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England's stance on Belgian neutrality


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#1 BPJermyn

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 05:20 PM

Spurred by Stuart's question on the Schlieffen Plan why was England so firm on protecting Belgian's neutrality and honoring their old assurance to them to come to their aid if ever attacked?

Did they think the war would be over quickly; that their entry would make the German's back down?

And on the other side what made the German's think that England would not honor their treaty to protect Belgium?

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#2 Alan Tucker

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 06:27 PM

It was the convenient excuse/cover story for the war - fighting for 'poor little Belgium'. The reality was that our security could not countenance Germany on the English Channel.

#3 stuartd

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 06:31 PM

Going back to the Elizabethan period and beyond it had always been part of English foreing policy that northern France and the Low Countries were a 'dagger pointed at the heart of England' and that no enemy power should occupy those areas and therefore directly menace England which is only a hop, skip and a jump away. English operations there in the 1790s were to this effect. Thus when Germany invaded neutral Belgium, Britain had to act for the above reasons as per the 1839 Treaty of London (which the Germans had signed too).

I'm not sure that they thought the war would be over quickly - certainly not Kitchener and Haig, but Britain felt morally bound to support their one main ally (France) and could not stand aside and see them defeated. It wasn't to do with thinking the Germans woiuld back down, but to help make sure the French weren't crushed.

In answer to the last question, I'm really not sure. I sometimes think of it today in terms of would Britain in 2012 honour a treaty signed 75 years ago? After all war broke out in 1914 and the treaty dated to the distant past of 1839!

Just my thoughts.

#4 MichaelBully

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 08:57 PM

I tried researching this matter a few years ago. a bit rusty.
Alan, tend to agree. German invasion of Belgium was great for raising political and popular support for British participation in the war. If Germany had not done so, it might have been a lot harder. Though there seemed to be a greater affinity developing between France and Britain, a convergence of military and political interests , France being allied to Czarist Russia was a liability. There was anti-Russian feeling on both the political Left and Right in Britain.
But I don't think Britain could have tolerated German navy action against France's north coast. Or British ships being stopped by German naval ships if Germany blockaded the French coasts.
So after a while Britain and Germany would have clashed without Germany's invasion of Belgium.

Stuart d, To be pedantic it was Prussia who signed the 1839 treaty rather than Germany, though the Prussian ascendancy was crucial for the united Germay. The 1839 treaty was concluded to prevent a possible invasion of Belgium, the most likely suspects being France or The Netherlands rather than Prussia. It was these discrepancies could be played on by Germany.
How long treaties effectively last is a good point. I recall reading somewhere that Britain is obliged via some treaty to give military assistance to Sweden if Russia invades ! In the 1880's there was some dicussion in Britain whether the 1839 Treaty was still valid.

#5 truthergw

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 09:02 PM

Surely no excuses are required for a country meeting its obligations under a treaty? Britain was required to provide armed assistance if Belgium was invaded as was France. Holland and Belgium were brought into being as neutral states in order to ensure the balance of power in Europe. That was seen as in every body's interest. Certainly the invasion of Belgium was used to persuade those members of the Cabinet who were against going to war. So were the conversations which had been held between French and British staffs. It was not in Britain's interests to allow Germany to conquer France and Belgium. That would have given Germany a power base and access to the North Sea and Atlantic which would have been insuperable.

#6 stuartd

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 10:59 PM

Isn't Britain's current oldest treaty still in force a 17th alliance with Portugal?

#7 hazel clark

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 12:34 AM

Also, in retrospect, the Germans' behaviour in Belgium,( although possibly exaggerated), would have given Britain pause, since they could very likely have conquered the whole of Europe. Sounds like the Russian army, even discounting the social and political problems, was not the greatest except in numbers. Britain could have ended up isolated with an aggressive conqueror just across the Channel. Britain would have had to go to war eventually, and it was probably better that it was sooner rather than later. The Cabinet was given an "out" when it became obvious that Germany was not just going to tiptoe through the eastern one third of Belgium.

Hazel C.

Surely no excuses are required for a country meeting its obligations under a treaty? Britain was required to provide armed assistance if Belgium was invaded as was France. Holland and Belgium were brought into being as neutral states in order to ensure the balance of power in Europe. That was seen as in every body's interest. Certainly the invasion of Belgium was used to persuade those members of the Cabinet who were against going to war. So were the conversations which had been held between French and British staffs. It was not in Britain's interests to allow Germany to conquer France and Belgium. That would have given Germany a power base and access to the North Sea and Atlantic which would have been insuperable.



