Drum-Taps: Monday 27 to Friday 31 July

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On this day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia around noon. Historian Douglas Newton, author of The Darkest Days, writes in the Guardian how "Britain itself was provocative; on 28 July, the fleet was ordered to "War Stations", before news of a Balkan war. The following day its "Warning Telegram" was sent across the empire, two days before the comparable German proclamation." 

On Monday 27 July, war was just wind in the rafters. A week later, on Monday 3 August, Liberal Minister Sir Edward Grey would make the case in the House of Commons for British intervention in a European war. The next day, Britain would declare war. How did it happen that the last great Liberal Cabinet in British history chose war so quickly in 1914?



First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, his First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and the Chief of the Staff, together decided to order the First Fleet north to its war stations at 10am, before the Austria-Hungarian declaration. This decision was made without bringing the matter to the Cabinet, now divided between neutralists and interventionists. With these naval preparations for war, what was the role of the British press?

Below is an extract from The Darkest Days, from the chapter 'Drum-Taps: Monday 27 to Friday 31 July', focussing on the warmongering Conservative press: The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and the Morning Post—and the press barons leading the charge, in particular 'the Chief', Lord Northcliffe. 

Russia is now defending a vital interest. France, who is bound to Russia by alliance, and still more by the necessities of her European situation, and political independence, is compelled to support Russia. England is bound by moral obligations to side with France and Russia, lest the balance of forces on the Continent be upset to her disadvantage and she be left alone to face a dominant Germany. A vital British interest is therefore at stake. The Times, 31 July 1914

Events inside the Cabinet need to be seen in the context of the continuing campaign in the Conservative press for British intervention. The newspapers normally hostile to the government, such as The Times, the Morning Post, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph, raised a clamour for intervention. Their editorials thundered out their demand: Britain must proclaim her resolve to intervene from the moment war ignited in Europe. They barracked for immediate mobilisation, as soon as Britain’s partners did so. In promoting war, the task of the Conservative press was to counsel the people that there were worse things than war – national dishonour, for one. The many veteran spruikers for the Entente went about this task with a ferocious consistency.

The Clamour for Intervention in The Times

As noted previously, from Monday 27 July onward, The Times in particular urged that Europe should be told of Britain’s intentions to join instantly with her ‘friends’, Russia and France, in the event of war. The Times did announce its hopes for peaceful mediation. After all, the plan for an Ambassadors’ Conference had originally been Arthur Nicolson’s, and he was close to Geoffrey Dawson, the chief editor of The Times. Moreover, at first, the Berlin correspondent, J. E. Mackenzie, accepted that Germany was ‘certainly, and no doubt sincerely, working for peace’.

The Times editorial of Tuesday 28 July sided explicitly with Russia. Even if Russian action led to war, Britain still had no alternative but to fight. Localising war was a chimera. War simply could not be confined to the Balkans, The Times argued, ‘if Russia feels constrained to answer the appeal of her Slav kinsmen, as almost certainly she would feel constrained to answer it’. Similarly, Colonel Repington, the military correspondent of The Times, appeared to accept a rolling sequence of mobilisations, kicked off by Russian action, as ‘with a line of tin soldiers’. War was ‘terribly automatic’. ‘We shall all support our friends because we must’, predicted Repington, ‘and in a very short time after a Russian mobilisation is announced it will be a miracle if all Europe is not aflame’. 

As the week unfolded, The Times battered its readers with a noisy advocacy in favour of solidarity with Russia and France. The Times gave unflinching editorial support to the message coming from both the Russian and French embassies in London: if Britain wanted peace, she should announce her absolute loyalty to her ‘friends’. On Wednesday 29 July, The Times argued that ‘the surest way to preserve that peace for which [the British people] long, and perhaps the only way, is to make clear to all that if their friends are forced into such a war England for her part will support them to the full’.

Significantly The Times did not attach any special significance at this stage to the Germans’ decision to decline Grey’s Ambassadors’ Conference. This was not ‘in any sense a rebuff’, argued the editor, for Germany was supporting the Austrian-Russian talks in St Petersburg.

The Times repeated its assurances that in Germany ‘the maintenance of European peace is warmly and honestly desired’. But the very next day The Times repeated arguments for immediate British intervention in the event of war. Preserving the balance of power and the safety of Belgium were both advanced as sufficient considerations. Britain could not afford ‘to see France crushed by Germany, or the balance of power upset against France’. The Times further growled: ‘If France is menaced, or the safety of the Belgian frontier, which we have guaranteed with her and with Prussia by treaties that Mr Gladstone’s government in 1870 confirmed, we shall know how to act’. Britons would ‘strike as one man’.

