On August 4, 1914, at 11pm London time (6pm EST here in the United States), the British Parliament’s House of Commons voted to declare war on Germany. The UK’s Telegraph has an excellent series of articles detailing, hour by hour, the events leading up to the declaration. Here is their recounting of what happened today 100 years ago.
The decision was not an easy one for Britain. There was a great debate, both in Parliament and among the British public, as to whether going to war with Germany (and Austria-Hungary, by extension) was worth British lives and money. Max Hastings provides an excellent summary of British feelings about the war in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War:
[M]any British people now recognized that conflict was lapping very close to their shores. Norman Macleod, an Admiralty private secretary, ‘felt rather apprehensive (1) because [I am] entirely ag[ain]st the idea of war (2) for fear of economic crisis — people were buying in large stocks of food supplies. Bank rate up to 10% … I thought this trouble would restrain jingo feeling.’ A delegation from the City [of London] called on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to argue that ‘the only means of saving the world was for their own country to stay out of the conflict so that it might remain the great market, the economic arbiter of the world’. On 1 August the Daily News carried an article by its editor A.G. Gardiner, headed ‘Why We Must Not Fight’. The writer demanded: ‘Where in the wide world do our interests clash with Germany? Nowhere. With Russia we have potential conflicts over the whole of South-Eastern Europe and Southern Asia.’ After the cabinet’s meetings that Saturday, [French Ambassador to Britain] Paul Cambon told [British Foreign Secretary Edward] Grey — in French, through an interpreter…that he flatly refused to communicate to Paris its resolution, ‘or rather, lack of it.’ (pp. 86-7)
So what turned British opinion in favor of war? The biggest single event was Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium. In fact, that is why the House of Commons waited until so late in the day to declare war–they wanted to be sure Germany had invaded before taking such a huge step. A speech to the Commons given on August 3 by Foreign Secretary Grey describes the change in opinion and the pro-intervention argument eloquently:
Diplomatic intervention took place last week on our part. What can diplomatic intervention do now? We have great and vital interests in the independence — and integrity is the least part — of Belgium.. [Loud cheers.] If Belgium is compelled to submit to allow her neutrality to be violated, of course the situation is clear. Even if by agreement she admitted the violation of her neutrality, it is clear she could only do so under duress. The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent. The one thing they fear is, I think, not so much that their integrity but that their independence should be interfered with. If in this war, which is before Europe, the neutrality of those countries is violated, if the troops of one of the combatants violate its neutrality and no action be taken to resent it, at the end of war, whatever the integrity may be, the independence will be gone [Cheers.]….
No, Sir, if it be the case that there has been anything in the nature of an ultimatum to Belgium, asking her to compromise or violate her neutrality, whatever may have been offered to her in return, her independence is gone if that holds. If her independence goes, the independence of Holland will follow. I ask the House from the point of view of British interests to consider what may be at stake. If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself — consequences which I do not anticipate, because I am sure that France has the power to defend herself with all the energy and ability and patriotism which she has shown so often [Loud cheers.] — still, if that were to happen and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone’s words come true, that just opposite to us there would be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any power?[Loud cheers.]
It may be said, I suppose, that we might stand aside, husband our strength, and that, whatever happened in the course of this war, at the end of it intervene with effect to put things right, and to adjust them to our own point of view. If, in a crisis like this, we run away [Loud cheers.] from those obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value in face of the respect that we should have lost. And I do not believe, whether a great power stands outside this war or not, it is going to be in a position at the end of it to exert its superior strength. For us, with a powerful fleet, which we believe able to protect our commerce, to protect our shores, and to protect our interests, if we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer even if we stand aside.
We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside. Foreign trade is going to stop, not because the trade routes are closed, but because there is no trade at the other end. Continental nations engaged in war all their populations, all their energies, all their wealth, engaged in a desperate struggle they cannot carry on the trade with us that they are carrying on in times of peace, whether we are parties to the war or whether we are not. I do not believe for a moment that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the west of Europe opposite to us — if that had been the result of the war — falling under the domination of a single power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as — [the rest of the sentence — “to have lost us all respect.” — was lost in a loud outburst of cheering]. I can only say that I have put the question of Belgium somewhat hypothetically, because I am not yet sure of all the facts, but, if the facts turn out to be as they have reached us at present, it is quite clear that there is an obligation on this country to do its utmost to prevent the consequences to which those facts will lead if they are undisputed….
