THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller





THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller



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The Millstone


British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War

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Chapter 17




‘Before the Unknown’






At half past two on the afternoon of Sunday, 2 August 1914, Sir Edward Grey saw the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, to inform him of the decision just reached by the Cabinet: ‘In case the German fleet came into the Channel or entered the North Sea in order to go round the British Isles with the object of attacking the French coasts or the French navy and of harassing French merchant shipping, the British fleet would intervene in order to give to French shipping its complete protection, in such a way that from that moment Great Britain and Germany would be in a state of war.’[1] Fifteen years later, after the recriminations which followed Britain’s entry into the war, Grey declared in his own defence that the promise to Cambon ‘did not pledge us to war — was not thought of as so doing — and moreover was accepted by Germany. Up to that date (August 2nd) the majority of the Cabinet were certainly against war – and any attempt to pledge ourselves with France would have broken up the Cabinet.’[2] This reiterated the defence first used by Grey in his 1925 memoirs: ‘The promise to defend these coasts was given to France. The German Government were informed. They promised not to attack these coasts (of course on the understanding that we remained neutral), and this naval point ceased to have any direct influence on the decision of the British Government. But the Belgian point had then become paramount, and the naval point was therefore no longer a decisive one.’[3] It is my contention that Grey was wrong on all counts. Once the promise was made to Cambon, British entry into the war was certain — as John Burns realized. Indeed, most, if not all, of his colleagues privately accepted this assertion. Yet, whereas Burns carried his disquiet through to resignation, as, subsequently, did Lord Morley, the remaining anti-interventionist group in the Cabinet spent the afternoon of Sunday 2 August desperately searching for an issue around which they could group, and which would provide a more convenient excuse for British entry into the war than one based upon a moral commitment to France; that excuse was to be Belgian neutrality. It is my intention to show:

  • That, given the circumstances, the Cabinet could not have prevented Britain’s entry into the war; all they could have done, and did in fact do until 1915, was to prevent the formation of a coalition Government.

  • That the unwritten pledge to France and the consideration of British interests were the sole determinants.

  • That the German promise ‘not to attack these [French] coasts’ was irrelevant.

  • That, far from informing the German Government of the pledge given to Cambon as he claimed, Grey was determined to conceal this fact until the afternoon of Monday, 3 August.

  • That the issue of Belgian neutrality was used in August 1914 to assuage consciences and prevent the formation of a coalition Government, but was not crucial to the decision to intervene.

  • That Asquith, Grey, Churchill, Haldane, Crewe and McKenna knew that British entry was virtually guaranteed before the long, hot Bank Holiday weekend of 1-3 August, and that Lloyd George probably knew this.

  • That the lesser members of the Cabinet (the ‘Beagles’) could never have hoped to convert the senior members.

  • That the receipt of a letter of Opposition support on Sunday 2 August, while not crucial to the decision to intervene, was crucial in the conversion of the Cabinet small fry.

  • That the rôle played by Herbert Samuel, recently re-valued, was in fact exaggerated.

  • That the study of operational orders issued by the Admiralty in the final days of peace, and the bearing these had on Cabinet deliberations, has largely been ignored.

  • That Lloyd George, more concerned with his own political future, operated throughout the crisis in a cynical, opportunistic manner.

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Bethmann-Hollweg’s attempts to drive a wedge through the Anglo-Russian Entente did not end with his warning to Grey late in June. On 15 July, still trying to foment trouble between London and St Petersburg, Jagow, the German Foreign Minister wrote to Albert Ballin of the Hamburg-Amerika Line,

You will have read the announcements of the Berliner Tageblatt concerning certain naval conventions between England and Russia, which led finally to an interpellation in the Lower House and to a somewhat complicated denial by Grey. I do not know when this piece of news came flying to the editorial desk of Theodor Wolff, and at first I hardly felt like giving it any too much credit … But I naturally looked into the matter, and — as I must inform you in the strictest confidence — have been able to assure myself, to my most intense regret, from very confidential sources, that the report had, as a matter of fact, some foundation … A closer [Anglo-Russian] rapprochement … could in that case scarcely be thought of by us. It appears to me to be very important, therefore, to make a new attempt to cause the plan to miscarry. It is possible that Grey might be scared off … if the Liberal Party should once more become alarmed, or if some member of the Cabinet should express a decided scruple.

It was Jagow’s idea that Ballin, using his ‘many intimate connections with Englishmen in positions of authority’ (Jagow appeared to think that Haldane would be ideal for what he had in mind), could ‘issue a warning’ regarding the Kiel Canal. Ballin was supposed to have learned during the recent Kiel Regatta that Wolff’s articles not only had some foundation but had caused much excitement in German naval circles; excitement which, now that the Canal could accommodate dreadnoughts, ‘might finally lead to serious consequences’.[4]

The completion of the widened Kiel Canal in the summer of 1914 was long thought to presage the battle of Armageddon, when the German High Seas Fleet would steam forth to give battle and German armies would sweep all before them on land.[5] Instead, the ceremonial opening on 24 June 1914 was greeted with something approaching indifference in Britain, where the crisis over Irish Home Rule and the possibility of civil war in Ireland fully occupied the public’s attention.[6] The assassination of the Austrian heir apparent in Sarajevo on 28 June similarly excited little comment. When Frank Bertie, on a visit from Paris, saw Grey in London on 16 July, the Foreign Secretary was more interested in talking of ‘cricket, football and fishing’ and bemoaning ‘the supplanting of cricket to a great extent by football which has become a medium of betting.’ The recent German defence levy was, in Grey’s opinion, more a sign of German apprehension at the ‘growing strength of the Russian Army’ and at the great improvements made in the Russian railway system, which would, by September 1914, reduce the mobilization period from thirty to eighteen days.[7] Either, Grey speculated, Germany would have to raise yet more revenue for military purposes, which would be politically dangerous given the advance of the Socialist Party in the recent elections, or else ‘bring on a conflict with Russia at an early date before the increases in the Russian Army have their full effect and before the completion of the Russian strategic railways’. Nevertheless, despite his, perhaps unconscious, acknowledgement of the danger which lay ahead, if there had not been a Cabinet scheduled for the following day (on the Home Rule Bill), Grey would have gone home to Fallodon that evening to tend his roses.[8]

                Precisely one week later, at six o’clock on the evening of Thursday, 23 July (a few hours before Grey, Morley and Haldane sat down to dine with Albert Ballin), the Austrian ultimatum was presented to Serbia. Genuinely shocked by its terms, Grey at once realized the gravity of the new situation created by the dispatch of the Austrian note, which threatened to escalate an internecine Balkan quarrel into a pan-European conflagration.[9] Several times, during the course of a conversation with the Austrian Ambassador the following day he made clear his anxiety regarding the maintenance of peace between the Great Powers;[10] while, to the German Ambassador later that evening, Grey declared that ‘The danger of a European war, should Austria invade Serbian territory, would become immediate.’ However, Grey left Lichnowsky with the distinct impression that such a war would involve four nations (‘he expressly emphasised the number four’) — namely Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and France.[11]

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                Of the Cabinet which met in London on the afternoon of Friday 24 July, Asquith recorded that ‘there was a lot of vague talk about Ulster, the provisional government &c; but the real interest was Grey’s statement of the European situation, which is about as bad as it can possibly be.’ The discussion on Ireland, Churchill remembered, ‘had reached its inconclusive end, and the Cabinet were about to separate, when the quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia.’[12] Grey, describing the ultimatum as ‘the gravest event for many years past in European politics’, again confirmed his belief that war, involving at least four of the Great Powers, might result.[13] Asquith was concerned, though not unduly worried.

