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The Australian historian Douglas Newton, as suggested by the last sentence in his introduction of The Darkest Days, intends to expose Britain as, what he calls, "a rotten system."
However, from the start, Newton falls into a fundamental error in looking at events from the past -about the most elementary mistake anybody can make when looking at history; he views those events from the perspective of today rather than from the perspective of the time in which the events happened. None of the leaders, who if they had foreseen the world in 1917, would have gone to war.
Apart from detailing the debates between British politicians (highly exaggerated with, in the end, only two cabinet ministers that resigned) Newton's book also contains a number of questionable issues.
For example Newman criticises Grey for the fact that the latter maintained that Britain did not fully know "about the inner workings of the Franco-Russian alliance."(Loc. 2341) While the Foreign Office indeed did not have knowledge of the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance. This was not a sign of a weak grasp on political realities, but one of those realities. Britain, after all, was not party to the alliance, and London was to remain in ignorance of its terms until after the outbreak of the war. Representative for the style of Newman's book, in spite of the fact that London was ignorant of its precise terms until after the outbreak of the war, Newman nevertheless proceeds by making the false accusation that Grey would simple be feigning ignorance because Grey's sinister motive "was all to a purpose: not knowing the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance, Grey could scarcely be expected to pressure France or Russia on the subject."(Kindle Loc. 2344)
Newton further discounts or downplays, imperial tensions and the British commitment to maintaining the balance of power in Europe and not allowing one power to control all the channel ports. In this analysis, Grey, "under pressure [by his conniving Foreign Office minions and others] to show solidarity with the Entente" did little to restrain France and Russia. But precisely what might he have done had he been so inclined? Newton unrealistically charges that a "Cabinet clique"-essentially, Asquith, Grey, and Churchill-sabotaged a "democratic decision for war". However, in all of modern British history, most such decisions have been made by a small group of powerful politicians who twisted the facts to suit their purposes.
Newton notes Churchill's repeated evasions of Cabinet scrutiny in pursuing his bellicose course at the Admiralty and speculates that the First Sea Lord wished to force the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the Continent. In army circles, Newton contends that Gen. Sir Henry Wilson's sinister "pogrom," too, was meant to ensure British intervention. This is to take Wilson's word choice a bit too seriously, given his penchant for black humor. Here and elsewhere, Newton's prose sometimes veers into the lurid-"chilling portents," "Midnight conclaves," Grey in the Commons (3 August 1914), gazing out at a "raked theater of needy vanity".
Like the Radicals in 1914, Newton dismisses the significance of the 1839 "guarantee" of Belgian neutrality (which did not in fact stipulate the use of force) signed by Britain, France, and Prussia. When it suited their needs, both the Radicals and the Asquith clique invoked the ghost of William Gladstone, who secured just such guarantees from the belligerents at the time of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), in which Britain took no part.
In this context Newton also refers to the often debated, Military Conversations by pro-French officials at the Foreign Office, started officially in January 1906 when France asked Britain if it would give France military support if Germany attacked France following a breakdown of the talks over Morocco then taking place.Made much of by Newton, the British politicians and officials involved however regularly stated the talks did not commit Britain in any way. Right from the start the officials concerned were explicit using phrases such as "I made it clear that we were to be in no way committed by the fact of having entered into communication.", "... I see no difficulty in such communication made on the express understanding that it commits the government to nothing".
Newton also claims that Grey,from the beginning of the 1914 crisis, took a decidedly anti-German stance.This is not true.
In fact Anglo-German relations had improved immensely in the year or so before the July Crisis.In a much-noted New Year's Day interview with the Radical-leaning Daily News, Lloyd George praised the now "infinitely more friendly" relations between Downing Street and the Wilhelmstrasse, which he attributed to "the wise and patient diplomacy" of Grey.(Copy in Lloyd George MSS, PAL, C/ 36/ 2/ 1.)
Yet ,Grey, was prepared to go even further by dispatching his Private Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell, on a mission to Germany to see the German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow. (Z. S. Steiner, The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898- 1914 (Cambridge, 1969), 14 and 51- 2; E. T. Corp, Sir William Tyrrell: The Eminence Grise of the British Foreign Office, 1912- 1915, HJ XXV, 4 (1982), 697- 708.)