#8 Marilyne

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 11:41 AM

If I may shed some light on the question of how long a treaty is valid. Might be important for yhis question but also for others.
According to treaty law, a treaty (or convention) stays valid as long as there is nothing else replacing it or annuling it.

Modern treaties are signed for a short duration and cease to be valid at a certain date, given by the treaty. If not specified, there are three possibilities for a party to a treaty to stop its application:
  • a party to the treaty can denunciate it (regulations for this are often given by the treaty)
  • If the treay is violated by one of the parties, it can be suspended by another party (like a breach of contract)
  • Fundamental change of circumstances, meaning the appearance of circumstances that did not exist when signing the contract (VERY rare)
Other things that can happen to a treaty is that an international armed conflict emerges. During the conflict, treaties can de suspended, but not necessarily suppressed. Last but not least, the treaty may become invalid by the emergence of rule of ius cogens (an imperative rule of law) on the matter.

Concerning the point that Prussia signed and not Germany, I have to point out to the principles of State succession: When the german empire was created in 1871, it's executive power remained withe the king of Prussia as Kaiser, which could mean (that's an international public law theory) that the German empire is the successor of Prussia and thus takes over all of Prussia's obligations with regard to international law. In which case, Germany was bound by the 1839 treaty when invading Belgium (even if Bismarck called it "un chiffon")

Concerning the 1839 treaty itself, there are in fact 2: the first one, comprising 24 articles, defining the borders of Belgium and stating, in article 7, its neutrality. This treaty has been ratified by Belgium and the Netherlands. At the same time, another treaty, containing only 4 articles, was ratified by France, Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain. it reads: [ces articles] sont considérés comme ayant la même force et valeur que s'ils étaient insérés textuellement dans le présent acte ; et qu'ils se trouvent ainsi placés sous la garantie de leurs dites Majestés. Meaning that the first treaty has on these staes the same valour as for Belgium and the Netherlands.

So to sum up: the 1839 treaty was still valid in 1914, following the basic principle of treaty law: Pacta sunt servanda. Germany, as a successor to Prussia, violated this treaty by invading Belgium. Simple fact of international law.

Hope I did not bore you... occasion was just too beautiful to get back to my books ...

references:
AUST, A. Modern treaty Law and practice, Cambridge university press, 2002
THOMAS, BRULS & MINGOU: Droit International Public, P



#9 Marilyne

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 11:44 AM

... and then I hit the wrong button ...

References, continued:
THOMAS, BRULS & MINGOU: Droit International Public, Partie I, RMA, 2010
DAVID: Code de Droit international public, ULB, 2008

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#10 OpsMajor

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 11:58 AM

Talking of the longevity of treaties/declarations - did I read somewhere that Berwick (town in northern England) is still at war with Russia?
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#11 TRAJAN

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 02:00 PM

... did I read somewhere that Berwick (town in northern England) is still at war with Russia?Mike


You mean, of course the town in the extreme north-east of England, on t'other side of the Tweed, and which many of the inhabitants thereof wish was actually in the northern neighnbour? (think prescrioption charges, univ fees, etc.!)

Someone much more erudite on this matter will come along, but for now, yes until (I think) sometime in the 20th century and no, not now. Wasn't it one of those anomalies that got cleared up in the 1960's? Along with being legally able to kill a Welshman in some part of Herefordshire, and receive a silver shilling in return for the ears of said Welshman? Or is that a suburban myth???!!!

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#12 truthergw

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 02:11 PM

Talking of the longevity of treaties/declarations - did I read somewhere that Berwick (town in northern England) is still at war with Russia?
Mike



Quite possibly but it is pure unadulterated rubbish. No town could declare war so no town could reman at war when the country signs a peace treaty.

#13 stuartd

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 02:17 PM

Marilyne can I thank you for your fascinating contribution which sheds some very interesting light on how long international treaties are valid for.

#14 Alan Tucker

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 02:55 PM

Any treaty is probably not worth the paper it is written on. It comes down to the circumstances when it is needed. If at that time it is not in a country's national interest then it goes out the window. Example - French guarantees to the successor states post-1918.

#15 truthergw

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 03:08 PM

As you say, it is the duty of a government to act in the country's best interests. Of course, opinions may differ on what exactly that might entail. In the case we are interested in here, it might well have been thought in Britain's interests to be seen as a country which honoured its international treaty obligations. We have also seen other threats which might have arisen in the event of German hegemony. The list of treaty demands promulgated when the war seemed to be proceeding very much in Germany's favour, would appear to support the view that it was not in the interests of France, Belgium, Holland or Britain to stand back and allow Germany free rein. The settlement imposed on Russia at Brest Litovsk seems to bear that out.