Austria has sent a bullying and humiliating Ultimatum to Serbia [the Prime Minister noted], who cannot possibly comply with it, and demanded an answer within 48 hours — failing which she will march. This means almost inevitably, that Russia will come on the scene in defence of Servia & in defiance of Austria; and if so, it is difficult both for Germany & France to refrain from lending a hand to one side or the other. So that we are within measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real Armageddon, which would dwarf the Ulster & Nationalist Volunteers to their true proportion. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators. But it is a blood-curdling prospect — is it not?[14]

The Cabinet agreed to investigate the proposition that a mediating group of disinterested Powers (Britain, France, Germany and Italy) should intercede in the dispute, to offer ‘its good offices in the interests of peace.’

Asquith’s view, that British intervention remained unlikely although Russia would ‘inevitably’ be drawn in and therefore France and Germany, was shared by others around the Cabinet table: Herbert Samuel, while admitting that, by the end of the week, Europe might be ‘engaged in, or on the brink of, the greatest war for a hundred years, and possibly the bloodiest war in its history’, still hoped that ‘our country may not be involved. But even of that one cannot be sure. At this stage I think it will not be.’[15] This lack of strategic appreciation amongst the politicians would be a feature of the coming debates. All of Britain’s naval and military planning since 1911 had been based on the assumption of providing assistance to France in the event of unprovoked aggression. If Russia was drawn in to the new Balkan crisis in defence of Serbia, and Germany thereupon intervened in support of Austria-Hungary, how could France not be involved? It was an accepted fact, as explained by a General Staff officer a few days later, that the ‘German plan of operations is clearly deducible. The German forces must crush France with as strong and swift a succession of blows as possible before Russia can assist her, leave some Reserve troops to hold her, and then turn Eastwards with their main forces to defeat, detach, or frighten away Russia, with the assistance of Austria.’[16] While, in defence of Samuel, it could be argued that this ignorance stemmed from his exclusion from the C.I.D. meeting of 23 August 1911 which decided upon the Continental strategy, this excuse could not be applied to Asquith, Grey, Churchill, McKenna, Haldane or Lloyd George, all of whom were present that day to hear Henry Wilson’s lecture.

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Such sentiment as Samuel’s would lead Asquith to comment on the ‘curious lack of excitement in the political atmosphere’; significantly, other than Grey, Churchill was the only person who seemed to be agitated.[17] The First Lord returned to the Admiralty that Friday evening at six o’clock to impart the news that there was ‘real danger and that it might be war.’[18] Despite his own apprehension, Grey, still denied his return to Fallodon, disappeared instead for the weekend to his fishing lodge at Itchen Abbas.[19] Initially, Grey’s insouciance appeared justified when the conciliatory Serbian reply to the Austrian ultimatum was received. Indeed, even Henry Wilson, upon ascertaining on Sunday morning, 26 July, that Germany had still to mobilize, doubted there would be a European war.[20] Churchill also, it should be added, had decided not to interrupt his plan to spend the weekend at Cromer with his family;[21] but only after taking the precaution of having ‘a special operator placed in the telegraph office so as to ensure a continuous night and day service.’ Despite this, having telephoned Battenberg at nine o’clock on Sunday morning and again at midday (when he learned that Austria had rejected the Serbian reply), Churchill could not stand being away from the centre of events and returned to London that evening to discover that, at five minutes past four, Battenberg, on his own initiative, had ordered the Fleet not to disperse, following the Spithead Review.[22]

While Churchill and Grey had been away from London the previous night, a cable had been received in the Foreign Office from Buchanan in St Petersburg: the French Ambassador, also on his own initiative, had ‘remarked that [the] French Government would want to know at once whether [the British] fleet was prepared to play part assigned to it by Anglo-French Naval Convention.’[23] Although the approach was unauthorized, this was the first indication that the ‘unofficial’ naval agreement with France, consolidated by the Grey-Cambon letters of November 1912, would figure prominently in the forthcoming discussions. As Churchill was preparing to return to London on Sunday afternoon the Austrian Ambassador saw Sir Arthur Nicolson, who was on duty at the Foreign Office, to impart the official news that Austria, using the pretext of Serbian mobilization, had broken off relations. Nicolson, perhaps remembering the success of the Ambassadors Conference in settling the Balkan Wars, telegraphed Grey with a suggestion that a conference should be held in London ‘at once in order to endeavour to find an issue to prevent complications.’ Knowledge of the Austrian rejection was sufficient for Grey, still at Itchen Abbas, to authorize the dispatch of such an appeal to Paris, St Petersburg, Nish, Berlin and Rome; Grey then also hurriedly returned to London.[24] The Conference proposal was tentatively accepted by the German Government the following day, but only on condition that it would not restrict their ‘right as an ally to help Austria if attacked.’[25]

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If Grey had been quick to recognize the danger, the remainder of the Cabinet reacted slowly. This was certainly not the case within the Foreign Office, where the consensus of opinion already foreshadowed the worst, as was made clear by the consistently emphatic pronouncements of Eyre Crowe. Grey was left stranded between a Cabinet entertaining wildly optimistic hopes, and his own permanent officials, acting as Jeremiahs. Nicolson, the Permanent Under-secretary, was a spent force, incapable at this stage of exercising any real influence upon Grey.[26] It was left, therefore, to Crowe to try to point out the logic of the situation facing the country. The Assistant Under-Secretary described his own position in a detailed minute on Saturday, 25 July: ‘The point that matters is whether Germany is or is not absolutely determined to have this war now.’ Crowe could suggest ‘only one effective way’ of bringing home to Berlin the danger inherent in this strategy. As soon as it had become clear that Austrian and Russian mobilization had commenced, Britain should place the ‘whole fleet on an immediate war footing’. It was difficult for Crowe not to agree with the Russian Foreign Minister ‘that sooner or later England will be dragged into the war if it does come. We shall gain nothing by not making up our minds what we can do in circumstances that may arise to-morrow. Should the war come,’ Crowe continued, ‘and England stands aside, one of two things must happen:’

(a)    Either Germany and Austria win, crush France, and humiliate Russia. With the French fleet gone, Germany in occupation of the Channel, with the willing or unwilling co-operation of Holland and Belgium, what will be the position of a friendless England?

(b)    Or France and Russia win. What would then be their attitude towards England? What about India and the Mediterranean?

However, having ascertained from Churchill that the fleet could be mobilized within twenty-four hours, Grey decided that it was ‘premature to make any statement to France and Russia yet.’[27] All that was sanctioned was the publication of a short communiqué noting that the Fleets would not be dispersing.[28] Hints were being dropped, in the absence of any explicit pronouncements. In the face of the concerted attack of Crowe and Nicolson, Grey turned to his Private Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell, who favoured the maintenance of the Anglo-German détente which had developed in recent years. Affairs within the Foreign Office were further exacerbated by a feud which had developed between Tyrrell and Nicolson; the ill-feeling spread so that at various times during the spring and summer of 1914 Nicolson and Crowe, and Crowe and Tyrrell, all quarrelled.[29] There remains some doubt also as to Crowe’s actual influence. It has been argued that ‘The minutes by Crowe, long thought to demonstrate his power and influence, in reality symbolized his isolation.’ In this assessment, Crowe’s position as an outsider meant that only by writing the long and closely argued memoranda for which he is now remembered could he make his views known. What is not in dispute, however, is that Crowe’s stridently anti-German attitude was not untypical of senior Foreign Office staff.[30]

While Grey and Churchill cut short their weekends in the country in response to Austria’s action, it was the report of the latest atrocity in Ireland (which occurred when two companies of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers fired indiscriminately on a mob which had been stoning them, killing three and injuring thirty-eight) which distracted Asquith from his weekend’s leisure. The Prime Minister had been ‘placidly playing Bridge at the Wharf’[31] on Sunday night when a telephone call had come through reporting the news from Dublin. Such was its import that Asquith motored up to Downing Street, arriving at one o’clock on Monday morning. ‘The malignancy of fortune’, he complained bitterly, ‘could hardly have devised a more inopportune coup, and how the devil the soldiers came to mixed up in it at all, still more to fire their volleys, at this moment passes my comprehension.’[32] Such was Churchill’s despair at this latest turn in Irish events that he longed for the European crisis to provide a ‘way of escape from Irish troubles’.[33] He would soon have his wish.

