Introduction and parts 1 to 3
(Don’t just rely on me for the background - read Albertini’s three-volumeclassic on the origins of the Great War! For an easier read, tryJannen’s “The Lions of July”, 1996. Lest anyone wonder, the Museof this story is the late Barbara Tuchman, author of the classic “Gunsof August”. It is impossible to leave out some of her wonderful scenes,even if they have to be adapted to suit the new timeline.)
On 28 June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir tothe Hapsburg throne, was assassinated along with his wife in Sarajevo,Bosnia and Herzegovina, by one Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb radical. There was outrage at the assassination and much sympathy for Austria throughout Europe. However, the weeks passed after the sensational news andEuropean capitals soon lost themselves in their own affairs.
Political assassinations were nothing new. In recent memory,Tsar Alexander II, the Austrian Empress and the entire Serbian royal familyhad all died violent deaths. It was clear within a few days thatthere had been unofficial Serbian involvement in the Sarajevo plot, atleast in terms of co-ordination by elements in Belgrade and possibly afailure by the Serbian government to warn Vienna of any foreknowledge itmay have had.
What was different with the Sarajevo assassination was that the Austrians had long been waiting for a pretext to deal with the Serbian question once and for all. The Austrians saw the Serbs as a constant threat totheir interests in the Balkans, particularly in relation to their possessionsin Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. The Serbs in turn had been outraged at the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1908 and having been forced toback down on the issue in 1909. The crises of the Balkan wars (1912-13)had been settled by a combination of arms and international diplomacy andconflict still simmered between Belgrade and Vienna. The contestappeared unequal on face value, with one small backward and impoverishedkingdom facing the mighty Hapsburg Empire but in the background loomeda powerful friend, Russia.
On 30 June, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, met with the German ambassador, Count Heinrich von Tschirschky und Bögendorrf, to discuss the assassination, in the knowledge that “the threads of theconspiracy to which the archduke fell victim run together at Belgrade”. Tschirschky warned Berchtold to be wary of a Russian response to any hasty action by the Empire against Serbia. Berchtold was nevertheless determined to deal with Serbia. He arranged an audience for later that day with the Emperor.
The Hungarian prime minister, Count Stephan Tisza, while equallykeen to settle the Serbian question when the time was ripe, was opposedto hasty action in the wake of Sarajevo. Tisza held the long viewabout Serbia and wanted careful planning for taking them out when the timewas right, rather than action in the heat of the moment. He alsoopposed any chance that the dual monarchy might become a triple monarchyif the Serbians were absorbed, as this would be bound to diminish Hungarianinfluence.
Tisza got to the Emperor first. He told the Emperor that military action was not needed. Franz Joseph therefore told Berchtold thathe would have to get Tisza's agreement before he could move against Serbia.
Thus passed the last best hope for a localised conflict. Europe, not fully appreciating the looming crisis, lapsed into summer slumber. The English were preoccupied with the Irish Home Rule debate. TheFrench were distracted by the trial of Mme Caillaux. The Kaiser wentfor his annual "boys only" cruise on the "Hohenzollern". The Russianshosted the French President and Prime Minister on a State visit. Only the Austro-Hungarians remained interested, obsessed as they were withvengeance upon the Serbs.
Tisza had succeeded in delaying any action until after consultation with the Germans. After that he successfully called for the diplomaticprocesses to be followed, including the note to Belgrade. Then theFrench leadership was in St Petersburg and this was too risky a time forsending an ultimatum.
Much has been said about the German "blank cheque" to the Austrians. However, two things may be noted here. The German promise of support was not given in the context of a general European war. Neither was it anticipated that the Austrians would delay another three weeks beforedoing anything about the Serbs.
