WWI: How the war began.

On 4 August, 101 years ago, the UK declared war on Germany, and this date is generally regarded as the beginning of World War I. But what was the spark that caused this abhorrent war to begin?


Writing just four years after the war’s end Donald A. Mackenzie, a prolific writer on religion, mythology and anthropology, wrote a book which attempted to cover the entirety of the First World War. Although many of the source materials now used by modern historians were unavailable to him, Mackenzie gives a surprising thorough, but not always objective, account of the war. Read on to find out a contemporary’s account of how the war began:


Chapter One – How Germany Made War


That singular calm which precedes a cyclone prevailed in Europe before the greatest war in history burst forth in all its fury. “We were on better terms with Germany,” declared Mr. Lloyd George at a London demonstration in November, 1914, “than we had been for fifteen years. There was not a man in the Cabinet who thought that war with Germany was a possibility. Our relations had improved. There was not a diplomatic cloud over the German Ocean.” Yet the political barometer was falling. On 28th June occurred the assassination at Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, of the heir to the Austrian throne. This now historic tragedy did not seem at first to be pregnant with far-reaching political results, and even when it was alleged that the Serbian Government was not free of blame, and a definite charge was formulated against it by the Austrians, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, declared that “some of the circumstances quoted in the Austro-Hungarian Note respecting Serbia roused sympathy with Austria The Note was, however, of unprecedented character. It not only demanded the punishment of those alleged to have been concerned in the plot, but the humiliation of an independent State and the extension of Austrian influence in the Balkans. “I have never before,” commented Sir Edward Grey, “seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.” Serbia appealed to Russia as its protector, and the Government of the Tsar set to work to effect a peaceful solution of the difficulties confronting the small and kindred nation, with the result that Serbia agreed to comply with the demands of the Austro-Hungarian Government except in so far as these threatened to make it a subject State. Serbia proposed to submit the points under dispute to the Hague Tribunal, and its attitude in this connection received the support of most of the European Powers. Great Britain appealed to Germany in the interests of peace, refusing to credit the suspicion that Berlin was in reality, in the diplomatic sense, the cyclonic storm-centre. Germany made answer to the effect that Russia and Austria should settle the matter between them, and Britain approved of this suggestion. It then seemed as if all would go well. The representatives of Austria and Russia met, and, as Mr. Lloyd George put it in 1914, “were getting on admirably, so admirably that Germany got alarmed and declared war on Russia”.

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George

The German Ambassador in Vienna had been working for war. He assured the Austro-Hungarian Government of Germany’s support, and although Russia offered to stand aside and allow the four Powers, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, to settle the dispute between Austria and Serbia, Germany alone refused to consent to this arrangement. “The question at issue,” the Berlin Government then declared, “is one for settlement between Serbia and Austria alone.” It was on 27th July that Sir Edward Grey announced in the House of Commons his proposals for a conference. On the following day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. A partial mobilization of the Russian army was ordered on 30th July, and next day, the situation having grown more grave, a general mobilization was ordered. Meanwhile the British Government strove for peace. On 29th July, Sir Edward Grey made appeal to the German Chancellor, saying: “If you can induce Austria to satisfy Russia, and to abstain from going so far as to come into collision with her, we shall all join in deep gratitude to your Excellency for having saved the peace of Europe.” The German reply was to ask Britain to remain neutral, on the understanding that Germany aimed at “no territorial acquisitions at the expense of France.” It was recognized that France would be involved in the war as the ally of Russia. Great Britain refused to promise to remain neutral on the German terms. It could not stand aside and allow France to be “so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power and become subordinate to German policy Germany would give no undertaking with regard to the French colonies, and even suggested that Britain should ignore her treaty obligations as regards the neutrality of Belgium. The German Chancellor touched on this phase of the problem by saying that “it depended upon the action of France what operations Germany might be forced to enter upon in Belgium; but when the war was over, Belgian integrity would be respected if she had not sided against Germany”.

The German offer to Great Britain was at the time very aptly characterized as “infamous”. It was based on the assumption that we desired peace “at any price”.

