The build-up to the First World War as reported in the EDP 100 years ago
11:43 31 July 2014
A European conflict had been predicted for decades – but when it arrived it still took many by surprise, as the pages of the EDP from late July 1914 make clear. TREVOR HEATON reports on the build-up to war.
The two sides seemed as far apart as ever. Growing tensions had reached a point where conflict seemed inevitable, in what had become the number one political issue of the summer of 1914.
Now, even King George V was poised to step in, in a desperate attempt to head off what would inevitably turn into a bloody and brutal war.
He wrote, in a passionate appeal for peace, how “for months” he had watched – with “deep misgivings” – how events had been unfolding. “The trend has been surely and steadily towards an appeal to force...”
Only this conflict was not in mainland Europe, but “at home” – Ireland.
It is just one of the surprising facts that come to light by reading the EDP in the last few days of July. The Austria-Hungarian Empire might be squaring up to its small neighbour Serbia (or ‘Servia’) but that was of little interest for home audiences – we had far more important things on our plate.
By July 22 the growing crisis was too much for Buckingham Palace to ignore. In a remarkable attempt to avoid bloodshed, George V called together eight key players from the Nationalist and Unionist camps to a peace conference at the palace.
The stakes were enormous; both sides had started to draw up plans to fight. The King’s statement had continued: “The cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my peoples.”
His concern was reflected by the mood of the public, which gathered in a great crowd outside the gates for news, their hours of waiting enlivened only by the Changing of the Guard.
After centuries of bitter in-fighting, rebellions and political turmoil in Ireland, the chance of a peaceful disengagement from the rest of Britain seemed as far away as ever. We were on the brink of disaster.
No wonder there was little public inclination to worry too much about the latest crisis in Eastern Europe. After all, we’d been here before. The Balkans (or the ‘Near East of Europe’ as they were sometimes described) had been a powder-keg of conflict for decades. But every time it had looked like things were in danger of exploding, there had been a get-together of the Great Powers, and some sort of status quo had been restored.
Of course, the public and military mood in Austria-Hungary had been turned particularly ugly by the assassination on June 28 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. But if only little Serbia agreed to the demands from Vienna for the plotters to be given up, and the anti-Imperial terror movements to be crushed, then all –surely – could go back to some sort of fragile normality. Couldn’t it?
Whatever the real view was in the corridors of power at Westminster, as far as the media and the general public were concerned this was a matter for which there was ever chance of a solution. The EDP of Wednesday July 22 was confident that, despite Austria-Hungary’s demands being in “resolute language” it still “left the way open for a peaceful settlement”.
In fact, in terms of international news (and column inches) on that day it was far outweighed by serious unrest in Russian, where 100,000 strikers were on the march in St Petersburg. The Serbian crisis merited precisely two paragraphs.
Meriting far more than two paragraphs – more like two pages – was a sensational local story. A Home Office inspector was investigating some strange goings-on in Norwich City Police.
A PC had been dismissed and three inspectors demoted in a murky affair which involved tales of perjury, the framing of suspects and tampered evidence. A superintendent, it was said, had even faked evidence for a burglary.
It would be sensational stuff now – no wonder it was sensational then, taking up page after page each day in late July. Meanwhile, the royal intervention had failed to solve the Irish crisis. On Saturday July 25 the EDP ran the headline ‘Failure!’. The conference had ended in deadlock after four days.
On that day, by 5pm, Serbia had to make its response to its neighbour’s ultimatum. “It is expected Servia will give way to the Austria-Hungarian demands,” the paper confidently reported, but added that the imperial army was on standby. By now the Serbian crisis was taking up a whole column, headlined ‘European war shadow’.
By Monday that shadow had deepened, with the Serbian responses dismissed as ‘unsatisfactory’ by the Austrians. Armies were mobilising in Russian, Germany and Austria.
Monday’s EDP editorial was headlined ‘The brink of war’. “Public attention,” it said, “has been suddenly and dramatically diverted from our own domestic troubles to the greater and more pressing danger that threatens the peace of Europe... It seems as though the Continental war, in awe of which Europe has stood for many years... may be precipitated.”
Elsewhere the story told of ‘A perilous moment’. “All that can said is that war has not yet broken out.”
In Ireland, meanwhile, the spark had ignited. An angry crowd had stoned soldiers of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers near Dublin, which responded with a volley and bayonets. Four civilians were killed and many more injured in what – in a grim foretaste of events later in the century – became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
On Tuesday July 28 the paper reported how foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey had called for Germany, Italy, France and Britain to broker peace efforts to avoid a ‘great catastrophe’. “His statement appears to have had a good effect,” the paper reported.
But by the next day, gloom had returned as Austria declared war on Serbia. “The brighter hopes of the previous day have been extinguished,” the EDP wrote. “The grave announcement we make this morning has opened a chapter of European history the end of which no man can foresee.”
The crisis was again the topic for the leader writer on the Thursday. Britain, it suggested, could still stand aloof from the war. “No interest of this country is involved which would justify the shedding of a single drop of British blood in the quarrel.”
If Germany and France entered the war, it warned, then ‘British guns’ might be required. “These are extreme forebodings. They may not come true. Many more dogs growl than bite.”
Friday July 31 dawned for Norfolk readers with the chilling news of an ‘Ominous message from Berlin’. The crisis was leading to a run on the stock market and a rise in price of food.
There was worse news on Saturday: the Russian forces had mobilised in support of their ally Serbia, and France and Germany were squaring up at their border. “Look where we may,” said the EDP, “it is difficult to find a ray of hope.” The paper doubted that the assassination was the real reason for the conflict; deeper issues were at stake here.
There was one hope, it added: that the run on the banks and stock markets and the imminent harvest would force the countries to the peace table.
It was in vain. On the Sunday the Germans crossed into Luxembourg and hostilities began on the French border; the next day, Germany declared war on France, and Britain pledged to support Belgian neutrality.
On Monday August 3 – what should have been a joyful bank holiday – the EDP gloomily reported: ‘Great War begins’.
“The dreaded blow,” it reported sadly, “has fallen at last.” Britain ordered general mobilisation, and late the next day declared war on Germany. The long-dreaded conflict had begun.
Hindsight makes us fit historic facts into neat little chains of cause and effect: this happened, then this, then this. Looking back, the Great War seems inevitable.
Only – as the now-delicate pages of the EDP makes clear – at the time, at least as far as the general public were concerned anyway, it didn’t seem that way at all. Realisation had arrived, like Sir Edward’s desperate peace mission, too late.
The dogs of war had growled – and bitten.