Published On: Fri, Feb 1st, 2019

Leading to World War I from behind: Britain’s neutrality tease, and smokescreen over Russian mobilisation

In this, the latest article in a continuing if slightly irregularly published series looking at an orthodox history of the events leading to the start of World War I from a post-9/11 perspective, we examine how the British misdirected Germany into war by posing as a potential non-participant. On the other hand, the Russians, who were planning to use hostilities to seize Ottoman territory to guarantee trading routes into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, depended on, and therefore expected, British participation on the very first day of the war – a relation properly understood as British manipulation of Russian ambition to provide the ignition for war. A British assurance to the Russians must have been in place, even as London pretended to the Germans that it could be neutral in an impending conflict between the two. In fact mutually crucial, one to the other, the key to all the British deception was the quietness of Russia’s mobilisation: duly, the Russians had an official policy to make it that way, while the British assisted by giving the Germans the appearance of not having any knowledge, nor even of being suspicious that one might be taking place. Later, while the British would tell Germany that it would be responsible for a war between Austria and Russia, no such equivalent warning was given to France about its ally. Even an orthodox history book, like Sean McMeekin’s July 1914, Countdown to War [Icon Books, 2014] (which has been the source for this series of articles), cannot ignore the clear bias of the British. However, it takes a post-9/11 perspective to dismiss all the excuses made, by orthodox history, for this and other glaring inadvertent revelations that tell the real story.

When Austria served Serbia an ultimatum on 23rd July, it was an act appearing to offer a diplomatic solution, but so severe were the terms that the Serbs would surely decline – and this was the hope in Vienna: the Austrians thought that some kind of retribution should be exacted against those it held responsible for the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (which didn’t necessarily run to permanent occupation of Serbia). The Germans were of the same mind, and wanted a resolution swiftly. Germany considered this necessary to prevent the conflict from spreading: she felt that the problem deserved a localised solution.  Although Germany’s position extrapolated into support for Austrian aggression, the Kaiser, for one, had not necessarily been anti-Serbian during recent years of turmoil in the Balkans. However, now the Germans were prepared to back Austria against the thorn in its side as a measure to dissuade Russian intervention in support of Serbia.

While large portions of the Austrian army was on a holiday leave, this wasn’t as much a cause for a delay in realising Vienna’s ambitions as was the caution of the Hungarian minister-president, Tisza, who was keen to make sure that his side couldn’t be seen as unmitigated aggressors: this caution forms the background to the genesis of the ultimatum. When ready, the Austrians wanted to deliver the ultimatum when France and Russia were least able to confer for a response; this was deemed to be after a visit to St Petersburg by the French president, Poincare. However, despite a good deal of secrecy around the production of the ultimatum, the British ambassador to Austria, De Bunsen, found out about it (and don’t automatically believe the story that a bumbling Austrian ex-diplomat blabbed it over dinner at the British ambassador’s residence). On 16th July, De Bunsen reported to Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, that

a kind of indictment is being prepared against the Serbian Government for alleged complicity in the conspiracy which led to the assassination of the Archduke (p127)

Official history would have us believe that De Bunsen unsuccessfully probed the Austrian foreign minister, Berchtold, for confirmation, and then London dropped the issue: “British incuriosity”. The glossing-over of British culpability in the official history extends to the way the that the Russians were informed, with De Bunsen merely giving Shebeko, the Russian ambassador in Vienna, “the gist” of the story – as if some small hint had been dropped. Arguably, the British spoiled the Austrians’ chances of a limited set-to in Serbia, and increased the chances of a Europe-wide conflagration. Indeed, the situation had been created whereby Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, and Buchanan, the British ambassador to Moscow, were able to discuss the prospect of military action in response to the ultimatum 24-hours before the Tsar hosted Poincare to confer about a coming war (the 19th), and five days before the document itself was served (the 23rd). On the day after Austria delivered the ultimatum to Serbia, Russia began mobilising its armed forces. It was called a period preparatory to war, and was nominally directed towards Austria (mobilising solely with a view to deal with Serbia) so that aggression towards Germany could be a deniable activity. Indicating that the Russians planned for a larger conflict, the Black Sea fleet was also made ready (which could have nothing to do with Austria). Indeed, a few months earlier on February 19th, Russia’s military held a war-planning conference, with the country’s leading generals, admirals and diplomats in attendance. The meat of the discussions was reflected on the title of the conference: “Possibility of the Straits Question Being Opened Even Quite Possibly in the Near Future” (p60). As has been mentioned over again in this article series, Russia would take advantage of a European conflict to seize Constantinople. Moreover, gold reserves were ordered to be returned from Berlin. This was on day one – indicating that there was an anticipation that Russia was going to war with Germany. With three potential adversaries, Austria, the Ottomans, and Germany – who would be too hot for France to handle on the western front alone – there surely can be no question that Russia could only move safe in the knowledge of prior British assurances.

