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The Shot that started the World War page 3


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Belgium had no hesitation in drafting her reply - she made no bones about it. She declared that she was a neutral nation, and that an attack on her neutrality would be a "flagrant violation" of the rights of nations. It would further - and here came a dramatic phrase - be a "complete sacrifice of Belgian honour." The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by the Treaty of 1839, and was recognised by Germany in 1870.

August Bank Holiday. The king and queen drove from Buckingham Palace in the afternoon. They were in an open carriage and were cheered by huge crowds of people. In the evening processions - unofficial but patriotic - could be seen all over London's West End. Union Jacks and the tricolour were carried indiscriminately. A huge crowd collected outside the Palace. Just after nine o'clock the king and queen and the Prince of Wales appeared on the balcony.

In the House of Commons, speaking to a hushed assembly, Sir Edward Grey said that the king had received from the King of the Belgians the following telegram:

"Remembering the numerous proofs of your Majesty's friendship and that of your predecessor, and the friendly attitude of England in 1870, and the proof of friendship you have just given us again, I make a supreme appeal for the diplomatic intervention of your Majesty's Government to safeguard the integrity of Belgium."

Sir Edward added that at any moment we might have to defend ourselves. The Fleet was mobilised; the mobilisation of the Army was taking place. The Government sent a note to Germany, protesting against the violation of Belgian neutrality. Germany replied at once, but it was inconclusive. It said that she would not annex any of Belgium's land. Germany had invaded Belgium only to save herself from French aggression, which meant to her a question of "life or death."

On Tuesday, August 4, Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany. It required that Germany should respect the neutrality of Belgium - and failing this assurance Great Britain would declare war on Germany at midnight. Two British ministers, Lord Morley and Mr. John Burns ("Honest John," he was called) found themselves unable to agree with the action of the Cabinet, and resigned.

England, and the world, waited for Germany's answer. Even in those days it was felt that British intervention would mean everything in the world struggle. Would Germany capitulate? That was the question people asked themselves as they waited during the evening around Downing Street. Or would Germany offer defiance and bring England into the war? There seemed no two opinions about it. "We shall have to be in it," one heard said, "if they don't clear out of Belgium."

News did not come till twelve-fifteen on the morning of Wednesday, August 5, when the following statement was issued from the Foreign Office:

"Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by His Majesty's Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium will be respected, His Majesty's Ambassador at Berlin has received his passports and His Majesty's Government have declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from eleven p.m. on August 4th."

The crowd cheered, and demonstrations in the West End of London and around the centre of Government continued until the dawn. So it was war! It began with that fateful figure 11. No one could know then how it would re-occur four years later when peace came at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. They simply cheered.

The king sent to his fleets, through Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who was in supreme command, a message: "At this grave moment in our national history," he said, "I send to you, and through you, to the officers and men of the fleets of which you have assumed command, the assurance of my confidence that under your direction they will revive and renew the old glories of the Royal Navy, and prove once again the sure shield of Britain and of her empire in the hour of trial."

The "sure shield." How many times has that phrase been quoted -V The Falklands, Jutland, Zeebrugge - they were the "sure shield," and to the vessels of the Mercantile Marine, sailing under the "Red Duster" on their lawful occasions, it proved a shield indeed. People were apt to say in the early days of the war: "What is the navy doing?" Actually, the navy was doing its job, unobtrusively as becomes the "Silent Service," but efficiently. Convoying, patrolling - the fame of the Dover Patrol will live for evermore - and keeping open the routes whence came the food.

On August 5 there were many more important developments. Lord Kitchener was appointed Secretary for War. Later we were to see his piercing eyes looking at us from every hoarding - appealing for men, and yet more men. In the House of Commons Mr. Asquith moved a Vote of Credit for the then unheard-of sum of 100,000,000 to carry on the war. The Chancellor of the Exchequer appealed to the public not to hoard gold. Food hoarding was to come later.

The Prince of Wales opened a fund for the relief of distress consequent on the war. Both he and his mother, Queen Mary, made appeals through the Press. The queen's appeal was addressed particularly to women. They were published in the morning papers; by the evening 250,000 had been subscribed. The king gave 5,000. In two days the figure went to 400,000; within ten days it had reached 1,200,000.

On August 6 the first German attacks were made on the forts of Liege, where the Belgians made a heroic stand, holding back the enemy advance. A British cruiser, Amphion, was sunk by a mine, and 130 lives were lost. The bank rate was reduced to six per cent.

Mr. Asquith, on the same day, made a momentous statement in the Commons. He exposed the "infamous proposal" of the Germans to Britain, promising that if we remained neutral Germany would aim at no territorial acquisitions at the expense of France. The colonies were another matter.

On August 5 there appeared on the hoardings and in newspapers that famous appeal: "Your King and Country Need You." It read, as many will remember:

"Will you answer your country's call? Each day is fraught with the gravest possibilities, and at this very moment the Empire is on the brink of the greatest war in the history of the world.

"In this crisis your country calls on all her young unmarried men to rally round the Flag and enlist in the ranks of her Army.

"If every patriotic young man answers her call England and her Empire will emerge stronger and more united than ever.

"If you are unmarried, and between 18 and 30 years old, will you answer your country's call? - and go to the nearest Recruiter - whose address you can get at any Post Office. Join the Army To-day."