More significantly, this happened at a time when relations with Russia were going downhill (especially in Persia) and the Anglo-Russian understanding was approaching its renewal date.
For Jagow, returning from his honeymoon on 6 July, there was little for it but to accept that a meeting with Tyrrell would have to be delayed. Intriguingly, the state secretary also commented on Franz Ferdinand's murder: The catastrophe of Sarajevo is terrible; this house of Habsburg-Lorraine truly is an Atridite dynasty, moving from catastrophe to catastrophe. The political impact is difficult to calculate, because one knows too little about what sort the new heir to the throne is and what he promises. The life of the old emperor is coming to an end . . . and the successor is very young. In the meantime, the empire is disintegrating more and more and loses consistency and prestige. It needs a strong hand to gather strength again; does the young prince have that? ( Jagow to Blücher, 6 July 1914 (TS copy), Nachlass Jagow, TNA (PRO), GFM 25/ 16.)
As for Russia, contrary to Newman's suggestion Sir George Buchanan did not encourage Russia. And he explained to Sazonof , that only by approaching the German government as "a friend" who was anxious to preserve peace, could Britain induce it to use its influence at Vienna to avert war.
Frequented in Newton's book, Arthur Ponsonby, a former diplomat-turned-MP revelled in his role as the self-appointed nemesis of the inequities of international diplomacy. Britain was under no obligation to any other Powers, Grey explained to him privately. He could not state in public that the government did not wish to be drawn into a conflict: "The doubt on this point was useful to him in negotiating." Affirming Britain's determination to remain neutral would have the opposite effect to the one intended by Ponsonby's group.
Thus instead of giving in to the pressure of French and Russian pleas for a promise of assistance, on 30 July, Grey renewed his efforts to find a diplomatic solution. He thought that Sazonov's stated position-- that Russia would cease military preparations only if Austria declared its willingness to eliminate from its ultimatum to Serbia all those points that endangered the principle of Serbian sovereignty-- might be modified. Grey suggested that Russia cease its military preparations in exchange for an undertaking from the other Powers that they would seek a way to give complete satisfaction to Austria without endangering the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Serbia. On Friday afternoon in Paris Sir Francis Bertie handed a note to Viviani to this effect. Grey asked that France join his initiative by urging its acceptance in St Petersburg. Viviani agreed. The French would tell Sazonov that Grey's formula furnished a useful basis for a discussion among the Powers who sought an honourable solution to the Austro-Serbian conflict and to avert the danger of war. The formula proposed "is calculated equally to give satisfaction to Russia and to Austria and to provide for Serbia an acceptable means of escaping from the present difficulty."( Viviani to Paléologue, telegram, 5 p.m., 31 July, DDF, XI, no. 405.)
The French ambassador in Russia was instructed to urge Sazonov to adhere to the proposal "without delay." In the meantime France would continue to show military restraint in spite of German movements along the frontier.
Sazonov in turn proposed and told the German Ambassador that day (and send out to Russian ambassadors) that: If Austria consents to stop her troops from marching into Serbian territory, and if, recognizing that the Austro-Serbian conflict has assumed the character of a question of European interest, she agrees that the great Powers may examine how Serbia might satisfy the Austro-Hungarian Government without infringing upon her sovereign independence as a state, Russia undertakes to maintain her waiting attitude. (Paléologue to Viviani, telegram, 7.30 p.m., 31 July [received in Paris at 4 a.m., 1 August], DDF, XI, no. 453; Sazonov to Russian ambassadors in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, and Rome, 31 July, IBZI, V, nr 343.)