Russia had a problem stemming from the fact that her mobilisation would take longer than her rival to the west; it was a disadvantage that had to be overtaken in the manner of the escalation to war. First of all there was the use of pseudonyms which were basically used as smoke screen. When Russia was holding pre-war internal meetings that strategized “partial mobilisation” – the idea that Russian Poland would not be militarised in the event of conflict with Austria so as not to be seen to threaten Germany – some people pointed out the obvious problem. The chairman of the Coucil of Minister, Kokovstov observed that

no matter what we chose to call the projected measures, a mobilisation remained a mobilisation, to be countered by our adversaries with actual war” (p179).

So, the danger was that, seeing any mobilisation as a threat, Germany would activate to retain its advantage. More was needed. And the part that the British ambassador to Moscow and the British Foreign Minister (and his undersecretary, Nicolson) played in disguising the Russian escalation of military readiness appears to have been crucial. It is yet another indicator of British pre-knowledge and support of Russian movement to war. In fact, there are so many indicators.

Just over a month before the abovementioned military conference, Sazonov, convened an emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers. There was talk of a “naked” (p69) and deliberate provocation of a European conflict, and the question arose regarding Russia’s fitness to fight Germany (who were working with the Ottomans to reinforce the latter’s hold on the Constantinople Straits). A resolution issuing from the meeting made it clear that Russia could risk war over the Straits only if “the active participation of both France and England in joint measures were… assured”. It is clear that the Russians knew that they couldn’t even think about starting a war with Germany unless Britain was on their side. Sazonov, who comes across as being as thick as thieves with Buchannan, was personally confident that Britain would intervene.

Britain’s chief role in secretive Russian war-preparation was to play it down. We know that there was an appreciation by the Russians that such a task, amongst a package of diplomatic tricks, was necessary. In November 1912, a secret military commission reported to War Minister Sukhomlinov that

it will be advantageous to compete concentration without beginning hostilities, in order not to deprive the enemy irrevocably of the hope that war can still be avoided. Our measures for this must be masked by clever diplomatic negotiations, in order to lull to sleep as much as possible the enemies fears (p193).

As things played out, it was undoubtedly the British who the Germans looked to the most for the arrival of a negotiated arrangement. In the end, even when they were sure that war was inevitable, Britain’s approaches could not be refused because of how it would look to English public opinion† – which all sides appeared to understand could be a power to prevent Britain fighting in a war. Indeed, Buchannan, in one of his public dispatches to Grey that “so signally failed to inform London about what was going on in Russia” (p247), gave the same weight of importance to the same thing in regards Britain’s cause:

The German Government must be saddled with al the responsibility and initiative. English opinion will accept the idea of intervening in the present war only if Germany is indisputably the aggressor” (p248).

Early doors, the Germans were convinced of absolute British neutrality – never dreaming that the Atlantic-oriented nation would want to get involved in an essentially Central European conflict. This framed the Germans’ calculations regarding a series of potential scenarios of escalating danger, all of which the Germans were confident would not involve a fatal risk. At the bottom level, it was felt that Russia would not involve herself in Austrian aggression against Serbia because of the nature of the provocation against Austria: the regicide. The worst case was war with France and Russia, but it was felt that neither were prepared for a war.

We can see some of this thinking telegraphed to the Austrians through their ambassador in Berlin, Count Szogyeny, who spoke for “both H.M. Kaiser Wilhelm and all other responsible personages” in saying “it is no means certain that… Russia would resort to arms [in support of Serbia] [and] the German government further believes it has sure indicators that England at the present moment would not join a war over a Balkan country, even should this lead to a passage of arms with Russia and eventually even with France” (p120).

It wasn’t until late on in July 1914, the 27th to be exact, that Bethmann, the German foreign minister, started to include Britain in the calculations. According to McMeekin, Bethmann thought that a conflict against Russia and France – a winnable prospect for Germany – would humiliate the latter, and weaken the former, while also strengthening Austria. However, “the odds against Germany winning… [a world war involving Britain] would be almost insurmountable” (p234). The difference that British neutrality made to German considerations is as plain as night and day. It would be no wonder if British neutrality became an issue of German wishful thinking – something that the British could use to their advantage.

