Shades of Grey

                                                              by John Trungove

                                                                                            Parts 4 to 7

Part 4 - Setting the Fuses

1 August 1914

Berlin (3.00 am)

General Helmuth von Staab, Chief of the Railway Division of the General Staff, was surprised by the call from his insomniac superior.  He wondered why he was summoned at this hour when there was already so much to do in the morning.  Moltke greeted him brusquely and offered him coffee.

"As you have been expecting, we go to war with Russia tonight.  They will cross the East Prussian border in force in fifteen to seventeen days.  We have allocated only the Eighth Army to meet the advance, while we looked westward to the greater threat.  Now, in his infinite wisdom, our All-Highest Warlord has decreed that we shall deal with the Russians first and meet their advance with overwhelming force.  The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Armies will deploy in the West according to existing plans and will stand ready to face the French with 26 Divisions for now.  The Second Army must be ready to begin moving by tonight.  The First, Third and Fourth Armies will follow as soon as we have reorganised our schedules.  This is where you come in.  You have twelve days to move four Armies to the eastern frontier, complete with supplies. That means 44 Divisions plus von Marwitz's cavalry corps.  I need an outline of your proposals by 11.00 am and continuous progress reports on your planning.  Here is where the Armies will be deployed ..."

Once Moltke had finished, von Staab stood stiffly to attention, saluted and turned to go.  "The Railway Division will not fail the Reich!" he declared.


News of the German ultimatum to Russia reached the Foreign Office around midnight.  Goschen's report on the curious reticence of Jagow came in at around 3.00 am.  At 7.00 am, Nicolson summoned General Wilson and they went to find Grey, who was still in bed.  Leaving Grey to enjoy his rest, Nicolson returned to the Foreign Office, while Wilson went off to work on the Tory leaders, who were continuing a series of meetings as events unfolded.

The Cabinet met later in the morning.  Belgium was at last the main subject of discussion.  Some including Lloyd George still maintained that only a minor intrusion could be expected from the Germans, allowing them easier access to the road to Paris.  Of the pro-interventionists, Churchill wanted to mobilise the fleet but was rebuffed.  Grey wanted authority to make naval guarantees to France but the Cabinet was still two to one against giving any assurances whatever to the French.  Four pacifist members of Cabinet, Morley, Burns, Simon and Harcourt, now threatened to resign.  Grey in turn directly threatened to resign if Britain adopted unconditional neutrality.  Asquith continued to support Grey.  Some of the anti-interventionist members were beginning to get uneasy, fearing the prospect of British idleness while great events went on around her.

Grey reported the French assurances on Belgium and Jagow's strange response to Goschen the previous evening.  Cabinet endorsed Grey's approaches to the French and German governments on Belgian neutrality and agreed that he pursue this line in his next meeting with Lichnowsky.  Grey then informed the Cabinet that he had to leave as Lichnowsky was insisting on seeing him immediately with urgent messages from Berlin.

Grey received Lichnowsky and expressed disappointment at the lack of a reply to his question on Belgium.  Lichnowsky, with new instructions from Berlin, asked whether Britain would stay neutral if Germany respected Belgian neutrality.  Grey refused to give any assurances but indicated that Germany would be viewed in a more favourable light if Belgium were undisturbed.  Lichnowsky asked if Britain could exert any influence on France to remain neutral.  Grey replied that this was highly unlikely, as everyone understood that Russia and France had some form of binding alliance.  In any event, Britain still wished to keep her hands free and to follow developments.  Grey also pointed out that the British retained a strong interest in the integrity and preservation of France and that this extended to her maritime concerns.  Lichnowsky stated that, while he understood that the British and the French had a close relationship, his government wanted some clearer understanding of the British position and that he would return for further discussions at the earliest opportunity.

Meanwhile, the Irish leaders were coming to terms with the impact of the European crisis on the Home Rule question.  The Government of Ireland Bill had passed the House of Commons for the third time in May despite opposition from the Conservatives.  The Liberals relied upon the Irish Nationalists to stay in power.  The price of this support was Home Rule.  The Liberals honoured their side of the bargain by introducing the Home Rule Bill and steering it through against determined opposition.  The House of Lords could now no longer prevent the Bill being presented for the Royal Assent.  The complication was that the Ulster Unionists were determined to resist Home Rule, at least unless Ulster was excluded, even if this resistance included armed insurrection.  The Unionists were solidly supported by the Conservatives .  Their leader, Sir Edward Carson, worked well with Tory leader Sir Arthur Bonar Law and within the democratic system but the Ulster radicals had great support, as well as substantial arms caches.

