In all the debates about which country was most responsible for the horrors of World War One, Britain invariably escapes any serious blame. That is until now. Douglas Newton has written the definitive account of Britain’s rush to war in the summer of 1914. It is 'only' a liberal anti-war account but as such a thorough account has never been written before it is still extremely useful. This is the concluding chapter of his book, The darkest days.
‘We still hold with Morley and Burns that the policy of strict neutrality was the proper policy to adopt.
Francis Hirst’, 18 August 1914
How utterly improbable it was! Six weeks into the Great War, Norman Angell told a gathering of supporters from his old Neutrality League that, in the last days of peace, 'not a bus full of people' could have been found in Britain to back 'an agreement to place on the Continent a million people in support of France because of an outbreak of war in some remote corner such as Serbia'. And yet Britain was doing it.
A hundred years later, British historians of the 'dire necessity' school still assert that Britain's Great War should be remembered simply as a harsh reality that had to be faced. They insist that nothing other than a righteous war against German militarism was conceivable in 1914. They plead for the old sugary verities to be reasserted - that Britain was in the right, that Germany was in the wrong, that the cause was just, and that it was a stand-tall moment - imagining this is loyalty to the dead. Conscious of the magnitude of the disaster, can we be consoled by such simplicities?
Britain's Road to War
Let us begin with a swift retelling of the feel-good story of Britain's decision for war as told by believers in 'dire necessity'. According to this tale. Britain did her very best to avoid war. All her leaders wanted diplomatic mediation to resolve the crisis. But Germany would not have it. Luckily Britain had long prepared against the possibility of German aggression and so she clung to her Ententes with France and Russia. Only when Germany invaded Belgium on Tuesday 4 August did Britain finally decide upon intervention. Britain went to war for high moral purposes - essentially to protect Belgium. The process of choosing war shows how a robust parliamentary democracy made the difficult decision to face down German militarism. Happily, the British people were practically unanimous in support of the politicians' decision for war. So, they saw it through. We should all be proud.
Naturally, there is a parallel tale regarding the role of Britain's dissenters that is unremittingly hostile toward them. According to this tale, only a contemptible rump of 'pacifists' indulged themselves in a futile advocacy of Britain's neutrality in 1914. They simply refused to look facts in the face. In a self-indulgent gesture, two Cabinet ministers resigned. If these Radicals had been successful in urging Britain's neutrality, the inevitable outcome would have been the triumph of German aggression. They should be ashamed.
This book has sought to demonstrate that this fairy tale, parading Britain's moral superiority and scolding the Radicals' futility, is simplistic, unfair lacking in nuance, and often flatly contradicted by the documentary evidence.
What really happened? The Liberal government was deeply divided over how to handle the crisis of 1914. There were significant forces at work on the Right of British politics eager for war with Germany for they believed it was a favourable moment. Sections of the Conservative press whirled their bull-roarers for intervention from an early date. The Liberal Cabinet's response to the crisis was cautious. Grey hoped that a policy of mediation. But in the last analysis, Britain failed to mediate effectively as a genuinely neutral power. Under pressure to show solidarity with the Entente. Britain did very little to restrain either France or Russia. Instead, the pro Entente interventionists in the Cabinet leapt forward to make early preparations for war that boosted the confidence of the hard-liners in Russia and France willing to risk war. When war in Eastern Europe was declared late on Sunday 1 August, Britain's leaders ceased efforts to keep Britain out of a wider war. The minority of Cabinet interventionists eventually 'jockeyed' the neutralist majority into a rushed choice for war on Sunday 2 August in the shape of a pledge of naval assistance to France. The pledge locked Britain into any war before news of the German ultimatum to Belgium. It very nearly wrecked the government, initially provoking four Cabinet resignations. Grey then preached debts of honour and fear of abandonment by allies - and the Cabinet clique rushed to a declaration of war. Throughout the crisis, the Cabinet's proEntente leaders were manipulative and deceptive. They made crucial decisions outside the Cabinet, which steered the neutralist majority toward war. There was no democratic decision for war.
