THE NATIONS SLITHERED over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war.1
—DAVID LLOYD GEORGE,
This war is really the greatest lunacy ever committed by the white races.2
—ADMIRAL TIRPITZ, 1915
NOT UNTIL FOUR weeks after the assassination of the archduke was the Balkan crisis brought up in the British Cabinet.
On July 17, 1914, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, was telling a Guildhall audience the assassination in Sarajevo was “no more than a very small cloud on the horizon…and you never get a perfectly blue sky in foreign affairs.”3 On July 23, Lloyd George spoke of how Anglo-German relations “were very much better than they were a few years ago.”4
But on July 24, after yet another desultory Cabinet debate on the perennial crisis of Home Rule for Ireland, the ministers were asked to remain for a few minutes. Sir Edward Grey began to read the ultimatum Austria had just delivered to Serbia, and the gravity of it all began to sink in on the thirty-nine-year-old First Lord of the Admiralty:
[Grey] had been reading…or…speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed…. [G]radually as the phrases and sentences followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind…. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland and a strange light began immediately, but by imperceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.5
So recalled Winston Churchill.
In his report to the king that evening, H. H. Asquith, prime minister since 1908, described Austria’s ultimatum as “the gravest event for many years past in European politics as it may be the prelude to a war in which at least four of the Great Powers may be involved.”6 Asquith meant Austria, Germany, Russia, and France. As he wrote Venetia Stanley, the young woman of whom he was deeply enamored, “We are within measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real Armageddon. Happily, there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.”7
“GEARED UP AND HAPPY”
THE AUSTRIANS DID NOT want a European war. Vienna wanted a short, sharp war to punish Serbia for murdering the heir to the throne and to put an end to Serb plotting to pull apart their empire. For they suspected that Belgrade’s ambition was to gather the South Slavs into a united nation where Serbia would sit at the head of the table.
The Austrian ultimatum had been drafted in anticipation of certain rejection, to justify an Austrian declaration of war. But on July 26, Serbia accepted nine of Austria’s ten demands, balking only at Vienna’s demand to send a delegation to Belgrade to oversee the investigation and prosecution of the conspirators who had murdered the archduke. Yet, even on this point, the Serbs agreed to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice.
The Kaiser was relieved and elated. Austria had scored a brilliant diplomatic coup and he could not see what more she wanted. “It was a capitulation of the most humiliating sort,” exclaimed the Kaiser. “With it disappears every reason for war.”8
But when the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade received the Serb reply, he picked up his packed bags, boarded the first train out, and, once over the frontier, telephoned Vienna. When news hit that Serbia had failed to submit to all ten Austrian demands, crowds were in the streets clamoring for war. On July 27, the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war. On the twenty-eighth, Belgrade was shelled from across the Danube. But in London, writes the historian Robert Massie, “even after Austria declared war and bombarded Belgrade, few in Britain had an inkling that within seven days, England would enter a world war. The man in the street, the majority in the Cabinet and House of Commons still saw the crisis as a distant furor over ‘Serbian murderers.’”9
“The Cabinet was overwhelmingly pacific,” says Churchill. “At least three-quarters of its members were determined not to be drawn into a European quarrel, unless Great Britain were herself attacked, which was not likely.”10 Asquith’s Cabinet was split between Liberal Imperialists and Little Englanders. Barbara Tuchman describes the latter:
Heirs of Gladstone, they, like their late leader, harbored a deep suspicion of foreign entanglements and considered the aiding of oppressed peoples to be the only proper concern of foreign affairs, which were otherwise regarded as a tiresome interference with Reform, Free Trade, Home Rule, and the Lords’ Veto.11
Grey and Churchill believed that if France was attacked, Britain must fight. But Britain had no treaty alliance with France. Indeed, why had Britain remained outside the Franco-Russian alliance if not to retain her freedom of action? Gladstone had stayed out of the Franco-Prussian war, and the Liberals wanted Asquith to stay out of this war. Of eighteen ministers who had participated in the Cabinet meeting on Saturday, August 1, twelve opposed war. A Liberal caucus in the House had voted 4–1 for neutrality.12 The Manchester Guardian spoke of “an organised conspiracy to drag us into war.”13
The editor of the Times, however, could not disguise his disgust:
Saturday was a black day for everyone who knew what was going on—more than half the Cabinet rotten and every prospect of a complete schism or a disastrous or dishonouring refusal to help France…. Winston has really done more than anyone else to save the situation.14
Seven Cabinet members were ready to resign rather than go to war. “The Cabinet was absolutely against war and would never have agreed to being committed to war at this moment,” wrote Churchill.15 Those favoring Britain’s going to war, should it come, were Grey and Churchill, who had made commitments to France. But only the First Lord relished the prospect. On July 25, when it appeared that Grey’s call for a conference of ambassadors to halt the slide to war might succeed, Churchill “exclaimed moodily that it looked after all as if we were in for a ‘bloody peace.’”16
“Churchill was the only Minister to feel any sense of exultation at the course of events,” writes biographer John Charmley.17 On July 28, he had written his wife Clementine: “My darling one & beautiful: Everything tends toward catastrophe & collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?”18
That same day, the Kaiser was desperately trying to avert the war to which Churchill looked forward with anticipation. “William was ‘feverishly active’ on the 28th, casting this way and that to keep the peace. He had no idea what the Austrians wanted.”19 By July 30, the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who had worked with Sir Edward Grey to prevent the spread of the Balkan wars of 1912–1913, had resignedly told the Prussian Ministry of State, “we have lost control and the stone has begun to roll.”20
THE FIRST LORD
AND WHO WAS THIS First Lord whose lust for war caused senior Cabinet colleagues to recoil? Born at Blenheim, ancestral home of the Duke of Marlborough, on November 30, 1874, to twenty-year-old American heiress Jennie Jerome and Randolph Churchill, a rising star in the Tory Party, Winston Churchill had been a poor student, except for a love of history and mastery of the English language. After five years at Harrow, and three tries, he had been accepted at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. There he excelled, departing in December 1894 eighth in his class.
In October 1896, the young cavalry officer of the 4th Hussars arrived in Bombay. In four years, he would be elected to Parliament. Those years were full of the “crowded hours” of which Theodore Roosevelt had written.
During his first leave from India, Churchill sailed to Cuba to observe the Spanish in action against the rebels. On return, he learned of a punitive expedition to be led by Sir Bindon Blood to the Northwest Frontier to put down a Pashtun uprising on the Afghan border. A year earlier, Churchill had extracted from Sir Bindon a promise to take him along if there was to be fighting. Winston returned from the expedition after six weeks to write The Story of the Malakind Field Force, dedicating the book to Sir Bindon. The Prince of Wales sent a note to the young author praising his work.
Churchill then had his mother, a famous beauty, intercede with Prime Minister Salisbury to have him assigned to the army of General Kitchener, who was starting upriver to the Sudan to avenge the death of General “Chinese” Gordon by the Mahdi’s army at Khartoum. At Omdurman, Churchill rode in the last cavalry charge of the empire. He would claim to have slain up to half a dozen enemy and came home to write The River War, which charged Kitchener with dishonorable treatment of wounded Dervishes.
But it was the Boer War that made Churchill famous. Traveling to South Africa as a correspondent, he was riding an armored train to the front when it was derailed by Boer commandos under Louis Botha, who took him prisoner. Held with captured British officers in Pretoria—the Boers rejected his protest that he was a journalist and a noncombatant—Churchill escaped. When news, as told by he himself, reached London, he became an international figure. He returned to South Africa, saw action at the humiliating British defeat at Spion Kop, marched to the relief of Ladysmith, and came home one of the most famous young men in the world. Weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, he was elected to Parliament. There he would remain, with two brief interludes, for sixty-four years.
