A duty to the French?

During the long month of July, the British public enjoyed summer, listening occasionally to ever more strident tones from the Continent. For a while, however, they mostly did not choose to do so


T wo days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith stood in the Commons, describing the killings as one of “those incredible crimes which almost make us despair of the progress of mankind”.

The Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Joseph, who had ruled for 70 years, had “to the human eye” suffered “such an unmerited succession of dark and wounding experiences,” declared Asquith. “He and his people have always been our friends,” he said, “We respectfully tender to him and to the great family of nations of which he is the venerable and venerated head, our heartfelt and our most affectionate sympathy,” the prime minister went on.

The words filled the needs of diplomatic form, and, on the day, reflected public sympathy in Britain – such as it was – that it was an affront that an heir to a throne, any throne, should have been felled by an assassin’s bullet, even if it was not something that involved them.

Privately, however, Asquith was absorbed more by the home rule crisis in Ireland, but also by his new mistress, Venetia Stanley, to whom he was then writing passionate letters daily – ones that detailed his views on Ireland, his thoughts on her pet penguin and his longing to see her.

Asquith was as unconcerned as many others that events in the Balkans – the latest in a series of outbreaks there since the beginning of the century – might threaten Britain’s golden years. The assassinations were next mentioned in his diary on July 24th. In the sunshine-filled days of late June 1914 – days that would later be more filled with sunshine in the memories of those who lived through the horrors of the years to come, many others shared Asquith’s lack of interest.

In the Foreign Office, news of the killing of the archduke and his wife was delivered by a page-boy, a telegram on a silver salver, to the desk of its most senior official, Arthur Nicholson. The latter was also unconcerned. Writing a week later to Britain’s ambassador in Berlin he confidently declared that apart from Albania “we have no very urgent and pressing question to occupy us in the rest of Europe”.

So much of the story of the 37 days between peace and war centre on the Liberal Edward Grey, who had served as Foreign Secretary since 1905, a lonely widower, happiest when standing on the banks of the Itchen in Hampshire with a fly-rod in his hand, or bird-watching. History today remembers the Northumbrian Grey for his sad comment, as he looked out St James’ Park as evening shadows fell one evening in early August: “The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

But he has been blamed for failing to prevent it, too. For nearly a decade, he had run the Foreign Office, believing that the balance of power in Europe had to be maintained at all costs – and that only Britain could do it. The policy had brought him ever closer to the French, long-time enemies. Indeed, by the Agadir crisis of 1911 in Morocco many of his fellow Liberals in the Cabinet began to be concerned about the depth of ties when it emerged that military staff talks had taken place.

The Balkans had done much to burnish Grey’s international reputation after he organised an international conference in 1913 after Bulgaria, unhappy with its share of the spoils from the First Balkan War, started a second.

During feverish weeks a year later, Grey tried to organise a second meeting of the Great Powers, but, this time, it was too late because this time Vienna – emboldened by Kaiser Wilhelm’s “blank cheque” guarantee of support – wanted to crush the Serbs, not negotiate.

During the long month of July, the British public enjoyed summer, listening occasionally, to ever more strident tones from the Continent. Mostly, however, they did not choose to do so.

Even senior figures misread the signals. Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George later claimed that he had known immediately he had seen the telegram carrying news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that it “meant war”. But his words at the time contradicted his later claims to far-sightedness – that month the Welshman, keen to spend money on welfare changes rather than guns, told MPs that he hoped Britain’s naval budget could fall because of better relations with Berlin.

On July 26th, Grey left for his Hampshire cottage. He managed a few hours on the banks of the Itchen rod in hand. There, he made an entry in his diary – the last one before the outbreak of war, indeed, the last one of that year: “Caught three fish and put back six between 3/4lb and 1lb.” By Sunday afternoon, he was back in Whitehall, clear in his mind Britain could not, would not, go to war because Austria had attacked Serbia. Not even if the Austrians and the Russians met on the battlefield.

Defending France, however, was a different matter. Grey had placed himself in a quandary. He had refused to turn an entente into a formal treaty, yet had never fully brought his cabinet colleagues into how deep the bonds with Paris had already become.

In the following days, Sir Henry Newbolt, the poet best known for Vitaï Lampada which urged a generation of Edwardian youth to “Play up! play up! and play the game!”, travelled to St Olave Grammar School in Bermondsey. The unveiling of a portrait of the great man was to have been the day’s centrepiece. But the portrait had been sent to Germany for prints to be made and the Berlin firm had won unexpected contracts, war work, as it turned out, and did not return it in time.