And while Russia's general mobilization was (due perceived troop movements from the German side) indeed decided on 30 July at 4 p.m.(and not on "on Wednesday 29 July" as Newton writes), the Tsar however made clear to the German Emperor on 31 July, that this did not have to mean war: " We are far from wishing war. So long as the negotiations with Austria on Serbia's account are taking place my troops shall not take any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this. I put all my trust in God's mercy and hope in your successful mediation in Vienna for the welfare of our countries and for the peace of Europe." (Deutsche Dokumente, no.487)
The Russians had an interest in preserving the status quo balance of power in the Balkans. By threatening to overrun Serbia, Austria-Hungary threatened to overturn that balance. Russia acquiesced in Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and pressured Serbia to do the same. It was prepared to yield to keep the peace. It was hardly outrageous for Russia to expect Austria-Hungary to exercise similar restraint relative to Serbia. Russia didn't demand Austria-Hungary give up its pursuit of redress. All that can be said for sure was that it rejected a pre-mediated punitive war as the opening bid to obtain that end. The next day however Germany declared war on Russia.
On 1 Aug the Tsar sent another telegram to his cousin in Berlin, which he hoped might still avert war. In it Nicholas accepted that the Kaiser was now compelled to mobilize, but requested from him the same guarantee that he had given him - that mobilization did not mean war and that talks would continue irrespective of the ongoing mobilization measures on both sides: "Our long proved friendship must succeed, with God's help, in avoiding bloodshed."(Tsar Nicholas to Kaiser Wilhelm, telegram, 2.06 p.m., 1 August; received at palace 2.05 p.m. [Central European time], DD, III, nr 546.)
Again his telegram clarified that Russian general mobilization did not need to mean war.
While it is true that Russia's mobilization aggravated the situation, many expert scholars agree that mobilization appeared to Russia the only way to convince Austria to back down. Had Austria not rested confident that Germany would handle Russia (the latter did not know about the 'blank check' agreement), it might well have worked.
Germany however rejected Grey's proposals for an international conference outright, and didn't even bother to respond to the Tsar's suggestion that the matter be referred to The Hague.
After the war, Sazonov argued that Berlin had somehow forgotten how to make its views known at Vienna. But Berlin had not forgotten; it did not wish its views to be known. What little tactical advantage could be gained from feigning ignorance of the impending Austro-Hungarian note before 23 July was purchased at a considerable political price. By the same token, it was an unconscionable act of folly to allow Austria-Hungary to break off relations with Serbia at a time when the ideal moment for a swift and limited strike against Serbia had long passed.
This said, even Austro-Hungary didn't know Germany was, instead of merely coming to the "defense" of Austria based on the blank check agreement, instead planned a major Europe-wide war. Or as the Austria -Hungarian Chief of General Staff complained to the Chief of the German General Staff General Moltke on 1. August:" The diplomatic negotiations then in progress gave us the impression that, if we were attacked by Russia, Germany would, without doubt, honor her obligations under the alliance, but would prefer to avoid a major war. We were obliged, therefore, to pursue our intention of proceeding with the action against Serbia, entrusting the defense against Russia, against whom we alone could not start an offensive war, to our forces which were to be concentrated in Galicia, to the threat from Germany and to the intervention of the other Powers, Only on 31 July came suddenly the definite declaration on the part of Germany that she herself now intended to carry through the major war against France and Russia. This created an entirely new situation."(Original document published in Altbertini, Origins of the War of 1914 3 volumes Volume 1, 2005, vol.3, p.49.)
The war was brought about by the incompetence of the German leaders of that time. The German leadership believed Russia was weak or at least not ready, still recovering from its defeat by Japan in 1905. The big Sukhomlinov renewal programme just started in 1914 was not due to complete until 1917. There was also a very poor opinion of the French who lacked heavy artillery. Germany could have told Austria Hungary - this is your affair, don't expect anything from us. Or as Count Hoyos himself would later write: Berlin, had been at liberty "to say No to us and stop us from making a move against Serbia; we might have felt aggrieved but the German government would certainly not have been influenced by our good or bad mood."( A. von Hoyos, Der deutsch-englische Gegensatz und sein Einfluss auf die Balkanpolitik Österreich -Ungarns (Berlin and Leipzig, 1922),p.81.)
In the later part of his book then Newton mentions the discussion surrounding the so called "Document 123" and mistakenly claims that "Germany" had offered to "respect Belgian neutrality"( Loc. 5443). Yet "Germany" never made such a proposal, and couldn't, due to the Moltke- Schlieffen plan. Newton however continues to insist that Grey would not offer British neutrality to Germany on any conditions - "even when Germany offered to respect Belgian neutrality"(loc. 5457).
