Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Inside Story of "The Scrap of Paper"

Contributed by James Patton

Propaganda Poster

Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassador in Berlin, called on Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg for a final interview. Goschen's report to Sir Edward Grey, quoted below, indicates the origin of the phrase, "a scrap of paper" (i.e. the 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality), which had an important effect on world public opinion. Note that Goschen isn’t actually quoting von Bethmann-Hollweg but, rather, is summarizing the gist of his remarks. Thus the exact wording — “a scrap of paper” — is Goschen’s, not necessarily the German chancellor’s.

Sir Edward Goschen
In accordance with the instructions contained in your telegram of the 4th instant, I called upon the Secretary of State that afternoon and inquired, in the name of His Majesty's Government, whether the Imperial Government would refrain from violating Belgian neutrality. Herr von Jagow at once replied that he was sorry to say that his answer must be "No," as in consequence of the German troops having crossed the frontier that morning, Belgian neutrality had been already violated. Herr von Jagow again went into the reasons why the Imperial Government had been obliged to take this step, namely, that they had to advance into France by the quickest and easiest way, so as to be able to get well ahead with their operations and endeavor to strike some decisive blow as early as possible. It was a matter of life and death for them, as if they had gone by the more southern route they could not have hoped, in view of the paucity of roads and the strength of the fortresses, to have got through without formidable opposition entailing great loss of time. This loss of time would have meant time gained by the Russians for bringing up their troops to the German frontier. Rapidity of action was the great German asset, while that of Russia was an in exhaustible supply of troops. 

I pointed out to Herr von Jagow that this fait accompli of the violation of the Belgian frontier rendered, as he would readily understand, the situation exceedingly grave, and I asked him whether there was not still time to draw back and avoid possible consequences, which both he and I would deplore. He replied that, for the reasons he had given me, it was now impossible for them to draw back... 

This interview took place at about 7 o'clock. In a short conversation which ensued Herr von Jagow expressed his poignant regret at the crumbling of his entire policy and that of the Chancellor, which had been to make friends with Great Britain, and then, through Great Britain, to get closer to France. I said that this sudden end to my work in Berlin was to me also a matter of deep regret and disappointment, but that he must understand that under the circumstances and in view of our engagements, His Majesty's Government could not possibly have acted otherwise than they had done. 

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
I then said that I should like to go and see the Chancellor [von Bethmann-Hollweg], as it might be, perhaps, the last time I should have an opportunity of seeing him. He begged me to do so. I found the Chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes. He said that the steps taken by His Majesty's Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word -- "neutrality," a word which in war time had so often been disregarded -- 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. All his efforts in that direction had been rendered useless by this last terrible step, and the policy to which, as I knew, he had devoted himself since his accession to office had tumbled down like a house of cards. What we had done was unthinkable; it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants. 

He held Great Britain responsible for all the terrible events that might happen. I protested strongly against that statement, and said that, in the same way as he and Herr von Jagow wished me to understand that for strategical reasons it was a matter of life and death to Germany to advance through Belgium and violate the latter's neutrality, so I would wish him to understand that it was, so to speak, a matter of "life and death" for the honor of Great Britain that she should keep her solemn engagement to do her utmost to defend Belgium's neutrality if attacked. That solemn compact simply had to be kept, or what confidence could any one have in engagements given by Great Britain in the future? The Chancellor said, "But at what price will that compact have been kept? Has the British Government thought of that?" I hinted; to his Excellency as plainly as I could that fear of consequences could hardly be regarded as an excuse for breaking solemn engagements, but his Excellency was so excited, so evidently overcome by the news of our action, and so little disposed to hear reason that I refrained from adding fuel to the flame by further argument.

Source:  the WW1 Document Archive


  1. Always an interesting insight of the complex series of treaties and engagements stretching back to 1839 and the severe miscalculation Germany made. That England would stand by and do nothing in regards to treaties to defend a smaller nation. And paid that terrible price.

  2. England and France worried about a German movement through Belgium. Hence they championed the argument that the 1839 treaty and a German attack on Belgium would lead to a war between Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. A delay in such an action might help the French Plan 17 to become effective in the Eastern border between Germany and France.

  3. You read items like this and then look at the actions and I must CLEARLY come to the conclusion that Germany started the war. And further that it was not a 'worthless war' when it comes to looking at the rape of Belgium and subsequent actions by Germany and Austria. It was all an established pattern of a Germany which "always wanted peace", at least in the eyes of their Fuhrer. And since 'paper' can be seen as worthless, the allies unfortunately did not occupy Germany and set up a just and lasting peace... and on to War II.

  4. Well, the war was started by an act of terrorism sponsored by the King of Serbia, who was rewarded by the successful "liberal democracies"(except for their millions of black, brown, yellow and red subjects) with the crown of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, they took the German colonies for themselves, split the Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres, and created other largely artificial countries from the Austrian empire. The chaos created by the peace of Versailles, dictated by the imperialists Americans fought and died for, continues today.