And the Germans bought it. The icy distrust of Britain’s traditionally hostile policies was melted by the radiant charm of Sir Grey. Admiral Tirpitz noted «On July 9, those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained the sober view that if, contrary to expectations, peace in Europe could not be maintained, England would still stand on the side of our enemies from the beginning of military actions. However, the peaceful position taken by the British Foreign Office in the recent weeks has more and more deceived those in the chancellor’s close circle. Apparently, even the general staff has begun to consider the peaceful intentions of England.»
England strives for peace! One could say just two words and the Germans would realize that the fate of their country hung on a thread. But Sir Grey’s superiors gave him a job to do and he performed masterfully, driving millions of people to their graves, who, for now, sat oblivious, basking under the July sun. Like everywhere else in the world, Britain has unofficial diplomacy that runs along side its official channels. But at this time with stakes so high, all was silent. «At the same time England abstained from even warning us eye to eye,» lamented Alfred von Tirpitz.
Instead, the «independent» British press began publishing articles that would have otherwise been called provocations, but were of course considered normal. The Standard and the Daily Chronicle expressly indicated the culprits in the death of the Austrian heir: «There is no doubt that the entire conspiracy was prepared in Serbia, and part – not all – of the responsibility falls on Russia,» «murder is the Russia’s essential tool to eliminate all of its inconvenient adversaries in the Balkans.» What is fascinating is how Russian revolutionaries poured gas on the fire. Lev Davidovich Trotsky, in his book «Europe at War» said: «The murder … was undoubtedly concocted by the Serbian government. On the other had, Russia was also involved in the preparation of this murder in an indirect way.»
Reassured of Britain’s «peace-loving ways», the German Kaiser went on his annual cruise through Norway’s fjords. The Austrians, agreeing with his course of action, began to prepare the text of the ultimatum to Serbia. Thanks to the efforts of Lord Grey, Austria and Berlin were presented with a very rosy picture: in the event of an Austrian invasion of Serbia, Russia would not necessarily intervene in the conflict, and if so, England would not exactly support them. A French intervention was likely, but in this situation such a scenario wasn’t so bad – Paris already longingly awaited the opportunity to take back Alsace and Lorraine, and therefore was already Germany’s true enemy.
Sir Grey’s transparent hints did more to incite the war than did Gavril Princip’s gunshots.
The action reached its climax. On June 20, French President Raymond Pointcaré arrived in Russia – «War.» So that Nicholas II would be unafraid to help his Slavic brothers, he was assured that in the case of war with Germany, France would fulfill its obligations as an ally. At the same time, the two parties discussed their military plans. Russia, in accordance with its obligations was to mobilize its forces to full readiness in 15 days to advance on Germany. An offensive against Austria-Hungary was planned for the 19th day of mobilization. While the Russian monarch and the French president conferred, the events seemed frozen, but after the Pointcaré’s departure they raced ahead at the speed of mad horses. Russia had one week of peaceful life left.
On July 23rd, the «allied» president returned home and the next day Grey successfully torpedoed the last opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. At the behest of the tsar, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov proposed that Russia, England and France collectively pressure Vienna, and force Austria-Hungary into a political settlement of their claims against Serbia. Grey rejected its proposal. It could have spoiled the whole thing, for he was waiting for the Austrian ultimatum. This paper was the fuse of World War I – only a few days separated the moment of its presentation from the beginning of hostilities.
And so he waited. On July 23rd, the Austrian ambassador to Serbia gave him what he wanted. Not coincidentally, Viennese diplomats presented the Serbs with the ultimatum as soon as Pointcaré returned to Paris – as such the French and Russian leaders could not plan a response. This was convenient for the Austrians and Germans. For our «allies», this had a different importance – having left, the French president did not need answer specific questions from Nicholas II, and instead could simply «send a telegram.» God forbid the Russia tsar actually propose to make another joint statement of some sort to, for example, pass along Austria’s demands to some sort of international committee. Doing so would have delayed the long-awaited war. Thus, instead of a concrete discussion of the increasingly complex situation, the French could get away with platitudes. And the ultimatum’s time limit – just 48 hours! Time flies so fast it would already be too late to stop the war! The main objective of Grey was then to make the events irreversible.
