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 19




The Decision for War





By Sunday morning the members of Asquith’s Cabinet knew of the German declaration of war against Russia; more ominous news was soon to follow. At 10:15 a.m. Lloyd George, Harcourt, Beauchamp, Simon, Runciman and Pease met at 11, Downing Street where they agreed that they were ‘not prepared to go into war now, but that in certain events [they] might reconsider [the] position such as the invasion of Belgium.’[1] It is tempting to suggest that at least one section of the Cabinet was about to engage in some backsliding. As the pacifists concerted their final attempt to influence policy, Paul Cambon had in his hands an en clair message from Paris stating that the Germans had violated Luxembourg’s neutrality. Cambon immediately appreciated two salient facts: first, that the Treaty of London of 1867 (whose signatories included Prussia and Britain) guaranteed the neutrality of Luxembourg; and second, that the invasion of Luxembourg must presage that of Belgium. At first Grey agreed to see Cambon at three o’clock that afternoon, after that morning’s Cabinet; Cambon insisted and was granted an immediate audience.[2] The implication was manifest. In case Grey did not appreciate it, George Clerk at the Foreign Office pointed out that it was ‘impossible for the German troops to get out of Luxembourg without crossing Belgian territory except through a narrow bottle-neck into France.’[3]

                Grey’s other visitor that morning was Lichnowsky. Following the emotional scene with Asquith, the German Ambassador then called on Grey to urge him not to destroy ‘for all time to come our mutual co-operation, of late so fruitful.’ Grey could give no definite assurances. With the refusal of both Grey and Asquith to confront the situation, in what must have been an embarrassing encounter for them both, Lichnowsky returned to his Embassy with the ‘distinct impression’ that both Grey and Asquith still desired neutrality. Clearly, neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary wanted war; this was not the same thing as a desire for neutrality while France was crushed. Lichnowsky’s wishful thinking led him to cable Berlin to suggest that the German Navy should ‘refrain from all activities which might lead to accidents or be regarded as provocations. In this category would belong above all any naval operations against the northern coast of France which has been left exposed through France relying on England. Naval operations against Russia are matters of no concern to England.’[4] At the same time as Lichnowsky was making this plea, Moltke informed Jagow that ‘England’s neutrality is of such importance to us’ that a concession could be made ‘unconditionally’. However, this ‘concession’ was only to pledge ‘moderation in case of a victory over France.’ There was no mention of the curtailment of naval operations. Meanwhile, upon learning on Sunday that the Anglo-German cable had been cut ‘by England’ Tirpitz wanted to know, ‘whether, as a result of this fact, we are to consider ourselves in a state of war with England.’ Eventually, on Monday 3 August, the German Foreign Minister would pledge that the northern coasts of France would not be threatened so long as Britain remained neutral. By then, it was too late; and, as I have indicated above, considerable doubt must remain as to the veracity with which such a pledge would be viewed.[5]

The first session of the unprecedented Sunday Cabinet lasted from 11 a.m. to almost 2 p.m. It commenced with Grey, free from the doubt of the previous day, arguing strongly in favour of the pledge being given to the French. ‘We agreed at last, (with much difficulty),’ wrote Asquith, ‘that Grey should be authorised to tell Cambon that our fleet would not allow the German fleet to make the Channel the base of hostile operations.’[6] (‘Was ever anything heard like this?’ recorded Sir Henry Wilson. ‘What is the difference between the French coast and the French frontier?’) Walter Runciman’s pencilled note of the discussion recorded that,

        Grey proposes definitely (I) To announce to France & Germany that if the German ships enter the Channel we should regard that as a hostile act. (II) On Belgian neutrality, we do not commit ourselves at present. We are consulting Parliament. Crewe would not hesitate to go to war over the English Channel. Several others agreed. McKenna suggested instead that the Channel should be neutralised to both. Grey says that to niggle is not worth while. If the Channel is closed against Germany it is in favour of France, & we cannot take half measures ‑ either we must declare ourselves neutral, or in it. If we are to be neutral he will go, but he cannot blame the Cabinet if they disagree with him. He therefore asks for a sharp decision. P.M. read letter from Bonar Law in which he & Lansdowne promise that they will support us in going in with France. P.M. reads his summary of considerations to weigh with Cabinet & proposed to say in Parlt. that we cannot allow the Channel to be violated. We must come to a decision on neutrality of Belgium now.[7]

