How the countdown to the First World War began

PUBLISHED: 13:10 03 August 2014

The Royal norfolk show at Eaton Park in 1914. Picture: EDP LIBRARY

The Royal norfolk show at Eaton Park in 1914. Picture: EDP LIBRARY


It was high summer and the height of the cricket season. In Norfolk, it was the start of Norwich Cricket Week, where the county side ended the first day of their match against Hertfordshire, at Lakenham, with a 99 run lead. In London, meanwhile, fans had spent the day at The Oval, to see Surrey play Nottinghamshire.

Just how many of the fans at either sporting contest that August 3 1914 ever saw another will never be known. For just across the River Thames from the Oval, events in Westminster, and in the corridors of power across the continent, were fast unravelling, sending the world towards war.

In the House of Commons that day, foreign secretary Edward Grey spoke before a packed House of Commons, as German aggression threatened European unity.

Within hours of his speech, Britain was at war, with the continent plunged into the most savage conflict in its history.

Much has been written of the war bringing to an end “the long Edwardian summer” – a period that had stretched from King Edward VII’s ascension to the throne in 1901 and beyond his death in 1910.

One hundred years on, it is easy to envisage a happy, peace-loving Britain, with chaps in boaters relaxing on the Broads, cloth-capped workers enjoying days out at the coast and everyone seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were hurtling towards a ghastly war.

But what was life in Britain like in those months leading up to the war? It is true that some refused to see facts when they were blindingly obvious.

Take Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Sir Arthur Nicholson, for instance. In the first week of May 1914 he said he had never known such calm waters in international affairs.

A few weeks later, Sir Arthur surpassed himself by saying that the June 1914 assassination of Habsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was not likely to lead to anything.

Even as Grey spoke in the House that fateful Bank Holiday, crowds descended on coastal resorts to enjoy the fine weather.

Yet all was not as idyllic as it seemed, and the idea that war broke out, without warning, as a sudden thunderclap in a balmy August is also misleading.

It was already a society wracked by tensions – from the threat of civil war in Ireland to violent struggles of the suffragette movement.

Into this atmosphere, had rippled news of the assassination. Its significance was not lost in Britain, as tensions were gradually ratcheted up throughout July, as European powers moved ever closer to war.

By the end of July, the looming conflict had come to dominate the news, with Britain – watching almost from the sidelines – seemingly powerless to alter the chain of events, its peace initiatives ending in failure.

Duty-bound to preserve Belgian neutrality – threatened by Germany wanting to use it as a route to attack France – and desperate to prevent Germany from dominating Europe, Britain found itself heading for a conflict which was not of its making or seeking.

It meant that, when the country’s declaration of war on Germany came on August 4 it was almost anticlimactic, coming close to midnight, with the expiration of a final ultimatum to Germany to respect Belgian neutrality.

From that point, events moved swiftly. The army grew in size from 386,000 on August 4 to 825,000 by September 9. By then, its men had been fighting and dying for three weeks. The pattern had been set for the next four years.

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