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Grey’s own position had advanced since his return from Itchen Abbas. Buchanan’s dispatch of the 25th had contained a warning from the Russian Foreign Minister that Britain was in a ‘most perilous’ position: the choice facing London was ‘between giving Russia our active support or renouncing her friendship. If we fail her now we cannot hope to maintain that friendly cooperation with her in Asia that is of such vital importance to us.’[34]As Wilson has pointed out, ‘a much-needed improvement in Anglo-Russian relations was the main item of business in the British Foreign Office at this time.’[35] Sazonov also dismissed Buchanan’s contention that Britain’s rôle as mediator could be accomplished to better effect if she remained disinterested. Germany, Sazonov declared, was already convinced that she could count upon British neutrality. This was confirmed by Benckendorff, the Russian Ambassador in London, to whom Nicolson had read Buchanan’s dispatch on the afternoon of Sunday 26 July. Benckendorff, who also happened to be Lichnowsky’s cousin, impressed upon Nicolson Lichnowsky’s conviction that Britain would remain neutral.[36] Nicolson, accompanied by Tyrrell, then went to see the German Ambassador. ‘The localization of the conflict as hoped for in Berlin’, Lichnowsky was informed, ‘was quite visionary, and ought to be eliminated from practical politics.’ Lichnowsky got the message: ‘I should like to utter an urgent warning’, he wired Berlin that evening, ‘against continuing to believe in the possibility of localizing the conflict.’[37] It was time now for Grey himself to disabuse Berlin of the notion that British neutrality could be counted upon. He did this by correcting the earlier impression he had left with the German Ambassador. Following their meeting, Lichnowsky reported that,

The impression is constantly gaining force here — and I noticed it plainly at my interview with Sir Edward Grey — that the whole Serbian question has devolved into a test of strength between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. Therefore, should Austria’s intention of using the present opportunity to overthrow Serbia (‘to crush Serbia,’ as Sir E. Grey expressed it) become more and more apparent, England, I am certain, would place herself unconditionally by the side of France and of Russia, in order to show that she is not willing to permit a moral, or perhaps a military, defeat of her group. If it comes to war under these circumstances, we shall have England against us. For the realisation that, in view of the far-reaching compliance of the Serbian Government, the war might have been avoided, will be of controlling significance in determining the attitude of the British Government.[38]

At last, despite the latest outrage from Dublin, the Balkan crisis supplanted that of Ireland to become the ‘main subject of consideration’ at the Cabinet on Monday 27 July. Grey gave details of the Austrian rejection of the Serbian reply and of his conversation with Lichnowsky, ‘whom he urged to press upon the German Government the importance of persuading Austria to take a more favourable view of the Servian note. The Foreign Secretary further explained the proposal for a Conference à quatre. Already, only a day after it had been officially floated, Grey entertained doubts as to the fate of the proposal.[39] ‘As far as this country is concerned,’ Asquith informed the King, ‘the position may thus be described. Germany says to us, “if you will say at St. Petersburgh that in no conditions will you come in and help, Russia will draw back and there will be no war”. On the other hand, Russia says to us “if you won’t say you are ready to side with us now, your friendship is valueless, and we shall act on that assumption in the future”.’[40] This was a charge Asquith would soon attempt to answer; first, however, following Grey’s warning to Lichnowsky, Britain’s position in the gathering crisis would soon have to be considered in view of the implications of the Belgian Security Treaty. As the meeting broke up after only an hour,[41] it was agreed ‘to consider at the next Cabinet our precise obligations in regard to the neutrality of Belgium.’ The other significant feature of this Monday’s Cabinet was the approval given to the Admiralty’s decision to postpone the dispersal of the First and Second Fleets following the end of the test mobilization of the Third Fleet.[42]

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Public awareness of the gravity of the European situation was heightened by an increasingly strident tone in the press. However, as the Russian Foreign Minister had observed, ‘with the exception of The Times, nearly the whole of [the] English press was on the side of Austria …’[43] The leader in Monday’s Times, roundly denounced by the Radical wing of the Liberal party, had urged British support for France and Russia in the event of war, to guarantee the European balance of power.[44] Percy Illingworth, the Liberal Chief Whip, complained to C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, about both the article and the proprietor of The Times, only to be informed that ‘the article was not inspired by Northcliffe but by what the Times believed to be the views of the Foreign Office.’ Experience on a score of occasions had shown Scott that, ‘in regard to naval and military affairs [the] “Times” was semi-official and that as he knew a “Times” man actually was allowed a room at the Foreign Office.’[45] Scott’s analysis was undeniably correct; if Cabinet Ministers, such as Lloyd George, refused to believe it, the explanation lay in a combination of myopia, wishful thinking, and the suddenness with which the crisis had developed. Scott himself set out Lloyd George’s views, following their meeting that day:

As to the European situation [the Chancellor declared] there could be no question of our taking part in any war in the first instance. Knew of no Minister who would be in favour of it and he did not believe the “Times” article represented the views of even of the Foreign Office officials. But he admitted that a difficult question would arise if the German fleet were attacking French towns on the other side of the Channel and the French sowed the Channel with mines. He also evidently contemplated our going a certain distance with France and Russia in putting diplomatic pressure on Austria. Then if war broke out we might make it easy for Italy to keep out by as it were pairing with her. This would be a service to Italy, who hated Austria much more than she did France and no more wanted to be in the war than we did, also a service to France by relieving her of one antagonist. As to the prospect of war he was very gloomy. He thought Austria wanted war — she had wanted it before the Balkan crisis — and not an accommodation … Germany did not want war, but would be bound to support Austria. He thought if there was to be war it would come quickly so that Germany which could mobilise in a week could gain the initial advantage over France which took a fortnight and Russia which took a month. By sea she might use her superiority in order (1) to land a force behind the French force advancing to meet the German invasion across Belgium, (2) to join Austrian fleet in the Mediterranean and cut the French communications with Algeria where she has a large force of very serviceable native troops.

If a German Squadron joined the Austrian Fleet to disrupt the transportation of the French colonial troops, would the combined force not also constitute a serious threat to British interests in the Mediterranean? Admiral Milne’s Mediterranean War Orders set the highest priority upon protecting Britain’s ‘outlying possessions from serious military enterprise and protect[ing] British commerce afloat.’[46] Even so, the safe passage of the Algerian Corps was considered so vital that, in a matter of days, Churchill would order that the first task of the British Mediterranean Fleet in the event of war would be to ‘aid the French in the transportation of their African army by covering and if possible bringing to action fast German, particularly Goeben, which may interfere with that transportation.’ It is significant that Lloyd George, who would afterwards claim that ‘Belgium was the predominant topic’[47] did not mention the issue which would arise with the violation of Belgian neutrality despite acknowledging that any German invasion of France would come ‘across Belgium’. As the neutrality issue was to be viewed as seemingly clear cut to the public at large (privately, the majority of the Cabinet was ambivalent) it represented a convenient peg upon which to hang the excuse for a decision taken due to strategic naval dispositions, tacitly adopted, the implications of which were dismissed or ignored. It was also to be used to maintain a semblance of Cabinet unity in the face of the threat, recognized by C. P. Scott, that if Grey ‘let us into it there would be an end of the existing Liberal combination and the next advance would have to be based on Radicalism and Labour.’[48]

