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What is it about nice people that attract total idiots?Nice people are martyrs. Idiots are evangelists.


Monday, August 4, 2014

This week in WWI- the frowns

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you-

                                 -Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone

Those lyrics came to my mind as we enter the last phases of "juggling clowns" in our story and turn to "fighting clowns".  We open this week's story after the Kaiser sets Moltke loose and goes to bed at the end of Wednesday's post.  It's now late night/early morning moving onto the first Sunday of August, 100 years ago.  And the rest of the powers that be in Germany are having a wonderfully friendly discussion that boiled down to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg demanding that NOTHING can happen until he learns for sure if Pourtales had given the Declaration of War to Sazonov, or not, because the 1907 Geneva Convention says you can't have a war without a declaration, and the rest of the room telling him he's nuttier than a fruitcake.  In the middle of the series of heated arguments and interspersed apologies for the sake of politeness, someone finally gets around to asking two very pertinent questions:

1- Has anyone found out if Austria is going to back Germany up and declare war on Russia?  It might have seemed common sense, since Russia was eventually going to tear into Austria anyway, but the last time anyone checked, Conrad was sending all his troops to the Serbian border.  (In true Austrian style, they would finally get around to declaring war on Russia on the 6th.)

2- Did anyone EVER get around to checking on what Germany's alleged "defensive allies", Italy and Romania, were doing?  (Answer, both would opt out of the alliance based on Bethmann's insistence on declaring war to make everything legal, even though Sazonov had committed Russia to war much earlier.  Italy would issue a definitive statement on the opt-out the next day.)

At realizing that (just as in Austria) nobody in the diplomatic corps had bothered to cover their butts on this, Moltke and his top general Erich von Falkenhayn went ballistic... and according to Admiral von Tirpitz, Bethmann looked like "a drowning man".

von Tirpitz- if anyone would know what a drowning man should look like, it would be an admiral.

In the meantime, morning dawned in London on a cabinet about ready to break apart.  Prime Minister Asquith, firmly on the side of the war party, knew 3/4s of his government was at this point arrayed against him, and he had to move carefully.  The French were increasing their pressure.  Luxembourg had already been invaded, French ambassador Paul Cambon argued; and you have the same treaty upholding their independence as you do with Belgium.  To which the elusive Sir Edward Grey said, well, the Luxembourg part of the treaty is guaranteed "collectively" by the signers of the 1839 treaty, whereas Belgium was guaranteed "severally and individually", and that's the difference.  Cambon left, telling reporters, "I do not know whether this evening the word 'honor' will not have to be struck out of the English language."

In the meantime, Asquith, Churchill, et al, were making the same argument to their Liberal foes in the cabinet.  They argued not only the "hypocrisy" of Germany's half hearted (or half-witted) attempts at cooling off Austria and that after the naval convention of 1912, Britain was now responsible for guarding the northern coast of France with the British Navy, so the French could concentrate in the Mediterranean and defend British Malta and Egypt.  Finally, these wise and wonderful statesmen agreed to defend the French coast in the event, and broke for lunch.

And as they ate lunch and tumbled on to the fact that war was an "in for a penny, in for a pound" situation, the Germans were setting the next wheel in motion,  The ambassador in Brussels was told to deliver a message he'd had in his possession for 5 days now- telling Belgium, kindly let us pass without incident, and we won't bomb you back to the Middle Ages.  Receiving this at 8 PM, they had 12 hours to respond.  It took them two to tell the Germans to drop dead.

By the third, the liberal members of the cabinet realized they had been out-manuvered- and then did themselves one better, and two or three of them resigned.  But that left the war party stronger, and by 11 AM Asquith had not only approved Churchill's actions with the Navy, but declared general mobilization.  All this was gearing up for the great speech Grey was gearing up for in the Commons that afternoon, in which he would at last "lay out British policy."  As this was going on, the German ambassador in Turkey signed a deal with the grand Vizier in which they were pledged to come to each other's aid in the event of Russian attack.  What ambassador Hans von Wagenheim didn't know- and apparently the grand Vizier at least suspected- was that the pact was invalid before it was even signed, because of the German declaration of war.  And the Ottoman Sublime Porte would use that to keep Turkey out of the fight for several months.  That "crude and almost childlike" German diplomacy strikes again.

Grey started his 90 minute speech at 3 PM, and wove in and out of the facts in such a way that the MPs were convinced it was war, and German ambassador Lichnowsky still thought he had a shot at British neutrality.  Grey's next step was to send an ultimatum to Germany- and it ended up being about as toothless as his speech had been for the most part.  At 7 PM, the penultimate shoe dropped- Germany, trying to stay all legal in accordance with Geneva, Declared war on France, only because the mobilization timetable had the German army crossing into Belgium in the morning.  And as the sun set, Grey made his famous prophetic statement:

"The lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

He wasn't much of a prophet, though.  Of all our major characters so far, the only ones who don't make it to 1918 seem to have been the murderer of Franz Ferdinand and the Emperor of Austria.

