The following talk was given on 9th June 2017 in Donegall Street, Belfast, in launching the pamphlet ‘Roger Casement on the Great War: a commentary’. The pamphlet contains two of Casement’s lost writings: “Sir Roger Casement on Sir Edward Grey” and “A Pacific Blockade” originally published in the Continental Times, October and December 1915, as well as a commentary.
Who was Roger Casement? He was undoubtedly unique out of all of the leading figures of 1916. He was someone who was special and who did something of a greater magnitude than any of his comrades against British world domination. He publicly disputed the Great War narrative of Britain with an insider’s knowledge and then acted with ruthless consistency against it in alliance with Germany to bring about a multi-polar world. The British realised he was the most dangerous thing they had ever encountered from Ireland and he had to be hung.
In fact, he not only had to be hung but the thoughts that had inspired his action had to be obliterated. But how do you destroy something that has been placed in the public domain? Only character assassination will do.
These two articles of Casement, originally published in The Continental Times, which have lain forgotten for nearly a century tell us more than most of the material published in the last half century about Casement and who he was. They show that Casement was a consistent Liberal at the moment when English Liberalism failed its great test at the ultimate moment of truth and morally collapsed. They show he was a consistent Irish Nationalist when the Home Rulers all collapsed into Imperialism. Remaining true to his principles Casement attempted to forge an Irish-German alliance. It really was the only logical thing to do in the circumstances that he found himself. The ground shifted under his feet but he remained solid.
In his incisive article about Sir Edward Grey Casement attempts to answer the question: how did it all go so badly wrong from the Liberal viewpoint, resulting in collaboration with what all true Liberals wished to avoid – catastrophic world war. He saw the truce between the British parties – Unionists and Liberals – over Foreign Policy as being at the root of what happened in August 1914. He identified the Liberal Imperialist tendency in British Liberalism as being largely responsible for this. Through this deviation from the Gladstonian tradition Liberalism made an accommodation with Imperialism that removed Foreign Affairs from the party conflict.
Casement saw Ireland as an integral part of this process, viewing the Liberal retreat from Home Rule after Gladstone’s failure in 1886 (and 1893), as intimately connected with its subsequent collaboration in Imperialism and War. Up until the 1880s Foreign Policy had been at issue at British General Elections but from around the Home Rule defeat the Liberal Party began to acquiesce in Imperialism. The long wilderness years of Unionist government had a chastening effect on the Party and it began to avoid any questioning of the direction of Foreign Policy, confining itself to reform at home. This began with Lord Rosebery, the founder of the Liberal Imperialist tendency, but Sir Edward Grey was the Liberal Foreign Secretary who achieved the transition in substance.
Casement describes Sir Edward Grey as “the shield behind which the permanent plotters” against Germany developed their plans for a Great War “unchecked and uncontrolled by the forces that were supposedly the masters of English public action.”
That Britain was responsible for the Great War there was no doubt in Casement’s mind. That was the reason he sided with the victim in the event against the perpetrator. He saw that Britain began the process of the Great War a decade before it started and was clear that motive lay entirely with London rather than with Berlin. The question Casement addressed himself to was how much was the British Foreign Secretary, whom he was acquainted with and whom he had served in an official capacity, to blame, personally for the War? Casement’s verdict on the charge against Sir Edward Grey that he had brought on the Great War on Germany is “Guilty, with diminished responsibility.”
Casement’s argument is that the Great War would have been organised without the particular participation of Sir Edward, as a distinct individual. He was “a fly on the wheel of state” using Grey’s own phrase. The prime movers within the British State were determined on their Great War, with or without Grey, and, according to Casement, he was essentially a “useful shield” between their manoeuvrings and his party colleagues, who dominated Parliament from 1906 to 1910, but who had mistakenly put their trust in Grey as a well-meaning and peace-loving Liberal.