It is clear from this account that the Cabinet had shifted ground since the previous day, and that it was the ‘Channel question’, and not the issue of Belgian neutrality which had caused the shift. Only John Burns announced his intention of resigning, believing that the pledge meant war; he was then persuaded to remain until at least the planned evening meeting of the Cabinet.[8] According to Runciman some years later, ‘Whether we had been parties to the Treaty for the protection of Belgium or not, I held the view that we could not tolerate the German fleet in the English Channel, and this country would be in the gravest peril, even if we had not declared war against Germany, if and when the Germans captured and held the French Channel Ports. Some of the others did not hold this view, but I was not alone in either holding or expressing it.’ The Cabinet had been pushed by Grey one step closer to intervention as a result of the tacit naval dispositions. This was also confirmed by Runciman, who recalled that ‘Everyone who thought about it felt that we could not tolerate the German army at the ports of the North of France, or the German fleet in the Channel. I never felt that the Belgian Security Treaty was the big fact. My thoughts were always centred on the importance to us of the free passage of the English Channel, both for the purpose of our supplies to London and for the purpose of our easy communication with the Continent.’ Runciman did not believe that there was either a binding or a moral obligation to France, but that, simply, ‘a victory for Germany would be disastrous for us.’[9]

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Even Morley was forced to acquiesce in this analysis: there had been, he noted, a general agreement that ‘(1) We owed it to France, in view of the Entente, and also of her value to us in the Mediterranean. (2) We could not acquiesce in a Franco-German naval conflict in the narrow seas, on our doorstep so to say.’[10] Once more, there was no mention of Belgium. Churchill’s subsequent portrait of Morley highlighted his dilemma:

The majority of the Cabinet was for leaving France and Germany and the other Powers great and small to fight it out as they pleased, and Morley found himself looked to as a leader by a gathering band. But the issues were clouded and tangled. There was Belgium and the faith of Treaties. There were the undefended coasts of France, and the possibility of the German fleet ‘on our very doorstep’ cannonading Calais, while the French battleships as the result of tacit agreement with us were stationed in the Mediterranean. Morley was no doctrinaire or fanatic. The ‘doorstep’ argument weighed with him. It persuaded the Cabinet. John Burns alone resisting and resigning, they agreed unitedly that the Germans should be told we could not allow them in the Channel. This was a far-reaching decision.[11]

When Jack Pease asked, ‘If we tell the Germans they may not move their fleet & come out is not that tantamount to a declaration of war?’ Grey could only reply that it was not. He believed that ‘war will come & it is due to France they shall have our support.’[12] When he came to write his memoirs, Grey was more forthright. ‘I remember saying more than once,’ he recalled, ‘to colleagues inside or outside the Cabinet, that it did not matter whether the decision was to go to war or to demand conditions from Germany. Conditions meant war just as surely as a declaration of war.’[13]

Events had moved rapidly in twenty-four hours. Since the previous meeting of the Cabinet on Saturday, Germany had moved on three fronts: on land, east and west, and at sea in the Mediterranean.[14] The first battle — the battle for intervention — had been won by Asquith, Churchill and Grey. The second, over Cabinet unity, would be fought out during the remainder of the day, with the knowledge that the Conservatives were waiting upon the outcome. To disguise his own culpability Grey subsequently maintained that the pledge to France had originated from an ‘anti-war’ member of the Cabinet along the lines of, ‘Of course we can’t have the German fleet come knocking down the Channel, we must stop that.’[15] ‘It might be supposed’, Grey claimed in his memoirs, ‘that this suggestion came as a tactical move from a pro-French quarter made and designed to shake or sap the position of the anti-war section. It was no such thing. It came spontaneously from the anti-war quarter and was based, first, simply on the ground of feeling and sentiment.’[16] On the other hand, Crewe, who could hardly be described as ‘anti-war’, claimed the honour of first raising the point.[17]