On the other side of the question, the Radicals and peace activists tried hard to prevent the catastrophe. In the Liberal Party, they probably commanded the support of the majority. They argued against early military steps that would incite Russia and France. They pressed for a credible, active diplomacy of mediation - strengthened by a commitment to strict neutrality and genuinely even-handed negotiation which was not tried. The great bulk of the Liberal and Labour press stood solidly for this neutral diplomacy when the crisis broke, and fiercely maintained a demand for neutrality to the end. The Radicals were blindsided for the first week of the crisis, misled by assurances that Britain was avoiding all provocation and pursuing a strictly neutral diplomacy. She did neither.
Only at the last gasp, over the weekend of 1-2 August, did the forces of internationalism in Britain - Radical, Labour, pacifist and feminist come out loudly and openly, They began to rally public opinion, mounting significant demonstrations. There was deep resentment and recrimination when the decision came so rapidly to declare war on Tuesday 4 August. The speed of the crisis had defeated attempts to rouse a great public campaign, but a promising start had been made. Given more time, it might have grown to be formidable. But public opinion had scarcely had time to make up its mind when war was declared. Certainly there was no overwhelming public pressure for war.
And what of the Radical critique of the government's handling of the crisis? The Radicals were essentially correct when they accused the Liberal Imperialist minority of 'bouncing' the Cabinet and parliament. They were correct in denouncing the government's dishonesty in trumpeting the war as a war of necessity forced upon Britain by German action in Belgium on Tuesday 4 August. They saw that the government had determined upon war by Sunday 2 August in solidarity with France, and that Belgium came later as a gift to propagandists. They correctly interpreted Britain's decision for war as a triumph for Grey and the policy of the Entente. Ultimately, Grey had steered his colleagues and the nation to war, in line with his own endlessly repeated conviction that fidelity to the Entente was indispensable. For instance, way back in 1907, Grey had expressed this, almost as a vow, to his astonished ambassador Frank Lascelles in Berlin - no 'wavering by a hair's breadth from our loyalty to the Entente'.
Did the British Radicals Embolden the German Militarists?
Crusaders for Britain's righteous war will reject this Radical critique. They reply that those pursuing neutrality for Britain in July-August 1914 were playing into the hands of the German militarist aggressors, and ironically making war more likely. According to one long-running argument, Grey had to adopt a stance of 'apparent indecision' for fear of the Radicals. He was unable to give a clear warning to Germany, because the Radicals prevented him. The neutralists hobbled deterrence and, therefore, Britain failed to deter war.?
The case for this is weak. First, Grey did repeatedly issue loud warnings to Germany, through Lichnowsky, who passed them on, backing them up with his own, Berlin, scene of both panic and braggadocio by turns as the crisis deepened., was not emboldened in a choice for war by any lack of warnings from London. Second, Grey embraced the policy of 'apparent indecision' as his very own, not something forced upon him. It was after all in keeping with his long-established belief that the 'policy of the Entente' could restrain Russia and France by the very nature of its ambiguity?
Third, there was no high-profile Radical campaign for neutrality in the House of Commons that might have fortified the wild men in Berlin. Not a single question was asked, not a single speech was delivered, urging neutrality during me week beginning Monday 27 July- because Grey had pleaded successfully for silence from the Radical backbench. Fourth, there is no trail of evidence in the German documents that confidence in the power of British Radicals to keep Britain neutral encouraged the German militarists to risk war. A very few samples of the British press reached the Kaiser, but the opinions were in different directions. His marginal notes recorded a 'Bravo' for Radical opinion early in the crisis, but he complained later that it was having no impact upon Grey's initially cautious but increasingly hostile stance. Fifth, if one factor above others is to be detected in the German documents sustaining hope in British neutrality during the crisis, it was the Kaiser's faith in George V's consoling words to Prince Heinrich on Sunday 26 July indicating his desire for neutrality.
Keeping both sides in Europe guessing, by citing enigmatic British public opinion as the final arbiter, was Grey's preferred diplomatic tactic - not something forced upon him. After the commencement of the war, when mixing with friends, Grey readily conceded that during the crisis he had felt he had no choice but to be inscrutable and to rely on public opinion. He did not indict the Radicals for foisting this upon him. For example, in May 1915, Grey told Francis and Eleanor Acland that:
‘one of his strongest feelings in the days just before the war was that he himself had no power to decide policy, and was only the mouthpiece of England. Lichnowsky on the one hand and Sazonov and Cambon on the other were always saying - will you stay out? On what terms will you stay out? And on the other hand, will you definitely come in? But all he could say was 'I don't know. I'm not England.'