There is, of course, a wealth of evidence that has emerged since that Sir Edward Grey was much more personally responsible for what happened than Casement believed. He was much more than just the driver of an unstoppable train. He was a strong anti-German in his own right (unlike Rosebery); he helped write the ABC etc. articles in Leo Maxse’s National Review in 1901 that set out the Revolution in British Foreign Policy, altering the object of Britain’s Balance of Power; he acted in conjunction with political opponents in the Committee of Imperial Defence to plan the War; he brought the White Dominions into the War planning even before informing the Cabinet and his tricky behaviour in July and early August 1914 oiled the wheels of war in a way that no other could have achieved.
He drove the train toward destruction whilst assuring the worried crew that all was fine and they need not worry because he was in control.
Casement wrote that:
“The ten years of ‘Liberalism’ at the Foreign Office since 1905, under the nominal direction of a Liberal Minister, will go down in history as the most criminal, the most audacious and, I believe, in the end the most disastrous in all English history.”
There can be little doubting the truth of that statement.
Casement saw Grey as unfitted by temperament to the role he had taken up through duty. He was from a famous political house and had been groomed as Lord Rosebery’s successor, to keep any Radical out of the Foreign Office and preserve “continuity” in British policy in the world.
The 1906 Liberal Government was the Government that planned the Great War behind the backs of its own backbenchers and most of the Cabinet. The Liberal Imperialist cabal who headed this Government and occupied the important positions of State worked closely with the Unionist front bench opposition on this project of a War on Germany. They did so as they engaged in the routine of parliamentary conflict. The new Foreign Policy was said to represent continuity with the old but in its important aspects it represented a great discontinuity and was actually a revolution. It was a truly collaborative effort involving the Liberal Imperialists, senior Unionists, important military and naval figures and individuals like Lord Esher and Maurice Hankey, who steered the ship of state toward the War on Germany they all felt was necessary to preserve British domination.
The 1906 Liberal Government kicked the Gladstonian Irish Home Rule policy into the long grass after winning a landslide victory. This is the territory I explored in The Rise and Fall of Imperial Ireland – how the sea-change in English Liberalism impacted on the Home Rule movement and produced what is called Redmondism. This is the subject matter of Casement’s article on Sir Edward Grey, though I was not aware of it when writing Imperial Ireland. Casement had it all worked out, or most of it, a hundred years ago.
When the Home Rule struggle reappeared as a result of the British electoral stalemate of 1910 it had a lot to do with the silencing of a Liberal opposition to what Grey was doing. The attempts made by John Dillon and some Liberal backbenchers to draw attention to what Grey was working at in the background – bringing on a World War – ceased from around 1910 as Home Rulers and Gladstonian Radicals were drawn into the intense party conflict which then developed against the Unionists, over Constitutional issues. In August 1914 Redmond and his acolytes achieved the total subordination of Home Rule to Imperialism and the effective subduing of Liberal opposition to War. Even John Dillon, who had a position similar to Casement, fell into line.
Casement’s argument that it was Britain’s intention to make War on Germany has never been challenged on its own ground. That is hardly surprising. Any historical knowledge of what Britain was doing from 1905, as well as as the course of actual events, along with documents and diaries of the important people revealed in later years, would make any contesting of his view impossible. What has been required is mystification and diversion.
Mystification has been achieved through the diversionary activity whose seed was planted by the Black Diaries. The obsession with Casement’s private life that the Black Diaries introduced has proved a “useful shield” in preventing understanding of what Casement represented in his real substance.
Casement’s writings on the international situation have been ignored and his sympathy for Germany, arising out of a principled opposition to what he knew was being done in high places in England, is put down to a simple intensification of Irish nationalist sentiment within him. He was, in other words, deluded, and went into alliance with something he did not really understand the true evil of. That is the caricature of Casement that the revisionists have achieved – the incomprehensible Casement.
The impression conveyed by those explaining Casement to audiences during the centenary events of 2016 was of a well-meaning but flawed fool. It couldn’t be quite said in the celebratory atmosphere but that was the intent of the reluctant guests at the party.
