by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent


“England Liable To Declare War At Minute’s Notice.” The immediate issue being Belgian neutrality and the insistence that the neutrality and integrity of Belgium be respected.

“Two Million Men Now Face to Face on Battlefield.” Belgium and Luxembourg were “swarming with German troops.” “German forces had also invaded Limburg province, Holland, where the Dutch were threatening to open the dykes and flood the country as the only means of driving them

[the German forces] out.” “From Rome came the news that Germany had repeatedly urged Italy to join the Germans and Austrians in their campaign against the rest of Europe.”

Limburg is located in the southeast corner of the Netherlands. Though it would have been strategically convenient for the Germans to cross this portion of the Netherlands, they did respect Dutch neutrality. Belgium believed that Germany did traverse their armies across Limburg in order to reach Liege. The 74 county residents of Dutch extraction would have closely followed this article, as would those of Belgian descent. There was little love lost between the two nations as Belgium broke away from the Netherlands in the 19th century. Belgium resented Dutch neutrality and after the war sought, unsuccessfully, to have portions of the Netherlands ceded to Belgium at the Versailles Conference.

What people thought about the war and how they took sides and then defended their positions turned heavily on what took place during the 72 hours preceding the outbreak of hostilities. As in football or basketball, much turns on whether a player has crossed the line. Limburg is just one example initial and seemingly small steps can have a grave impact, as this from Maartje Abbenhuis’ The Art of Staying Neutral: The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914-1918 describes:

With the invasion of Belgium came the possibility that German troops would end up on roads in the far south of Limburg, especially near the town of Vaals, where the German, Dutch, and Belgian borders meet. Because Germany had moved a large number of troops round the ‘pan-handle’ (as Limburg was sometimes described) during the early days of the invasion, a frontier violation was very likely. Yet the German leadership was genuine in its desire to respect Dutch neutrality; its High Command explicitly ordered German troops to avoid Dutch territory. Nevertheless, on 5 August reports from Belgium and France asserted that German troops had indeed crossed into Limburg near Vaals during their advance towards Liège. Belgian and French newspapers not only claimed that the Germans had purposely used Dutch roads but also that the Dutch had allowed them do so. Two French newspapers, Le Matin and Illustration even published maps marking the supposed route taken by the Germans. These were serious allegations that could potentially jeopardise Dutch neutrality, especially since France and Great Britain had still not recognised Dutch neutrality (they would do so on 6 August). As a result, even if it did happen, the Dutch had little choice but to deny it, for fear that the Allies would use it as a reason to invade. Even an acknowledgement that a few German soldiers had accidentally crossed into Limburg could endanger the image of the Netherlands as a nation capable of protecting its territorial boundaries.

Instead, the Dutch government did everything in its power to not only refute the claims but also prove that their accusers were wrong. Many Dutch newspapers printed articles contesting the initial version of events, although some had previously published eyewitness reports on 5 August. Within and outside the Netherlands, many remained unconvinced, while some officials acknowledged that German troops may have used the road, even if the Dutch had not welcomed them. To many Belgians, the Limburg explanation provided a compelling and convincing explanation as to why the Germans were able to advance so rapidly through their country. Few believed that the Belgian town of Liège (near the Limburg border) could have otherwise succumbed to the Germans so quickly; Limburg offered a useful scapegoat.

Whether the incident actually happened remains the subject of historical debate.

“Declares War on Belgium.” “Germany declared war today on Belgium for opposing the passage of German troops through its territory on their way to invade France.” The Belgian decision to resist prompted a German diplomat’s frustration: “Oh, the poor fools! Why don’t they get out of the way of the steamroller?”

“United States to Remain Neutral – Aid Sent to Tourists.” President Wilson issued a long proclamation that “. . . forbade the enlistment of troops in the United States for the old world conflict, the arming or fitting out of ships at American ports or the organizing of expeditions in this country to take part in the struggle on the other side of the Atlantic.” Consular offices of the belligerent power did not interpret this proclamation as preventing their subjects who were military reservists from returning to their home countries.

Judge Galloway Makes 15 Citizens.

Among the casualties of the Germans not reported in the regular war news were nine loyal subjects of the kaiser who swore allegiance to the stars and stripes and declared their intention to stay in the United States and let the war rage with the rest of the Germans who stayed at home. In all 15 new Americans were made this morning by Judge Galloway . . .”

