Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(20) The "Scrap of paper" postcard

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Mr Bonar Law (leader of the Conservitive Party) said at a meeting at the Guild Hall, London, "The fourth of August 1914, is an outstanding date in history; the date on which Great Britain declared war on Germany." He went on to say, that Britain's ambassador to Berlin (Sir Edward Goschen) had called on the German Chancellor and "found him in a state of great excitement because Britain had declared war on Germany" and "Just for a scrap of paper." Britain was outraged at the German chancellor's statement.

What then, was the "Scrap of paper"? On 19th April 1839, Britain, France, Russia, Austria and Germany signed the 'Treaty of London'. It was a document which guaranteed the existence, neutrality and sovereignty of the newly recognised country of Belgium.

"THE SCRAP OF PAPER." Early in the war, a number of postcard publishers seized the opportunity to capitalise on the German Chancellor's remark of 4th August 1914, and this postcard is an example of one of their efforts. The card - by C.W. Faulkner & Co, Ltd., was from its 'The C.W..F Series.' and - featured the document known as the 1839, 'Treaty of London'.

The document were also used on a number of posters in the Parliamentary Recruiting Campaign embarked on early in the war.

During the next seventy five years , the signatures made sure that Belgium's neutrality was not violated, For instance, when the Franco-Prussian war broke out 41 years after the signing, both France and Prussia signed separate treaties with Britain proclaiming that Belgium neutrality would not be violated. The treaties declared that if either France or Prussia violated the neutrality of Belgium then Britain would side with the opposing country. When the German Empire was established in 1871, it recognised the 'Treaty of London' signed by Prussia in 1839.

Between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the outbreak of the Great War 1914-1918, Britain's commitment to Belgium's neutrality was tested several times. In 1885, the German chancellor asked Britain, "Would England fight if Belgium was attacked?" Britain replied, "No doubt, if she had an ally." In 1887 when France and Germany were on the brink of yet another war, both sent assurances to Belgium that her neutrality would not be violated. In 1905 Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary,  asked what was "England's liability under the treaty [of 1839] guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium." The conclusion reached was that "Britain was obligated to assist if one or more of the other guaranteeing powers opposed the violation."

In 1911, it was observed that Germany had built a series of train tracks and roads leading to the Belgium frontier. This alarmed the British and led Winston Churchill, to send a letter to the Foreign Secretary stating that Britain should "guarantee the independence of Belgium, Holland and Denmark."

Britain's quest to guarantee Belgium's neutrality was not just to oppose German violation of it, France too, kept prodding. In 1912, France reviewed her strategy and asked Britain about "violating Belgium's neutrality in the event of war with Germany." Grey replied, "the British Government would then be called upon to defend the neutrality of that country." France said no more and kept quite on the subject.

In the end, it was Germany which committed the violation of Belgium neutrality.

The card on the left was another offering by C.W Faulkner.  The card on the right "Designed and Printed in England." was number 204 in the 'United Empire Series' -  published by Ward, Lock and Co. Ltd.
On 3rd August 1914, Germany sent a 12-hour ultimatum to Belgium, demanding "that troops be allowed to pass through without resistance." If there was any resistance then Germany "would regard Belgium as an enemy." At 4.00 pm that day, Belgium appealed to "England, France and Russia to co-operate as guaranteeing powers in the defense of her territory."

Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding that Belgium's neutrality must not be violated. There was no response. At 11.00 pm on 4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

The German Chancellor was taken aback by the British stance and said, "just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her."

Bonar Law's reply in his Guildhall speech was, " 'Just for a scrap of paper' -  this will go down to history as one of the most dishonorable sayings that have ever been heard."
Copyrighted by 'T.& G. Allen, Newcastle', this 1914 postcard highlighted the German dismissal of the treaty of 1839, known as the Treaty of London.

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