The 1914 editions of The Spectator in the days surrounding the declaration of war give a sense of bewilderment. At first they couldn’t believe it would happen. After Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalists on 28th June 1914, Austria-Hungary’s handed Serbia a list of demands, which looked like a provocation of war:

It is hard to see how Servia could acquiesce in them without in effect making an admission of guiltiness which she must naturally feel it impossible to make.

But even now, on the 25th July 1914, the magazine was optimistic:

Though it is difficult to regard Austria-Hungary as politically a wise Power or to look upon the statesmen who control her destinies just now as men of foresight, we cannot think it possible that she is intent upon attacking Servia. Hostilities begun on these terms would be almost certain to involve first the rest of the Balkan peninsula and then Europe as a whole. No doubt nations sometimes go mad, but, distracted as Austria-Hungary no doubt is, both by her home and her foreign policy, there is no reason to think that insanity or anything approaching it has fallen on her…We cannot believe that the Emperor Francis Joseph, who, even if his statesmen are wanting in foresight and ability, has plenty of these qualities, will agree to so mad an adventure at the very end of his life. He may let his Government threaten the Servians with war, but we do not believe that he will let them go to war. Even if things look blacker than they do now, we shall feel confident that in the last resort he will intervene in favour of a peaceful solution. We shall not, then, believe in an Austro-Hungarian attack upon Servia, or in the likelihood of Austria-Hungary making diplomatic demands of a kind which the Servians could not possibly agree to, until such an attack and such demands have actually been made.

A week later, though, it seemed more sinister, because Austria Hungary’s demands seemed to be wholly endorsed by Germany.

We can hardly doubt that if the Germans were really taken by surprise by Austria-Hungary’s action, and were anxious for peace, they would long ago have acted as mediators and found some way of preventing Austria-Hungary from provoking Russia to mobilization, while at the same time saving the face of their ally…It is to be feared, however, that Germany was not taken by surprise, but had all along known Austria-Hungary’s intentions and endorsed them, and, further, that Germany believes that it is with her a case of “now or never,” and that she could not get the great war over under conditions more favourable to her than those which present themselves now. If that is Germany’s view, then there can be very little hope, unless, as we have already indicated, Germany can at the eleventh hour be made to feel through the action of Italy that this is not so favourable a time for war as she supposes.

Nevertheless The Spectator still thought war could be avoided, but the options were narrowing; Italy had to abandon its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary:

War can now be stopped only by force or the threat of force, and, by a strange irony, it is the least strong and least populous of the great European Powers which can exercise this force. If, even at the eleventh hour, Italy were to tell her two colleagues in the Triple Alliance that if they did not agree to a peaceful solution of the present crisis she will not only leave the Triple Alliance, but will pass over to the other side, ally herself with the Powers of the Triple Entente, and form with them a Quadruple Alliance in the interests of peace, we believe that Austria-Hungary must yield. In proof of this one has only to think what it would mean for Italy to throw in her lot with the Entente. It would mean that the Italians would move on the Brenner, the Trentino, the Austrian Tyrol, and Trieste, and that Austria-Hungary must either abandon these regions or else wage a war with three fronts—with Servia on her Eastern borders, with Italy on the south, with Russia on the north, while at the same time Roumania attacked Transylvania, and a Franco-British squadron overawed the ‘Arian and Dalmatian coasts. Such pressure Austria-Hungary could not resist.

The British government was doing all it could to prevent Europe descending into war. Sir Edward Grey told the Commons that ‘It must be obvious to any person who reflects upon the situation that the moment the dispute ceases to be one between Austria-Hungary and Servia and becomes one in which another Great Power is involved, it can but end in the greatest catastrophe that has ever befallen the Continent of Europe at one blow; no one can say what would be the limit of the issues that might be raised by such a conflict; the consequences of it, direct and indirect, would be incalculable.’ When Austria-Hungary broke off relations with Serbia, he tried to convene a conference in London between Germany, France, Italy and Britain, but Germany wasn’t interested. He had done all he could, The Spectator said:

In England the Government have been doing the right thing in the right way, that is to say, they have done their very best to stop the war or to minimize its effect, but, at the same time, and with a minimum of provocative action, they have clearly indicated that we do not mean to play a selfish or a narrow part. If the worst comes to the worst we shall stand loyally by our friends and our virtual engagements – a policy dictated alike by honour and by self-interest. It cannot be necessary to add that if we are forced into war it will be no half-hearted effort upon our part, but war waged by land and sea with the utmost vigour, and also with that careful but determined initiative which is the secret of military success. Owing to the great review preliminary to the naval manoeuvres, practically our whole fleet is mobilized. We do not doubt that if a Russian land mobilization is followed by a German mobilization, and that, again, by a French mobilization, our Reserves will also be called out and the Territorial Force embodied, and, further, that an expeditionary force will be equipped and sent to North-Eastern France to co-operate with the French Field Army.