If the Home Rule Bill were enacted unamended and the Ulster radicals resorted to force, there was fear that any civil war in Ireland might spill over into class warfare in Britain, even without the obvious factor of religious strife.  The Tories faced a difficult choice.  For some, the Ulster problem had only been a convenient stick with which to beat the Liberal government.  For others it was a more fundamental question of principle.  The government was firm in refusing to call a general election over the unionist demands, acting on the assumption that the Tory position was a gigantic bluff.  The Liberals were prepared to make some concessions but the Bill had to go ahead.  However, the positions adopted by both parties left little room for retreat, at the risk of the Irish radicals gaining the ascendancy.

With the parties at odds over the exclusion or otherwise of Ulster from the final arrangements, there were attempts throughout July to broker a deal.  The King hosted talks at Buckingham Palace but these broke down on 24 July.  The debate in the House of Commons on an Amending Bill was postponed until 30 July.  By then, consideration of the Amending Bill was again deferred by mutual agreement in the midst of the European crisis.  However, Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond was not prepared to extend any compromise to the extent of the Bill not being given Royal Assent.  After the Bachelor's Walk incident on 26 July, when a small landing of arms for the Irish Volunteers occurred at Howth, near Dublin, followed by an unfortunate incident where troops fired on a crowd of nationalist supporters, Redmond could not afford to be seen to be weak in dealing with Asquith.  He also warned Asquith that any authority he had in Ireland was subject to the enactment of the Home Rule Bill.  Otherwise, the radicals would gain control of the situation.

Carson now sent word to Asquith that the Ulster Volunteers would make themselves available for home defence in the event of the withdrawal of the two Army divisions then in Ireland.  Carson also published a statement to this effect in The Times.

While Carson's indications of loyalty in the European crisis eased the burden for the government, the Irish Nationalists were concerned at the implications of a war for the enactment of the Home Rule Bill.  Redmond received a letter from Maurice Moore, Inspector-General of the Irish Volunteers, urging him to insist on the immediate presentation of the Bill for royal assent, in default of which Irish Reservists should refrain from answering call-up notices.  However, Redmond had also received a letter from Mrs Margot Asquith suggesting that he commit Irish soldiers to fight for Britain if necessary.  Redmond was undecided on his course of action but told Mrs Asquith that he would meet with her husband on the Monday (3 August).  He also resolved to write to the Volunteers in Ireland urging against defying any summons to the colours and arguing that the European crisis actually presented a favourable opportunity.


The French Cabinet met again in the morning.  Viviani was tired, having not arrived home until 2.00 am after the previous evening's Cabinet meeting had finished at midnight.  After that, he had spent some time beside the bier of his former comrade, Jean Jaurès, murdered that evening by a fanatic outraged at the Socialist leader's resolute opposition to a war.  Emotions were indeed running high.  Viviani had been denied rest even once he got home.  He was telephoned by War Minister Adolphe Messimy, who was being pressured in the middle of the night by Russian diplomats for assurances that France would honour her treaty obligations.

At the Cabinet meeting, Joffre, who was asked to attend by Messimy, again demanded immediate mobilisation.  He argued that every day mobilisation was delayed would represent a 15 to 20 kilometre loss of territory to the Germans.  One problem at least was solved.  The Cabinet had learned the previous evening of advice from Barrère, the French Ambassador in Rome, that Italy considered the Austrian attack on Serbia an act of aggression exempting Italy from its obligation to support Austria and that she planned to refrain from any involvement, subject to restraint on the part of France and Russia.

Now that the French were aware of the Italian government's plans to remain neutral, their troops designated for the Italian frontier could be redirected to the German border.

