The War Fought Over “A Scrap of Paper:” England And The Outbreak Of WWI

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The "Scrap of paper" postcard

On August 3, 1914, the British Foreign Secretary’s, Sir Edward Grey, worst fears became realized. In less than a week, the carefully constructed old order of even alliances, which the British helped to create and which had prevented war from breaking out earlier, came crashing down. As he stood from his London office, he said to his assistant the now famous words: “The lamps are now going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” (1) These words are seen today as being very prophetic; the war sucked the life, the vitality of Edwardian Europe, and changed Europe forever.

That evening at 11 p.m. England declared war on Germany, obstensibly to defend Belgian neutrality or, as the Germans put it, to defend merely “a scrap of paper.” (2) What had been another Balkan crisis, had become a world war. Why??

The existance of many books, such as James Joll’s landmark The Origins of the First World War demonstrates the immense difficulty, if not impossibility of answering this question. The framers of Versailles tried to pin the blame entirely on Germany’s “blank check,” to equal failure. Attempting to blame this or that country entirely for the mess has become risky, to say the least.

But why did Britain and the British Empire enter the war in August 1914?? Essentially, because it was forced to. Not by any formal alliance; there was none– The Entente Cordiale (1904) made with France and the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention were merely treaties of understanding, and applied only to the colonial world. Britain was perfectly free to be neutral in any European war, a point made by the two Liberal Cabinet Ministers who resigned when war was declared. In fact, had Germany not invaded Belgium, the Liberal Government would have had enormous difficulty bringing Britain into the war.

What clinched it, then, was the German invasion of Belgium. This action violated a treaty of neutrality signed in 1839 which was signed by all the major European powers, including then-Prussia. This was “the scrap of paper,” that Kaiser Wilhelm II talked about. He should have known that traditional British foreign policy required a Belgium uncontrolled by any major Continental power, as Belgium was seen as the pistol/daggar at the heart of England.

This first argument would have won over the policy experts, but would not have really made headway with the general public. However, the invasion of a small, helpless, independent, nation (Belgium) by its larger neighbor (Germany) convinced many naysayers that war was justified. What was a war over “a scrap of paper” to the Germans became a war over the rights of small nations against tyranny to many ordinary Britons. A few anti-war activists staged a massive protest in Trafalgar Square on August 2, 1914, but this ended in disorder, with the protesters being shouted down. (3) British soldiers signed up in record numbers. The war fever that had permeated the Continent only a few days or a week before had also affected the traditional British reserve!

Footnotes:

  1. (1) James Joll, The Origins of the First World War, 2nd ed., (London: Longman, 1992), p. 38.
  2. (2) A.J.P. Taylor, ed. by Chris Wrigley, From the Boer War to the Cold War, Essays on Twentieth Century Europe, (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 174.
  3. (3) Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 355.
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