On 2 August, also, Germany sent Belgium a twelve-hour ultimatum, demanding permission to march through their country. The Belgian king, Albert I, refused, and turned to the Treaty of London, which Britain and Germany, among others, had signed in 1839, guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality. Germany had no intention of honouring the treaty, and could not believe that Britain would go to war with a ‘kindred nation’ over what the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, described as little more than a ‘scrap of paper’ signed seventy-five years before. However, for ‘poor little Belgium’, Britain was prepared to do exactly that.
On 3 August, Sir Edward Grey, gazing out from the Foreign Office, remarked, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’
When, on 4 August, Grey sought Germany’s assurance that they would respect the Treaty of London, he received no reply. At 11 pm that day, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Eight days later, on 12 August, it declared war on Austria-Hungary.
Bethmann-Hollweg felt uneasy: ‘We were forced to ignore the rightful protests of the governments of Luxembourg and Belgium. The wrong – I speak openly – the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.’ In other words, once Germany had conquered France and Russia, it would pull out of Luxembourg and Belgium.
On 4 August, a few hours before Great Britain declared war on Germany and thirty-seven days after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, 1.7 million German troops crossed the border into Belgium and began shelling the fortified city of Liège, which lay on the principal route to France.
German ‘Big Bertha’ artillery