Viviani left to meet with Schoen, who was pressing for a reply to the German demand for an indication of France's position.  Viviani told Schoen that “France will act in accordance with her interests”.  Schoen observed that their discussion was probably academic in any case, as France was allied to Russia.  "Certainly", replied Viviani. The two then discussed the most recent moves toward reaching a settlement and the responses coming from the various capitals.  Viviani did not say anything about the coming French mobilisation or that Russia had no plans to suspend its mobilisation.  It would do no good to give Schoen anything that could be used to persuade Italy that Russia and France had both mobilised against Germany before the Germans took similar action.

Viviani returned to the Cabinet meeting and supported Joffre's request for general mobilisation.  Cabinet agreed to the mobilisation but the order was to be retained by the War Minister until 3.30 pm, when it had to be sent to the telegraph office for despatch by 4.00 pm to meet the midnight mobilisation deadline.

After the meeting Messimy repeated the order given two days beforehand to French troops on the German border that they must remain no closer than ten kilometres from the border, in order to avoid provoking the Germans into any premature action.


The German Minister in Brussels, Klaus von Below-Saleski, was visited at noon by Baron de Bassompierre of the Belgian Foreign Office, who advised that the evening papers would be publishing the French assurances on Belgian neutrality.  Did Herr von Below wish to make a statement?  Locked in Below's safe were secret unopened orders, which could only relate to an ultimatum to be delivered to the Belgian government when word came from Berlin.  Von Below saw Bassompierre to the door with the assurance that "Belgium has nothing to fear from Germany".

Part 5 - Into the Abyss

1 August 1914


Moltke and von Staab laboured furiously.  The line to the Schloss ran hot.  Soon after midday, Moltke was back meeting with the Kaiser, Bethmann-Hollweg, Falkenhayn and Jagow.  Although Moltke had persuaded the Chancellor the previous evening that a declaration of war had to be sent to the Russians at the earliest opportunity, there was now hesitation over the urgency of such a move.  A formal declaration was drafted but not sent to Pourtalès, pending approval from the Federal Council of the associated German states, which happened to be a constitutional requirement.

With sufficient work done to allow the first phase of the eastern redeployment to begin that evening, it was decided that general mobilisation could still go ahead, although delayed an hour beyond the originally scheduled time of 5.00 pm.  Time could be gained diplomatically by holding back the declaration of war on Russia.  However, no time could be wasted in preparations to meet the Russians in the field.

The strategic challenge remained: how to keep the appearance of a westward military focus going long enough to delude the Russians while not alienating Britain.  Von Below in Brussels had speedily reported the news of the French assurances concerning Belgium.  For now the Germans could be content that they would not themselves be facing a French attack through Belgium.

Schoen was wired with orders to call on Viviani no later than 4.30 pm French time (5.30 pm in Berlin) to seek a final answer from the French concerning their intentions.  He was also to continue packing up at the embassy.  Von Below was ordered to continue making enigmatic statements to the Belgians if pressed and to await further instructions.  Lichnowsky was asked to press once again for assurances on British neutrality if the Germans were to respect Belgium and to attempt to draw the British further on how to keep the French quiet.  He was also instructed to suggest to Grey that the Germans would not commit any hostile act against France until 7.00 pm on 3 August, in order to facilitate British efforts to restrain the French from intervention.

Meanwhile, Goschen wired Grey that German reserve officers were being called out and that many of the General Staff had already left Berlin.  He reported that the British Military Attaché in Berlin was sure that some German forces would pass through Belgium in the event of war with France.

The Hague

The Dutch government, increasingly nervous and jealously maintaining neutrality, ordered mobilisation and issued orders regulating foreign shipping in Dutch ports and inland waterways.

St Petersburg

The British Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, wired Grey concerning the extent of the Russian mobilisation.  Interestingly, Buchanan reported that there were no observations of German troop movements on the lines leading east from Berlin, although all bridges were guarded.  It was also noted that there seemed to be no haste among the German farmers in bringing in their harvest.  On the other hand, the harvest in south Poland and south Russia had been gathered and there was intense activity in moving troops, mainly cavalry and artillery, to the frontier.  Civilian rail travel was cut to a minimum and military censorship had begun.


