A Candid Revelation

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I noticed that Lord Esher said the following in a biography of Lord Kitchener 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 from marching through Belgium by refusing to make its position clear at the crucial moment.


On the first point:

As E.G. Jellicoe noted in his 1925 book, Playing the Game:

“Cabinet had met… on Saturday morning. There had been some talk about the neutrality of Belgium, but that apparently did not appeal to all the Members of the Cabinet a sufficient justification for declaring war, and consequently late on Saturday, the Tory leaders gave their opinion… Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law, with probably Sir Edward Carson, were all for solidarity, and for as the decision of the Cabinet hung in the balance, to stiffen the flabby backs of the dissentients, and following the lead given by the atmospheric article in The Times of the previous day, a letter was sent to the Prime Minister on the joint authority of Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law.” (p.165)

The letter, now contained in Lloyd George’s papers, from the Unionist opposition of 2nd August offered Asquith a blank cheque and helped concentrate the minds of the opposition to intervention:

“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)

The letter from the Unionist opposition does not mention Belgium. It was the British ‘obligations’ to France and Russia alone, organised through Liberal Imperialist/Unionist collaboration over the previous decade that bound Britain to provide military and naval support at the vital hour. As Jellicoe noted:

“The truth could not be told. Public opinion – the ‘atmosphere’ – must be rallied by something of a just and righteous cause… it should be a war of ideas, with the holiness of something like a crusade for justice and freedom about it.” (p.166)

This letter from the Unionist opposition 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.

After the War, in 1923, Bonar Law made a speech explaining why he was in favour of intervention in the European War and the sending of the letter:

“If an earthquake were suddenly to swallow up the whole of Germany, we ought to gain materially and not lose, because Germany was a rival – a competitor to a greater extent than she was a customer.” (Playing The Game, p.165)

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 out the letter from the Unionists at this point.

What is more striking is the evidence from Lord 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.

Only John Morley remained immune from this because his conscience made him end his political life rather than become implicated in what was being done. As Churchill later related, he jumped too early on principle:

“The majority of the Cabinet was for leaving France and Germany and the other Powers great and small to fight it out as they pleased, and Morley found himself looked on as leader by a gathering band. But the issues were clouded and tangled. There was Belgium and the faith of Treaties. There was the undefended coasts of France and the possibility of the German fleet ‘on our very doorstep’… Morley was no doctrinaire or fanatic. The ‘doorstep’ argument weighed with him. It persuaded the Cabinet… So when later on he told me he must resign, I said in effect that if he would wait for two or three days more, everything would be clear, and we should be in full agreement. The Germans would make everyone easy in his conscience. They would accept all responsibilities and sweep away all doubts. Already their vanguards pouring through Luxembourg approached the Belgian frontier. Nothing could recall or deflect them. They were launched; and the catastrophe now imminent and certain would convince and unite the British Empire as it had never been convinced and united before. ‘They cannot stop now. If they tried they would be thrown into utter confusion. They must go on in spite of frontiers, treaties… Remember all the others are marching too…” (Great Contemporaries, pp.104-5)

Germany had been manoeuvred into a position in which only an attack through Belgium would be adequate for its defence against a two front attack. It was inevitable she would go through Belgium if she valued her existence as a state. Only Britain could deter Germany and it chose not to.

One gets the impression that Morley saw this and could not bring himself to be part of it. He jumped early before there was no political reason not to jump. He refused to let himself be carried along to the War by a clarifying of the issue that was bogus.

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”:

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, and 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 signalling 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.

Britain could have prevented the German march through Belgium by declaring its intention to make War on it if it did. Germany would then have had to think again in the light of the certain knowledge that the British Empire would throw its great weight against her, behind that of France and Russia. Germany would be encircled by land and sea and hemmed in for an effective blockade to be maintained upon her. But if Germany had thought again and not gone through Belgium it would have been much harder for the Government and its allies in the Unionist opposition to overcome the Gladstonian backbenches for a simple Balance of Power War. England would have entered the War in disunity and with much greater difficulty, raised the mass armies it believed essential for seeing off Germany, good and proper.

So the British State, in the critical moment, 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.

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, for which it had planned for a decade, to play for much higher stakes.

The Liberal Imperialists practiced a strategic deception on the Germans that encouraged them into war by making them delude themselves that Britain would stay out of it. That is a further revelation from Lord Esher that historians have chosen to ignore.

The volumes of Esher’s Journals and Diaries I have were obtained cheaply from a second hand bookshop in Belfast a couple of years ago. The previous owner was, I see, the notable historian, Keith Jeffery.

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