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Naturally, Grey would not have been a disinterested spectator during these discussions; it was he, after all, who would have to face Cambon again, and he thereupon stated his own position unambiguously. This was, after all, one of the two ‘cardinal points’ which apparently weighed most heavily with the Foreign Secretary; certainly, Walter Runciman had ‘no record of the guarantee to France of the English Channel being a suggestion due to the anti-war party.[18] Furthermore, Grey himself admitted that his recollection of the three days of the August Bank Holiday weekend was one ‘of almost continuous Cabinets and of immense strain; but of what passed in discussion very little remains in my mind, not even what part I took in the discussions.’[19] A fallible memory is often a convenient memory. Grey entered the Cabinet room on Sunday morning needing to be able to tell Cambon that the French coasts were safe from attack; this, after ‘much difficulty’, was precisely what he was able to do as soon as the session finished. What is more important than ascertaining precisely from which quarter the suggestion arose is the acknowledgement that Grey was aware, at the time, that ‘Conditions meant war just as surely as a declaration of war.’ As Burns appreciated, the decision for intervention had just been taken.

                As the battle for Cabinet unity commenced Runciman recalled that a three-way split had developed, between those determined to resign rather than go to war (Beauchamp, Morley, Burns and Simon); those who followed what he called the ‘Grey-Asquith view’ which also included Churchill, Crewe, McKenna, Haldane, Samuel, Pease and himself; and a middle section (Lloyd George, Harcourt, McKinnon Wood, Hobhouse, Masterman and Birrell) that was still not entirely committed. One result of the deliberations and the strain attached to a decision which must have been anathema to them appeared to be a reluctance for certain members of the Cabinet to admit to the position others perceived them to hold. Thus, Hobhouse agreed that Harcourt, Beauchamp and Simon ‘were for unconditional peace’, while Grey was ‘violently pro-French’ and Lloyd George ‘strongly anti-German’ which, while not quite the same thing, should have placed them firmly in the interventionist camp. However, as Hobhouse further noted, ‘as the Liberal papers were very anti-war, [Lloyd George] veered round and became peaceful.’ Instead, Grey’s principal ally was Churchill who ‘was of course for any enterprise which gave him a chance of displaying the Navy as his instrument of destruction.’ But next closest to Grey were, in Hobhouse’s view, Asquith, Haldane and Hobhouse himself who, collectively, were ‘for war if there was even a merely technical breach of the Belgian treaty’, while McKenna ‘was for war if Belgian territory was violated, but against the dispatch of an expeditionary force.’ The remainder, according to Hobhouse, occupied the increasingly narrow middle ground.[20]

Asquith’s own interpretation, later that afternoon, although in agreement on the three-way split, misrepresented both the non-interventionist and the uncommitted groups. ‘There is a strong party’, Asquith recorded, ‘including all the “Beagles” and reinforced by Ll George Morley & Harcourt who are against any kind of intervention in any event. Grey of course will never consent to this, & I shall not separate myself from him. Crewe, McKenna, & Samuel are a moderating intermediate body.’[21] Far from being part of an ‘intermediate body’, McKenna, by his own admission, had no doubt that Britain was committed to France and so ‘took little part in the discussion because of [his] firm conviction of the inevitable outcome in the event of war being declared.’[22] Similarly Lloyd George was not opposed to ‘any kind of intervention’ and indeed, according to the anti-war Simon, ‘failed at the pinch’, as he had done ‘more than once before’.[23] Lloyd George’s passivity was explained by his mistress, Frances Stevenson, who was at No. 11 throughout the Bank Holiday weekend. The Chancellor’s mind, she noted, ‘was really made up from the first, that he knew we would have to go in, and that the invasion of Belgium was, to be cynical, a heaven-sent excuse for supporting a declaration of war.’[24] Asquith, however, did acknowledge Samuel’s contribution. This, and the fact that Samuel’s own account is one of the most complete of the deliberations that day, has given him a prominence he perhaps does not deserve.

