August 1914

The notion that war was the ultimate test of the moral fibre of both individuals and the nation meant that it was greeted with some enthusiasm in Britain and across Europe. This ethos had been fostered by the public schools in Britain, and the reactions of many Oxford-educated young men seem to fit this paradigm. However, the common perception of enthusiastic crowds cheering the announcement of Britain’s entry may only reflect the mood of Bank Holiday crowds in London. As the papers indicate, reactions were more complex and varied.

A German perspective is provided by Count Harry Clément Ulrich Kessler (1868–1937), an Anglo-German diplomat and writer, connoisseur, and publisher. He was born in Paris, and grew up in France, England and Germany, and his mother was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish baronet. From 1880 to 1882 he attended St George's School in Ascot. Kessler regarded himself as a cosmopolitan European, and after 1918, like many from his background and cultural viewpoint, he looked back on the First World War as a cataclysmic watershed, the end of the Belle Époque. His diary records his very different feelings at the outbreak of war which he saw as a necessary and calculated gamble that would result in the ascendancy or destruction of Germany. He knew prominent British aristocrats and politicians, and just six days before the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia he had lunched with Herbert Henry Asquith at Downing Street.

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