Then came the fatal last week of July. The sequence of events including the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and declaration of war, Russian partial and full mobilisation and the German declaration of war in response is well documented. Although the dispute was now one between Germany and Russia, France was bound by a military agreement with Russia for mutual action in the event of one being attacked by Germany. The Germanstrategy was to deal with France while Russia waited. The SchlieffenPlan depended upon a German sweep through neutral Belgium, thus outflankingthe French armies and aiming at a battle of encirclement and annihilationsomewhere in the region of Paris. With the French knocked out ofthe war, the Germans would be free to deal with the more difficult questionof Russia.
The problem with an invasion of Belgium was that this might bringthe British into the war. Schlieffen discounted the significanceof the British in his planning, believing that any British ExpeditionaryForce could easily be accounted for. However, the intensity of theGerman diplomatic efforts and the economic pressure brought to bear throughfinanciers with German connections shows that Germany did not take thethreat of British intervention lightly and would have preferred that theyremain neutral.
On 1 August, there appeared to be a chance that Britain would stayout of the war and keep France quiet as well. The idea was a giganticmisunderstanding, arising from confusion coming from discussions betweenSir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary and Prince Lichnowsky, theGerman Ambassador. The Kaiser leapt at the idea, telegraphed immediate“acceptance” to London and ordered the chief of his General Staff, Helmuthvon Moltke, to halt any moves toward Belgium and march the German armyeast. The Kaiser even succeeded in shouting down Moltke, who, incidentally,never really recovered from the traumatic encounter. When the misunderstandingbecame obvious later that evening, the Kaiser let Moltke have his way. So unfolded our history of the Great War.
Now, Britain had problems staying out of a European War in 1914 ifFrance were involved, except in the extraordinary circumstances of a Frenchattack on Belgium. Even short term British neutrality had to be conditional upon Belgian inviolability and British protection of the French northerncoast/Channel. German pressure on Britain to remain neutral was tremendous,both in diplomatic and financial circles. However, this entaileda risk that Germany would only benefit and Britain could lose status atthe end of any war, let alone having an angry Russia eyeing off India.
As with all great decisions, the logical choices are not always followed, particularly those which make the most sense in hindsight. The German decision to follow the Schlieffen Plan was a terrible mistake but easyto identify in hindsight. Even Moltke, so implacably opposed to anychange on 1 August, admitted a few months later, after his fall, that achange could have been achieved and that failure to do so had been a terriblemistake.
The options for the British government were similarly affected bypolitical considerations. Problems in England in the last week ofpeace included the instability of the Liberal Cabinet in the crisis. Too early an intervention and the pacifists might bring down the Government. Too late and the interventionists might join with the Tories with the sameeffect. Britain was a long way from intervening simply because ofSerbia. However, Belgium was quite another matter. A weaknesswas that Britain did not communicate its position vis-a-vis Belgian neutralityclearly enough to Germany while Germany STILL HAD TIME to consider alternatives.By 1 August it was probably too late.
While I don't regard British prime minister Herbert Asquith as thecrucial figure here (Grey was far more significant), his memoirs sum upwell the position on the morning of 2 August, after he had seen the Germanambassador and expressed these thoughts to him:
1. Britain had no obligation to provide naval or military help toFrance
2. Sending the BEF to France was out of the question and would serveno purpose.
3. Ties arising from the long relationship with France could notbe forgotten.
4. It was definitely against British interests for France to loseGreat Power status.
5. Germany must not be allowed to use the Channel as a hostile base.
6. Britain had obligations to Belgium to prevent Germany using andabsorbing it.
Somehow this had to be resolved within the fluid political situation. The Germans made it easy by taking the Belgian option.
“Point of Divergence”
It was only really late on 31 July that the Germans were made officially aware of British concerns about Belgium. Grey sent the same telegram toboth France and Germany at 5.30 pm on 31 July:
"I still trust that situation is not irretrievable, but in view ofprospect of mobilisation in Germany it becomes essential to His Majesty'sGovernment, in view of existing treaties, to ask whether French/GermanGovernment is prepared to engage to respect neutrality of Belgium so longas no other Power violates it.
A similar request is being addressed to German/French Government.It is important to have an early answer."
