There followed, before the action state of general European conflict, the third German blunder, perhaps the most momentous, and certainly the most extraordinary: that by which Germany secured the hitherto exceedingly uncertain intervention of England against herself.
Of all the great Powers involved, Great Britain had most doubtfully to consider whether she should or should not enter the field.
On the one hand, she was in moral agreement with Russia and France; on the other hand, she was bound to them by no direct alliance, and successive British Governments had, for ten years past, repeatedly emphasized the fact that England was free to act or not to act with France according as circumstances might decide her.
Many have criticized the hesitation, or long weighing of circumstance, which astonished us all in the politicians during these few days, but no one, whether friendly to or critical of a policy of neutrality, can doubt that such a policy was not only a possible but a probable one. The Parliamentarians were not unanimous, the opposition to the great responsibility of war was weighty, numerous, and strong. The financiers, who are in many things the real masters of our politicians, were all for standing out. In the face of such a position, in the crisis of so tremendous an issue, Germany, instead of acting as best she could to secure the neutrality of Great Britain, simply took that neutrality for granted!
Upon one specific point a specific question was asked of her Government. To Great Britain, as we have seen in these pages, the keeping from the North Sea coast of all great hostile Powers is a vital thing. The navigable Scheldt, Antwerp, the approaches to the Straits of Dover, are, and have been since the rise of British sea-power, either in the hands of a small State or innocuous to us through treaty. Today they are the possession of Belgium, an independent State erected by treaty after the great war, and neutralized by a further guarantee in 1839. This neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed in a solemn treaty not only by France and England, but by Prussia herself; and the British Government put to the French and to the Germans alike the question whether (now they were at war) that neutrality would be respected. The French replied in the affirmative; the Germans, virtually, in the negative. But it must not be said that this violation of international law and of her own word by Germany automatically caused war with England.
The German Ambassador was not told that if Belgian territory was violated England would fight; he was only told that if that territory were violated England might fight.
The Sunday passed without a decision. On Monday the point was, as a matter of form, laid before Parliament, though the House of Commons has no longer any real control over great national issues. In a speech which certainly inclined towards English participation in the war should Germany invade Belgium, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs summed up the situation before a very full House.