Grey with the Austrian ambassador for the first time on the day the ultimatum was delivered. The English were already well acquainted with its terms – the «Times» had accurately leaked its contents the day before. It was clear to anyone who knows a little politics that this was a declaration of war. When Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov was informed of the ultimatum by telegram he immediate exclaimed: «This means war in Europe!» Lord Grey «doesn’t understand.» Rather than warn the Austrians on the very brink of war, he only expressed his regret that the document presented to Serbia held a fixed time limit and he refused to discuss it until he could see the text for himself!
He then spoke to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador about how trade would be damaged by a war between four great powers. Ambassador Mensdorf was very good at counting. Four powers, that means: Russia, Austria-Hungary, France and Germany. Grey said nothing of a fifth power: England. That is not even a hint, but direct eveidence of Great Britain’s future neutrality. The Austrian ambassador concluded his report on the conversation in these words: «He was cool and objective, as usual, and spoke with friendliness and even some sympathy for us.» After the conversation with Grey, Austria-Hungary finally was calm and convinced that it could invade Serbia.
Now let us return to the facts. After receiving the 10-point note from Vienna, Belgrade was in hysteria. The smell of gunpowder was already in the air, and Serbia was standing toe to toe with an enraged Austria. «We cannot defend ourselves. Therefore we beseech Your Majesty to assist us as soon as possible,» Serbian Prince Regent Alexander wrote in his telegram to Nicholas II. In return, the Serbs were instructed to submit to the Austrian conditions, not to resist, but to declare it would cede to Austria’s power and hand its fate to the much stronger nation.
The ultimatum expired after 48 hours. From the moment of its presentation, a time bomb began ticking. Half of the time had already passed when the Austrian ambassador in London brought Grey a copy of the ultimatum. And then the great actor Lord Edward Grey rolled his eyes! He accosted the perplexed Mensdorf, saying it was «the most abominable in the history of diplomacy.»
The last minutes of peace were falling like sand in the hourglass and the loquacious head of British diplomacy was calling on the German ambassador again! Sir Grey loved to chat, there’s nothing you can do about that! Now, as Europe was enjoying its last 24 hours of peace, would the British deliver the momentous words that would save millions of lives? No way!
«Should Austria violate Serbian territory» correctly observed Grey, «the risk of a European war would be upon us … the consequences of which would be absolutely impossible for the four powers to predict.
The British diplomat spoke once again about the possible damage to world trade, a potential explosion of revolutionary elements and threats of widespread poverty, but it did not matter, it was only words. Most importantly, he once again emphasized to the German ambassador the possibility of war between FOUR great powers, again pointing out that Britain would remain neutral! No wonder why he said it again – he needed not only for Austria to present an ultimatum, but also for it to initiate military action when it expired. Only when assured of Britain’s neutrality would the Germans and Austrians be committed to a war with Russia and France.
On July 25th, at the appointed time, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić delivered the response from the Serbian government. Serbia consented to all but one of the demands, refusing to allow Austrian representatives to investigate the plot on the archduke’s life in Serbia, believing that such would be “a violation of the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Act.” And although Belgrade accepted nine of the 10 terms of the ultimatum, the Austrian ambassador was dissatisfied and declared a severance of diplomatic relations. Thanks to the hints from the British side, one side was prepared for war. What was happening on the other side?
Russian diplomats were trying to save the world. On the same day that Austria severed its relations with Serbia, Sazonov addressed Sir Grey requesting he «clearly and firmly» condemn the Austrians for their actions. No condemnation followed because it could still stop the Austrian troops that were amassing on the Serbian border. However, on the same day, Benkendorf, the Russian ambassador in London, reported an impression of English «neutrality» to St. Petersburg that was quite the opposite: «Although I cannot provide you any formal assurances of England’s military cooperation, I have not observed a single sign on the part of Grey, or the King, of from any of those with influence pointing to the fact that England seriously considered the possibility of remaining neutral. My impression seems to contradict the general impression of the situation.»