What Might Have Happened
Contemporary believers in the absolute necessity of Britain's war point to what might have happened to clinch their case. If Britain had maintained her neutrality on Tuesday 4 August, they insist, a disaster for France, Belgium and Europe would have ensued: the German armies would have reached Paris, European democracy would have been destroyed, and German hegemony established in Europe. Historians in the correct manly tradition that celebrates military endeavour claim to know that only war could have repelled the nightmare of German domination.
What would have happened if Britain had remained neutral in 1914? The only truthful answer to the question is that we do not know. We simply cannot know. Those who insist they do are trading on our credulity - and our tendency to be spooked by ghost stories. We can debate what is conceivable, but we cannot prove things about paths not taken. It is time Britain's choice for war in 1914 lost the sheen given it by many historians who fraudulently claim that they know there was no other conceivable outcome - and no better outcome. They know no such thing.
Against the fatalistic view of an irresistible war against German aggression, let us simply take account of three famous 'bumps' along the way to war. First, on the evening of Wednesday 29 July a single telegram from William II to Tsar Nicholas caused him to rebel against his military advisers and seek a delay in general mobilisation. Second, early in the morning of Thursday 30 July, Viviani and Poincare sent a telegram to St Petersburg that leant toward caution. It urged Russia to avoid 'any measure which might offer Germany a pretext for a total or partial mobilisation of her forces'. But, sadly, it also included the usual assurances that 'France is resolved to fulfil all the obligations of the alliance' . The Russian leaders briefly paused in their preparations. Then they chose to trust the assurances - and decided upon general mobilisation chat afternoon. Third, on the evening of Saturday 1 August, when Lichnowsky’s famous cables arrived in Berlin, briefly reviving hope of British neutrality, the Kaiser also challenged his military advisers, As we saw, he cancelled orders for the occupation of Luxembourg, and sought to limit the scope of the impending war. Was war really inevitable? Perhaps war was entirely avoidable. The facts jostle. What slowing of the 'march of events' might have been achieved by other interventions? None can say.
Most of those who had struggled against war in July-August 1914 fiercely maintained their faith in neutrality for Britain as the better option. Francis Hirst wrote to his American friends at the Carnegie Endowment in mid-August:
‘A great many of us, with the support of Bryce and Loreburn, worked very hard in me short week we had to keep Britain at peace. We still hold with Morley and Burns that the policy of strict neutrality was the proper policy to adopt. [We believe] that the British Government could probably have secured not only the neutrality of Great Britain but the neutrality of Belgium and the neutrality of the Channel.’
Was he right? We shall never know. But certainly Britain's leaders might have done a great many things differently during the crisis if they had steadfastly pursued a neutral diplomacy. They might have refused Churchill's demands for early naval movements - as Harcourt had pleaded because of the risk of inciting Russia. They might have put the Russian and French ambassadors in London under real pressure on the matter of Russia's early mobilisation. Their diplomacy might have focused directly upon reversing this dangerous step. They might have delayed sending their own 'Warning Telegram' to the Empire, The leadership clique might have presented each crucial diplomatic and military step to the Cabinet beforehand - rather than pre-empting its decisions. Would all of this only have served to incite Germany, or might it have slowed the rush down the slope to catastrophe? We cannot tell. But often in history, the unforeseen - and even the unimagined - can intervene and carry the day.
The Essential Shield of German Perfidy
The fatalistic insistence that Britain's war was unavoidable is often rooted in a belief that the Germans' drive toward aggression was inexorable, and therefore any moderation on Britain's part would have only encouraged war. Believers point to what did happen in 1914: German aggression in Belgium and France, followed by toplevel planning for annexation in east and west - Bethmann Hollweg's 'September Memorandum' most memorably. But this is a dangerous argument. The Germans could also point to what did happen in 1914: the Russians did invade East Prussia, the British did seize German colonies, and the British did strangle Germany's seaborne commerce and starve the nation. The German Right pointed to all this as evidence of the Entente's hunger for aggression. No one can afford to confuse the results of war with causes.
The British certainly planned for the aggrandisement of Empire and the commercial ruin of Germany. Harcourt himself drew up in March 1915 a secret memorandum for the Cabinet, 'The Spoils', outlining sweeping plans for the newly inflated British Empire in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific. Many more plans followed. Any objective study of the war aims of all the Great Powers during the Great War reveals that all sides had shopping lists. Germany as never uniquely in thrall to believers in the old law of grab - the 'simple plan', as Wordsworth had put it,
‘That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.’