#16 centurion

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 03:51 PM

Belgium's neutrality was guaranteed by INTERNATIONAL treaty renewed in 1870 and signed then by Britain, France, Prussia (on behalf of all Germany) and Belgium. In this latest form it named Britain (UK not England and forget any myths about Berwick on Tweed) as the guarantor that would be at war with France and allied to Germany if France invaded Belgium and at war with Germany and allied to France if Germany invaded Belgium (I believe there was a supplementary clause wherein the Netherlands got it in the neck from everybody if she invaded Belgium) Belgium was not permitted to enter into any military agreement with anyone (or allow foreign troops passage) save for Britain for the purposes of agreeing how the larger treaty would be implemented. To this end subsiduary clauses were negotiated at ambassador and military attache level setting out arrangements for British forces to enter Belgium should the latter's neutrality be violated. The last of these appears to have been in 1905 - so Britain's commitment to intervene was obligatory under international law and not some relic of the past (as German propaganda of the time would have it). The terms of the treaty were incorporated into the Belgian constitution so that the Belgian government could not have acceded to the German demands for passage, even had they thought it prudent to do so, under Belgian law

#17 SWorrall

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 04:28 PM

Alan's first comment is right on the money, as is Stuart's which followed it about the long-term British foreign policy.

The Treaty of London 1839 casts into form "that Belgium shall be a neutral state, and will always be neutral towards the guarantor Powers". The injunction is upon Belgium to be neutral to her guarantors. Grey had asked the UK Government legal officials in 1906 "What are the liabilities of England under the Treaty guranteeing the neutrality of Belgium". For the first time a conditional reply came that Britain was obligated to assist Belgium to resist aggression "if any other signatory also opposed that violation".

Where Stuart errs slightly is in saying "I'm not sure that they thought the war would be over - certainly not Kitchener and Haig". But Kitchener and Haig were not amongst those who took the decision on a declaration of war, of course.

Britain had signed the two Ententes, with France and Russia, partly to ease pressures on the security of the Empire and on the trade routes between the Mother Country and the Dominions and Empire. Most particularly to counter the Russian threat via Persia and Afghanistan/India to reach the Indian Ocean, a long-term goal of Russian policy being to have a warm-water port. Other agreements reached in the period leading to war included the French navy minding British interests in the Med, leaving the Royal Navy to counter the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea and protect the Atlantic coast of France (which Michael alludes to).


Why did Britain go to war? Because either way it would transpire she had to. Her two over-riding foreign policy goals were the safety of the Empire and keeping the Low Countries friendly.

The politicians certainly expected a short sharp war. If Germany won, beating down France and Russia, then she would dominate Europe, own the Low Countries threatening Britain directly, and potentially have a route to sever Britain's Empire communications, through the Urals towards India. Remember Germany did send out missions to Afghanistan to try and make mischief in India, and encouraged the Sultan in Constantinople to declare Jihad against the British, which threatened to undermine British rule in the united India of the times.

If, however, France and Russia had won without the assistance of Britain then the Ententes would have been worthless and the threats to the Empire from Russia renewed. All of the progress in befriending France and Russia would have been lost, perhaps even reversed.

Michael is certainly right that the war was going to happen at some point, it was only a case of when, and what would be the trigger.

Another reason that Britain went to war was because Asquith and Grey wanted it to happen. If they had not gotten their way then it's by no means certain that the Liberal Government would have survived. Asquith and Grey would have resigned. The Cabinet members knew that Churchill had been having talks with the Unionists/Tories over support for Asquith and the possibility of a Coalition Government. The Liberal Cabinet members realised this and most of them, so principled against war at almost any cost, found that there was a price they weren't willing to pay. Their own personal power and prestige. They enjoyed their positions around the Cabinet table, ditched their principles and voted for war rather than the potential fall of the Government and a loss of their own positions. Only Simon, Morley and Burns resigned their Cabinet seats.

Tom correctly points out the Franco-British naval conversations. Grey used the naval agreements to sway opinion towards war at Cabinet, pointing out that France was entitled to have the Royal Navy defend the French coast against German aggression. It still did not convince them, but it certainly played a part in doing so.

Hazel rightly observes that if the German plan had kept their army east of the Meuse then the British cabinet would probably have taken a different line. Certainly the vote for war would have caused more resignations than it historically did. It was the threat to have a hostile power across the Channel which ultimately decided things.

Marilyne's exposition on the legal basis of the Treaty is excellent. She omits to mention that unified Germany had reaffirmed the Treaty in 1871 and 1907.