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This morning’s Cabinet [Samuel informed his wife that evening] almost resulted in a political crisis to be superimposed on the international and financial crisis. Grey expressed a view which was unacceptable to most of us. He is outraged by the way in which Germany and Austria have played with the most vital interests of civilisation, have put aside all attempts at accommodation made by himself and others, and while continuing to negotiate have marched steadily to war. I expressed my own conviction that we should be justified in joining in the war either for the protection of the northern coasts of France, which we could not afford to see bombarded by the German fleet and occupied by the German army, or for the maintenance of the independence of Belgium which we were bound by treaty to protect and which again we could not afford to see subordinated to Germany. But I held that we were not entitled to carry England into the war for the sake of our goodwill for France or for the sake of maintaining the strength of France and Russia against that of Germany and Austria. This opinion is shared by the majority of the Cabinet with various degrees of emphasis on the several parts of it. We sanctioned a statement being made by Grey to the French Ambassador this afternoon, to be followed by a statement in Parliament tomorrow that we should take action if the German fleet came down the Channel to attack France (Almost the whole of the French fleet is in the Mediterranean). But Burns dissented, feeling that Germany may regard this declaration as an act of hostility and may declare war on us because of it. He is for neutrality in all circumstances. It is probable that he will resign to-night and Morley may go with him. Strong efforts are being made to persuade them not to go. [25]

The statement to be made to Cambon was agreed to, as mentioned, only after what Asquith termed ‘much difficulty’.[26] By adding a third part to the equation (entering the war for the sake of goodwill or to maintain the balance of power) Samuel had rather confused the issue. As things stood on Sunday afternoon, a proven German violation of Belgian neutrality would trigger British intervention, as would the German Fleet ‘coming down the Channel’. By agreeing to give the pledge to Cambon, the Cabinet, as Pease realized, had narrowed its options still further. There remains the question, by giving the pledge the day after refusing to sanction the dispatch of the Expeditionary Force, was the Cabinet thinking solely in terms of a naval war? Certainly, Runciman, at the time ‘instinctively disliked … the dispatch of British troops to Flanders, and … would rather have seen our operations restricted to the sea.’[27] Churchill also would attempt to persuade Lloyd George by disingenuously intimating that the ‘naval war will be cheap — not more than 25 millions a year.’[28] The attraction of a naval war was undeniable but illusory. As Hazlehurst has noted, ‘For reluctant interventionists, the consequences of taking a hard line over Belgian neutrality seemed, henceforth, more circumscribed. The worst contingency was a naval commitment which the Germans might prudently decline to challenge.’[29] The navalist vision for the use of British troops, as an adjunct to fleet operations, had been exploded in the Committee of Imperial Defence in August 1911. If the German High Seas Fleet refused to give battle, the pinpricks which the Grand Fleet might have been able, at a cost far in excess of Churchill’s estimate, to inflict upon Germany would have counted for little as the great armies clashed on the Continent in an orgy of blood and torn flesh. The hope that the conflict would remain, in British terms, a naval one was unrealistic from the time it was mooted; its purpose was to soothe consciences.

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The conversion of the middle section of the Cabinet, to the extent of sanctioning Grey’s pledge to Cambon, was a crucial determinant in the subsequent decision to intervene using the pretext of Belgium. An ancillary, though not unimportant, factor was that by Sunday public opinion had turned decisively and was no longer opposed to Britain’s entry into the War. Commander Barry Domvile gleefully noted that afternoon that a very heavy shower ‘broke up the bloody Socialists in Trafalgar Square.’ The anti-war gathering was replaced by excited crowds ‘in Downing Street & everywhere.’[30] Arthur Ponsonby, the Liberal M.P., noted, to his disgust, that at midnight the streets were filled with ‘Bands of half drunken men shouting mafficking waving flags: bands of French waiters shouting vive la France the war fever beginning.’[31] According to McKenna, who was convinced that Britain was ‘committed to France’, the lengthy discussions of Sunday had but one purpose: ‘Such proposals as there were for a mitigated participation, as for instance limiting the action of the German Fleet, were so obviously futile that they could have had no reasonable purpose but to avoid a decision until some members of the Cabinet were satisfied about public opinion.’[32]

Asquith, who was ‘quite clear in my own mind as to what is right & wrong’, set out his thoughts for his paramour, Venetia Stanley following the conclusion of that morning’s Cabinet:

(1)  We have no obligation of any kind either to France or Russia to give them military or naval help.

