How wars begin

Otto Dix - Flanders

Otto Dix – Flanders

The experience of seeing how our government was persuaded to make war in Libya, combined with a performance of the Theatre Workshop’s  Oh What a Lovely War, led me to read the text of the play after I’d seen it.  There I found two assertions:

  • on August 1st 1914 the British Cabinet had voted against helping France ‘if war comes’
  • the governing Liberal Party had voted for ‘neutrality under any circumstances’ (page 3).

This seemed contrary to the familiar version of events: that our entry into what came to be called the Great War had been inevitable.  A search of the Internet readily found confirmation that the Liberals had long been associated  with the principle of non-intervention in foreign affairs.   However, in Wikipedia I found the suggestion that ‘talks with France since 1905 – kept secret even from most members of the Cabinet – had set up the mechanism for an expeditionary force to cooperate militarily with France’.  This appeared to be associated with our 1839 undertaking to protect the neutrality of Belgium (Treaty of London).

So, I looked for a biography of Herbert Asquith, the prime minister who led us to war, found one by Roy Jenkins (Collins 1978) and borrowed it from the Library.  From Chapter 20, The Plunge to War I noted the following :

  • on July 24th 1914, when the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia had been delivered, Asquith wrote that war in Europe was likely but that ‘ happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators’.
  • of the dispute between Austria and Serbia he wrote: ‘that on many, if not most, of the points, Austria has a good and Serbia a very bad case’

Throughout the crisis the Foreign Secretary (Edward Grey) had been trying to mediate between the other ‘great powers’ (Russia, France, Germany and Austria).  There were widely differing views in  Cabinet about Britain’s stance if war came.  At least ten ministers out of twenty (including Lloyd George) were considered to be a ‘potential peace party’.  In a speech on July 23rd, Lloyd George had said that our relations with Germany ‘were better than for years’, although he was considered to have gone too far in this.

The problem was that France’s defences depended on German forces being denied access through Belgium.  The French, on the verge of mobilisation (July 31st), were applying heavy pressure on the Foreign Secretary in London.  Asquith told the King that our responsibilities to Belgium were a matter of ‘policy rather than legal obligation’ and he struggled to remain non-committal about our response to a German violation.  He was anxious to avoid the resignations from Cabinet which might follow a definitive statement.  As events moved towards war four members submitted resignations (Burns, Morley, Simon and Beauchamp) although Simon and Beauchamp later withdrew theirs.

On August 2nd, after the Belgians had rejected a German ultimatum, Grey made a speech in the Commons which committed us to support Belgium and seemed to win over many of the doubters.  Following  a Cabinet meeting on August 4th Asquith felt able to issue an ultimatum to Germany, and the die was cast.  I imagine that the arguments Grey used in Parliament formed the basis of the 1915 government pamphlet The Great War and How it Arose, reinforced with ‘evidence’ of German atrocities.  I was reminded of Blair’s Commons speech in which he won over the Labour Party to his invasion of Iraq.

In Jenkins’ account I was struck by two references to Winston Churchill, then a Liberal and member of the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty:

  • at the Cabinet meeting on August 1st Asquith described him as ‘very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilisation’.  ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Winston occupied at least half the time’.
  • as Britain’s ultimatum expired Margot Asquith described seeing Churchill ‘with a happy face striding towards the double doors of the Cabinet’.

Another point of interest was Asquith’s observation of ‘the beginnings of war hysteria’.  ‘There were large crowds perambulating the streets and cheering the King at Buckingham Palace’.  ‘War or anything that seems likely to lead to war is always popular with the London mob.’  I recall references to similar popular bellicosity in Germany.  How were such feelings aroused ?  I can only imagine that the popular press was responsible.  By contrast, Asquith wrote of ‘the Manchester Guardian tack – that we should declare now and at once that in no circumstances will we take a hand (in war)’.

I dare conclude from all this that there was nothing inevitable about our entanglement in the ‘Great War’, and that our entry, although justified by arguments about principle and national interest, was the result of the attitudes of individuals and relationships between them, the balance of opinion at the highest level.  The decision could have gone either way -no doubt there have  been occasions when we have avoided war for the same reasons.  Then, as now, the role of the mass media is crucial, giving a voice to favoured views outside the policy making forums and shaping public opinion. 

And of course, once the decision’s been taken there’s enormous pressure to stifle dissent, play down the arguments against war and portray the declared enemy in as bad a light as possible.  I cannot see that the decision reached in  August 1914 was anything but a disaster for Britain and for Europe too, given what followed.  But there’s enormous resistance to acknowledging that, after our rulers had demanded such sacrifices – the myth must be maintained that those many limbs and lives were lost in a great cause.  As for Churchill, what I now know of his role in 1914 both explains his subsequent behaviour and reinforces my view that we have adopted a foolish rogue as our national hero.

Remarkably, in modern times we seem to have allowed the French to draw us into warfare on their behalf.  In 1914 their concerns were about growing German strength and a desire to recover territory lost in 1870.  In 2011 the concerns were about a regime in Libya which was allowing a flood of African refugees to cross into Europe, putting great pressure on both Italy and France.  And our prime minister, needing French collusion in his fanciful aircraft carrier policy, soon abandoned the rapprochement that we’d not long agreed with Colonel Gaddafi. 

Given the tensions currently building in the world economy, it seems more important than ever to understand how wars begin.  Too often, I fear, politicians adopt positions and paint themselves into corners for fear of how anything like weakness will be portrayed in the mass media.  In home affairs there are usually outlets for well-argued opposition to government policy.  But when it comes to foreign affairs we may never hear reasoned arguments from the other side.  Just like those many men who went off to fight in 1915.


About Trevor Harvey

Post-graduate student of art, literature, politics and government
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