The Final Countdown to war
How Londoners learned of the declaration of war (Getty Images: http://www.gettyimages.ie/event/august-4th-1914-britain-declares-war-on-germany-2731819
Between the War Office and the Foreign Office, Bertie was ideally placed to observe the increasingly desperate diplomatic exchanges that marked the final countdown. Once Germany declared war on Russia, Bertie wrote, “the entire house of cards fell like ninepins.”
The fact that the final detonation occurred over a Bank Holiday weekend made the whole affair somewhat bizarre to the majority of ordinary Londoners. They finished work on a Friday in the middle of summer, looking forward to a relaxing and sunny weekend – the weather forecast was for blue skies and temperatures in the high seventies – and came back to work on Tuesday morning with the country braced for war. The final declaration of war by Britain upon Germany came at 11pm on the Tuesday evening.
Now read on ...
Saturday 1st August 1914
Foreign Office, Whitehall, London
It really was the most splendid morning. I expected to see the usual summer plethora of promenaders and walkers, girls in summer hats and cool white dresses, and couples walking arm in arm through the Park and the Mall. Strange thing, though, the City was nearly dead: most of the citizens had left via Waterloo, Victoria and Charing Cross for the east and south coasts, to grab some Bank Holiday sunshine and a blast of salt air. I wandered easily over to St. James’s and was back and ensconced in Nicholson’s office, I think, before anyone realised I was gone.
Because, really, when you think about it, everyone had much larger fish to fry that day.
I was dozing in Nicholson’s office about seven that evening, wondering about dragging Harry out for a bite to a really super little Chinese place I knew, when the man himself stormed through the door, his eyes wild, with excitement or fear, I wasn’t quite sure which.
“They’ve done it!” he yelled. “They’ve only been and bloody gone and - and bloody done it!”
Obviously another graduate of the AEF Beauchamp School of Clarity and Communication, and I threw a twist of paper at him and asked him to pipe down and explain himself, fathead.
“Who’s done what, you imbecile?” I probed, fully appreciating the irony of my epithet.
“Germany,” he gulped. “Declared war on Russia!”
Oh my God.
I’m pretty sure that the world didn’t actually stop turning for a few seconds, but it certainly felt as if it did. Wilson’s little parable about Whymper jumped unpleasantly back into my mind, and I had a sudden horrid vision of a group of Russian climbers slipping over the edge of an abyss, roped together to a group of French climbers, and – and –
I closed my mind to the thought. No good to be gained from thinking about that. Harry was in a proper taking, his nerves jangling and jittery after a series of sleepless nights and busy, anxious days. I made him a cup of tea the way I liked it, six sugars, good for the nerves, and slipped on my jacket and headed out by the back stair to report to Wilson. I was trying to sneak out, but by blasted bad luck, I ran into Crowe on the steps, looking jolly put out. He had clocked me, so all I could do was What Ho! him and come over for a few friendly words.
“Beauchamp!” he called. “The very chap!”
Ominous words, you’ll agree, but I gave him my best toad-eating grin and asked him what was up, sir?
“I think you should let General Wilson know – ,“ he started, and on seeing my look of ruptured innocence, he tut-tutted, “Of course I know you’ve been feeding him information, Beauchamp: whole Foreign Office knows it. Let’s face it, man: you’re not the most discrete!”
He had me there, I suppose, and all I could do was surrender with a good grace. So I asked him again: what was up?
“You need to tell General Wilson that the Germans have marched into Luxembourg,” he said, both simple and savage-like.
“Good God!” I cried. “But, if – what – I mean, when – good grief - ?”
“My point exactly,” says he. “Let him know p.d.q., mind,” and he slipped a handwritten note into my hand. I gazed at it as the significance slammed into me like an express train.
“Next stop France, sir?” I asked.
“Next stop France.”
Sunday 2nd August 1914
War Office/Foreign Office, Whitehall, London
By midnight on Saturday, German troops had occupied the entire country of Luxembourg. Not that it really takes much to occupy Luxembourg; two chaps on bicycles could probably do it as easily. No, the main impact of the sudden action was that it brought the Germans to within a whisker of France. If they were going to carry out this kind of lightning war, or “blitz krieg” as Wilson called it, it meant that the whole thing could be over in days let alone weeks.