What really happened is that Grey asked if it might be possible for Germany and France to remain facing one another under arms, without attacking, in the event of a Russian war. The German Ambassador in London, Lichnowsky, evidently unaware of Germany's deployment plan, replied that this might be possible- if Germany could be certain of Britain's neutrality. He reported to Berlin that Britain wanted to keep out of the war if it could possibly do so, but that Jagow's reply concerning Belgian neutrality "has caused an unfavorable impression."
In the afternoon Grey explained to the French ambassador that, at that moment, there could be no question of sending a British Expeditionary Force to the continent. He explained to Cambon, "the position was that Germany would agree not to attack France if France remained neutral in the event of war between Russia and Germany ." This did not mean that Britain would not under any circumstances support France - he indicated that "a German invasion of Belgium" or a naval attack on the French coast might change matters - but he refused to commit the government to any definite course of action.( Tel. Grey to Bertie (no. 299), 1 Aug. 1914, British Documents XI, no. 426.)
Privately, Cambon, who left the meeting "white and speechless" and close to tears, was convinced at this stage that Britain would drop France, as he put it ("Ils vont nous lâcher").
That day Grey cabled Lord Bertie, British ambassador in Paris: "I suppose French Government would not object to our engaging to be neutral as long as German army remained on frontier on the defensive." (Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and Military Documents (Documents in Modern History), 2013, Doc. 366.)
Lichnowsky's telegram with the neutrality news, was received by the Kaiser with "great but joyous surprise!"
The jubilation was short-lived however. There now followed the famous heated clash of opinion between the Kaiser and the chancellor on the one hand, and General Moltke on the other. Much to everyone's surprise, as the chief of the Kaiser's Military Cabinet, Baron Moriz von Lyncker recorded, the chief of staff now declared that deployment in the west could no longer be stopped and "that despite everything France had to be attacked." A violent dispute ensued in which the chief of staff remained isolated: "Moltke, very agitated, with trembling lips, insisted on his position." (Lyncker diary, 1 Aug. 1914,in Deutsche Gesandtschaftsberichte zum Kriegsausbruch, ed. A. Bach (Berlin, 1937),39.)
Besides, advance troops had already crossed into Luxemburg - strategically vital on account of the railway junction there which had to be secured against a French coup de main - and the 16th Division at Trier was about to follow. "Now all we need is that Russia also snaps off", he burst out. (Regierte der Kaiser? Kriegstagebücher, Aufzeichnungen und Briefe des Chefs des Marine-Kabinetts Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, 1914-1918, 1959, p. 39.)
The problem Moltke now faced was one of his own making. He had ruled out any alternative to the deployment of forces in the west, followed by the swift capture of Liège and the sweep through Belgium.
In the end, Falkenhayn intervened in the raging debate, and drew Moltke aside to console him. A compromise was then agreed whereby Moltke demanded the temporary cession of the fortresses of Toul and Verdun as an additional guarantee of French neutrality. The Bavarian Charge d'Affaires in Berlin, von Schoen was instructed to "ask the French Government if it intends to remain neutral in a Russo-German war". Germans require handing over of fortresses of Toul and Verdun as a pledge of neutrality. French given until 4.00 P.M. next day to reply.( H. von Moltke, "Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen des Generalstabschefs", in his Erinnerungen, Briefe, Dokumente, Stuttgart, 1922, 19.)
Berlin then send a telegram dispatched by the Kaiser to King George. The British government, it stated, had "offer[ ed] french [sic] neutrality under guarantee of Great Britain." For "technical reasons' the mobilization had to proceed as prepared [and the fortresses taken], but if Britain kept France out of the war, then Germany would not strike in the west."(Tel. Wilhelm II to George V, 1 Aug. 1914, Deutsche Documente III, no. 575.) There was an element of dissimulation in the message, for the German war plans did not provide for a direct attack on France but a move into Belgium first. And Haldane during the cabinet meeting that day had already made clear: Grey should tell Lichnowsky of Britain's feeling about Belgium [as the] deciding factor", but promise our neutrality if France [was] not invaded. (Cabinet Memorandum, 1 Aug. 1914, Harcourt Papers.)
