Some Thoughts on Lord Esher

There were 3 outstanding people of consequence within the British State in 1914. There was the statesman, Arthur Balfour. There was the doer at the heart of the State, Lord Maurice Hankey. And there was Lord Esher, who thought for Britain.

Lord Esher is a mysterious figure often hidden because he refused some of the highest offices in the State. Two portfolios he refused were War Minister and Viceroy of India. Esher’s refusals enabled him to think freely and advise freely. And the most important people in the State, including Prime Ministers, both asked for and took his advice. In this way he maintained a freedom that politicians lacked, the freedom to think about policy and long-term strategic matters free from the hindrances of seeking popularity in the dawning of the democratic age.

On the opening page of Volume 3 of The Journals and Letters of Lord Esher there is a quote by Beaconsfoeld (Benjamin Disraeli):

“The most powerful men are not public men. The public man is responsible, and a responsible man is a slave. It is private life that governs the world.”

That is how it would have been before the “Great War for democracy” complicated things somewhat. The oligarchy had to adjust to the War that had been proclaimed to be about democracy and which encouraged beliefs in the masses that proved burdensome for those who had conducted things in private. And the Great War also encouraged a feeling that these private deliberations had somewhat contributed to a holocaust. So the old ruling class had to manage this democracy brought into being by this war that had not gone to plan but had placed Britain in a great position of dominance through its winning. And guess what? Britain was never the same again.

Just as Hankey did for England, Lord Esher, his friend and colleague within the Committee of Imperial Defence, thought for her.

I lately noticed that Lord Esher said the following in a book he had published in the 1920s:

“The German invasion of Belgium, although it made no vital difference to the resolve already taken by Asquith and Grey, preserved the unity of the nation, if not the integrity of the Government. The Opposition leaders, Lord Lansdowne, Mr. Bonar Law, and Mr. Balfour, by a gesture unusual in the annals of our political history, threw the weight of their support into the balance for the Prime Minister. Strict exaction in the way of public responsibility may demand an adverse judgment on the policy of Ministers who, by an earlier declaration of their moral engagement to France, might have led the rulers of Germany to shrink from precipitating the world into so great a conflict; especially if it can be shown that the certainty of having the whole force of Great Britain thrown into the scale against them would have induced them to pause.” (The Tragedy of Lord Kitchener, pp.21-2)

I think this passage is important in candidly revealing 2 things:

  1. Belgium was beside the point about whether Britain joined the war.
  2. Britain refrained from deterring Germany by refusing to make its position clear at the crucial moment.

On the first point:

A letter, now contained in Lloyd George’s papers, from Bonar Law and the Unionist opposition of 2nd August offered Asquith a blank cheque:

“Lord Lansdowne and I feel it our duty to inform you that in our opinion as well as in that of all the colleagues we have been able to consult, it would be fatal to the honour and security of the United Kingdom to hesitate in supporting France and Russia at the present juncture; and we offer our unhesitating support to the Government in any measures they may consider necessary for that object.”(LG/C/611/20)

This was not marked ‘Private’ inferring that it could be used publicly against the Liberal Government if they chose to ignore it. It was delivered in time for the crucial cabinet meeting that morning. Churchill advised both Bonar Law and Balfour on the drafting of the letter so that it would have maximum impact.

This made it clear that the Unionist opposition were for military intervention with or without Belgium and it meant that a revolt within the Cabinet would not prevent the intervention only ensure that a coalition took Britain into the War rather than a Liberal Government.

So Britain’s decision to go to War had nothing to do with Belgium. Belgium simply ensured a Liberal Government declared War rather than a coalition.

It was the Cabinet meeting of August 2 that decided War with Germany was inevitable – before Germany’s entry into Belgium, as noted on Walter Runciman’s invitation to the meeting (WR 135/92) Grey threatened resignation if the Cabinet did not support War. Asquith read the letter from the Unionists at this point.