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                On Monday evening, after the Cabinet, Grey was notified of a change of mind by the German Government. In the belief that Russia would not risk hostilities with Germany over Serbia, and aware that Austria was about to declare war, Berlin had decided to call Russia’s bluff. Lichnowsky had been privately informed as early as 19 July that the ‘more determined Austria shows herself, the more energetically we support her, so much the more quiet will Russia remain. To be sure, there will be some agitation in St Petersburg, but, on the whole, Russia is not ready to strike at present. Nor will France or England be anxious for war at the present time.’[49] The conference proposal, Jagow declared, ‘was not practicable’ and would constitute, in the German Foreign Minister’s opinion, ‘a court of arbitration’ which could only be summoned ‘at the request of Austria and Russia.’[50] On Tuesday morning, 28 July, Asquith was reconciled to the fact that the proposal ‘won’t come off, as the Germans refuse to take a hand.’[51] Under constant German pressure, and despite the conciliatory reply from Belgrade, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on the 28th. With the stream of telegrams criss-crossing the Continent, the Foreign Office became the only place at which the latest information detailing the bewildering rush of events could be obtained. For Asquith and Henry Wilson, who both called on Arthur Nicolson that morning, it appeared that the Austrians would take Belgrade and that any further advance would trigger Russian mobilization.[52] Later that evening, unable to relax, Asquith walked over to see Grey,[53] and sat with the Foreign Secretary and Haldane until one o’clock the following morning, ‘talking over the situation, and trying to discover bridges and outlets.’

Asquith’s bridges, if they existed at all, soon collapsed. Grey was now convinced that war was all but inevitable; the time had come to spell out to his colleagues the implications which would ensue following a German violation of Belgian neutrality. On 29 July the Cabinet was forced to consider its position with regard to this eventuality. Grey had come specially prepared for Wednesday’s meeting with forty-four year old copies of an interpretation of the Security Treaty. One Minister remembered ‘the unfolding of the original neutrality pact, old and yellowed, with notes by Gladstone.’[54] Grey’s intentions, however, were confounded by the resistance put up by his colleagues, who failed to agree with the interpretation previously placed upon the Treaty. At any moment, Grey declared anxiously, ‘the French Government might ask us whether we would support them, and if we said No, whether we would renew the … treaty to prevent violation of Belgium’; only Asquith supported him.[55] Although Burns noted that, ‘It was decided not to decide’, agreement was reached that the ‘acute point’ would arise if Germany invaded France by way of Belgium, the ‘shortest route’. As, due to Grey’s failure to secure agreement on its interpretation, it was ‘a doubtful point how far a single guaranteeing State is bound under the Treaty of 1839 to maintain Belgian neutrality if the remainder abstain or refuse’, the Cabinet also agreed that ‘the matter if it arises will be one of policy rather than legal obligation.’ Despite the fudge, this is a clear indication that most of the members of the Cabinet, and certainly all those who attended the August 1911 C.I.D. meeting, knew that a German advance upon France was certain to involve questions of Belgian neutrality. In 1911 Asquith had ‘called the Committee [of Imperial Defence] together as the European situation was not altogether clear, and it was possible that it might become necessary for the question of giving armed support to the French to be considered.’ Why Asquith did not feel constrained to convene a C.I.D. meeting in the last week of July 1914 remains a mystery.

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General Sir Henry Wilson had begun his exposition in August 1911 by explaining that, as Germany ‘would not hesitate to march through Southern Belgium’, the Franco-German frontier should be taken as extending from Belfort to Mauberge. However, although the Germans would attack ‘all along the line’, Wilson believed that the ‘French fortified lines were probably safe against attack’ and therefore the main German effort ‘must be made through the 90-mile gap between Verdun and Mauberge’. Churchill then inquired whether the German force ‘might not extend their right further into Belgium’? To do this, Wilson replied, they would have either to infringe Dutch neutrality or capture the Belgium fortress at Liège. Furthermore, ‘although the Belgians would possibly be content to protest against the violation of their southern provinces, they would almost certainly fight if the Germans were to invade northern Belgium as well.’ Sir John French then contended that ‘the object which the German General Staff had in view when they decided to fortify Metz, was to enable them to send larger forces through Belgium to turn the French left.’ Wilson added that the Belgian Army ‘though small, could not be ignored’. Lloyd George agreed. ‘Even if the Belgians did not attack, while the Germans were advancing,’ Lloyd George argued, ‘the Germans were bound to make provision against their doing so …’[56] None of the six Ministers who attended the 1911 meeting (Asquith, Grey, Churchill, Lloyd George, McKenna, Haldane) could justifiably claim ignorance of German intentions and the very real threat to Belgian neutrality.

After ‘much discussion’ in the Cabinet on 29 July, Grey was authorized to inform the French and German Ambassadors ‘that at this stage we were unable to pledge ourselves in advance, either under all conditions to stand aside, or in any condition to join in.’ As one Cabinet member put it, the French were to be told, ‘Don’t count upon our coming it’, while the Germans were to be told, ‘Don’t count on our abstention’.[57] After Churchill then described the naval precautions which had been taken, it was resolved that the ‘preliminary stage’ had arrived and the that ‘warning telegram’ should be sent.[58] This was done shortly before 2 p.m., immediately after the Cabinet rose. ‘The main conclusion to which we came’, Asquith wrote to Venetia Stanley soon after, ‘was to issue what is called in official language the “warning telegram” — which requires the Army & Navy & all other departments to put themselves at once in a state of readiness for the “precautionary period” which precedes any possible outbreak of hostilities.’ Asquith still wished, if possible, ‘to keep out of it’, but believed that ‘the worst thing we could do would be to announce to the world at the present moment that in no circumstances would we intervene.’ This was his attempt to answer the charge which had already been levelled.

It is one of the ironies of the case [Asquith complained] that we being the only Power who has made so much as a constructive suggestion in the direction of peace, are blamed by both Germany & Russia for causing the outbreak of war. Germany says: ‘if you say you will be neutral, France & Russia wouldn’t dare to fight’; and Russia says: ‘if you boldly declare that you will side with us, Germany & Austria will at once draw in their horns.’ Neither of course is true.[59]

Asquith’s final comment did not imply that the Cabinet, themselves, were unaware of their power to influence events, even if such power was to prove illusory. ‘We nineteen men round the table at Downing Street’, Herbert Samuel confided to his wife, ‘may soon have to face the most momentous problem which men can face. Meantime our action is held in suspense, for if both sides do not know what we shall do, both will be less willing to run risks.’[60] Samuel’s analysis was to prove sadly awry; already, by 26 July, the draft of the German ultimatum to Belgium seeking free passage for German troops, which carried with it the risk of almost certain British intervention, had been presented to the German Foreign Office by Moltke.[61]Please click to go to the top of this page

The news received of the mobilization of sixteen Russian and twelve Austrian army corps was sufficient for Asquith, at 3 p.m. on Wednesday 29 July, to order the ‘Precautionary Period’. While Henry Wilson remained bemused,[62] Asquith found the procedure ‘Rather interesting because it enables one to realise what are the first steps in an actual war.’[63] Grey, meanwhile, continued his diplomatic efforts, but with an increasing air of pessimism.[64] However, following Asquith’s order to instigate the precautionary period, Grey went further than the Cabinet intended and left the Austrian Ambassador in no doubt that, although Britain was still ‘trying by all means possible to keep out of a European complication’, and although the prospect of being dragged into such a ‘complication’ in defence of Russian interests was viewed with something approaching anathema, anything affecting a ‘vital interest’ of France would be decisive; no British Government could then prevent participation.[65] Grey, who had already spoken to the German Ambassador earlier in the day, saw Lichnowsky again to repeat the message: while Britain might stand aside in an Austro-Russian conflict, the entry of France and Germany would completely alter the situation.[66] When it was received in Berlin, late that evening, Lichnowsky’s cable threw Bethmann-Hollweg into a panic. The German Chancellor had attended a Council at Potsdam that afternoon with the Emperor, Moltke, von Falkenhayn (the Minister for War), and General von Lyncker. Resisting a demand for the declaration of a ‘State of Imminent War’, Bethmann-Hollweg instead unveiled his latest proposal: a means to secure British neutrality by guaranteeing French territorial integrity coupled with a favourable naval agreement. The second plank of the proposal was removed when Wilhelm objected to any form of naval sacrifice. Even so, Bethmann-Hollweg evidently hoped that what remained would be sufficient to tempt London.[67] He returned to Berlin, had a hurried dinner, and called for Goschen, the British Ambassador, at 10.30 p.m. Reading from typewritten notes, Bethmann-Hollweg made his inept attempt to bargain for British neutrality; Goschen returned to his Embassy to cable Grey. No sooner had the British Ambassador left than Lichnowsky’s telegram arrived and was delivered to the Chancellor. Bethmann-Hollweg was now faced with the realization that he had spoken too openly to Goschen and that his gamble — the launching of a Continental war in which Britain remained neutral — had failed.[68]

