public, the violation of Belgium, child of English policy, where every step of the invaders would trample on a treaty of which England was architect and signatory, was required. Grey determined to ask the Cabinet next morning to regard such an invasion as a formal casus belli.
That evening as he was at dinner with Haldane, a Foreign Office messenger brought over a dispatch box with a telegram, which... warned that "Germany was about to invade Belgium." What this telegram was or from whom it came is not clear, but Grey must have considered it authentic. Passing it to Haldane, Grey asked him what he thought. "Immediate mobilization," Haldane replied.
They at once left the dinner table and drove to Downing Street where they found the Prime Minister with some guests. Taking him into a private room, they showed him the telegram and asked for authority to mobilize. Asquith agreed. Haldane suggested that he be temporarily reappointed to the War Office for the emergency. The Prime Minister would be too busy next day to perform the War Minister's duties. Asquith again agreed... .
Next morning... [in] the Cabinet room... the ministers, meeting again in almost continuous session, were trying to make up their minds whether to fight on the issue of Belgium.
Over at the War Office Lord Haldane was already sending out the mobilization telegrams calling up Reservists and Territorials. At eleven o'clock the Cabinet received news of Belgium's decision to pit her six divisions against the German Empire. Half an hour later they received a declaration from the Conservative leaders, written before the ultimatum to Belgium was known, stating that it would be "fatal to the honor and security of the United Kingdom" to hesitate in support of France and Russia. Russia as an ally already stuck in the throats of most Liberal ministers. Two more of them—Sir John Simon and Lord Beauchamp—resigned, but the events in Belgium decided the pivotal Lloyd George to stay with the government.

At three o'clock that afternoon of August 3, Grey was due in Parliament to make the government's first official and public statement on the crisis. All Europe, as well as all England, was hanging on it. Grey's task was to bring his country into war and bring her in united. He had to carry with him his own, traditionally pacifist, party. He had to explain to the oldest and most practiced parliamentary body in the world how Britain was committed to support France by virtue of something that was not a commitment. He must present Belgium as the cause without hiding France as the basic cause; he must appeal to Britain's honor while making it clear that Britain's interest was the deciding factor... .
He had had no time to prepare a written speech. In the last hour, as he was trying to compose his notes, the German ambassador was announced. Lichnowsky entered anxiously, asking what had the Cabinet decided? What was Grey going to tell the House? Would it be a declaration of war? Grey answered that it would not be a declaration of war but "a statement of conditions." Was the neutrality of Belgium one of the conditions? Lichnowsky asked. He "implored" Grey not to name it as one. He knew nothing of the plans of the German General Staff, but he could not suppose a "serious" violation was included in them, although German troops might traverse one small corner of Belgium. "If so," Lichnowsky said, voicing the eternal epitaph of man's surrender to events, "that could not be altered now."
... The House had gathered in total attendance for the first time since Gladstone brought in the Home Rule Bill in 1893. To accommodate all the members extra chairs were set up in the gangway. The Diplomatic Gallery was packed except for two empty seats marking the absence of the German and Austrian ambassadors. ... All eyes were on the government bench where Grey in a light summer suit sat between Asquith whose bland face expressed nothing and Lloyd George whose disheveled hair and cheeks drained of all color made him look years older.
Grey, appearing "pale, haggard and worn," rose to his feet. ...
Speaking slowly but with evident emotion, Grey asked the House to approach the crisis from the point of view of "British interests, British honor and British obligations." He told the history of the military "conversations" with France. He said that no "secret engagement" bound the House or restricted Britain's freedom to decide her own course of action. ... He seemed to be leaning so far backward to show England to be uncommitted that a worried Tory, Lord Derby, whispered angrily to his neighbor, "By God, they are going to desert Belgium!"
Grey then revealed the naval agreement with France. He told the house how, as a consequence of agreement with Britain, the French fleet was concentrated in the Mediterranean, leaving the northern and western coasts of France "absolutely undefended." ...