The next morning, after an evasive reply from Berlin, Grey met with Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador. He read out an aide-mémoire approved by Cabinet that morning:
"The reply of the German Government with regard to the neutralityof Belgium is a matter of very great regret, because the neutrality ofBelgium does affect feeling in this country. If Germany could see her wayto give the same assurance as that which has been given by France it wouldmaterially contribute to relive anxiety and tension here. On the otherhand, if there were a violation of the neutrality of Belgium by one combatantwhile the other respected it, it would be extremely difficult to restrainpublic feeling in this country."
Now many other things went on between Grey and Lichnowsky that day. This led to the triumphant session in Berlin that afternoon when the Germans thought that they had won British neutrality and the Kaiser ordered Moltke to turn eastward. Had Germany understood British determination reBelgium earlier, it may have had time to conclude that the strategic advantagecould be obtained by dealing with Russia first. As it was, once itbecame clear by 11.00 pm that night that there had been a misunderstanding,it was too late and Moltke was given the go-ahead to resume the move onBelgium.
My "switch" is to transfer the last sentence quoted from the aide-mémoire above to the end of the telegram that went out at 5.30 pm on 31 July. (Grey would have had the flexibility to put in a strong hint like that in histelegrams, in anticipation of Cabinet approval the next morning - he wasnot totally straitjacketed and it was the standard British view, albeitnot expressed in diplomatic language earlier.) Then nothing thatpassed between London and Berlin on 1 August could have been left in anydoubt. The Germans could have made use of any advantage that a delayin British intervention, however short, presented. What made it soeasy for Britain to overcome its internal political problems with interventionwas the invasion of Belgium. Eventual intervention on the side ofFrance was almost inevitable but politically impossible at the extremelyshort notice available from 1-4 August without the Belgian factor.
After the war disgruntled German staff generals argued that theycould have turned the armies east in twelve days. (This assumes Britishneutrality, temporarily at least, and a French standoff on the border ora Plan XVII thrust into Alsace-Lorraine and to the Rhine, which would havebeen a bit of a slog. The price of this would be no Belgian invasion. My opinion is that this is all quite implausible but the point of the exerciseis to consider what might have happened had the Germans turned east.
The story begins on 29 July 1914, with the British Cabinet wrestling
with the European crisis. Nothing changes from the historical record
until after the point of divergence, late in the afternoon of 31 July.
After that, many historical events continue to unfold, until the ripplesfrom
the alteration spread out and eventually reach back to the point oforigin.
People and characters remain the same and military deploymentsand plans can
be expected to have similar results until the cumulativeeffects of an alternative
historical pattern take over.
Part 1 - Setting the Scene
"The Cabinet was, in short, up to the time when violation of Belgian neutrality became imminent, unable to give any pledge to anybody, and inthat it reflected the state of feeling and opinion in Parliament and thecountry." - Sir Edward Grey
29 July 1914
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister,Herbert Asquith, faced a difficult Cabinet meeting on the morning of Wednesday29 July. The Cabinet was deeply split on the question of Britishintervention in the looming war. More than nine of the eighteen Cabinetmembers favoured neutrality. If Britain went to war, several of thesecould be expected to resign and the Government would probably fall. On the other hand, Grey himself hinted that he would resign if Britainremained neutral. Asquith declared his support for Grey. Meanwhile,Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who had days before orderedthe Fleet to stand ready and had then ordered it to the war base at ScapaFlow on 28 July, was considering sounding out the Tories on support forintervention.
Cabinet authorised Grey to tell the German and French ambassadorsnot to count on either British neutrality or British intervention. As for Belgium, the Cabinet was relatively unfocussed and still undecided. There were doubts on how far Britain was bound by the treaty of 1839 guaranteeing Belgian neutrality if the other guaranteeing powers (France, Germany, Russia and Austria) refused it or abstained from action. Some members sawno harm in allowing a minor violation of the treaty to allow German passagethrough southern Belgium. The question was accepted as one of policyrather than legal obligation.