In the early afternoon, following the Cabinet meeting, Grey saw Cambon.  Once again he stressed that the present position differed from that during the Morocco crisis.  Grey indicated that he understood that Germany would refrain from attacking France if the French remained neutral in any war between Russia and Germany.  The British had no control over circumstances precluding French neutrality that they were not privy to, such as secret terms of any alliance between Russia and France.  This did not mean for certain that Britain would remain aloof but Grey told Cambon that France must make her own decisions without counting on British assistance for now.  The British were simply not in a position to make any promises.

Cambon insisted that he could not possibly give this advice to his government and sought licence to say simply that the British Cabinet had not yet made a final decision.  Grey replied that this was not true.  A decision had been made that it was politically impossible to ask Parliament to agree to a British expeditionary force being sent to the Continent.

Cambon asked about the protection of the French coastline.  He said that he feared a German attack as soon as hostilities got under way.  Grey reassured Cambon that an attack on the French coastline would be viewed just as seriously in Britain as a German violation of Belgium.  Cambon was given leave to inform his government of these two factors and that Cabinet was discussing them, without yet having reached a decision.

Cambon left Grey's office and went to see Nicolson, with whom he had developed a longstanding friendship.  Cambon arrived in a state of some distress.  He complained that the British were about to desert the French.  He insisted, as Nicolson afterward indicated to Grey, that it was at the request of the British "that France had moved her fleets to the Mediterranean, on the understanding that we undertook the protection of her Northern and Western coast."  Nicolson reminded Grey that it was important that Cabinet addressed this issue as soon as possible.  Grey noted that he had spoken to Asquith and would pursue a naval guarantee quite strenuously at the following day's Cabinet meeting.


Bertie met with Poincaré and was told that Germany was attempting to blame Russia for the escalation of the crisis.  Poincaré argued that the Russians had not mobilised until after the Austro-Hungarian general mobilisation.  He suggested that the Germans were already far advanced with war preparations, even without mobilisation and that this made a French general mobilisation necessary for self-defence.

At 3.30 pm, in accordance with the Cabinet decision, general mobilisation was ordered and was made public at 4.00 pm, effective from midnight.

Viviani prepared a manifesto to be released by the President of the Republic, explaining the reasons for the mobilisation and insisting that "Mobilisation is not war".  He followed with a long telegram to Cambon in London, for the benefit of Grey, in the hope that France's action would not appear too provocative and jeopardise hopes of British support.

Viviani need not have worried, as Grey saw nothing unreasonable in what he understood as precautionary mobilisations by Russia and France against German military might.


Bethmann-Hollweg met with the representatives of the German states in the Federal Council.  He swiftly obtained unanimous approval for declarations of war on Russia and France if satisfactory responses were not forthcoming from St Petersburg and Paris.

Brindisi - Taranto

The German battle cruiser "Goeben" under the command of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the German commander in the Mediterranean, skirted the heel of Italy after steaming from the Austrian base at Pola, where she had been laid up all July for repairs.  With war looming, the Germans did not want their prize warship trapped in the Adriatic.  Early in the day, the Italians, who were moving rapidly towards a declaration of neutrality and did not want to be seen to be too co-operative, had refused “Goeben” coal at Brindisi .  “Goeben” moved on to Taranto, where she met with the light cruiser "Breslau".  While en route Souchon frantically summoned all German shipping in the area to rendezvous with “Goeben” at Messina.


At 4.30 pm, immediately after receiving fresh instructions from Berlin, Schoen called again on Viviani.  Schoen had also just learned of the French mobilisation and demanded an explanation.  Once again Viviani insisted that France must have regard to her interests.  He attempted to assure Schoen that, despite the mobilisation, the French had no aggressive intentions and he noted the orders to French troops to remain ten kilometres back from the frontier.  Schoen replied that, in the face of mobilisation by both the Russians and the French, the world would understand that Germany had to look to her own security.


The Swiss government ordered a partial mobilisation.  This was declared to be in the interests of preserving Swiss neutrality.


At 6.00 pm, the proclamation of general mobilisation was issued at the gates of the Kaiser's palace, where a huge crowd was waiting.  Great excitement followed in the streets of Berlin as cars went to and fro with officers standing up and calling out "Mobilisation!"  Now there was a frenzy of activity at the railway stations in Berlin, as thousands of troops began to move, some following orders long prepared, others moving under orders freshly typed and despatched as the day progressed.  The scenes were soon being repeated all across Germany, as the great wave of grey began to swell.