They needed no urging, the youth of the country, whether married or unmarried. The recruiting officers were besieged by thousands of men. Contemporary pictures show long lines of men - many of them wearing straw hats, the old-fashioned boater - waiting for their turn. This was the birth of the queue. It was unknown before the war. In one week-end over 10,000 recruits were enrolled. And they were fit men, healthy men in every way, for the time had not yet come to take in almost any one who could stand up and march.

News came slowly from the theatres of war, but when it did come it came in spate. The newspapers were very moderate. They gave all that could be safely given, and no more, even before the establishment of the official Press Bureau - over which F. E. Smith, fresh from his "galloping" experiences in Ireland - presided. News after that date - August 6 - came in just the same, but there was some sort of control over it. On Friday, the 7th, the banks reopened after a four-days' holiday - the result of the moratorium - and on that day there came the first of the 1 notes, which have never since left us. On August 12 England declared war on Austria.

And in all these days after the beginning of the war there was no word of the British Army. What was it doing? Where was it? No one knew. In London there was a wave of patriotic fervour. Band leaders went scurrying up and down the Charing Cross Road looking for the music of all the national anthems of the Allies; and a dreadful mess they made of them when they had found them.

The Marseillaise was easy enough, the Russian anthem was a hymn tune of our own, but the song of Belgium - that curious, jerky little tune - presented all sorts of difficulties in tune and tempo. Yet we all stood up when they were played before the performances at every theatre or picture house.

We stood at attention, clumsily, most of us, because we had not been taught with many imprecations the proper way to do it. In one London theatre a man was a little slow in getting on to his feet. People round him shouted at him; they did not know that he had left his feet at Colenso. Life was full of incidents like that. The white feather, and the senseless women who presented it, were not yet, but they were on the way. The "spy" fever was in process of incubation.

The nation was excited. Every one seemed to be happy except those mothers, many of them in humble homes, who saw further than the brave marching of men to the stirring music of drum and fife. They smiled bravely, for it was considered unpatriotic to weep in those early days; and hoped for the best. Nobody thought of the Flanders Poppies with their message of sacrifice, or of the St. Dunstan's Home for Blinded Soldiers, or of the artificial limbs factory at Roehampton.

Few could visualise the little white crosses, standing row on row, in ranks of death; most people saw only the sun-bronzed men in khaki swinging along in the ranks of life to the lilt of the "British Grenadiers." They watched them from the pavements as they marched by - people ran into the roadway pressing upon them gifts of fruit, tobacco - cheering.

The Zeppelin and the horror of death by night behind closely-barred shutters, or the horror of death from beneath the sea! They had not, mercifully, any knowledge of these or of the gas, that poison gas, that made a man's life a living, choking death. The relief of Mafeking brought a new word to the language - to Mafik - and these people in the first patriotic intoxication indulged that word to its limit. While behind closed doors the Cabinet sat almost continuously.

And here comes one of the most marvellous stories ever told. The British Army vanished. It had been seen at various places in the country in its component parts, in the North and the South, but so far as the general public was concerned it had no being after the fateful declaration of war. Soldiers were seen in plenty; they were Territorials, men of reserve battalions, and the like, but the British Army had departed. Thousands of people must have been in the secret - farewells must have been said, but there were no bands playing when the Army went to war. No bugles blew; it was a phantom Army that vanished, silently, and none knew whither.

Later in the war there were to be weird stories of Russians - with snow on their boots - who had passed through lonely stations in England, blinds drawn over the train windows, but this story of the British Army was true.

On August 18, there came the bare announcement from the official Press Bureau:

"The Expeditionary Force as detailed for Foreign service has been safely landed on French soil. The embarkation, transportation and disembarkation of men and stores were alike carried through with the greatest possible precision, and without a single casuality."

To that announcement was appended a statement which brought great joy to British journalists who for days had suffered from the pain of suppressing news. It was a note from Lord Kitchener, who said he was under the greatest obligation to the Press for the loyalty with which all references to the movements of the Force in this country and on their landing had been suppressed.

It was, of course, at Boulogne that the Force landed. Night journeys down the Hampshire roads, and then -embarkation in the troop ships and an uneventful passage across the Channel - escorted by the Navy - and then the friendly quays of the French port where strange-looking persons in blue blouses received strange-looking persons in khaki with the cry: "Vive les Anglaises." The question from thousands of throats rang down the quay with the green-washed buildings: "Are we downhearted?" The answer was "No," and to the question: "Shall we win?" the answer was, obviously, "Yes."

The king had sent them a message which they received before leaving England, though not one word of it was published in the press until after the landing. It read:

"You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my Empire.... I have implicit confidence in you, my soldiers. Duty is your watchword, and I know your duty will be nobly done. I shall follow your every movement with deepest interest and mark with eager satisfaction your daily progress; indeed your welfare will never be absent from my thoughts.

"I pray God to bless you and guard you and bring you back victorious.

"George, R.I."

And so with these words, these men of the "Old Contemptibles," landed on foreign soil. How they acquitted themselves is a matter of history. Some received an early "Blighty," some remained, but many more came back to march past the Cenotaph in the years to come at the eleventh hour of the eleventh month.

Mr. Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, opened his Budget on April 20, 1937 - twenty-three years after this "War to end wars." Part of it makes interesting reading; a curious commentary on the ability of the nations to forget. "For many years to come," said Mr. Chamberlain, "the National finances will be dominated by the vast expenditure on defence." In the present year with the 80,000,000 to be borrowed, this would total 278,268,000. "The taxpayer," he added, "though he may groan and grumble at the fresh demands made on him, will find some consolation in the thought that his additional contribution represents an ever-quickening approach to the goal of safety."

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