Simon.

#18 centurion

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 04:33 PM

Alan's first comment is right on the money, as is Stuart's which followed it about the long-term British foreign policy.

The Treaty of London 1839 casts into form "that Belgium shall be a neutral state, and will always be neutral towards the guarantor Powers". The injunction is upon Belgium to be neutral to her guarantors. Grey had asked the UK Government legal officials in 1906 "What are the liabilities of England under the Treaty guranteeing the neutrality of Belgium". For the first time a conditional reply came that Britain was obligated to assist Belgium to resist aggression "if any other signatory also opposed that violation".



Grey was not asking about the 1832 treaty but the 1870 treaty that updated and replaced that treaty

#19 salesie

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 05:56 PM

To say that Britain's real reason for going to war in 1914 was its own strategic interests is right on the money, but to say that the treaty of 1839 was used as an excuse (implying that it was some kind of underhand cover-story for the real reason) is illogical i.e. Britain only entered into said treaty in order to protect its vital strategic interests in the first place - the two go hand in hand, and the treaty was Britain's only "legal" way of justifying its defence of its vital interests.

And to claim that Asquith and Grey actually wanted a war to maintain their party in government is, in my opinion, stretching events back then much too far - such a premise ignores the fact that Asquith & Grey were not totally in control of events i.e. it is highly unlikely that the German government actually sent their troops into Belgium to help keep Asquith et al in power.

As for the red-herring that says almost everyone, including the politicians, expected a short, sharp war. Well, this fairly modern "short-war" myth has been debated several times on this forum and the evidence says that very few in 1914 expected a short war, especially the politicians.

Here's an extract from a Lloyd George speech, made on 19th September 1914 (very early), where he publicly stated that, "They think we cannot beat them. It will not be easy. It will be a long job. It will be a terrible war. But in the end we shall march through terror to triumph. We shall need all our qualities, every quality that Britain and its people possess. Prudence in council, daring in action, tenacity in purpose, courage in defeat, moderation in victory, in all things faith, and we shall win."

Here's the full speech, so the context can be checked: http://www.archive.o...age/14/mode/2up


Cheers-salesie.

#20 centurion

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 06:13 PM

A week before Germany violated Belgian neutrality Grey had sent a simultaneous telegram to both French and German foreign ministries reminding them of the terms of the 1870 treaty that both counties had signed, requesting assurance that both countries would continue to abide by its terms and reminding them of Britain's commitment to it. France returned such assurances, Germany never responded. Grey refers to this in his instructions to the British Ambassador in Berlin just before the declaration of war.

#21 SWorrall

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 06:15 PM

1330014808[/url]' post='1715752']
Grey was not asking about the 1832 treaty but the 1870 treaty that updated and replaced that treaty


Hi centurion,I didn't specify which dated treaty Grey was questioning. Neither did he specify a date.
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#22 centurion

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 06:22 PM

Neither did he specify a date.


Because it was implicit that any query must refer to the latest treaty which effectively replaced the older one.


You only quoted the older treaty



#23 truthergw

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 06:41 PM

When the original treaty was signed it is probably fair to say that France was seen as the likely aggressor. In 1870, the German Empire was in the process of demonstrating that France was not the only European power with designs on her neighbour. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Britain was starting to realise that she could no longer reign offshore in splendid isolation. There was a possibility of allying with France or Germany. Plenty of arguments were put forward for and against either. The German belligerence as displayed by the Kaiser finally convinced Britain that France was the wiser choice. That automatically brought her into alliance with Russia and that was a very unpopular move. From a european point of view, Tsarist Russia was a blight on the landscape. The absolute monarchy of the Romanovs was deplored by almost all the other powers. Real Politik however had to take into account the 100 divisions or so that she was thought capable of fielding. Germany tried hard to get and keep Nicki onside. That would have been a nightmare scenario for Britain. Russia had long cast envious eyes over Afghanistan towards the jewel in the crown. So, by 1914 Britain had to protect Belgium, had to help France, had to fight with Russia against Germany to make sure she did not have to face Germany across the Channel or Russia in Afghanistan. The treaty existed, it spelled out obligations. Britain met her obligations. What more needs to be said? In the annals of history, Britain's actions compare very well to those of Germany and that is not to mention the machinations of the German Foreign Office in Mexico. After the war, the world knew who had faced up to her treaty obligations and who had not.

#24 MichaelBully

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 07:25 PM

Yes of course, dating back from Charles II marriage.

Isn't Britain's current oldest treaty still in force a 17th alliance with Portugal?



