The great misfortune of 1914

The extract below is from Dean Inge’s 1926 Book, England. It considers how the great misfortune of 1914 befell Britain and its Empire. In a later book Thoughts from a Free Country (1941) the famous Dean of St. Paul’s revealed his opinion that what happened in 1914 was the greatest catastrophe that had happened not only to England and its Empire but Europe as well. Dean Inge was a thoughtful and patriotic Englishman, proud of the Empire his country had built. In the extract before he attempted to ask whether there was an alternative in August 1914. Although he thought not what comes across from this is that it was Sir Edward Grey and the Liberal Imperialists who manoeuvred Britain into the position from which it made its fateful choice:

“Opinions are still divided as to whether the course pursued by our successive Governments was the most likely to preserve the peace, which was the main object of all English parties alike. There was a small but not uninfluential party which advocated a large increase in our military strength, such as might deter even Germany from making war against her western neighbours. The answers given by various Cabinet Ministers to this plea seem to the present writer to be conclusive. It is quite certain that the electorate, devoted to peace and social reform, would have refused to sanction any such policy. It is more than probable that such preparations would have precipitated the catastrophe which they were intended to prevent, and that the outbreak of war, which would with some plausibility have been represented as a preventive war, would have caught us while we had neither the old army nor the new. Others thought that a deal with Germany was still possible. But England can make no deal with a Power which is deliberately challenging the naval supremacy on which our very existence depends. It is sometimes forgotten that a great industrial nation can hardly live on sufferance. The credit of the country, so essential to trade and commerce, would be fatally impaired if it were known that we were powerless to resist an attack which might be launched upon us at any moment. Besides these reasons, neutrality became either impossible or highly dangerous when we had once given the French the right to expect and count upon our assistance. If our Government had drawn back when the danger of war became imminent, we should have had to reckon with the bitter enmity of France, and it was by no means certain that, in that case, France would have rejected a proposal to join Germany in partitioning the British Empire. We should have had to face a probable European coalition entirely alone.

“Two other criticisms have been made. We might, it is said, have informed the Germans that we were pledged to fight on the side of France and Russia. It is certain that the German Government expected us to remain neutral, and it is possible that a declaration of solidarity with France might have stopped or postponed the war. This would probably have been the result if Germany had expected a long war. But the German Government was gambling on a short war, in which English assistance, whether by sea or land, would not have sufiftcient weight to turn the scale. The possibility of English intervention, though it was not expected, had been discounted, and was considered in Germany as less important than the necessity of striking at Russia before the completion of the strategic railways then under construction. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the decisive reason against pledging England to enter the war was that, while peace still remained possible, neither the Cabinet nor Parliament nor the nation would have agreed to any such declaration. The diplomatic conversations had been conducted behind the scenes; the nation had no inkling of the obligations which it had contracted, or of the storm which was about to break over it. The attention of the populace was divided between the summer holiday, which held the first place, the prospect of civil war in Ireland, and the insane outrages of the militant suffragettes. Three important members of the Cabinet were convinced that neutrality in a European war was impossible; the majority were convinced pacifists, interested almost exclusively in social reforms. An emperor or dictator might possibly have averted the war by an explicit declaration to Germany; it is unreasonable to blame the three ministers who eventually took the rest of the Cabinet with them for not doing earlier what would have only caused their own immediate fall from power.

“The other possible policy, it is said, would have been to cut ourselves loose from European entanglements, and make an alliance with America. No nation is more interested than the United States in preventing the supreme power by land and sea from falling into the same hands. The overthrow of the British Empire by Germany would have compelled America to keep up a powerful fleet and army at enormous expense, and to prepare for a possible war in South America in defence of the Monroe Doctrine. The ambitions of Germany in Southern Brazil were well known. No nation had benefited more than the United States by the Pax Britannica which had guarded the high seas for a hundred years before 1914. No attack upon America could be made without British assistance, and the possibility of an attack by Great Britain itself was precluded both by the indefensible position of Canada and by the sentiments of blood-brotherhood which counted for much in England, though for little in America. The dream of a federation of the English-speaking nations has long been supremely attractive to Englishmen; the identity of language, institutions and traditions made such a vision seem reasonable; and many lovers of peace hoped, as a few still hope, that the nations of English descent and speech nnght combine to put a stop to the mad militarism which threatens civilization with total ruin. But events have shown that to rely upon the help of the United States would be to trust in a broken reed. The cordial friendship which many Englishmen enjoy with individual Americans, and the numerous ties by marriage with American families, must not blind us either to the intense concentration of the American people at large on what they consider their own interests, or to the prevailing unfriendliness of America, as expressed by its politicians and journalists, to this country.

“It has now become certain that the American Government seriously contemplated taking action against us in the earlier part of the Great War. Whatever sentiment was allowed to enter into their calculations was in favour of France, not of England. And if in the future we are attacked by a European coalition, we may take it as probable that the United States will leave us to our fate, unless, indeed, we are invaded by a black army. It would be difficult to find any well-informed American, however favourable his personal views might be to this country, who would say that friendship with America could bring us any security. Nor is it possible, under present conditions, to disembarrass ourselves of Continental politics. The advantages of our insular position, from which we have gained greatly in the past, are much less than in former days.

“We were, therefore, bound, by considerations of safety, to enter into a struggle which did not immediately concern us; to give help, to the utmost of our power, to Allies who might be expected to show no gratitude; and to mortgage our whole future in an internecine conflict from which we had nothing to gain and everything to lose. No greater misfortune has ever befallen Britain and the British Empire.”

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