The First World War in 261 weeks

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Archive for the tag “Great Britain”

055 Emmeline Pankhurst and the disgrace of the white feather

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

It is Sunday 11 July 1915. It is the 55th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian airplanes bomb Venice again.

Sir John French tries to persuade French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre in vain to postpone a new attack until 1916.

A newly formed Third Army of the British, under the command of General Charles Monro, takes over a part of the front between Arras and the Somme from the French.

There is news about skirmishes between British-Belgian and German troops north of Rhodesia.

In Aden on the Arabian peninsula, the Sultan of Lahej dies after being wounded in a Turkish attack.

The Germans suffer heavy losses in their vain attempt to reach the other side of the Flemish river Yser.

In the Argonne the Germans attack again.

Two British warships return to the Rufiji delta in East Africa to finish an earlier job, sinking the German cruiser Königsberg.

German General Max von Gallwitz advances towards the Narew river, a tributary of the Vistula, part of an immense German effort along the front between the Baltic regions and Bukovina.

And ‘the Right to Serve’ is demanded in London by demonstrating women, led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

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054 Lord Kitchener and the seamless sock

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Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

It is Sunday 4 July 1915. It is the 54th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting in the Argonne gets bogged down.

After five days of attacking on the Isonzo front, the Italians have hardly been able to make progress, despite their overpowering dominance.

General Luigi Cadorna adamantly starts a new offensive with his Second Army, but again he encounters heavy resistance from the Austrians.

In the East African Rufiji delta two British warships, supported by four airplanes, turn their guns on German cruiser Königsberg, but do no succeed in eliminating the ship.

The British conquer trenches at Pilkem in the Westhoek (Flemish Flanders).

The army of the Austrian Archduke Joseph Ferdinand is defeated at Kraśnik.

The Sultan of Egypt, Hussein Kamel, again survives an assault.

The political and military leaders of Great Britain and France meet at a conference in Calais.

The German capitulation in South West Africa is a reality, but General Louis Botha allows the German reservists to keep their weapons and ammunition so that they can defend themselves against the ‘natives’.

And again an appeal is made to the virile part of the British nation by Lord Kitchener.

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040 George V and the final family gathering

George V

George V

British King alienates from his cousins

It is Sunday 28 March 1915. It is the 40th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The French stop German counterattacks at Les Éparges, southeast of Verdun.

A German offensive is repulsed at Bagatelle in the Argonne.

A German submarine sinks British steamer Falaba in the Irish Sea, causing the death of 104 men, among whom one American, to the great indignation of Washington.

The Russian Black Sea fleet bombs fortresses along the Bosphorus.

A German Taube drops a bomb on Rheims cathedral.

The Russians increase pressure in Poland and the Carpathians.

Bulgarians attack Serbian troops at the Macedonian town of Valandovo.

In German South West Africa the town of Hasuur falls into the hands of South African troops.

There are all sorts of festivities to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Otto von  Bismarck in Germany.

The French pilot Roland Garros makes his first victim over Diksmuide: a German Albatros.

British minister David Lloyd George declares alcohol the enemy, after which the use of it is also prohibited in royal circles for the rest of the war by His Majesty, George V.

A family squabble that got out of hand. It is a tempting but obviously too simple explanation of the cause of the First World War. France, for example, stood out by the number of war losses, but before the war the republic was not invited to a single royal event. The emperor of Austria also lacked close affinity with the other three monarchs.

Nicky, Willy and Georgie. We are talking about the three cousins. Mind, however, that only the English King George is a first cousin of both Nicholas II and Wilhelm II. For the tzar and the kaiser we would have to go back as far as the eighteenth century to find a mutual ancestor in Paul I of Russia. It is true, however, that Nicholas was married to a cousin of the other two. This cousin, Alexandra, had the famous Queen Victoria as grandmother, just like George and Wilhelm. In any case the three monarchs were very close. They shared the same childhood, though time would have a different fate in store for each of them.

King, kaiser, tzar. To which degree should they be held responsible for the immense tragedy of 1914-1918? To which extent can the causes of the Great War be traced back to their personalities? A writer like Catrine Clay dares venture into dangerous territory. In her book ‘King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War’, Willy feels excluded by Georgie and Nicky from an early age. He is going to show them something. And before Wilhelm knew what was happening, he had invoked a world war. An over-simplification indeed.

What bound them together was the institute, the monarchy. In days of advancing liberalism and socialism, dominated at the same time by a free press, they made a firm stand for their divine rights. Not all three had the same amount of leeway. Nicholas and Wilhelm can be counted to the category of autocratic monarchs, the tzar even more so than the kaiser. The king was imprisoned in a constitutional framework. English parliament called the shots.

George accepted this more sympathetically than his father Edward VII and his grandmother Victoria had done before him. This also allowed George V sufficient time for his hobby, philately. There are those who were scornful of this. The man who headed a British empire from the United Kingdom and who could even call himself emperor of India, was not to be disturbed when he was busy with his stamps. But among philatelists the George’s Royal Collection still distinguishes itself.

Another pastime of George was the weather. He kept a meticulous record of this in his diaries. On the day that England declared war to Germany George V looked  outside and recorded: ‘Warm, showers and windy’, but also: ‘I held a Council at 10.45 to declare War on Germany, it is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault.’

He was not born in 1865 as successor to the throne. That would be his brother Albert Victor who is one year his senior. Their parents are Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. The brothers are educated together, but when Albert goes to Cambridge, George continues to sail the oceans with the Navy. When in Japan the Sailor Prince has a tattoo inked on his right arm at the age of sixteen: a red-and-blue dragon.

He falls in love with cousin Mary of Edinburgh, but both mothers prevent a marriage. Mary then marries Ferdinand, who will be king of Romania shortly after the outbreak of the Great War. George’s wife will be Mary of Teck, May to close friends. Her family tree is German. It will be a harmonious marriage, though the reason behind it is a sad one. Mary was destined to sit on the throne next to George’s brother, but Albert Victor dies of pneumonia in 1892 when he is only 28. Urged by his parents George takes over both the prospect of the throne and his brother’s sweetheart. He has to say goodbye to the Navy. The kingship is now beckoning. In 1910 the throne becomes vacant when his father, Edward VII, suddenly dies.

George leads the funeral cortège of course. Nine ruling monarchs, forty imperial and royal princes and seven queens have assembled under the tower of Westminster Abbey. Never before did so much royal blood flow through one vein. To the right of George the most prominent foreign pallbearer rides his white horse. The man who, according to The Times, ‘has never lost his popularity amongst us’, even during the most strained relations of both countries. This man is Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany. He is wearing the scarlet uniform of the British fieldmarshals for the occasion.

It is all pomp and circumstance, for Wilhelm profoundly disliked Edward, the man who according to the kaiser had cast a shadow over Germany. Only three years earlier Wilhelm had called his English uncle ‘satan’ in the midst of a hysterical rant during a dinner for three hundred guests. The kaiser was friendlier to the son, George. ‘A very nice boy’, he said a few days before the funeral to former president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. And Wilhelm added: ‘He is a thorough English man and hates all foreigners but I do not mind as long as he does not hate Germans more than other foreigners.’

George V will go down in history as a weak and sickly monarch. It is true he is dutiful, but for the rest a bit pale. During one of his visits to the western front, he ends up under his horse. He breaks his pelvis and is left with pain for the rest of his life. At the end of his days the respiratory system of the heavy smoker also manifests itself. After a reign of 26 years he finally dies of pneumonia in 1936.

British historian Robert Lacey portrays George V as follows: ‘He was distinguished by no exercise of social gifts, by no personal magnetism, by no intellectual powers. He was neither a wit nor a brilliant raconteur, neither well-read nor well-educated, and he made no great contribution to enlightened social converse. He lacked intellectual curiosity and only late in life acquired some measure of artistic taste’.

That may be so, but unlike his two cousins George did survive the war as monarch. And later there are achievements that also make him a charming man. He shows for example a majestic disgust about the hard line his government takes in Ireland. And when in 1926 strikers are described as revolutionaries, the king makes the following remark: ‘Try living on their wages before you judge them.’ At an early stage he is also  clearly worried about the rise of nazism in Germany. What also speaks in favour of him is the love for his little granddaughter, which was mutual. The present Queen  Elisabeth lovingly called him ‘grandpa England’.

Did grandpa play a major role in the Great War? If you compare him with his two cousins in the index of leading books on the First World War, you will conclude that he was of little importance. Everywhere you will find references to Nicholas and especially Wlhelm, but George can only sporadically be found in the historiography of the Great War. In ‘The First World War’ by Hew Strachan for example, only one significant fragment about George can be found. The king must have used his influence in replacing Sir John French by Douglas Haig as commander-in-chief on the western front.

In line with British tradition George V occupied himself mainly with gesture politics, representation and charity in the war. In March he forbids the royal household to consume alcohol as long as the war lasts. In  August 1916 he goes to the Somme front to speak to the troops. He says: ‘Do not think that I and your fellow-countrymen forget the heavy sacrifices which the Armies have made and the bravery and endurance they have displayed during the past two years of bitter conflict. These sacrifices have not been in vain; the arms of the Allies will never be laid down until our cause has triumphed. I return home more than ever proud of you.’ When the German submarines leave behind trails of suffering for the families of British sailors, George personally makes efforts to create a fund to finance the most acute needs.

The most drastic decision, at least for the royal family itself, is the one taken on 17 July 1917. Under the pressure of public opinion George decides to adopt a new name for his family. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded far too German to the British people. Besides, Gotha is the name of the airplanes that dropped their deadly bombs on English civilians a month earlier. From 1917 the royal family carries the genuinely English name of Windsor. In Germany kaiser Wilhelm II turns this into a joke. He teasingly changes Shakespeare’s play ‘The merry wives of Windsor’ into ‘The merry wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’.

Both the mother of Tzar Nicholas and of King George were daughters of Christian IX, the Danish king who had seen Bismarck’s Prussia roll across his country. So Nicholas and George had been brought up with German aggression. Their distant attitude towards Wilhelm should partly be explained by this.

Nicholas and George were so much alike that the cousins could have passed for twins. But in March 1917 the English king slams the door in the face of of his cousin, the tzar of Russia, who had just been deposed. Prime Minister Lloyd George was willing to grant the Romanovs access, but on thinking it over, this did not seem a good idea to the king. The risk that the Romanovs would take the seeds of the revolution with them to England was too big for him. A year later the tzar and his entire family are assassinated by the bolsheviks. Many have blamed George for this.

In May 1913, more than a year before the war, the three were together for the last time. Nicholas and George had made the journey to Berlin to attend the wedding of Wilhelm’s youngest child and only daughter, Victoria Louise. ‘If you are there, I will be there’, Nicholas had cabled to George. Both were there. In accordance with custom, George wore the uniform of German Field Marshal.

Years later the English king must have said that he could not be alone with his cousin the tzar without being watched anxiously by his cousin the kaiser. Thus was the atmosphere of the very last family gathering. Suspicion and gossip. Well, it happens in the best of families.

Next week: Pancho Villa

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

038 Sir Ian Hamilton and the bloody fiasco of the Dardanelles

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Gallipoli ends allied lives and careers

It is Sunday 14 March 1915. It is the 38th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans detonate two mines below a British hill in the Westhoek in Flanders and then capture Sint Elooi, but this village is recaptured again by the British the following day.

Three British cruisers checkmate SMS Dresden, the last ship of the squadron of Maximilian von Spee, off Chile.

French army commander Joseph Joffre announces an offensive near the river Meuse and in the Argonne.

Loss of an eye causes general Michel-Joseph Maunoury to give up command over the French Sixth Army.

The Russians capture the port of Memel in East Prussia.

German U-boat captain and war hero Otto Weddigen perishes together with the crew of his U-29 off the coast of Scotland.

In the Dardanelles admiral John de Robeck takes over command from Sackville Carden, who could not withstand the pressure.

And De Robeck then enters the mine-covered channel of the Dardanelles with three divisions of ships and eliminates several Turkish fortresses, but eventually he goes off with five ships less, after which the success of the campaign is entrusted to the land forces of Sir Ian Hamilton.

The message is: attack is the best defence. Let the First World War be the exact exception to the rule. The defenders on both sides beat the attackers on both sides gloriously. And yet the ‘cult of the offensive’ was preserved in a deeply tragic way throughout the war by the commanders in chief.

Plenty of examples, but the textbook example appears to be the Gallipoli Campaign of the allied forces. It was a desperate undertaking, but for months on end British, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Newfoundlanders and French were killed by the machinegun fire of the Turks. The allied beaches were low and the Ottoman mountains further along were high. It was a shooting match for the men of commanding officer Mustafa Kemal, who after the war was to pull the new Turkey along as Atatürk. So he already built his reputation on the Gallipoli peninsula.

On the British side Gallipoli was the very cause of the loss of careers. Winston Churchill  had to give up his position of minister. And the army commander over there, Sir Ian Hamilton, had to accept a job as Lieutenant of the Tower in London, though the vice-chancellorship of Edinburgh University lay ahead of him at an old age.

Hamilton’s military failure could be called unfortunate. In the pre-war years he was actually one of the few soldiers who realized that military offensives pur sang were out of date. Hamilton had learned this lesson in the heat of the battle during the Second Boer War. But he had also paid close attention in the Russo-Japanese war, in Manchuria, when he was military attaché of the Indian Army. He learned how to fend off an attack of the infantry from entrenched positions. But he also came to notice that the cavalry belonged to the past, an understanding which ten years later in the opening phase of the Great War was shared by only few.

In his History of the First World War Basil Liddell Hart writes the following about Hamilton: ‘There is little hint, among those who were to be the leaders in the next war, that they had recognized the root problem of the future – the dominating power of the fire defence and the supreme difficulty of crossing the bullet-swept zone. Sir Ian Hamilton alone gave it due emphasis, and even he was too sanguine as to the possibility of overcoming it. His proposed solution, however, was in the right direction. For he urged not only the value of exploiting surprise and infiltration tactics to nullify the advantages of the defence, but the need of heavy field artillery to support the infantry. Still more prophetically, he suggested that the infantry might be provided with ‘steel shields on wheels’ to enable them to cross no-man’s-Land and make lodgment in the enemy’s position.’

Perhaps Hamilton was not conventional enough to be given an important post on the western front right away. However, to the surprise of many he was sent to the Dardanelles by his friend Lord Kitchener in the beginning of 1915. ‘If you succeed’, Kitchener reminded Hamilton, ‘You will have won not the battle, but the war’. Without any particular preparation 62-year-old Hamilton could start hunting down the Turks. According to some sources he had to get his local knowledge from tourist guides.

The Dardanelles is the name of the narrow waterway connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Gallipoli is the peninsula to the north of it. When you zoom out a bit more, you will also recognize the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. With this the strategic interest of the waterway has been pointed out. Already at an early stage of the war the idea takes hold in British government circles to open a third front for the Germans and the Austrians via the Dardanelles. It is estimated that Constantinople, a bit further along on the Bosphorus, will soon fall once the Dardanelles are taken. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, also predicts that a coup will take place with the Turks once the British guns roar across the Bosphorus.

It is the conviction of the British that such a casual reprimand of the Ottoman Empire will also impress the Balkans. Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks will realize that the surrounded Central Powers have little to offer and they will soon join as allies. The Suez Canal in Egypt will no longer be under threat. British and French will close the gap with the Russians past the Turks. Russian ships filled with cereal will sail through the Dardanelles to allied ports, while ammunition and equipment will go the other way. Yes, the war game will soon be up after the fall of Gallipoli.

The backbone of the plan was the maritime superiority of the British. It opened up almost infinite horizons. Around the first turn of the year of the war various invasion plans were on the table in London. Initially Churchill was particularly in favour of the Baltic Sea, with the Danish Schleswig-Holstein as the landing basis. Also the idea to disembark three quarter of a million men on Dutch beaches was rather concrete. But on 8 January 1915 the War Council opts for the Dardanelles as the lever for the war that had got stuck on the western front.

In all their optimism the military planmakers assume that the navy alone will get the job done. They have already done a couple of finger exercises. In November 1914 British ships did some shellings at the entrance of the waterway. And far into the Dardanelles a British submarine succeeded in eliminating a Turkish ship in December. But the Turks decided that that would not be so easy any more. They lay out a carpet of seamines and position launching tubes for torpedoes in the Dardanelles. Besides, heavy artillery is placed along the coastline.

On 19 February 1915 the attack on the Dardanelles is started with the bombardment of Turkish fortresses by allied warships. It is not easy for the British. Six days later the attack is repeated more successfully, though the Turkish howitzers struggle fiercely. Meanwhile British troops start going ashore at Sedd el Bahr on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. They succeed in eliminating dozens of pieces of artillery, which generates great enthusiasm at home in England.

On 18 March 1915 it appears that the path leading to the Russians remains paved with mines and framed by guns. A combined British-French fleet of sixteen battleships sails into the Dardanelles. Super dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, the most powerful ship in the world, is stationed in a division with a battleship carrying the historically very apt name Agamemnon. After all, the ruins of Troy are only a few yards away at the other side of Gallipoli.

It is an ominous sign that commander Sackville Carden reports ill on the eve of the large-scale campaign. Apparently he is on the brink of a breakdown. It is John de Robeck who can take stock as his deputy on 18 March. It is true, Turkish fortresses are badly battered, but the allied losses weigh much heavier. Three ships have been sunk, one has run aground, two have been severly damaged. And the minefield of the Turks is still intact. What the British, however, do not realize is that the Turks have almost used up their ammunition. Enver Pasha, strong man of the Ottomans, prepares to leave Constantinople.

The allies do not press ahead as they are deeply impressed by their losses. The navy cannot do it alone. That is also Sir Ian Hamilton’s conviction, who already telegraphed Lord Kitchener in London on 9 March with the following message: ‘I am being most reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the Straits are not likely to be forced by battleships as at one time seemed probable and that, if my troops are to take part, it will not take the subsidiary form anticipated. The Army’s part will be more than mere landings of parties to destroy Forts, it must be a deliberate and progressive military operation carried out at full strength so as to open a passage for the Navy.’