                By Thursday 30 July Henry Wilson had finally bowed to the inevitable, as had Eyre Crowe at the Foreign Office. At nine o’clock that morning the telegram which Goschen had sent after midnight arrived. In it Bethmann-Hollweg declared that ‘The Imperial Government was ready to give every assurance to the British Government provided that Great Britain remained neutral that, in the event of a victorious war, Germany aimed at no territorial acquisitions at the expense of France’; however, the German Chancellor could not extend this guarantee to cover the French colonies. Similarly, although Bethmann-Hollweg ‘could not tell to what operations Germany might be forced by the action of France … he could state that, provided that Belgium did not take sides against Germany, her integrity would be respected after the conclusion of the war.’[69] Crowe, always alive to evidence of German duplicity, was stunned.

The only comment that need be made on these astounding proposals [he minuted] is that they reflect discredit on the statesman who makes them. Incidentally it is of interest to note that Germany practically admits the intention to violate Belgian neutrality but to endeavour to respect that of Holland (in order to safeguard German imports viâ the Rhine and Rotterdam). It is clear that Germany is practically determined to go to war, and that the one restraining influence so far has been the fear of England joining in the defence of France and Belgium.[70]

This ‘rather shameless’ German proposal[71] was immediately repudiated. ‘My answer’, Grey declared without bothering to inform his colleagues, ‘must be that we must preserve our full freedom to act as circumstances may seem to us to require in any development of the present crisis … ’[72] This should have set the scene for a charged Cabinet debate on Friday, 31 July, yet Herbert Samuel was able to report that ‘Nothing untoward happened at the Cabinet to-day’,[73] while Asquith seemed more intent on getting away for the weekend so as to be near Venetia Stanley.[74] ‘We had a very interesting discussion’, Asquith recorded for his confidante, ‘especially about the neutrality of Belgium, and the point upon which everything will ultimately turn: are we going to go in or to stand aside? Of course, everybody longs to stand aside, but I need not say that France thro’ Cambon is pressing strongly for a reassuring declaration.’[75]

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                Asquith’s final observation (that everybody longed to stand aside) no longer applied to Churchill, nor to Grey. There was little Churchill could do within the confines of the Cabinet room, and which he had not done already, to influence matters; Grey’s, however, was a different case altogether. It is clear that the Foreign Secretary was, by this time, far in advance of the majority of his colleagues and was only held back by the necessity to gain time for the Cabinet to move towards his own position.[76] But time was a factor over which he had no control; Churchill’s relentless ‘march of events’ was beginning to seem as if it would dominate.[77] Grey had failed in his attempt on Wednesday to promote the issue of Belgian neutrality as an automatic trigger for British intervention, and he had failed on Friday to generate sufficient anger at the latest German proposal to overturn the majority in favour of continuing British neutrality. His colleagues would do no more than endorse a proposal to inquire of Paris and Berlin whether they would respect Belgian neutrality if other Powers did the same. The telegrams were sent.

Outside the Cabinet opinion in high circles in favour of intervention was hardening. Within the Foreign Office, neither Nicolson nor Crowe made any secret of his own personal commitment to France, though Crowe, in view of his position, still felt the need to temper his advice. ‘What must weigh with His Majesty’s Government’, Crowe advised on Friday 31st, ‘is the consideration that they should not by a declaration of unconditional solidarity with France and Russia induce and determine these two Powers to choose the path of war. If and when, however, it is certain that France and Russia cannot avoid the war, and are going into it, my opinion, for what it is worth, is that British interests require us to take our place beside them as allies, and in that case our intervention should be immediate and decided.’[78] Nicolson felt no such restraint, writing to Grey ‘in as strong language as possible in regard to deserting our friends.’[79] Henry Wilson also began to suspect that the Cabinet might be ‘going to run away’,[80] while Kitchener, who Asquith met while lunching with Churchill, proceeded to voice his opinion ‘that if we don’t back up France when she is in real danger, we shall never be regarded or exercise real power again.’ Asquith noted, however, that ‘the general opinion at present — particularly strong in the City — is to keep out at almost all costs.’[81]


In addition to being the leading member of the Cabinet in favour of immediate intervention, Churchill had also to consider the naval situation. The fortuitous test mobilization of the Third Fleet and decision not to disperse the First and Second Fleets after the Spithead Review left little to be done with regard to the North Sea after the order had been given for the First Fleet to proceed from Portland to Scapa Flow.[82] The Mediterranean was another matter. With the attitude of Italy still uncertain,[83] with Goeben known to be then at Pola, and aware also that Admiral Milne was under strength by one battle cruiser (Invincible), Churchill had asked Battenberg on 28 July to consider whether the battle cruiser New Zealand should not be sent to Malta to reinforce the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron;[84] however, at an Admiralty conference that afternoon it was decided that this would be premature and that New Zealand should remain in the North Sea.[85] On the following day, after the Cabinet had heard Churchill describe the naval precautions already taken, the ‘warning telegram’ was dispatched;[86] in the event of war, Milne’s War Orders No. 2 would come into force.[87]

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                By Thursday, 30 July, Churchill had to face the possibility that the Mittelmeerdivision (Goeben and Breslau) might join forces with the Austrian and Italian Fleets to overwhelm the French Fleet and the British Squadrons. The First Lord requested from the Chief of the War Staff copies of the Mediterranean plans and war orders.[88] Then, having studied the Mediterranean dispositions, that afternoon, in his room at the Admiralty, Churchill sat down to draft an order to Milne which would set in motion the train of events leading to Troubridge’s fateful course of action the following week when he declined to engage the German battle cruiser. In the following, the words struck through were deleted in the final version, and the words in square brackets were added. Churchill wrote:

Shd war break out and England and France engage in it, it now seems probable that Italy will remain neutral and that Greece can be made an ally. Spain also will be friendly & possibly an ally. The attitude of Italy is however uncertain and it is especially important that your squadron shd not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task shd be to aid the French in the transportation of their African army by covering and if possible bringing to action fast German or Austrian ships [particularly Goeben] wh may interfere with that transportation. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Do not [at this stage] be brought to action against superior forces in any w except [in combination with the French] as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. We shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean and you must husband your forces at the outset. W.S.C. 30.7[89]

Churchill’s intentions, as indicated by the first draft, become more apparent than a reading of the final telegram as sent would suggest, and it is a pity he did not take the time to compose a fresh draft instead of tinkering with the first. This might possibly have avoided the awkward construction of the central sentence: as Churchill removed the reference to Austrian ships, to avoid contradicting the preceding sentence (which warned Milne not to become “seriously engaged” with Austrian ships until the attitude of Italy was clarified), the following sentence now referred only to Goeben and Breslau and should have said as much. All of Churchill’s subsequent alterations occur in the sixth sentence. As originally drafted it read: ‘Do not be brought to action against superior forces in any w[ay?] except as part of a general battle.’ As it stood, this was hopelessly ambiguous, failing to define what constituted either “superior forces” or “a general battle”. The addition of the qualifying clause “in combination with the French” after “except” tends to indicate what Churchill later admitted he had clearly meant: do not engage the Austrians single-handed.[90] However, the weight of the additional clause fell on the first half of the sentence, leading to the possible interpretation that “superior forces”, whatever they might be, could be engaged with French assistance.[91] The sentence, as Churchill meant it, was, in any case, superfluous: Milne had already been warned off the Austrians.[92]

