Are we commemorating the centenary of something that never formally occurred?

Here’s one for quiz night: when was the last time the UK formally declared war on another country? The answer is January 1942, and the recipient of His Majesty’s displeasure was Siam, then a puppet regime of Japan’s East Asian prosperity sphere. Since then, we seem not to have bothered with such niceties; military action is generally conducted under the Royal Prerogative without formal declaration.

A century ago, however, diplomacy was apparently more decorous. We are about to commemorate Britain’s formal declaration of war on Germany, which every history lesson tells us, happened at 11pm London time on Tuesday 4 August 1914.

But did it?

On the previous day, Monday 3 August, Germany certainly jumped through the proper hoops to declare war on France. A note from the German ambassador in Paris to the president announced: ‘I have the honour to inform your Excellency, that... the German Empire considers itself in a state of war with France in consequence of the acts of this latter power.’ (The ‘acts’ turned out to be German fabrications.)

In formal French, the letter was signed ‘be good enough, M. Le President, to receive the assurances of my deepest respect’.

By splendidly stereotypical contrast, Britain’s declaration on Germany seems to have been a more bumbling business.

On 4 August, following Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Sir Edward Goschen, British ambassador to Berlin, ‘proceeded to the Imperial Foreign Office and informed the secretary of state that unless the imperial government could give the assurance by 12 o’clock that night that they would proceed no further with their violation of the Belgian frontier and stop their advance, I had been instructed to demand my passports and inform the imperial government that His Majesty’s government would have to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium’.

The secretary responded that the safety of the German Empire ‘rendered it absolutely necessary’ to advance through Belgium.

After this ‘somewhat painful interview’, Sir Edward returned to the embassy and reported later: ‘At about 9.30p.m. Herr von Zimmermann, the under-secretary of state, came to see me. After expressing his deep regret that the very friendly official and personal relations between us were about to cease, he asked me casually whether a demand for passports was equivalent to a declaration of war. I said that such an authority on international law as he was known to be must know as well or better than I what was usual in such cases.’

At no time, it seems, did any official bluntly tell the Germans that they were at war. Not that there was ever any doubt. The telegram to British forces to ‘Commence hostilities: Germany’ was sent to British forces at 2320 London time that night, 20 minutes after the expiry of Sir Edward’s ultimatum. A formal announcement of a state of war, in the London Gazette, was made to the British public the following day.  

But how *should* it be done?

In a delightful passage in his 2000 book The Prime Minister: the office and its holders since 1945, constitutional historian Peter Hennessy says the question arose in April 1982 when Home Office officials thought Margaret Thatcher might wish to declare war on Argentina. ‘The civil servants did what the British official does best: they looked for the file to see how to do it. But they could not find it.’

Hennessy did: in 1994, misfiled at the Public Record Office in Kew. It was a memo drawn up by the Foreign Office’s legal adviser, Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, on the day of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939.

Fitzmaurice informed his masters: ‘The method of procedure is to deliver a declaration of war to the diplomatic representative in London of the enemy power... at such hour as may be decided upon by the Cabinet and to obtain a receipt recording the time of delivery. The declaration is delivered by a special messenger who should take with him the special passports covering the enemy representative... his diplomatic staff and their families.’

Declaration would be preceded by an ultimatum, on the expiry of which the embassy should be told - in a phrase that will catch the breath of anyone with the remotest sense of history - ‘that no satisfactory reply having been received from the German government, His Majesty’s government considered that a state of war between the two countries existed...’.

As a good government lawyer, Fitzmaurice, who went on to a distinguished judicial career, never took credit for the memo. But, thanks to Hennessy, apparently all permanent secretaries now have copies.

It would be nice to think its use is now inconceivable, but history suggests otherwise. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor