At 11pm on 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany, bringing to an end a month of diplomatic manoeuvres on the part of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey and diplomatic representatives from the Great Powers. The events of July and early August have become known as the July Crisis and if you are a keen reader of The National Archives’ blog you will have followed our coverage of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Arch Duke of Austria, on 28 June, the ultimatum issued by Austria to Serbia on 23 July, Sir Edward Grey’s attempts to prevent the crisis from escalating on 24 and 25 July, the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July and on troop mobilisation from 25 July to 2 August.
On 3 August 1914 Sir Edward Grey made his famous quote: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. He was speaking to his friend, the journalist John Alfred Spender, editor of the Westminster Gazette, in Grey’s room in the Foreign Office. Looking out from his window, across St. James’ Park, it was dusk and the first of the gas lights along the Mall were being lit. The next day Grey would have to face the Cabinet and to persuade them that the time had now come to declare war on Germany.
The reason given for declaring war on Germany was Germany’s violation of the neutrality of Belgium, by sending troops across its borders to meet the perceived threat from France. Belgian neutrality, and the integrity of its borders had been guaranteed by a treaty signed in London in April 1839 by representatives of the five principal powers in Europe: Great Britain, Austria, France, Prussia and Russia, as well as Belgium. When the German Empire was established after the Franco-Prussian war, the treaties to which Prussia had been a signatory, including the Treaty of London, were officially recognised by the German Empire.
The key point lay in Article VII, which stated that ‘Belgium, within the limits (to its territory) indicated in articles I, II and IV, will form an independent state that will be perpetually neutral. She will be held to observe this same neutrality towards all the other states’. A clear understanding was reached that if one of the Powers was to violate Belgium’s neutrality, the other guaranteeing powers would be obligated to come to her assistance in order to help Belgium to defend her neutrality.
On 31 July 1914 Sir Edward Grey sent a telegram to the British Minister in Brussels, Sir Francis Villiers, instructing him that ‘In view of the possibility of European war I have asked the French and German Governments separately whether each is prepared to respect neutrality of Belgium provided no other power violates it. In view of existing treaties you should inform (the) Minister of Foreign Affairs and say I assume that Belgium will do the utmost of her power (to) maintain neutrality, and desire and expect other Powers to observe and uphold it’ (FO 371/2159 file 30342, paper 35080). The reply from Sir Francis Villiers arrived the next day: ‘Minister for Foreign Affairs thanked me for the communication, and replied that Belgium will do the utmost of her power (to) maintain neutrality, and desires and expects other Powers to observe and uphold it’ (FO 371/2159 file 30342, paper 35152). On 1 August Grey also heard back from Sir Francis Bertie, the British Ambassador in Paris, with the French reply: ‘French Government are resolved to respect the neutrality of Belgium, and it would only be in the event of some other Power violating that neutrality that France might find herself under the necessity, in order to assure the defence of her own security, to act otherwise’ (FO 371/2159 file 30342, paper 35094).
Later that day Sir Edward Grey met with Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, and reported the gist of his discussion to Sir Edward Goschen, the British Ambassador in Berlin: ‘I told the German Ambassador today that the reply of the German Government with regard to the neutrality of Belgium was a matter of very great regret, because the neutrality of Belgium affected feeling in this country. If Germany could see her way to give the same assurance as that which had been given by France it would materially contribute to relieve anxiety and tension here…He asked me whether, if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgian neutrality, we would engage to remain neutral. I replied that I could not say that; our hands were still free, and we were considering what our attitude should be’ (FO 371/2160 file 30342, paper 35568).
On 3 August the German Government sent an ultimatum to the Government of Belgium to the effect that Belgium should allow the passage of German troops through its territory. The ultimatum and the Belgian reply was paraphrased by Sir Francis Villiers in his telegram to Sir Edward Grey:’“German ultimatum states that German Government have received definite information that France intends to invade Germany through Belgium. Germany fears that Belgium will be unable to repel French attack without assistance, and she therefore is is obliged to declare as follows:
- If Belgium will adopt attitude of benevolent neutrality towards Germany in coming war, Germany will on conclusion of peace guarantee Belgium and Belgian possessions.
- Subject to above condition, Germany engages to evacuate Belgian territory on conclusion of peace.
- If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany will pay ready money for all necessaries of war and indemnify all losses caused in Belgium.
- If Belgium adopts a hostile attitude, and especially if Belgium opposes German advance by means of the Meuse fortifications or by destruction of roads, railways, etc., Germany will be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy country, will take no engagements towards her, and will leave relations between the two States to be settled by arms. If Belgian Government comply, relations of friendship between the two nations will become more close and durable.’
