Last One Over the Top ...

The Willy-Nicky Telegrams

History has given the world some bizarre examples of diplomatic vapour-locking - the recent Brexit vote in the UK being one in particular. But on the 29th July 1914, a particularly bizarre diplomatic brain-fart was in the offing, if you will pardon the language.  The emperors of Germany and Russia had suddenly woken up (one month after the event) to the political ramifications of the assassination of the Archduke and heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand.

Beseeched (or should that be "besought"?) by their advisers to try and halt the deadly slide to war, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas began telegraphing each other in a bid to use their close relationship (they were first cousins, after all) to soothe a troubled Europe. While Bertie's explanation of the actual text of the telegrams may be somewhat at variance with recorded history, it is nevertheless in keeping with their spirit.

Now read on ...



Tuesday 28th July 1914: Neues Palais, Potsdam

Well, as I suppose you may have guessed by now, nothing came of the Beauchamp Proposal, even though Prince Heinrich left London in high good humour, and reported that Kaiser Wilhelm was delighted with the British royal hopes for peace. The Kaiser has been painted as the villain of the Great War down the generations since 1914, but I believe, and certainly his brother believed, that the crisis blew up beyond his control. He could be blamed for being a little too blasé, and hoofing off on his holliers without paying much attention to matters of state. But then, if blasé-ness is a crime (or indeed, if it‘s even a word), I should be serving consecutive life sentences in Wormwood Scrubs, at least until the 23rd century.

Granted, Wilhelm was not the easiest chap in the world. A tendency to arrogant self-interest, possibly; a disinclination to listen to reasoned argument from his subordinates, maybe; a painful vanity, his withered left arm notwithstanding; an inflated sense of his own ability and importance, definitely. In fact, the very combination of traits to which the vast majority of world leaders and captains of industry aspire. So, was he really the warmonger he was painted? I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why: as Prince Heinrich said, Wilhelm was out of the country, and hurried back when he realised the whole thing was going pear-shaped. He did his utmost best afterwards to pull a peace process together, and if he had a weakness, it was his fervent desire that peace would prevail, which may have blinded him to the cold, dark facts.

A bit like everybody else, in fact.

On Heinrich’s return to Germany, Wilhelm grabbed at the proposal with both hands, and the two men rejoiced at this eleventh hour reprieve. They reckoned that the deal was as good as made, because it would take a total and complete utter moron to reject it.

It did.

That total and complete utter moron, Bethmann, rejected it, without his Kaiser’s knowledge, leaving the royal contingent basking in the false satisfaction that peace was round the corner, while the political contingent were preparing for war.

And just to add an extra tinge of irony to the royal false sense of security, we got news through the Foreign Office at around eleven o’clock that morning that Austria had sent its formal declaration of war to Serbia. The stakes had suddenly got much higher.





Picture the scene: in Berlin, Kaiser Willie is now gnawing at his nails and pacing up and down furiously, racking his brains to think how to stop this awful chain of events. He starts firing off telegrams to his cousin, the Tsar, who fires them back at him. But of course, the righteous posturing and the struggle for the moral high ground, such as it was, blinded them both to common sense and reason. Their communiqués went down in history as the “Willie-Nicky Telegrams”. What do two cousins talk about to each other, when they also happen to be two of the most powerful emperors on the planet?

I envisaged the telegraph dialogue between them going something like this:






















In fact, the Kaiser’s intervention and the sudden ratcheting up of the German diplomatic machine very nearly delivered a peace proposal at this, the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour. Tsar Nicholas had not yet fully mobilised his troops, and it looked as if the Austrians could be appeased; in fact, preliminary talks were arranged and the Russians and the Austrians sitting down together when the news came through that Austrian gunboats on the River Danube had begun to shell Belgrade. Not surprisingly, the peace talks also went up in smoke.

Meanwhile, in Whitehall, Harry Nicholson and I slipped into a routine of cosy domesticity, sharing an office during our waking hours and taking turns sleeping in the chair on the few precious moments we could grab some sleep over the next few nights. I think the one thing that kept me going was a supreme faith in British diplomacy, but not in a good way: I felt that if we didn’t sort the mess out, at least we wouldn’t have to be in the middle of it.

Because all the talk from the endless Cabinet meetings now was of neutrality: despite strong voices from the Opposition, and powerful Government characters like Asquith himself, there was deadlock on the idea of sending an army to support France. Like it or not, France was going to be the choice target for the German Empire. Cambon knew this, and his visits to the Foreign Office became more distrait and more heart-rending; I was embarrassed to meet him now, as our Government seemed to be leaving the French nation alone to fight off the wolves. Yes, I know it’s not as simple as all that, but still…

Unfortunately, Cambon had run slap bang into a wall of political pragmatism. The coalition government in London was holding on to power by its fingernails, and it was only with the support of a loose coalition comprising a number of neutrals and some Irish nationalists that Asquith could get anything done in the House. With the heat of war blowing in their faces, the war-neutrals threatened to withhold their support for the Government if they sent the army to war, and this could have brought down the Government with an almighty crash. The Cabinet voted not to send the BEF to France.

Grey then button-holed Lichnowsky and told Germany to keep their bally hands off France, or else – or else – what? Would Britain actually go to war with Germany? This was the question that was tearing the Cabinet apart; the question over which Grey was losing both hair and sleep (both precious commodities); the question that now had the French seething with rage at the thought that Britain was leaving them high and dry; the question that the Kaiser would have given half of his Empire to know the answer. The rest of the day was spent in the endless back-and-forth, and then that evening, the inevitable news seeped through that Russia was mobilising for war.: the Bear had woken and was sharpening its claws.





I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.


I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.

I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.

I think that, as life is action and passion, we should share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived at all.