Indeed, Britain proved to be very successful in stringing the Germans along with pretences of neutrality. This game also involved the glossing over of Russian aggression. Buchannan reported back to Grey that Sazonov had assured him “that Russia had no aggressive intentions, and she would take no action until it was forced on her”, although Buchannan was told at the same time that “necessary preliminary preparations for mobilisation would, however, begin at once” (p194/195). Such reports, however, would transmit to the German ambassador in London, Lichnowsky, as denials of any knowledge. Sure, Buchannan would also tell Grey that he had told Sazanov that Britain could not endorse Russia’s mobilisation, but this sort of stuff, across official channels, was obviously for the preservation of the cover story on the record, thus – and just as importantly –  to appear neutral for posterity

Performing the other part of Britain’s essential role, Grey would be the source of suggested mediation to avoid war – with a bit more stick finally thrown in with the carrot of neutrality: Grey told Lichnowsky that he would hold Berlin responsible if there was “an Austrian passage of arms with Serbia” (p233). Lichnowsky, an Anglophile and most reluctant to see British hostility, was played like a banjo, reporting with “uncharacteristically sharp tone” back to Bethmann (who had staked his career on rapprochement with Britain) that a completely undesirable worst case scenario was quite possible. Obviously, Grey was impressing upon Germany her great responsibility to negotiations because it was what the policy of misdirection required. In terms of the German calculations, Grey was serving to remind that if the war started that Germany thought it could win, Britain would enter to make sure she didn’t. In truth, it was a blatant declaration of Britain’s bias, and yet her posturing somehow continued right down to the wire, with devices to prevent German wakefulness in the face of some very overt provocation:

By Saturday [1st August], Russia’s mobilisation was so far advanced that German reconnaissance could identify specific Russian units in order battle. At four PM, Falkenhayn, the Prussian minister of war, unsure why mobilisation still had not been declared. (p341)

At this point, the Germans had already sent the Russians “a twelve-hour ultimatum to rescind her general mobilisation and demobilise… failing which Germany would be forced to mobilise herself”. The deadline had expired noon of the 1st; it wasn’t until five PM, Central European time, that the German sovereign signed the order to mobilise.

And moments after this, the Germans received a communication with an offer from Grey, via Lichnowsky (which had actually arrived close to noon, and had been in the process of being decoded)

In the event of our not attacking France, England too would remain neutral and would guarantee France’s passivity. (p341)

The Germans immediately started to rethink their mobilisation with a view to dealing with Russia alone – an order was made to halt an imminent march into Luxembourg (to secure German-run railways from the French). About eight PM, a telegram from Lichnowsky reported that he had news of a cabinet meeting, and

Sir E Grey has made an offer this afternoon for the neutrality of England, even in the case that we make war with Russia as well as with France. (p345)

The Kaiser was jubilant at receiving this news (ordering champagne for everyone); it was obviously another length of string to lead the Germans off the scent. Evidently unbeknownst to Lichnowsky, and to the British, Germany had already declared war on Russia in a sealed dispatch sent at 12.57pm – this was the development that Britain evidently yet wanted to delay. Tellingly, the declaration was not received by the Russians until 5pm, and Grey’s conveyed messages had arrived in Germany before that – and before an official state of war existed between Russia and Germany. Later, the Germans would receive another telegram from the British to explain that they should not have misunderstood the earlier communiqués – meaning the content was not genuinely meant – and the official history excused Grey “who had not really thought through what it meant to ‘guarantee the passivity of France’”. However, it is quite clear what this incident represented. The British, having failed to stall the Germans any longer, felt no need to pretend anymore.

After receiving Germany’s declaration of war, Sazonov took himself off to dine with Buchannan and the French ambassador, Paleologue. No doubt any self-congratulations for a job well done exchanged between members of this party didn’t make themselves known in Buchannan’s communications to Grey.


† Theoretically, public opinion has always been quite easy to manipulate as long as a mass media has been available to tell the public what its opinion is. Of course, and even before the internet, there has always been a danger that the public would find reality quite different to what the newsreel, newspaper, radio or television has been telling them, and it is this realisation of a separation that is, arguably, probably more disruptive for government than public opinion simply disagrees – which would explain why forming public opinion has always been about lying convincingly rather than persuading to a point of view.

In any case, in this situation, the Germans would surely be thinking in terms of making it as hard as possible for the British Government to demonise them in its propaganda.



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