St Petersburg

At 9.00 pm local time, an hour after the German mobilisation, Pourtalès called again on Sasonov and, in an emotional exchange for both participants, presented the German declaration of war.


At that moment, far away in Luxemburg, a small detachment from the German 16th Division crossed the frontier at Trois Vierges, occupying the railway station and telegraph office.

The iron dice were rolling.

Part 6 - A Promise to France

1 August 1914 (evening)


King Albert of the Belgians was gravely concerned at the continuing silence from Germany following Grey's inquiry the previous evening.  This could only mean impending invasion.  With his wife, a Bavarian princess, the King drafted a personal appeal to the Kaiser.  Albert asked Wilhelm to give him at least a private assurance that he would not violate Belgian neutrality, even if it were impossible for him to make a public statement at this stage.


Alexander Izvolsky, Russian Ambassador to France, was notified immediately by Sasonov of the German declaration of war.  However, it was nearly midnight before Izvolsky had the news and was hurrying across to see Poincaré at the palace.  Izvolsky appeared terribly frightened to Poincaré and asked the President what France was going to do.  Poincaré assured Izvolsky that France would honour its obligations but would not declare war on Germany precipitously.  With any luck, the Germans might declare war now that the French were mobilising.  That would save France much diplomatic bother and the government would not have to risk the matter before the Chamber of Deputies, which might insist on some uncomfortable explanations before sanctioning a declaration of war.

This seemed to Izvolsky very much like the French were attempting to wriggle out of their commitment to Russia.  Poincaré insisted that nothing could be further from the truth.  Were not the French already mobilising?  In a few days they would be quite ready to attack Germany.  Poincaré confessed that he was more afraid that the Germans would not give the French the time they needed to complete their mobilisation.  He asked Izvolsky to wait while he called the Cabinet together.

The midnight meeting lasted for three hours.  By the time it was over, Viviani was able to tell Izvolsky that the French would stand by the Russians but needed ten days to be fully prepared.  Izvolsky had to be content with this reply.


Grey received a wire from Sir Rennell Rodd, British Ambassador in Rome, passing on news he had heard from the French embassy that German merchant shipping in the Mediterranean had been instructed "in case of necessity to make for Sicilian ports".

Churchill entertained some Tory friends at dinner.  On learning just before midnight of the German declaration of war on Russia, he left for Downing Street, where he found Asquith and Grey.  Churchill told these two that he was going to mobilise the Fleet anyway, notwithstanding the Cabinet refusal.  Asquith did not object.  Grey said that he was going to give the French an assurance of protection in the Channel.  He was confident of obtaining Cabinet approval for this at the earliest opportunity.

2 August


During the night, Bertie wired Grey seeking instructions on whether to indicate British neutrality so long as neither German nor French troops crossed the border.  Bertie suggested that it would be most unlikely for the French to remain quiet if Russia and Germany were at war.  He wondered whether he should press the French for details of their exact obligations to the Russians.


M. Eyschen, the Luxemburg Minister for State, telegraphed Brussels, London and Paris in the morning with news of the German invasion.  Formal protests were addressed to the German Minister in Luxemburg and to Jagow in Berlin.


During the morning, von Below was called to the Foreign Office and asked by Davignon for an explanation following the German invasion of Luxemburg.  Again he assured the Belgians that they had nothing to fear.  To the Belgian Press, he remarked "Your neighbour's roof may catch fire but your own house will be safe".


The crisis had taken a terrible turn for the worse with the German declaration of war on Russia.  Prime Minister Asquith entertained Lichnowsky at breakfast.  Asquith outlined his thoughts to Lichnowsky.  He said that Britain had no obligation to provide naval or military help to France or Russia.  Sending an expeditionary force to France was out of the question and would serve no purpose.  However, the ties arising from the long relationship with France could not be forgotten.  Asquith reminded Lichnowsky that it was definitely against British interests for France to lose Great Power status. In addition, the British could not allow Germany to use the Channel as a hostile base.  This was the basic British position.  What Germany also had to accept was that Britain had obligations to Belgium to prevent Germany violating Belgian neutrality either by using her as a way of attacking another country or absorbing the country altogether.  This factor alone would most likely result in British intervention against Germany.

