It’s become a bit of a cliché to sneer at Frederick Potter’s notorious 1898 pronouncement in the staunchly loyalist Skibbereen Eagle that that paper was keeping a vigilant eye on Tsar Nicolas II of Russia over his imperialist campaign in the Caucasus.
Yet it was commonplace at the time for the local and provincial press to carry detailed reports of important events overseas and to go on to opine at length on said events in the leaders and editorial columns of the day.
One hundred years ago this week the Londonderry Sentinel, the Derry Standard and the Derry Journal, were all putting in their tuppence worth as events along the Danube spiralled increasingly out of control.
Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, diplomatic efforts to decrease tensions between the German and Russian proxies, Austria and Serbia, respectively, were totally exhausted by the end of July.
And like the Skibbereen Eagle the local papers were not shy in putting forward their views after the shooting war broke out on the Danube on July 27 and war was eventually declared by Vienna on July 28.
Alongside reports of the ongoing Home Rule crisis, the Ulster and Irish Volunteer movements, the Howth gun-running, the theft of a Donegal woman’s purse on board a Glasgow steamer, the death of a young child in Fountain Street following an accident involving a drunken milk carter, the trial of Henriette Caillaux and the death of boxer William W. England in Maidenhead, the local papers all expressed concern over what was fast developing into an international crisis without precedent.
The Sentinel carried extensive reports on the conflict on Tuesday (July 28, 1914), Thursday (July 30, 1914) and Saturday (August 1, 1914) under headlines such as ‘Panic in Belgrade,’ ‘European Crisis’ and ‘Belgrade in Flames’ and posing questions such as ‘Will other powers be involved?’
On Saturday (August 1) the editorial in this paper, which would soon have cause to lament the deaths of many local men in the conflict, reflected: “The best that can be said regarding the European situation at the moment is that it is not so bad as it might - and may - be.
“That is to say, the only countries at war are Austria and Servia. But while there have been no declarations of war by Germany against Russia or by France against Germany, it is not easy to see how these momentous announcements can be long delayed, judging by the telegrams, which the censors have allowed through.
“If it be that, as Mr Asquith announced in the House of Commons, Russia has proclaimed a general mobilisation of her army and fleet, then. obviously, Germany will regard this as a challenge.”
The Sentinel leader expressed a faint hope that the Germans and the Russians might yet come together to prevent catastrophe.
“It will be accepted as a hopeful sign that the Czar yesterday received the German Ambassador in audience. So long as the ‘conversations’ continue there will be a chance the biggest war of all the ages can be averted,” it stated.
The paper then went on to outline its view of what the British approach to the war should be.
“As regards the British attitude, it is doubtless one of getting ready for all eventualities. Should Russia be drawn into the conflict, France is bound by treaty to go to her aid.
“In that event it must be British policy, in spite of what the Radical Pacifists say, to see that France is not crushed by Germany. In the meantime the gravity of the situation is being reflected in the money markets and coal exchanges.
“The bank rate is eight per cent. There is a general closing of the stock exchanges. Underwriters are refusing war risks with the result that many steamers with food supplies for this country are held up, and prices are rising all round. The awful catastrophe of a world’s war may not develop will be the prayer of civilised humanity.
“Should it come, however, the British people, realising that they must either fulfil their honourable obligations or consent to disappear as a Great Power, will face the situation with courage and fortitude, and in the spirit that has brought victory to the nation in many a sea and in many a field in the past.”
Meanwhile, over at the Standard, in the edition of Wednesday, July 29, 1914, an editorial expressed concerns over the potential for a forthcoming ‘Armageddon.’
“The gravest view is being taken in every capital in Europe concerning the news that Austria has declared war on Servia. The opening of hostilities was not unexpected, but having regard to the terrible and far-reaching consequences, which such an outbreak may involve, every effort was put forth to avert them, and now that these have failed diplomacy will be concerned with localising the area of war.
“Everything depends on the attitude Russia will take: upon her decision there hangs the fate of Europe. It is reported she is mobilising for war, but it does not necessarily follow that she will go to the assistance of Servia at once.
“Her army is not fully prepared for that, and in the circumstances she may content herself with watching events and only threatening to intervene actively should Austria, after the defeat of Servia, which seems inevitable, seek large territorial aggrandisement.
“Should, however, Russia actively take the field it would be the signal for the opening of that Armageddon of which every Foreign Office in Europe has been living in dread.”
And over at the Journal, on Friday, July 31, 1914, the editor believed the ‘big dark cloud’ in Europe may have had implications for the Home Rule crisis.
“It is the unexpected happens: and so it would seem it is to be with Ireland at a juncture in her affairs as critical as it is unsatisfactory.
“Out of the big dark cloud over the European Continental situation, a little beam of light issues and sheds a hopeful ray on this country.
“The Austro-Servian outbreak with all its incident tremendous possibilities stirs England to her centre, and though not directly concerned or likely immediately to be involved beyond the office of mediator, it is recognised that her influence and status as a great Power are dimmed in prestige by the internal dissensions and disturbing occurrences in the Irish connection.
“The Times has a highly suggestive comment in the line of agreement, settlement and pacification in the Home Rule connection, and this appears to voice a considerable opinion on both sides of the House.”
The editorial went on to conclude that: “England needs to approach the reckoned European embroglio with an united front and to have that the Irish question must be squared,”