Britain's Entrance into the Great War


[The Independent, September 7, 1914]

On another page Mr. Sydney Brooks, the London representative of The Independent, describes vividly, the state of mind of the British people as they enter upon the Great War. Serenely confident of the righteousness of their cause they are silent, united, determined. A careful reading of the White Paper issued by the British Government and containing all the correspondence that past between the British Foreign Office and the Chancelleries of Europe prior to England's declaration of war on August 4, reveals what a sure foundation it is that the British people have for their confidence.

From the first note of Sir Edward Grey to the British Ambassador at Berlin on July 20 to the final telegram to the same official on August 4 instructing him in effect to announce a declaration of war the British activities were upon the highest plane of international honor, disinterested friendliness and unimpeachable sincerity. Every communication from the British Foreign Office is infused with reasonableness and an earnest desire for peace.

In his first conversation with the German Ambassador Sir Edward Grey offered the invaluable suggestion that "the more Austria could keep her demand within reasonable limits, and the stronger the justification she could produce for making any demand, the more chance there would be of smoothing things over." From the first the British Minister urged that Austria should modify the strict time limit of forty-eight hours which she had imposed upon Servia for the reply to her ultimatum. But Austria would neither relax her demands in the slightest degree nor give Servia a minute more of time in which to meet them. Nor could Germany in any way be induced to exercize her influence at Vienna.

When his efforts for an extension of time were fruitless Sir Edward Grey urged again and again in every capital in Europe that representatives of the four governments least involved, Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain, should meet in conference in order to see if a peaceful, way out could not be found. Again his efforts failed, for Germany and Austria held firm to their position that Austria's ultimatum to Servia was a question for those two nations alone, in which the other powers could have no word to say. Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg's persistent reply to Sir Edward Grey was that to preserve the peace of Europe Great Britain should join with Germany in efforts to "localize" the war.

Again and again Great Britain was urged by Russia and France to declare that she would support them if war broke out. But to the last Sir Edward Grey, with fine persistence, kept his country free from any entangling commitments, while at the same time warning Germany that circumstances might arise in which Great Britain could no longer hold aloof.

With infinite patience and great skill Sir Edward Grey sought day after day to find a road by which the great powers might avoid the awful recourse of war. There was no assertion that either side or any nation was right in the original premises, no insistence that anybody do anything but take time to talk things over quietly and reasonably and try to find a way out. A remark of Sir Edward Grey to the Austrian Ambassador early in the diplomatic proceedings is indicative of the spirit in which Sir Edward approached the critical situation. Count Mensdorff had declared that "all would depend upon Russia." The British Minster replied that "in a time of difficulties such as this, it was just as true to say that it required two to keep the peace as it was to say, ordinarily, that, it took two to make a quarrel."

When it came to the last and Great Britain found no way of honor before her save that of war it was for the splendid cause of neutrality and loyalty to a weaker nation that she found herself impelled to enter the conflict. The final word that went from Sir Edward Grey to the British Ambassador at Berlin for transmission to the German Government must ever be an inspiring one for the British people to remember, "His Majesty's Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves."

No nation could have done more than England to ward off the Great War. No man could have done more than Sir Edward Grey to preserve the peace of Europe. If the same spirit had animated all the Chancelleries of Europe, there would have been no war. Germany has been loud in her condemnation of England for joining the Allies against her, but if the German Chancellery had been the least bit conciliatory on its part, Germany today might find herself at peace.

As late as July 31 Sir Edward said to the German Ambassador that "if Germany could get any reasonable proposal put forward which made it clear that Germany and Austria were striving to preserve European peace, and that Russia and France would be unreasonable if they rejected it, I would support it at St. Petersburg and Paris, and go the length of saying that if Russia and France would not accept it His Majesty's Government would have nothing more to do with the consequences." But he then added that if, under any other circumstances France became involved, Great Britain would be drawn in.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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The Headlong Fury