Like his father, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston entered politics as a Conservative. But by 1904 he was in rebellion against the campaign by Joe Chamberlain for Tory abandonment of a free-trade policy that had been British tradition since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Chamberlain was proposing tariffs to protect British markets against the flood of imports from across the Atlantic as a protectionist America was leaving Britain in the dust, and Germany was approaching industrial parity. In February, Churchill wrote to Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Salisbury’s nephew and successor, and declared himself “a Unionist Free Trader…opposed to what is generally known as Home Rule [for Ireland] and Protection in any form,” and “a wholehearted opponent of Mr. Chamberlain.”21
Meanwhile, the Tory Party in Churchill’s Oldham District was fed up with him. So it was that Churchill crossed over to the Liberal Party. His timing proved perfect as he rode into power and into the Cabinet in the Liberal landslide of 1906. By 1911, he was First Lord and the most forceful advocate in the Cabinet for Britain’s immediate entry into any Franco-German war.
THE SCHLIEFFEN PLAN
IN PRODDING THE CABINET into war, the ace of trumps for Grey and Churchill was Belgium. Seventy-five years earlier, France, Prussia, and Great Britain had signed a treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality. The 1839 pact was grounded in British history. Believing that control of the Channel coast opposite Dover by a great hostile power was a threat to her vital interests, England had gone to war with Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV, and Napoleon. After Belgium had been torn from the carcass of Napoleon’s empire, Britain had extracted a guarantee of Belgium’s neutrality. The European powers respected this as a vital British interest. When France was maneuvered into war by Bismarck in 1870, the Iron Chancellor had given assurances to Gladstone that when von Moltke’s army marched into France, it would not tread on Belgian soil. With Belgium unmolested, Gladstone saw no vital interest in who prevailed in the Franco-Prussian war.
The 1839 treaty, however, had an exit clause: It authorized, but did not require, Britain to go to war should any nation violate the neutrality of Belgium:
The language of the 1839 treaty was unusual on one point: It gave the the signatories the right, but not the duty, of intervention in case of violation. In 1914, as the possibility of German violation loomed, the noninterventionists in the Cabinet clung to this point. Britain, they said, had no obligation to defend Belgium, especially if Belgium itself chose not to fight.22
And the world had changed since 1839. Napoleon had said of Prussia that it “was hatched from a cannon ball.” By 1914, the cannonball was the heart of a nation of seventy million, stretching from France to Russia and the Baltic to the Alps, that produced 15 percent of the world’s goods to Britain’s 14 percent—and twice as much steel. Germany was the most powerful nation in Europe and, after Russia, the most populous. In 1870, Germany had crushed France in six weeks. Her army was the greatest fighting force on earth. But Germany was virtually friendless, and the arrogance and bellicosity of the Kaiser and his haughty countrymen were among the causes. In his travel notes Crown Prince Henry wrote, “Our country is not much loved anywhere and indeed frequently hated.”23 Writes German historian Andreas Hillgruber:
Public opinion in other European nations slowly came to sense a threat, less because of the goals of German policy per se than the crude, overbearing style that Germany projected on the international stage. Without this background, one cannot understand the truly radical hate for Germany and all things German that broke out in the Entente countries with the war of 1914.24
In France she was especially hated. The Kaiser’s grandfather, against the advice of Bismarck, had amputated Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 war. The Prussian General Staff had persuaded the emperor that the provinces must be annexed to keep France permanently on the defensive. But their loss had made of France a mortal enemy resolute upon revenge. Of Alsace-Lorraine, the French had a saying, first attributed to Gambetta: “Speak of it never, think of it always!”
Russia was now France’s ally. And given her size, resources, and population, Germans feared, Russia must soon assume leadership of all the Slavic peoples. The German General Staff, with an unreliable ally in Italy, a crumbling ally in Austria, and an immense Russian Empire growing in power as she laid down railroad tracks into Poland, preferred that if war must come, it come sooner rather than later. Time was not on Germany’s side. “The future [belongs] to Russia, which grows and grows, and which hangs over us like an increasingly horrible incubus,” said Bethmann-Hollweg. “In a few years there will be no defense against it.”25
Germany’s war plans were dictated by geography. Wedged between a hostile France and a rising Russia, Germany had to prepare for a two-front war, with the French attacking in Alsace and Russia marching into Prussia. The elder Moltke, the field marshal who had led Prussia to her victories over Austria and France, had adopted a defensive strategy against France, with a limited offensive in the east to drive Russia out of Poland, then to allow “its enemies to wreck their armies by hurling them against walls of [German] fire and steel.”26
“We should exploit in the West the great advantages which the Rhine and our powerful fortifications offer to the defensive,” Moltke had said as early as 1879, and “apply all the fighting forces which are not absolutely indispensable for an imposing offensive against the east.”27
This remained strategic doctrine until a new figure arrived in Berlin: the legendary Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the General Staff from 1891 to 1906, a “man without hobbies [who] often worked until midnight, then relaxed by reading military history to his daughters.”28
The Schlieffen Plan, laid down in virtual tablets of stone, called for the German army, no matter where war erupted, to strike first and hardest to crush Germany’s strongest enemy, France, then to shift her armies by rail to meet the Russian steamroller before it rumbled into East Prussia. When the great war comes, Count Schlieffen instructed his generals, “the whole of Germany must throw itself upon one enemy, the strongest, most powerful, most dangerous enemy, and that can only be France.”29 In the Prussian-led German army, the Schlieffen Plan was sacred text. “It was often said in 1914, and has often been repeated since [that] ‘mobilization means war,’” writes historian A.J.P. Taylor: “This was not true.”30
All the Powers except one could mobilize and yet go on with diplomacy, keeping their armies within their frontiers. Mobilization was a threat of a high order, but still a threat. The Germans, however, had run mobilization and war into one. In this sense, Schlieffen…though dead, was the real maker of the First World War. “Mobilization means war” was his idea. In 1914, his dead hand automatically pulled the trigger.31
However, a rapid defeat of France required not only that the German army mobilize and move swiftly on unalterable timetables, but also that it not be halted, pinioned, and bled on the great French fortresses of Belfort-Epinal and Toul-Verdun. The solution was Belgium. Under the Schlieffen Plan, weak German forces in Alsace and Lorraine were to hold out against an anticipated French invasion, while the German right wing, seven-eighths of the army in the west, smashed into Belgium, far to the north of the French forts. After storming through Belgium, which would hopefully yield without a fight, the army would break out into the undefended north of France and execute a giant wheeling movement, enveloping Paris and the French army from the rear. “When you march into France,” Count Schlieffen admonished his generals, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”32
Schlieffen had died at eighty in 1913. On his deathbed, he was heard to mutter, “It must come to a fight. Only make the right wing strong.”33
From the marshaling of men and munitions, trains and horses, to the designated stepping-off points on the frontier, every detail of Schlieffen’s plan had been engraved on the minds of the General Staff. The plan could not be altered. Its core principle was that France must be defeated first and swiftly, and the only avenue to certain victory passed through Belgium. If Belgium resisted, she must be mercilessly crushed. German survival commanded it. Dismissing quibbles over Belgian neutrality, Moltke’s nephew, who now headed the General Staff, declared, “We must put aside all commonplaces as to the responsibility of the aggressor. Success alone justifies war.”34
The British were largely unaware of the Schlieffen Plan, and few had any idea that a seventy-five-year-old treaty to defend Belgian neutrality might drag them into a great European war most had no desire to fight. But the supremely confident German General Staff was unconcerned. Warned that violating Belgium’s neutrality could bring a British army across the Channel, Moltke told Tirpitz, “The more English the better.”35 A few British divisions would not stop the German juggernaut, and any British soldiers in France would be caught in the net along with the French, and be unavailable for fighting elsewhere.