(2)  The despatch of the Expeditionary force to France at this moment is out of the question & wd serve no object.

(3)  We mustn’t forget the ties created by the long-standing & intimate friendship with France.

(4)  It as against British interests that France shd be wiped out as a Great Power.

(5)  We cannot allow Germany to use the Channel as a hostile base.

(6)  We have obligations to Belgium to prevent her being utilised & absorbed by Germany.[33]

                As Asquith was ‘thinking aloud on paper’ it is perhaps unfair to dissect his list too minutely. Suffice it to say that Asquith had, in 1911, been of the opinion that the dispatch of only four of the six regular Divisions would still be of use to the French[34] and that the first item on his list, by omitting ‘moral’ before obligation, was strictly correct. The remaining four items pointed in the direction of intervention. During the afternoon’s adjournment, Asquith penned a similar reply for the benefit of Bonar Law:

We are under no obligation, express or implied, either to France or Russia to render them military or naval help. Our duties seem to be determined by reference to the following considerations:

(1)                Our long standing and intimate friendship with France.

(2)                It is a British interest that France should not be crushed as a great Power.

(3)                Both the fact that France has concentrated practically their whole naval power in the Mediterranean, and our own interests, require that we should not allow Germany to use the North Sea or the Channel with her fleet for hostile operations against the Coast or shipping of France.

(4)                Our treaty obligations (whatever their proper construction) in regard to the neutrality and the independence of Belgium.

                In regard to (1) and (2) we do not think that these duties impose upon us the obligation at this moment of active intervention either by sea or land. We do not contemplate, for instance, and are satisfied that no good object would be served by, the immediate despatch of an expeditionary force. In regard to (3) Sir E. Grey this (Sunday) afternoon sent … [a] communication to the French Ambassador. In regard to (4) we regard Mr. Gladstone’s interpretation of the Treaty of 1839 in the House of Commons on 10 August 1870 (203 Hansard 1787) as correctly defining our obligations. It is right, therefore, before deciding whether any and what action on our part is necessary to know what are the circumstances and conditions of any German interference with Belgian territory.[35]

Asquith had altered the emphasis for the benefit of Bonar Law by dismissing the pledge given to Cambon and in its place laying stress upon treaty obligations. By this time, it was too late; Britain was already committed.

                As Asquith calmly attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable, the irony was that Cambon’s ‘petit papier’, which the Ambassador had threatened to use to devastating effect, contained the following sentence: ‘The disposition, for instance, of the French and British fleets respectively at the moment is not based upon an engagement to co-operate in war.’ Clearly, either Grey shamelessly used Cambon’s threat to railroad the rest of the Cabinet, or the 1912 Agreement was not worth the paper it was written on. Even Churchill, who had warned so forthrightly in 1912 of the dangers of voluntarily surrendering ‘freedom of choice’, now became swept up, exhilarated, by the events unfolding around him; and as for his senior naval adviser it is evident from the note Battenberg submitted to Churchill on Sunday morning that the notion of ‘freedom of action’ was chimerical.[36]Please click to go to the top of this page

By the morning of Sunday 2 August, it appeared increasingly likely that Italy would adopt a course of neutrality. Perhaps recalling the Cabinet meeting of July 1912 at which it was accepted that 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 from the Mediterranean,[37] Churchill instructed Battenberg and Sturdee, the new C.O.S., to review the Mediterranean dispositions. In the eventuality of Italy’s neutrality they were to consider whether the four ships of Troubridge’s First Cruiser Squadron and one battle cruiser or, alternatively, two heavy cruisers and two battle cruisers, should not return home. So much for Churchill’s promise to Milne on 30 July that the Mediterranean would be reinforced. ‘The French’, Churchill added, ‘should be consulted about this, and as to their plans. You may do this as a piece of staff work — making it clear that we cannot decide questions of policy.’[38] Churchill was acting in the spirit of the 1912 Grey-Cambon letters,[39] although his motive may have been dictated by his desire to maintain operational control at least until the destruction of Goeben was assured.[40]