What has often been overlooked in Churchill’s telegram is the presumption that England would be conjoined with France in the event of war and that Milne’s first task would be to assist the French by engaging German ships. In other words, two days before the question of rendering naval assistance to France in the North Sea and English Channel arose in acute form, Churchill had, on his own initiative and apparently without authorization, placed the British Mediterranean Fleet on full alert to intervene against German ships to aid the French. This was certainly the interpretation placed upon the order by Admiral Milne, who replied that, in order to carry out his ‘primary’ duty of assisting the French to protect their transports, and in view of the greater strength of the Austrian and Italian fleets,[93] he would keep his force concentrated at Malta until he received permission to consult the French Admiral. This meant that he could not afford to spare cruisers to protect trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. A British interest had therefore been sacrificed to a French one. Churchill’s responsibility in the matter of naval dispositions was absolute. Neither the Mediterranean nor the North Sea dispositions were discussed in any detail in Cabinet.[94] Churchill recalled that, to Asquith alone he ‘confided the intention of moving the Fleet to its war station on July 30.’ Asquith looked at the First Lord ‘with a hard stare and gave a sort of grunt.’ Churchill then noted that he ‘did not require anything else.’[95] Indeed, Churchill readily admitted that, with regard to the North Sea dispositions, he ‘feared to bring this matter before the Cabinet, lest it should mistakenly be considered a provocative action likely to damage the chances of peace. It would be unusual to bring movements of the British Fleet in Home waters from one British port to another before the Cabinet. I only therefore informed the Prime Minister, who at once gave his approval.’[96] Even this stricture did not apply to the Mediterranean.

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This particular Thursday was proving an eventful day for Churchill, for he made one other important decision with profound implications. Two days earlier, aware that two powerful dreadnoughts (Sultan Osman and Reshadieh) being built in British yards for the Turkish Navy were nearing completion, Churchill noted that ‘it may become necessary’ to acquire the ships. Then, on Wednesday, the First Lord was informed by Grey that the Foreign Office had learned ‘from a reliable source’ that Sultan Osman ‘is being equipped with coal today and is under orders to proceed to Constantinople as soon as possible, though still unfinished.’ To this unwelcome intelligence Churchill minuted that ‘Measures have been adopted to prevent her leaving or hoisting her Flag … ’[97] Admiral Moore, the Third Sea Lord, had independently ascertained that the Turkish authorities were pressing hard to hoist the National flag on Saturday, 1 August. The builders (Armstrong) would be ‘unable to advance reasons for not hoisting the flag’ and, once this was done, ‘the action of detaining the vessel may involve questions of very serious import.’[98] Unless some action was taken by Saturday 1 August the ship would depart with its Turkish crew on the following Monday.[99]

Churchill promptly instructed that ‘The builders should by every means prevent and delay the departure of these ships while the situation is strained, and in no case should they be allowed to leave without express permission. If necessary authority will be given to restrain them. If war comes they can be taken over …’[100] The ‘Question of permitting Turkish battleship Osman to leave British waters in present emergency’ was debated at an Admiralty conference on Thursday 30th. Unsurprisingly, it was decided that the ships could not be allowed to leave. Whether Churchill viewed war with Turkey as inevitable, or whether he simply viewed the ships as a necessary guarantee of superiority in the North Sea, at no time does there appear to have been any discussion as to the effect which the act of embargoing the ships would have on the Porte. Churchill sent the Admiralty Secretary to see Arthur Nicolson, inform him of the decision reached, ascertain whether Grey approved, and, if so, ‘whether he would notify the Turkish Ambassador of the decision.’

The last thing Grey needed was another awkward interview with an irate Ambassador. A messenger was therefore sent later that evening from the Foreign Office to the Admiralty to say that, while Grey approved of the action, ‘he considered that representation to the Turkish Ambassador should not come first. The firm should, when they had no other means of delaying action, inform the Turkish representatives of the decision …’ Churchill saw two of Armstrong’s directors to warn them that the ship should not be allowed to leave the Tyne, to keep this fact secret until ‘the last moment’ and to accept any Turkish money still due on the ship so as not to give the game away.[101]

                On that same busy afternoon of 30 July, the French Naval Attaché, the Comte de Saint-Seine, saw Churchill and Battenberg at the Admiralty to suggest that it was time for the joint signal books, held in readiness in sealed packets by the French and British Cs-in-C, to be distributed amongst the individual ships of the fleets. Either, in view of his past exertions to maintain ‘freedom of choice’, or because the Cabinet had no knowledge of his order to Milne, Churchill remained hesitant and was able to delay such action by arguing that it was a matter for the two Cabinets and not the two Admiralties to decide: ‘such action was premature’, Churchill declared to Grey when notifying him of de Saint-Seine’s approach, as ‘our strength and preparedness enable us to wait.’[102]Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]     Cambon to Viviani, 3 August 1914, given in, Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 183, p. 356.

[2]     Notes of Grey’s talk with Temperley by J. A. Spender, November 1929, Spender mss, BL Dept of Mss, Add MSS 46386.

[3]     Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, p. 3.

[4]     Jagow to Ballin, quoted in, Ekstein, M., “Sir Edward Grey and Imperial Germany in 1914”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 6, no. 3, (1971), pp. 127-8. Ballin did in fact see Haldane (and Morley and Grey) on 23 June. Ekstein has argued that the meeting with Ballin reinforced Grey’s belief in ‘war’ and ‘peace’ parties in Berlin and so influenced British policy during the crisis.

[5]     ‘In two years time is Armageddon! The Kiel Canal finished,’ Fisher informed Churchill on 22 November 1911. Fisher often referred to the coming of the great Armageddon, and usually prophesied that it would occur on Trafalgar Day, 1914, after the Canal had opened and the Germans had gathered in their harvest. This was Fisher’s most favoured date – see, for example, Fisher to Arnold White, November 1911, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 416 – though, the next month, writing to Pamela McKenna, he preferred September 1914: ibid., p. 419.

[6]     Herwig, Luxury Fleet, p. 143; Michael Brock, “Britain Enters the War”, in Evans and von Strandmann (eds.), The Coming of the First World War, p. 166.

[7]     Michael Brock, “Britain Enters the War”, in Evans and von Strandmann (eds.), The Coming of the First World War, citing Stone, Europe Transformed, pp. 335-6. The assumption made by the French in their Plan XVII was that the Russians, having made considerable progress, could commence warfare from the fifteenth day of mobilization and launch a major offensive from the twentieth day. However, as a draft agreement noted, ‘The railway network demanded by the Russian and French general staffs in August 1913 was to be completed within four years.’ See, Krumeich, Armaments and Politics in France on the Eve of the First World War, chapter 6.

[8]     The Russian strategic railway was being constructed, Grey noted, with French money. Memorandum by Bertie of conversation with Grey in London, 16 July 1914, in Lowe & Dockrill (eds.), The Mirage of Power, vol. III, p. 488. Grey had not been home to Fallodon since April.

[9]     Grey minuted on 25 July that he had always assumed, in his conversations with the German Ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, ‘that a war between Austria and Serbia cannot be localised.’ Grey’s minute, 25 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 84, p. 216.

[10]    Mensdorff to Berchtold, 24 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, p. 175.

[11]    Lichnowsky to Jagow, 24 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 183-4 [emphasis in original].

[12]    ‘He had been reading or speaking for several minutes’, Churchill added, ‘before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed.’ Churchill, The World Crisis, p. 110.

