Hurtling Towards War
The bonfire for a European conflagration had been building inexorably for over a generation before the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914. Over that period two great and hostile alliances had come together, tentatively at first but then more determinedly. As they did so they ever more fiercely cast grievances, ambitions, suspicions and hatreds at each other, so much so that language of diplomacy was increasingly abandoned for the rhetoric of conflict.
On the one side was the Dual Alliance of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Together, they dominated wide territories in the centre of the continent, stretching from the North Sea and across much of the Alps and the Balkans to the Adriatic in the south. This powerful bloc threatened France to the west. Anxious that it would be left isolated, it had longstanding fears about the power of Germany. These had begun with the loss of Alsace Lorraine in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, which had precipitated the unification of Germany with the Prussian king as its emperor.
The new German Empire was larger than France and it had a bigger and faster growing population. It quickly developed a strong and disciplined army and as speedily it transformed itself into one of the most important industrialised nations in the world – vying with Britain and the USA for industrial supremacy.
Bolstered by its alliance with Austria-Hungary, Germany was an intimidating neighbour and in response France looked for support of its own. It found it to the east, with the Russian Empire. Boasting a massive landmass from Poland in the west to Siberia in the east, it also had a huge population and the biggest army in the world.
For all of its apparent strength, however, the Russian Empire was beset by serious problems. Its road and rail network was poor; there was deep unrest in its few industrial areas; many of its minority peoples were alienated; and it had suffered a calamitous defeat in its war with Japan in 1905.
Ruled by the absolute monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, the Russians also feared the rapidly modernising and resolutely militaristic Germany and were keen to ally themselves with France. They did so in 1907 by signing the Triple Entente. The third partner was the United Kingdom, which had made a friendly agreement (Entente Cordiale) with France three years previously.
This alliance had overturned centuries of bitter antagonism between the two countries, during which numerous wars had been fought. Indeed as recently as 1898, France and Britain had seemed to be on the verge of conflict.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, major European powers were desperately trying to take over as much territory as possible to add to their empires, so much so that their efforts to grab land in Africa became known as ‘The Scramble for Africa’. This led to confrontations, especially between Britain and France in the north and west of that continent. Determined to protect the Suez Canal and thus its route to Indian, the jewel in the Imperial Crown, the British occupied Egypt in 1882 – much to the annoyance of the French. In 1898, and still smarting from this takeover, the French sent a force from their possessions in the west to Fashoda. This was on the White Nile, to the south of Egypt, and in the Sudan. Led by Colonel Marchand, the French arrived on July10. The British reacted swiftly and on September 18, a British Army led by Kitchener reached Fashoda. He had recently led Anglo- Egyptian forces to victory at the Battle of Omdurman, which had assured the reconquest of the Sudan – and now it seemed that war would follow between the two European powers. Instead the two leaders sat down, drank champagne and swapped stories until the diplomats sorted out the wrangle. On November 3 the French backed down, but the incident is recalled in modern Birmingham is Fashoda Road and Kitchener Road in Ten Acres.
The coming together of Britain and France not only went against generations of animosity but also against a deeply-held belief that Britain and Germany should be natural allies. They had a shared Germanic heritage; Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, had been a German; and her oldest grandson was Kaiser Wilhelm II.
His mother, Victoria the Princess Royal and later Empress of Germany, was British, but despite that the Kaiser held contradictory attitudes towards her country. On the positive side, from an early age and as a prince, he had enjoyed his annual summer visits to his family in Britain and later he revelled in racing yachts around the Isle of Wight.
Proud to be the grandson of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm rushed to be with her at her deathbed in January 1901. And after she died he sent an order to his Army from England, commanding all officers to wear mourning for fourteen days. In it he declared that ‘the death of my beloved, highly-honoured and never-to-be forgotten grandmother’ had ‘plunged me and my house into deepest mourning’.
For all he felt this loss, by then the Kaiser had become embittered towards his mother. In 1888, and as her husband the Emperor was vainly fighting throat cancer, the Empress complained to Queen Victoria that Wilhelm had been rude, impertinent and disagreeable to her.
His birth had been very difficult, and at it had been present a British physician as well as German doctors. Unfortunately, though, Wilhelm was born with a damaged left arm, which would never grow to full size. When a British doctor was unsuccessful in treating his father for cancer, Wilhelm is said to have exclaimed, ‘an English doctor crippled my arm and an English doctor is killing my father!’
Crowned in 1888, two years later Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed his experienced and shrewd Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who had striven to strengthen Germany without upsetting the balance of power of Europe and causing a war.
By contrast, the new Kaiser sought a New Course, whereby he exercised more control over national government. This was most marked in foreign policy, where he was determined to secure Germany ‘a place in the sun’ as an imperial nation. This would lead to German expansionism and competition with Britain and France especially.
Yet in the early years of the Kaiser’s rule, serious attempts were made to draw together Germany and Britain – in particular by Joseph Chamberlain in his role of Colonial Secretary. Chamberlain was an outstanding politician who had made his name as the mayor who had transformed Birmingham from ‘blackest Brummagem’ into ‘the best governed city in the world’.
In office for three years from 1873, he had thrust through building bye-laws which banned the construction of back-to-backs; pushed through sewerage and drainage schemes to make the town healthier; and secured the passage of acts, which allowed the corporation to take over the private gas and water companies.
Chamberlain had showed clearly that municipal socialism worked. What is more, he had proved that it was profitable. His vision and actions were spectacular – as they were on the national stage after he became a Liberal MP for Birmingham in 1876.