Later in the day Grey received the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon,by now a very frequent visitor. Grey told Cambon how grave the situation seemed and that he intended to tell the German ambassador not to be misled, by the friendly tone of conversations, into any expectation that Britainmay stand aside. However, he also told Cambon that the present crisiswas different from the Morocco crisis of 1911. That affair had directly concerned France and Britain, whereas the present dispute was between Austria and Serbia. Britain did not want to be drawn into a war over a Balkan question. If France and Germany were drawn in, Britain would consider her position but could not be counted on to intervene. She was "quite free from engagements, and we should have to decide what British interests required us to do." Cambon was unperturbed by this advice. He said that he expected France to receive a German demand for neutralitywhile Germany fought Russia. France could not assure Germany of herneutrality in that event as she was bound to help Russia.
Grey then received the German Ambassador, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. He again spoke of the grave international situation and the urgent needfor mediation. As instructed by Cabinet, Grey warned Lichnowsky thatEnglish neutrality could not be guaranteed. Lichnowsky replied thathe had been warning his government of this all along.
That evening Lichnowsky wired Berlin and reported being warned byGrey of the potential need for the British Government to make rapid decisionsif war broke out between Germany and France. The telegram did notarrive in time to be read before Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassadorto Germany, met with the German Chancellor, Theodor von Bethmann-Hollweg.
Meanwhile, the British Fleet continued on its way to the war baseat Scapa Flow and the precautionary period prior to mobilisation was ordered. The "Warning Telegram" had been despatched at 2.00 pm, providing for implementation of the War Book orders prescribed for the precautionary period. The British were not going to be caught unprepared.
Berlin (late evening)
Goschen wired Grey, reporting on his meeting with Bethmann-Hollwegshortly after 10.30 pm. Goschen mentioned Bethmann's indication ofGerman obligations to Austria and her desire for British neutrality. The Chancellor had given a promise not to make any demand for territorialacquisitions from France in the event of German victory but he could makeno guarantees in relation to French colonies. Holland's neutralitywould be guaranteed so long as others respected it. Actions by Francewould determine whether it was necessary to conduct operations in Belgiumbut Belgian integrity would be respected after a war if she did not sideagainst Germany.
Just after meeting Goschen, Bethmann learned of Lichnowsky's telegram from London, reporting on the warning from Grey not to be misled by England's desire for peace.
Later still, the French Ambassador to Germany, Jules Cambon, brother of Paul, reported to his Minister on a meeting with Gottlieb von Jagow,German Secretary for Foreign Affairs, on the crisis and on what he wastold by Jagow about the meeting between Goschen and Bethmann-Hollweg. Cambon reported that the Germans "flattered themselves" that "England wouldremain out of the question, and the impression produced on the German Governmentand on the financiers and business men by her attitude is profound."
30 July 1914
Cambon visited Grey and reminded him about the notes exchanged between Paris and London in November 1912 where each government endorsed the principle that they work together to prevent aggression and preserve peace if either felt threatened. Grey told Cambon that Cabinet would meet on themorning of 31 July to discuss the situation and he would respond to Cambonin the afternoon.
At 3.30 pm, Grey wired Goschen instructing him to reject the proposals for British neutrality put to him by Bethmann-Hollweg the previous evening. Instead, the two powers should work together to preserve the peace andsteer Europe through the crisis. If that could be achieved, thenBritain would help to seek some future arrangement for German securityagainst aggression by Russia, France or Britain, jointly or separately.
Throughout all of this, Grey kept up his efforts to broker negotiations between Austria and Russia, seeking German assistance in this direction.
Jagow told Goschen that, had Lichnowsky's telegram of the previousevening arrived any earlier, Bethmann-Hollweg would not have made the particularproposals put to Goschen late on 29 July. The contents of Lichnowsky’smessage were received with regret but not surprise and Grey's franknessin speaking to Lichnowsky was appreciated.
French Ambassador Jules Cambon wired French premier and Foreign Minister René Viviani that he had spoken to Jagow by telephone at 2.00 pmand was reassured that word of a mobilisation circulating an hour beforewas incorrect. (The rumours were indeed untrue.) Cambon informedViviani that he believed the reports of mobilisation had actually beencorrect but that the German High Command had backed off in the face ofthe English insistence on her liberty of action and telegrams between theKaiser and the Tsar.
Sir Francis Bertie, British Ambassador to France, wired Grey andadvised that Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was convincedthat peace was in the hands of Britain. Poincaré believedthat, if Britain announced support for France in the event of a war betweenGermany and France, then Germany would modify her attitude. Bertietold Poincaré that this would be very difficult but Poincaréinsisted that this would be in the interests of peace. The Frenchhad reliable information of German troops concentrating around Thionville(Diedenhofen) and Metz. A British announcement of support would almostcertainly avert a war.
Some time after 4.00 pm, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sasonov, persuaded the Tsar to agree to general mobilisation. The orders went out to all military districts between 5.00 pm and 7.00 pm and during theevening red notices bearing the imperial mobilisation ukase appeared allover St Petersburg. Strangely, no word of the general mobilisationreached London until the late afternoon of the following day and even thenit was the German embassy that notified the Foreign Office in London ofthe development.
Meanwhile, the Austrians had finally agreed to talks with Russia,although this was a purely cynical exercise by Berchtold, who was morethan happy to keep the Russians talking while the Serbians were dealt with.
Part 2 - Belgium is the Key
31 July 1914
"A grey day, in keeping with my mood." - Diary of Tsar Nicholas II, 31 July 1914
Grey received Lichnowsky before the Cabinet meeting and informedhim that if Germany could put forward a reasonable proposal that woulddemonstrate to all that Germany and Austria wished to preserve peace, Britainwould urge the Russians and French to support it. If Russia and Francethen rejected it, Britain would stay out of the matter. However,if France were otherwise involved, Britain would be drawn in to any conflict. Grey informed Goschen of this meeting and asked that he include it in whatwas to be put to Bethmann-Hollweg that morning.
Cabinet was still opposed to intervention. Public opinion was still seen as against such a move. It was conceded that public opinion might alter if Belgium were violated. However, nothing could be said to commit Britain in any way.
The financial sector, with strong German connections, was using every ounce of its influence to ensure British neutrality. There was much scaremongering about a financial collapse if Britain intervened, although problems were guaranteed irrespective of the British decision. Thefinanciers had friends in Cabinet more than ready to argue their case. Strong pressure was applied on "The Times", which was fearlessly championingintervention. Lord Northcliffe was summoned by one magnate and toldthat Lloyd George appreciated the gravity of the situation and that theThunderer should follow suit with a leading article in favour of neutrality. Northcliffe curtly refused to be bullied.
Bethmann-Hollweg was obsessed with the Russian general mobilisation. He told Goschen that Germany could not be left defenceless while otherpowers used time to make war preparations and so Germany would possiblysoon have to take a serious step. Goschen tried to read Grey's replyto the German neutrality proposal of 29 July but Bethmann-Hollweg's mindwas elsewhere and he asked for a written memorandum of the reply so thathe could study it properly later.
Just after noon, the German government proclaimed the "Kriegsgefahrzustand", or "war readiness". At 3.30 pm, orders were wired to the German ambassador in St Petersburg, Friedrich von Pourtalès, to deliver an ultimatum to the Russians: suspend mobilisation within twelve hours, as well as every war measure against Austria-Hungary. Having sent an ultimatum toSt Petersburg, Bethmann-Hollweg was pushed by Moltke into sendinga demand to the French for neutrality, with surrender of Toul and Verdun,for the duration of the war, as surety! For Moltke, it was necessaryto obtain a state of war with Russia so that he could proceed with hismain objective, the destruction of France.
Instructions were also sent to Hans von Flotow, the German ambassador in Rome, to remind the Italians that the Germans were "counting with assurance" on Italy honouring the obligations she had assumed.