The Germans had forgotten Bismarck, who warned that preventive war is “like committing suicide out of fear of death.”36 It would be the arrival of a British Expeditionary Force of 120,000 men that crossed the Channel in the first two weeks without hindrance from the High Seas Fleet that would blunt the German advance and defeat the Schlieffen Plan.
“WINSTON ALONE WAS BUOYANT”
BY SATURDAY, AUGUST 1, Russia had begun to mobilize and Germany and France were on the brink. Yet Asquith’s Cabinet remained divided. Most of his ministers were willing to consider war if Belgium was invaded. But some opposed war, no matter the provocation. Grey sought to move the Cabinet toward war without forcing resignations. Privately, Asquith supported him. Publicly, he temporized to hold the government together.
Of Asquith, Churchill would write, “When the need required it, his mind opened and shut smoothly and exactly, like the breach of a gun.”37 But Asquith had not yet decided to force the issue.
The First Lord took the lead. “Winston very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilization,” wrote Asquith, “occupied at least half the time.”38
By that evening, Germany had declared war on Russia, which had refused to halt its mobilization, and on France, which had refused to declare neutrality. Sunday morning, Grey convinced a Cabinet majority to agree that the Royal Navy would block any move by the High Seas Fleet into the Channel to attack French shipping or bombard the coast. Saturday night, exceeding his authority, Grey had already given that assurance to Cambon, the French ambassador. Cabinet Minister John Burns immediately resigned.
“The Cabinet sat almost continuously throughout Sunday [August 2],” wrote Asquith’s daughter Violet. “When they broke up for an interval at luncheon time all those I saw looked racked with anxiety and some stricken with grief. Winston alone was buoyant.”39
By the end of the second Cabinet meeting on Sunday, a majority had agreed: If Germany invaded Belgium, and the Belgians fought and called on Britain for aid, British honor and the 1839 treaty meant she must fight. Five Cabinet members were about to join Burns and resign. Seeing no cause to justify a vast expenditure of British blood and treasure in a Franco-German war, they pleaded with Lloyd George to lead them out. Had Lloyd George agreed, and had all six ministers resigned Monday, Asquith’s Cabinet would have broken up, his government might have fallen, and history would have taken another course.
“The key figure was Lloyd George, and Churchill played a major role in winning his support for a declaration of war,” writes Charmley.40 As Lloyd George vacillated, Churchill pressed him to take his stand on the issue of Belgium’s neutrality. Churchill knew public opinion would swing around to war when the Germans invaded Belgium, as they must. He believed that Lloyd George would swing with it. Churchill knew his man.
As late as July 27, Lloyd George had volunteered that he “knew of no Minister who would be in favour of it [war],” adding, “[T]here could be no question of our taking part in any war.”41 But the Chancellor could see the Unionists uniting behind Grey and Churchill. Having opposed the Boer War, Lloyd George did not want to repeat the painful experience “of standing out against a war-inflamed populace.”42 If the nation was going to fight, he would stand with the nation. For Lloyd George knew that if he did not, his position as heir apparent to leadership of the Liberal Party, a position he had spent twenty-five years building, would be lost, probably to his young rival, the First Lord. Lloyd George might then end his brilliant career as a backbencher in a Liberal Party led by Winston Churchill.
“It was an historic disaster—though not for his own career—that Lloyd George did not support the opponents of intervention at this crucial juncture,” writes Ferguson.43 That there was opportunism in Lloyd George’s refusal to lead the antiwar ministers out of the Cabinet, and in his quiet campaign to persuade them to hold off resigning until they learned whether the German Army would violate the neutrality of Belgium, seems undeniable. Biographer Peter Rowland writes, “The truth of the matter was, quite simply, he did not want to resign…. [H]e was looking around, during those last days of July, for a face-saving formula which would enable him to stay put as Asquith’s second-in-command.”44
Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress, later his wife, confirms it. Wrote Frances Stevenson Lloyd George, forty years later: “My own opinion is that L.G.’s mind was really made up from the first, that he knew we would have to go in, and that the invasion of Belgium was, to be cynical, a heaven-sent excuse for supporting a declaration of war.”45
After Churchill wrote a note to Lloyd George in Cabinet to “bring your mighty aid to the discharge of our duty,” the Chancellor, at the August 1 Cabinet meeting, shoved a note back across the table to the First Lord: “If you do not press us too hard tonight, we might come together.”46
Yet there was cynicism and opportunism also in Churchill’s clucking concern for Belgium. As Manchester writes, Churchill “didn’t care for the Belgians; he thought their behavior in the Congo disgraceful.”47 Of all the colonial powers in Africa, none had acted with greater barbarity than the Belgium of King Leopold.
Such was the rapacity of his regime that the cost in human life due to murder, starvation, disease and reduced fertility has been estimated at ten million: half the existing population. There was nothing hyperbolic about Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of “the horror” of this in The Heart of Darkness.48
Churchill also “suspected the existence of a secret agreement between Brussels and Berlin which would permit the Germans to cross Belgium on their way to France.”49 There was another reason the First Lord did not consider a violation of Belgium’s neutrality to be a casus belli. If war came, Churchill was determined to violate Belgian neutrality himself by ordering the Royal Navy to blockade Antwerp to prevent its becoming a port of entry for goods destined for Germany.
“[I]f Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality in 1914, Britain would have,” writes Niall Ferguson. “This puts the British government’s much-vaunted moral superiority in fighting ‘for Belgian neutrality’ in another light.”50 The German invasion of Belgium enabled the British war party to put a high moral gloss on a war they had already decided to fight for reasons of realpolitik. As early as 1911, during the second Moroccan crisis, Churchill had confided to Lloyd George his real reason for committing himself morally and secretly to bringing Britain into any Franco-German war.
It is not for Morocco, nor indeed for Belgium, that I would take part in this terrible business. One cause alone should justify our participation—to prevent France from being trampled down & looted by the Prussian junkers—a disaster ruinous to the world, & swiftly fatal to our country.51
Late Sunday, word came of Berlin’s ultimatum to Brussels. Asquith ordered mobilization. By Monday morning, Lloyd George had deserted the anti-interventionists and enlisted in the war party. Two years later, he would replace Asquith and lead Britain to victory.
Over that weekend the mood of the British people underwent a sea change. A peace demonstration scheduled for Sunday in Trafalgar Square dissolved. Millions who did not want to go to war for France were suddenly wildly enthusiastic about war for Belgium. As Lloyd George observed, a poll on August 1 “would have shown 95 per cent against…hostilities…. A poll on the following Tuesday (4 August) would have resulted in a vote of 99 percent in favor.”52
Said Churchill, “[E]very British heart burned for little Belgium.”53
By Monday morning’s Cabinet meeting, King George had a request from King Albert, calling on Britain to fulfill its obligation under the 1839 treaty. Belgium would fight rather than let the Kaiser make her a doormat on which German soldiers wiped their boots as they marched into France. That afternoon, Sir Edward Grey called on the House to defend “British interests, British honour, and British obligations.” The invasion of Belgium, said Grey, was “the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history.”54
The British interests were to prevent Germany from crushing France as a Great Power and occupying the Channel coast. British obligations, said Grey, had been written into the 1839 treaty. British honor had been placed on the line when Britain had persuaded France to transfer the French fleet to the Mediterranean. Said Sir Edward,
[I]f the German fleet came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside [cheers broke out in the House] and see the thing going on practically in sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing!55
Grey’s address carried the House and prepared the nation for the ultimatum that would bring a declaration of war on August 4. When he returned to his office, Grey received U.S. ambassador Walter Hines Page. Tears in his eyes, he told Page, “Thus, the efforts of a lifetime go for nothing. I feel like a man who wasted his life.”56
That evening Grey stood with a friend looking out at St. James Park as the lamps were being lit. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” said Grey. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”57
On August 4, after von Kluck’s divisions crossed the Belgian frontier, the prime minister’s wife came to see him in his office.
