Wednesday, 22 April 2015

#CountdownToAnzacDay: So who pulled the trigger that started the war? [updated]

So today I had planned to write about the origins of the war that ended peace – ‘'the "seminal catastrophe" of modern times and the calamity from which all other calamities sprang”  -- the war that killed 16 millions and destroyed the health, wealth and material well-being of millions more – that ended empires four empires, bankrupted another, and sowed the seeds for a century of totalitarianism – that destroyed for all time “the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history.”*

But I’ve decided that I won’t. I might do that next week. If you ask nicely.

It’s easy enough after the fact to see who pulled the trigger. Answer: nearly everyone. The difficult question with them all is why … ?

  • Serbian Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger that killed an Austrian Crown Prince.
  • The German Kaiser pulled the trigger backing Austria-Hungary with a “blank cheque” in how to respond, turning a Balkan conflict into a German-Austrian one.
  • Russian Ambassador to Belgrade M.Hartwig pulls the trigger of support for Serbia, turning it into a Russo-Austrian-German conflict, telling them “After the question of Turkey, it is now the turn of Austria. Serbia will be our best instrument. The day draws near when … Serbia will take back her Bosnia and her Herzegovina.”
  • Austrian Commander in Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf pulled the trigger that, one month later saw his Emperor declare war on Serbia.
  • The Kaiser pulled a safety catch, suggesting Austria-Hungary “halt in Belgrade” then negotiate.
  • It was too late, Conrad having already pulled the trigger beginning Belgrade’s bombardment. (It would take four months more to occupy it, before being thrown out.)
  • The Chairman of the Liberal Party Foreign Affairs Group insists Liberal Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey must tell Russia and France that "Great Britain in no conceivable circumstances will depart from a position of strict neutrality." Grey tells French and German ambassadors in the morning, respectively, “Don't count upon our coming in" and "don't count on our abstention." By afternoon, he has reversed the messages.
  • Winston Churchill pulls the trigger without cabinet approval, sending the Royal Navy on “the exposed eastern channel” to war stations in the Channel and Scapa Flow (meaning the Royal Navy prepared to defend the French coast, on the basis of the undeclared 1905 and 1912 “understanding”s that in time of war the French Navy in return defend the Med).
  • The Liberal Foreign Affairs Group, claiming nine-tenths of  Liberal party support, tells Liberal Prime Minister Asquith they will withdraw their support from the government if Britain goes to war. (Asquith himself estimated around three-quarters of his cabinet and parliamentary Liberal party were “for absolute non-interference at any price,” and in his cabinet only Churchill and Grey wholeheartedly for it.)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov pulled the trigger mobilising Russian troops, and pressuring their ally France to mobilise – turning it into a pan-European conflict.
  • British cabinet pulls the trigger, ordering all British naval, military, and colonial stations into a prearranged “state of readiness” – turning a continental conflict into a potential global conflict
  • New Zealand, Canadian, and Australian Prime Ministers make public promises of expeditionary forces to help the ‘mother country.’ (NZ was the first to make the offer. Australian PM Fisher pledges support “to the last man and the last shilling.”)
  • The French cabinet pull the trigger ordering French troops to take up position ten kilometres from the French-German border.
  • German Commander-in-Chief Helmuth von Moltke pulls the trigger with a telegram proclaiming “imminent danger of war, which will probably be followed within forty-eight hours by mobilisation. This inevitably means war. We expect from Austria immediate active participation in the war against Russia."
  • The Austro-Hungarian Emperor pulls the trigger mobilising Austro-Hungarian troops against Russia.
  • The Kaiser pulls a safety catch, asking France and Britain where they would stand in a Russo-German war?
  • Conrad pulls the trigger declaring war against Russia.
  • Sir Edward Grey asks France and Germany if they will respect Belgian neutrality. German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow says he can’t say; British Ambassador in France says French government will. 

Are you keeping up?