The easy way out of all this is to reassert German perfidy as the complete explanation for the outbreak of war. To find the cause in the adversary comforts the conscience. If one can indict the Germans, one can absolve the war. Grey fed the hysteria on this throughout the war. He told me House of Commons in January 1916 that the war was 'a war forced upon Europe after every effort had been made to find a settlement without war, which could perfectly easily have been found (cheers) ... by conference. as we suggested. Prussian militarism would not have any other settlement but war. Evils certainly Rowed from 'Prussian militarism' - and they could be diabolical. But German militarism was never a singular evil in militarised Europe before or during the Great War. The insistence upon German perfidy as a complete explanation for the cataclysm of 1914 has always served a reactionary purpose. It was indispensable in obscuring the great realities exposed by the resort to war.
First, the descent into war revealed the ignominious collapse of essential elements of the old order. The New Imperialism, the great cheap labour scam run to enrich fragments of the economy at the expense of the rest, had landed everyone in a bloodbath. The 'old diplomacy' - under which men from a half-dozen public schools presumed to manage competitive imperialism against a combustible backdrop of vast armaments and rival alliances - had failed to safeguard peace. The scramble for Dreadnoughts had failed to deter war. None of this could be admitted, so German evil was depicted as a new immoral dement that had upset the good old system.
Second, depicting Britain's war as a battle against German perfidy in Belgium helped blur diplomatic realities - mat Britain's choice for war was an absolute triumph for Russian and French diplomacy and a diplomatic disaster for Britain. After nine years of exquisite difficult)' for Liberal ministers as they tap-danced around me slippery claim that Britain was merely the 'partner' of Russia and France, every string was pulled by the Entente in July-August 1914 and Britain had dashed off to war like an ally. The war of solidarity with the Entente always a hard sell - had to be repackaged, at the last moment, as a war for moral righteousness in Belgium.
Third, German perfidy could be relied upon to eclipse reactionary Russia. With all eyes focused on the battles to throw back German militarism in the west, Liberals could ignore the east. Germany's scarlet sins, so near and so visible, outshone all. Liberals could suppress their gnawing doubts that Russia's leaders - reactionaries, such as Nicholas II, Goremykin, Sazonov, Izvolsky, and Sukhomlinov - were fit partners in a crusade for the rights of small nations against despotism.
Fourth, German perfidy enabled at least half the Cabinet ministers to stifle their knowledge that the sad-eyed and sensitive Grey - a man without languages or drive or imagination - had been hopelessly ineffectual. For years past, Lloyd George had told friends in confidence that Grey was just putty in the hands of his advisers: 'He simply carries out Harding[e]'s instructions.' Grey was 'immoveable', 'stolid, unimaginative', with only 'the appearance of weight and wisdom'. The struggle against lying Germans transformed him into the very button of British moral superiority - that inexhaustible, self-approving moral force that was so 'adorably irresponsible' for the war, as critics satirised it.
In a sense, those in London who chose war in August 1914 could count themselves lucky that the first months of fighting did not expose their gambles as utterly reckless. Nobody knew for certain what kind of a nightmare was avoided - or unleashed - by Britain's choice for war. In choosing to back Russia and France, no one knew how the battles would play out in the first months. The Russian armies might have been victorious in East Prussia. German cities such as Allenstein, Konigsberg and Breslau might have fallen to the advancing Russians - as they would 'have done if the Russian armies had advanced 300 kilometres into Germany, as they did into Austrian Galicia. As events turned out, the fortuitous 'war map' produced by late 1914, with great chunks of France and Belgium in German hands while the Russians were tossed out of East Prussia, helped the British claim to have intervened against aggression, But how would the British decision to back France and Russia have looked if the French armies invading AIsace and Lorraine had got to Freiburg, and the Russians had reached Breslau? Let no one imagine that those who support war are always realists, and those who oppose it are always sentimentalists. Hatred is also a sentiment.
Once the choice was made in Britain, the sentimentalism of war - Thomas Hardy's 'faith and fire within us' and Cecil Spring-Rice's 'love that asks no question' - swept through the political leadership and was carried to the people. All the usual justifications for war did good service - self-defence, last resort, safety first, 'dire necessity', and no alternative. If only it were so.