“So it is all up?” said Margot Asquith.
Without looking up, tears in his eyes, Asquith replied, “Yes, it is all up.”58
It was with heavy hearts that Grey and Asquith led their country into war. Lloyd George was of a similar cast of mind. On the eve of a war he now supported, but with a troubled conscience, he wrote,
I am moving through a nightmare world these days…. I have fought hard for peace & succeeded so far in keeping the Cabinet out of it, but I am driven to the conclusion that if the small nationality of Belgium is attacked by Germany all my traditions & even prejudices will be engaged on the side of war. I am filled with horror at the prospect. I am even more horrified that I should ever appear to have a share in it but I must bear my share of the ghastly burden though it scorches my flesh to do so.59
“[Lloyd George] was sickened by the huge crowds jubilantly thronging Whitehall and Parliament Square and his face was white as he sat slumped in his seat in the Commons,” listening to Grey make the case for war.60 Cheered on his way to Parliament, Lloyd George muttered: “This is not my crowd…. I never want to be cheered by a war crowd.”61
The prime minister felt equal revulsion. Making his way through the cheering throngs, Asquith “expressed his loathing for the levity and quoted Robert Walpole, ‘Now they ring the bells but soon they will wring their hands.’”62 “It is curious,” Asquith would later write,
how, going to and from the House, we are now always surrounded and escorted by cheering crowds of loafers and holiday makers. I have never before been a popular character with “the man in the street,” and in all this dark and dangerous business it gives me scant pleasure. How one loathes such levity.63
At 11 P.M., August 4, as the ultimatum expired and the moment came when Britain was at war, a tearful Margot Asquith left her husband to go to bed, and as she began to ascend the stairs, “I saw Winston Churchill with a happy face striding towards the double doors of the Cabinet room.”64
Lloyd George was sitting within with his disconsolate prime minister when, as he later told a friend:
Winston dashed into the room, radiant, his face bright, his manner keen, one word pouring out after another how he was going to send telegrams to the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and God knows where. You could see he was a really happy man.65
Churchill was exhilarated. Six months later, after the first Battle of Ypres, with tens of thousands of British soldiers in their graves, he would say to Violet Asquith, “I think a curse should rest on me—because I am so happy. I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet—I cannot help it—I enjoy every second.”66
Said Sir Maurice Hankey, “Churchill was a man of a totally different type from all his colleagues. He had a real zest for war. If war there must needs be, he at least could enjoy it.”67
A year earlier, in his book Pillars of Society, A. G. Gardiner had written prophetically of the young First Lord:
He sees himself moving through the smoke of battle—triumphant, terrible, his brow clothed with thunder, his legions looking to him for victory, and not looking in vain. He thinks of Napoleon; he thinks of his great ancestor. Thus did they bear themselves; thus, in this rugged and most awful crisis, will he bear himself. It is not make-believe, it is not insincerity; it is that in that fervid and picturesque imagination there are always great deeds afoot with himself cast by destiny in the Agamemnon role…. He will write his name big in the future. Let us take care he does not write it in blood.68
WHY BRITAIN FOUGHT
WAS WORLD WAR I a necessary war?
Writes British historian John Keegan, “The First World War was…an unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.”69
Had the Austrians not sought to exploit the assassination of Ferdinand to crush Serbia, they would have taken Serbia’s acceptance of nine of their ten demands as vindication. Had Czar Nicholas II been more forceful in rescinding his order for full mobilization, Germany would not have mobilized, and the Schlieffen Plan would not have begun automatically to unfold. Had the Kaiser and Bethmann realized the gravity of the crisis, just days earlier, they might have seized on Grey’s proposal to reconvene the six-power conference that resolved the 1913 Balkan crisis. The same six ambassadors were all in London, including Germany’s Prince Lichnowsky, an Anglophile desperate to avoid war with Britain.
Had Grey himself conveyed to Lichnowsky, more forcefully and “just a few days earlier,” that Britain would likely be drawn into a European war, writes one historian, “Berlin almost certainly would have changed its position more quickly and firmly. Austria might then have deferred its declaration of war, and Russia would have had little reason to mobilize.”70 The Great War might have been averted.
And it is in Britain’s decisions and actions that we are most interested. For it was the British decision to send an army across the Channel to fight in Western Europe, for the first time in exactly one hundred years, that led to the defeat of the Schlieffen Plan, four years of trench warfare, America’s entry, Germany’s collapse in the autumn of 1918, the abdication of the Kaiser, the dismemberment of Germany at Versailles, and the rise to power of a veteran of the Western Front who, four years after the war’s end, was unreconciled to his nation’s defeat. “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain,” cried Adolf Hitler in 1922. “No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance.”71
Britain turned the European war of August 1 into a world war. For, while the wave of public sentiment against the invasion of “brave little Belgium” swept Parliament over the brink and into war, Grey, Haldane, Churchill, and Asquith had steered her toward the falls for other reasons:
1. Preserve France as a Great Power. In his speech to the Commons on August 3, Grey declared: “If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death…I do not believe that…we should be in a position to use our force decisively…to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite to us…falling under the domination of a single Power.”72
Grey believed in a domino theory. The day after his address, he told a colleague, “It will not end with Belgium. Next will come Holland, and after Holland, Denmark…England[’s] position would be gone if Germany were thus permitted to dominate Europe.”73 To Grey, the Kaiser was Napoleon and the risks of neutrality—a German-dominated Europe—outweighed the risks of war. “If we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside.”74
Sir Edward was tragically mistaken.
2. British Honor. What brought the Cabinet around behind Grey was not France or an abstraction like the balance of power. It was Belgium. Had the Germans not invaded Belgium, had the Belgians not fought, the Cabinet would not have supported the ultimatum. Grey would then have resigned; Asquith’s government would have fallen; days would have passed before a new government was formed. New elections might have had to be called. There would have been no ultimatum of August 3, no declaration of war of August 4. In his speech of August 6, “What are we fighting for?,” Asquith gave this answer: Britain had a duty “to uphold Belgian neutrality in the name of law and honour” and “to vindicate the principle…that small nations are not to be crushed.”75
In justifying the decision for war, Asquith, writes Ferguson, adopted “the idiom of the public-school playground: ‘It is impossible for people of our blood and history to stand by…while a big bully sets to work to thrash and trample to the ground a victim who has given him no provocation.’”76In his memoirs, Grey, too, does not give as a casus belli any imperiled vital British interest, but regards it as a matter of national honor:
[Had we not come in] we should have been isolated; we should have had no friend in the world; no one would have hoped or feared anything from us, or thought our friendship worth having. We should have been discredited…held to have played an inglorious and ignoble part…We should have been hated.77
Lord Grey is saying here that Britain had to enter the war because the character and credibility of the British nation were at issue. Allies of the empire all over the world, who relied on British commitments, were watching. Had Britain not gone to war, had she stood aside as France was crushed, who would then trust Britain to stand by them?