I noticed that people who should have known better seemed incapable of challenging this incompressible Casement – presumably because they had neglected their own history and had not bothered to understand the world outside of Ireland. They lived within the British world and its narrative, whatever their credentials and the greenest of their attire. They simply did not understand the world in the way Casement had came to understand it so they were lost in understanding Casement himself. And without having knowledge of the actual basis of Casement’s thought and consequent activity – his inside knowledge of what Britain intended to do to the world – the incomprehensible argument of the revisionists could past muster. From this viewpoint it was easy to leave the impression that Casement was a tragic figure – a misguided fool and the author of his own misfortune.
In reality, Casement was part of a great tradition with a substance that had the most massive effect on humanity. He had a very solid Liberal view of the world that helped him understand that a fundamental departure from principle was occurring. When Casement saw what Britain was intending to do with Germany it produced a recoiling from the State he had served. Casement’s understanding led him to predict a criminally irresponsible British made World War. And Britain proved him wholly right.
The person of Sir Edward Grey facilitated the War and this was a problem for Casement. He was on friendly terms with his old boss and obviously thought highly of him still.
The famous Dean Inge of St. Paul’s later wondered in his book England if the War, which he saw as the greatest catastrophe ever befalling the British Empire and Europe, could have been avoided. He concluded it couldn’t have. But all the reasons he puts forward why it could not have been avoided are connected to Grey’s activity. He said in a later book, Talks in a Free Country, that the Liberal Cabinet were intimidated into the War by the fact that Grey had made such arrangements with France that if England didn’t fight Germany it would lose France and Russia altogether and would have to fight a Franco-German-Russian alliance in the future. Liberal fears of a future bigger war were used by the Liberal Imperialists to face down principled Liberal opposition.
If the War plans had been openly made and declared by Grey there would have been no War to put them into practice. Germany would have been warned and the Kaiser would have backed off, as he always had done, when he saw he was offending Britain in a way that was unacceptable. So there needed to be the appearance of disinterest and an aloof altruistic morality to spring the trap on Germany. And Edward Grey was integral to the success of that.
Casement had the traditional Foreign Policy of an English Liberal, as John Dillon’s correspondence to C.P.Scott shows he also had. However, Dillon went along with his Chairman, Redmond, as he saw the Liberal opposition collapse in the face of the outpouring of Redmondite War frenzy. Dillon got swept away by the herd and kept his head down, hoping for the best.
Home Rule was intimately connected with the way in which the Great War was facilitated. The Liberal Government were dependent on the Irish Party for their Parliamentary majority and the moral weight the Irish Home Rulers added to the War swept aside the anti-war morality of Liberalism. Dillon hoped for a quick Entente victory to clear the unwanted issue out of the way and for the Liberal/Home Rule alliance to be resumed in 1915. But it wasn’t to be. The Liberals had bitten off more than they could chew taking on Germany and then the Ottomans, and they choked on it.
Redmond and his acolytes had shifted the ground under both Casement and Dillon’s feet. Dillon hoped the ground would return after a momentary earthquake but Casement calculated that Germany was more substantial than Dillon thought and Britain may have greatly miscalculated, to the cost of its Empire.
Because Casement held England largely responsible for the War he followed the logic of his position by aligning himself with Germany.
Casement understood commerce to be England’s life and no rival was to be going to be permitted to ever emerge. The Royal Navy was the controller of the world market and ensured a dominance that was not going to be surrendered even if the only alternative was to bring the world to catastrophe.
Casement saw England as an island Empire which had grown through 3 essential factors:
1. The subduing of Ireland and its reduction to a state of dependence.
2. The isolation of the Low Countries from Europe and their use as an instrument of British policy.
3. Playing the Balance of Power on the Continent to the advantage of England and the disadvantage of Europe.
Casement noted the truth of Bismarck’s view that England had made Europe into an “armed camp”. England compelled every continental nation to place itself on a permanent war-footing and build navies to defend their commerce as they entered the world market owned by England. They had to build navies because Britain refused to regard private property at sea as having the same rights as property on land. It was open to confiscation on the Royal Navy’s whim. Britain’s ruling of the waves meant that everyone’s property on the seas was fair game when England decided war was needed to disrupt the development of Europe. What could Germany do?
