Profile: Sir Edward Grey
Meeting at the foreign office between Sir Edward Grey (left), Count Berckendorff (second from left), Russian ambassador to the Court of St James, with fellow ambassadors, Paul Cambon (France, seated left) and Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky (Germany, standing centre), Lichnowsky was the only German diplomat who raised objections to Germany’s efforts to provoke an Austro-Serbian war, arguing that Britain would intervene in a continental war. A final cable on July 29th to the German Foreign Office stated simply “if war breaks out it will be the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen.” From the Illustrated London News. Photograph: Herbert Orth//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
In the years after the first World War, Sir Edward Grey, by now failing in sight, stayed awake at night in his cottage on the banks of Itchen chalk river in Hampshire, examining the actions he took in the years before July 2014.
Few men mattered more in the British government in the days, months and years before the first World War began than Grey, by then foreign secretary for nearly a decade. In the eyes of some, he is the one who could have stopped the headlong rush to war if he had made clear to Berlin the circumstances under which Britain would go to war.
For a decade, he had brought London ever closer to Paris. However, he wanted to bridle the French, still stung by the humiliation received at the hands of the Prussians 40 years earlier. The strategy in Grey’s mind was to work two ways. The French should always feel an element of doubt about London’s intentions in a bid to ensure that they did not become too bullish in their dealings with the Germans.
In turn, Berlin should not be made to feel that Britain’s ties to Paris were so intimate that they ruled out the possibility of an Anglo-German understanding – which had once been seen as an inevitability.
Berlin, of course, viewed life differently, particularly after Grey piloted an Anglo-Russian agreement through in 1907, one that was deeply unpopular in some quarters in Britain.
If Grey had boxed himself in by the time Sarajevo came, and he had, then it is equally true that the British cabinet was unclear about the messages it should send to Vienna and Berlin.
Three years before, during the Agadir Crisis, London had made it clear it would not remain indifferent to Berlin’s manoeuvres in Morocco, though Lloyd George, rather than Grey, put it into words.
Even if the policy worked, it alarmed many on the Liberal benches – leaving Grey facing more criticism than he had ever done before during his time in the Foreign Office.
Haunted by the carnage caused, Grey encouraged President Woodrow Wilson to make concessions in order to get US Senate backing for the League of Nations. Equally, he pressed for the publication of diplomatic papers from the days leading up to the outbreak of war. In the end, he published his own account his time in office, Twenty Five Years.
In 1922, he married for a second time, to Pamela Wyndham, the widow of Lord Glenconner – though the two had written frequent letters to each other since shortly after his wife had died 15 years earlier.
In 1927, Grey, who was once photographed with a robin perched on his hat, wrote a highly-regarded book on ornithology, The Charm of Birds. Into it, Grey poured his passion for nature in chapters titled as “January: Early Song”, though he modestly wrote in the preface that it would “have no scientific value”.
His wife died shortly afterwards. So, too, did his brother, the second of his line to die violently in Africa – killed by a buffalo. Through it all, Grey maintained, in the eyes of visitors, a certain dignity.