In the months to follow Hamilton will try again and again at full force. But the rule of Gallipoli appears to be that the Turkish artillery cannot be silenced until the minefields have been cleared. And that will only succeed if first the artillery is annihilated. In other words, the navy and the army on the side of the allies are not able to help each other.

Hamilton continues to believe in a success on the Gallipoli peninsula, whether or not against his better judgement. But in October 1915 London does not believe in Hamilton any more and he is called back as a scapegoat. His successor can start preparing the evacuation of Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Campaign has turned into a ‘bloody fiasco’ in the eyes of British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who in quite a roundabout way holds Hamilton responsible for the bloodshed on Gallipoli’s beaches.

It is interesting to compare Sir Ian Hamilton’s career with that of Sir Winston Churchill, the greatest Brit ever, according to a national poll in 2002. In 1900 Churchill publishes a collection of newspaper reports entitled ‘Ian Hamilton’s March’. As a war correspondent he described the battles Hamilton fought in the Second Boer War. Gallipoli brings both together again, but the outcome is a lot less heroic. Churchill is politically held responsible and resigns as minister. As a soldier Hamilton has to pay the price for the failure.

Churchill’s and Hamilton’s political routes diverge in the decades after. When in the thirties a new danger is imminent in Germany, Churchill is one of the very few to sound the alarm bell vigorously. He argues that Mister Hitler has to be stopped now. A voice crying in the wilderness. The British hate to think of another war. One  butchered and damned generation is more than enough.

Sir Ian Hamilton is a representative of this mood. In 1934 the octogenarian lends his voice to the prologue of the film ‘The Forgotten Men – the war as it was’. Peace propaganda as it were. Using the old general the documentary explains the horrors of war to the youngsters of Britain. Again four years older, Sir Ian Hamilton travels to Germany in the company of British war veterans. Hamilton, who is not completely free of anti-Semitic sentiments himself, has an interview of several hours with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He brings back the following message to England: Germany’s Führer is a peace-loving gentleman.

Hamilton did not die until 1947, old enough to regret his error of judgement. But what he wrote in the preface of his Gallipoli Diary stood the test of time: ‘There is nothing certain about war, except that one side won’t win.’

Next week: Colmar von der Goltz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

037 H.H. Asquith and the notes he scribbled during cabinet meetings

H.H. Asquith

H.H. Asquith

The British cabinet is under fire

It is Sunday 7 March 1915. It is the 37th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Six British planes drop bombs on the Flemish port of Ostend.

Heavy fights with changing opportunities are taking place along the entire front north of the river Vistula.

Austrian counter-attacks in the Carpathians fail.

A new Greek cabinet led by Prime Minister Dimitrios Gounaris takes up its duties.

British minesweepers try to turn the Dardanelles into a safe waterway while under heavy Turkish fire.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, cables Admiral Sackville Carden that he will have to accept losses, as long as Constantinople falls.

The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph acquiesces in a border adjustment to the benefit of the Italians.

Lord Kitchener asks the help of the experienced General Ian Hamilton for the allied army campaign in the Dardanelles.

The Belgians gain ground along the river Yser and the French achieve the same in the Champagne district.

Bombs and grenades torment Ypres again. 

And the British mount a full-on attack at Neuve Chapelle, the battle that will expose the British Achilles’ heel, to the embarrassment of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith.

On 10 March 1915 the British canons roar for half an hour. It is raining grenades on the German enemy lines near the town of Neuve Chapelle, which is in France, though not far from Ypres in Flanders. Right there the German front shows a small bulge. The military term for such bulges is salient. Time will tell that where the front meanders, the war will soon accelerate.

The British Expeditonary Force, assisted by the Royal Flying Corps high in the sky, establish a small bridgehead at Neuve Chapelle. Nothing spectacular, however, as the British and Indian troops only gain two kilometres of territory. Besides, this achievement is overshadowed a few weeks later. Field marshal Sir John French’s plan comes to nothing. He wants to push forward across the ridge near the town of Aubers to the Northern French town of Lille, which is called Rijsel by the Flemish.

Then French gives an interview to the war correspondent of The Times, Charles à Court Repington. French blames the defeat at Neuve Chapelle on a shortage of artillery shells. A rather simple explanation. Even if the British had had sufficient firepower, they probably would not have known how to handle this. But the ‘Shell Scandal’ is born in spring 1915. Press baron Lord Northcliffe’s The Daily Mail takes over the baton and points an accusing finger at the War Ministry, which is led by the hero of Khartoum, Lord Kitchener, with whom Prime Minister Asquith does not get on really well. The feelings are mutual. When one day Asquith appeared to have fallen ill, Kitchener made a very quick-witted remark: ‘I thought he had exhausted all possible sources of delay, but I never thought of the diarrhoea’.

Our boys are dying over there, because our government has not put its affairs in order over here. That is how the public feels about itThis drives the nail into the coffin of prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, called H.H. Asquith for short.

Verbally he showed great abilities. Whenever his predecessor, liberal prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, got in trouble in parliament, he was known to say: ‘Bring out the sledgehammer!’ That ‘sledgehammer’ was H.H. Asquith, who was to succeed the sick Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister nineteen days before the latter’s death in 1908. King Edward VII was not willing to break off his holiday in Biarritz for this changing of the guard. So Asquith decided to go to France.

Apart from the maritime arms race with the Germans, Asquith mainly followed a domestic agenda. He defended free trade. He was not in favour of the movement for women’s right to vote, which made him the target of the suffragettes. Asquith especially focused on the expansion of social security. With social insurance contributions and pension provisions his cabinet lay the foundation of the Welfare State.

When trying to realize these reforms, Asquith the liberal found the House of Lords, this aristocratic bastion dominated by the Conservatives, on his path. The Lords were so powerful that they had also managed to delay self-determination for the Irish for years. The matter of Home Rule was hanging over British politics like a dark cloud. Supported by Irish nationalists Asquith decided to take up the fight against the House of Lords. He also got Kind Edward VII on his side, but the monarch would die in 1910. Some thought he passed away as a result of stress. Here and there one could hear ‘Asquith killed the king’. But Asquith continued and with the help of the new King George V finally succeeded in defeating the House of Lords with the Parliament Act.

But all these domestic issues were moved to the edges of Asquith’s desk, when the war broke out. And the longer the war lasted, the clearer it became that H.H. Asquith was not the strong man Great Britain so badly needed. Though he was a thorough prime minister in peace time, Asquith did not pass the litmus test of the war.

The ‘Shell Scandal’ and the military debacle on the Gallipoli peninsula force Asquith as early as 1915 to turn his liberal cabinet into a coalition cabinet with participation of the Conservatives and Labor. Besides, a new ministry is created, the Ministry of Munition, which is led by David Lloyd George, who so far has served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George, who is not averse to intriguing against his own prime minister, proceeds with vigour. On the home front the British suffer a considerable gap compared with the Germans, whose Krupp Werke in Essen have been going like a bomb for decades.

Lloyd George uses the economic potential of the Dominions. Canada proves to be especially important as a producer of ammunition. Also at home the industry is radically made subject to the imperatives of war. On the border of England and Scotland an enormous ammunition factory is built, His Majesty’s Factory Gretna. In 1917 it employs over 11,000 women, twice as many as men. Just to make sure all pubs in the area are placed under state control. Tons of cordite, which is an explosive mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, have left the factory gates of Gretna. It is Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritual father of Sherlock Holmes, who gave cordite its nickname ‘devil’s porridge’. Gretna is certainly not the only ammunition factory. By the end of 1915 the state directly controls seventy arms factories. By the armistice in November 1918 this number has increased to 250.

Already in 1915 Asquith had to start thinking along different lines, but also in 1916 criticism of him persists. The Dublin Easter Rising and the terrible Battle of the Somme further undermine his position. One of the names among a million and a half losses – dead, wounded, taken prisoner- that the Battle of the Somme led to on both sides, was that of Raymond Asquith, the eldest and promising son of the prime minister. On 15 September 1916 he is shot in the chest at Flers-Courcelette. Raymond is carried off the battlefield, but dies on the way back. A brilliant future remains unfulfilled. In one of his many letters the British prime minister has expressed his fatherly grief as follows: ‘I feel bankrupt’.

Asquith Sr. had the peculiar habit to conduct a stream of correspondence with ladies of substance, although he had a dubious reputation of unwelcome intimacies. According to Lady Ottoline Morrell the prime minister did not shrink from guiding the hand of the lady sitting next to him on the sofa to the erection in his trousers. After his first wife and mother of their five children had died of typhoid fever, Asquith remarried a woman who would bear him two more children. But apparently marriage did not offer him sufficient female attention.

From 1910 till 1915 his penfriend was Venetia Stanley, another lady of substance who in her abundance of free time moved elegantly in the highest circles. In other words a socialite. Asquith’s affection for Venetia must have gone beyond the epistolary, but we are not quite sure of the details. However, the numerous letters he wrote to her are of importance to the historian. Asquith often scribbled his notes during cabinet meetings and he frequently asked Venetia’s advice in political and military matters. The correspondence, which was published in book form much later, ended when Venetia chose a new suitor from the world of politics, the Jew Edwin Samuel Montagu. Accordingly the prime minister of Great Britain was torn apart by heartache in the middle of the war.

