London County Council - Events Leading up to the Great War

The L.C.C. record of the Great War 1914 - 1919

It would be a long task to refer even in outline to all the causes, direct and indirect, of the Great War and the attempt to do so would raise many controversial questions. Here it must suffice to state that the France-German War of 1870 had been succeeded by a period of international jealousy and suspicion, and that, so far from abating, these feelings of unrest had spread during the early part of the twentieth century widely throughout Europe. A serious crisis in 1905, leading up to the Algeciras conference, had been followed by another in 1908 when Austria, in defiance of the Treaty of Berlin, annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and by a third in 191 1 arising out of the Agadir incident. Each had threatened to lead to war and, although war had been averted, it began to be clear that efforts to maintain peace could not continue to be successful. In most of the chief states there was no inconsiderable number of people who desired war, some in order to unite to their own country people of kindred race or language, others for the sake of territorial or political gain, others in mere self-defence before those plotting against their country became invincible. So deep were the feelings of distrust that any incident might result in a crisis for which no peaceful solution could be found. Such an incident was forthcoming on 28th June, 1914, when the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire, was assassinated with his wife while on a visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The effects of the outrage were not at once apparent, for no public action was taken by Austria until 23rd July. Then, however, it presented to Serbia a peremptory note and demanded a reply by the evening of the 25th. On this note Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, remarked in a despatch to the British Ambassador at Vienna that he " had never before seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character " and that one of the demands " would be hardly consistent with the maintenance of Serbia's independent sovereignty." ^ Serbia's reply, delivered within the stipulated time, accepted in principle, though with reservations, most of the Austrian demands. This, however, was not considered satisfactory, diplomatic relations were broken off, orders were given for the mobilisation of the army, and on the 28th war was declared against Serbia. Germany supported Austria, while Serbia was supported by Russia, thus bringing in France, the latter's ally. Diplomatic negotiations to avert war or to localise its effects having proved fruitless, Germany on ist August declared war on Russia and France, and on the 6th Austria declared war on Russia.

Great Britain of course had no direct interest in the quarrel between Austria and Serbia, or even in that between Austria and Russia, but, when other issues were raised and Germany and France were involved, it became vitally affected. The two main questions were the maintenance of the integrity of France and of the neutrality of Belgium. Great Britain was under no treaty obligation to France, but it had been agreed in November, 1912,^ that, if either Government had grave reason to expect an unprovoked attack, or something threatened the general peace, it would immediately discuss whether both Governments should act together to prevent aggression and to preserve peace. The German Chancellor's suggestion on 29th July that Great Britain should remain neutral on condition that Germany took no territory from France except in her colonies was indignantly rejected, and on 2nd iVugust France was informed that, if the German fleet came into the English Channel or the North Sea to attack the French coasts or shipping, the British fleet would give all the protection in its power. The second question, Belgian neutrality and the respect of that neutrality by all belligerents, was even more important. By the Treaty of London, 1839, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, France and Russia had agreed that Belgium should form an independent and perpetually neutral state, and that it should be bound to observe such neutrality towards all other states. This treaty had been strictly adhered to during the France-German War, and accordingly on 31st July, 1914, when hostilities between France and Germany became imminent, the two countries were asked whether, so long as no other power violated it, they would respect the neutrality of Belgium. France gave the necessary undertaking, but no reply was received from Germany. In fact on 2nd August the latter presented an ultimatum to Belgium demanding facilities for military operations, and on the 4th German troops actually invaded Belgian' territory. On this date Germany was again asked to give the assurance already given by France and was informed that, unless a satisfactory reply was received, Great Britain would take all steps in its power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium. Germany made no reply and accordingly from 11 o'clock on the night of 4th/5th August, 1914, Great Britain was at war with Germany.