With this editorial The Times sought to foster the view that Britain was obliged – legally and morally – by diplomatic treaty, to go to war to defend Belgium. This line, advocated eagerly by interventionist politicians, sought to conflate in the public mind the original Treaty of 1839 and the Gladstone treaties of 1870. Of course, Gladstone’s treaties had long expired. The Treaty of 1839 was the only applicable treaty. Therefore, The Times’ description of the Belgian frontier as still ‘guaranteed’ in 1914, in the same sense that it had been ‘guaranteed’ in 1870, could be misleading. The claim that Gladstone had simply ‘confirmed’ this ‘guarantee’ in 1870 was certainly misleading.

It is important also to note that it was news of Russia’s partial mobilisation that brought about a distinct sharpening in tone in the pages of The Times. News of that awesome step had been filtering into London for some days, as noted above, but had not been reported in the press and was not confirmed in parliament by Grey until Thursday 30 July. Steed was given the chance to write an editorial on the subject for The Times of Friday 31 July. He did not hold back:

Russia is now defending a vital interest. France, who is bound to Russia by alliance, and still more by the necessities of her European situation, and political independence, is compelled to support Russia. England is bound by moral obligations to side with France and Russia, lest the balance of forces on the Continent be upset to her disadvantage and she be left alone to face a dominant Germany. A vital British interest is therefore at stake.        

There was not a word urging Russia, or France, to be cautious; there was not a word urging the British government to restrain Russia or France. Rather, Belgium dominated. If the Germans advanced through Belgium, warned Steed, Germany might take Antwerp, Flushing, Dunkirk and Calais and build bases against England. Britain would have to enter the war for ‘the safety of the narrow seas’. It was, therefore, ‘the instinct of self-preservation’ which compelled Britain ‘to be ready to strike with all our force for our own safety and for that of our friends’.

Over the same week Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, based at Carmelite House off Fleet Street, blared out the same message. The alliance system was the first point of reference – Triple Entente versus Triple Alliance. As early as Saturday 25 July, the Daily Mail advocated Britain’s linking arms with Russia and France the moment conflict broke out. But, as the week unfolded, there was a telling addition to the usual arguments: the Liberals were to blame for Britain’s apparent dependence on Russia and France. For it was the Liberals who had failed to spend enough on the Royal Navy, and the Liberals who had funked it over conscription, so that Britain had no massive army to match her navy. So, in this crisis, argued the Daily Mail on Friday 31 July, ‘We must stand by our friends, if for no other and heroic reason, because without their aid we cannot be safe.’

The Men Behind The Times

What lay behind this extraordinary crusade for intervention? Lord Northcliffe, the legendary press baron – 'the Chief ' – directed it from his rooms at The Times building, Printing House Square. His senior writers were in contact with the key men in the Foreign Office and the embassies of the Entente powers, who in turn fed the campaign for intervention with both fact and fiction. Intervention was the essential conviction. Geoffrey Dawson, who had been chief editor of The Times for two years, embraced it. Dawson's keenest allegiance, after all, was to Lord Alfred Milner and his influential Round Table movement, which was devoted to the expansion of the British Empire, hostile to Germany as an imperial rival, and absolutely loyal to the Entente for the sake of the Empire. Equally anti-German and pro-Entente in outlook was Valentine Chirol, the retired former foreign editor. Chirol was a close friend of both Nicolson and Charles Hardinge (Viceroy in India), both zealous promoters of the Entente in Foreign Office circles. According to Chirol, he was able to bring his influence to bear at the paper at this time because Dawson 'made a personal appeal to me to stand by him in this crisis'.

Why were the editorials so stridently pro-interventionist? In part, the cause lay in tensions at The Times. Dawson, the idealistic Milnerite, and Northcliffe, the blunt-speaking tycoon, were impatient with each other. Who ruled at Printing House Square was a contentious question. The sources also show attempts to marginalise Dawson from the story – so that Northcliffe and Steed could share more of the 'glory' for driving Britain toward intervention. Steed, who enjoyed Northcliffe's special esteem, certainly managed to increase his influence at this time, by means of a tragic event. On the evening of Friday 24 July, as Dawson left London for Oxford, his car was involved in 'a ghastly accident' on the Embankment. A child was killed and Dawson was 'much knocked up'. The incident preyed on his mind. But from Oxford, his phone calls over the weekend revealed 'such obvious chaos in P.H.S. [Printing House Square]' that he determined to return quickly. 'N [Northcliffe] had paralysed the office', wrote Dawson on Sunday 26 July, and he arrived at Blackfriars 'just in time to get things straight'. Indeed, 'The Times Editorial Diary' for 1914 recorded Dawson as the overall editor of the edition of Monday 27 July. On that day he was 'v[ery] seedy as the result of overwork and the shock of Friday'. But he had time to touch some of the usual bases, revealing something of the network in London rallying for intervention. For instance, he lunched on Monday at the Travellers Club with Nicolson, the key advocate for intervention among Grey's intimates. He also had 'a weary talk with N[orthcliffe]'.18 Next day, he gave evidence at the inquest into the death of the little boy killed by his car. It was, he wrote, 'a trying time, w[ith] the v[ery] poor, drunken family'. But again Dawson was listed as overall editor of the paper on the Tuesday. So, Steed definitely was not in sole charge of The Times during the week of diplomatic crisis.