In his book ‘Asquith as war leader’ George H. Cassar describes the prime minister as follows: ‘The picture of Asquith that emerges is of a man who on the one hand was reserved, serious, solitary and exclusive and on the other passionate, frivolous and somewhat irresponsible. The contrasting elements in his personality reflected the age in which he lived and make him a representative figure.’

After a long period of eight years in office H.H. Asquith has to hand over power to his party colleague David Lloyd George. It is December 1916. The relationship between the two liberals remains cool. Asquith declares to be loyal to the new government, but that does not sound very convincing. The liberal party will fall into two camps, of the old and the new prime minister. The controversy is most obvious during the Maurice Debate of 9 May 1918. The officer Sir Frederick Maurice accuses Lloyd George’s cabinet of knowingly keeping away men from the western front. In the House of Commons Asquith puts himself forward as spokesman of Maurice. Lloyd George reacts by requesting a vote of confidence. He weathers the storms gloriously.

To the general public David Lloyd George is also the man who has won the war, after having cast aside Asquith. Yet it is certainly not curtains yet for Asquith after the war. In December 1918 he had to give up his seat in the House of Commons, but two years later he appears again on the political front. Asquith is one of the politicians who paves the way for the first Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald.

In 1925 Asquith is allowed to join as a peer the House of Lords, the company he had managed to bring to their knees in an earlier political life. He needed to have a title though in order to be admitted to the House. He will be the 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Among aristocrats this is tut-tutted in disapproval. Asquith, member of the middle classes, son of a wool merchant, an Oxford Earl? It is the general opinion that this is ‘like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles’.

H.H. Asquith died in 1928 at the age of 75. His grandson Julian inherited the title. This second Earl of Oxford and Asquith dies in 2011 at the age of 94. He was born five months before his father Raymond was killed on the battlefield behind the Somme.

Then there is one of the English war poets, who listens to the name Asquith. It is Herbert Asquith Jr., the second son of the prime minister, who unlike his older brother did survive the war. But this Asquith, too, has looked straight into the monstrous face of the war. He described the destruction ‘after the salvo’, as one of his poems is called. A skull torn out of the graves near by. A poppy at the crater’s edge. And the rats. Of course, the rats.

‘Up and down, up and down

They go, the gray rat, and the brown:

A pistol cracks: they too are dead

The nightwind rustles overhead’

Next week: Sir Ian Hamilton

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


030 Samuel Smith and death coming from above

Samuel Smith

Samuel Smith

Zeppelins make England tremble

It is Sunday 17 January 1915. It is the 30th  week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting between the French and the Germans in the Bois-le-Prêtre, in the Argonne, goes back and forth.

They are also fighting very hard about the Hartmannswillerkopf, a mountain top in the Vosges.

Dunkirk is shelled from the air by the Germans and Zeebrugge by the British.

In East Africa a British-Indian force has to lower the flag at Jasin.

The Russians succeed in occupying the town of Skempe in northwest Poland.

The Turks have to continue their drawback in Armenia.

Adolf Wild von Hohenborn is appointed Germany’s minister of war, as successor of Erich von Falkenhayn, who remains chief of staff at the front.

British plantations in Nyasaland, present-day Malawi, are attacked by African nationalists under the command of John Chilembwe.

During this rebellion, which was not very successful, the grandson of the legendary David Livingstone is decapitated, because he is said to have oppressed Africans.

In the Bukovina the Austrians succeed in recapturing within a week the mountain pass of Carlibaba, or Ludwigsdorf, from the Russians.

And two German zeppelins drop bombs over England, killing four people, among whom Samuel Smith.

On the night of 19 January 1915 Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old cobbler, goes into the street to see what is going on. Loud bangs lured him away from his workshop. They are explosions of primitive bombs which were dropped from the German zeppelin L-3 across Samuel Smith’s dwelling-place, Great Yarmouth. This seaside town in the county of Norfolk harbours a naval base. When one of the bombs drops on a house, Samuel Smith is hit by shrapnel. He dies on the spot. That day Smith and three other civilians are the very first British victims of an air raid.

Samuel Smith’s fate marks the beginning of perhaps the most gruesome part of twentieth century warfare, demoralizing the enemy by bombing its civilians. Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be introduced to these ruthless tactics. Coventry in the heart of England, though,  lent its name in the Second World War to the German verb meaning bombing complete districts: coventrieren. The English call this nightly shower of bombs ‘The Blitz’, referring to the absolute arbitrariness of fate.

Samuel Smith, who provided for his mother and the two orphans she had taken into her home, cannot have been aware of what happened to him that night. The English were totally unprepared for air raids. No sirens went off. No air defence aiming at the skies. No airplanes storming at the bombers. Never before had death come from above.

Hans Fritz, captain of the crew of fifteen of the L3 zeppelin, could freely throw his explosive cargo overboard for ten minutes. At eleven o’clock in the morning he had taken off from home base Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg together with the L4. At half past one in the afternoon the two airships had been spotted over the Dutch coast, after which the L3 started its mission of terror over Great Yarmouth at eight twenty-five at night, English time. Somewhat at random, for navigation did not amount to much in those days.

The L4 had veered northward to dispose of its bombs over King’s Lynn, which is still Norfolk. The four casualties of that day were shared equally by the two airships. Afterwards they quietly floated back to Germany. The next morning Fritz and his men could disembark again at Fuhlsbüttel. But they could not enjoy their freedom very long. When the L3 returns from a new raid on England on 17 February 1915, it is having engine problems when flying over Denmark. An emergency landing on Danish soil follows.The crew escape with their bare lives. Following orders captain Hans Fritz destroys his confidential documents after which he also sets fire to the damaged ship. He and his men are detained by neutral Denmark for the rest of the war.

Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were the first to withstand the zeppelin attacks, but it was not the first time that an airship carried out a military task. Already on 6 August 1914, when the war has been on for two days, a zeppelin takes part in the attack on the Liège belt of fortresses. The Belgian defenders open fire at the airship. The Z-6 manages to escape, but once on the ground the airship is a total loss. Antwerp also becomes the target of a zeppelin raid. At the end of August a missile from a zeppelin hits a hospital. Twelve people are killed.

What would the very old count Ferdinand von Zeppelin have thought of the fact that his invention had been given a new life as ‘instrument of murder from the air’? Von Zeppelin lived to see the first three years of the First World War. The count was struck down by pneumonia in 1917. In the 1870-1871 war he had witnessed how the French used air-balloons for observation and communication. Some had even managed to escape from Paris in the basket underneath such an air-balloon. This made Von Zeppelin think. And in 1895 he was ready to obtain a patent for an airship that was to bear his name.

Its special feature was its rigidity. A zeppelin consists of a lightweight aluminium structure which does not expand, but contains a number of gas-filled bags. Underneath it the gondolas and engines with propellers are suspended. The development of the airship was accompanied  by numerous design faults. The military took their time in realizing the strategic use of airships. Quite a few pleasure trips were already undertaken with zeppelins, when the German army ordered ten of them. They seemed especially suitable for reconnaissance purposes and escorting ships.

There were other countries that possessed airships, but these did not have the same quality as the German zeppelins. Peter Strasser was the biggest advocate in military circles. He was the commanding officer of the airship section which was the responsibility of the navy. He was convinced that using zeppelins as bombers could make a difference in the war. It was the emperor himself who did not want to accept bombardments of English towns for a long time. After all he still had relatives over there. Impressed, however, by the allied air raids on German targets, he would cast this hesitation from him. Already in September 1914 the British had started their first air raid. The zeppelin shelters at Düsseldorf and Cologne were the first target.

In the course of the war the Germans improve their zeppelins. They become bigger, faster and more aerodynamic. The carrying capacity increases, as does the height they can climb to, though the latter achievement produces its own problems. The thin air and extreme cold demand the utmost of the men, high up in their gondolas. Meanwhile the British increasingly get a hold on the deadly airships. With searchlights and tracers they scan the skies. London is protected by a ‘ring of steel’, the first air defence system in history. Fighter planes begin to climb just as high as the zeppelins. And the new incendiary bullet which does not ignite until it has hit its target, proves fatal to the majestic hydrogen-filled cigars.

The zeppelin crew are not to be envied. They are not allowed to carry parachutes: too heavy. So the crew members know that at a given moment they may face the choice, jump overboard or be burned alive. When the most notorious zeppelin commander, Heinrich Mathy, was presented with this dilemma, he answered that he would not find out until the supreme moment. And that moment arrived.

Mathy is the man responsible for the most horrendous zeppelin attack in the war. On 8 September 1915 London mourns the death of 22 people and a million and a half pounds worth of damage because of Mathy’s L13. But to Mathy himself in his latest airship L31, things do not look too good on 1 October 1916. Over London his ship is caught in beams of light, after which second lieutenant William Tempest climbs higher and higher and fires away in his fighter plane until L31 burns ‘like a Chinese lantern’, as Tempest will testify later.

It cannot have come as a surprise to Mathy, who was an ace among zeppelin commanders. Those who maintained not to be haunted by nightmare visions of burning airships, were braggarts, according to Mathy’s account. What tension it must have been to fear that one single moment, high in the sky, where it is terribly cold and mouse-still, the moment that an enemy pilot comes alongside. In October 1916 Mathy made his choice. He jumped over Hertfordshire. There is this famous photograph showing uniformed Brits looking at the contours Mathy’s body made when it hit the ground. He is said to have lived a couple of minutes on that spot.