Lichnowsky was always aware of Britain's stance concerning France.  He was sure that the British would never attack Germany but he also realised that they would just as surely protect the French.  However, only in the last few days had he actually learned of the secret 1912 Anglo-French naval agreement, by pure chance, from the German Naval Attaché.  Vital information like this was often withheld from Lichnowsky, principally as a result of political considerations.

Lichnowsky was not privy to the decision already made in Berlin not to proceed with an advance through Belgium.  Instead he saw nothing but the failure of all his hard work in London because of the approach of the militarist fools in Berlin. It was almost too much for him.  In great agitation, he begged Asquith not to take the part of the French.  Asquith, too, was deeply troubled and could not restrain tears himself.  He assured Lichnowsky that the British had no desire to intervene but everything was now in Germany's hands.

Lichnowsky went back to his Embassy to send off yet another warning to Berlin that the British would not tolerate any action against Belgium.  To this he added the advice from Asquith that German naval action in the Channel would be viewed just as unfavourably.


Viviani circulated instructions to French ambassadors throughout Europe alleging German violations of the French border around Longwy.  These allegations seem to have had little basis in fact.  Viviani also reported the German intrusion into Luxemburg.  Jules Cambon in Berlin was also instructed to protest against the alleged violations.


Herr von Buch, the German Minister in Luxemburg, visited Eyschen and handed over a telegram from Bethmann-Hollweg, insisting that the German military action in Luxemburg did not constitute a hostile act against her but were "purely preventive measures taken for the protection of the railways" against the possibility of French attack.  The Luxemburg railways were already under German administration in accordance with a prior treaty with Germany.  Bethmann-Hollweg advised that German military forces in Luxemburg had orders for maximum restraint in relation to the civilian population and to respect private and public property.  He promised that Luxemburg would receive a complete indemnity for any damage.


The Tories finally concluded that they were willing to join a war coalition should the need arise, although they were quite wary of the effects of any anti-war movement.  Tory Leader Andrew Bonar Law wrote to Asquith promising support for the government should it decide to intervene in the war.

Cambon insisted on seeing Grey again before the highly unusual Sunday Cabinet meeting.  Acting on instructions from Viviani, he asked what action Britain proposed under the 1867 treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Luxemburg.  Grey stated that the case was different from Belgium, which was protected by several individual guarantees, whereas there was only a collective guarantee for Luxemburg, not binding an individual power to take action for its enforcement.  Cambon was outraged and, as he put it to callers later in the morning, the word "honour" should be removed from the English language.

The Cabinet met again for three hours from 11.00 am.  Leading all other business was Grey's request for a naval guarantee to be given to France.  Now the government seemed to be coming apart at the seams.  Grey was making no headway. The pacifists, particularly Burns, considered that any warning to Germany about action in the Channel was tantamount to a declaration of war.

During a break, former Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour saw Churchill and told him of the letter from Bonar Law to Asquith.  Back in the meeting, Asquith read out the letter from Bonar Law.   The non-interventionists were now in danger of being sidelined by a war coalition but they refused to back down.  The Cabinet eventually agreed that Grey could inform Cambon that the Germans would not be allowed to use the Channel for hostile acts.  At this, Burns immediately announced his resignation from the Cabinet.  Morley urged him to stay as, although ready to resign himself in the event of intervention, he saw nothing wrong in a warning to Germany in order the discourage conflict in the Channel, on Britain's doorstep.  The Cabinet remained opposed to sending an expeditionary force to France.  The meeting was adjourned until 6.30 pm, when a statement to be made in the House of Commons the next day was to be prepared.

After the Cabinet rose, Grey saw Cambon once again.  Now he had something for the French.  He informed Cambon that he was authorised to give an assurance that, if the German fleet moved into the Channel or through the North Sea to attack the French coasts or shipping, the British fleet would give the French full protection.  Grey reminded Cambon that the assurance was subject to the approval of Parliament and that no action would be taken until and unless the Germans made any move.