  • Belgium rejects the offer of a bigger British trigger, declares its neutrality and begins to mobilise.
  • French General Joffre pulls the trigger mobilising French troops.
  • The Kaiser pulls the trigger mobilising German troops, who begin invading Luxembourg, and declares war on Russia.
  • Churchill pulls the trigger mobilising the Royal Navy, after cabinet rejection of mobilisation.
  • Grey rejects the Belgian ambassador’s request for a British “guarantee” that “if Germany violates the neutrality of Belgium, we [Britain] would certainly assist Belgium.”
  • British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey pulls a trigger suggesting British neutrality if German does not attack France.
  • In response, the Kaiser pulls a safety catch withdrawing troops from Luxembourg.
  • Grey reneges.
  • The British cabinet pulls a trigger, announcing that even if Germany invades Belgium to attack France then the British Expeditionary Force will not be sent to the continent.
  • The Kaiser pulls the trigger again, sending Moltke into France and Belgium.
  • Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Prime Minister pull triggers mobilising “expeditionary forces.”
  • Several British Liberal cabinet members pull the trigger, threatening resignation if Britain goes to war; Churchill pulls the trigger eliciting support from Conservative opposition who might join the cabinet to replace them.
  • The Kaiser pulls a safety catch, notifying London Germany was willing if Britain would pledge itself to neutrality, to agree that its fleet would not attack the Northern coast of France.
  • All this time, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was massaging his own trigger, leaving no-one until the last minute (including his own cabinet and Prime Minister) any idea how he might use it. In the end, it was his speech to the House of Commons that pulled the final trigger, turning the continental conflict into a global war…

  • The only cogent voice in opposition was that of minority Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald…

So we can see who?  Barely. None of whom achieved their aims; each of whom, by their decision, ensuring only the destruction of everything they claimed to support.

The question remains why were all those important triggers pulled?

Why did a small Balkan disagreement in a place few had heard of set off a global conflagration that would end with the destruction of the known world, and an eruption of further wars.

Why were triggers pulled by leaders, many of whom knew that by doing so they would unleash their own destruction?

This, today, is not an unimportant question. Before the wars set off by this one, said Austrian author Stefan Zweig, “I saw individual freedom at its zenith, after them I saw liberty at its lowest point in hundreds of years.”

But I won’t be answering the question this week.

Instead, since this is so important, in the centenary year of NZ’s involvement, and since theories about why (and even how) the war started are legion, I’ll point you to three interesting contemporary articles making claims that are worth considering, but with which I don’t wholly agree …

… and remind you of the other  posts in this series already causing angst among the easily challenged:

Until then…

PS: Few dramatised documentaries of events as momentous as this are worth watching. But, if you can get hold of it, the 2014 BBC2 dramatisation of the “July Crisis” called 37 Days is definitely worth the candle. Here’s the trailer:

* Ayn Rand’s fuller description of the world that was destroyed for ever, from her introduction to The Romantic Manifesto:

As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history … If one has glimpsed that kind of art—& wider: the possibility of that kind of culture-one is unable to be satisfied with anything less. I must emphasise that I am not speaking of concretes, nor of politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's 'sense of life.' Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities &, above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends & political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, & of man to life. … It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the Western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period…It is [certainly] impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential & what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men—over the brief span of less than a century—before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) & the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.


  1. You are a bit hard on Grey here. He tried mightily to avert this--he was the motive force behind attempts at diplomatic reconciliation to buy some time during that fateful July. The Austrians, with help from the French and that Germans, scotched that. Also the speech he gave was more an expression of the consensus of government at the time then a "personal trigger" and absolutely no one at the time was wondering what "his motives" were. You imagine that he had more power and sway than he actually did. As to Churchill. welll, the "agreements" with the French that were hammered out by people like Wilson, the that you consider as "informal", were really not as "informal" as you think, and where hardly "secret":witness The German governments constant bickering about them in the decade before the war. (And I would also remind you that the French were giving a great deal of aid to the Serbs prior to the war in the hopes of destabilizing Austria.)

    There are many causes to that catastrophe, and it may well be the in the final analysis the events of July 1914 are more effects than causes--certainly that is true for a great many of the failure you enumerate.

    The question before us, however, is this: will Western man put this finally behind him and return to the great work of his civilization?