By then the zeppelin had had its day as a bomber, so much is clear. Peter Strasser will, however, not give up and on behalf of the navy direct his latest zeppelins to perfidious Albion well into 1918. On 5 August 1918 Strasser himself is on board L70, when high over Norfolk it is shot out of the sky.

In the second half of the war it was mainly airplanes, Gothas, which were to cause death and destruction over British towns. The bomb which was dropped on a kindergarten classroom of a school in Upper North Street in London in 1917 left the deepest scar. On a London memorial one can still read the names of the eighteen dead Gotha children, aged five.

There is no memorial for Samuel Smith, though a documentary in the BBC series Timewatch paid attention to him in 2007. A camera crew joined a grandniece and her son to Great Yarmouth cemetery, where their great-uncle was buried. The voice-over says that until recently the relatives did not even know this. In the documentary mother and son first visit the simple grave of Samuel Smith and then the street where he died.

The impact the zeppelins had on the British people can hardly be exaggerated. The British were horrified and indignant, while German children merrily sang: ‘Zeppelin, flieg, Hilf uns im Krieg, Fliege nach Engeland, Engeland wird abgebrannt, Zeppelin flieg!’

But perhaps the morale of the British homefront became indeed stronger because of the German airforce, just as in the next world war the bomb carpets on Dresden and other German towns for which Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible also seemed to have had the same effect. A British poster from the Great War shows a zeppelin above the silhouettes of Big Ben, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. Underneath it says: ‘It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home  by a bomb. Join the army at once and help to stop an air raid. God save the King.’

When the war is over, the Germans are forbidden in Versailles to build any more zeppelins. But already in 1922 the production of zeppelins in Germany starts again, with the American army as a customer. In the interbellum the beau monde chooses zeppelins as their luxurious means of transportation, until the Hindenburg, the biggest airship ever built, crashed in the United States in 1937. The Nazis then see no point in zeppelins any more. Once feared as deadly weapons, they have turned into a historic curiosity.

During World War One the Germans made a total of 159 zeppelin flights that cost 557 lives. One of these was an unmarried cobbler,  of whom we know little more than that one day in January 1915 he wondered what caused the hellish noise out there.

Next week: Franz Hipper

Translation: Peter Veltman

026 Alfred Anderson and the match without a referee

Alfred Anderson

Alfred Anderson

Tommy and Fritz are having Christmas together

It is Sunday 20 December 1914. It is the 26th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In South Africa Boer leader Jopie Fourie is brought in front of a firing squad for high treason.

The Germans do not succeed in crossing the river Bzura in the heart of Poland.

At the end of the Battle of Givenchy the British hold their positions and the French advance towards Noyon.

News about a Romanian revolt in Transylvania appears.

Australian and New Zealand troops arrive in Cairo.

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre launches an offensive in the Champagne after the backwashing battle in Flanders.

An air raid on Dover is a reason for Lord Kitchener to expand the Royal Flying Corps.

The Turks try to penetrate the Caucasus at Sarikamish, after a defeat is inflicted upon them by the Russians at lake Van.

On the west coast of Africa the Portuguese colony of Angola is invaded by German troops.

As Austrian commanding officer on the Balkans Oskar Potiorek has to make way for Archduke Eugen.

And in numerous places on the western front the arms are silent at Christmas, which is an unforgettable event for the Scotsman Alfred Anderson.

In the pitch-darkness of the Great War a small flame flickered for just a moment. At Christmas 1914 the generals on both sides came and quickly blew it out. Men who climbed from their trenches to have a smoke together or play a game of soccer, the war had not started for that.

When the Scotsman Alfred Anderson dies at the age of 109 in 2005, nobody is left to  testify to the Christmas truce of 1914. Nobody is left who had heard the Germans sing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’, and who had heard the shouting: ‘Merry Christmas! We not shoot, you not shoot!’

For just a moment no bullets whistling. No machineguns rattling. No boys either calling out for their mothers, before they died for their country.  ‘I remember the silence’, Anderson would relate in his old age. ‘The eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see.’

They would be at home before the leaves were falling. Or at least before Christmas. That had been promised. And they had believed it. But now it was Christmas and they could unwrap their Christmas bonuses in a trench, where the mud had become hard as concrete. It was a cold Christmas. The German emperor had sent a meerschaum pipe for his soldiers and a box of cigars for his officers. For the British there was a brass box containing a pipe, a lighter, cigarettes and tobacco. For the non-smokers there were some acid tablets, a khaki writing case and a bullet-shaped pencil. But the most important item in the boxes was the photograph of Princess Mary and her best wishes for the new victorious year.

On the box was also the portrait of Mary and the two words written over it for which the boys were suffering from the cold, ‘Imperium Brittannicum’. Mary was the 17-year-old daughter of King George V. Apparently it was her own idea to make a collection among the people for a national Christmas present for the troops. It was a resounding success, though they did not succeed in delivering the Princess Mary Box to each soldier. So after Christmas 1914 the production of it was continued, but the quality of the box was declining. The ammunition factories needed the brass. Besides, a shipment which was ordered in the United States went down with the Lusitania in May 1915.

Alfred Anderson cherished his Princess Mary Box like a gem all his life. In his box there were cigarettes, but as Alfred did not smoke, he gave them  away. Now the box was the place where he could keep the New Testament that his mother had given him.

No other episode has lent itself more for myth formation than the Christmas truce of 1914. Watching a film like ‘Merry Christmas’ from 2005 makes it difficult to keep your eyes dry. In this film the Christmas truce is spoiled by the romance of a German opera singer and his Danish diva. Alfred Anderson will not have been aware of this.

The story of gunner Herbert Smith is more credible. ‘On Christmas Eve there was a lull in the fighting, no firing going on at all after 6 p.m. The Germans had a Christmas tree in the trenches and Chinese lanterns all along the top of a parapet.Eventually the Germans started shouting, “Come over, I want to speak to you.” Our chaps hardly knew how to take this, but one of the ‘nuts’ belonging to the Regiment got out of the trench and started to walk towards the German lines. One of the Germans met him about half-way across, and they shook hands and became quite friendly. In due time the ‘nut’ came back and told the others all about it. So more of them took it in turns to go and visit the Germans. The officer commanding would not allow more than three men at a time. I went out myself on Christmas Day and exchanged some cigarettes for cigars, and this game had been going on from Christmas Eve till midnight on Boxing Day without a single round being fired. The German I met had been a waiter in London and could use our language a little. He says they didn’t want to fight and I think he was telling the truth as we are not getting half so many bullets as usual.’

Lieutenant Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment puts the Christmas truce into words as follows: ‘ I grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy. Later a Scottish soldier appeared with a football which seemed to come from nowhere and a few minutes later a real football match got underway.  The Scots marked their goal mouth with their strange caps and we did the same with ours.  It was far from easy to play on the frozen ground, but we continued, keeping rigorously to the rules, despite the fact that it only lasted an hour and that we had no referee.  A great many of the passes went wide, but all the amateur footballers, although they must have been very tired, played with huge enthusiasm.’  Niemann also says how shocked they were when they saw that the Scots wore nothing under their kilts and that it was their officer who ordered them to end the match after an hour. According to Niemann the final score was ‘three goals to two in favour of Fritz against Tommy’.

They had been friends for one day. A day that they played soccer together, drank, smoked and grieved together for the dead who were rotting away in no man’s land. There is the story of a funeral where Germans and British prayed psalm 23 together: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ ‘Der Herr ist mein Hirte’. In some places the truce had arisen from the mutual need to bury the dead. It was only after fulfilling this sad duty that there was time for fraternisation and merriment.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 spread over large areas of the almost 700-kilometre-long western front, spontaneously. The Pope had called for a Christmas truce a few weeks earlier, but there was nobody who had directed this short-lived period of peace. Nobody had anticipated that a German barber was going to give a British officer a haircut in no man’s land. No impresario came to watch a show presented by a German magician, who had worked in the music halls of London before the war. Except for a few places it remained quiet until the turn of the year, but generally speaking the war just went on right after Christmas, as was arranged in various places. Besides, the mud was defrosting.

The generals learned their lessons from the Christmas Truce. It had taken a while before they finally became aware in their castles behind the front lines of the outrageous reconciliation between their soldiers and those of the enemy. In the following years they started to increase the fighting before Christmas in order to be ahead of new cordialities. A regular changing of the guards prevented contact with the antipodes past no man’s land.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 – for which the French felt far less enthusiasm in their own country than the British – did not repeat itself to such an extent in the Great War. Perhaps the mountain of dead bodies in later years had become too high to shake hands on the peak. Already in 1914 there had been soldiers who cried out against the reconciliation and who kept watch in the trenches while their comrades played soccer. One of these diehards was called Adolf Hitler.

A historian like David Stevenson places the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the context of military disobedience. Stevenson argues that silent truces along the western front were normal practice. No more firing than strictly necessary, sparing areas where the enemy carried off the wounded or replenished supplies, not disturbing breakfast on the other side with the thunder of guns, deliberately aiming too high – all this must have occurred on a large scale. And when a battalion had to go ‘over the top’, chaos was so big that soldiers could easily back out of orders. Stevenson writes: ‘Governments and high commands created the circumstances in which thousands of troops with merciless weaponry were obliged to kill and maim, but they cold not determine the speed and scale of carnage.’