I remember sitting in Grey’s outer office, feeling a sense of utter powerlessness at the speed and ferocity of the German advance, when the call came through from Brussels. Grey was tied up in Cabinet, Crowe and Henderson were up to their ears in wires, and Nicholson probably grabbing a couple of minutes snooze under his desk. Upshot was, there was no-one to take the call except me, so I grabbed the receiver from the secretary and what ho-ed into it.
“Fanshawe here,” crackled the voice. “Third Secretary in Brussels. To whom am I speaking?”
“Oh – um – Beauchamp here,” says I. “Don’t really work here, just – um – keeping an eye on the shop, don’t you know; kind of seconded over here from the War Office; work with Wilson over there – d’you know him?” I was blithering, I realised it, and the fervent gasping from the other end of the line told me I should just belt up and let the other chap get his word in edgeways.
“Need to get word to the Foreign Secretary, instanter,” he sizzled. “German ambassador here presented his compliments to the Belgian Government and asked them to open their borders to the Imperial German Army. Seems they want to come through Belgium to get to France.”
“But – but,” I havered. “Surely they’re not going to – I mean – gosh!”
“Gosh, exactly,” says he. “Belgian Government is in a right old tizzie now. Who knows what’s going to happen next?”
Who indeed? I thanked him, promised to get word to the decision-makers and retired to chew my nails. I collared Crowe on the way over to the Cabinet Office to try and nab Grey, while the various options went through my mind. Wilson has considered that an attack through Belgium may be possible, but only as a diversion. He said that the main attack would come in Alsace, along the frontier between Germany and France, and accordingly, virtually the entire French army was arranged along France’s eastern border. He also suggested that the Germans may “test” British resolve by trying to go through Belgium. See if they bite, kind of thing. All very confusing, and all very anxious.
Grey stumbled out of the Cabinet meeting and straight back to his desk at the Foreign Office. He remained silent on the walk back, and his retinue, the likes of Crowe and Hardwicke were similarly bottled up. Crowe gave me a muttered summary of the meeting, and the news, depending on your point of view, was not good. I say “depending on your point of view” of course, because for me, it was excellent: the Cabinet had voted down Grey and Asquith’s proposal of military help for France. For Cambon, however, the news was disastrous. He was pacing the outer office when we arrived back, and at first sight of Grey, he button-holed the Foreign Secretary and demanded a report of the meeting. His face fell when he learned of the Cabinet’s decision, and he suddenly looked as if he had aged twenty years.
“I beseech you, Sir Edward,” wailed Cambon. “For the sake of Luxembourg if nothing else; for the sake of all small nations; Britain must mobilise her armies against the Germans.” Grey did his best to calm the volatile Frenchman, but even the meanest intelligence could see that he didn’t have that much up his sleeve.
“Your Excellency,” he faltered, “you must understand our situation. The British public do not want a war. The British Cabinet does not want a war. The British Government does not want a war – “ I suspect he was being a little disingenuous here, given that the neutrals in the Coalition were threatening to bring the Government down if there was any more talk of war. “I, myself, am a great supporter of France – “
“And how do you show this?” spluttered Cambon. “With words, and – and empty phrases; fools’ promises!” He looked across at me significantly. “If Britain abandons France now, in her hour of peril – “ he paused for dramatic effect “ – she will surely be l’Albion perdfide!” He went to storm out of the door, but Grey spoke up again.
“Monsieur l’Ambassadeur,” he began, in a vain attempt at linguistic solidarity, “should the northern coast of your nation be threatened directly, we would feel duty bound to intervene, that is –um – in the event of … “
“Duty bound?” sneered Cambon. “Northern coast? In other words, Mister Grey,” all diplomatic niceties gone, you see, “if Germany threatens our northern ports - the Channel Ports that you depend on for your trade with the rest of Europe – ,” he spat out the words, “ - you will intervene for no other reason than to protect your own narrow economic interests! You have abandoned us!” Grey’s silence told him that he had hit the nail on the head. Cambon looked at him with disgust. “And how soon could you have troops in the Channel Ports, in the event of our needing your assistance?” He was being openly sarcastic now.