When the kaiser's telegram to the king was received in London Sir Edward Grey was immediately summoned to Buckingham Palace to explain what was going on.At the Palace, Grey was deeply embarrassed to be confronted with this.
It is possible that the King thought along the same line as the British Ambassador to France who responded to Grey; "If French undertook to remain so, the Germans would first attack Russians and, if they defeated them, they would then turn round on the French." (Bertie to Grey, telegram, 1 August, BD, XI, no. 453.)
In fact the Kaiser after reading Grey's proposal told Austrian Ambassador that he was ["entschlossen, mit Frankreich abzurechnen"] as mentioned in the telegram Szőgyény send to Berchtold the next day, 2 August 1914.
The kaiser's hopes were soon dashed when King George in his reply suggested that there must have been "some misunderstanding" in how Lichnowsky had interpreted Grey's words.( Tel. George V to Wilhelm II, 1 Aug. 1914 (no time of dispatch), DD III, no. 612.)
In essence, what had been suggested was not that dissimilar to Grey's earlier proposals to use the time-gap between mobilization and commencement of hostilities to find a negotiated settlement, and to protect that window through pledges by the Powers concerned not to start operations once talks had been initiated.
At that moment, despite the Russian mobilization and the imminent move by Germany to follow suit, his mediation proposal based on some variant of `Halt in Belgrade' had not been formally rejected by any of the Powers - nor would it be later - and Sazonov had accepted a revised compromise formula.
But, the German conception of mobilization militated against the viability of the scheme. For the German military high command, mobilization, once authorized, implied the need to open the military campaign without any delay. At the Foreign Office it had been assumed that this was so, but Lichnowsky's pronouncements on the matter during the July crisis had allowed for a different interpretation. And it is this misconception that led to the infamous "Document 123" discussion. In practice, there was no window for diplomacy.
If on 1 August the Berlin Government had been able to order general mobilization in reply to that of Russia without implying the occupation of Luxemburg and the sending of an ultimatum to Belgium, the probabilities are that the Kaiser and the Chancellor, fearing English intervention no less than Italian and Romanian neutrality, would have authorized mobilization but not war and the Anglo-German formula of conciliation would have had time to bear fruit.
The declaration of war on Russia of 1 August was not the result of any strategic necessity. The correctness of Bethrnann Hollweg's assertion that General von Moltke advised it on military grounds is highly questionable.
Where Russia had definite geostrategic interest in Serbia not being carved up, there was no deed for Germany to declare war on Russia.
And while some still claim that Germany was fighting a defensive war, it is rather a quarrel over words than a rank hypocrisy. If you are accused of killing a man it is not sufficient to say that you did it in defense. The judge will ask what you were defending. The only valid plea is self-defense. It is not permitted in law to kill in defense of your opinion.
When a Belgian speaks of a defensive war he means that he is fighting to defend the political existence and territorial integrity of his country. In the summer of 1914 neither the political structure nor geographic frontiers of Germany were in danger.
England certainly did not want to dismember the German Empire, it would have been hard to recruit a corporal's guard for such an enterprise. France was not preparing to attack Germany, not even to recover Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans had more reason to fear Russia. But there was no immediate danger. Plus all the Liberal elements of England would have repudiated a Russian attack. It is very doubtful if France would have joined such an aggression. Austria-Hungary, to be sure, was in a more difficult position. But the dangers which threatened her were as much internal as external.
The sudden collapse of Liberal neutralist opposition in the British Parliament angered those few who remained steadfast. In 1928 Morley published his suspicion that Belgium was just an excuse to enter the war in order to save France. Newton has built on Morley's suspicions and argues that Belgium was merely a pretext for an otherwise humiliating volte face that permitted the radicals to remain in office. This conviction causes Newton to discount the unanimous explanations that cabinet members made at the time citing Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality as casus belli. Some (Masterman, Hobhouse, and Beauchamp, for example) emphasized security, particularly when they argued with former fellow neutralists; some (Asquith, Lloyd George , Runciman, Harcourt, Loreburn, Pease, Buckmaster, and Simon) stressed the violation itself, suggesting that legal obligation was a decisive factor; and some (again Asquith, Grey, and Samuel) explicitly cited both equally. But even a list such as this is incomplete and misleading, since positions changed rapidly in the week before Britain went to war on August 4.
