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[CTO (Central Telegraph Office), London]"The controversy that arose about Siam in 1893 is an instance of how quickly and suddenly a catastrophe might have been caused by something that had little real importance."
Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey
"It seems incredible that two great European nations should have become nearly involved in war about anything so ephemeral."
Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey
Page 2: Foreign Secretary Edward Grey: Balkans Crisis Arbitration 1903-1914
1914: A general willingness to believe "war was something that was not going to happen in Europe."
Page 3: "Caught Looking": Physical Working Models
of European/British Response to June 28-July 1914 Crisis
Historians on Causes of World War I
Foreign Secretary Edward Grey: Delayed Telegrams June-July 1914
Foreign Secretary Edward Grey on the June 28-July 1914 Crisis
Winston Churchill on the June 28-July 1914 Crisis
June 28-July 1914: The Tactic of Timidity
Ambiguous Defensive/Offensive Military Preparations
June 29th-July 1914, Wagons-Lits to the French Riviera
Switzerland: Europe's Strongest Neutral Armed-Power and the June 28-July 1914 Balkans Crisis
As for how dangerous it can be to rely exclusively upon lightning-speed telegraph cables for reliable information in routine military operations, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey provides an alarming description of electric telegrams leading straight to a near-deadly misunderstanding in the British-French naval standoff in 1893:
"There were, however, other things incidental to British policy at this period which were much more serious and unpleasant than an occasional exhibition of the rough side of German friendship. Among these was the constant friction, rising on the slightest provocation to quarrel and hostility, between Great Britain and France or Russia. The ground-swell of ill-will never ceased.
"British interests touched those of France and Russia in many parts of the world; and where interests touch, an atmosphere of ill-will is always dangerous. The blackest suspicion thrives in it, like a noxious growth under dark skies in murky air. The most simple and straightforward acts of one Government are attributed by the other to sinister motives; the agents of each Government on the spot prick and stir their Colonial Office at home with accounts of what the agents of the other Government are doing; the smallest incident may assume proportions that threaten the peace between great nations.
"So it was especially between Great Britain and France at this time. The controversy that arose about Siam in 1893 is an instance of how quickly and suddenly a catastrophe might have been caused by something that had little real importance. It is so good an illustration of this that it may be worth while to recall it in some detail.
"France was laying claim, on behalf of her own possessions in Eastern Asia, to a frontier which the Siamese Government contended was an encroachment on Siamese territory. In Eastern Asia there are many points where territorial claims provide material for argument; they grade from the most solid substance to the faintest shadows.
"It is not necessary now to revive argument over the merits of the controversy between France and Siam. Strange names, the river Mekong with its 'Great Bend,' Battambang and Angkor, and others were for a time 'familiar in our mouths as household words,' though we were only indirectly concerned. We had commercial interests in Siam, and the independence and integrity of Siam were therefore of concern to us; Siam was a comparatively weak State, and we waxed chivalrous.
"One leading member of the Conservative Party even threatened the French from the front Opposition bench with the Siamese Fleet, which he described as a compact and serviceable little squadron. We made no doubt that the French were making excessive claims, but we avowedly limited our action to precautions for the protection of British subjects and property at Bangkok, the capital of Siam situated on the river Menam.
"For this purpose certain ships of the British Navy were sent to Siamese waters. The cruisers lay outside the mouth of the Menam; one gunboat, the Linnet, was sent up the river to lie at Bangkok and be absolutely on the spot to protect British lives and property in case of disorder. The French had sent ships of the French Navy to put pressure on Siam to yield to their territorial claims on the frontier. For this purpose the French declared a 'pacific blockade' of Siam, and their ships of war drew the line of blockade outside the mouth of the Menam.
"The British view was that there is no such thing as a 'pacific blockade' and that we could not recognize what had no existence in international law. We could only recognize a 'blockade' if it were an act of war. Controversy at once arose on this point. Then came two incidents that, for twenty-four hours, were thought to make war between Great Britain and France inevitable.
"A telegram was received saying that one of the French cruisers blockading the mouth of the Menam had turned its guns on a British cruiser at anchor, while steaming past it. This was a gross naval insult that would in naval etiquette have justified the captain of the British ship in firing on the French ship. The gesture of the French captain, though it was not replied to at the moment by opening fire, could not be ignored. An apology at least must be demanded, and, as the French act was apparently deliberate and intentional, it was presumed that an apology would not be forthcoming.
"About the same time another telegram arrived saying that the French Admiral had ordered the Linnet to leave Bangkok. The Linnet, having been sent to Bangkok to protect British lives and property in case of disorder and the prospect of trouble being now more imminent than ever, we could not think of moving her. Nor, in any case, could she be ordered about by French naval officers. Lord Rosebery at once sent a telegram saying that the Linnet must stay at Bangkok.
"For some twenty-four hours it was supposed that the French had deliberately challenged us and that war was inevitable. It was reported in the Foreign Office that the telegrams had been shown to the German Emperor, was was then visiting Queen Victoria on his yacht at Cowes, and that he had expressed with evident satisfaction the opinion that there was no way out of the incident but war... So for some hours the Foreign Office remained in a state of tense expectation.
"Presently came two more telegrams: one to say that the French Admiral had not ordered the Linnet to leave Bangkok, but had requested that, as he was establishing a line of blockade, the Linnet should either stay at Bangkok or come outside to avoid crossing the French line and thereby breaking the blockade. This put the Linnet incident in a very different light. We had not recognized the blockade, and might refuse to comply with the French Admiral's request; but, as we wanted the Linnet to remain at Bangkok, we had no present intention or need to use her to defy the French blockade.
"Another telegram arrived saying that the French Admiral, without waiting for any demand from us, had sent the captain of the French cruiser to apologize to the British captain for the unprovoked breach of correct naval conduct. Before there was time for legal authorities to report fully on the question of 'pacific blockade,' or for the controversy thereon to be developed, the Siamese conceded the French demands, the 'pacific blockade' disappeared, and the whole matter ceased to have any importance.
"It seems incredible that two great European nations should have become nearly involved in war about anything so ephemeral. The incident remained in my mind as an illustration of the danger of a state of ill-will between nations. It provided also another point for reflection. There were some murmurs, as there always were, when such incidents occurred under a Liberal Government, that the British Government had not shown proper firmness and spirit.
"It was told me that one of the most influential men on the Unionist side had said that it was evident that war between ourselves and France must come, and that it would be better to have it at once. I remember at the time feeling strongly, but by instinct rather than reflection, that deliberately to precipitate the waste and suffering of war before it became clearly inevitable was not only unsound policy, but a crime; it was indeed an act likely to bring unforeseen retribution.
"Further experience and reflection upon the complexity and uncertainty of human affairs have made me question whether any human brain can so calculate the long chain of consequences as to render it safe for anyone to make unnecessary war. Bismarck may appear an exception; whether he was really or only apparently an exception may be considered when we come to the events of 1914. Far-seeing men may be able to calculate the direct consequences of a public act or policy; the indirect consequences are beyond human calculation; and it is the indirect consequences that in the long run are most important."[italics added]
TopReferences:(1) Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon: Twenty Five Years, 1925 at 11, ff.
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