We hear a lot in election years, about “Left” and “Right”. “Liberal” and “Conservative”.
The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right. Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now, the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.
200 years later, philosophical differences between the Left and Right of the period, would be recognizable to political observers today.
Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left-wing politician, appointed Prime Minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to other people. By 1911, both were divorced. That October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs. Cailloux.
The political right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage conferred by France’s 40 million, compared with 70 million Germans.
Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.
Henriette Cailloux was not amused.
On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic. Cailloux fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.
There is a common but mistaken notion that Imperial Germany “started” World War I, but it isn’t so. Kaiser Wilhelm was a famous “saber rattler”, but actually going to war with the other major European powers, was another matter.
It was Germany’s weaker ally Austria-Hungary which, having received vague assurances of German support, pursued a policy of unreasoning belligerence against Serbia.
German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow was away on honeymoon, during key periods of the July crisis. The Kaiser himself was out of touch, cruising the Norwegian fjords. That cruise has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in history.
On being informed of the decision to mobilize, the Kaiser told his General Staff “Gentlemen, you will regret this.”
Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way. In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.
Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20. Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for. French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The trial ended in acquittal on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to have been a “crime passionnel”. A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which it sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year-old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.
An event which could have resulted in little more that a policing action in the Balkans, was about to explode into the “War to End All Wars”. Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon said “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July 1914, would not live to see the other side.