What Grey was saying is that the empire was held together by a belief that, in any crisis, the British army and Royal Navy would be there. That belief, critical to maintaining the empire, could not survive a British neutrality as Belgium and France were being assaulted, invaded, and overrun.
3. Retention of Power. Why did the antiwar Liberals in the Cabinet not resign? Because Lloyd George begged them to wait. Because they feared a breakup of the Cabinet would bring about the fall of Asquith’s government, and new elections that might bring to power the Unionists who backed Grey, Churchill, and war. Already, Churchill had sounded out the Conservative leader Bonar Law on a national unity government.
Indeed, on Sunday, August 2, Law had written Asquith offering the Tories’ “unhesitating support in any measures they may consider necessary,” adding, “[i]t would be fatal to the honour and security of the United Kingdom to hesitate in supporting France and Russia.”78
Bonar Law’s letter did not mention Belgium.
If Britain must go to war, Liberals believed, better that they lead her and conclude the peace. The Liberal Imperialists steered their country to war, and, rather than risk the loss of power, the Little Englanders went along.
Since their triumph in 1906, the Liberals had seen their electoral support wither away. By 1914, Herbert Asquith’s government was on the verge of collapse. Given the failure of their foreign policy to avert a European war, he and his Cabinet colleagues ought to have resigned. But they dreaded the return to Opposition. More, they dreaded the return of the Conservatives to power. They went to war partly to keep the Tories out.79
And the German General Staff accommodated them. “By requiring a German advance through the whole of Belgium,” writes Ferguson, “the Schlieffen Plan helped save the Liberal government.”80
4. Germanophobia. Britain resented the rise of Germany and feared that a defeat of France would mean German preeminence in Europe and the eclipse of Britain as an economic and world power. During his tour in the late summer of 1919 to sell America on his Versailles Treaty, a tour that ended when he was felled by a stroke, Wilson said in St. Louis and St. Paul: “This war, in its inception, was a commercial and industrial war…. The German bankers and the German merchants and the German manufacturers did not want this war. They were making conquest of the world without it, and they knew it would spoil their plans.”81
Churchill himself had imbibed deeply of Grey’s Germanophobia. As he said in 1912: “I could never learn their beastly language, nor will I till the Emperor William comes over here with his army.”82
In 1907, preparing for the Hague Conference on disarmament, U.S. secretary of state Elihu Root sent Ambassador Henry White to London to ascertain British views. According to Allan Nevins, Root’s biographer, White was “startled” by what he heard into the stark realization that a European war involving Britain was a possibility. White had several conversations with Balfour, one of which was overheard by White’s daughter, who took notes:
Balfour (somewhat lightly): “We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.”
White: “You are a very high-minded man in private life. How can you possibly contemplate anything so politically immoral as provoking a war against a harmless nation which has as good a right to a navy as you have? If you wish to compete with German trade, work harder.”
Balfour: “That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war.”
White: “I am shocked that you of all men should enunciate such principles.”
Balfour (again lightly): “Is it a question of right or wrong? Maybe it is just a question of keeping our supremacy.”83
5. Imperial Ambition and Opportunism. The British war party saw France and Russia as bearing the cost in blood of land battle in Europe while the Royal Navy, supreme at sea, ravaged Germany’s trade, seized her markets, and sank the High Seas Fleet, as the empire gobbled up every German colony from Togoland to the Bismarck Archipelago. A war where France and Russia fought the German army, while Britain did most of her fighting outside Europe, or at sea, matched perfectly the ambitions and strengths of the British Empire.
Thus, in early August 1914, a Cabinet that had come to power in public revulsion against an imperial war in South Africa was happily poring over maps, plotting the plunder of Germany’s colonies, as Asquith mused to his colleagues, “We look more like a gang of Elizabethan buccaneers than a meek collection of black-coated Liberal Ministers.”84
For Britain, World War I was not a war of necessity but a war of choice. The Germans did not want war with Britain, nor did they seek to destroy the British Empire. They feared a two-front war against a rising Russian Empire and a France resolute upon revenge for 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Berlin would have paid a high price for British neutrality.
WHY THE LIBERALS WENT ALONG
IDEOLOGY AND EMOTION HELPED to sweep the Liberal Party along to war. Once Belgium was attacked, everything changed. Writes British historian Peter Clarke,
Serbia was belatedly seized upon as a small nation struggling to be free—Lloyd George was to make a speech about how much the world owed the “little 5-foot-5 nations”—but it was Belgium which immediately fitted this particular paradigm…. [A] war on behalf of Belgium was not seen as an assertion of realpolitik in the national interest…but a struggle of right and wrong in the Gladstonian tradition.85
Once Belgium became Britain’s cause, Liberals who had opposed war only hours before enthusiastically joined the crusade. Three days after war was declared, H. G. Wells wrote in the Liberal Daily News, “Every sword drawn against Germany is a sword drawn for peace…. The defeat of Germany may open the way to disarmament and peace throughout the earth….”86 The Daily News echoed Wells, “We have no quarrel with the German people…no, it is not the people with whom we are at war, it is the tyranny which has held them in its vice.”87 To the News, the Germans were a good people; it was the “despots and diplomatists” who had brought on the war.88 Writes historian Correlli Barnett:
The shameful war out of which Britain must at all costs keep had thus swiftly changed its nature to a war of Good against Evil. Spiritual exaltation was now manifested at a temperature not seen since the religious transports of the original evangelical movement of the early nineteenth century. As a writer in the Daily News put it in September 1914, “Humanity is going to pay a great price, but not in vain…[T]he reward is its liberty and a larger, nobler life.”89
When Wilson took America into the war, he, too, had his Damascene moment, awakening to the truth that a European war whose origins he could not discern in December 1916, a war in which he had said both sides were fighting for the same ends, was now a “war to end wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy,” the latter “a phrase first coined by H. G. Wells in August, 1914.”90 Wilson became history’s champion of moralistic intervention. In the 1930s, others would take up the great cause and make League of Nations moralism the polestar of British policy.
Despite their sudden enthusiasm for war when Belgium was invaded, the Liberal Party and the people had no vote in Britain’s decision to enter the bloodiest conflict in Western history. Writes Taylor,
[T]he war came as though King George V still possessed the undiminished prerogatives of Henry VIII. At 10:30 P.M. on 4 August 1914, the king held a privy council at Buckingham Palace which was attended by only one minister and two court officials. This council sanctioned the proclamation of a state of war from 11 P.M. That was all. The Cabinet played no part once it had resolved to defend the neutrality of Belgium. It did not consider the ultimatum to Germany, which Sir Edward Grey…sent after consulting only the Prime Minister, Asquith, and perhaps not even him. Nor did the Cabinet authorize the declaration of war…. The parliament…did not give formal approval to the government’s acts until it voted a credit of (100) million (pounds)…on 6 August.91
“More astonishing, when viewed though modern eyes,” writes David Fromkin, were the reflexive decisions of the Dominions, thousands of miles from Europe, to send their sons to fight and die in a war against an enemy that had neither attacked nor threatened them or the British Empire.
“The governments and parliaments of the Dominions were not consulted.” Instead, each “governor general issued the royal proclamation on his own authority, as did the viceroy of India.” Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India (which then included Pakistan and Bangladesh), and much of Africa were swept up in a war without first being asked.92
Thus did Britain, her empire trailing behind, enter upon a thirty years’ war of Western civilization. From the killing fields of this mighty conflict, four European empires would never return. No European nation would emerge without wounds that would diminish it forever.