  2. According to the book "The Death of Money" Europe has been at it for 1200 years so I suspect the likely answer to the question is not as easy as you make out to be. I was interested to read some years ago that Krupp had a patent on the fuses in the artillery shells everyone used and the British had to pay royalties to them at the end of the war based on casualty stats. Now that is a win win.


  3. Anonymous (any reason you can't put a name to your opinion?): "...hard on Grey"? I'm simply recounting the various triggers that were pulled. You want "hard on Grey," then (not to give too much away, but... ) wait until next week. Or read the 1908 view of the Daily News editor: "The inflexibility of his mind, unqualified by large knowledge. swift apprehension of events or urgent passion for humanity, constitutes a peril to the future... the slow movement of his mind and his unquestioning faith in the honesty of those on whom he has to rely render it easy for him to drift into courses which a mor imaginative sense and a swifter instinct would lead him to question and repudiate."

    He was a man who spent the longest time as Foreign Secretary, yet had had no languages, little imagination, minimal insight, and he never once left England. He was, said Lloyd George, "a pilot whose hand trembled in the palsy of apprehension,unable to grip the levers and manipulate them with a firm and clear purpose ... waiting for public opinion to decide his direction for him."

    And those were the opinions of people who *liked* him!

    Simple point, for right or wrong the primary argument for an alliance in terms of peace-making is that you form a combined public face to an enemy by which you intend to discourage their aggression. Grey turned this on its head, whispering to Russia and France that Britain would back them, while shouting publicly to Germany and AUstria-Hungary that Britain might not -- thereby removing any advantage of the informal Entente Britain had joined.

    Further, since in a formal alliance all parties guarantee to come to the aid of an ally should it be attacked, it's incumbent on any responsible party to counsel allies against inviting attack. Grey never once counselled Russia against its blank cheque to Serbia, or against its aggressive diplomacy against Austria-Hungary, or against its mobilisation - instead he went hand-wringing to German and Hapsburg ambassadors begging their own leaders to show restraint -- nor did he counsel France against giving Russia its own blank cheque. Instead, he argued it wasn't the role of someone who wasn't a formal ally.

    The result of Grey's two-faced obtuseness was that Britain and the Commonwealth enjoyed all the disadvantages of alliance, and not one of the advantages -- and European powers were left not knowing where Britain would fall when the knowing might, perhaps, have impeded their bellicosity.

    "You imagine that he had more power and sway than he actually did." Well, his counsel was certainly respected around Europe -- just see how quickly the Kaiser stopped the attack on the West at a mere hint from Grey about Britain staying neutral.

    And it's generally conceded that until Grey's speech atttached here that there was no majority in Britain or the parliament for going to war; after that speech (as Ramsay MacDonald conceded in his own) there was none for staying out.

    As far as his sway in cabinet, as PM Asquith himself conceded both to his diaries and his young mistress, of the cabinet only Churchill and Grey were wholeheartedly for going in. Asquith was a fence-sitter. For better or worse, by hook and by crook, it was Grey who swayed him, the cabinet and the parliament.

    Not bad for a bloke of inflexible mind and "characterised by no distinction of phrase or thought."

  4. Further, you say: "As to Churchill. Well, the "agreements" with the French that were hammered out ... that you consider as "informal", were really not as "informal" as you think, and were hardly "secret.""

    Well I don't' say "secret" since that sounds more conspiratorial than is justified. Things all round were more cockup that conspiracy.

    There were 'agreements' with the French both informal and formal, and both held close and made public. Some were known only to Grey (who failed to even tell his PM); some known only to cabinet -- almost none were known the public or the parliament, to whom for eight years Grey had said there were no agreements with any European power, none at all, that would encumber Britain in time of war.

    As Grey's own speech to the house proved, however, the naval agreement did so encumber them -- as did his call for Britain to "honour" the private agreements he had made and about which the parliament knew little or nothing.

    The naval agreement that Grey now insisted required British entry into war was part of informal naval discussions between France and Britain, to which both Churchill and Grey had agreed, in which France agreed to patrol the Mediterranean on behalf of Britain, in return for Britain being ready to defend the French coast for France. That Germany were ready to offer Britain a pledge it would not attack the French coast if Britain agreed to neutrality indicates that German at least realised the implications of the agreement. That Grey chose to tell the parliament about the agreement, but not the offer, indicates he realised them too -- and chose to use them.

    "There are many causes to that catastrophe, and it may well be the in the final analysis the events of July 1914 are more effects than causes--certainly that is true for a great many of the failure you enumerate."

    Oh, indeed! As I say, " we can see *who*? Barely. ... The question remains *why* were all those important triggers pulled? That's what I hope to try in a subsequent post.

    "The question before us ... is this: will Western man put this finally behind him and return to the great work of his civilisation?"

    Couldn't agree more. But to return to the great work of our civilisation, we need to understand the forces that tear it down.

    To turn Hillary Clinton on her head (and there's a delightful image on which to close) at this point, even a hundred-and-one years later, it does matter.

  5. Peter,
    I appreciate the quote from Rand on the antebellum spirit of the times. I'd not heard of Zweig before, but Meredith Wilson, an American playwright, and Robert Heinlein the Scifi writer are both on record with much the same observation as Rand. That there was a quality to the prewar years that was hard to describe but that it was, among other things, benevolent and upward looking.

  6. @c. papen: And I hadn't heard of Meredith Wilson. I'll look her up. Thanks.

    Yes, Heinlein captures the spirit well in 'To Sail Beyond the Sunset,' although the cataclysm didn't affect the U.S. anything like it did Europe.

    That quality, once you understand it -- rational, benevolent, upward looking -- gives some context to (ironically) Sir Edward Grey's much-quoted comment as the July Crisis reached its denouement, that "the lamps are going out across Europe, and we may not see them lit again in our lifetime."

    Zweig's autobiography is a fantastic if tragic account of the lamps going out, and what was lost with it.

  7. " I'll look her up." I just did, and it's a *him.* But I couldn't fathom to what your reference might be? Something in 'Music Man'?


  8. Enjoying this series of yours. Has had me boning up. My thinking..

    Germany pulled the trigger and their leadership is 100% responsible. They crossed into Belgium. They had crossed into Luxembourg. They rejected & avoided talks. They stirred up Austro-Hungary on Serbia, knowingly provoking Russia. They wanted a bit of a war. As with all aggressors, they were opportunist, having a crack & seeing what they could get away with. They bet the farm they could pull it off on two fronts and put the Russians/Slavs in their place. They wanted to establish for themselves a status of world supremacy they felt entitled to. It was reckless opportunism, fortified by Prussian faith in 'blood & iron.'

    On Grey - he did not clearly signal British intentions to Germany. Whether that would have had an effect on Germany, at the crisis stage of July, is debatable. He would look better to history if he had been clear & clear early. But I don't think he actually knew what British intentions were anyway.

    His main failing was, I think, to have positioned Britain over the previous 10 years in the role of referee in Europe, rather than as player. These were perhaps his natural, gentlemanly instincts, 'nice guy' instincts.

    British thinking had moved away from that of Palmerston, who'd said in 1848: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." A sound, simple outlook that had served Britain well for 60 years or so, and caused hostiles to pause.

    Grey did not see his role simply as protector of British interests; he got himself into the power balancing business, trying to balance the interests of everyone else. Had Britain remained a player, Germany might have thought longer & harder. But Britain had become referee. Referees are tolerated, but not feared. You work around them, get away with what you can.

    To make it more complex, or actually quite simple, Britain did not really have interests in Europe. Its interests were dotted across the seas.

    Britain was then forced to become a player, and when you get to Gallipoli the British interest was now to bring an end to the war asap, by some new initiative.

    The argument that it would've been best for Britain to have stayed out is really seductive. As one guy said, given the course of the next 60 years (Communism, Nazism, Holocaust, WW2, Eastern block, statism) could things have been any worse? But, hindsight is 202/20 so you need stand in the shoes of Britain at the time.

    A German dominated continent was a threat to British interests. The invasion of Belgium revealed a German regime prepared to do anything it takes to get their way. Certainly not one to be reasoned with. You'd have felt you're going to have to fight them someday, so it might as well be now alongside the French, while the French still had an army. I find such arguments regrettably persuasive.

    Look forward to what you have to say.

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