Humor Magazine

I'm on the Last Lap

By Davidduff

Yes, it's been hard going in places and I had to draw on my last reserves of stamina but I managed to break through the pain threshold and now ahead of me I can see the finishing line.  Eh?  What?  No, no, I'm not in training for the London marathon, I'm talking about reading The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan. I have mentioned before that the bloody thing weighs a ton, is over 600 pages long and is absolutely jam-packed with every possible detail on the years that ran up to the outbreak of WWI.  If that sounds as though I haven't enjoyed reading it, pay no attention, it's just my usual hyperbole getting the better of me.  It is a superb history book based, I would judge, on very high standards of scholarship.  However, as in just about every other history book describing the Dance Macabre that took place from 1900 to 1914, the chapters on the Balkans were a slog.  A far lazier historian than Ms. MacMillan would simply have elided the whole subject into one sentence: The Balkans were made up of childlike countries peopled and led by loonies who were aided and abetted in their lunacy by supposedly adult countries who should have known better!  There, that was a lot quicker!

However, I'm through that now and into the last totally fascinating year before the starting gun fired in August 1914.  Now, suddenly, all the leading participants have their feet firmly held up close to the fire of imminent war.  My how they wriggled!  But what never ceases to amaze me is how so many of them were far more concerned with other things.  Asquith has some excuse for concentrating on the Irish who were about to kick off on civil war so byzantine squabbles in deepest, darkest Balkans was of little interest to him.

The French were tickled by the problems of one of their leading radical politicians, Joseph Caillaux, who had problems rather closer to home which was a pity because when he was Prime Minister he had helped keep the peace during the second Moroccan crisis.  He was hated by the Right-wing nationalists and the editor of one of their newspapers obtained some damaging personal letters written by Caillaux's second wife, Henriette, which he was threatening to publish:

On 16 March Henriette, who was beautifully dressed as always, went into Figaro's offices.  When she was shown in to see Calmette [the editor], she pulled a browning pistol out of her fur muff and emptied it into him.  Saying to the horrified staff, "There's no more justice in France.  It was the only  thing to do," she waited calmly to be arrested for the murder.  Her trial started on 20 July.  Eight days later, as Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the jury acquitted her on the grounds that she had committed a crime of passion.

Only in La France!  Mind you, the Brits were equally concerned with 'affairs of the heart', or at least, the groin!  On August 1st, just as the British government wrestled with the final decision as to war or peace:

The cabinet met in the late morning of Saturday 1 August.  "I can honestly say that I have never had a more bitter disappointment," wrote Asquith".

Deeply upset by the thought of war, think you?  Wrong!  He was writing to Venetia Stanley, his very young mistress whom he would now, under pressure of events, be unable to meet later in the week!  By and large, the vast majority of the leading 'actors' on this stage were as big a bunch of poltroons as we suspect today's lot are.  And yes, on that thought, I do need a drink!


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