To explain his having already committed Britain to defend France's Channel coasts, Grey entered into an involved argument about "British interests"... . It was a tangled skein, and he hurried on to the "more serious consideration, growing more serious every hour," of Belgian neutrality.
To give the subject all its due, Grey, wisely not relying on his own oratory, borrowed Gladstone's thunder of 1870, "Could this country stand by and witness the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history and thus become participators in the sin?" From Gladstone, too, he took a phrase to express the fundamental issue—that England must take her stand "against the unmeasured aggrandizement of any power whatsoever."
In his own words he continued: "I ask the House from the point of the view of British interests to consider what may be at stake. If France is beaten to her knees . . . if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence and then Holland and then Denmark . . . if, in a crisis like this, we run away from these obligations of honor and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty . . . I do not believe for a moment that, at the end of this war, even if we stood aside, we should be able to undo what had happened, in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite us from falling under the domination of a single power . . . and we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world and should not escape the most serious and grave economic consequences." [In this paragraph all ellipses original to Tuchman's text.]
He placed before them the "issue and the choice." The House, which had listened in "painful absorption" for an hour and a quarter, broke into overwhelming applause, signifying its answer. The occasions when an individual is able to harness a nation are memorable, and Grey's speech proved to be one of those junctures by which people afterward date events. ... The two ministers who had resigned that morning were persuaded to return that evening, and it was generally felt that Grey had carried the country.
"What happens now?" Churchill asked Grey as they left the House together. "Now," replied Grey, "we shall send them an ultimatum to stop the invasion of Belgium within 24 hours." To Cambon, a few hours later, he said, "If they refuse, there will be war." Although he was to wait almost another twenty-four hours before sending the ultimatum, Lichnowsky's fear had been fulfilled; Belgium had been made the condition.
The Germans took that chance because they expected a short war and because, despite the last-minute moans and apprehensions of their civilian leaders over what the British might do, the German General Staff had already taken British belligerence into account and discounted it as of little or no significance in a war they believed would be over in four months.
Clausewitz, a dead Prussian, and Norman Angell, a living if misunderstood professor, had combined to fasten the short-war concept upon the European mind. Quick, decisive victory was the German orthodoxy; the economic impossibility of a long war was everybody's orthodoxy.
"You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees," the Kaiser told departing troops in the first week of August. ...
"If only someone had told me beforehand that England would take up arms against us!" wailed the Kaiser during lunch at Headquarters one day... . Someone in a small voice ventured, "Metternich," referring to the German ambassador in London who had been dismissed in 1912 because of his tiresome habit of predicting that naval increases would bring war with England no later than 1915. In 1912 Haldane had told the Kaiser that Britain could never permit German possession of the French Channel ports, and reminded him of the treaty obligation to Belgium. In 1912 Prince Henry of Prussia had asked his cousin King George point-blank "whether in the event of Germany and Austria going to war with Russia and France, England would come to the assistance of the two latter powers?' King George had replied, "Undoubtedly yes, under certain circumstances."
In spite of these warnings the Kaiser refused to believe what he knew to be true. ... [H]e was still "convinced" England would stay neutral when he went back to his yacht after giving Austria a free hand on July 5. His two Corpsbrüder from student days at Bonn, Bethmann and Jagow, whose qualifications for office consisted chiefly in the Kaiser's sentimental weakness for brothers who wore the black and white ribbon of the fraternity and called each other du, comforted themselves at intervals, like devout Catholics fingering their beads, with mutual assurances of British neutrality.
Moltke and the General Staff did not need Grey or anyone else to spell out for them what England would do, for they already counted on her coming in as an absolute certainty. ... Moltke's natural pessimism spared him the illusions of wishful thinking. In a memorandum he drew up in 1913 he stated the case more accurately than many Englishmen could have done. If Germany marched through Belgium without Belgian consent, he wrote, "then England will and must [italics original to Tuchman] join our enemies," the more so as she had declared that intention in 1870. ... [H]e felt sure that in a war between Germany and France, England would fight whether Germany went through Belgium or not, "because she fears German hegemony and true to her policy of maintaining a balance of power will do all she can to check the increase of German power."