THE KAISER’S CULPABILITY
NEITHER THE KAISER NOR Chancellor Bethmann is blameless for what the Great War historian Jacques Barzun calls the “blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction.”93 But neither entered it with the “zest” of the First Lord. In early July, the Kaiser had acceded to Vienna’s request to stand by Austria in the event of a war with Serbia, which might mean a collision with Russia. This was the famous “blank cheque.” But as the Kaiser sailed off on his summer vacation to tour Norwegian fjords, Berlin implored the dithering Austrians to settle accounts with the Serbs quickly. Writes Keegan, “Austria had simply wanted to punish Serbia (though it had lacked the courage to act alone). Germany had wanted a diplomatic success that would leave its Austrian ally stronger in European eyes; it had not wanted war.”94
But the Austrians waited four weeks to act, and when they did they set in train the events that led to the European war. Yet, in the last hours before August 1, the Kaiser and Bethmann tried to pull back from a war that neither wanted. When the Kaiser returned to Berlin in late July, Bethmann, offering to resign, told him that things had gotten out of hand and an Austrian war on Serbia might now ignite a European conflagration. The Kaiser rebuked him, “You cooked this broth, and now you are going eat it.”95
Only at the eleventh hour did they begin to lose their nerve: the Kaiser first, on July 28, and then Bethmann who…frantically sought to apply the brakes…[B]ut it was the German military which ultimately secured, by a combination of persuasion and defiance, the mobilization orders, the ultimata and declarations of war which unleashed the conflict.96
After Serbia’s reply to the Austrian note, a diplomatic surrender in the Kaiser’s eyes, he wrote to Emperor Franz Josef, “[E]very cause for war [now] falls to the ground.”97 After the Austrian declaration of war and shelling of Belgrade, he wrote again, “Stop in Belgrade!”98 His diplomats and generals held up the note.
A European war, the Kaiser believed and hoped, could still be avoided. He implored his cousin, the Czar, to rescind his order for full mobilization, as Russian mobilization meant German mobilization, and under the Schlieffen Plan, that meant immediate war on France if she did not declare neutrality. And that meant marching through Belgium, which risked war with Britain and her worldwide empire.
The Kaiser wrote George V to accept his proposal that Germany not attack France if she remained neutral in a war with Russia. But when he called in Moltke and ordered him to halt the army’s advance to the frontier, a “crushed” Moltke said, “Your Majesty, it cannot be done.”99
Invoking the great field marshal who had led Prussia to its victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870, the Kaiser gave Moltke a cutting reply: “Your uncle would have given me a different answer.”100
“Wounded,” Moltke returned to headquarters and “burst into tears of abject despair…I thought my heart would break.”101
In casting the Kaiser as villain in the tragedy, historians use his crude and bellicose marginal notes on state documents. But these were like the notations Richard Nixon made on his news summaries and muttered in the confidentiality of the Oval Office as the voice-activated tapes were running—fulminations and threats never carried out.
None of the monarchs—Nicholas II, Wilhelm II, George V, or Franz Josef—wanted war. All sensed that the great war, when it came, would imperil the institution of monarchy and prepare the ground for revolution. In the final hours, all four weighed in on the side of peace. But more resolute and harder men had taken charge of affairs.
To those who say the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet was a provocation to Great Britain, were not the Royal Navy’s dreadnoughts a provocation? And if France, with a population of 39 million, was maintaining an army the size of Germany’s, which had seventy million people, which of the two nations was the more militaristic?102
GERMAN WAR AIMS
COULD BRITAIN HAVE DEFENDED her honor and secured her vital interests had she not gone to war when Germany invaded Belgium? In The Pity of War, Ferguson argues “yes.”
That Britain could have limited its involvement in a continental war is a possibility which has been all but ignored by historians…. Yet it should now be clear that the possibility was a very real one. Asquith and Grey acknowledged this in their memoirs. Both men emphasized that Britain had not been obliged to intervene by any kind of contractual obligation to France. In Asquith’s words, “We kept ourselves free to decide, when the occasion arose, whether we should or should not go to war.”103
If Britain would have been judged dishonorable by not coming to the aid of France, it was only because Grey and Churchill, without the approval of Parliament, had committed her to go to war for France. Grey’s reason for tying Britain’s destiny to France was fear that a German victory would make Belgium, Holland, and Denmark vassals, give the High Seas Fleet a berth on the Channel coast, and make the Kaiser “supreme over all the Continent of Europe and Asia Minor.”104 “[But] was that really the German objective? Was the Kaiser really Napoleon?” asks Ferguson.105
Tuchman portrays the Kaiser on the eve of war as a ruler trapped, searching for a way out of the conflagration he sees coming. When Russia mobilized, the Kaiser went into a tirade against the nation that had conspired against Germany—and against the arch-conspirator, his dead uncle:
The world will be engulfed in the most terrible of wars, the ultimate aim of which is the ruin of Germany. England, France and Russia have conspired for our annihilation…that is the naked truth of the situation which was slowly but surely created by Edward VII…. The encirclement of Germany is at last an accomplished fact. We have run our heads into the noose…. The dead Edward is stronger than the living I.106
On July 31, in the last hours before war, the Kaiser wired his cousins, Czar Nicholas II and King George V, in desperation and near despair:
It is not I who bears the responsibility for the disaster which now threatens the entire civilized world. Even at this moment the decision to stave it off lies with you. No one threatens the honour and power of Russia. The friendship for you and your empire which I have borne from the deathbed of my grandfather has always been totally sacred to me…[T]he peace of Europe can still be maintained by you, if Russia decides to halt the military measures which threaten Germany and Austro-Hungary.107
Is this the mind-set of a Bonaparte launching a war of conquest in Europe or a war for world domination? Contrast, if you will, the Kaiser’s anguish on the eve of the greatest war in history with the exhilaration of the First Lord of the Admiralty.
The British inner Cabinet, however, had persuaded itself that the Kaiser was a Prussian warmonger out to conquer not only Europe but the world. Here is Cabinet Minister Haldane: “I thought, from my study of the German General Staff, that once the German war party had got into the saddle, it would be war not merely for the overthrow of France or Russia, but for domination of the world.”108 Churchill echoed Haldane, calling the Kaiser a “continental tyrant” whose goal was nothing less than “the dominion of the world.”109
A quarter of a century later, in Great Contemporaries, Churchill would exonerate the Kaiser of plotting a war for European or world hegemony: “[H]istory should incline to the more charitable view and acquit William II of having planned and plotted the World War.”110
Indeed, how could a country with but a narrow outlet to the North Sea, in the heart of the smallest continent, dominate a world that included France and her overseas territories, the Russian empire, the Ottoman Empire, the United States, Latin America, Japan, China, and a British Empire that encompassed a fourth of the Earth’s surface and people?
“Conscious of the shadow of the dead Edward, the Kaiser would have welcomed any way out of the commitment to fight both Russia and France and, behind France, the looming figure of a still-undeclared England,” writes Tuchman.111 On the cusp of war, the Kaiser was in near despair and the German General Staff in near panic to get its armies marching before the nation was crushed between France and Russia. When, a day after Britain declared war, Austria had not yet declared war on France or Russia, “Moltke told Tirpitz…that, if Austria continued to shy away, Germany—only days after declaring war—would have to sue for peace on the best terms it could get.”112 On August 6, Vienna finally declared war on Russia.
In his 2007 History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, historian Andrew Roberts, contradicting Churchill, who had concluded the Kaiser blundered into war, insists Wilhelm II had “gargantuan ambitions” and that his High Seas Fleet fleet was “an invasion fleet.”113 Quoting Fromkin on what was at stake in 1914, Roberts writes, “It was about the most important issue in politics: who should rule the world?”114
But was it? Was the Kaiser out to “rule the world”?
