On August 3, 1914, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey gave a speech before Parliament that “proved to be one of those junctures by which people afterward date events,” according to Barbara Tuchman in her magisterial “The Guns of August.”
The dour secretary appeared “pale, haggard and worn,” as he dutifully explained “British interests, British honor and British obligations,” all of which conspired to produce a commitment to defend Belgium against the militarism of the continent’s mightiest power: Imperial Germany.
The issue involved more than the troublesome neutrality of that inconveniently situated little country. A few hours after Grey’s speech, Germany declared war on France, with the full expectation that victory would be achieved “before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” as Kaiser Wilhelm II declared. The day ended with Grey remarking that “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” — words that proved prescient. The gloomy German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke conjured a more farsighted scenario when he exclaimed to a colleague that their country was embarking on “the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.”