The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 137th installment in the series.
August 4, 1914: Britain Declares War on Germany
After the fateful decision by Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II to order general mobilization on July 30, the peace of Europe unraveled with stunning speed. On the afternoon of July 31, Germany declared “imminent danger of war” and delivered an ultimatum to Russia to halt mobilization within twelve hours. When no response was received by the afternoon of August 1, Germany and France both mobilized within minutes of each other, and Germany declared war on Russia at 7pm. That night German troops began occupying tiny, neutral Luxembourg as a preamble to the invasion on Belgium and northern France.
Now the focus of the drama shifted to London, where the French implored their reluctant British allies to fulfill their informal commitment to help defend France, and the Germans frantically tried to persuade them not to by every means at their disposal—including outright lies.
Crowds Cheer War
To this day, one of the defining motifs of World War I is the huge crowds that gathered to cheer the outbreak of the war. These (supposedly) spontaneous patriotic demonstrations were cited as proof that ordinary Europeans were eager for war, and while government propagandists may have later exaggerated the size and enthusiasm of these crowds, there’s no question that many people seemed to welcome the war as a long-awaited release after years of gradually mounting tension.
During the first week of August, hundreds of thousands of Germans—perhaps millions—filled public squares in cities and towns to hear officials read the proclamation of war. On August 1, 50,000 gathered in front of the Imperial Palace to hear Kaiser Wilhelm II’s speech:
This is a dark day and a sombre hour for Germany. Envious people on every side have forced us to a just defense. The sword is placed in our hands by force. I hope that, if at the last moment my efforts to bring about an understanding between ourselves and our adversaries and to maintain the peace do not succeed, we may, by the help of God, so use our swords that when all is ended we can replace them in their scabbards with honor. A war will ask from us enormous sacrifices of men and of money, but we shall show our enemies what it means to provoke Germany. And now I recommend you all to God. Go to church, kneel before Him and pray that He may sustain our brave army.
The following day in Munich, a young Adolf Hitler joined thousands of other people in the Bavarian capital’s Odeonsplatz to hear war proclaimed from the balcony of the Feldherrnhalle, a memorial to war dead; the moment was captured by a photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, who later located Hitler in the photo (below; some historians allege Hitler’s appearance in the photo was faked). Hitler recalled his reaction to the news of war: “Even today I am not ashamed to say that, overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” According to his own account, he volunteered for the Bavarian Army the next day.
That same afternoon of August 2, a quarter of a million Russians filled Palace Square in St. Petersburg (below) to hear the Tsar’s official proclamation of war against Germany and solemn vow that he would “never make peace so long as one of the enemy is on the soil of the fatherland,” repeating a phrase first used by Tsar Alexander I during the war against Napoleon. Russian scouting expeditions were already skirmishing with German patrols in East Prussia.
The flip side of patriotic fervor was nationalist hatred, as angry mobs attacked “foreigners” (not always from an enemy nation), vandalizing, looting and burning their homes and businesses. Charles Inman Barnard, the Paris correspondent of The New York Tribune, described anti-German riots on the evening of August 2: “A German shoemaker who attempted to charge exaggerated prices for boots had his windows smashed and his stock looted by an infuriated crowd. The news that the German shops were being attacked soon spread, and youths gathered in bands, going from one shop to the other and wrecking them in the course of a few moments.” The following day Barnard witnessed the looting of the Maggi milk shops, which were in fact Swiss-owned, and Neil Hopkins, another American living in Paris, recalled: “The news of the wrecking of German and Austrian shops spread like wild-fire over Paris and it was amusing to see the following day, scores of shops closed which did not bear very pure French names, labeled ‘Maison Francais’ to protect them from mob violence.”
The war also gave rise to a mania for linguistic “purity,” which meant purging enemy words from everyday language. Piete Kuhr, a 12-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, recorded in her diary entry for August 3, 1914: “At school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign words. I didn’t know what that meant at first, but now I see it – you must no longer say ‘Adieu’ because that is French. I must now call Mama ‘Mutter.’”
But the “spirit of August 1914” was hardly universal, whatever some post-war memoirists might claim. Working class Europeans, surmising that they would bear the brunt of the fighting, were much less enthusiastic about the war than their middle class counterparts. In fact around 750,000 Germans had participated in anti-war demonstrations across the country in the week before war was declared. On the other side, on August 2 the British Labour Party organized anti-war protests in London’s Trafalgar Square, and the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès was assassinated on July 31 for giving voice to anti-war views shared by many of his constituents.
However pacifist sentiments were soon pushed aside by the irresistible march of events, and in every belligerent nation the socialists voted to support the war (usually to their lasting regret).
