A Century Later . . .

by Andrew Stuttaford

One hundred years to the day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, The Economist has posted a copy of an editorial it ran on August 1, 1914 (thus written while Germany, France, Russia and Britain were still at peace). Given the myths that have grown up about those last few days before catastrophe struck, it makes fascinating and sometimes counter-intuitive reading.

Here’s an extract:

It is a fact that the provocation begun by Servia has been continued by Russia. If a great war begins Russian mobilisation will be the proximate cause. And we fear that the poisonous articles of the Times have encouraged the Czar’s Government to hope for British support

Fortunately, the attitude of the Times is utterly opposed to the feelings of the business community, and to the instincts of the working classes. In maintaining strict neutrality Mr Asquith and Sir Edward Grey can count upon the support of the Cabinet, the House of Commons, and the nation. So far Great Britain has taken the lead in Europe on behalf of peace. The value of that effort is due to the honourable and straightforward conduct of Sir Edward Grey, which did so much to localise the Balkan wars and to prevent the mobilisation in Austria and Russia from terminating in an explosion. It is also due to the great efforts made in England and Germany during the last two or three years to re-establish the old friendship which ought never to have been disturbed. It is very noticeable that there were many cries of “Hoch England ” as the crowds which demonstrated in Berlin on Sunday passed by the British Embassy . . .

The attempts of the yellow Press and of the Times to drive the Government into a European war are happily not seconded by the sober-minded part of the Unionist Press in the provinces and Scotland. And we are glad to note the pacific line of the Standard, which is in keeping with its old traditions as a moderate representative of business feeling. The commercial and working classes of this country are just as friendly to Germany as to France, and they will almost unanimously reject the idea of helping Russia to extend its empire in Europe and Asia . . .

Every British interest points irresistibly to the maintenance of strict neutrality. And, of course, by so doing we shall be in a far better position later on—if the worst comes to the worst—to mediate effectively between exhausted combatants.

The German refusal to respect Belgian neutrality a few days later was, of course, what changed everything. Within a week Britain was at war (mistakenly in my view, but that’s a separate — and very difficult — debate), but editorials such as this, which reflected a significant slice of British public opinion, give the lie to the idea that Britain was somehow thirsting for war, or, for that matter, went into it nonchalantly. It was not and it did not.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today Tim Stanley has this to say:

The war proved the desirability of democracy, as well as one of its noblest characteristics: the peace movement. When Britain joined the conflict, there were protests but they were very small – a handful of Marxists, suffragettes, anarchists and bleeding-heart liberals like Bertrand Russell, who got six months in Brixton prison for pacifist agitation. Our admirably patriotic forefathers were not inclined towards dissent in war time. Enthusiasm for the conflict was so high that Britain was able to fight without conscription for two years, and when it did eventually resort to impressment, only around 16,000 men were recorded as “conscientious objectors”. Even in some modern minds, that term still implies cowardice or feebleness – which is unfair because not only did the objectors risk shame or imprisonment but many also displayed great courage on the battlefield as volunteer medics.

Stanley is quite right to point out that there was little active opposition in Britain to the war once it had begun, but that qualifier is critical. Large numbers of Britons were strongly opposed to the idea of British participation in a European war. Once the die had been cast however, many felt that they had little honorable alternative other than to rally round the flag. In this context it is highly significant that voluntary enlistment peaked not in August 1914 (think of those photographs of cheering crowds, and talk of “home by Christmas”) but in early September when the (then very small) British army was retreating after Mons and the country itself appeared to be in real danger.

Jingo, not so much.

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