What is more striking is the evidence from Esher’s journals that the Liberal Imperialists – Asquith, Grey, Haldane, Churchill – had been determined on war with Germany even before Austria had declared war on Serbia. In his Journal dated 17th January, 1915 Esher had a conversation with John Morley. Morley told Esher that on the 25th July – 3 days before the first declaration of war – that Sir Edward Grey told the Cabinet that England should tell France she would be supported in a war on Germany. A number of Liberal Ministers were opposed to this and stated they would resign. On the following day these dissenters were told by the Prime Minister, Asquith, that if  the Government broke up a Coalition would have to be formed to take England to war. This had the desired effect as most of the dissidents pledged themselves to the Liberal Government for Imperial and patriotic reasons. England, therefore, entered the war with a Liberal Government.

So the decision to join a Balkan War, which would encourage it to become a European War, and which, through Britain’s intervention, would make it a World War had nothing at all to do with Belgium. Belgium merely functioned as a means of holding the Liberal Government together and would serve as the means by which anti-war Liberals would become fierce warmongers with good consciences.

On the second point – that the Liberal Imperialists “might have led the rulers of Germany to shrink from precipitating the world into so great a conflict” but for some reason chose not to, I put it like this in the Great Fraud of 1914:

“Britain’s activity – or non-activity – during July and August in encouraging the development of a conflict and then joining it turned it from being a purely European contest involving Germany and Austro-Hungary against Serbia, Russia and France into a conflict involving billions across the globe.

Britain’s freedom of action was the major element of uncertainty in the situation that had the effect of oiling the wheels of war. During the critical few days at the end of July, Britain had in great measure the power to determine the course of events in Europe. If, it had declared its intention to commit its army in support of France that would have exerted considerable influence on German behaviour, which would in turn would have greatly influenced Austria, and Austria might well have warded off Russian mobilisation by taking a different attitude to Serbia.

Or, if Britain had declared its intention to be neutral under specified conditions, that would have influenced French behaviour in drawing back, discouraging Russia. But England did neither of these things. Instead, it gave the Germans hope that it would remain neutral, encouraging the Kaiser to back Austria, whilst signaling to the French and Russians its intentions if they went ahead.

After Austria had declared war on Serbia both sets of alliances then eagerly made representations to Britain to determine her position. The Germans argued that if England declared it would remain neutral, France and Russia would not dare to fight. The French and Russians argued that if England declared she would side with them, Germany and Austria would at once back down.

But Asquith and Grey decided to do neither and maintained a dangerous ambiguity in Britain’s position. They, instead, by their deliberate inactivity encouraged neither side to draw back, and instead, both alliances to war.

The British State, in the critical week, did not have a position that the other European states could take account of when deciding what to do. It looked like indecisiveness by British statesmen at the critical juncture and it has become customary to say that Britain drifted into the war.

But it was nothing like that at all. Asquith, Grey, Haldane and Churchill had all decided a week before the declaration of war that, in the event of a conflict occurring in Europe, Britain would take part in it. They calculated the chain of events and their drift, encouraged them to occur, and then in the time-honoured fashion of the Balance of Power strategy, they entered the war as part of a military alliance against their main European rival.

It was at this point that the Anglo-French Entente came into its own for Grey. There were fairly tight treaty obligations existing between France, Germany, Austria and Russia, which would draw them into any war that might break out among two of the parties. Britain was the only real free agent in the situation and was not bound by treaty to join forces with France or anyone else. Its options were open and it was not under any obligation to take part in the war. Britain could afford to let a European conflict run its course and sit back and watch the territorial sorting out as a result of it, without risking any loss itself.

But it decided that the great opportunity had arrived to do down Germany and play for much higher global stakes.

The type of arrangement that Grey had constructed with France, by having no formal commitment, was open to being misinterpreted by Germany and could leave her miscalculating in this situation. A preventative open alliance, rather than the vague and semi-secret understandings would have been sensible if England stood for peace in the world. But the Liberal Imperialists had other objectives and considerations, so during the crucial week they practiced a strategic deception on the Germans that encouraged them into war by making them delude themselves that Britain would stay out of it.”

I shall return to the interesting Lord Esher again.


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