Alfred Anderson backed out of the game of soccer. ‘We did not have a bit of energy left to play football, and we were exhausted by the fighting, by life in the trenches.’ And he continues: ‘We shouted ‘merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merryThe silence ended in the early afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.’

In 1916 the war had ended for Alfred Anderson. Shell fragments gave him his Blighty wound, something every soldier hoped for and some even tried to inflict upon themselves. It was a wound which was serious enough to allow you to go home. ‘Blighty’, a word of Hindu origin, meant something like ‘home sweet home’. When he was recovering at home, Anderson visited the relatives of a comrade who had been killed next to him in the trenches. They would not let him in. When he asked why he was not allowed in, the answer was: ‘Because you’re here and he’s not.’ This was in line with the soldier’s song that brilliantly expressed the meaninglessness of the Great War: ‘We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…’

The sense of guilt never stopped troubling Alfred Anderson. Shortly before he died he told a journalist of The Times: ‘They looked at me as if I should have been left in the mud of France instead of their loved one. I couldn’t blame them, they were grieving, and I still share their grief and bear that feeling of guilt.’

In the Second World War Alfred Anderson served as a sergeant of the Home Guard. He even celebrated his diamond wedding anniversary and when he died he left four children, ten grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

The French granted him the Légion d’Honneur, but Alfred was also the last person to bear the Mons Star, the special medal that was presented to the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, the contemptible little army, which had so bravely fought against the Germans at Mons in August 1914.

After his death Alfred’s children gave a bust of dad to the museum of the Black Watch, the army unit in which he served. The famous truce was never a merry story for him. ‘I’ll give Christmas Day 1914 a brief thought, as I do every year’, he once said. ‘And I’ll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it’s too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad’!

Next week: Enver Pasha

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

025 Sir Alfred Ewing and the principle of hysteresis

Sir Alfred Ewing

Sir Alfred Ewing

British crack German codes

It is Sunday 13 December 1914. It is the 25th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

British submarine captain Norman Holbrook stunts in the Dardanelles. With his B11 he dives under a minefield, sinks a Turkish battleship and manages to escape.

The Serbs recapture their capital Belgrade from the Austrians.

The Battle of Warsaw rages on.

The Turks in Armenia force the Russians into the defensive.

Indian troops attack the Germans at Givenchy.

Bernhard von Bülow, former German Reichskanzler, arrives in Rome for a charm offensive.

In England the conviction of Nicholas Ahlers, a naturalized German, for high treason is annulled because of an error of form.

Hussein I is proclaimed sultan of Egypt, which as a British protectorate no longer belongs to the Ottoman sphere of influence.

The Russians manage to prevent an outbreak of an Austrian garrison from the besieged town of Przemyśl.

And the British seaside towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough are shelled by German warships, despite intelligence from Room 40, which is run by Sir Alfred Ewing.

The code of honour is broken. That is how the British feel it after the attack of Scarborough. This small northern English town nestles against the North Sea coast without any protection. For that reason an attack from the sea is unallowed, at least according to the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907. Yet the Germans blasted Scarborough. Possibly they thought that the small town did possess artillery, but that does not diminish the outrage in Great Britain. The Germans play the war game without obeying the rules. In that case Great Britain is going to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Shelling the Yorkshire coast demanded dozens of lives. It is the first time since Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter in 1667 sailed up the Thames that an enemy killed ‘Brits on British soil’, even unpunished, for admiral Franz von Hipper’s squadron succeeded in reaching their own safe harbour.

It is extra bitter for the British because they were informed in advance of the daring attacks of 15 and 16 December 1914. The code of the Germans themselves had been cracked. Room 40, the extremely secret decoding department of the navy, had already intercepted German messages about a plan of attack on 14 December. However, the fleet that admiral Jellicoe had hurriedly sent towards Von Hipper, was not successful because of the bad weather and blunders of commanding officers. Room 40 must have been swearing loudest about this.


Sir James Alfred Ewing was in charge of the cryptographic whizz kids of Room 40, which was in reality not one room but a series of rooms. He was the soft-spoken son of a Scottish vicar with firm eyebrows underlining his noble forehead. His blue eyes sparkled when he encountered a tough problem that cried out for a clear solution. He had been like that from an early age. In Ewing’s own words: ‘In a family whose chief interests were clerical and literary, I took pleasure in machines and experiments. My scanty pocket money was spent on tools and chemicals. The domestic attic was put at my disposal. It became the scene of hair-raising explosions. There too the domestic cat found herself an unwilling instrument of electrification and a partner in various shocking experiences.’

In Japan he had trained himself for seismology and magnetism to guide the country of the Rising Sun into the modern era as part of the big project of the Meiji dynasty. For science he also explained en passant the principle of hysteresis, a result does not only depend on the size of the cause, but also on the direction in which the cause  is moving. This is a physical principle, but possibly it can also be of use to a historian of World War I.

Back in Scotland Ewing was mainly concerned about living conditions of the very poorest. Among other things he threw himself into improving sewage systems, but he also had one or two things to say about a phenomenon like metal fatigue. His employment at the Admiralty, the authority over the Royal Navy, was another step in his career. He was going to look after the educational programmes there.

After the death of his first wife Ewing remarried in 1912. His bride Ellen was a daughter of his friend and fellow professor John Hopkinson, a mountaineer who had also roused Ewing’s interest in alpinism. On holiday in Switzerland in 1898 Ewing declined an invitation of Hopkinson to go up into the mountains. He felt a little stiff from the climb of the day before. Hopkinson, his son Jack and two of his three daughters would never return. Their bodies were found hanging from ropes under a mountain top.

Ewing was raised to the peerage even before the war. The navy’s intelligence service knocked on Ewing’s door soon after the hostilities started in 1914. They did not know what to do with the intercepted messages which the German radio station Nauen near Berlin had broadcast. Would Ewing be able to make head or tail of it? Well, he had always been fond of solving riddles. Didn’t he win a prize with that at the newspaper when he was a boy?

Ewing entered into a highly successful co-operation with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Reginald William Hall, who was nicknamed ‘Blinker’ because of a tic that made one of his eyes blink like a navy lamp. Hall was the perfect man for the job. He coupled ingenuity to ruthlessness. When a British judge appeared to be very lenient to a German spy, so the story goes, Hall saw to it that the judge’s house was cabled through to the Germans as the location of a factory, after which they made the place part of a bomb flight.


Even a Gyro Gearloose like Ewing needs help from the outside. And he got it from a certain Alexander Szek, born in England, but of Austro-Hungarian descent. Szek was working for a radio station in occupied Brussels and therefore he was an interesting target for the British Secret Service. The question was if Szek was willing to spy for the British. They added that in that case his relatives in London would not have to go to prison. It goes to show that one should not expect too much of ethics in wartime. The intimidated Szek very nervously started to take photos of a German codebook for the British, which could be of use to Room 40. It has never really become clear what happened to Szek. Perhaps the Germans caught him as a spy. Maybe the British got rid of him as a risk factor.

In October 1914 fortune smiles on Ewing. At the Russian embassy they have something that might interest the British. It is a German naval codebook, made heavier with lead, so that in case of danger it could be sent down to the bottom of the sea immediately. But the Russians found the book on the dead body of a German telegraph operator. His corpse was floating in the water after his cruiser Magdeburg had been eliminated in the Baltic Sea by the Russians. The poor man did not have a chance to get rid of the secret book.

The British owe another German codebook to Wilhelm Wassmuss, a sort of German Lawrence of Arabia. Wassmuss the adventurer tried to plan a rebellion against the British in Persia. In an attempt to escape, however, he apparently did not see a chance to take his luggage with him. In this luggage was the diplomatic codebook number 13040.

Together with the Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch, captured by the Australians, and another Verkehrsbuch, which was picked up from the bottom of the English Channel by a British fishing boat, Ewing can start unraveling the German codes and cipher constructions. Are the Germans aware of this? No, they are so pleased with the ingenuity of their coding system that they believe it can not be cracked.

Year in and year out Room 40 can eavesdrop in the bosom of the German war machinery. The powerful radio station near Berlin is essential to the Germans, for the very first act of war of the British had been the destruction of the transatlantic cables of the Germans. In the night of 4 August 1914, shortly after the British ultimatum to the Germans had expired, the British ship Telconia had entered the North Sea. Where the Dutch coast changed into the German coast, the Telconia crew had picked up five German cables from the bottom of the sea and cut through them one by one. Thus Germany was condemned to broadcasting wireless messages, especially with the aim to supply the many U-boats with instructions. The Royal Navy made far less use of radio messages.

The British eagerly prick up their ears in the ether. They possess four receiving stations along the English coast, but Ewing’s men also get their German signs of life from radio amateurs. The biggest problem for Room 40 is not picking up and decoding German messages, but preventing the Germans from finding out about this.

