Primary Documents - Britain's Breaking Off of Diplomatic Relations with Germany, 4 August 1914

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg Reproduced below is the official report prepared by the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, which recounted the events of 4 August 1914.

In his report Sir Edward documented the reaction of both von Jagow (the Foreign Minister) and Bethmann-Hollweg (the German Chancellor) to news that Britain was breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany and had issued an ultimatum requiring that Germany withdraw its troops from Belgium by midnight the same day.

Goschen concluded that neither von Jagow nor Bethmann-Hollweg had any intention of recalling German troops now situated in Belgium, and that war with Germany was inevitable.

Official Report of the Breaking of Diplomatic Relations and of the "Scrap of Paper"
by Sir Edward Goschen, British Ambassador to Berlin

In accordance with the instructions contained in your telegram of the 4th instant, I called upon the Secretary of State that afternoon and inquired, in the name of His Majesty's Government, whether the Imperial Government would refrain from violating Belgian neutrality.

Herr von Jagow at once replied that lie was sorry to say that his answer must be "No," as, in consequence of the German troops having crossed the frontier that morning, Belgian neutrality had been already violated.

Herr von Jagow again went into the reasons why the Imperial Government had been obliged to take this step, namely, that they had to advance into France by the quickest and easiest way, so as to be able to get well ahead with their operations and endeavour to strike some decisive blow as early as possible.

It was a matter of life and death for them, as if they had gone by the more southern route they could not have hoped, in view of the paucity of roads and the strength of the fortresses, to have got through without formidable opposition entailing great loss of time.

This loss of time would have meant time gained by the Russians for bringing up their troops to the German frontier.  Rapidity of action was the great German asset, while that of Russia was an inexhaustible supply of troops.

I pointed out to Herr von Jagow that this fait accompli of the violation of the Belgian frontier rendered, as he would readily understand, the situation exceedingly grave, and I asked him whether there was not still time to draw back and avoid possible consequences, which both he and I would deplore.  He replied that, for the reasons he had given me, it was now impossible for them to draw back.

During the afternoon I received your further telegram of the same date, and, in compliance with the instructions therein contained, I again 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 and the observance of a treaty to which Germany was as much a party as themselves.

Herr von Jagow replied that to his great regret he could give no other answer than that which he had given me earlier in the day, namely, that the safety of the Empire rendered it absolutely necessary that the Imperial troops should advance through Belgium.

I gave his Excellency a written summary of your telegram and, pointing out that you had mentioned 12 o'clock as the time when His Majesty's Government would expect an answer, asked him whether, in view of the terrible consequences which would necessarily ensue, it were not possible even at the last moment that their answer should be reconsidered.

He replied that if the time given were even twenty-four hours or more, his answer must be the same. I  said that in that case I should have to demand my passports.  This interview took place at about 7 o'clock.  In a short conversation which ensued Herr von Jagow expressed his poignant regret at the crumbling of his entire policy and that of the Chancellor, which had been to make friends with Great Britain, and then, through Great Britain, to get closer to France.

I said that this sudden end to my work in Berlin was to me also a matter of deep regret and disappointment, but that he must understand that under the circumstances and in view of our engagements, His Majesty's Government could not possibly have acted otherwise than they had done.

I then said that I should like to go and see the Chancellor, as it might be, perhaps, the last time I should have an opportunity of seeing him.  He begged me to do so.  I found the Chancellor very agitated.

His Excellency at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes.  He said that the step taken by His Majesty's Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word - "neutrality," a word which in war time had so often been disregarded - just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.

All his efforts in that direction had been rendered useless by this last terrible step, and the policy to which, as I knew, he had devoted himself since his accession to office had tumbled down like a house of cards.  What we had done was unthinkable; it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants.

He held Great Britain responsible for all the terrible events that might happen.  I protested strongly against that statement, and said that, in the same way as he and Herr von Jagow wished me to understand that for strategical reasons it was a matter of life and death to Germany to advance through Belgium and violate the latter's neutrality, so I would wish him to understand that it was, so to speak, a matter of "life and death" for the honour of Great Britain that she should keep her solemn engagement to do her utmost to defend Belgium's neutrality if attacked.

That solemn compact simply had to be kept, or what confidence could any one have in engagements given by Great Britain in the future?  The Chancellor said, "But at what price will that compact have been kept.  Has the British Government thought of that?"

I hinted to his Excellency as plainly as I could that fear of consequences could hardly be regarded as an excuse for breaking solemn engagements, but his Excellency was so excited, so evidently overcome by the news of our action, and so little disposed to hear reason that I refrained from adding fuel to the flame by further argument.

As I was leaving he said that the blow of Great Britain joining Germany's enemies was all the greater that almost up to the last moment he and his Government had been working with us and supporting our efforts to maintain peace between Austria and Russia.

I said that this was part of the tragedy which saw the two nations fall apart just at the moment when the relations between them had been more friendly and cordial than they had been for years.  Unfortunately, notwithstanding our efforts to maintain peace between Russia and Austria, the war had spread and had brought us face to face with a situation which, if we held to our engagements, we could not possibly avoid, and which unfortunately entailed our separation from our late fellow workers.  He would readily understand that no one regretted this more than I.

After this somewhat painful interview I returned to the embassy and drew up a telegraphic report of what had passed.  This telegram was handed in at the Central Telegraph Office a little before 9 p.m.  It was accepted by that office, but apparently never dispatched.

At about 9.30 p.m. Herr von Zimmermannn, 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.  I added that there were many cases where diplomatic relations had been broken off, and, nevertheless, war had not ensued; but that in this case he would have seen from my instructions, of which I had given Herr von Jagow a written summary, that His Majesty's Government expected an answer to a definite question by 12 o'clock that night and that in default of a satisfactory answer they would be forced to take such steps as their engagements required.

Herr Zimmermannn said that that was, in fact, a declaration of war, as the Imperial Government could not possibly give the assurance required either that night or any other night.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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