In August 1914, the peace of Europe unravelled quickly and Britain entered what would become the First World War. Diplomatic efforts to calm the growing crisis failed. From 1 August, Germany had been at war with Russia. On 2 August, Germany invaded Luxembourg, and proceeded to declare war on France, demanding passage across Belgium. When this was refused, Germany forced entry into Belgian territory on 4 August and King Albert I of Belgium called for help under the terms of the Treaty of London.
The Treaty of London had been signed in 1839 following negotiations in the British capital. The talks had come about as a result of Belgium’s efforts to break away from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, establishing the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830. Dutch and Belgian forces had been fighting over the question of sovereignty, with France intervening to secure an armistice in 1832. In 1839, the Dutch agreed to a settlement that saw them recover some territory, against the wishes of Belgium, in return for a recognition of Belgian independence supported and protected by the major powers, including Britain and France.
The German invasion of 4 August resulted in King Albert’s appeal to King George V under the terms of the treaty. The British government issued an ultimatum to King George’s cousin Kaiser Wilhelm and the government of Germany requiring them to leave Belgian territory. When it remained unanswered by the evening of 4 August, the Privy Council met at Buckingham Palace and, at 11pm, declared that Britain was at war with Germany.
On 3 August in Parliament, Sir Edward Grey, then Foreign Secretary in Herbert Asquith’s government, gave a speech preparing the Commons for the war that looked increasingly unavoidable. After reiterating Britain’s desire to preserve the peace of Europe, despite acknowledging that the current status could not be preserved due to Russia and Germany declaring war on each other, Grey continued, to cheers from the House, that,
…My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside and see this going on practically within sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing. I believe that would be the feeling of this country. …‘We are in the presence of a European conflagration; can anybody set limits to the consequences that may arise out of it?’
After making the case for war if required, Grey concluded his speech by saying,
I have now put the vital facts before the House, and if, as seems not improbable, we are forced, and rapidly forced, to take our stand upon those issues, then I believe, when the country realises what is at stake, what the real issues are, the magnitude of the impending dangers in the west of Europe, which I have endeavoured to describe to the House, we shall be supported throughout, not only by the House of Commons, but by the determination, the resolution, the courage, and the endurance of the whole country.
Winston Churchill later recalled of the following evening, 4 August 1914,
It was 11 o’clock at night – 12 by German time – when the ultimatum expired. The windows of the Admiralty were thrown wide open in the warm night air. Under the roof from which Nelson had received his orders were gathered a small group of admirals and captains and a cluster of clerks, pencil in hand, waiting.
Along the Mall from the direction of the Palace the sound of an immense concourse singing “God save the King” floated in. On this deep wave there broke the chimes of Big Ben; and, as the first stroke of the hour boomed out, a rustle of movement swept across the room. The war telegram, which meant “Commence hostilities against Germany,” was flashed to the ships and establishments under the White Ensign all over the world. I walked across the Horse Guards Parade to the Cabinet room and reported to the Prime Minister and the Ministers who were assembled there that the deed was done.
The Great War, which would engulf Europe for the next four years with unprecedented destruction and loss of life, was underway.