Room 40’s biggest catch is the Zimmermann Telegram, sent to the German ambassador in America on 17 January 1917. Arthur Zimmermann was then Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He linked a daring plan to the decision to resume  unrestricted submarine warfare. The telegram mentioned that the Mexican government could count on German support in case it tried to recapture Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Zimmermann expected president Wilson to throw himself into the war on the side of the allies because of the unrestricted submarine warfare. So it was important to keep America busy at home. This strategy included the intention to have Japan defect. The proposition was to have Mexico make the necessary connections. The Zimmermann Telegram was the dynamite that blew the United States into the Great War. There was no getting away for Wilson. He could no longer remain neutral against a  Germany that was stirring things up behind his back with America’s neighbours.

Historian Barbara Tuchman made a masterly reconstruction of the Zimmermann Telegram. Chapter One starts with the description of the following scene from Room 40. ‘The first message from the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual. The duty officer at British Naval Intelligence twisted open the cartridge and examined the German wireless intercept it contained without noting anything of unusual significance.’ Tuchman unravels step by step how in this message the end of the Great War was concealed.

The decoding of the Zimmermann Telegram is owed to two of Ewing’s devoted code crackers. One is the clergyman William Montgomery, who before the war became known as an expert on the work of St Augustine and as a gifted translator of theological works into German. The other is Nigel de Grey, a shy boy from the publishing trade, who will also join Room 40’s successor Bletchley Park in the Second World War.


Sir Alfred Ewing, the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Whitehall’,  will not be there in 40-45. He died in 1935 after leaving Edinburgh University as Principal six years earlier. In May 1917 he had left Room 40, the heart of British cryptoanalysis.

Next week: Alfred Anderson

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






009 Arthur Machen and the arrows of Agincourt

Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

Legends intoxicate the home front

It is Sunday 23 August 1914. It is the ninth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes and Lorraine rages on.

Japan declares war on Germany.

In the Wallonic town of Dinant 621 citizens, some of whom children, are executed to revenge the alleged firing at German soldiers.

Numerous incunables and historic books go up in flames when the Germans set fire to the university library of the Flemish town of Leuven.

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre has to admit with gnashing teeth to his Minister of War that defence rather than attack should be the motto now.

The Germans capture Sedan, the French town where emperor Napoleon III found his Waterloo in 1870.

The Russians suffer their first major defeat at Tannenberg.

The old general Joseph Gallieni takes on the defence of Paris.

The Austrians are driven back across the Serbian border, but succeed in advancing in Poland.

At sea the British win a victory on the Germans in the Battle of Heligoland, the first naval battle of the war.

The British expeditionary army recovers after the Battle of Mons, where they were divinely helped, at least according to Arthur Machen.

It has rained all night. The battlefield, an open passage between two stretches of wood, is a mud plain. The two armies are waiting. Then the English, who are a considerable minority, take the lead. They loose off a volley of arrows. The provoked French knights storm ahead on their horses. Weighed down by their heavy suits of armour they are defeated by the lightfooted English whose arrows are fired relentlessly. The French are massacred.

No, this is not the First World War. This is the Hundred Years’ War, 25 October 1415, the Battle of Agincourt. The English long bows triumphed over the French who had gone to battle so bravely or foolhardily. Five centuries later in a much greater war this unbridled desire to attack appeared to be in the genes of the French soldier.

In 1914 we also meet the heroic English bowmen again. This time it is not the French but the Germans who are showered by their arrows. Agincourt is now Mons, Bergen in Flemish. Saint George, patron saint of England, has sent the bowmen of Agincourt. ‘Saint George! Saint George!’, the English soldiers called out, while dug in behind the Mons canal. And then they saw them clearly, a long row of figures surrounded by light. Men drawing their bows. Arrows, singing and stinging, accompanied by cries from the throats of the bowmen, flying in clouds to the German hordes.

That is how it must have happened according to the newspapers. Well over a month after the Battle of Mons, Arthur Machen publishes a ‘truthful’ account of the first battle the English have had to fight in the Great War. Machen has a preference for the supernatural and the obscure. He has grown up in Wales, where Celts and Romans created a haze of myths across the scenery. Already in 1890 he published the short story The Great God Pan, which bestseller writer Stephen King years later called ‘perhaps the best horror story in the English language’.

He manages to make his miraculous report of the British-German confrontation at Mons as plausible as possible. Military censorship permitted him to tell the story, Machen states. It is the story of a small English troop of soldiers that has succeeded in resisting a German superior power of heavy artillery. They had abandoned all hope. Machen writes: ‘There comes a moment in a storm at sea people say to one another, “It is at its worst; it can blow no harder,” and then there is a blast ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British trenches.’

And then came a blessing from above in the form of archers, Machen continues. The Germans did not expect this. They suspected that the English had grenades containing an unknown poisongas, as no injuries were found on the bodies of the tens of thousands of Germans that were killed.

Machen published his history of the bowmen in The Evening News, one of Alfred Harmsworth’s newspapers. As Lord Northcliffe Harmsworth was to be a pioneer of British propaganda during the war. Machen, who was the son of an Anglican preacher, also dipped his pen for victory in inflammatory ink.

As The Angels of Mons Machen’s story has lodged in British heritage. The author himself was greatly surprised by this. Already in 1915 he observed that war proved to be a ‘fruitful mother of legends’. When his short story, together with five equally fantastic tales was turned into a book, he apologized in the preface for his little story that had filled a 43-centimeter-column on page three of the paper.

After reading the catastrophic newpaper articles about the retreat of the British, Machen had dreamed up the story of the bowmen, primarily to put his mind at rest.

After that he could not get the genie of the bowmen back into the bottle. Not only in occult circles, but also in churches the story had started to lead a life of its own. The bowmen had sublimated into angels without Machen’s doing. A Lancashire Fusillier had confirmed it to a nurse: ‘It’s true, sister. We all saw it.’

The fact is that the readers were yearning for news from the boys overseas, but the War Office under the command of Lord Kitchener stemmed the tide of this. According to Philip Gibbs, one of the few official war correspondents at the front, the liars experienced golden days under those circumstances. He had to pay the price of heavy censorship.

Where the facts are blurred an intense need arises for metaphysical comfort in the extensive no man’s land between truth and lies. Émile Fayolle, French general, was not exactly free of this either. ‘I am convinced that God will save France again,’ he said, adding his doubts in one subclause: ‘But He will have to take immediate action.’


The British expeditionary army consisted of men with experience at the front. Professional soldiers. Especially in the Boer War fifteen years earlier they had learned how to resist an attack of the infantry. When they were ordered to defend the canal at Mons, they immediately started to take cover. The terrain offered every opportunity. Each building, wall and heap of cinders was used by the English.

In 1964 the BBC produced the 26-part documentary The Great War. In part four an English Mons veteran said: ‘Quite suddenly, out of the blue, we saw cavalry coming towards us. They came out on our right flank. I said: good gracious, it’s Germans.’ The British had Lee-Enfield repeating rifles which could fire fifteen rounds a minute. The German Mauser rifle produced less. At the end of the day 1,600 British were killed against possibly 5,000 Germans. The surviving German novelist Walter Bloem expressed the tragedy as follows: ‘Our first battle is a heavy, an unheard-of heavy defeat, and against the English, the English we laughed at.’

That sounded too fatalistic. The British had delayed the German advance to Paris by one day. Their retreat became a humiliating experience. Sir John French felt cheated by the French general Charles Lanrezac who was forced to beat a hasty retreat, also to the annoyance of his superior Joseph Joffre.

Eleven days earlier the BEF, short for British Expeditionary Force, had landed near Le Havre, Boulogne and Rouen. It was clear to the minister of War, colonial war hero Lord Kitchener, that this professional army should form the centre of a much bigger military force, composed of volunteers. On a poster he pointed his piercing look and forefinger to the nation. The message was ‘Lord Kitchener wants you’.

However, for the time being The Old Contemptibles will have to manage on their own. This nickname is said to have been given to the men of the expeditionary force by no less a person than Wilhelm II himself. In the first month of the war the German emperor, so the story goes, had given his men the order to make short work of the ‘contemptible little’ army of the English.

Sir John French was in supreme command of the BEF. He did not have any idea what was expected of his army, but soon realized that an offensive was out of the question. The French Fifth Army, the one on the far left, was under high pressure on the banks of the river Sambre. General Lanrezac badly needed French’s men on his own left side.

It was corporal Edward Thomas who fired the first British shot on the Western front when on reconnaissance. He did so on behalf of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards near the town of Soignies, Zinnik to the Flemish, on 22 August 1914. Thomas, himself a drummer in his regiment, was not sure if this had been fatal for a German cuirassier on horseback. Later during the war Thomas distinguished himself by removing the shoes of a number of dead German soldiers in a trench and crawling back to his own ranks with these. Thomas was to survive the war, which was certainly not the case with all members of the BEF. Before Thomas had fired the first British shot, one of his comrades had been killed when on patrol. That first British casualty was John Parr.

The Battle of Mons of August 1914 was a relatively small confrontation within the Battle of the Frontiers. To the British it was the opening performance of their war. But in 1918 Mons would also mark the end of the war to the British. On 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, George Ellison was killed there as the last British soldier. He lies buried in Mons opposite John Parr.

