At 19.00 on 4th August 1914, the British ambassador to Berlin delivered an ultimatum to the Germans to halt their invasion of neutral Belgium. The deadline was set at 23.00. Twenty minutes after the deadline passed, Britain declared war on Germany.
Britain was reacting to the invasion of Belgium that very morning by the Kaiser’s forces, violating the Treaty of London, which had been signed 75 years previously and supposedly enshrined Belgium’s neutrality. Britain was bound by that treaty to protect Belgium from invasion by an aggressor.
The British had been deeply concerned by developments in Europe over the previous month and half. From the assassination of an Austrian archduke, the diplomatic situation had rapidly deteriorated. What had begun as an incident between the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbians soon snowballed, enveloping Germany and Russia, due to their respective alliances. Britain was hesitant; a Europe dominated by a belligerent Germany would be a serious threat, not only to Britain herself, but also to her Empire. On the other hand, were Russia to win the war, she would become the most powerful state in Europe, and Britain’s failure to support her ally in such a victory would certainly not be viewed favourably.
Germany had long been making plans for the eventuality that she may one day go to war with both France and Russia, which would, essentially, see them fighting a war on two fronts. The Schlieffen Plan worked on the assumption that France would be the weaker of its two enemies and that Russia, although stronger, would take much longer to mobilise. Therefore, the idea was to deliver a quick, crippling blow to France, using the majority of her forces, before being able to turn her attentions to the eastern front. The border between France and Germany was heavily fortified so, to reach Paris quickly and with limited need for military confrontation, the German assault on Paris would be conducted via neutral Belgium.
The problems for the Germans started when, on 30th July, the Russians began to mobilise…but the French waited another two days and, even then, troops had been positioned 10km from the border, in order to avoid any ‘accidents’ that may be viewed as hostilities towards their neighbours to the east. However, the German’s plan had already been set in motion and so they proceeded to ask the Belgians to permit free passage through their country, to counter what they claimed would be a French invasion of Germany, via Belgium. King Albert I refused their request and, when German forces did invade Belgium on the morning of 4th August, asked his allies in Britain for assistance.
By now, opposition to the war, which had formerly been relatively strong in Britain, had weakened. At 23.20 on 4th August 1914, Britain entered what would come to be known as the ‘Great War’. Almost 900,000 people would go on to lose their lives fighting for the British army.
There will be a number of commemorative events held today, both in the UK and across the world. A national service of commemoration will take place this morning at Glasgow Cathedral and there will be a parade in Folkestone, along the route that many soldiers took on their way to the Western Front. In Belgium, there will be a gathering of world leaders in Liège, where French President François Hollande and Prince William will be just two of the prominent figures making speeches.
At the Tower of London, 888, 246 ceramic poppies will be placed in the dry moat, each symbolising one of the soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire. The Royal British Legion is asking people to turn off all their lights, save for one single candle or light, for one hour from 22.00 this evening, as an act of remembrance.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary 1914
We will continue to offer our WW1 battlefield tours, to give students the opportunity to come face-to-face with the realities of life on the Western Front. If you are interested in arranging a school tour to the WW1 battlefields, please do not hesitate to contact us.