French Press British to Act
Following their refusal to remain neutral in a war between Germany and Russia, French leaders knew it was only a matter of time before Germany declared war on France too. Now it was all-important to get Britain to take their side, as promised (informally) in military staff talks and slightly less ambiguous Anglo-French Naval Convention. But many members of the British cabinet were unaware of these secret agreements and understandably reluctant to embroil Britain in a cataclysmic continental war.
On hearing word of the German invasion of neutral Luxembourg, whose neutrality was agreed in the Treaty of London of 1867, the French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, asked Foreign Secretary Edward Grey whether Britain would fight. However Grey pointed out that, unlike the 1838 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, the 1867 treaty didn’t technically oblige Britain to take military action to protect to Luxembourg’s neutrality, if the other Great Powers weren’t also intervening. Cambon could barely contain his anger at this slippery reasoning, according to H. Wickham Steed, the foreign editor of The Times, who recalled, “he pointed to a copy of the Luxemburg Treaty… and exclaimed bitterly: ‘There is the signature of England… I do not know whether this evening the word “honor” will not have to be struck out of the British vocabulary.’”
But Grey was merely representing the views of the British cabinet; personally, he had staked everything on British intervention, threatening to resign if the cabinet insisted on neutrality and working with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to drum up support from the opposition Unionists. Unionist support gave Grey and Prime Minister Asquith crucial political leverage, as they might be able to form a new coalition government without the anti-interventionists.
On August 2, Asquith went into the 11am cabinet meeting with a letter pledging Unionist support, and now the tide began to turn: although a handful of ministers resigned in protest, the rest of the cabinet agreed to at least protect the French coastline from German naval attacks, as promised in the naval convention of 1912. However, the deciding factor would be Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality.
Germany’s Ultimatum to Belgium
On August 2, as German troops occupied Luxembourg, the German ambassador to Belgium, Below-Saleske, presented a note to the Belgian Foreign Minister, Davignon, containing a flagrant, hypocritical lie followed by an insulting, dishonorable request:
Reliable information has been received by the German Government… [which]… leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany. It is essential for the self-defense of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany’s opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory… Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind themselves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.
In other words, the Germans fabricated a fictitious French invasion (which they also peddled to the British, without success) in order to justify their own breach of Belgian neutrality—then asked the Belgians to break their longstanding promise to the other Great Powers and forfeit their neutrality by giving German forces free passage to attack France. If Belgium didn’t knuckle under, they warned of dire consequences, including a not-so-veiled threat against Belgian independence (echoing chief of the general staff Moltke’s menacing warning to King Albert in November 1913):
Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy. In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.
At first glance Belgium had every reason to submit to the German demand. Given the size of the Belgian Army—which mustered 117,000 field troops in 1914, versus a German invasion force of 750,000 – there was no hope of mounting a successful long-term resistance. Early capitulation would also have spared the lives and property of thousands of civilians, not to mention the country’s cultural heritage. But King Albert felt honor-bound to fulfill Belgium’s historical promise of neutrality—and, as a realist, was not just a little skeptical about German promises to restore Belgian independence.
In any event there was no debate in the Belgian cabinet about how to respond, according to the King’s military adjutant, Lieutenant-General Émile Galet, who recounted: “Opinion was unanimous. The answer must be no.” Working late into the night, the Belgian ministers drew up the official reply to the German ultimatum:
This note has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government… Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality. The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law. The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honor of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe.
Putting his hopes in a speedy rescue by French and British forces, Albert gave the order to prepare the defenses at Liège, the fortress complex guarding Belgium’s border with Germany, and left to assume personal command of the Belgian Army – the only head of state to do so during the war—in the face of overwhelming odds.
Britain’s Ultimatum to Germany
The German ultimatum to Belgium galvanized British public opinion and swung the cabinet decisively towards the war party; needless to say, no one was convinced by German claims that France had violated Belgian neutrality first. On the morning of August 3, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith met with two leaders of the opposition Unionists, Bonar Law and Lord Lansdowne, who agreed that the violation of Belgian neutrality would force Britain to go to war. At the cabinet meeting that followed, several ministers withdrew their resignations of the previous day, indicating a decisive shift in the political landscape.
At 3pm in the afternoon the House of Commons assembled to hear a dramatic speech by Grey, who appeared pale and exhausted after several days of frantic meetings and negotiations. Grey told the members of Parliament:
It now appears from the news I have received to-day—which has come quite recently, and I am not yet quite sure how far it has reached me in an accurate form – that an ultimatum has been given to Belgium by Germany, the object of which was to offer Belgium friendly relations with Germany on condition that she would facilitate the passage of German troops through Belgium… If Belgium is compelled to submit to allow her neutrality to be violated, of course the situation is clear… The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent… if we were to say that all those things matter nothing, were as nothing, and to say we would stand aside, 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.