... Two hours after Grey finished speaking in the House of Commons, that event took place which had been in the back of every mind on both sides of the Rhine since 1870 and in the front of most since 1905. Germany declared war on France. To the Germans it came... as the "military solution" of the ever-increasing tension, the end of the nightmare of encirclement. ...
... In Whitehall that evening, Sir Edward Grey, standing with a friend at the window as the street lamps were being lit, made the remark that has since epitomized the hour: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
... That evening [August 4] at seven o'clock England's answer, awaited so long in such anxiety by so many, was finally made definitive. That morning the British government had finally screwed its determination to the sticking point sufficiently to deliver an ultimatum. It arrived, however, in two parts. First, Grey asked for an assurance that German demands upon Belgium would not be "proceeded with" and for an "immediate reply," but as he attached no time limit and mentioned no sanctions in case of non-reply, the message was not technically an ultimatum. He waited until after he knew the German Army had invaded Belgium before sending the second notice stating that Britain felt bound "to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of the treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves." A "satisfactory reply" was demanded by midnight, failing which the British ambassador was to ask for his passports.
Why the ultimatum was not sent the night before, immediately after Parliament made plain its acceptance of Grey's speech, can only be explained by the government's irresolute state of mind. What sort of "satisfactory reply" it expected, short of the Germans meekly retreating across the frontier they had deliberately and irrevocably crossed that morning, and why England agreed for so fanciful a phenomenon until midnight, can hardly be explained at all. ...
In Berlin, the British ambassador, Sir Edward Goschen, presented the ultimatum in a historic interview with the Chancellor. He found Bethmann "very agitated." According to Bethmann himself, "my blood boiled at this hypocritical harping on Belgium which was not the thing that had driven England into war." Indignation launched Bethmann into a harangue. He said that England was doing an "unthinkable" thing in making war on a "kindred nation," that "it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants," that as a result of "this last terrible step" England would be responsible for all the dreadful events that might follow, and "all for just a word—neutrality—just for a scrap of paper . . . ." [ellipsis original]
Hardly noticing the phrase that was to resound round the world, Goschen included it in his report of the interview. He had replied that, if for strategical reasons it was a matter of life or death for Germany to advance through Belgium, it was, so to speak, a matter of life or death for Britain to keep her solemn compact. "His Excellency was so excited, so evidently overcome by the news of our action, and so little disposed to hear reason," that he refrained from further argument.
... The Kaiser, in one of the least profound of all comments on the war, lamented, "To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother [Queen Victoria] had been alive she would never have allowed it."
Germans could not get over the perfidy of it. It was unbelievable that the English, having denigrated to the stage where suffragettes heckled the Prime Minister and defied the police, were going to fight. England, though wide-flung and still powerful, was getting old, and they felt for her, like the Visigoths for the later Romans, a contempt combined with the newcomer's sense of inferiority. The English think they can "treat us like Portugal," complained Admiral Tirpitz.
England's betrayal deepened their sense of friendlessness. They were conscious of being an unloved nation. How was it that Nice, annexed by France in 1860, could settle down comfortably and within a few years forget it had ever been Italian, whereas half a million Alsatians preferred to leave their homeland rather than live under German rule? "Our country is not much loved anywhere and indeed frequently hated," ... .
... No sooner had England delivered herself of the ultimatum than fresh disputes broke out in the Cabinet over the question whether to send an Expeditionary Force to France. Having declared themselves in, they began to dispute how far in they should go. ... Already the schedule was disrupted because the British [date of mobilisation], which had been expected to be two days behind the French, was now three days behind, and further delay would follow.
... No button at the War Office automatically put the BEF in motion because the British government could not make up its mind to push it. The War Office itself, without a minister for the last four months, was distracted for lack of a chief. Asquith had progressed as far as inviting Kitchener up to London, but could not yet nerve himself to offer him the post. The impetuous and tempestuous Sir Henry Wilson... was "revolted by such a state of things." So was poor M. Cambon who went, armed with a map, to show Grey how vital it was that the French left should be extended by Britain's six divisions. Grey promised to bring the matter to the attention of the Cabinet.
