Sunday, 3 August 2014

Leamington and the First World War

This piece on how the outbreak of the First World War was viewed in Leamington was written for the 'On This Day' feature in Leamington FC's programme, but it may have a wider interest.

One hundred years ago the outbreak of the First World War was imminent. Historians disagree about whether what happened was an accidental chain of events that could have been prevented or whether the military alliances that had been cemented across Europe made it inevitable at some point. Once events in Europe developed, it was difficult for Britain to stand aside, given that a long-term objective of British foreign policy had been to prevent any one power being militarily dominant in continental Europe.

There was no doubt that the developments were causing shock in Leamington. The Leamington Spa Courier reported: ‘The telegram exhibited on the news board outside the Courier Office, on Tuesday evening announcing that war had been declared by Austria upon Servia [sic], caused considerable interest. A large number of persons read the news, and many of them stayed to discuss the situation, the one topic being the possibility of England being implicated in the struggle.’

On the preceding Saturday in July 1914, headlines in the Coventry Evening Telegraph announced: ‘War Peril. A Grave European Crisis. A Stern Ultimatum.’ The paper reported, ‘A grave European crisis has arisen in consequence of the Austrian Hungarian Note to Servia. The Dual Monarchy blames Servia for the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and on Friday made ten demands. The demands were framed in the most peremptory language. It was stated that neither delay nor compromise would be allowed by the Vienna Government, and by this evening Servia must acknowledge her faults and promise the reform demanded.’

‘Russia, who regards herself as the protector of the Serbs, was naturally very agitated. The latest telegrams showed there was grave danger of an armed conflict. In well-informed quarters in London, a very grave view was taken of the danger. The view was held this morning that the outcome of the crisis depended mainly, if not entirely, upon the attitude of Russia in her role as protectress of the Serbs.’

The Courier appealed to its readers to ‘Close the ranks!’, to keep calm and not to panic. It stated in an editorial: ‘Cool heads are needed just now. The prospect of a European war on a scale which will draw into insignificance the Great War of a hundred years ago [the Napoleonic Wars] drives every other thought into the background. Even Home Rule – the national peril, which a week ago, was foremost in most minds - is occupying a secondary place in the presence of the declaration of war against Servia by Austria and the consequent international complications. To what extent this war will spread is impossible to estimate at the present moment, but as all Europe is armed to the teeth, and troops are being mobilised by the leading Powers, a false move, or even a wrong word, may bring about a cataclysm.’

‘Under such a strain, is the duty of the British nation to give undivided support to which ever Government happens to be in power, regardless of all party considerations.’ Having expressed prescient doubts about the ability of the prime minister, Mr Asquith, to combine that role with being war minister, the Courier concluded: ‘It is the paramount duty of all His Majesty’s subjects to close ranks so as to be in a position to resist the shock of war.’

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