It was Dawson who remained the chief guiding light at The Times. By Wednesday 29 July he was back working 'practically all day' at Printing House Square, and glad to find on a visit to the Commons that 'this morning's article had made a great impression'. Only late that day did Dawson leave London for a rest, leaving George Freeman in command of The Times. On Friday 31 July he returned. This time he encountered 'considerable excitement and confusion in the Office' and he found that Steed was especially 'incoherent'. Certainly the sources show tensions between Dawson and Steed, Northcliffe's protégé, and doubtless these tensions had an effect at The Times during that week. Both men were confirmed interventionists. But because they competed for the favour of 'The Chief', an out-and-out Germanophobe and unflinching interventionist, the editorials of The Times grew in vehemence. Whatever the precise stimulus, a whole week of editorials in The Times, penned mostly by Flanagan but shaped by Steed, Dawson, and Northcliffe, bawled for British intervention in solidarity with the Entente.

The Tory Press Falls in Behind The Times

Other leading Conservative newspapers provided solid support for the interventionist case. It is true that in the early days of the crisis Lord Burnham's Daily Telegraph was relatively dispassionate. Burnham's editor, John M. Le Sage, offered no sympathy for Serbia in its quarrel with Austria-Hungary, declaring that Germany was perfectly entitled to help her ally 'in exacting her vengeance' for the assassination.25 The moderation of the paper irritated pro-interventionist firebrands like Leo Amery, who detected in it 'the Jewish influence generally' – a reference to Lord Burnham's ethnicity.

But once Russia's partial mobilisation was publicly known on Thursday 30 July, the Daily Telegraph suddenly altered its stand. The 'Triple Entente' was rediscovered as a sacred cause to which Britain must 'remain faithful'. The following day, Friday 31 July, Le Sage strangely found 'one bright spot' in the fact that it was now 'abundantly clear in foreign capitals that France, Russia and Great Britain mean resolutely to stand shoulder to shoulder, whatever the ultimate cost may be'. The Daily Telegraph wheeled out the old 'necessity of a Balance of Power' to justify British intervention. Britain must 'be loyal to those whom we ask to be loyal to us'. Astonishingly, Russia's chief role in provoking the intensification of the crisis was admitted, without a hint of reproof: 'The whole of the fatal chain of consequences follows from the fact, or the suspicion that Russia is about to take up arms.'

The Morning Post, owned by Lord and Lady Bathurst, was the third of the trio of influential Conservative daily papers. It, too, pressed for a British dash into war. The 'stand by our friends' refrain was repeated in a series of grave editorials. The editor, H. A. ('Taffy') Gwynne, a devout conscriptionist, appealed to Britain's warlike virtues. War was just around the corner; the vital requirement, then, was simultaneous mobilisation: 'If the word mobilisation is pronounced in St Petersburg, Berlin and Paris, it will have to be pronounced in London also.' The Entente was an engagement of honour, to Russia as much as to France. According to Gwynne, Britain was bound by her diplomatic and military conversations – whatever might have been said in parliament about a 'free hand'. On Monday 27 July, frothed Gwynne, 'Engagements, written or unwritten, formal or moral, have been made which cannot now be evaded'.

Lord Astor's Pall Mall Gazette propagated the same message. Here the editor, the intimidating J. L. Garvin, also preached instant intervention. One typical editorial, that of Wednesday 29 July, advised: 'Our duty is clear. We must stand by our friends with the most prompt resolution, and with the whole of our might.'

The passionate advocacy of intervention struck a great many observers as pure delirium – and not just Radicals and Liberals. For example, Sir William Tyrrell, Grey's private secretary, confided in a private note to Arthur Ponsonby on 31 July his personal view that 'the "new style" and line The Times takes make me fairly sick'. This was not so surprising, because Tyrrell was the one man in Grey's constant company who cherished hopes of reconciliation with Germany.

Many in the Radical camp fumed that the press barons had such power to move opinion in this way. Charles Trevelyan recalled that, as the diplomatic crisis of the week worsened, the Northcliffe press 'was beginning to shriek for war'.

Again it is important to stress how early in the crisis this extreme position – instant intervention and immediate mobilisation – was put by the Conservative press. The editorials preaching this line appeared from Monday 27 July. During the next week, only Russia was known to be mobilising. Even at the seat of the Balkan War, Austria-Hungary did not move to a general mobilisation until Friday 31 July. The clamour for Britain's intervention had been running for a whole week in the Tory-aligned newspapers before it became clear that complications between the Great Powers were imminent. In this way did some newspapers grease the Gadarene slope.

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