Notes on a "Blank Cheque"

It is often said that just as Germany gave Austria a blank cheque, meaning "we will support you whatever you do", in early July 1914 so France did the same in respect of Russia in 1912. However, Keiger's book on France and the origins of the war, for which I recently posted some rather summary notes, calls this in question. I therefore thought it might be useful to look at the documents upon which he bases this assertion.

I have not been able to find a copy of the Russian "Livre Noir" so that all the documents summarized below are from the Série 3 of the Documents Diplomatiques Français, volume 3 up to 8.4.12 and volume 4 for 15.10.12 onwards.

These are only summaries and I regret I am technically unable to provide full copies.

Poincaré was then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paul Cambon was French ambassador in London and Louis ditto in St Petersburg.


Although I cannot give all the sources mentioned by Keiger, the documents summarized below seem sufficient to support his view that Poincaré did not give the Russians anything resembling a blank cheque.

13.3.12. Poincaré to P. Cambon. No 193

I questioned Izvolski yesterday about Russia's military preparations in the Caucasus and told him we had always interpreted the alliance in the sense that Russia could take no initiative in Eastern affairs without our prior agreement. It is not enough to be told afterwards. We have to be agreed. He agreed and said that was why Sazonov had told him to discuss with France the various eventualities. He went on to tell me that they had had no contact with the Austrians and that they were concerned only that Italy should not be paralysed in the Balkans thus leaving the field open to the Austrians.

It is not enough that Sazonov says that he has no reservations concerning the interpretation of our treaty that I have given to Izvolski. The question is too grave to be allowed to pass. We must not be surprised again as we were at Potsdam. Please obtain from Sazonov a categoric response.

Worried that Russia was trying to bring about an Austro-Italo-Russian entente, something which would affect the entire balance of forces and call in question the Entente. France, loyal to the alliance, would never embark on diplomatic conversations without prior agreement with Russia and has the right to expect the same treatment. Please tell Sazonov at the first opportunity that we cannot be satisfied with information a posteriori.

Describes the difficulties encountered in getting from the Russians the exact terms of the agreement between Bulgaria and Serbia and how he (Poincaré) had delayed agreeing to Izvolski's request for a loan to Bulgaria on the Paris Bourse. It was only on Poincaré's visit to Russia that Sazonov showed him the text and was not surprised when Poincaré was horrified by it especially as it made Russia the arbiter as to when the Serb-Bulgar alliance would go to war. Britain must no longer be left in ignorance and will certainly agree that Russia has created a very dangerous situation though perhaps mostly from stupidity, one which it is now trying to repair. for what to do in case of conflict, I think we have to guarantee our support. If we hesitate, sooner or later the alliance will break up.

13.11.12 Poincaré to Louis,. No 443

......As for the attitude France will take if Austria intervenes actively against Serbia, that can be defined only when we know what Russia proposes to do. Please ask Sazonov what practical measures he envisages.

Quarrel between Austria and Serbia could endanger general peace. Think Russian advice to Serbs prudent and wise. We support it. But Sazonov fears it will not be enough to prevent coercive action by Austria and he wants to know what attitude we will take. I have already told you twice that we cannot say until we know what Russia proposes, being more concerned than us. Must correct also Sazonov's statement that France and Britain had both said they would not allow the conflict with the Triple Alliance to become envenomed. I am not informed as to whether Britain has said so but, as for us, we will wait until Russia's intentions are known and can be discussed. In the meantime, we have said nothing that could imply a lack of support.

Izvolsky came yesterday to demand, yet again, to know what attitude we and Britain will take if Austria cannot be deterred from coercing Serbia. I have already told you twice that we will not say until we know what Russia proposes. They are the most interested. I await their views. I must also correct Sazonov's statement (continues exactly as in 468 above to the end). We know Izvolsky blamed us for his failure in 1908-9. We must ensure we cannot be blamed now and do not have others responsibilities laid on us. I suspect Izvolsky has not reported my words faithfully to his government. Please put this right.

Izvolsky came yesterday to read me the telegram he had sent to his government. In it, he said that France would go to war if Russia did because we knew that Germany was behind Austria. I said that was too general and that France would respect the treaty of alliance and would support Russia, even militarily, if the casus foederis arose. Izvolsky promised to rectify and to make more precise (his message. EAR). Please, when occasion offers, define our attitude in strict conformity with the treaty.

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