When the first employes of the county clerk’s office appeared yesterday morning to unlock the door they found waiting for them a young German who was more than anxious to take out his first papers and file his declaration of intention. He said that his neighbors were being ordered to join their regiments to assist in the great European war and that he would rather be a live American citizen than a dead hero. Another Salem resident who was a former subject of the kaiser was notified by a telegram from the German consul in Seattle yesterday to appear at that city to entrain for New York to be shipped back to Germany to fight with his regiment. He took out his papers several years ago, but when he and his wife went back to Germany last year he was seized and compelled to serve in the army for eight days before the original papers taken out here could be forwarded to him in Germany. when the papers from the county clerk’s office arrived he was released, but yesterday’s telegram caused considerable anxiety on his part until he found that he was a near citizen of United States and that he owed his allegiance to this country.

Those naturalized this morning and their former homes are as follows: Miss Lila Milnes Moore, Salem, England; Samuel Dinges, Salem, Canada; Kell Olsen, Salem, Norway; Ferdinand Mantie, Macleay, Germany; F. A. A. Voget, 295 South Twenty-first street, Salem, Germany; Nathanael Mueller, Salem, Germany; F. A. H. Sealeusner, 1107 Fir Street, Salem, Germany; N. C. O. Steansrung, Marion, Norway; Stephen Hemshorn, Mt. Angel, Germany; Barney Hemshorn, Mt. Angel, Germany; Frederick Kreig, Silverton, Germany; Herman Ristow, Salem, Germany; Jacob Berchtelt, Mt. Angel, Germany; Julien Dukpunt, St. Louis, Belgium; Frank Masser, Shaw, Austria.

On a local and more mundane level, “Newsboys Become Too Enthusiastic

As the result of a little fracas yesterday evening in an alley back of the Hubbard building, when Walter Kaiser, engineer for that building, slapped Earl Cashman, a newsboy, who was using abusive language, the parties concerned appeared in the police court this morning at 8 o’clock before Police Judge Elgin.

Walter Kaiser pleaded guilty to the charge of assault and was fined $5 by the judge. The fine as paid by Blaine Hubbard. Earl Cashman, the newsboy, was arraigned on the charge of being indecent and disorderly and using obscene and insulting language to Walter Kaiser. The boy denied using the vile and obscene language. Two other boys, Sam Jones, of 220 D street, and Robert Bailey, of 1695 Fourth street, were witnesses and stated that the bad language was not heard by them but that they saw blows struck. After some severe questioning and a lecture by the judge regarding conduct on the street, the boy’s case was continued until Tuesday morning, when his father is to appear.

The editor, commenting on demands by the warring powers that nationals return to their homelands, wrote: “It looks like a waste of time and money to send the folks back from this country, where they can get out and clear the land, build railroads and do hundreds of other things, to their native land where they would be made to kill each other without adding anything to the strength of any of the parties, for they are about a standoff among themselves. It will be a good thing for them if none of them can get passage across the pond.”

And, not calculated to win many points among female readers seeking the vote, the editor comments that “England, having had its militant suffragettes so long, feels, no doubt, that foreign war may be a real relief.”

In Aumsville, “electric lights of Aumsville’s new electric plant were turned on Main street for the first time Saturday night. Citizens crowded the streets in celebration of the event. It is expected to have the system completed in two weeks. All of the streets will be lighted. Most of the business houses and many residences are already wired ready to be connected with the lines.”

The expatriate American author, Henry James described what happened and his fear for the future:

The intense unthinkability of anything so blank and so infamous in an age that we have been living in and taking for our own as if it were of a high refinement of civilization – in spite of all conscious incongruities; finding it after all carrying this abomination in its blood, finding this to have been what it meant all the while, is like suddenly having to recognize in one’s family circle or group of best friends a band of murderers, swindlers and villains – it’s just such a similar shock. (quoted in MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace, 631)

The policy decisions to go to war or not go to war; the policy decisions driving military strategy; the policy decisions aligning nations in one direction or another were the decisions of a handful of men – probably fewer than one hundred. During the 72 to 96 hours preceding the decisions to mobilize and the decisions to declare war, frantic cables between chancelleries and diplomatic missions were as a high stakes bluffs as each side sought to deter the other from the irrevocable steps to war.

Decisions turned on the strength of will of Kaiser, Tsar, Emperor, monarchs, and prime ministers. Would or would not Great Britain stand with France and Russia? At one point the French accused the British of contributing the war through hesitancy – hesitancy that the French believed contributed to Germany’s decision to mobilize and invade Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. Germany’s decisions were carefully calibrated on their assessment of what Great Britain might or might not do. None of those on whose shoulders the decision to go to war did so lightly; all knew that there would be no going back and that the world would be vastly different after the war. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey expressed his fear when, as the lamplighters were lighting up the gas lamps that evening, he said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”