Several senior Tories met to discuss the crisis. Encouraging themin their discussions was General Sir Henry Wilson, Director of MilitaryOperations, who despaired of the resolve of the Liberal government in thecrisis.
Just before 5.00 pm, the German Embassy informed the Foreign Office of the Russian general mobilisation the previous evening. Asquithmentioned this in the House at 5.00 pm, as Grey was meeting with Cambon. The latter came seeking a reply to his request of 30 July for a pledgeof British support in case of war with Germany. Cambon also referredto a telegram from his brother, Jules, the French ambassador in Berlin,arguing that the uncertainty regarding the British stance was a destabilisingfactor. Jules Cambon had argued that a British declaration of solidaritywith France and Russia would convince the Germans that peace was the onlysensible course.
Grey denied that Germany had been given the impression that Britain would stay out. He told Cambon of a request made that morning byLichnowsky for advice as to whether Britain would remain neutral. Grey said that he had warned Lichnowsky that Britain would be likely tobe drawn into a general conflict, particularly if France were involved. Grey told Cambon that this was not a sign of a commitment of France butonly an illustration that Germany was not being left with any false impressions.
Cambon asked about the outcome of the Cabinet meeting that morning. Grey replied that the Cabinet was not prepared to give a guarantee of intervention but would attempt to obtain an understanding of the French and German positions regarding Belgium. Otherwise, Britain would await developments. Cambon wondered whether this meant that Britain would delay interventionuntil France was actually invaded. He said that German actions onthe frontier indicated an imminent attack. Grey was only preparedto say that if the situation changed, Cabinet would be called togetherimmediately.
As Cambon left Grey's office, he spoke with Sir Arthur Nicolson,permanent undersecretary of State in the Foreign Office, who informed himthat there would be another Cabinet meeting in the morning. Nicolsonprivately assured Cambon that Grey would be pressing Cabinet on the questionof support for France.
After Cambon left, Grey had telegrams despatched (at 5.30 pm) toBertie in Paris and Goschen in Berlin. When prepared, they read:
"I still trust that situation is not irretrievable, but in view ofprospect of mobilisation in Germany it becomes essential to His Majesty'sGovernment, in view of existing treaties, to ask whether French/GermanGovernment is prepared to engage to respect neutrality of Belgium so longas no other Power violates it."
[P.O.D.] As an afterthought, Grey snatched up the telegram sheetand, mindful of the limitations imposed by the sentiments expressed inCabinet that morning, added another sentence:
"Inform French/German government that, if there were a violationof the neutrality of Belgium by one combatant while the other respectedit, it would be extremely difficult to restrain public feeling in thiscountry."
Note: Grey himself was all over the place in his handling of thecrisis. Although Cabinet had the final say in major decisions anddealings with other powers, he had some freedom of initiative in keepingwith the exigencies of his position and the developing crisis. Neverthelesshe did not take sufficient advantage of this. His own subordinatesfeared that he might drop the ball and fail to carry intervention. Nevertheless, by 5.30 pm on 31 July, Grey would have been in no possibledoubt that Belgium was the key to the whole crisis faced by Britain. In seeking the attitude of the French and German governments toward Belgium,he was merely clearing the way for Cabinet's consideration of its ultimatestance. It was only a very small step (and within Grey's authority)to flag that Britain took the question of Belgian neutrality very seriouslyand that consequences could be expected of any violation. This additionalwarnings would have served to dispel German illusions about the Britishattitude in sufficient time to react and adapt before it was necessary(as the Germans saw it) to declare war on Russia the following evening.
Part 3 - "It Cannot be Done!"
31 July 1914
At 7.00 pm, the German ambassador, Baron von Schoen, informed Viviani that the German government had at midday proclaimed the "Kriegsgefahrzustand", or "war readiness". Schoen also sought from Viviani a formal indication of French intentions. Schoen requested a reply by 1.00 pm the nextday and hinted that he might be requiring his passports.