Grey said that the Cabinet still had many difficult questions to consider and could not guarantee intervention if France and Germany went to war.  However, the French government had to have prompt advice so that they could deploy their fleet in the Mediterranean, secure in the knowledge that their northern coast would be protected.  This of itself would only directly lead to British involvement if Germany chose to attack French shipping or their coasts.  Grey repeated his comments from the morning in relation to the difference status of Luxemburg and Belgium.  He indicated that Belgian neutrality was of great importance to Britain and its violation could well be treated as a "casus belli".  Grey told Cambon that the Cabinet would reconvene that evening to consider whether to make a statement in these terms to the Parliament the next day.  However, he could not make any promises about an expeditionary force, saying that it was too difficult at this stage to consider sending such a large proportion of Britain's standing forces out of the country.

Cambon went off to inform his government of Grey's advice and the naval guarantee.  Grey also wired Bertie with his own report of the Cabinet decision and his meeting with Cambon.


The German press was full of officially planted rumours of French incursions and even aerial bombing near Nuremberg.  Bethmann-Hollweg, Moltke and Tirpitz met and concluded that there should be no declaration of war against France, despite the French mobilisation.  So long as the French remained back from the border, there was no need for direct German action against French territory and no need to go through the machinery of a declaration of war.  Tirpitz felt a declaration was unnecessary in principle, while Moltke preferred the formalities to give legality to military actions.  Bethmann-Hollweg was more concerned with international perceptions and leaving the French to make the mistakes.

Part 7 - The Belgian Card

2 August 1914


The official line from the Belgian government remained that of confidence that their neutrality would be respected.  Villiers informed Grey that the Belgians insisted that they were not considering any appeal to the Powers guaranteeing the 1839 treaty and were confident that they could defend themselves without assistance should any violation of their neutrality occur.

The Hague

The Dutch remained nervous.  They were concerned and offended at reports in an English newspaper that the British were ready to offer assistance should the Germans violate Dutch neutrality. The Netherlands Minister in London was swiftly assured that the newspaper reports had no basis in fact.  Meanwhile, Chilton, the British Minister in The Hague, reported that the border with Germany was being heavily reinforced and Dutch troops had orders to resist any crossing with force.


The French were watching and waiting with great anxiety.  The military continued to report massive movements of German troops in border areas.  Many garbled reports came through of border crossings and exchanges with French troops, none of which could be confirmed, particularly as all French forces were supposed to be ten kilometres inside the frontier.

The Cabinet sat in almost continuous session throughout the day.  Joffre wanted to respond to the German invasion of Luxemburg with an advance of troops to the borders but Messimy vetoed this in the interest of maintaining a pacific image.  Finally, by 2.00 pm, when the reports of border violations became too numerous surely to be completely fictitious, Messimy allowed Joffre free rein, including permission to cross the frontier.  Joffre sent his troops forward but ordered them to refrain strictly from entering enemy territory.


Italy declared neutrality, arguing that the actions by Austria and Germany constituted a war of aggression and that the terms of the alliance did not therefore require the Italians to participate in their action.  The failure of the Austrians to give Italy any notice of their intentions regarding Serbia had made things even more difficult, as Italian interests had been adversely affected.


The German Embassy in London passed on assurances concerning Luxemburg similar to those given to the Grand Duchy.

At 3.45 pm Grey's office received a telegram from Sinclair, the British consul in Taranto, sent that morning at 11.30 am, reporting that the "Goeben" was at Taranto.  Churchill had already ordered Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, commander of the British Mediterranean fleet, waiting at Malta, to shadow the "Goeben".  Now Milne sent a light cruiser, the "HMS Chatham", off to check the Straits of Messina but this order was given far too late.


“Goeben” arrived in the afternoon, at around the same time that the Italian government announced its decision to remain neutral.  Now a belligerent vessel, "Goeben" was of course once again refused coal.  The precaution of summoning German merchant shipping had been wise and Souchon now transferred 2,000 tons of coal to his warship.  He requisitioned one of the merchant ships, the "SS General", to serve as a coal tender and ordered her captain to stand ready for an important mission.

St Petersburg

Buchanan reported an audience with the Tsar late the previous evening, in which Nicholas maintained that he had done everything in his power to avoid a war.  He insisted that he had given the Kaiser an assurance that the Russian troops would not move against Germany, notwithstanding the general mobilisations, so long as negotiations were continuing.  Nicholas now called on British support to maintain the balance of power in Europe.  Buchanan warned Grey that, if the British did not support Russia now, the implications at the end of the war could be serious in the European diplomatic climate and possibly would leave India under threat.  Likewise, failure to support France from the beginning would entail greater sacrifices from the British later.

