The heartbeat of war

Britain declares war 1914Imagine reading the newspapers in late July and early August of 1914: July 28 – Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia begins to mobilize in Serbia’s defence; August 1 – Russia and Germany declare war on each other; August 2 – Germany sends troops into Luxembourg; August 3 – France and Germany declare war and that night Germany invades neutral Belgium; August 4 – Britain declares war on Germany.

And so it began, one of the most devastating wars ever experienced. Would you rush to enlist? Would you fear for your country? Would you flee your home? Would you dig a hole in the garden to store your precious possessions?

In researching for Lies Told in Silence, I spent hours trying to understand the lead up to war including the treaties amongst various nations and enmities that spanned generations. Europe was a complicated place but I knew that I had to figure out who did what in order to write the scenes I had in mind. Here’s an excerpt where Henri Noisette and two friends – Charles Ribot and Maurice Sembat – discuss the possibility of war. Archduke Ferdinand has already been assassinated; Austria is taking action.

Delcassé [French foreign minister] and Viviani [French prime minister] are worried,” he [Henri] said after the three men had raised their glasses in silent salute. “In fact, everyone at the Foreign Ministry is worried about the demands Austria will make of Serbia. I’ve heard talk of them wanting judicial standing in Serbian court proceedings against those responsible for the assassination. There are even rumours of artillery and ammunition being sent to the frontier between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which suggests that Austria is using this time to prepare for conflict.”

“What about Germany? Will they support Austria?” Maurice inclined his head to acknowledge a bulky man with a florid complexion being seated near their table. “Alain Rivest,” he said in response to Henri’s questioning look. “Adrienne’s cousin.”

“Right. He looked familiar.” Henri cleared his throat. “Apparently, the Kaiser has reassured Berchtold [Austrian Foreign Minister] that they will support Austria whenever necessary.” Henri swirled his wineglass and inhaled then looked off to one side trying to discern a particular scent. “Blackberries,” he said.

The men stopped talking while the waiter served their meals and topped off their wineglasses.

“I understand Russia is backing Serbia,” said Charles.

“Russia has been after a share of the Balkans ever since the Turks withdrew, but Austria keeps them out. I guess the Russians think their best bet is an arrangement with Serbia,” said Henri.

“The Balkans has always been messy. So many tribes and ancient feuds. I need a history book to keep it straight.” As he spoke, Maurice waved his fork in the air.

Charles and Maurice both looked at Henri, waiting for his response.

“It’s a powder keg waiting to blow,” he said. “I’ve seen a consular report on Austria’s economic and political outlook. The report says the demands on Serbia will be severe. Things like dissolution of propagandist societies, repression of nationalism, cooperation with Austrian officials to guard the borders, revision of school curriculum to be more favourable to Austria. Our Foreign Ministry believes Austria wants Serbia to decline so they can instigate military operations.” Henri picked at his food, not the least bit hungry.


In another scene Helene Noisette – the daughter of Henri Noisette – asks her mother to explain how the Archduke’s assassination led to war. Lise is Helene’s mother, Mariele her grandmother and Jean her brother.

Ever since the Austrian declaration of war, Lise had insisted that she be the one to walk into town for the news, as if being the first to know might somehow protect her little family, and now she laid the paper out on the kitchen table for everyone to see. Helene and Mariele had been waiting for her, and Jean had come into the house as soon as he had seen his mother walk through the gate.

“And what about Germany?” Mariele said.

Afraid that her legs might fail her, Lise sank into a kitchen chair. “They’ve invaded Belgium.”

“Belgium?” Mariele said. “But Belgium’s neutral. Germany is violating international convention.”

“I don’t think Germany cares about international convention,” Lise said.

“Can you explain it to me, Maman? How does an assassination in Serbia cause all-out war? I’ve listened but I can’t piece it together,” Helene said, peering at headlines more than two inches high.

Grateful that her daughter had not realized the potential consequences of Germany’s invasion of Belgium—the border of that country less than fifty kilometres from Beaufort—Lise kept her eyes and voice steady. “I know it’s confusing,” she said. “It seems that Austria-Hungary has been trying to dominate Serbia and extend its influence in the Balkans. After the assassination, Austria made all sorts of demands on Serbia. Of course, Serbia wants to protect its sovereignty and therefore used its alliance with Russia to stand up to Austria on a few of their demands. So we have Serbia and Russia united against Austria. Then Austria calls on Germany’s help. They have an alliance too.”

“But what about France?”

“I’m getting to that. Because Russia and France, who are on the eastern and western borders of Germany, have a treaty to support one another, Germany feels threatened. I don’t think Austria expected Russia to come to Serbia’s defence. But when Serbia refused some of Austria’s demands and Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized against Austria. Then Germany mobilized against Russia. And France had to declare war too.”

As Lise’s explanation unfolded, Helene’s eyes widened and her face paled. “What does Papa think we should do?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon.


I still find it confusing!

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One Response

  1. The weekend papers in England are full of similar sentiments about WW1 … adding events in the Ukraine and the Middle East are different. I just hope so as a nuclear or chemical tipped rocket or missile fired and exploding in these places could change everything.

    Everyone in the UK is being invited to turn out our lights at 10.00pm on Monday night 4 August 2014 for an hour, leaving just a candle to mark the moment, as a reflection of Sir Edward Grey’s reported comment ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life’. Sir Edward regarded the declaration of war 100 years ago as a personal failure and he also could not recall having made the statement. Given it will still be light in Canada you will just have to imagine or defer for five hours.

    Mary your timing of the publishing of ‘Lies told in Silence’ is welcome. I found myself lost for words at the end. An unusual event! Your heartbreaking story of a French family going about their day to day lives close to the front line in the midst of WW1 and at war with itself, in times of primitive communications compared to today, makes an essential and relevant read for this month. An interesting follow on from Unravelled putting a large, but I suspect not final piece of a complex jigsaw life story in place.

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