... That afternoon of August 4... Mr. Asquith announced to the House of Commons a "message from His Majesty signed by his own hand." Mr. Speaker rose from his chair and members uncovered while the Mobilization Proclamation was read. Next, from typewritten copy that trembled slightly in his hand, Asquith read the terms of the ultimatum just telegraphed to Germany. When he came to the words "a satisfactory answer by midnight," a solemn cheer rose from the benches.
All that was left was to wait for midnight (eleven o'clock, British time). At nine o'clock the government learned, through an intercepted but uncoded telegram sent out from Berlin, that Germany had considered itself at war with Britain from the moment when the British ambassador had asked for his passports. Hastily summoned, the Cabinet debated whether to declare war as of that moment or wait for the time limit set by the ultimatum to expire. They decided to wait. In silence, each encased in his private thoughts, they sat around the green table in the ill-let Cabinet room, conscious of the shadows of those who at other fateful moments had sat there before them. Eyes watched the clock ticking away the time limit. "Boom!" Big Ben struck the first note of eleven, and each note thereafter sounded to Lloyd George, who had a Celtic ear for melodrama, like "Doom, doom, doom!"
Twenty minutes later the War Telegram, "War, Germany, act," was dispatched. Where and when the army was to act was still unsettled, the decision having been left for a War Council called for the following day. The British government went to bed a belligerent, if something less than bellicose.

Next day, with the assault on Liège, the first battle of the war began. Europe was entering, Moltke wrote that day to Conrad von Hötzendorff, upon "the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years." [pp. 132-55]
Commentary: I have omitted a great deal from this chapter, focussing largely on the British response to events as they unfolded.
The muddled state of British opinion certainly affected when Britain entered the war. Britain could have declared war on Germany sooner; but unless the German General Staff had resolved (which, under Moltke, it could not possibly do) not to follow through with the invasion of France via Belgium, it was not at all possible that Britain would not declare war, the neutrality of Belgium having been violated. It is hard to see, then, how British indecision affected the course of the war in the long term, although perhaps, without the BEF divisions on the French left, the German right wing would have overtaken Paris - more likely that, had it arrived later the BEF would have forced the Germans to withdraw forces from the front to prevent the British from falling on their armies from behind, which would have likely resulted in something not unlike what, in the event, happened.
Furthermore, as Tuchman showed, the German plans accounted for, and underestimated the effect of, British involvement. A firmer commitment by Britain for the defense of France would not, of necessity, have convinced the Germans either to stand down or to change plans, because they did not believe - wrongly, in the event - that the British contribution would amount to much. (It did not amount to all that much to begin with, of course.)
The Kaiser's plaintive and groundless statements, 'If only someone had told me beforehand that England would take up arms against us!' and 'To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive she would never have allowed it,' are, it is plain, made by a man who has not grasped the true nature of what was going on. Tuchman never directly says so, but the way in which she presents the Kaiser demonstrates how little she thought of him. 'George', of course, refers to George V, and 'Nicky' to Tsar Nicholas II, both of whom were related to William (or Wilhelm, if you like) II by blood or marriage, through Queen Victoria. George's father was Albert Edward (and King Edward VII from 1901 to 1910, and the uncle toward whom the Kaiser uttered such vitriol), Victoria's eldest son; Nicholas's wife was Alexandra, a granddaughter to Victoria by her second daughter, Alice; and William was Victoria's grandson through her eldest daughter, Victoria (who was the wife of Frederick III, William's father; incidentally, Frederick III was the Emperor of Germany for only 88 days before he died, at the age of 56, of throat cancer, and under his reign as Emperor it may have been that Germany would not have made war upon her neighbours so irresponsibly as she did under William; also incidentally, Frederick III, believe it or not, has his own Facebook page). Why the Kaiser thought that his grandmother, the sovereign of England, would 'never have allowed' his relatives to 'play him false' is beyond me; what she 'never would have allowed' would, of course, have been the course of action pursued by Germany.
