What would the British do? Would they come in at once on the side of the French? Would they dilly dally or, in Asquith’s familiar phrase, “wait and see”? Or would they stand aloof, comfortable in their island fortress? As events unfolded rapidly, they were given little choice.
All Europe’s great powers had secret war plans, but the one that more than any other determined the future of the continent had been drawn up originally in 1905 by Count Schlieffen, then Germany’s chief of staff. A year later it was inherited and subsequently modified by his successor, Moltke.
The unquestioned assumption in Berlin was that Germany would have to fight both Russia and France. Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance, was a doubtful assistant and Austria-Hungary could not be expected to defeat Russia alone. Though the Germans had the world’s greatest military machine, the General Staff believed that an equal split of their army between east and west risked its defeat on both fronts. Assuming that the French army would be swift and offensive and the Russians slower and ponderous, Schlieffen planned an immediate strike to put France out of the war first.
Secondly, the Germans calculated that a quick decisive victory over the French army could be achieved only by invading France through two corridors on either side of the heavily-forested Ardennes, one through Belgium and the other through Luxembourg. Both were neutral independent states with unguarded frontiers but guaranteed by international treaties, whereas the French border with Germany was heavily defended with a string of formidable fortresses at Verdun, Nancy, Epinal and Belfort. The deeper into German Lorraine and Alsace a French advance, the more it would be open to a German by-pass and easier the route to Paris.
It seems that the German military strategists gave no weight to the political consequences of a deliberate, unprovoked violation of the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg. In particular, neither Schlieffen nor Moltke considered the reaction of Britain, the principal guarantor of both states. As the Kaiser was fond of saying, the Royal Navy might be awesome but it was not on wheels and the British army little more than a home guard. France would have sued for peace by the time the British had landed, so that the risk of British intervention was minimal. Besides, the Germans had only this one plan and no alternative.
The success of the Schlieffen Plan also depended on speed of movement. If Berlin had given the Belgians time to consider the “peaceful” transit of German troops through their territory, the response in Brussels and London might have been different. But their ultimatum expired after only 12 hours and the Belgian king, council and country regarded it as an affront to national pride and honour. German military aggression was exposed, naked and inexcusable. It was this action that brought Britain immediately into the war on Tuesday August 4,1914.
Since the days of Elizabeth I and earlier, the English had always regarded the Low Countries as a potential springboard or stepping stone for a hostile invader from the Continent. The loss of Calais, the country’s last mainland foothold, was seen to be a serious blow to national security. The Spanish invasion plan of 1588 was to ferry troops in their Armada across the narrow Channel from the Spanish Netherlands. Even after the Channel and the North Sea had become indisputably the Royal Navy’s, the coastline from Antwerp to Dunkirk was still looked on as Britain’s first line of defence, the parapet or berm beyond the moat. When French armies invaded what had become the Austrian Netherlands in 1792, Britain declared war on France.
To convert what had been Spanish, Austrian and briefly French and finally Dutch into a new neutral state called Belgium was therefore entirely a British policy in British interests. Significantly, the international treaty guaranteeing Belgian independence and neutrality was signed in London in 1839 and Belgium’s first ruler, Leopold I, was Queen Victoria’s uncle.
The Treaty of London, therefore, was much more than “a scrap of paper”, the German Chancellor’s contemptuous description of it. First Spain, then France and now Germany, each in turn dominant continental military and naval powers, could not be trusted with the Channel ports so vital to British safety.
Far from being a mere pretext, German violation of Belgian neutrality was the necessary condition of Britain’s entry into the war. The Cabinet hawks, Asquith, Grey, Haldane and Churchill believed that France must be aided, but led by Lloyd George a majority refused to fight for Serbia or with autocratic Russia. The popular press was cautious, reluctant and pacific. As late as August 3, the Daily News, the Daily Chronicle and the Manchester Guardian were strongly in favour of British neutrality. In a country torn by imminent civil war in Ireland, menaced by industrial strife which had already caused nearly a thousand strikes since January and Suffragettes who had set fire to more than a hundred buildings during the same seven months, the last desirable involvement was in a continental war.
But Belgium changed all that. Lloyd George was converted and only two junior Cabinet members resigned after the government’s ultimatum was sent to Berlin.
Grey’s address to the House of Commons at 3pm on the afternoon of August 3 was histrionic but definitive. “Could this country stand by and watch the direst crime that ever stained the face of history, and thus become participators in sin?”, he asked. This was the incontrovertible moral argument. Then came the appeal to national self-interest: “to prevent the whole of west of Europe opposite us from falling under the domination of a single power...”
After that there was no need to divide the House in a vote. Irishmen of both persuasions, Unionists and Home Rulers, agreed to suspend their differences, militant trade unionists and Suffragettes called off their campaigns. With few exceptions, the nation went to war united if not enthusiastic.