Edward Grey’s task was not easy: to show Germany Russia’s neutrality all the while showing Russia that this «neutrality» was on Russia’s side.
In Berlin, the Kaiser, concerned with the situation, discussed it with those close to him. That day, Wilhelm II’s brother, Prince Heinrich, arrived in Potsdam with a message from King George V. Crowned heads joined the disinformation campaign. The British monarch had told Prince Heinrich «We will make every effort not to be involved in the war, and remain neutral.»
«When I expressed my doubts about this, the Kaiser interrupted me: ‘I have the word of the king and that’s good enough for me» Admiral Tirpitz wrote in his memoirs. Time compressed into a blur. On July 28, Austrian guns opened fire on Serbian territory. In St. Petersburg, Russian officials insisted that England finally define its position. An unintelligible response arrived from London. Only French Ambassador to Russia Maurice Paleologue could right in his memoirs that his British counterpart, Buchanan «promises to vigorously recommend to Sir Grey a policy of resistance to Germany’s ambitions.»
Under pressure from the military and Foreign Minister Sazonov, the Russian tsar ordered a general mobilization. In doing so, he waivered, and it proved a fateful decision indeed. On the same day, he received a telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm certifying his intention to act as a mediator between Russia and Austria and requesting that he halt his military preparations. In the evening, Nicholas decided to cancel the general mobilization and instead issued only a partial mobilization in four military districts. The order for partial mobilization in Warsaw, Kiev, Odessa and Moscow districts (only against Austria) was sent by telegraph the night of July 29. The problem, however, was that Russia had no plans for a partial mobilization – only for a full mobilization!
It turns out it was impossible to make separate military preparations against Austria-Hungary, it was necessary to also mobilize forces against Germany, with which Russia had no complaint.
In Berlin this was understood, but it meant something different there: mobilization means war. This was a threat. Therefore, on July 29, Germany’s ambassador to Russia Portalés read a telegram to Sazonov from German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. Berthmann demanded that Russia cease all military preparations, otherwise Germany would likewise declare a mobilization and this could easily lead to war.
At this moment in London, British officials were hearing similar calls from St. Petersburg to clarify its position. On July 29, our «allies,» having shown their cards, expressed their continuing commitment to the cause. It’s a pity that Nicholas II never learned this! On July 29, the British foreign minister met twice with the German ambassador. During the first conversation, Grey said nothing substantial. He had been awaiting news that the Russian mobilization had begun. Having obtained the necessary information, Sir Grey notified Lichnowsky that he would like to see him again.
It appeared that no surprises were foreshadowed when Sir Grey totally unexpectedly declared … Well, let’s allow the German envoy speak for himself: «Grey declared that the British government wished to maintain its former friendship with us, and it would stay out of it, since the conflict was limited to Austria and Russia. If, however, we pulled France into it, then the situation would dramatically change and the British government would potentially be compelled to take immediate action.»
— What does that mean? — was all the German ambassador could express in response, but the Kaiser sent his own perfectly correct conclusion by telegram — «that means they’ll attack us.» Germany did not know that two days before this conversation cute and friendly Edward Grey had vehemently demanded Britain’s participation in the war at a cabinet meeting, threatening to retire otherwise!
Now that it had passed the point of no return, the Reich saw that in the event of conflict with Paris, it would have to fight England as well! And this was a fundamentally different matter. Fighting the virtually inexhaustible human and mineral resources of the British Empire and eventually the United States meant a clash with the entire globe. There were no chances for German victory in such a struggle.
Grey’s statement was a bombshell in Berlin. The Kaiser himself gave into his emotions “England shows its cards just when it thought I was cornered in a hopeless situation! The lowly mercenary bastards tried to deceive us with dinners and speeches. Bold-faced trickery in the words of the king speaking with Heinrich ‘We will remain neutral and try to stay out of it as long as possible.'”