Events moved rapidly and the political horizon grew darker and darker. As has been noted, general mobilization was ordered in Russia on 31st July. On 1st August, King George appealed by telegram to the Tsar to “remove the apprehension” in Germany with regard to mobilization, and the Tsar replied: “I should gladly have accepted your proposals had not the German Ambassador this afternoon presented a Note to my Government declaring war”. Russia had, previous to this, frankly offered to suspend her military preparations, which were, as it transpired, being pushed forward in full knowledge that Germany was secretly mobilizing. France also received a communication from Berlin on that fatal first day of August. It was an ultimatum demanding to be acquainted with her intentions in the event of a Russo-German war. France replied that she “would do that which her interests dictated”. On the same day Germany invaded Luxemburg, and on the following day French territory was entered at Cirey and an ultimatum was presented to Belgium. France was thus involved in war without any formal declaration from Berlin.

The Belgian ultimatum was marked “very confidential” and stated:

“Reliable information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.” 

Following this quite unfounded assertion, came the hypocritical announcement:

“The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany. It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany’s opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.”

Belgium was asked to adopt “a friendly attitude,” and told that if she showed resistance Germany would, “to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.” In this abrupt, offensive manner Germany plunged into a long-premeditated war.

The independence and neutrality of Belgium as an independent State had been guaranteed by treaty on 19th April, 1839. This treaty bore the signatures not only of the accredited representatives of Belgium and Holland, but also of those of Austria, France, Great Britain, Germany, and Russia. In 1870 this agreement received further confirmation by a treaty signed by Britain and Germany at London, in which the specific statement was made, on behalf of the King of Prussia: “It is his fixed determination to respect the neutrality of Belgium.” The contracting parties undertook further to employ their naval and military forces to ensure the observance of the treaty.

Germany was further bound as one of the forty-four States which, at the Fifth Convention of the Hague, agreed to the following articles: —

  1. The territory of neutral Powers is inviolable.
  2. Belligerents are forbidden to move across the territory of a neutral Power, troops and convoys, either of munitions of war or of supplies.
  • The fact of a neutral Power repelling, even by force, attacks on its neutrality cannot be considered as a hostile act.

As late as 29th April, 1913, German statesmen referred in the Reichstag to this nation’s obligations in this connection; “Belgian neutrality,” declared Herr von Jagow, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, “is provided for by International Conventions, and Germany is determined to respect these Conventions.” At the same meeting Herr von Heeringen, Minister of War, said very plainly: “Germany will not lose sight of the fact that the neutrality of Belgium is guaranteed by International Treaty.”

Indeed, on 2nd August, the very day on which the German ultimatum was presented to Belgium, Herr von Below, the German Minister at Brussels, said to a group of Belgian journalists who interviewed him:

“The (German) troops will not cross Belgian territory. Grave events are imminent. Perhaps you will see your neighbour’s house in flames, but the fire will spare your dwelling.”

On 3rd August, the Belgian Government replied to the German ultimatum protesting against the proposed violation of its neutrality, and stating that it was firmly resolved to repel every attack on its rights.

Next day the King of the Belgians addressed his Parliament and declared, “I have faith in our destiny; a country which defends itself commands the respect of all; such a country shall never perish. God will be with us in this just cause. Long live Independent Belgium!”

This firm stand had not been anticipated by Germany, nor was the ultimatum which on the same day was dispatched from London to Berlin demanding an assurance that the neutrality of Belgium would be respected.

Sir Edward Goschen, the British Ambassador at Berlin, who presented the ultimatum, found the Imperial Chancellor greatly agitated. “His Excellency,” Sir Edward has told, “at once began a harangue which lasted about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty’s Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word — neutrality, a word which in war-time had so often been disregarded — just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.”

Sir Edward, in his reply, said “it was, so to speak, a matter of ‘life and death’ for the honour of Great Britain that she should keep her solemn engagement to do her utmost to defend Belgium’s neutrality if attacked.”

Germany refused to comply with the terms of the ultimatum. “The plan for the invasion of France,” confessed the Deutsche Kriege Zeitung on 2nd September, 1914, “was thoroughly thought out a long time ago. It was necessary for its success that it should take place in the north by way of Belgium.

General von Bernhardi, in his notorious book Warfare of Today, had previously declared, with full knowledge of Germany’s aims and policy, “The neutrality of Belgium will not stop us…France must be so crushed as never to be able to rise again to interfere with us…This result must be secured at any cost, even at the cost of a European war.”

