Germany and Britain Declare War: August 1914

 ‘I have the honour, on the instructions of my Government, to inform your Excellency as follows:

His Majesty the Emperor, my august Sovereign, in the name of the German Empire, accepts the challenge, and considers himself at war with Russia.’
Presented by the German Ambassador to St. Petersburg, 1st August 1914

Continuing our series commemorating the centenary of the First World War, this excerpt focuses on Germany’s declaration of war against Russia, made on 1 August in 1914.  Selected from William Mulligan’s The Great War for Peace, the following passage demonstrates the failure of the European system to accommodate a peaceful resolution to the crisis caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. All the great powers took methodical steps towards war, fully aware of the consequences of their actions, but believing firmly that to enter into conflict was the best way to serve their national interests. Although response to the outbreak of war was initially popular, already a sense of fatalism seemed to have taken hold amongst the diplomats and statesmen. Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, remarked: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time’.

Germany and Britain Declare War

Russian mobilization involved the concentration of troops, not the invasion of enemy territory. Deterrence, the last refuge for great power peace, was about to be tested to destruction. At each stage in the crisis, the costs of backing down had escalated. German leaders were increasingly concerned at reports of partial mobilization, though Bethmann Hollweg had managed to resist demands from Erich von Falkenhayn, the Prussian Minister of War, for German mobilization. Only when intelligence about Russia’s general mobilization reached Berlin did the scales tilt towards German mobilization, which involved the invasion of other states, rather than mere concentration of troops. The Russian mobilization was enormously significant in framing Germany’s mobilization and declarations of war – against Russia on 1 August and France two days later. First, German military planning depended on relative speed – more rapid mobilization would give German forces an advantage in the initial battles. If Russian mobilization stole a march, then East Prussia would be increasingly vulnerable. Second, German war plans required an offensive in the west. German diplomacy, in a quandary, manufactured an excuse to declare war against France. Third, the Russian mobilization enabled Bethmann Hollweg to persuade the SPD (Social Democratic Party) and the population in general that the Reich was waging a defensive war. The notion of a justified response to Russian mobilization provided an important starting point for this narrative. 

Britain’s entry into the war transformed the conflict into a global war. Doubts remained over British entry until 2 August. This caused particular anxiety among French leaders and diplomats, notably Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to London and brother of Jules, the ambassador in Berlin. Fearing Britain would remain neutral, Paul Cambon had flounced out of Grey’s office, asking whether honour had any meaning in the English language. Speaking two years later, Lloyd George claimed that Cambon ‘is a great man. He had much to do with our coming into the war. He came and wept; and the German ambassador came and wept – but he wept like a German. He wept tears like German sausages. Cambon wept like an artist.’ The tears revealed the stress experienced by diplomats, soldiers, and politicians, but the decision for British entry was shaped by security concerns, party politics, and the German invasion of Belgium on 4 August. From late July, as Grey pondered the increasing likelihood of war in Europe, he believed that Britain would have to intervene on the side of France and Russia. He and Foreign Office officials, such as Eyre Crowe, reasoned that if Britain stayed out and Germany won the war, they could expect little gratitude from Wilhelm II. If Russia and France were victorious, they could exert pressure on British imperial interests in Africa and Asia as payback for what they saw as betrayal. British security interests around the globe, therefore, were bound up with European politics. Only by entering the war, calculated Grey, could Britain thwart German ambitions and manage Russian and French aims. Grey, supported by Liberal prime minister, Asquith, was the key decision- maker in London. 

However, British entry was shaped by two other considerations. First, the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law had written to Asquith on 2 August assuring him of Conservative support for a British declaration of war. Most of the Liberal cabinet had doubts about British entry into the war, but they also realized that Asquith and Grey would resign if Britain stayed out, bringing about the collapse of the Liberal government and the installation of a Conservative cabinet; and this Conservative cabinet with the support of Liberal imperialists would bring Britain into the war. In other words, the Liberal cabinet could only protect liberalism – as a set of political values and as a party – by entering the war. Second, the invasion of Belgium by Germany was important not simply because it gave Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his wing of the party a reason to justify Britain’s entry into war, but also because it added a twist to the definition of British interests in the war. This was a war in defence of small nations and international public law against an aggressive militarist state. Of all the belligerents in 1914, Britain faced the least immediate threat to its territory, yet the government was able to frame the war as defensive.

By 4 August seven states in Europe were at war. Each claimed it was waging a war of defence. In some cases – Serbia, Belgium, France, and Germany (in East Prussia) – the claim was made easier by the invasion of enemy forces. These claims to a war of defence were important in shaping the war cultures of the different belligerents. Nor can the claims be simply dismissed as cynical propaganda. That each state claimed to wage a war of defence and the vast majority of its citizens, and even leaders, largely or wholly believed this, suggests that the international system no longer could accommodate the rival interests of the various powers. The great power peace of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had failed.

From ‘The End of Civilisation’, Chapter 3 of The Great War for Peace by William Mulligan – available from Yale


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