THE BUTCHER-BIRD OF EUROPE?
IN DEFENSE OF THE declaration of war on Germany, it is yet said that Britain had to save the world from “Prussian militarism”—the relentless drive for world domination of the Teutonic warrior race. Yet, in retrospect, this appears a modern myth not unlike the infamous Black Legend, in which the English once held that only evil emanated from Catholic Spain. Looking back on the century 1815–1914, from Waterloo to the Great War, Germany appears to have been among the least militaristic of European powers.115
Number of Wars
From 1871 to 1914, the Germans under Bismarck and the Kaiser did not fight a single war. While Britain, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Japan, Spain, and the United States were all involved in wars, Germany and Austria had clean records. And if Germany had not gone to war in forty-three years, and the Kaiser had never gone to war in his twenty-five years on the throne, how can one call Germany—as British statesmen did and British historians still do—the “butcher-bird of Europe”?
In the Seven Years’ War, Frederick the Great had been an ally of Pitt. During his reign, 1740–1786, “Prussia spent fewer years at war…than any other major European power.”116 In the Napoleonic wars, Prussia had been overrun and almost vanished from the map and Prussians under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher had come to Wellington’s rescue at Waterloo. In the three wars Prussia fought between 1815 and 1914, the first was provoked by Denmark in 1864 and involved disputed duchies. The second, in 1866 with Austria, over the same duchies, was a “Teutonic” civil war of seven weeks, and a far less bloody affair than our own Civil War. On Bismarck’s advice, the King of Prussia left the Habsburg empire intact and denied himself a triumphal parade through Vienna. The third was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, declared by Napoleon III, who thought he could emulate his great ancestor and march to Berlin.
What were Prussia’s territorial gains from the only wars she fought in the century after Waterloo? Two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, and two provinces, Alsace and Lorraine. Is this the record of a butcher-bird nation hell-bent on world domination?
In 1914, Churchill denounced Wilhelm II as a Prussian war-lord out to take over the world. Yet the Kaiser had never fought a war in his twenty-five years in power and he had never seen a battle. In the two Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, it was he who had backed down. The German army had never fought the English and indeed had not fought a battle in nearly half a century. Churchill, however, was already a veteran of wars. He had seen action with Sir Bindon Blood on the Northwest Frontier. He had ridden with Kitchener’s cavalry in the massacre of the Dervishes at Omdurman in the Sudan. He had been captured riding in an armored train in the first days of the Boer War, been held as a POW, escaped, and then marched with the British army to the relief of Ladysmith. Britain had engaged in many more wars than Germany in the century before Sarajevo, and Churchill had himself seen more war than almost any soldier in the German army.
THE “SEPTEMBER PROGRAMME”
TRUE, WHEN GERMANY APPEARED to be on the road to swift victory, Bethmann-Hollweg issued his September Programme, which called for the annexation of the northeast coast of France. But the Programme was put out only after Britain had declared war. No historian has found any German plan or official document dated prior to August 1, 1914, that called for the annexation of Belgian or French territory.
As for Sir Roy Denman’s point—“The High Seas Fleet based on the Channel ports would have been for Britain an unacceptable danger”—had Britain demanded guarantees of no German naval bases on the Channel coast, Bethmann and Moltke would readily have given them.117 The Royal Navy could have guaranteed it, as the war demonstrated, when the German fleet left Kiel only once, for the Battle of Jutland. Germany had nothing to gain from war with Britain and much to lose should Britain blockade her, sink her merchant fleet, seize her colonies, and bring the empire in against her. “Had Britain, in fact, stayed out, it would have been foolish [for Germany] to have reneged on such a bargain.”118
In the hours before war, Bethmann secretly suggested to Grey that, in return for British neutrality, Germany would agree not to annex any French territory and respect Holland’s neutrality. Grey, secretly committed to fight for France, dismissed the proposal as “impossible & disgraceful,” so great an act of dishonor “the good name of this country would never recover.”119
Yet Britain had stood aside in 1870 as Prussia invaded France.
What were the other war aims of the September Programme?
A) A war indemnity from France for fifteen or twenty years to prevent her rearmament and a commercial treaty giving German products equal access to French markets.
B) An economic association of France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden, and Norway, led by Germany; a customs union, not a political union.120 Fifteen years earlier, the Kaiser had proposed a United States of Europe to challenge America for world economic supremacy.121
C) Cession to Germany of territories to enable her to unite her African colonies into a single bloc.
D) A Holland independent, but united economically with Germany, and perhaps a defensive alliance.
E) Poland and the Baltic states to be extracted from Russia with Poland becoming independent. The Baltic states would either be given independence or be annexed by Germany or Poland.
“[E]ven in anticipating a military victory,” writes American historian David Calleo, “Germany’s actual territorial expansion in Europe was to be relatively modest.”122 Would these war aims have posed a threat to Britain?
“Did they imply a Napoleonic strategy?” asks Ferguson.123
“Hardly. All the economic clauses of the September Programme implied was the creation—some eighty years early, it might be said—of a German-dominated European customs union…. Germany’s European project was not one with which Britain, with her maritime empire intact, could not have lived.”124
German objectives, had Britain remained out, would not in fact have posed a direct threat to the Empire; the reduction of Russian power in Eastern Europe, the creation of a Central European Customs Union, and acquisition of French colonies—these were all goals that were complementary to British interests.125
Instead, Britain declared war, a war that would last fifty-one months and consume the lives of 702,000 British soldiers and 200,000 more from the Dominions, India, and Africa, with twice as many wounded or crippled.126
What would have happened if Britain had declared neutrality and stayed out? The Germans would have triumphed in France as in 1870 or there would have been a stalemate and armistice. The United States would not have come in. No American or British soldiers and many fewer French and Germans would have died. A victorious Kaiser would have taken some French colonies in Africa, which would have replaced one British colonial rival with another. The Germans would have gone home victorious, as they did in 1871.
Russia would still have been defeated, but the dismantling of Russia’s empire was in Britain’s national interest. Let the Germans pay the cost, take the casualties, and accept the eternal enmity for breaking it up. A triumphant Germany would have faced resentful enemies in both France and Russia and rebellious Slavs to the south. This would have presented no problem for the British Empire. The Germans would have become the dominant power in Europe, with the British dominant on the oceans, America dominant in the Western Hemisphere, and Britain’s ally, Japan, dominant in Asia.
Before August 1914, Lenin had been living in a garret in Geneva. In 1917, as the Romanov dynasty was falling and Russia seemed on the verge of chaos, the German General Staff transported Lenin in a sealed train across Germany. Their hope was for revolutionary chaos in Russia that might force St. Petersburg to sue for peace. Had Britain not declared war, the war would not have lasted until 1917—and Lenin would likely have died unmourned in Geneva. And had the Bolsheviks still come to power in Russia, a victorious German army would have marched in and made short work of them.
Germany, as the most powerful nation in Europe, aligned with a free Poland that owed its existence to Germany, would have been the western bulwark against any Russian drive into Europe. There would have been no Hitler and no Stalin. Other evils would have arisen, but how could the first half of the twentieth century have produced more evil than it did?
