Times of impending chaos

In times when it feels as though civilisation is slipping away and a right mess is just around the corner, it is perhaps helpful to see what impending disaster looked like in the early days of August 1914. These three telegrams show just how much of a world war the web of treaties created – not just the simple domino sequence of Austria v Serbia, which brings in Russia, which brings in France, which brings in Germany, which brings in Britain. These three telegrams received by Sir Edward Grey between 2.30 and 3.45 on the morning of 4th August involved discussions in at least eight languages. The last statement is intriguing – to ‘hold language to someone’, which the OED gives as ‘offer, proffer, present’, with the citation:

1796   Hist. in Ann. Reg. 77   The French..held out language promissory of equitable conditions.

All four OED citations give ‘hold out’, which is comfortable and current – X frequently holds out an offer to Y, and it suggests a pretty clear visual image. William Conyngham Greene’s ‘His Excellency … will hold similar language to them’ does not; it is more formal, slightly threatening perhaps.

Esmé Howard, as an influential British diplomat in Sweden, exerted his power to maintain neutrality in Sweden, which generally favoured the Central Powers. Here he is understandably nervous about any possible ambiguity in his reporting of the situation. Sir Charles Louis des Graz (1860-1940) was a British diplomat who served at Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey as Attaché  from 1885 and ended up as Minister to Serbia 1914-20. Presumably his telegram was not completely decipherable – no reason is given; it is worrying to imagine any kind of potential diplomatic misunderstanding caused by an indecipherable telegram at such a time.


Telegrams 3 August 1914




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