At 9.00 the French Cabinet met amid growing tension. Duringthe meeting, official word was at last received of the Russian generalmobilisation The Chief of Staff of the Army, General JosephJoffre, demanded immediate mobilisation. He was told that mobilisationwould be ordered at 4.00 pm the next day if there was no solution in sight.
Viviani left the meeting at 10.30 pm to meet Bertie, who came withGrey's request for a declaration of the French position in relation toBelgium. Carefully concealing his elation at the implied threat tointervene if Germany violated Belgium, Viviani informed Bertie that hewould consult with the Cabinet. In turn he asked for an indicationof Britain's attitude in the event of a now expected German mobilisationand advised Bertie that the German embassy was packing up.
The French Cabinet were swift in their reply. The British had to be kept very much onside. Within a couple of hours Bertie waswiring Grey that "French Government are resolved to respect the neutralityof Belgium" and would only intervene if some other power violated thatneutrality.
The French minister, Klobukowski, assured Davignon, the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, that France would respect the neutrality of Belgium. Meanwhile, the British minister, Sir Francis Villiers, informed Davignonof Grey's request to the French and German governments on the questionof Belgian neutrality and asked for an assurance that Belgium would maintainthat neutrality itself. Davignon replied that Belgium expected thather neutrality would be respected and upheld but considered herself capableof defending herself against invasion. Soon afterward, orders wereissued for mobilisation of the Belgian Army, beginning at midnight.
Berlin (late evening)
Goschen met with Jagow and communicated Grey's request concerningBelgium. Jagow said nothing for a long time, before simply indicatingthat he needed to consult with the Chancellor and the Kaiser. Heasked Goschen to advise him immediately he learned of the French replyto Grey's question.
As soon as Goschen had left, Jagow called Bethmann-Hollweg. The two agreed that there was no alternative but to see the Kaiser, eventhough the hour was late. They found the Kaiser in his nightshirt,hastily covered by a uniform greatcoat. On being told of the thinlyveiled hint about British intervention in the event of a German violationof Belgium, Wilhelm flew into a rage, railing against English perfidy andthe malign influence of his late uncle, Edward VII. When the Kaiserhad calmed down a little, he asked "What have you told them?" "Nothing,not a word", replied Jagow "but that in itself will make them suspicious." "Get Moltke!", snapped the Kaiser.
General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff, wasworking late in his office/apartment at the Königplatz, reviewingschedules and orders. "Der Tag" was finally at hand. Decadesof planning and another nine years of fine tuning since the master planwas finalised by his predecessor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, led to thisday. His armies were poised, ready to enter Luxemburg, in advanceof a great sweep through Belgium to outflank the old enemy, France. In forty days the French would be crushed, the Germans triumphant in Parisand the Russians, who had caused this whole thing, could be finally dealtwith.
Moltke was impatient to get under way. He lived and breathedthe Schlieffen Plan. Named for his predecessor as Minister for War,who had retired in 1906, the Plan was designed to take out France by anattack through Belgium, before the Russians had time to inflict significantdamage in the East, thus removing the risk of a two-front war. Schlieffenhad fine-tuned the plan until his retirement and even afterward until shortly before his death in January 1913. Moltke continued the work, although his tinkering had reduced Schlieffen's overwhelming emphasis on the right wing (90% of German strength) in favour of a "safer" left wing, albeitwith the larger force still on the right wing (at 60% of the overall strength).
A little after midnight, the telephone rang. It was Bethmann-Hollweg, summoning Moltke to the Schloss, immediately. The Chancellor refused to elaborate and Moltke began to worry.
Bethmann-Hollweg's wire to Pourtalès instructing him to present the ultimatum to Russia arrived and was decoded not long before midnightlocal time. Pourtalès went immediately to Sasonov and presentedthe ultimatum, giving the Russians until noon the next day to reply.
1 August 1914
Berlin (12.30 am)
Moltke joined the gathering at the Schloss. The Kaiser wasstill stamping about calling down curses upon the ghost of his uncle Edwardand on the living "idiot" Grey. Moltke asked, "Is it time?" He was met by blank stares. "There is a problem", said Jagow.