If the great struggle is to come no man can predict its result, but at least we can feel in this country that we have done nothing to provoke the strife and that we shall be fighting in self-preservation and fighting with honour and honesty. We can also feel, though we do not care to dwell upon such a point, that so far as we are concerned the moment is favourable. The Fleet actually mobilized is, we believe, capable of fulfilling all the requirements of the nation. It never was in better heart. The Army is sound and well equipped, if small. It is, indeed, not too much to say that for quality, both of officers and men, it is now the best in the world. The harvest, which is being reaped, is a very bountiful one, and thus if war comes it will find us with our food supplies at the maximum and not the minimum point. August is our high-water mark as June is our low-water mark.

Even before war was declared, it was clear it would be all-out war:

The object of war is to beat the enemy —to win. You cannot have war with a limited liability. You cannot hope for a half-success in war. If you strike at all you must strike with all your strength, whether of heart or hand. You must remember that the half- blow will enrage your enemy just as much as the blow that crushes. Keep out of a quarrel as long as you possibly can, but once at war put every man, every shilling, and every ounce of strength you possess into the fray. Such whole measures may shorten war very materially or may even stop war, a feat which half-hearted blows, like other half-measures, can never achieve.

‘We have no quarrel with Austria-Hungary. We have never in our history been at war with her; we respect her, and the last thing in the world that we desire is that she should commit suicide because Germany has—alas, for the peace of the world—got it into her head that it is a case of “now or never.” That, after all, is why we are on the brink of what may well prove the most appalling war in the history of the world.

It was Britain’s duty to take a hard line, but as an editorial argued, it was also in our interests.

Neither from the point of view of honour and good faith nor from that of national safety is it possible for us to stand out of war if war comes. We will go further and say that, though things look very black as we write, the one chance of peace lies in Germany and Austria-Hungary being made to understand that we are going to stand by Russia and France absolutely and without restriction. At present they do not believe that, but think that we can be cajoled or bullied out of doing our duty. If it is known that there is no chance of such cajolery or bullying being effective, then there is a chance, even at the eleventh hour, that Germany may say to Austria-Hungary: “You have done enough to vindicate your honour and to humiliate Servia—you must withdraw before the final catastrophe. Armageddon is too uncertain to be worth fighting—just now.“’

And by the time the next edition was printed, on the 8th August, the First World War had begun. It was beginning to look like it wasn’t something Europe had muddled its way into, but something that Germany had deliberately created.

We believe Germany made the war, and made it because she feared that unless war came now she might have to give up her strongest national aspiration – the aspiration to be a great World Power, dominant in Europe, with vast dependencies abroad, and able to command the sea…that is what she thinks it worthwhile to have set the world in flames to get. We fully admit that, put out in cold blood, the view we have given of the origin of the war seems incredible. Our defence of it is that at least it does supply the only explanation that has yet been suggested, except that of pure panic, which will meet the facts. Germany does not think of war of a crime, though of course she thinks it a misfortune, and, still further, she thinks of it as an instrument of policy, and not merely as the last resort in a conflict of wills.

‘…If the Germans win, there will be no place left in the world for the little independent nations. They know that they will always have genuine friends and protectors in Britain, not out of policy, but out of the British creed that they have a right to live. Quite apart from our own safety, we ardently desire that they shall continue to exist, because we hold that both in the matter of liberty and moral and intellectual progress they are of the greatest possible use to mankind. We have no desire to see the earth monopolized by some three or four great nations. Free competition is as good in the political as in the economic world….The English view and the German view of war and of world policy, of national independence, and of the maintenance of the system of independent States, have now come into violent conflict. We shall not make any boastful prophecies, but we firmly believe not only that we are in the right, but that we have the power and the will to defend the right, and that in this sign we shall conquer. At any rate, we enter the battle as a nation with a perfectly clear conscience. We are not striving for dominion, nor to deprive any other Power of its just rights or of its independence. We are fighting the good fight of freedom.’

Tags: From the archive, Germany, History, Spectator, World War One