                Battenberg, who was clear as to the direction that Admiralty policy had taken during his tenure, first stated the position concisely: ‘England massed in the North, safeguarding French interests against Germany. France massed in Meditn., safeguarding British interests against Austria.’ The First Sea Lord immediately had second thoughts with regard to the French task; it would not do to accredit to the French the responsibility of protecting British interests exclusively. Battenberg thereupon replaced “British interests” with the more politic “joint interests”; however, the corresponding change was not made to the altruistic British task, which seemed to be concerned solely with protecting the French. As Italy was now almost certain excluded from the calculation, the French Fleet of twenty-six battleships (including four dreadnoughts), nineteen armoured cruisers, ten protected cruisers, eighty-five destroyers and seventy-nine submarines, although admittedly comprising many obsolete vessels, would have to face an Austrian force of twelve battleships (three of which were dreadnoughts), three armoured cruisers, five protected cruisers, eighteen destroyers and six submarines. Battenberg concluded that France was overwhelmingly superior to Austria in battleships, armoured cruisers and torpedo craft, but quite deficient in light cruisers. Aware that the German Mittelmeerdivision had to be covered by the British, Battenberg proposed that Indefatigable (the newest of the three British battle cruisers) and the light cruiser Dublin should remain on station to deal with Goeben and Breslau and that the other light cruisers should stay to assist the French but that the remainder – two battle cruisers and the four heavy cruisers of the First Cruiser Squadron – should return to the North Sea.[41] Sturdee, as his name almost seemed to imply, was more cautious. ‘I rather hold that an open mind be kept on making any reduction’, he informed the First Sea Lord:

The situation will have to be very clear before doing so [Sturdee argued]. Even against Austria and the Goeben. If French and English squadrons do not work well in combination the reduction could not be made. In any case I should prefer leaving for a time First Cruiser Squadron with the Inflexibles on the station. First Cruiser Squadron might prove a valuable asset for our trade either in Mediterranean or from Gibraltar.[42]

Was Battenberg seriously of the opinion that a single battle cruiser and light cruiser could guarantee the destruction of Goeben and Breslau, or was it simply a case of writing what he thought the First Lord wanted to hear? Sturdee’s more realistic counsel prevailed and at 1.30 on the afternoon of Sunday, 2 August, just as the first session of the Cabinet was drawing to a close, Battenberg drafted a signal to Milne ordering that ‘Goeben must be shadowed by two battle-cruisers. Approaches to Adriatic must be watched by cruisers and destroyers. Remain near Malta yourself.’ To this, Churchill, having returned from Downing Street, added: ‘It is believed that Italy will remain neutral. You cannot yet count absolutely on this.’[43] While the Grand Fleet remained at anchor in its North Sea bases, and as the Cabinet deliberated on the question of safeguarding the Northern coasts of France, the British Mediterranean Fleet had been placed on a war footing with instructions to shadow the Mittelmeerdivision. This could have had but one purpose: to prevent the German battle cruiser from attacking French troop transports.

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Grey saw Cambon at 2.30 p.m., after the Cabinet had adjourned, to impart the good news. The French Ambassador was informed: ‘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.’[44] Grey also pointed out

that we have large questions and most difficult issues to consider and that Government felt that they could not bind themselves to declare war upon Germany necessarily if war broke out between France and Germany tomorrow, but it was essential to the French Government, whose fleet had long been concentrated in the Mediterranean, to know how to make their dispositions with their north coast entirely undefended.

