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- A Short History of the Great War - 3/63 -

stouter resistance had they anticipated the attitude England was to adopt. But the German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, failed to convince his Government that there was anything to fear from the British Empire. Mr. Lloyd George has claimed it as one of the advantages we derive from the British press that it misleads public opinion abroad, and a study of "The Times," the only British newspaper that carries much weight in foreign countries, may well have persuaded the German Government in 1914 that eight years of Liberal administration were not likely to have provided England with the means, or left it the spirit, to challenge the might of Germany. She was known to have entered into no binding alliance with France or Russia; the peace had never in all their history been broken between the two great Protestant Powers; and, while there had been serious naval and colonial rivalry and some diplomatic friction, relations in 1913-14 seemed to have entered calmer waters. Germany had been well satisfied with the efforts and sacrifices England had made to prevent the Balkan crisis from developing into a European war; and Lichnowsky was successfully negotiating treaties which gave Germany unexpected advantages with regard to the Baghdad railway and African colonization. On the eve of war the English were hailed as cousins in Berlin, and the earliest draft of the German official apology, intended for American consumption, spoke of Great Britain and Germany labouring shoulder to shoulder to preserve the peace against Russian aggression. The anger of the Kaiser, the agitation of the Chancellor, and the fury of the populace when England declared war showed that Germany had no present intention of adding the British Empire to her list of enemies and little fear that it would intervene unless it were attacked. Any anxiety she may have felt was soothed by the studied assumption that England's desire, if any, to intervene would be effectively checked by her domestic situation. Agents from Ulster were buying munitions to fight Home Rule with official connivance in Germany, and it was confidently expected that war would shake a ramshackle British Empire to its foundations; there would be rebellions in Ireland, India, and South Africa, and the self-governing Dominions would at least refuse to participate in Great Britain's European adventures. In such circumstances "the flannelled fool at the wicket and the muddied oaf at the goal" might be trusted to hug his island security and stick to his idle sports; and the most windy and patriotic of popular British weeklies was at the end of July placarding the streets of London with the imprecation "To hell with Servia."

The object of German diplomacy was to avoid offence to British susceptibilities, and the first requisite was to keep behind the scenes. The Kaiser went off on a yachting cruise to Norway, where, however, he was kept in constant touch with affairs, while Austria on 23 July presented her ultimatum to the Serbian Government. The terms amounted to a demand for the virtual surrender of Serbian independence, and were in fact intended to be rejected. Serbia, however, acting on Russian and other advice, accepted them all except two, which she asked should be referred to the Hague Tribunal. Austria refused on the ground that the dispute was not of a justiciable nature; and the meagre five days' grace having expired on the 28th, Austrian troops crossed the Save and occupied Belgrade, the Serbians withdrawing without resistance. Meanwhile feverish activity agitated the chancelleries of Europe. The terms of the ultimatum had been discussed by the British Cabinet on Friday the 24th, and the British Fleet, which had been reviewed at Spithead on the previous Saturday, was, instead of dispersing at Portland, kept together, and then, on the 29th, dispatched to its war stations in the North Sea. Simultaneously the German High Seas Fleet withdrew on the 26th to Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Russia replied to the Austrian invasion of Serbia by mobilizing her southern command and extending the mobilization, as the hand of Germany became more apparent, to her northern armies. Sir Edward Grey made unceasing efforts to avert the clash of arms by peaceable negotiation, and proposed a conference of the four Great Powers not immediately concerned in the dispute--Germany, France, Italy, and Great Britain. Germany, knowing that she would stand alone in the conference, declined. The dispute, she pretended, was merely a local affair between Austria and Serbia, in which no other Power had the right to intervene. But she refused to localize the dispute to the extent of regarding it as a Balkan conflict between the interests of Austria and Russia. Austria was less unyielding when it became evident that Russia would draw the sword rather than acquiesce in Serbia's subjection, and on the 30th it seemed that the way had been opened for a settlement by direct negotiation between Vienna and Petrograd. At that moment Germany threw off the diplomatic disguise of being a pacific second to her Austrian friend, and cut the web of argument by an ultimatum to Russia on the 31st. Fear lest the diplomatists should baulk them of their war had already led the German militarists to publish in their press the unauthorized news of a complete German mobilization, and on 1-2 August German armies crossed the frontiers. It was not till some days later that war was declared between Austria and any of the Allies; the war from first to last was made in Germany.