But the cost was greater than had been anticipated. Great Britain declared war on Germany at 11 p.m. on August 4th. On August 5th the Germans had entered Belgian territory and made the first attack on Liege, which was repulsed with heavy loss.

The British army and navy were mobilized. Sir John Jellicoe was appointed to the Command of the Grand Fleet, and Lord Kitchener became Secretary of State for War.

Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

Kitchener was at the time British Agent in Egypt. He had paid an official visit to London, and, his business having been completed, he took train to Dover, intending to cross the Channel and travel by train to Marseilles, when he received an urgent message to return.

His appointment as Secretary of State for War was approved not only by the British Empire as a whole, but also by France, for, as a young man, he had fought as a volunteer in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War. He set himself at once to the task of sending the British Expeditionary Force to France. A speedy mobilization was effected, in accordance with the scheme previously prepared under the direction of Lord Haldane, and within a matter of twelve or fourteen hours some of the British troops were already on the Continent. The whole Expeditionary Force was ready in forty-eight hours. Many troops were crossing the Channel before they became aware whither they were bound. “Thanks to the cordial co-operation of the Navy,” Lord Kitchener said afterwards, “the troops went abroad with perfect smoothness and without any untoward incident whatever.”

Lord Kitchener then set himself to the task of raising a new army, and when he issued his appeal for recruits, young men flocked to the colours in their thousands. He had confidence in his fellow countrymen and they had confidence in him. “This very serious conflict,” he said frankly, “will entail considerable sacrifices on our people. These will be willingly borne for our honour and the preservation of our position in the world and will be shared by our Dominions beyond the seas.”

Australia had already offered 20,000 men, and other offers had come from New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, while many Indian princes unreservedly placed the resources of their States at the disposal of Great Britain for the duration of the war.

In these early days of preparation, Lord Kitchener was an outstanding figure. The hour had come and with it the man. It seemed as if his whole life had been spent in preparation for the great work he was destined to perform for the Empire in its hour of need.

In Germany it had become fashionable to regard British civilization as decadent. The British army was supposed to have deteriorated, and the British people to be too timorous, or too pre-occupied with political problems, to take a bold and resolute stand against this powerful nation in arms.

When it became known in Berlin, by means of a flying sheet issued from a newspaper office on the night war was declared, that Britain was opposing German aggression, a mob made a disgraceful demonstration in front of the British Embassy and flung cobble-stones through the windows. British subjects who were unfortunate enough to be in the streets were roughly handled, and many were arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage.

Next day the Kaiser sent a message to the British Ambassador expressing regret for the outbreaks, but added: “You will gather from these occurrences an idea of the feelings of my people respecting the action of Great Britain in joining with other nations against her old allies of Waterloo”. In this message the Kaiser formally notified the Ambassador that he divested himself of the honorary titles of British Field Marshal and British Admiral.

The intervention of Great Britain threatened a dislocation of German plans for a short and successful war. As events have proved, it led ultimately to the downfall of German military and naval power.

From the outset the German people displayed an ugly spirit. The British, French, and Russian Ambassadors and their staffs were insulted and jeered at by crowds gathered in the streets and at railway stations. But it was chiefly against Britain that enmity was shown. A hysterical “Hymn of Hate” was composed and sung everywhere. It was printed even in school books. “God Punish England” became a fashionable term of greeting. Rubber stamps impressed this phrase on the daily correspondence of private individuals and business firms. High and low, the people as a whole became obsessed with the idea of striking Britain a swift and overpowering “knock-out blow”. Nothing else seemed to matter in the early days of the war. Two days before the British troops reached Belgian soil, the Kaiser, carried away by the clamour of press and people, issued his notorious command to his army, in which was concentrated the vanity and self-confidence of his entire Empire:

“It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is, that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English, and to walk over General French’s contemptible little army.


Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany

But, proud and confident as was the war lord, with all his great armies, so well organized and so well prepared for war, he was to discover in time that, in the words of the Psalmist, “He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate.”

The Story of the Great War

If you enjoyed the first chapter of Donald MacKenzie’s ‘The Story of the Great War’, you can read the whole book here for 99p.

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