A column with a plaque saying First Shot Memorial at Mons is a reminder of the starting shot of corporal Thomas. The restaurant across the street bears a commemorative plaque in honour of the Canadian 117th Battalion which stopped here on the last day of the war. So Mons, which was controlled by the Germans from 1914 till 1918, can be considered as the alpha and omega of the Great War.


Unlike many other writers and journalists Arthur Machen did not fight in the Great War himself. He was past fifty when the First World War broke out. He also lived to see the Second World War from beginning to end. Arthur Machen died in 1947 at the age of 84. His bowmen, that became angels, were of enormous propagandist value to the British. It gave the homefront the feeling that they were not on their own. In this way Machen intentionally or unintentionally contributed to the war effort, with a story which was too good not to be true.

Next week: Alexander von Kluck

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

004 Sir Edward Grey and the charm of birds

Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey

British government hesitates in July crisis

It is Sunday 19 July 1914. It is the fourth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

King George V announces a conference to solve the Home Rule problem for Ireland.

Strikers at St Petersburg throw up barricades against the police.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani prepare to leave Russia.

Austria-Hungary lets this moment coincide with an ultimatum to Serbia. It must comply with ten demands within 48 hours.

After deliberating with big brother Russia Serbia decides to react to the demands as favourably as possible. It promises to take a firm line with anti-Austrian statements and groupings. 

Serbia, however, adds that it cannot comply with one particular demand. It will not allow Austrian government officials to hunt down the assassins of Franz Ferdinand on Serbian territory.

The Austrian ambassador in Serbia returns home and his emperor decides to mobilize.

Military commanders in Germany return prematurely from their summer holidays.

Yet an offer to arbitrate in the Austrian-Serbian conflict is made by the British government in the person of its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey.

When on 23 July 1914 Austria-Hungary burdens the Serbians with an almost impossible ultimatum, in London Sir Edward Grey’s finest hour is supposed to come. Unfortunately the British Foreign Secretary tarries and tarries. Grey is a fervent flyfisher, but now that it comes to the crunch, he casts his bait into the water too late. He ventures to mediate, but neglects to make clear to the fighting cocks on the continent where England itself stands.

Suppose Grey had told France and Russia from the start: ‘Do not count on us, we have our hands full with Ireland ’. Would those two indeed have chosen to turn a blind eye after all while Austria slapped Serbia? Suppose Grey had said to Germany and Austria without hesitation: ‘You will upset the balance in Europe over my dead body. England is solidly behind France and Russia.’ Would Berlin have insisted much more strongly that Vienna should not bring things so much to a head?

He did not pull either scenario from the drawer of his desk. Grey’s indecision eventually cost him his reputation, even though he became especially famous because of that one oneliner. Staring from a window of the Foreign Office on the eve of the Great War, Grey is supposed to have said to a friend in a moment of lucidity: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

There is no British Foreign Secretary who served his Majesty longer than Sir Edward Grey. He took office under prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905 and did not step down until David Lloyd George took over government from that other liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at the end of 1916. No other European foreign minister had such a strong position of power in the preceding years.

Grey, who was a representative of the Liberal Party, descends from a family of office holders, among whom Earl Grey, later well-known because of the tea. Edward is the oldest of a family of seven. He is educated in Winchester and Oxford. In the pre-war years Grey proves to be a competent minister. In 1907 he signs for a détente in the hitherto strained relations of the conservative governments with Russia. For Grey it is certain that Russia is an indispensable factor in European politics for the balance of power. In Central Asia he agrees with the Russians on defining their mutual spheres of influence.

Grey also strengthens the bonds with France. When the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Marchand started an expedition to the upper course of the Nile, he called this an ‘unfriendly act’. But that was in 1895 when Grey was assistant foreign secretary. War with France was then still far from unimaginary. In the new century we see cordiality appear between London and Paris, though Grey as architect sees to it that this Entente Cordiale does not end in a straightjacket for the British, who after all are so attached to their splendid isolation.

In these pre-war days Grey, too, thinks that the greatest threat comes from Germany. He estimates that the Germans are seriously considering an invasion. The British foreign secretary is not unfamiliar with germanophobia. He assumes that during their holidays German officers are strategically mapping the British coasts. Grey’s policies, however, are not aimed at a military conflict with an economically vital Germany. The starting point is ‘containment’: Grey tries to keep Germany under his thumb by isolating it together with other superpowers, France and especially Russia.

His cautious manoeuvres and the resulting military obligations take place in an atmosphere of ‘hush hush’. War prime minister David Lloyd George for example complains in his memoirs about the inadequate intelligence from the Foreign Office during Grey’s term in office. ‘His striking physiognomy with the thin lips, the firmly closed mouth, and the chiselled features gave the impression of cold hammered steel,’ characterizes Lloyd George. ‘Add to this exterior the reticence of speech and the calm level utterance on the rare occasions when he spoke and you were led to expect imperturbable strength in an emergency.’

But Lloyd George painfully makes clear that during the July crisis of 1914 Grey fell short of expectations. Three years earlier, however, Grey had nicely lived up to his promise, when Germany and France collided again about Morocco during the Agadir crisis. The Germans despatched the gunship Panther to North Africa and escalation was imminent. Together with prime minister Asquith Grey preferred to warn Germany using bold language. This proved to be effective. Germany went into its shell. Grey however did not learn his lesson to act accordingly in recurrent matters.

It is generally assumed that Grey, who was cautiousness personified, did not anticipate the danger in that lovely summer of 1914. Great Britain was especially busy with the Home Rule matter: the Irish who want to break away from Great Britain. When during a cabinet meeting the shadow of the July crisis finally fell across the Irish matter, Winston Churchill described this moment as follows: ‘The quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard, reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to the Serbians. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began to fall and grow upon the map of Europe’.

A week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the German ambassador arrives to point out to Grey that tensions might rise considerably. Grey is requested by Germany to admonish Russia to be calm. It is Grey’s choice to play the role of sympathetic mediator who now and then calls out to ‘…take it easy’, whereas he should have banged his fist on the table. Also on 23 July, the crucial day of the Austrian ultimatum, he loses valuable time. Yet he makes an attempt to prolong the 48 hours within which Austria expects Serbia to react, but this message is not received in Vienna.

In Berlin they still rather like Grey’s proposal for international mediation between Russia and Austria. After all it is not the German emperor’s aim to get involved in a large-scale conflict. He only wants to create the conditions for Austria to make short work of Serbia. This variant virtually goes down in history as ‘Halt in Belgrade’. Shortly before midnight of 25 July the German ambassador in London is charged to inform Grey that they are to talk about his mediation plan. Unfortunately Grey has already left London to spend the weekend on his estate.

So the wartrain thunders on and will eventually reach Sir Edward Grey’s station. Without consulting the British cabinet Grey directed some admonishing words, ‘entirely calm but very grave’, to the German ambassador on 29 July. Should the conflict between Austria and Serbia not be ‘localized’, it would not be ‘practicable’  for Great Britain to stay aside. Grey links this with the horrifying prediction that a war would be the ‘greatest catastrophe’ the world has ever seen. It is all too late. From Berlin the emperor and his chancellor are no longer able to assume control in Vienna. Later both Grey and his Russian colleague Serge Sazonov will put the blame for the escalation of the conflict on Germany.

When on 4 August Germany declares war on Belgium, England’s aloofness is also finished.  Grey did not connect Britain’s fate inextricably to Serbia, France or Russia, but Germany should keep its hands off neutral little Belgium. Historically Grey was proved right by a treaty from 1839, which had guaranteed the neutrality of the young Belgian nation. It was also signed Prussia. To Grey this treaty was a matter of honour, but the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is said to have dismissed this during a conversation with the British ambassador as a ‘scrap of paper’. In his memoirs Grey observed that even though the invasion of Belgium had been the reason to participate in war, his own premonition inspired him to help France in the first place.

During the war Grey gradually discovers that foreign policy can hardly withstand military dynamics. He works hard to strengthen the ties with France and Russia. It is agreed that neither of the three will strive for individual peace. You can also hold Grey accountable for the important London Pact of april 1915, according to which Italy sides with the allies. But he misinterprets the political mood in Turkey and Bulgaria who will join with the Central Powers. Neither does he succeed in winning over Greece and Romania for the allied cause fully and in time. His reputation which was so sparkling before the war has begun to do justice to his name, greyish.

When David Lloyd George becomes prime minister in 1916, Grey has to step down as foreign secretary for Arthur Balfour, who used to be prime minister for the Conservatives. That same year Grey joins the House of Lords as Viscount Grey of Fallodon. During the First World War he already makes out a case for the formation of a League of Nations, something which also the American president Woodrow Wilson will start promoting.

A diplomatic mission, which he leads in September 1919 in order to persuade the United States to accept the Treaty of Versailles, fails. Grey is British ambassador in the United States for two years. Meanwhile his eyesight deteriorates. In 1925 his memoirs are published under the title of Twenty-Five Years. In these memoirs he speculates about an English-American-German alliance to guarantee world peace. Another world war is to precede the realisation of this atlantic thought.

Before he dies in 1933 at the age of 71, childless after two marriages, one more important book of his is published: The Charm of Birds. Exactly! The other side of Sir Edward Grey is that of the ornithologist. It is a pity that he did not make a better study of the German eagle.

Next week: Jean Jaurès

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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