The Belgian Government’s reply ‘after expressing profound and painful surprise’ was that ‘intentions attributed to France in the German ultimatum are in contradiction with declarations made to Belgium by France on 1 August. ..Treaties of 1839 and 1870 ensure independence and neutrality of Belgium under guarantee of the Powers, including Prussia… Attack on independence now threatened by Germany would be a flagrant violation of international law, which could not be justified by any strategical considerations. If German proposals were accepted, attack would both sacrifice national honour and betray duty towards Europe. She refuses to believe her independence can only be preserved by violation of neutrality, and she is firmly resolved to repel by any means in her power all attack on her rights’ (FO 371/2160 file 30342, paper 35631).
On 4 August Sir Edward Grey sent instructions to Sir Edward Goshen asking him to repeat the request to the Berlin Government to provide an assurance of Belgian neutrality ‘by 12 o’clock tonight. If not, you are instructed to ask for your passports and to say that His Majesty’s Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a Treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves’ (FO 371/2161 file 30342, paper 35798).
By then it was too late. On 4 August the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, sent a note to the Foreign Office via the German Embassy in London, stating that ‘since France has, since 1 August, made repeated military attacks on Imperial territory, Germany is now in a state of war with France’ (FO 371/2161 file 30342, paper 35904).
When Sir Edward Goschen saw Herr von Jagow, the German Foreign Minister, as instructed that afternoon he was told that Germany could not provide the necessary guarantee ‘as, in consequence of German troops having crossed the frontier that morning, Belgian neutrality had already been violated’ (FO 371/2164 file 30342, paper 41041).
Sir Edward Goshen then had an interview with the German Chancellor and sent a despatch back to Sir Edward Grey recording von Bethmann Hollweg’s attitude: ‘He said that the step taken by His Majesty’s Government was terrible to a degree, just for a word ‘neutrality’ a word which in war time had so often been disregarded just for a ‘scrap of paper’, Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her. All his efforts in that direction had been rendered useless by this last terrible step, and the policy to which, as I knew, he had devoted himself since his accession to office, had tumbled down like a house of cards. What we had done was unthinkable; it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants. He held Great Britain responsible for all the terrible events that might happen!’ (FO 371/2164 file 30342, paper 41041).
The British and American press seized on the ‘scrap of paper’ quotation and public opinion was indignant. Justifying himself to the American public, von Bethmann Hollweg gave an interview to the Associated Press on 25 January 1915 in which he commented: ‘I am surprised to learn that my phrase ‘a scrap of paper’, which I used in my last conversation with the British Ambassador in reference to the Belgian neutrality treaty should have caused such an unfavourable impression in the United States. The expression was used in quite another connection and meaning from that implied in Sir Edward Goschen’s report, and the turn given to it in the biased comment of our enemies is undoubtedly responsible for this impression’ (FO 881/10520).
The British response on 26 January began with the following sentence: ‘It is not surprising that the German Chancellor should show anxiety to explain away his now historic phrase about a treaty being a mere ‘scrap of paper’. The phrase has made a deep impression because the progress of the world largely depends upon the sanctity of agreements between individuals and between nations, and the policy disclosed in Herr von Bethmann Hollweg’s phrase tends to debase the legal and moral currency of civilisation’ (FO 881/10520).
Historians have argued for decades over the efficacy of Sir Edward Grey’s foreign policy. Should he have made it perfectly clear to the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky that Great Britain would support both of her allies France and Russia by force of arms much sooner than he did? Would that have stopped German troops mobilising across the Belgian border? Did Sir Edward Grey really believe that mediation could avert war right up until the last minute? Was he right to wait so long before throwing Britain’s hat into the ring? Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg accused Britain of acting in her own interests when coming to the aid of Belgium. If Germany had access to Belgian ports and naval bases it might threaten Britain’s balance of trade and her naval superiority and might shift the balance of power in Europe forever.
What we do know for certain is that when Britain declared war on Germany it turned a European war based on the balance of power in the Balkans into the first global war. In a little more than four years, 9 million combatants would lose their lives, and over 28 million would be recorded as wounded or missing in action.
Tonight at 10pm in counties across Great Britain lights will be turned off or dimmed to mark the centenary of the night war broke out. People are being invited to turn off their lights and to leave a single candle on until 11pm and churches are holding lights out services to commemorate one of the darkest hours in British history.