Britain said to the world that no one was allowed to build a navy half the size of the Royal Navy. This was known as the Two Power Standard – which could become a three or four Power Standard if required. Because Germany seemed to be ignoring this rule it was said to be after world domination. So the British plan was to:
1. Destroy her navy
2. Ruin her factories
3. Capture her trade
4. Confiscate her merchant marine
5. Dismember her territory
5. Teach her to never compete again.
Casement saw the War as not only aimed at destroying Germany but also at ruining France and Russia in the process by engulfing those countries in the bulk of the fighting on land and the destruction that ensued. Britain could remain largely aloof from the catastrophe from the security of its island fastness and make hay in the aftermath. All that was needed was the traditional detachment from the destruction. In the first year of war a kind of semi-detachment was largely achieved with the Royal Navy plus an expanded Expeditionary Force, but then England had to commit herself more substantially to land war as her allies proved not up to the job of destroying Germany.
Casement’s second article on the Pacific Blockade (meaning “peaceful” blockade) concerns Greece. It is about the British/Allied violation of Greek neutrality during a Great War that England was originally claiming to fight because of a violation of Belgian neutrality.
English Liberalism was opposed to military conscription. A conscript army was seen as an unnecessary luxury for an island state without frontiers to defend which only needed to dominate the seas to maintain world dominance. Liberalism saw entanglement in war as bad for commerce once Britain had control of the world market. There was a moral aspect to opposition to war as well, of course. But it had become a principle of Liberalism to oppose conscription to hinder entanglement in continental fighting and that made it necessary, once the Germans had not been defeated quickly, to get others to do the fighting for Britain – the fighting that the Liberal Party was reluctant to impose on its own citizens for fear of interfering with their freedoms. So began the process of intimidating and bribing other nations to fight to avoid Conscription at home.
While Liberal England hesitated to compel its own citizens to fight it trumpeted its crusade around the world looking for manpower to wage its moral War. The Liberal Government went to the neutral countries of Europe, carrying the message that this was a War of Good versus Evil and it would be morally inexcusable for them to abstain from it. But the contradiction of the whole thing began to disable Liberalism. To uphold the voluntary principle moral propaganda had to be churned out to the maximum to get the volunteers and stave off Conscription. But this begged the question why the Government was not compelling its citizens to fight the thing that was supposed to be the most evil thing the world had ever produced?
Casement points out that the difference between Liberals and Unionists regarding the coaxing of Greece into the War was one of form rather than substance. The Liberals, with their moral sensibilities and conscious of how they had themselves been brought to support the War, talked of executing “a form of pacific pressure to which Greece is peculiarly susceptible” (Daily News, 22.11.15) and used “euphemisms” to minimise the aggression implied in such threats. British activity against was merely to “assist the King of Greece to arrive at a decision” – namely the right one. The Greeks needed to “see sense”, which really meant co-operating with the British interest.
Casement predicted that British moral, political and military pressure to enlist the reluctant Greeks in their Great War would be absolutely disastrous for Greece if they succumbed to the pressure. And he was proved absolutely right.
Casement also noted how the Armenians were to be used as pawns in the British game of destroying the Ottoman Empire through the promotion of Insurrection. The Turks were to be encouraged into arranging an “Armenian Massacre” to provide moral cover for the British Imperialist land grab of Palestine and Mesopotamia. That would tug at the heart strings of the English Liberals of the Gladstonian tradition and make them good war-mongers. Arnold Toynbee and Lord Bryce were at the ready. The Armenians themselves were expendable, in all senses.
Casement was a consistent Liberal who was appalled at the great departure from principle that led to the catastrophe. He saw the moral hypocrisy, stood his ground and chose sides. He was not just an Irish Nationalist availing of England’s difficulty, he was a principled Liberal standing up for the historic principles abandoned in the moral collapse of Liberalism in August 1914. And that is why he did what he did.