Preserving Belgium's neutrality was not merely a question of moral or legal obligation. It had been an axiom of British policy since Elizabethan times to prevent the Low Countries, and the Rhine delta and the Scheldt estuary in particular, from falling under the control of a major military Power. Even the German Head of General Staff Moltke (and why in retrospect then not also Newton) very well understood when he wrote in a Memorandum: "A violation of Belgian neutrality will also turn England into our opponent. It is for England a question of life and death to prevent Germany from establishing herself on the side of the Channel opposite her and thus gain the opportunity for further naval strengthening, turning her into a danger for the island Empire which would permanently tie up all of England's strength and would make her unable to maintain her world domination."(Mombauer,The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and Military Documents (Documents in Modern History),2013, doc. 51, p. 92.)
By the same token, remaining neutral while the continental Powers were embroiled in a war meant that Britain would have no say in the final outcome of this struggle. If France were crushed, Germany would establish her dominance on the continent, and Russia would either have to make a separate peace or fight on until either exhaustion or defeat forced her to submit to a triumphant Germany. If, on the other hand, France and Russia vanquished the two Germanic Powers, the former would dominate much of western Europe and the latter the eastern-central portions of the continent and probably the Near East, too. Whichever side emerged victorious from the war would be implacably opposed to Britain; and even if the contest ended in a stalemate, the belligerent Powers would be united in their enmity against Britain, and London would be marginalized in the peace talks.
What Grey could or should have done flows from a fabrication, and revolves around a strategic fallacy based on the assumption of a dichotomy between a continental security strategy and a global imperial, `blue water' school of thought. In reality, no such dichotomy existed; hence, there was no real choice between the Russian and German factors. The two, in fact, were connected because Britain was both a European Power and an overseas Power. As the only truly global Power with global reach and global interests, Britain had a global security paradigm.
What can be shown however, is that including 1 August, Grey consistently worked for a negotiated settlement of the dispute. And that there was nothing half-hearted or meandering about his policy.
Showing Grey's even-handedness when it came to Russia and Germany remained apparent even during his famous 3 August Parliament speech : Grey here did not examine who might be responsible for the war; he did not, as might be expected, exploit Bethmann's ill-judged attempt to bribe Britain into neutrality. There had been a `disposition . . . to force things', he observed, and Russia and Germany had declared war upon each other - whereby only the latter of course had done so.
Grey previously did not fathom the extent to which Berlin was already committed to its ally in Vienna. He can scarcely be faulted for this, for Lichnowsky himself did not know of the "blank cheque" and his assurances of Berlin's pacific intentions were made entirely in good faith.
In fact it seems that Grey, deep down believed there was an inherent reasonableness in Germany that could be appealed to and despite its occasional recourse to realpolitik international relations did not take place in a moral vacuum, something he had always hoped was the case. He was thus lulled into naive tranquillity and fatally hesitated in the July crisis, giving Germany the benefit of the doubt to the incredibly provocative and unreasonable Austrian ultimatum. In theory such a demand should have been met with an equally assertive response warning Germany that to stand by such a demand would in all likelihood result in war with Britain, as it had during the Moroccan crises. The officials at the foreign office were unanimous that to make such a demand and so recklessly risk the peace made only a year earlier was not the action of a reasonable power interested in peace but yet another attempt to break the "triple entente" and achieve the dominance of Europe. Crowe in particular seems to have known his adversary. Grey chose to ignore these warnings believing he knew Germany better.
In the end however, the British government did not decide to enter the war in August 1914 simply to uphold Britain's interest in the independence of the Low Countries; nor did it opt for war in Europe as the lesser evil as compared with a potential future Russian challenge to British imperial interests in central Asia. However slowly and however reluctantly it seems, the ministers decided that British aloofness was not practicable politics.