[13]    Asquith to the King, 25 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/20; Robbins, Sir Edward Grey, p. 289.

[14]    Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 24 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 103, pp. 122-3.

[15]    Quoted in, Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, p. 160.

[16]    Major A. H. Ollivant, A Short Survey of the Present Military Situation in Europe, 1 August 1914, given in, Hazlehurst, Politicians At War, pp. 321-6. Ollivant, a General Staff officer on secondment to the Admiralty War Staff, emphasized the importance of the time factor: ‘France must not only be defeated, but defeated within a certain short limited time; if not, if Russia has time to develop her strength, Germany may be taken between the hammer and the anvil.’ As Wilson has noted, Ollivant’s paper was probably requested by Churchill for the purpose of converting Lloyd George. See, “Britain”, in Wilson (ed.), Decisions for War, 1914, p. 177. While the purpose behind the memorandum may have been tendentious, this does not affect the validity of conclusions based on a study of military imperatives.

[17]    Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 25 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 104, pp. 122-5.

[18]    Churchill, World Crisis, p. 110.

[19]    Robbins, Sir Edward Grey, p. 290. Robbins accuses Grey of ‘unflappable sang-froid, or culpable disregard of duty’.

[20]    Wilson, diary entry for 26 July 1914, in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, pp. 151-2. This opinion was based upon his belief that the Serbian reply to the Austrian note was so conciliatory as to make it ‘difficult [for] Austria and Germany to have a European war.’

[21]    His wife, who was pregnant with their third child, was ill.

[22]    Churchill, World Crisis, pp. 112-3.

[23]    Buchanan to Grey, 25 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 213-5.

[24]    Nicolson to Grey, 26 July 1914, and Grey to Missions in Paris, St Petersburg, Nisch, Berlin and Rome, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 235-6.

[25]    Grey to Goschen, 27 July 1914, in Geiss, (ed.), July 1914, pp. 252-3.

[26]    Nicolson, Lord Carnock, p. 401; Zara Steiner, “The Foreign Office Under Sir Edward Grey” and “The Foreign Office in the War”, in Hinsley (ed.), British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey, pp. 51-6, 517. Nicolson’s fall from grace was also common knowledge outside the Foreign Office: Lichnowsky reported to Berlin on 29 July 1914 of having a ‘brief conversation with Sir W Tyrrell, who, after Sir E Grey, and in consideration of the small importance of Sir A Nicolson, is today the most influential as well as the best instructed person there…’, Kautsky, German Documents, no. 355, p. 312.

[27]    Minutes by Crowe and Crowe, 25 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 198-9.

[28]    Gilbert, Churchill, vol. III, p. 7.

[29]    Zara Steiner, “The Foreign Office 1905-14”, in Hinsley (ed.), British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey, p. 63.

[30]    Joachim Remak, “The Third Balkan War”, Journal of Modern History, vol. 43 (1971), p. 357, n. 4, citing a paper by Richard A Cosgrove of the University of Arizona.

[31]    The Wharf was Asquith’s country house on the Thames at Sutton Courtney.

[32]    Asquith to Stanley, 27 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 106, pp. 127-8; Henry Wilson, diary entry, 27 July 1914, in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 152.

[33]    Asquith to Stanley, 28 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 107, pp. 129-30.

[34]    Buchanan to Grey, 25 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 213-5.

[35]    Wilson, “Britain”, in Wilson (ed.), Decisions for War, 1914, pp. 184-5.

[36]    Nicolson to Grey, 26 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 235-6.

[37]    Lichnowsky to Foreign Office, 26 July 1914, in Lichnowsky, Heading for the Abyss, pp. 397-8. See also, Wilson, “Britain”, in Wilson (ed.), Decisions for War, 1914, p. 187.

[38]    Lichnowsky to Jagow, 27 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 99, pp. 240-1.

[39]    Robbins, Sir Edward Grey, p. 291. As Robbins notes (citing Bowle’s biography of Samuel): ‘Although Nicolson and Crowe were now frankly suspicious of Germany’s intention, it was quite another matter for Grey to bring the Cabinet to a point of decision. With passion in his voice, he [Grey] had told Samuel before the Cabinet began that there was some devilry going in Berlin.’

[40]    Asquith to the King, 28 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/21.

[41]    Herbert Samuel informed his wife, ‘We had a Cabinet this evening which lasted just an hour. I am still inclined to be pessimistic about the outlook, but we are doing our best to localize the conflict.’ Quoted in, Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, p. 160.

[42]    Asquith to the King, 27 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/21. Churchill had first suggested in the autumn of 1913 that, as an economy measure, a test mobilization of the Third Fleet should be substituted for the Grand Manoeuvres. This was agreed to by the First Sea Lord and announced in Parliament on 18 March 1914. As Churchill subsequently noted, ‘In pursuance of these orders and without connection of any kind with the European situation, the Test Mobilization began on 15th July. Although there was no legal authority to compel the reservists to come up, the response was general, upwards of 20,000 men presenting themselves at the naval depôts.’ World Crisis, p. 108.

[43]    Buchanan to Grey, 25 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 213-5.

[44]    ‘Our friendships are firm, as our aims are free from all suspicion of aggression. While we can hope to preserve peace by working with the Great Powers who are not immediate Parties to this dangerous quarrel, we shall consider that end above all else. But should there arise in any quarter a desire to test our adhesion to the principles that inform our friendships and that thereby guarantee the balance of power in Europe, we shall be found no less ready and determined to vindicate them with the whole strength of the Empire that we have been found ready whenever we have been tried in the past. That, we conceive, interest, duty and honour demand from us. England will not hesitate to answer to their call.’ The Times, 27 July 1914.

[45]    C. P. Scott, diary entry for 27 July 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, pp. 90-3.

[46]    Mediterranean War Orders No. 1, sent to Milne on 20 August 1913, PRO Adm 137/819; Lumby, pp. 114-5. Paragraph 2 instructed: ‘Should the attitude of Austria be uncertain or hostile, you may expect, if necessary, to be sufficiently reinforced to enable you to accept battle with the Austrian Fleet and any German force which may be in the Mediterranean …’

[47]    See, for example, Runciman to Spender, 4 November 19129, Spender mss, BL Dept of Mss, Add MSS 46386.

[48]    C. P. Scott, diary entry for 27 July 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, pp. 90-3.

[49]    Jagow to Lichnowsky, private letter, Berlin, 18 July 1914 (dispatched 19 July), in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 30, pp. 122-4.

[50]    Goschen to Grey, 27 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 110, pp. 253-4.

[51]    Asquith to Stanley, 28 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 107, pp. 129-30.

[52]    Henry Wilson, diary entry for 28 July 1914, Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 152.

[53]    It is not clear if Asquith saw Grey at the Foreign Office or at Queen Anne’s Gate. Grey had been renting Churchill’s house at 33, Eccleston Square (World Crisis, p. 114), however, the Foreign Secretary moved to Haldane’s house in Queen Anne’s Gate so as to be nearer the Foreign Office (Callwell, Wilson, vol. I p. 153). Grey was also to own a house in Queen Anne’s Gate (Robbins, Sir Edward Grey, p. 153).

[54]    Quoted in, Wilson, “Britain”, in Wilson (ed.), Decisions for War, 1914, p. 188.

[55]    Ibid.

[56]    Minutes of the 114th meeting of the C.I.D., 23 August 1911, PRO Cab 38/19/49.

[57]    Quoted in, Wilson, “Britain”, in Wilson (ed.), Decisions for War, 1914, p. 189.

[58]    Asquith to the King, 30 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/22.

[59]    Asquith to Stanley, 29 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 109, pp. 132-3. The Brocks note: ‘This characteristically confident judgement was almost certainly correct Germany decided on war without counting on British neutrality, France and Russia without the assurance of British support. Bethmann wanted a British declaration of neutrality because he believed mistakenly that it might deter France and Russia. Once he knew that it would not, he was as ready as the German General Staff for British intervention … ’ Ibid, p. 133, n. 1.