Straight-backed, top-hatted, with a monocle in his right eye, and a fresh orchid from his home at Highbury in Moseley pressed into the buttonhole of his long-tail jacket, he became the most distinctive politician in the land. No-one could fail to recognise him, all the more so because of the controversies that swirled around him as if he were a force of nature. Damned by his enemies as Red Joe because of his republicanism and radicalism, in the mid-1880s, Chamberlain tore asunder the Liberal Party over his vehement opposition to its proposals for Home Rule in Ireland. He then formed the Liberal Unionist Party, which he allied with the Conservatives in the General Election of 1895.
Following their victory at the polls, he accepted the post of Colonial Secretary. As such, Chamberlain was alert to the relative economic decline of Britain and the rapid emergence of the USA and Germany as challenging industrial competitors. In response he wished to ‘cultivate’ the undeveloped great spaces of the empire and make it a free trade zone protected by tariffs from foreign competition.
Chamberlain believed that this would stimulate imperial trade and lead to more opportunities for selling British manufactured goods. Many would see this as the exploitation of the colonies, but his attachment to the ‘cultivation’ of the empire was reinforced by what he pronounced in a speech in 1897 as his ‘faith in our race and our nation’. This conviction also led him to seek an Anglo-Saxon alliance with the English-speaking USA.
Two years later, in November 1899, in what became known as the ‘Leicester Speech’, he explained that he had recently met with the Kaiser, who had been visiting Queen Victoria. The meeting had come at a time when diplomatic relations were in flux. Many in France were still enraged over the recent Fashoda affair and the French press had published what the British regarded as shameful caricatures of Queen Victoria. Moreover war had just broken out in South Africa between the British and the Boers, who were supported by the Germans. In spite of this growing enmity, Chamberlain reported that the attitude of the Kaiser was ‘studiously friendly and gracious’. The Birmingham politician then stunned many by announcing that ‘the sentiments which brought us into close sympathy with the United States might be evoked to bring us closer in sympathy with Germany’.
Chamberlain went further, affirming that ‘if the union between England and America was a powerful factor in the cause of peace, a new triple alliance between the Teutonic race and the two great branches of the Anglo-Saxon race would be a still more influence in the future of the world’.
The ‘Birmingham Daily Gazette’ welcomed Chamberlain’s words, pronouncing that whilst England may have once contemplated an alliance with France it was no longer possible because of ‘the filthiest insults’ to the Queen. By contrast, ‘Germany has qualities every Anglo-Saxon can admire. Her energies and ideals alike make her the natural associate of England and America in an alliance which must have as its chief aims the preservation of international peace and the encouragement of commerce and industry’. Yet Chamberlain’s hopes were hopeless. The Kaiser was already actively backing plans to increase the German Navy. During his youthful visits to England, he had been impressed by the power of the Royal Navy and now he wanted to surpass it. In so doing, he felt he would reinforce efforts to propel Germany into a world power.
The Second Fleet Act of 1900, introduced by Admiral von Tirpitz, initiated an ambitious programme. Over the next a seventeen years it was planned to build a formidable fleet of two flagships, 36 battleships, and eleven large and 34 small cruisers.
Such a significant increase in the German Navy was unacceptable to the British Government. It was not overly concerned about Germany’s waxing military might or even its colonial aggression but it would not brook any challenge on the high seas.
Angered and alarmed at this threat, Britain embarked upon an extensive ship-building programme, which led to the launch of the mighty HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Boasting an ‘all-big-gun’ main battery of ten twelve-inch guns, a steam turbine power plant, and a 21- knot maximum speed, it became the battleship to emulate.
Britain and Germany were quickly embroiled in a naval arms race, one which drew Britain closer to France following the signing of the Entente Cordiale between the two countries in 1904. This effectively resolved their many pressing disagreements over colonial issues.
Seven years later they were pulled closer together when the Germans resorted to what was believed to ‘gunboat diplomacy’ over the growing French influence in Morocco. Although the tensions between France and Germany were then dampened, the bonfire of European antagonism was growing ever more perilously so that a spark might set it ablaze.
That spark came with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, on June 24, 1914. The assassin, Gavroli Princip, was a Bosnian Serb opposed to the annexation of his country by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead he sought unification with Serbia, which saw itself as the protector of all the Slavic peoples in the Balkans – and which itself looked to Russia for defence.
The murder of the heir to the House of Habsburg set off the July Crisis in which Austria-Hungary was determined to force the Serbians either into a humiliating acceptance of its demands or else into war. Indeed, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty affirmed that ‘Europe is trembling on the verge of a general war. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia being the most insolent document of its kind ever devised.’
Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, strove to maintain peace through offers of mediation but his efforts foundered on the rocks of intransigence of the Kaiser and his generals. Finally, and backed wholeheartedly by Germany, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28.
A day later, the British Ambassador in Berlin was informed by the German Chancellor that his country was contemplating war with France and wanted to send its army through Belgium – whose neutrality had been guaranteed since the Treaty of London in 1839.
Europe was hurtling towards war. On July 30 the Russians ordered a general mobilisation of their army; and 24 hours later Britain asked France and Germany to make clear their support for the ongoing neutrality of Belgium. France agreed; Germany did not respond.
Then on August 1, the French and Germans ordered general mobilisations of their forces and Germany declared war against Russia. Within 24 hours, Germany and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret treaty; and on August 3, Germany declared war against France and told Belgium that it would be treated as an enemy if it did not allow free passage of German troops.
Having failed to receive any reassurance from Germany that it would respect Belgian neutrality, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4. The next day the ‘Birmingham Mail’, along with newspapers across the land, carried a call for King and Country to join the Army immediately. Perceptively the appeal to arms for patriotic and unmarried young men proclaimed that ‘at this very moment the empire is on the brink of the greatest war in the history of the world’. Terribly it was.
First published in the Birmingham Mail’s First World War supplement.