The Tsar arranged a solemn Orthodox service at the Winter Palace, with the court, the diplomatic community and government officials in attendance.  Pride of place was given by Nicholas to French Ambassador Maurice Paléologue.  The Tsar's address to the Russian people was read out by his chaplain, including a promise that Nicholas would not make peace while a single enemy soldier was on the soil of the Fatherland.


Cabinet reconvened at 6.30 pm with Grey reporting on his exchange with Cambon.  The Cabinet agreed that the naval guarantee to the French would remain secret and would not be made known to the Germans.  It was also agreed that a "substantial" violation of Belgian neutrality would be sufficient to impose obligations under the treaty of 1839.  The final form of the Commons statement was deferred until another meeting on Monday morning.  Burns confirmed his resignation, despite attempts by Asquith to dissuade him.  Now that a decision had been made concerning Belgium, Morley also resigned, although he acceded to a request from Asquith to "sleep on it".

The anti-war Ministers were now somewhat subdued, although many still pointed to ways in which Britain could still stay out of a war.  However, a major German invasion of Belgium coupled with Belgian resistance would not be one of them.


By the end of the day, the Grand Duchy was fully occupied by the Germans, who also took up positions on the border with France.

The day also ended with declarations of neutrality having come from Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Romania.  Bulgaria and Greece were silent at this stage and the Turks were awaiting the signing of a treaty of alliance with Germany.


King Albert had so far received no reply to his message to the Kaiser, sent early that morning.  At 7.00 pm, von Below delivered the German ultimatum to Davignon.  He had finally received orders to open the secret envelope in his safe.  His instructions required certain amendments to the text of the message originally sent several days earlier.  All references to offers of French territory to Belgium after the war were deleted and the tone of the request for access through Belgium for German forces was softened considerably.  Assurances were given concerning safety of civilians and respect for public and private property, with guarantees of compensation after the war, as had been the case with Luxemburg.  However, the note still contained various concocted allegations of French aggressive actions against Germany and even against Belgium!


At 8.30 pm, Cambon’s wire concerning the naval guarantee by the British was received.  Viviani immediately replied to Cambon.  He noted that the assurances from Britain were most valuable.  Further, the naval protection in the Channel and the North Sea included, by extension, support in the Atlantic.  The guarantee also meant that German ships would not be able to use British ports for supplies in preparation for hostile action.  Viviani was also pleased that he could now put off for a couple of days his planned address to the Chamber of Deputies.  Events were taking care of themselves without the need for awkward explanations.


The Belgian Council of State met in emergency session at 9.00 pm and continued to meet with short breaks, until 4.00 am.  There was no argument against rejecting the German demands.  That decision at least was unanimous.  Practical methods of resistance and whether or when to call on the assistance of the Guaranteeing Powers occupied most of the long and painful meeting.  It was agreed to ask only for diplomatic support until such time as the Germans crossed the frontier.


Huge crowds in London rallied in the summer evening, loudly supporting intervention on the side of France.  The crowds understood none of the delicacies of the debate in Cabinet.  British patriotic fervour dominated.  Crowds outside the French Embassy sang "La Marseillaise" and the King and Queen were cheered on the balcony at Buckingham Palace.  The scenes were little different in Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg.

While dining with the Lord Chancellor, Richard Haldane, Grey received a telegram suggesting an imminent German invasion of Belgium.  This was probably a garbled report of the German ultimatum.  The two immediately left for Downing Street, where Asquith agreed to immediate mobilisation.  Haldane was temporarily appointed to the vacant War Ministry in order to begin the process of calling up reservists and the Territorial Army.


The Kaiser sat up late in his study, on his favourite saddle chair, reading over and over the personal appeal from King Albert.  The stakes were getting higher, particularly with the British, as long as the Belgian problem remained unsolved.  It was time to end the charade.

© D John Trungove, Melbourne, Australia, 2000
Permission granted for use subject to full acknowledgement of authorship.  The author’s moral rights to this work are asserted.

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