Another chorus of cheers signaled broad agreement across party lines, with most Liberals, Conservatives, and Labour members now supporting British intervention (a pacifist wing of the Labour Party, led by Ramsay MacDonald, still objected). Although there was no formal vote on war, this voice poll cleared the way for Grey’s next step: an ultimatum to Germany, demanding that she stop the invasion of Belgium immediately. That night, as crowds filled the streets around Buckingham Palace and the foreign office at Whitehall, Grey gazed out his window at a worker lighting the street lamps and famously said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
At 8am on the morning of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the Belgian frontier at Gemmenich, and that evening the British ambassador to Berlin, Goschen, delivered the ultimatum to Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, informing him that the German government had until midnight to make a satisfactory response. Goschen next asked to meet with Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who was about to utter one of the most famous (and infamous) phrases associated with the Great War:
I found the Chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue that lasted about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty’s Government was terrible to a degree, just for the word “neutrality,” a word which in war-time has so often been disregarded – just for a scrap of paper, Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation which desired nothing better to be friends with her.
This disdain for a “scrap of paper” would be cited as proof of the German government’s disregard for all international norms, making it in modern terms a “rogue state,” beyond the pale of civilization. Bethmann-Hollweg didn’t help the German cause with his own frank admission in a speech to the Reichstag on August 4 that the invasion of Belgium was “a breach of international law,” which was however unavoidable: “The wrong—I speak openly—the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.”
At midnight on August 4, no German response had been received in London, and Britain was at war with Germany (top, crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace to cheer the king and queen). The British declaration of war surprised and infuriated the Germans, who expected conflict with France and Russia, their historic enemies, but not their “racial cousins” across the North Sea. In what was becoming a common scene across Europe, on August 4 an angry mob attacked the British embassy in Berlin, witnessed by Frederic William Wile, an American newspaper correspondent:
The Embassy was besieged by a shouting throng… I saw things hurtling towards the windows. From the crash of glass that ensued, I knew they were hitting their mark. The fusillade increased in violence. When there would be a particularly loud crash, it would be followed by a fiendish roar of glee. Many women were among the demonstrators. A mounted policeman or two could be seen making no very vigorous effort to interfere with the riot.
Later that night, Wile was mistaken for a British “spy” and roughed up by a mob before the police arrested him – for his own safety, they explained, although they also strip-searched him. Americans in Europe were often mistaken for British citizens during these days, which could be dangerous in more ways than one: an elated French crowd carried Nevil Monroe Hopkins around on their shoulders “with a free carelessness, that nearly frightened me to death…”
A World Turned Upside Down
Across Europe, and indeed the world, massive changes were already sweeping government and society. In belligerent and neutral countries alike, emergency decrees or legislation suspended or limited bank withdrawals and conversion of paper currency to gold in order to avert financial panic, including Denmark on August 2, the Netherlands on August 3, Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, and Britain on August 6. Across the Atlantic the U.S. Congress voted to increase the emergency funds available to banks to $1.1 billion—a mind-boggling sum—while the New York Stock Exchange remained closed.
Elsewhere in the New World, Canada, a loyal Dominion of the British Empire, prepared to contribute to the British war effort. The Canadian Royal Naval Reserve and militia were called up, military authorities took control of Montreal and Quebec, both key transportation hubs for troops embarking for Britain, and young men flocked to recruiting offices. One volunteer, Reginald Grant, described the scene: “It was as if a baseball championship series were on; the crowd good-naturedly swayed and jammed as each man struggled to get to the door and signed up before the quota was full… In two hours I was in khaki and in another hour I had bade the folks farewell…”
In Asia, Japan prepared to join the war in support of her British ally—but the real reason was closer to home, as the Japanese eyed German possessions in the Far East including Jiazhou Bay (called Kiaochow Bay by the Germans) in China and island possessions scattered across the Pacific. Meanwhile the German Far East Fleet under Admiral von Spee sailed to raid Allied shipping in the Pacific, while in the western Mediterranean Admiral Souchon, commanding the German battleships Goeben and Breslau, prepared to make a daring dash past British and French fleets for Constantinople. In Africa, the cruiser Konigsberg left Dar es Salaam, the capital of the German colony of Tanganyika (today Tanzania) to raid Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Back in Europe, on August 4, German forces crossed the French border at Mars-La-Tour, and the following day laid siege to Liege, Belgium. One of the bloodiest phases of the Great War, the Battle of the Frontiers, was about to begin.