Of course, since he was nearly blind by 1918, he gets it on a technicality.

At 8:02 AM on the 4th, German troops passed into Belgium.  The initial lightning attack would stall because the Germans had not considered that Belgium would actually resist.  In the meantime, Grey finally roused himself to do something definite- he sent another ultimatum, giving the German Army till midnight to evacuate Belgium.  By now, most of the cabinet had given way and the nation was about as united as it was going to get.

But before the ultimatum arrived, the French and German governments had to go plead the case for war money in their parliaments.  It was an easy sell in France- and probably would have been in Germany, too.  But Bethmann always had to go that step farther, being more honest than most politicians (and more than any in this mess) would dream of.  He explained to the Reichstag that they were invading through Belgium, and they would be in the wrong for doing it in the eyes of the world- but, it was necessary in order to defeat the forces surrounding them.  He went on to echo Lichnowsky's promise to the British- that they would restore Belgium as it was after the war.  Admiral Tirpitz couldn't believe his ears as Bethmann told the Reichstag Germany was "Committing a wrong to make a greater right"- he called it "the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman"- which was going a ways after all that had transpired in the last month.  Still, the Reichstag loved it, and they too opened the pocketbook to the military.

Shortly thereafter, British ambassador Sir Edward Goschen delivered Grey's ultimatum to German SecState Jagow.  Jagow told him, "We couldn't comply with this if you gave us 24 hours instead of 5", and pleaded with him to take it up with Bethmann- which, against his better judgment, he did.  Bethmann popped a cork, making the famous comment of Great Britain going to war over a "scrap of paper" (the 1839 treaty) and that they were attacking a nation in Germany "that desired nothing better than to be friends with her."  (Which actually may have been true, but with a damn funny way of showing it.)  Even at this point, though, the jugglers juggled on, as Grey told the Austrian ambassador after issuing the ultimatum to Germany that there need not be a quarrel between England and Austria so long as Austria doesn't declare war on France- which was like saying, I don't mind walking in the rain, so long as I don't get wet.

Back in the US of A, Woodrow Wilson declares our policy to be neutrality- and he would repeat that in a message to Congress on the 19th.  Early that evening, the German Battleships Goeben and Breslau would slip through the Sicilian fog and out of the eyes of the token British fleet in the Mediterranean, on their way to Constantinople, where they would become the lever by which Germany would eventually bring Turkey into the war.  And a few hours later, Britain would officially declare war on Germany.

From here, it all moves faster. The initial attacks on Liege would be fought off by the massive fort system of the Belgians until General Ludendorf worked his 14th brigade between them and took the city itself without much of a fight.  Reducing the forts would be a different story.  Also on the 5th, Montenegro sent shivers across Europe by declaring war on Austria and sending their lightly equipped 35-to-40,000 man army to go help the Serbs.  On the 6th, Austria finally gets around to declaring war on Russia, and in the spirit of reciprocity,  Serbia declares war on Germany.  Later on, French troops in Dahomey (now the delightful home of African scamming, Benin) and British forces from the Gold Coast colony (now Ghana), invaded the German colony of Togoland- the one self-supporting colony Germany managed to stake in Africa.  The next day (the 7th), the BEF (British Expeditionary Force, which as late as the 4th Grey told Cambon he would NOT be sending) land in France; and on the 8th, the French army began it's tentative advance into Alsace, occupying the town of Mulhouse without a fight.

Since the diplo-clowning is now at an end, I will be backing these posts back to once a month or so to avoid dry statistics and newsreel repetition.  Come back in a month or so for more fun and games!


  1. You can't have a war without a declaration? Huh, is this something Washington should know?

    1. I think WWI proved to the diplo-clowns in Geneva what a farce it made of things.

  2. Yes this was interesting I have a fascination with the world wars of late and I am so glad I came and read this a bloody great post

    1. Wait'll you see the one I just published...

  3. Chrios:
    And that map with the figures on it...had to blow it up to see all the details...pretty good.
    Everyone declaring war on everyone else...
    And I'll bet many of the original reasons were lost in the ensuing
    rhetoric from those who graduated from that school. for BOZOS.

    After all, the FIRST casualty of ANY war is always...the TRUTH, right?
    Good installment.
    Stay safe up there.

    1. Yep, I knew the map had to be blown up, but the little German punching the little Frenchman was worth it!

      You liked "diplo-clowning"? I couldn't see a better way to put it. I hope to be able to use it in a sentence again someday...