Throughout that week-end the British Cabinet remained in anxious conclave. The Unionist leaders early assured it of their support in any measures they might think fit to take to vindicate Great Britain's honour and obligations; but they could not relieve it of its own responsibility, and the question did not seem as easy to answer as it has done since the conduct of Germany and the nature of her ambitions have been revealed. A purely Balkan conflict did not appear to be an issue on which to stake the fortunes of the British Empire. We were not even bound to intervene in a trial of strength between the Central Empires and Russia and France, for on 1 August Italy decided that the action of the Central Empires was aggressive and that therefore she was not required by the Triple Alliance to participate. There had in the past been a tendency on the part of France to use both the Russian alliance and English friendship for purposes in Morocco and elsewhere which had not been quite relished in England; and intervention in continental wars between two balanced alliances would have found few friends but for recent German chauvinism. It might well seem that in the absence of definite obligations and after having exhausted all means of averting war, Great Britain was entitled to maintain an attitude of benevolent neutrality, reserving her efforts for a later period when better prepared she might intervene with greater effect between the exhausted belligerents.

Such arguments, if they were used, were swept aside by indignation at Germany's conduct. Doubts might exist of the purely defensive intentions of France and Russia; each State had its ultra-patriots who had done their best to give away their country's case; and if Russia was suspect of Panslavist ambition, France was accused of building up a colonial empire in North Africa in order to throw millions of coloured troops into the scale for the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine. But no such charge could be brought against Belgium. She had no interest and no intention but to live in peace with her neighbours, and that peace had been guaranteed her by international contract. If such a title to peace was insecure there could be no security for the world and nothing but subservience for little nations. The public sense which for a century had been accustomed to welcome national independence wherever it raised its head--in Greece, the Balkans, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the South American Republics--revolted at its denial to Belgium in the interest of German military aggression; and censure of the breach of international contract was converted to passion by the wrong wantonly done to a weak and peaceful by a mighty and ambitious Power. Great Britain was not literally bound to intervene; but if ever there was a moral obligation on a country, it lay upon her now, and the instant meeting of that obligation implied an instinctive recognition of the character of the war that was to be fought. Mixed and confused though the national issues might be in various quarters, the war, so far as concerned the two Powers who were to be mainly instrumental in its winning, was a civil war of mankind to determine the principle upon which international relations should repose.

That issue was not for every one to see, and there were many to whom the struggle was merely national rivalry in which the interests of England happened to coincide with those of France and in which we should have intervened just the same without any question of Belgium's neutrality. Whether it might have been so can never be determined. But it is certain that no such struggle would have enlisted the united sympathies and whole-hearted devotion of the British realms, still less those of the United States, and in it we might well have been defeated. From that division and possible defeat we and the world were saved by Germany's decision that military advantage outweighed moral considerations. The invasion of Belgium and Luxemburg united the British Empire on the question of intervention. Three ministers alone out of more than forty--Lord Morley, Mr. John Burns, and Mr. C. P. Trevelyan--dissented from the Cabinet's decision, and the minority in the nation was of still more slender proportions. Parliament supported the Ministry without a division when on 4 August England declared war.

Had we counted the cost? the German Chancellor asked our ambassador in Berlin on the eve of the declaration. The cost would not have affected our decision, but it was certainly not anticipated, and the Entente was ill-prepared to cope with the strength displayed by Germany. The British Navy was, indeed, as ready as the German Army, and the command of the sea passed automatically into our hands when the German Fleet withdrew from the North Sea on 26 July. But for that circumstance not a single division could have been sent across the sea, and the war would have been over in a few months. Nor was the British Army unprepared for the task that had been allotted to it in anticipation. It was the judgment not only of our own but of Allied Staffs that an expeditionary force of six divisions would suffice to balance German superiority in the West; and that force, consisting of better material better trained than any other army in the field, was in its place in the line of battle hundreds of miles from its base within three weeks of the declaration of war. The real miscalculation was of the respective strength of France and Germany, and no one had foreseen that it would ultimately require three times the force that France could put in the field to liberate French soil from the German invader. The National Service League would have provided us with a large army; but even its proposals were vitiated by their assumption that these forces were needed to do the navy's work of home-defence, and by the absence of provision for munitions, without which sending masses of men into battle was sending them to useless slaughter. Time was needed to remedy these miscalculations, but time was provided by our command of the sea, about which there had been no misjudgment and no lack of pre-vision. We made our mistakes before, and during the war, but neither Mr. Asquith's Governments nor that of his successor need fear comparison with those of our Allies or our enemies on that account; and it is merely a modest foible of the people, which has hardly lost a war for nearly four hundred years, to ascribe its escape to fortune, and to envy the prescience and the science which have lightened the path of its enemies to destruction.



Germany began the war on the Western front before it was declared, and on 1-2 August German cavalry crossed the French frontier between Luxemburg and Switzerland at three points in the direction of Longwy, Lunéville, and Belfort. But these were only feints designed to prolong the delusion that Germany would attack on the only front legitimately open to warfare and to delay the reconstruction of the French defence required to meet the real offensive. The reasons for German strategy were conclusive to the General Staff, and they were frankly explained

A Short History of the Great War - 3/63

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