Handing out the prizes, Newbolt struck an odd tone in the minds of students and parents. All were looking forward to the summer holidays stretching ahead, rather than debating politics and war. Offering no congratulations, Newbolt said: “When you are engaged – as you may be in a few days – in a great world-shaking war, your prizes will appear very little things.” *

By 1919, 191 Olavians would have died in Flanders’ fields, and elsewhere.

Between July 21st and August 2nd British ministers debated, and disagreed about what to do. Asquith feared that half his ministers would quit – and his government fall – if they were faced with a demand for war on foot of a German attack on France.

If the situation had stayed as it then was, Britain would probably have still gone to war that August, but it would have been with Asquith, Winston Churchill and Grey joining with the Conservatives to take the decision for war. But Germany’s decision to attack France through Belgium changed everything. Public opinion was woken from its summer slumber to rise behind “little Belgium”. On August 3rd the Cabinet agreed an ultimatum requiring German withdrawal.

The Cabinet’s preoccupations with Ireland that month eased on July 30th, when the Ulster crisis was averting with both sides in the Irish debate proposing that the Home Rule Bill should be postponed until the European crisis was over. Ireland, said Grey, rather to his own surprise, had become “the one bright spot in this dark scene”, while Asquith believed that the Ulster deal mean that Britain “would now be able to speak and to act with the authority of an undivided nation”.

On August 3rd, Grey walked the short distance from the Foreign Office on Whitehall for his three o’clock speech feeling strangely calm, he recalled later. The minutes ahead would form the defining moment of his life, he knew, but he believed he had done everything possible to avoid bloodshed. The House of Commons dealt briskly with a number of items, including a 29-word mention of the County Officers and Courts (Ireland) Act, before it settled down to hear the Foreign Secretary.

It was not a great speech, but it was persuasive. Grey had decided not to read out the telegrams from German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg believing that to read them “ought to stir indignation and the House ought to come to its decisions on grounds of weight, not passion,” he wrote later. He did not, he told MPs, want them to focus on “where the blame seems to us to lie, which Powers were most in favour of peace, which were most disposed to risk or endanger peace.”

Instead, he wanted them to decide based on “British interests, British honour, and British obligations, free from all passion as to why peace has not been preserved”.

Lord Hugh Cecil, who watched the sitting from the gallery above, dissected Grey’s speech minutely, noting “its admirable arrangement, its perfect taste and the extraordinary dexterity with which it deal with the weak spot in his argument” – the scale of London’s obligations to the French. Here, Cecil observed, “he changed to a note of appeal to the individual conscience, thereby disarming criticism in the one matter where he was weak, without any departure real or apparent from perfect sincerity”.

So little had been done to prepare the ground for war that Grey had to start almost from the beginning, detailing a decade-old web of diplomacy – one where the Germans demanded respect, the French revenge, while the British sought to protect the hegemony they enjoyed.

“I have assured the House – and the prime minister has assured the House more than once – that if any crisis such as this arose, we should come before the House of Commons and be able to say to the House that it was free to decide what the British attitude should be, that we would have no secret engagement which we should spring upon the House, and tell the House that, because we had entered into that engagement, there was an obligation of honour upon the country,” he declared.

A 1912 deal with the French – under which the latter moved its fleet into the Mediterranean, while the Royal Navy undertook to protect French ports from aggression – did not tie London’s hand, he insisted.

By then, however, the Germans had demanded that Belgium offered its troops unhindered passage into France – “whatever may have been offered to (Belgium) in return, her independence is gone if that holds. If her independence goes, the independence of Holland will follow,” he went on, echoing Gladstone’s warning against “the unmeasured aggrandisement of any Power” on the Continent.

“We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war whether we are in it or whether we stand aside,” he said. Standing aside was not an option: “I do not believe for a moment, that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the west of Europe opposite to us – if that had been the result of the war – falling under the domination of a single Power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as to have lost us all respect.”

By its end, Asquith’s wife, Margot, wrote later, the House erupted into “a hurricane of applause”, while Asquith himself noted that Grey had spoken so well “so much so that our extreme peace-lovers were for the moment reduced to silence”.

Returning on foot to the Foreign Office, news of Grey’s triumph in the Commons had preceded him. There, officials rushed forward to congratulate him. He remained silent. Then, he slammed his fist down on the table and cried, “I hate war, I hate war.”

However, it was too late. In Felixstowe, Rifle Brigade sentries stood guard, still believing that they were on a practice mobilisation, not hours away from war. The sentry-duty had been mind-numbingly boring, broken only by the tale of a sentry who had shot a seal neatly through the head, but had been too embarrassed to own up to it.

By early morning, the sentries spotted a launch coming ashore from HMS Amphion, from which a naval officer hurried to the battalion commander. “Sir, I have the honour to report that as from 11 o’clock, a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany,” he declared, following a crisp salute.

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