Had Sir Edward revealed to the Cabinet his secret discussions with France and the moral commitments they implied—that Britain must go to war if France were invaded—his policy would have been rejected by the Cabinet and repudiated by Parliament. Churchill later admitted as much:
[If in 1912] the Foreign Secretary had, in cold blood, proposed a formal alliance with France and Russia…the Cabinet of the day would never have agreed to it. I doubt if four ministers would have agreed to it. But if the Cabinet had been united upon it, the House of Commons would not have accepted their guidance. Therefore the Foreign Minister would have had to resign. The policy which he had advocated would have stood condemned and perhaps violently repudiated; and upon that repudiation would have come an absolute veto upon all those informal preparations and noncommittal discussions on which the defense power of the Triple Entente was erected.127
“No bargain had been entered into,” wrote Churchill, but “We were morally committed to France.”128 Churchill concedes that he and Grey were morally committed to a war they knew the Cabinet and Parliament opposed. “In other words,” concludes historian Jim Powell, “Churchill believed that if Grey had operated openly, Britain might not have been able to get into the war!”129 As Francis Neilson, who had resigned from the House over the war, wrote, both “Bonar Law and Austen Chamberlain said after the First World War—that if Grey’s commitments had been laid before the House, they doubted whether…[the war] would have taken place.”130
The importance of Grey’s secret collusion with France is difficult to overstate. Had he been open with the Cabinet and sought to persuade them of the necessity of committing Britain to France, they would have rejected his alliance. France and Russia, knowing that they could not rely on the British to fight beside them, would have been far more disposed to compromise in the Balkan crisis of July 1914. By secretly committing Britain to war for France, Grey, Churchill, and Asquith left the Kaiser and German Chancellor in the dark, unaware a war with France meant war with the British Empire. Had he known, the Kaiser would have made his belated effort to abort a war far sooner and more successfully. Churchill concedes it in The World Crisis: “[O]ur Entente with France and the [secret] military and naval conversations that had taken place since 1906 had led us into a position where we had all the obligations of an alliance without its advantages.”131
Adds Neilson, “[I]f Balfour had been in power, they would have made no secret of the understanding with France and Russia and there would have been no war.”132 “We went to war,” said Lord Loreburn, “because we were tied to France in the dark.”133
An anecdote related by British naval historian Russell Grenfell in his Unconditional Hatred has about it the ring of historical truth:
British embroilment in the war of 1914–18 may be said to date from January 1906, when Britain was in the throes of a General Election. Mr. Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, had gone to the constituency of Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to make an electioneering speech in his support. The two politicians went for a country drive together, during which Grey asked Haldane if he would initiate discussions between the British and French General staffs in preparation for the possibility of joint action in the event of a Continental war. Mr. Haldane agreed to do so. The million men who were later to be killed as a result of this rural conversation could not have been condemned to death in more haphazard a fashion. At this moment not even the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, let alone other members of the Cabinet, knew what was being arranged.134
“WINSTON IS BECOMING A REAL DANGER”
EVEN FRIENDLY BIOGRAPHERS AND memoirists seem astonished by Winston Churchill’s lust for war in 1914. “Amid the gathering storm,” writes Roy Jenkins, “Churchill was a consistent force for intervention and ultimately for war.”135 Lord Morley, Gladstone’s biographer, spoke of the “daemonic energy” of “that splendid condottiere at the Admiralty.”136
From the first inkling that war might come, Churchill acted like a war leader. He was decisive, unconflicted, resolute. Hearing a Turkish crew was about to take possession of two dreadnoughts ordered from British shipyards, he “requisitioned” the ships and ordered their Turkish crews repelled “by armed force if necessary,” should they attempt to board.137
In 1911, the Turks had sounded out Great Britain on an alliance, but Churchill, “with the arrogance of his class in that time, had replied that they had ideas above their station.”138 He warned the Turks “not to alienate Britain which ‘alone among European states…retains supremacy of the sea.’”139 Churchill’s insults would prove costly. On August 2, Germany and Turkey signed a secret alliance and in 1915 Turkish troops inflicted on British and Anzac troops at Gallipoli one of the greatest Allied defeats of the war. Churchill’s affront to the Turks was “an almost unbelievable act,” writes William Manchester, that tore down “a British bulwark and thereby set the stage for a disaster whose chief victim would be he himself.”140
On August 1, Churchill had requested the Cabinet’s authorization to mobilize the fleet. The Cabinet refused. Late that evening, learning of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia, Churchill went to 10 Downing Street to tell Asquith he was calling up reservists and ordering the Royal Navy onto a war footing, unless ordered otherwise. Asquith, bound by the Cabinet decision, “simply looked at me and said no word…. I then walked back to the Admiralty across the Parade Ground and gave the order.”141
On learning the 23,000-ton German battle cruiser Goeben was in the Mediterranean, Churchill ordered British warships to hunt her down and prepare to attack. “Winston, who has got on all his war paint, is longing for a sea fight in the early hours of tomorrow morning, resulting in the sinking of the Goeben,” Asquith wrote on August 4, “the whole thing fills me with sadness.”142 When a British diplomat discovered Goeben in Taranto harbor, the First Lord was tempted to order her sunk before the 11 P.M. ultimatum expired. Churchill feared Goeben would slip away in the dark. She did. After war was declared, he would cross the Channel to discuss tactics and strategy with field commanders, prompting Lloyd George to remark, “Our greatest danger is incompetent English junkers. Winston is becoming a great danger.”143
Churchill’s Cabinet colleagues were both awed and repelled by his lust for war. On September 14, Asquith wrote to Venetia Stanley, “I am almost inclined to shiver, when I hear Winston say that the last thing he would pray for is Peace.”144 Yet, that same month, Grey wrote to Clementine, “I can’t tell you how much I admire his courage & gallant spirit & genius for war.”145
In January of 1915, half a year into the war, with tens of thousands of British soldiers already in their graves, including his own friends, Churchill, according to Margot Asquith’s diary account, waxed ecstatic about the war and his historic role in it:
My God! This is living History. Everything we are doing and saying is thrilling—it will be read by a thousand generations, think of that! Why I would not be out of this glorious delicious war for anything the world could give me (eyes glowing but with a slight anxiety lest the word “delicious” should jar on me).146
Consider the change that had taken place in the character of the First Lord, now relishing “this glorious delicious war,” from the twenty-six-year-old MP who had stood with his late father against the folly of excessive armaments. Said young Churchill to the House of Commons in May 1901:
A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentration to one end of every vital energy of the community [and] can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings….147
Churchill was unafraid to break the rules of war. As he had been prepared to blockade Antwerp before the Germans invaded, so he brushed aside international law, mined the North Sea, and imposed upon Germany a starvation blockade that violated all previous norms of civilized warfare. In the war’s first week, Churchill had wanted to occupy Ameland, one of the Dutch Frisian Islands, though Holland was neutral. To Churchill, writes Martin Gilbert, “Dutch neutrality need be no obstacle.”148
Churchill urged a blockade of the Dardanelles while Turkey was still neutral. In December 1914, he recommended that the Royal Navy seize the Danish island of Bornholm, though Denmark, too, was neutral. Yet it had been Berlin’s violation of Belgium’s neutrality that Churchill invoked as a moral outrage to convince Lloyd George to support war on Germany and that had brought the British people around to support war.
When the Germans accommodated Britain’s war party by regarding the 1839 treaty as a “scrap of paper,” the relief of Grey and Churchill must have been immense. The declaration of war was their triumph. And when British divisions crossed the Channel, the troops were sent, as the secret war plans dictated, not to brave little Belgium but straight to France.
How did the American people see the war in Europe?
“On August 5 the British Navy dredged up and cut the German cables, and on August 6 there was not a single Berlin or Vienna dateline from the American press.”149 The First Lord had made certain the British would decide how the Americans viewed their war.