This book is very much a top-down study - necessarily so, because those at the top launch wars. But let us pause briefly to recall me savagery that was unleashed on ordinary people when the industrialised kill-chain whirred into action in 1914. The impressions preserved in the diary of Caroline Playne, an observant friend of both Quakers and military men in London during the Great War. must suffice to give us glimpses into the charnel house. In July 1916 she spoke to a friend nursing at King George's Hospital in London, 'full of men with part of [their] face blown away ... not able to take solid food. What will these men's further lives be?' Playne's friend 'hoped the worst cases would not survive.' Playne spoke with a woman who saw each soldier's death as 'a splendid sacrifice like the death of Christ' - 'it was so fine, so glorious, it was better than if they had lived'. She attended sermons repudiating the idea that one should love one's enemies, because 'if we had been more ready to kill Germans and to kill more of them - we might have saved Belgian women from outrage.' A lady from the right-wing Navy League told Playne it would be best for humanity if the Germans 'could all be killed'. She heard a Russian officer dismissing the Belgian atrocities in light of the wholesale massacres he had witnessed in Hungarian villages during the Russian retreat of 1915. '''What about the inhabitants?" he was asked. "Oh they all went to the devil." , Playne soon learned that the daily atrocities of normal military operations dwarfed these horrific incidents behind the lines. A British officer told her his soldiers routinely 'killed the wounded Germans'. The men heard their Colonel's complaints, and then 'as soon as the Colonel was gone they said they would do as they had done'. Playne listened to British officers describing the 'horrible heaped-up slaughter', and sights in the stinking ooze that would make a butcher retch. She marvelled at 'the coolness and the calmness of it, all told in a pretty drawing room under a reproduction of Botticelli's Venus - this was the nightmare.' Eventually she grew inured to tales of 'slaughtered youth'. Then her own young nephew, Leslie Playne, asked her just before being sent to France, 'What was Armageddon?
On the British side, the commitment to this ever-widening imperial conflict in August 1914 eventually cost the lives of approximately three-quarters of a million British servicemen - or closer to a million if military and civilian deaths across the Empire are added. The war began a frantic pillaging of the public coffers, present and future. Only two weeks into the fighting, Lloyd George told the Cabinet he was 'much distressed as to expenditure'. 'We may have to borrow one thousand millions before the war is over' , Churchill replied. As some ministers laughed, Churchill declared, 'It is time we got something out of posterity.' And so they did. By July 1916, Britain's average daily spending on the war exceeded £6 million; by May 1917 it reached £7.9 million per day. When it was over, British war expenditure had reached the staggering total of £9,593 million, and the national debt stood at £8,000 million. These figures take on real meaning when it is recalled that the last peacetime British budget of May 1914 proposed a total annual expenditure of only £207 million. The choice for war in 1914 was a choice for mechanised slaughter at stupendous cost in the words of one soldier-novelist, a 'crowning imbecility', a 'cosmic murder', a war of 'lunatic waste'. Its prolongation incubated the future horrors of Fascism and Communism.
Nations going to war are very like each other. Britain's descent into war was marked, as elsewhere, by panic, manipulation, deception, recklessness, high-handedness, and low political calculation - and decisions made at a tearing pace. The Radical MP Percy Molteno captured it neatly in the first, the last, and the only House of Commons debate granted on the choice for war, on the evening Monday 3 August. The people and the parliament were being stampeded, Molteno alleged. 'I feel very strongly on this subject', he explained, fighting hard to contain his emotions. The parliamentarians should have been granted a 'a fair and straight opportunity of considering, discussing, and deciding on this question'. It was vital, he argued; that we 'should give the people of this country a chance to decide'. Instead, the nation was witnessing 'a continuation of that old and disastrous system where a few men in charge of the state, wielding the whole force of the State, make secret engagements and secret arrangements, carefully veiled from the knowledge of the people, who are as dumb driven cattle without a voice on the question'.
How should Britain's Great War be remembered after a century? In a 'national spirit'? Perhaps the idea that for Britain there was no alternative to war, no error in her handling of the crisis, and no deed left undone in pursuit of peace is an essential consolation. But it is fairy dust. There is really only one story worth telling about the Great War: it was a common European tragedy - a filthy, disgusting and hideous episode of industrialised killing. Not the first, and not the last. It was unredeemed by victory. The uplifting element of the story lies in the struggle to avert it.
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