The cherished illusions about British neutrality were all spikedby the veiled threat from Grey. The one option that the British rejected was the very action that the Germans were preparing to take. Nowthey proceeded at the risk of British intervention. The gatheringat the Schloss expanded as more were called from their beds. Theywere joined by War Minister General Erich von Falkenhayn, Navy MinisterAdmiral Alfred von Tirpitz and Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller,head of the naval chancellery.
The generals wanted immediate mobilisation and to move against Belgium without delay. Tirpitz was vehemently opposed to a war with England. The two civilians, Bethmann-Hollweg and Jagow, were largely sidelined inthe discussion. The Kaiser wanted to avoid a two front war but wasnow faced with the prospect of three enemies. The Kaiser baulked. On the spur of the moment, he made up his mind. "We can deal withthe French later," he announced, "and, if we must, the English as well. We will march the army East!"
"No!" Moltke was horrified. "It cannot be done. If you want a million men turned around and delivered to the Eastern Frontyou will get nothing but chaos. Transport and supplies have beenarranged down to the last detail for the offensive through Belgium. No alternative is possible."
The Kaiser replied that he knew this not to be true. "Why,we have all done the rides for the Ostaufsmarsch. You have all theplans in your files." Moltke insisted that the alternative planshad not been touched since the year before and that they had been abandonedthen under the weight of technical difficulties. What Moltke didnot say was that the major technical difficulty was that no one was reallyinterested in any option other than an initial assault on France.
The Kaiser was thoroughly angry by now and would not budge. "Your uncle would not have spoken to me in the same way", he raged. "You have always had other options. If we can keep the English outfor just a little longer we can deal with France just as effectively andnot have Nicky's armies threaten our ancestral Prussian lands."
With passions running high, von Falkenhayn took Moltke aside intoan adjoining room. He calmed him down sufficiently to return to theKaiser and continue the debate. Before they left the side room, vonFalkenhayn whispered to Moltke, "Do not discard your plans for France.You may well be needing them before too long, if I am not mistaken!"
Back in the Kaiser's office, Moltke insisted that the mobilisationschedule could not be delayed, even if there were a change of directionin the offensive. The Russian general mobilisation had seen to that. It was expected that the French would follow suit at any moment. German mobilisation had to be ordered by Saturday evening at the latest. "Very well", declared the Kaiser. "Bring me your new plans by noon."
Before the meeting wound up, it was agreed that no indication would be given to the Entente Powers or Belgium of any change in German attitude or plans. This was the best way to deal with the Russian mobilisation schedule and would give them no reason not to continue their plans to advance into East Prussia, rather than simply waiting for the Germans to come tothem. It was also agreed to delay a response to the British questionon Belgium for as long as possible and only to give the necessary assurancesat the very last minute. This would necessitate some very curiousdealings with Belgium over the next couple of days, although Jagow wassure that the diplomats in Brussels and London could stage manage this. Moltke was also given the green light to proceed with the planned occupationof Luxemburg as soon as war was declared on Russia.
Moltke nevertheless left the Schloss a broken man. He returned
to his office to nurse his feelings. For a long while he sat, almost
comatose, his chest tight, face flushed, totally unable to concentrateas
he wallowed in despair following his humiliation by the Kaiser. Worst
of all was the unfavourable comparison with his famous uncle. "My uncle!"
he snorted. "My uncle had a true German master, unlikethis spoilt brat."
Suddenly, the red fog cleared. "My uncle! Of course!" Moltke was
transformed. He summoned his aides fromtheir homes and beds and files
rapidly began to appear on his desk. For the next few hours he was frantically
reading, poring over maps, scribblingnotes and dictating orders. As
he called for strong coffee to keephim alert, Moltke growled, "Get me von
© D John Trungove, Melbourne, Australia, 2000
Permission granted for use subject to full acknowledgement of authorship. The author’s moral rights to this work are asserted.
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