As muddled as the British government was, enough members of the Cabinet were in agreement that Britain should support French naval plans and defend the Channel. Lord Morley would have resigned no matter what the Germans did, but most of the rest of the Cabinet recognised, as Tuchman puts it, that the appearance of a German fleet in the Channel would have been a challenge to Britain in much the same way as the Spanish Armada was, so long ago.
But even on the question of Belgium the government was divided. Two more ministers resigned during the course of the meeting (one of whom, Sir John Simon, would later be in Neville Chamberlain's Cabinet before the Second World War, and in The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon he would be described as 'as a snake in snake's clothing', among other things). It was not until it became clear that Germany really was going to invade Belgium that a split was prevented.
Grey's speech appears to have carried the day on the third of August for British involvement in the war. It prevented a split (two of the four members of Cabinet who had resigned were persuaded to return) and gave common cause to both the ruling Liberal and opposing Conservative parties to prosecute war in the event the Germans violated Belgian neutrality and did not back down in response to the British ultimatum. The delay in sending the ultimatum proper was due, as usual, to British dithering. The difficulty with dithering having become characteristic of the British government is that it could not act out of character, as it were; it could not have sent, 'uncharacteristically,' the ultimatum in a timely fashion, because irresoluteness had become a fixed habit. Even in Grey's speech, in which he made the case for war, this irresoluteness was evident, to the extent that one Member of Parliament could suppose that 'By God, they are going to desert Belgium!' This characteristic dithering also explains why the government could not conclude, one way or another, what to do with the BEF.
The Great War is, as epochal historical events tend to be, the source of momentous quotes, and Tuchman quotes, in part or in full, some cracking lines in this last section. Most famous is, of course, Grey's immortal lines about the lamps going out all over Europe. Moltke's verdict, that the war was a 'struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years,' has proven to be prophetic, unintended prophecy though it may have been. There is also Lichnowsky's judgement, 'it cannot be altered now,' which Tuchman unforgettably describes as an 'eternal epitaph of man's surrender to events.' The most damning line belongs to Bethmann with his plea to the English ambassador, Sir Goschen: 'all for just a word—neutrality—just for a scrap of paper... .' Since the defeat of France in 1870 and the foundation of the German Empire, with respect to France German foreign policy had always played second fiddle to her military plans, and her military plans necessitated that the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality - a treaty to which Germany was herself signatory - be thrown away, like the 'scrap of paper' it was effectively considered to be. It is true, in general, that the letter kills and the Spirit gives life, but there are times when the opposite is the case: here, the spirit animating the German Empire is what killed, and the letter of the treaty, had it been respected by all parties, would have spared many lives.
 Finally (from the perspective of this commentary), the solemn moment when Britain herself went to war. The reading of the royal proclamation, with the Speaker of the House rising and the members doffing their hats; Asquith's trembling hand; the cheer at 'a satisfactory answer by midnight'; then the endless waiting; and, at midnight (eleven o'clock, London time), the great bells of Big Ben, tolling the onset of a ruinous war the prosecution of which would bring down to the grave the old, liberal order of Western civilisation, whose pealing bells resounded in Lloyd George's ears as 'Doom, doom, doom!' Like the rolling drums in the deep overheard (and, given the subsonic nature of sound, one might say, 'underheard') by the Company in Moria, the bells that tolled eleven o'clock spoke of the advent of some new devilry, a trial of shadow and flame.
So much, then, for The Guns of August.

1 comment:

  1. "Like the rolling drums in the deep overheard (and, given the subsonic nature of sound, one might say, 'underheard') by the Company in Moria, the bells that tolled eleven o'clock spoke of the advent of some new devilry, a trial of shadow and flame."

    Given the importance of the War to developing the character and writings of Tolkein, this reference is both apt and ingenious.


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