The Scrap of Paper

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I saw this card for sale and was delighted when the seller accepted my below price Best Offer. The card was published at a time after August 1914 and before the end of World War I, by C. W. Faulkner & Co. Ltd. of London.

As a collector of World War I cards, when I saw the words Scrap of Paper I knew the event the card referred. The image is a reproduction of a government document, complete with wax seals and signatures. The reproduction of this image comes with acknowledgements to the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee for it was this government body that itself reproduced the image for use in recruiting members for the armed forces.

The document is the Treaty of London, signed April 19, 1839, by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium. This treaty said that Belgium was its own country, and it confirmed the independence for the German speaking part of Luxemburg. The important part of the treaty that became significant in 1914 was that Belgium should always be neutral, and those who signed the treaty would protect Belgium if it was attacked.

World War One began on June 28, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. War was declared on July 28 and Austro-Hungarian artillery began to bombard Belgrade the next day. Russia ordered partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary, and on July 30, when Austria-Hungary was riposting conventionally with an order of mobilization on its Russian frontier, Russia ordered general mobilization. Germany, which since July 28 had been hoping, in disregard of earlier warning hints from Great Britain, that Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia could be “localized” to the Balkans, was now disillusioned insofar as eastern Europe was concerned. On July 31 Germany sent a 24-hour ultimatum requiring Russia to halt its mobilization and an 18-hour ultimatum requiring France to promise neutrality in the event of war between Russia and Germany.

Both Russia and France predictably ignored these demands. On August 1 Germany ordered general mobilization and declared war against Russia, and France likewise ordered general mobilization. The next day Germany sent troops into Luxemburg and demanded from Belgium free passage for German troops across its neutral territory. On August 3 Germany declared war against France. In the night of August 3–4 German forces invaded Belgium. Thereupon, Great Britain, which had no concern with Serbia and no express obligation to fight either for Russia or for France but was expressly committed to defend Belgium, on August 4 declared war against Germany.

Britain was obliged to join the war because of the 1839 treaty to defend Belgium. Germany never considered that Britain would join the war based on a treaty some 75 years old and the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg expressed surprise that Britain would go to war based on “A Scrap of Paper.” This throwaway comment was widely reported in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of August 19, 1914, which quotes The Times:

A SCRAP OF PAPER. GERMAN CHANCELLOR’S VIEW OF A TREATY. In diplomatic circles, says The Times, an interesting account is given of the final interview between Sir Edward Goschen, the British Ambassador in Berlin, and the German Imperial Chancellor, Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg, which reflects great credit on the British Diplomatist. Speaking with considerable irritation the Imperial Chancellor is said to have expressed his inability to understand the attitude of England, and to have exclaimed, “Why should you make war based upon a scrap of paper?” Sir Edward Goschen is reported to have replied that he understood the German statesman’s inability to comprehend British action, but that England attached importance to the scrap of paper (the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality) because it bore her signature as well as that of Germany.”

In other words, Britain told Germany that it honored its agreements. The key principle here is honor and the British government and media used this scrap of paper statement to discredit the word of Germany and to emphasize how Britain would rise up against such treachery and would stand by Belgium because they had agreed to do so.

The phrase A Scrap of Paper was often used in newspaper reports, on postcards and on recruitment posters. It was also the subject of a least two music hall songs of the time. It was used as a rallying call to the masses with Great Britain taking a noble and superior stance because the country had given its word. The government played on the perception that the British have that they always play by the rules.

Back to the card. It may not be evident from the scan, but this postcard is actually two pieces of paper. The first is the base postcard on which the treaty is printed and the second is a thin strip of paper which runs across the lower half of the card and is also titled The Scrap of Paper. It further says that profits made on the sale of this card will be used for charitable purposes. I have to say, it was ingenious for the publisher to market a postcard at a time when the public was fully aware that Germany expected Britain to renege on its agreement and to then add a scrap of paper to the card.

I would love to find a used example of this card although I suspect that the paper strip would have detached in the mail.

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What a great history lesson! “Guns Of August” by Barbara Tuchman was an amazing eye opener concerning events leading up to this seminal event of the 20th Century. I still find the entire series of events absurd and almost beyond my understanding. Yet, humans continue the charade to this day, the posturing and the threats. If only it stops at that, I guess it’s okay. But, look what happened back then. I wonder what the world would be like if that conflict had not ignited into the nightmare it became.

I originally read this article when Bob posted it to the Facebook group mentioned in his author credit.

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Bob Teevan

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It’s a hoax! We hear about hoaxes every day, and in this silly season of “hate-politics” the public learns of them through social media. But, not long ago, the hoax was not much more than sport. The Cambridge hoax was talked about in newspapers and on postcards.

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