This insight came to the German monarch too late. The world was already on the brink. But setting aside Lichnowsky’s perplexity and Wilhelm II’s noble rage, it is necessary to examine another fact: Sir Grey had just given German diplomats something totally new. In fact, he had given them and ultimatum: if you want to avoid war with Britain (i.e. the entire world), fight only with Russia! Don’t touch France!
This is the crux of it all: the British not only organized the First World War, they tried to adjust the situation so that the fighting broke out only between Austria, Germany and Russia. They themselves wanted to stay out of it, save for «freedom of actions» to use Sir Grey’s vocabulary. It is all logical. Remember the purpose of this war for our «allies» — the destroy Russia and Germany. Just let them destroy one another and the French and British will join the fight at the last minute. They could even declare war to keep the status quo, but there’s no reason to fight fair. The «allies» did the same in 1939 when bleeding Poland could wait no longer from their assistance.
Berlin was in shock from the British minister’s words. The situation had radically changed. They had figure out how to break the impasse and resolve it very quickly. At the same time it became known that Italy was unlikely to fight on the side of its allies – Germany and Austria. The situation was grim. The picture had suddenly changed: Berlin was close to panic. Grey’s warning had been passed onto Vienna, and Germany attempted to persuade the Austrians to content themselves with capturing Belgrade as revenge and then leave the matter to international mediators.
At this moment, the war’s organizers needed to jab the other side again now that the Germans and Austrians were willing to avoid war. The Russian tsar did not yet know about betrayal of his «allies» and in the late evening on July 30, he signed a decree of general mobilization. The order took effect July 31, 1914. This began a chain reaction. Upon learning that the Russians were mobilizing Germany reacted accordingly, informing the French ambassador that «due to a general mobilization of the Russian army, Germany would initiate kriegs gefar (military alert).» Germany requested Russia demobilize, otherwise it would begin its own mobilization. French President Raymond Pointcaré and the assembled French cabinet decided to respond to Germany’s possible mobilization by following suit. One day remains before the beginning of the war.
Berlin found itself in a serious situation thanks to the efforts of Lord Grey. Germany’s ally, Austria, was already engaged in hostilities with Serbia. Russia had mobilized and in response to the German preparations, France was beginning to mobilize as well. The Germans had almost no choice: if they waited and did nothing Russia would strike Austria, forcing Germany to support its ally and France would support its own. Great Britain would then enter the war. This was a dead-end road with hardly any chance of victory. The second course of action was proposed by Sir Grey himself: fight only with Russia, who took the initiative themselves. The pretext had been given: the Russian mobilization was a direct threat to the security of the Reich! With this the English had push both Germany and Russia to war! The fire had been lit on both sides.
Having correctly understood the British hint, Berlin tried at the late minute to get out of the dead end that Kaiser Wilhelm II himself had driven into. The last chance for this would be to make Russia (without losing face of course) choose not to interfere with the Austro-Serbian conflict. For this to happen, the Russians mobilization would have to stop. Tirpitz quoted the Kaiser « … the Russian mobilization had made war inevitable. Only a miracle could stop it now. Further delay on our part would have ceded our territory to the enemy, and it would have been totally unjustified.»
Germany tried to create that miracle. On July 31 at midnight, Germany’s ambassador Portalés presented an ultimatum to Russia. If by noon on August 1 Russia had not demobilized, then Germany would also announce its mobilization. Sazonov asked if that meant war.
«No,» responded Portalés, «but we would be extremely close to it.»
While his diplomats were talking, the German Kaiser personally sent a telegram to Nicholas II, desperately asking Russia to make assurances of its peaceful intentions. But in a situation where the British had already tricked Wilhelm, he wanted to receive from the Russian tsar not words, but assurances of peaceful intentions! The dilemma is simple and tragic: either «cousin Nicky» comes to his senses and war can be avoided, or should he declare war, Germany would only have to fight Russia. Sir Grey promised the Germans as much! The Kaiser, close to despair, understood the situation. The Russian tsar was much more calm, he had his «allies» at his back, in other words, he doesn’t understand a thing!
The British were still able to avert a world catastrophe up until midnight July 31, 1914 had they only clearly stated their intention to enter the war. They did not. Because the English wanted this war.