And so, the British delivered an ultimatum to Germany on August 4 which required an answer by 11pm that evening. Germany did not heed their demands. An article from The Guardian August 5, 1914, explains how the situation unfolded:
Great Britain declared war on Germany at 11 o’clock last night.
The Cabinet yesterday delivered an ultimatum to Germany. Announcing the fact to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said: “We have repeated the request made last week to the German Government that they should give us the same assurance in regard to Belgian neutrality that was given to us and Belgium by France last week. We have asked that it should be given before midnight.”
Last evening a reply was received from Germany. This being unsatisfactory the King held at once a Council which had been called for midnight. The declaration of war was then signed. The Foreign Office issued the following official statement:-
Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by his Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium will be respected, his Majesty’s Ambassador to Berlin has received his passports, and his Majesty’s Government declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11 p.m. on August 4, 1914.
That was it. There was no rhetoric in the announcement. It was merely a matter of fact declaration that the conflict had officially begun for Great Britain. Such a simple statement would send the nation into a bloodbath that would last four years and almost one million men of Britain and its colonies to their graves while wounding or otherwise incapacitating over 2.2 million more. Even today in northern France and in Belgium, you can see the battlefields where they fought, the trenches they dug, the craters their artillery shells left, and of course, the many crosses, row on row, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.
With this brief declaration, the last of the great Western and Central European powers entered World War I. The Ottoman Empire would join later, in October of 1914, but of the major powers that fought on the Western and Eastern fronts in Europe, all were now part of the action. For the next four years, the world would descend into a calamity the scale of which had not been seen before. It was the Gotterdammerung for the old order of Europe and the Middle East. Russia’s Tsar would fall in the Russian Revolution, the Kaiser of Germany would end up abdicating his throne, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires would end up dissolving, and the division of the latter would lead to so many of our current problems with the Middle East as the victorious European powers of France and Britain divided the region up based on their territorial desires. The world was left reeling, and an entire generation in Europe would become known as the “Lost Generation.” And of course, despite being “The War to End all Wars”, Europe and so much of the rest of the world would descend into an even great conflagration just 20 years later, for a variety of reasons that can only be properly comprehended by understanding the first great conflagration. Hew Strachan sums up the global consequences of the First World War well in the conclusion to his book The First World War:
One reason why Adolf Hitler could appeal to the Germany people in 1933 was precisely because so many genuinely convinced themselves that they had been wrong in 1919. But that of itself does not explain the Second World War. Hitler was able to play back some of the themes of German popular mobilisation in the First World War — the ideas of the Burgfreiden in 1914, the Fatherland Party’s appeal to national unity over party loyalty, OberOst’s notion of Germany’s mission in the east, the expectation that a Second Punic War might be necessary to complete the agenda of the First. Above all, the Kaiser’s failure as supreme warlord generated a belief that a real leader would have delivered a Germany victory. But by 1918 Germans had also learnt what modern war entailed. They did not take to the streets to show their enthusiasm when war broke out in 1939. The Second World War is inexplicable without knowledge of the First, but there is no inevitability linking Versailles and the ambitions of the peacemakers to its outbreak.
The First World War broke the empires of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. It triggered the Russian Revolution and provided the bedrock for the Soviet Union; it forced a reluctant United States on to the world stage and revivified liberalism. On Europe’s edge, it provided a temporary but not a long-term solution to the ambitions of the Balkan nations. Outside Europe, it laid the seeds for the conflict in the Middle East. In short it shaped not just Europe but the world in the twentieth century. It was emphatically not a war without meaning or purpose. (pp. 339-340)
One way historians look at the 19th and 20th centuries is by viewing the 19th as beginning in 1789 and ending in 1914, also known as “the long 19th century” and viewing the 20th as beginning in 1914 and ending in either 1989 or 1991, calling it “the short 20th century”. These are imprecise categorizations, but they are effective. The “long 19th” was an era of revolution and reaction, a push for the “Rights of Man”, the rights of labor, expanded suffrage and greater democracy in government, and the development of an embryonic welfare state. The Great War finally killed off the ailing old order and unleashed these forces on the world like never before. Of course, the British had no way of knowing this in 1914. They thought they were standing up for the balance of power in Europe, a long-cherished principle of the nation’s foreign policy, the rights of “little Belgium”, and to protect their own nation against German aggression, but they too are dealing with the consequences of that decision even today.
Use this thread to pause and reflect on what British involvement in WWI meant for the war, and how this war has impacted the world and the lives of so many, from the widows and parents who lost their children all the way down to us, ever since.