Sir Edward Grey addressing the House of Commons
The mobilization of millions of soldiers across Europe was moving rapidly as the sun set on the night of August 2nd 1914 when the German Ambassador to Belgium Klaus Bulow-Selaske delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian government. The ultimatum gave the Belgians 12 hours to decide if they would allow the German armies free passage through the country. The Belgians, treasuring their independence and led by a truly heroic leader, the young and humble King Albert refused the German ultimatum and vowed to fight.
The next morning the British House of Commons met and for the first time since 1893 every member was present, with many spectators in attendance, Britain’s participation in a war on the European Continent in nearly 100 years was being contemplated. Britain was divided between interventionists and non-interventionists, and the pressure was on the government.
The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey urged giving support to France. He told the assembled Members of Parliament about, British military understandings with France, and the German ultimatum to Belgium. Grey asked them whether Britain “would quietly stand by and witness the perpetration of the dirtiest crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become participators in the sin.” He added that “we are going to suffer, I am afraid in this war, whether we are in it or stand aside.” If Britain dis stand aside, forfeiting her “Belgian Treaty obligations” the she would “sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world.” Grey had not convinced everyone, but he had carried the day. However, the Germans did not believe that Britain would go to war over Belgium.
At seven that evening the German Ambassador to France Baron Schoen delivered a declaration of war against France, his counterpart in Berlin, the French Ambassador was given his passports.
As Grey pondered the content of an ultimatum to be sent to Berlin he returned to his office in Whitehall. “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”
The next morning the German army began its assault on the Belgian fortress city of Liege. That afternoon Poincare and Foreign Minister Viviani addressed the combined houses of the French Parliament, asking for war credits, discussing German violations of French territory and “implored the deputies, and the French people “to help us in bearing the burden of our heavy responsibility, the comfort of a clear conscience and the conviction that we have done our duty.”
The members of all parties, from the nationalists, the Catholic right and the Socialists overwhelming committed themselves to a sacred union. Poincare recalled later “Never has there been a spectacle as magnificent as that which they have just participated….In the memory of man, there has never been anything more beautiful in France.”
Bethmann-Hollweg address the Reichstag
In Berlin Prime Minister Bethmann-Hollweg accused the French of violating German borders and of the Russian mobilization. He asked the Reichstag deputies “Were we to wait in further patience until the nations on either side of us chose the moment for their attack?” He was interrupted with cries of “No! No!”
Bethmann went on and admitted that Germany had violated Belgian territory and that it was a “breach of international law” ironically what he had just accused the French of doing, but Bethmann promised that “this wrong- I speak openly-the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.” Grand Admiral Tirpitz considered the admission of wrongdoing “the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman.”
Bethmann called the nation to stand behind the military and as in France “Reichstag party leaders rose as one to vote war credits.”
A similar ultimatum was delivered to Russia by the German Ambassador and a similar scene repeated as Russia declared war.
That evening the British Ambassador to Germany Sir Edward Goschen paid a visit to Foreign Minister Jagow with a British ultimatum for the Germans to withdraw from Belgium within twelve hours, or face war. Bethmann, who had helped lead his nation into war believing that the British would remain neutral was stunned. Likewise, none had counted on the Russians to fight. The Germans had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” and that nation’s leaders cashed it with grave consequences for the world. Austria’s actions led to Czar Nicholas making the fateful decision to mobilize on July 29th, which set Europe on course for war.
There was no turning back, in four hours the two greatest military powers in the world, Great Britain and Germany would be at war.
All all of the leaders in their speeches had left out information that would be embarrassing to their claims in their addresses, duplicity was the order of the day. The lights were going out across Europe. And the leaders of all of the nations, with the exception of Belgium shared some degree of responsibility.
The questions for us today are similar: Will all of our leaders allow the lights to go out again, not just in Europe but the Middle East and Asia? and will world leaders allow some foolish action somewhere to bring about more war?
Admittedly the situation is not identical, but there are troubling similarities. It is something to think long and hard about.