Following the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria, there seemed to be little immediate threat to European peace. Churchill continued with his plans to effect economics in the Naval Estimates and a test mobilization of the Third Fleet replaced the usual summer manoeuvres.
On July 24 the Austrian Government issued a stringent ultimatum to Serbia, as a result of which, Churchill wrote his wife, “Europe is trembling on the verge of a general war.”
On 26 July Churchill and the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis Battenberg, cancelled the demobilization of the Third Fleet. Churchill also signalled the Mediterranean Fleet: “European political situation makes war between Triple Alliance and Triple Entente Powers by no means impossible.”
When Germany declared war on Russia, Churchill implemented emergency measures throughout the country, even though these actions were forbidden by the Cabinet. Watchers were placed along the coastline, harbour were cleared, bridges were guarded and all boats were searched. The First Fleet was quietly moved from Portland Head and took up war stations in the North Sea.
In the face of opposition from many admirals including Sir John Jellicoe, the First Lord named Jellicoe to replace Sir George Callaghan as Commander-in- Chief of the Home Fleet on the grounds that the 62-year old Callaghan was not up to the impending challenge. Despite the inopportune timing, Churchill had been thinking of this move for some time and was strongly pressured by Lord Fisher to make the change.
There was considerable division among Cabinet members over how Britain should respond to the crisis. Almost all were opposed to being involved in a Balkan way and 12 of 18 voted against providing aid to France and Russia. But Churchill did not subscribe to this. He believed fervently that Britain’s honour and interests required her to assist France, and Belgium if the latter’s neutrality was threatened.
He had little doubt about where the fault lay. He called Austria “Germany’s idiot ally” and later wrote in The World Crisis that “the Germans had resolved that if war came from any cause, they would take and break France forthwith as its first operation. The German military chiefs burned to give the signal. and were sure of the result. [France] would have begged for mercy in vain. She did not beg.”
His colleagues thought that he relished battle a little too much. Sir Maurice Hankey commented that “Winston Churchill is a man of a totally different type from all his colleagues. He had a real zest for war. If war there must needs be, he at least could enjoy it.” Even the Prime Minister thought that Churchill was a little too bellicose. But there were others who were thankful for his diligence and some of the praise came from rather strange quarters. Lytton Strachey, a member of the pacifist Bloomsbury group, said that “God put us on an island and Winston has given us a navy. It would be absurd to neglect these advantages.”
Churchill recognized his own strengths and weaknesses. He wrote to his wife: “Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity. Yet I wd do my best for peace, and nothing wd induce me wrongfully to strike the blow. I cannot feel that we in this island are in any serious degree responsible for the wave of madness wh has swept the mind of Christendom. No one can measure the consequences. I wondered whether those stupid Kings and Emperors cd not assemble together and revivify kingship by saving the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance.”
After learning of Germany’s declaration of way against Russia, Britain informed France and Germany that Britain would not allow German ships through the English Channel or the North Sea in order to attack France. When Germany ignored Britain’s ultimatum demanding the honouring of Belgian neutrality, the British Government declared war against Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
At 11:00 p.m. on 4 August, the Admiralty signalled all ships and naval establishments: “Commence hostilities against Germany. ” For further reading on this dramatic episode, refer to The World Crisis, Vol. I and the Official Biography Vol. III.
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