[60]    Quoted in, Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, p. 160.

[61]    The dispatch was eventually sent to the German Minister in Brussels on 29 July with instructions to leave it unopened until instructed otherwise. Jagow to Below, 29 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, pp. 231-2; see also, Brock and Brock, Asquith Letters, p. 133, n. 1.

[62]    Wilson could not understand why Asquith had given the order as there was ‘nothing moving in Germany’. Wilson, diary entry for 29 July 1914, in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 152.

[63]    Asquith to Stanley, 29 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 109, pp. 132-3.

[64]    Grey took care to hide his pessimism. When Herbert Samuel had half an hour’s talk with Grey at midnight on the evening of the 29th he noted how ‘It is marvellous how serene, and indeed cheerful, he keeps ‑ cheerful, that is, in his demeanour, not in his outlook.’ Samuel to his wife, 30 July 1914, quoted in, Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, pp. 160-1.

[65]    Mensdorff to Berchtold, 29 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 122, pp. 276-7.

[66]    Lichnowsky to Jagow, 29 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 130, pp. 288-90.

[67]    Jannen, The Lions of July, pp. 207-8.

[68]    Goschen to Nicolson, 31 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 167, pp. 334-5. Goschen commenced this private letter to Nicolson on 30 July but did not complete it until his return to London after the outbreak of war.

[69]    Goschen to Grey, Berlin, 29 July 1914, (received 9.00 a.m., 30 July), , in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 139, pp. 300-1.

[70]    Minute by Eyre Crowe, 30 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 139, pp. 300-1.

[71]    Asquith to Stanley, 30 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 110, pp. 135-7.

[72]    ‘You must inform German Chancellor that his proposal that we should bind ourselves to neutrality on such terms cannot for a moment be entertained.’ Grey to Goschen, no. 231, 30 July 1914, , in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 163, p. 329.

[73]    Quoted in Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 85.

[74]    Asquith had been scheduled to inspect the Red Cross in Chester and then witness exercises by the Cheshire Territorial Brigade. See, Brock & Brock (eds.), Asquith Letters, p. 131, n. 1.

[75]    Asquith to Stanley, 31 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 111, p. 138.

[76]    Robbins, Sir Edward Grey, pp. 293-4.

[77]    Churchill had informed Lloyd George on 1 August that ‘the march of events will be dominating.’ Churchill, Churchill, vol. II, p. 719.

[78]    Minute by Crowe, 31 July 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 152, p. 317.

[79]    Nicolson to Hardinge, private, 5 September 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/375.

[80]    Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 152.

[81]    Asquith to Stanley, 31 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 111, p. 138.

[82]    Churchill, World Crisis, p. 124.

[83]    It will be recalled that, in 1912, a declaration of neutrality by either Italy or Austria counted as one of the conditions which would allow for the withdrawal of the British battle cruisers form the Mediterranean. Charles Hobhouse, diary entry for 17 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 118.

[84]    It was only in December 1913 that Churchill had announced that, during 1914, four battle cruisers would be ‘kept based on Malta’, but that ‘If the Germans continue to keep their battle-cruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean, the British force there will be re-inforced by the New Zealand as soon as the Tiger joins the 1st. Battle-Cruiser Squadron at the end of 1914.’ Navy Estimates, 1914-15, Memorandum by Churchill, 5 December 1913, PRO Cab 37/117/86; Lumby, p. 116.

[85]    Churchill to Battenberg, 28 July 1914, First Lord’s Minutes, Naval Historical Library; World Crisis, p. 120.

[86]    Asquith to the King, 30 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/22.

[87]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Mediterranean, Senior Naval Officer, Gibraltar, Admiral Superintendent, Malta, 29 July 1914; Admiralty to C-in-C, no. 179, 29 July 1914. PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 145. On 29 July 1914, when the war warning telegram was sent to Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, his force consisted of the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron, comprising the battle cruisers Inflexible, Indomitable and Indefatigable; the First Cruiser Squadron, comprising the four heavy cruisers, Defence, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and Warrior; four light cruisers (Chatham, Dublin, Gloucester and Weymouth); and the Fifth Destroyer Flotilla of sixteen boats. Milne was therefore understrength by one battle cruiser (Invincible), which was in dockyard hands in England for the removal of faulty electric equipment. Whether the presence of this ship would have made any difference is problematical; it would certainly, however, have given Milne more room to manoeuvre.

[88]    Churchill to C.O.S., 30 July 1914, First Lord’s Minutes, Naval Historical Library.

[89]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 183, 30 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 146 gives the final version.. Churchill’s signal would gain notoriety as the “superior force” telegram.. I have previously analysed the signal in Superior Force, chapter II.

[90]    ‘These directions on which the First Sea Lord and I were completely in accord,’ Churchill wrote in The World Crisis [p. 131], ‘gave the Commander-in-Chief guidance in the general conduct of the naval campaign; they warned him against fighting a premature single-handed battle with the Austrian Fleet in which our battle-cruisers and cruisers would be confronted with Austrian Dreadnought battleships; they told him to aid the French in transporting their African forces, and they told him how to do it, viz. “by covering and, if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben.” So far as the English language may serve as a vehicle of thought, the words employed appear to express the intentions we had formed.’

[91]    Had Churchill simply deleted the sentence, instead of altering it in three instances, Troubridge’s torment on the night of 6/7 August could have been avoided. The outcome might not have changed – as Souchon could still have declined battle if he chose – but Troubridge’s reputation would have remained intact

[92]    The perils of letting loose a headstrong politician in the Admiralty were also illustrated by the confusing advice regarding Italy: first, it ‘now seems probable’ that she would remain neutral but then, in the following sentence, the attitude of Italy was ‘uncertain’. Similarly, why did Churchill assure Milne that ‘we shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean’ when he knew that Battenberg had already decided against such a move? There remains also the possibility that Churchill was influenced in drafting the telegram by the presence of Admiral Fisher at the Admiralty that day: whether Fisher had a hand in its composition or whether Churchill sought to impress his mentor is problematical. What is certain is that Fisher admitted to having had ‘a very exciting time’ with Churchill on the 30th and that, unusually for him, he ‘did not get back till late & did not sleep a wink last night in consequence! I can’t leave here while war is likely’, he blissfully declared, ‘as apparently I am wanted…’ Fisher to his daughter, Dorothy Sybil Fullerton, 31 July 1914, Fullerton mss., NMM FTN 7/2.

[93]    C-in-C to Admiralty, no. 375, 31 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/19. The contingency that Italy would side with the Triple Alliance had to be allowed for but, by the last day of July, the rumour had spread throughout the ships gathered in Malta that Italy would not participate.

[94]    Asquith’s account of the Cabinet the previous day, 29 July, noted that ‘Mr Churchill described the naval steps which had already been taken …’ There was no reference to any discussion on the subject. Asquith to the King, 30 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/22.

[95]    Churchill, Great Contemporaries, p. 148.

[96]    Churchill, World Crisis, p. 124.

[97]    Foreign Office to Admiralty, Urgent and confidential, 29 July 1914; minute by Churchill, PRO Adm 137/800..

[98]    Moore to Churchill, 30 July 1914, ibid. The Armstrong’s agent in Constantinople had cabled that the Turks would find the final £800,000 of the purchase price ‘today or tomorrow’ (30/31 July) and deposit it in a British bank.

[99]    Attorney General’s Office to First Lord, 30 July 1914, ibid.; memorandum by Sir Arthur Wilson, 30 July 1914, ibid.; minute by Crowe, 30 July 1914, PRO FO 371/2137/39072.

[100]  Minute by Churchill, 29 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/800.

[101]  Admiralty memorandum, 30 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/800.

[102]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, vol. III, pp. 18-9.



THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller

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