It is now 100 years since this famous phrase was first uttered by Sir Edward Grey to describe the ominous feeling that Europe and perhaps the world was about to slip into a war more bloody than most could ever imagine.
His remarks were made on the evening of the 3rd August whilst looking out at the lamps coming on in St. James Park in London on a balmy summer evening.
The world had been heading to war for some time but only a few realised just how big it would be. Germany had already fought France in the late 19th century and was eager to gain an empire of its own. It had been a loose conglomeration of states for centuries and like Italy only had become recently unified. The German Kaiser suffered from a disability and being descended from the British Queen Victoria suffered in Germany for not being German enough whilst he always thought he was belittled by the British whom he so longed to emulate and indeed surpass.
It may have been the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian nationalists that sparked the war but the truth is, the whole of eastern Europe was a tinderbox and Germany in the back ground was pushing Austria-Hungary to light the match.
The real question and one that would decide the course of events not just of the war but of the future we know is what would Great Britain do? It had already seen off Spain, France and Russia as a challenge to its unrivalled power. It could quite easily avoid the future war though that would eventually lead to a Europe dominated by a German Empire that was only fractionally less cruel than the later Nazi one. Staying out of the war also meant that one day Germany would be the undoubted master of the world and as even many Germans were unhappy at the way their undemocratic country was going, it was even less a popular choice in London.
Back in 1839 the tiny country of Belgium had created a defence pack with the U.K.. That was a long time ago however and surely, the Germans thought, no-one was going to go to war just for Belgium.
War was coming one way or the other though, Germany had embarked on a massive armament programme and though the Austro-Hungarians were intent on reform, it was too little too late for the new nations of eastern Europe.
France did not want war, it knew it would be lucky to get out of a war with Germany alive despite the signing of the famous peace treaty with its old enemy Britain in the Entente Cordiale. The Russians also joined an alliance and so formed the Triple Entente. Meanwhile Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey formed the Axis Powers with various other nations playing their cards close to their chest.
France was so keen to avoid another confrontation with Germany that it withdrew its soldiers away from the border with Germany. It didn’t want to give any excuse for war. Germany though had its plan to end the war quickly and this involved marching through tiny and neutral Belgium. They told the country that the Germany army would only pass through if only it were given permission but if permission were not given then it would enter Belgian territory anyway.
The British could have been more forthright about their intentions but in truth they always found the petty bickering’s of European nations a little bit tiresome and a side-show from running the world. It had been just 99 years since British troops had last fought to keep Europe from tyranny at Waterloo and few were enthusiastic to do so again.
For Germany the prize was too tempting, it only had to capture Paris in the next few weeks and Europe would fall at their feet. The German army massed at the border of Belgium in order to outflank the main French defences and take Paris by surprise and then invaded Belgium.
On the 3rd August 1914, the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith issued an ultimatum that Germany with draw from Belgium, but the deadline passed at midnight. Before the Prime Minister even spoke at Parliament, the Admiralty had already telegraphed the Royal Navy around the world to commence hostilities against German shipping and territorial possessions.
Prime Minister Asquith spoke to a packed House of Commons… “
We have made a request to the German Government that we shall have a satisfactory assurance as to the Belgium neutrality before midnight tonight. The German reply to our request was unsatisfactory.“
Asquith explained that he had received a telegram from the German Ambassador in London who, in turn, had received one from the German Foreign Secretary. Officials in Berlin wanted the point pressed home that German forces went through Belgium to avoid the French doing so in an attack on Germany. Berlin had “absolutely unimpeachable information” that the French planned to attack the German Army via Belgium.
Asquith stated that the government could not “regard this in any sense a satisfactory communication.”
“We have, in reply to it (the telegram), repeated the request we made last week to the German Government that they should give us the same assurance with regard to Belgium neutrality as was given to us and to Belgium by France last week. We have asked that a reply to that request and a satisfactory answer to the telegram of this morning, should be given before midnight.”
Nothing of the sort was received and the Foreign Office released this statement:
“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 would be respected, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin has received his passport, and His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4th.”
The war was already set to go disastrously wrong for Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Serbs had defeated their former imperial overlords in the early days of the war. The world was shocked by the Rape of Belgium by German forces and a hastily assembled British Expeditionary force along with the Angel of Mons had by the skin of its teeth helped France hold off the Germans long enough to save Paris as the German navy and airforce took to direct attacks on the east coast of England breaking the unwritten rules of targeting civilians. The world saw it as a war crime but the Kaiser merely was the first to enact the idea of total-war.
The war would not be over by Christmas 1914 and instead finished a few weeks before Christmas 1918.
It’s unlikely whether Sir Edward Grey knew how famous his words would become. It wasn’t just the park lights that would be extinguished but the freedom of Europe and the lights of life itself.
In memory of this tumultuous day, the Royal British Legion is encouraging every household in the U.K. to switch of their lights at 10pm, perhaps leaving on a single lamp in remembrance. A whole week of events will doubtless take place up and down the country but for me at least, I will remember those awful days quietly in my heart.
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