#25 SWorrall

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 07:32 PM

1330019810[/url]' post='1715808']
To say that Britain's real reason for going to war in 1914 was its own strategic interests is right on the money, but to say that the treaty of 1839 was used as an excuse (implying that it was some kind of underhand cover-story for the real reason) is illogical i.e. Britain only entered into said treaty in order to protect its vital strategic interests in the first place - the two go hand in hand, and the treaty was Britain's only "legal" way of justifying its defence of its vital interests.

And to claim that Asquith and Grey actually wanted a war to maintain their party in government is, in my opinion, stretching events back then much too far - such a premise ignores the fact that Asquith & Grey were not totally in control of events i.e. it is highly unlikely that the German government actually sent their troops into Belgium to help keep Asquith et al in power.

As for the red-herring that says almost everyone, including the politicians, expected a short, sharp war. Well, this fairly modern "short-war" myth has been debated several times on this forum and the evidence says that very few in 1914 expected a short war, especially the politicians.

Here's an extract from a Lloyd George speech, made on 19th September 1914 (very early), where he publicly stated that, "They think we cannot beat them. It will not be easy. It will be a long job. It will be a terrible war. But in the end we shall march through terror to triumph. We shall need all our qualities, every quality that Britain and its people possess. Prudence in council, daring in action, tenacity in purpose, courage in defeat, moderation in victory, in all things faith, and we shall win."

Here's the full speech, so the context can be checked: http://www.archive.o...age/14/mode/2up

Cheers-salesie.

Given that the Cabinet spent the week from July 24th trying every justification for not getting involved, when it finally became inevitable then they had to have a reason to present to the people. The Treaty was the very thing that they could point to. The honour of Britain was at stake, something not taken too lightly back then. But they had spent the preceding period debating not whether an invasion of Belgium was a casus belli, but how much of Belgium would they stand being invaded before it became so. Henry Wilson and many other experts thought that the Germans would stay east of the Meuse-Sambre. The Belgian army forts would fire a few shots to satisfy their honour, then stand back and let the Germans through. In that case the Cabinet would not, on the evidence available, have made a declaration. They would have repudiated the Treaty and their guarantee, if the Belgians had not determined to fight and asked for assistance. Thus the Treaty was not the reason, since they tried hard to find ways to avoid getting involved, even if Belgium had been invaded.

However Grey was determined from July 24th that Britain would stand with France, no matter what. He had tried to win his Cabinet colleagues around with little success. Aversion to war was as powerful within the Liberal party then as more recently. He had certainly contemplated tendering his resignation at a number of points thereafter in despair at the intransigence of his colleagues. As July ended, at Asquith's behest Churchill opened a dialogue with the Tories through F. E. Smith, where he received assurances from the Bonar Law and the party leaders that they would support a British declaration. If Liberal ministers had stuck to their principles and quit Asquith would have led a Coalition. He had that knowledge in his pocket, and made sure that the Cabinet knew it too.
It is not my contention that Asquith / Grey went to war to preserve their party unity. Or that the Germans helped to do that. Indeed they might well have torn it apart, as Lloyd George was later to do. Even late in the crisis L G might well have resigned on a declaration. He spoke openly of retiring to Criccieth for a period. But at a dinner with MacDonald, Simon and others on August 2nd it was clear that he was looking for a way to remain in Cabinet. He and others put the interests of power ahead of principle. Which meant his finding a reason to agree with a declaration. As many as 7-8 ministers were thought ready to resign on a declaration. The fact that only 3 actually did so shows how many found a way to perform a 'reverse ferret' at the last minute. It was not their principles they acted upon, but rather their love of being part of the Cabinet and the Government.

L G was speaking on that occasion after Mons, le Cateau and the Marne, when the immediate threat of an early loss was receding, the Germans were retreating to 1st Aisne, and Kitchener's preparations for a long war were starting to look prudent, rather than over-anxious. Almost everyone expected a short war, the Germans entire plan was based on that central idea. The British military observers, who had seen the French manoeuvres, were quietly in despair over the ability of the French army.
As for it being a modern myth, contemporary records support the 'over by Christmas' idea. The controlling minds behind the British declaration, Grey and Asquith, certainly believed it would be short, although Grey privately feared that they might have misjudged that. The Cabinet sent the BEF, after a last minute decision, to ensure that if the French drove the Germans back to the Rhine in 1914, Britain would have an important seat at the peace conference. Only Kitchener thought differently. His plan was to let the French and Russians bleed themselves and the Germans white. Then land the New Armies in 1917, finish the job and dictate the peace to all of them.