Monday, August 4, 2014

The Lamps Go Out in Great Britain

Today was a remarkable day of remembrance all across the United Kingdom. After evening vigils, lights were turned off in public places and all were encouraged to observe the hour before 11:00 PM GMT by turning off all lights and leaving only a single lamp or candle burning.

100 year ago today, on August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war against Germany. The previous day, foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey gave his famous speech to the House of Commons revealing England's attitude toward the war on the Continent. His memorable and symbolically prophetic words were the motive of today's observance, when he said, "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

There had been hope that England might maintain neutrality, as statesmen in London and Berlin worked right until the end attempting to reach a settlement regarding the status of Belgium. The British government insisted on upholding the 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, while the Germans insisted that they had no interest in Belgian territory, but that their own (preemptive) defense (strategy) required their troops to pass through Belgium to head off the French before the Russians mobilized. German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg expressed his amazement to the British ambassador that his country was ready to go to war "over a scrap of paper."

The two modern empires had been struggling to find some mode of peaceful coexistence in the first years of the twentieth century even as they sought strategic advantages and economic dominance in European and world trade and manufacturing. Belgian neutrality became England's war cry, though Grey had made it clear in his speech that British interests could not endure a German victory on the Continent. Meanwhile the war party in Berlin, having already used duplicity to egg on the Austrians and light the fires in the East, would now have their way by driving an unconscionably ruthless and destructive path through Belgium.

On the morning of August 5, 1914, England awoke and found herself at war. The players on the field were now complete, and the monstrous game was on.

"Please God it may soon be over," King George V wrote in his diary. Many of the English, convinced that the war would be over by Christmas, rushed to the recruitment offices to volunteer lest they miss their chance for battlefield glory. How terribly wrong they were in their expectations of brevity and of glory.

Indeed, the awful, impossible game was on.