“It would take – some time – before – “ Grey lapsed into an awkward silence. Cambon simply nodded, gathered his hat and cane, and swung out the door. Grey stared after him and then dropped his gaze to the floor. He shook his head slowly from side to side as if locked in some internal dialogue. He didn’t even realise I was there, so I sidled out without a sound and closed the door gently after me. I turned to walk down the corridor and nearly leaped through the window when a soft voice spoke at my shoulder.
“Lord Albert,” hisses Cambon. It came as a shock to me to realise that he was waiting in the shadows for me, and I clutched at my chest in sudden distress. “My apologies for surprising you, but I need to know: does Monsieur Grey speak for the whole Government? Are they so set against helping us against the Germans?”
“N-no, it’s not that, really,” I started, once I got my breath back. “The Foreign Secretary is all for sending the army over; and so is the Prime Minister, actually, but – “ I tried to consider how best to explain the bind that the Government was in, and decided just to say it straight. “The Coalition won’t survive if Asquith sends the army over to help France.” He dismissed this with some rudeness, most unusual for him.
“I know, I know all that. Your politicians are the same as our politicians: execrable creatures, unable to see beyond their elected term. What I need to know is, what do they say privately? What do they say about Belgium?”
I considered this for a moment. Again, I had a sudden pang of guilt at the information I was trotting out to a foreigner, even though he was from a friendly country. Although God knows how much longer France would be friendly to Britain if we didn’t stump up to help out.
“Well – the word is – “ I began, and I was suddenly aware that his eyes were locked on me, glittering and hungry. “The word is that the Cabinet will re-think the whole thing if – if – I think the phrase they used was if there was a ‘substantial violation of Belgian neutrality’. In other words – “
“ – in other words,” interrupts Cambon, “if Germany invades Belgium, Britain will fight!” I nodded. That was about it. He looked at me, searching my face and finally said: “Are you certain?” I hastened to reassure him. For one thing, I liked the chap and I took it hard to see him so done in by what appeared to be British intransigence. I knew he was grasping at straws, but wanted to feed him any crumb of information that I thought may be helpful. He was looking past me now, and nodding, as if deep in thought. I fell silent. The quiet between us grew, and I wondered was now a good time to ask him about Mathilde. No, actually, I knew it was a bloody awful time, but I did it anyway. He blinked and shook his head as if waking up.
“Mademoiselle Zeiss?” he murmured. “Indeed. I believe that she is in Brighton at the moment – on business, you understand.” A pause. “I have an idea – “ a brilliant smile lit up his fizz “- I must communicate with her anyway: she will be anxious to learn of – um – your Government’s decision. I am sure that she will be delighted to – ah – to receive you in Brighton.” Receive me, indeed? Gosh, I thought, things are looking up. So of course I gushed at him, bleating my gratitude and my eagerness to see Mathilde again: to take the relationship to another level, so to speak. He laughed, his face clearer and his manner lighter than I had seen for many days, and he popped on his lid and promised me that he would telegraph to me that evening.
“Lord Albert, let me say that it has been my great pleasure to do business with you over the last few difficult weeks.” He pulled out a little card with his address and telephone number and handed it to me. “Should you ever need a friend, you need only call; and Cambon will be at your side!”
“Corks, thanks!” I said, slightly embarrassed at the overly dramatic leave taking, but also extremely gratified at his response. “And me too. What I mean is – “ I stammered, groping for words, but he silenced me with a wave of his hand and hugged me, planting a juicy smacker on each cheek before releasing me.
“Adieu, mon brave!”
And he was gone.
He was as good as his word, though. Later that evening, after staggering home from the War Office for a wash and change of clothes, there was a telegram waiting for me. I ripped it open eagerly, and devoured the few lines. Mathilde was most anxious to meet me, reported Cambon; she hoped that I would be able to travel to Brighton tomorrow; she was staying at the Pavilion Hotel, and would meet me in the foyer at two. Bingo, says I to myself, checking the old watch, no time to lose! and I hared up the stairs to strip off the outer foliage and dip into a basin of soapy water before stopping virtually in mid-leap. I checked the watch again and concluded that I probably didn’t need to rush quite so much. She probably meant two in the afternoon.