‘We therefore thought it necessary to give them an assurance’, Grey informed Frank Bertie soon after. This assurance, Grey tendentiously maintained, ‘did not bind us to go to war with Germany unless the German Fleet took the action indicated, but it did give a security to France that would enable her to settle the disposition of her own Mediterranean Fleet.’[45] Cambon knew precisely what it meant: ‘The game was won’, he subsequently stated. ‘A great country does not make war by halves.’[46]

At the Admiralty shortly thereafter, Churchill (in the presence of Battenberg and Sturdee) informed de Saint-Seine of the Cabinet’s decision and added that Grey had spoken to the German Ambassador concerning the pledge to France. This would appear to be borne out by Grey’s subsequent recollection: ‘The promise to defend these coasts was given to France. The German Government were informed. They promised not to attack these coasts …’[47] Grey made it appear that the German promise on Monday 3 August was the result of Berlin being informed of the pledge to France; that is, this information must have been conveyed to the German Government before 9.30 on Monday morning at which time Jagow telegraphed the ‘promise’ to London.[48] In fact, on Sunday afternoon, as soon as he had learned of Churchill’s faux pas, Grey rushed to reassure Cambon:

I hear Churchill told your Naval Attaché that my conversation to you this afternoon was also made to the German Amb[assado]r. This is quite wrong: nothing has been said to any other foreign representative except yourself or will be said till a public statement is made.[49]

The public statement would not be made until the afternoon of Monday 3 August; as shown above, Jagow’s offer was prompted by Lichnowsky’s appeal.[50]

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As it was assumed that Milne, who was senior to Lapeyrère (a result of Fisher’s dictum that the Mediterranean command should go to a full admiral), would be recalled, de Saint-Seine was informed that ‘the direction of the allied fleets in the Mediterranean [is] to rest with the French, the British Admiral [Troubridge] being junior.’[51] The overall direction of the naval war was to rest with the British Admiralty; however, ‘In the event of the neutrality of Italy being assured, France would undertake to deal with Austria assisted only by such British ships as would be required to cover German ships in that sea, and secure a satisfactory composition of the allied fleet.’ This was formalized four days later when a convention was signed in London by Battenberg and the Assistant Chief of the French Naval Staff. Section (ii) of this convention stipulated that the French would have general direction of operations in the Mediterranean, though it was intended that eventually Troubridge would have some latitude to conduct independent operations. The immediate problem, according to Battenberg, remained the two rogue German ships: ‘So long as the Goeben and Breslau are not destroyed or captured, the British naval forces at present in the Mediterranean will co-operate with the French fleet in their destruction or capture. When this operation has been completed the 3 English Battle-Cruisers and 2 or 3 of the Armoured Cruisers will be released for general service’; the remainder of the British forces would then be placed directly under the command of the French C-in-C.[52]

                The transportation of the XIXth Army Corps from French North Africa, had been a subject of controversy between the opposing French ministries for over forty years.[53] Not until May 1913 did the Supreme Council of National Defence decree that, as the arrival of the troops was of paramount importance, the transports should sail independently, each steaming at its highest speed. A special division of the French Fleet, comprising an obsolete pre-dreadnought and seven old cruisers would be stationed just to the east of the line Algiers-Toulon, approximately half-way along the route to be used by the transports, to provide a limited form of close cover. The main protection for the transports would, however, be provided by immediate offensive operations to be undertaken against the enemy by the bulk of the French fleet.[54] This would hold true in the case of offensive operations against the Italian or Austrian fleets, but did not address the problem caused by the presence of Goeben and Breslau — fast and powerful raiders with, apparently, one specific function: disrupting the transportation of the Algerian Corps.

                The most onerous task would devolve upon Rear-Admiral Darrieus, in command of the special division, patrolling the midway point of the transports’ route. Darrieus was hardly over-enamoured of his task, realizing that if Goeben did break through the offensive cordon his obsolete ships would be the last line of defence; he therefore requested first that his division should be strengthened and then, in contravention of the long standing arrangement, that the transports should be arranged into convoys to embark from two (not the planned three) ports, Oran and Algiers. Lapeyrère forwarded these proposals to Paris where they must have landed like a bombshell upon the desk of the unstable Minister of Marine, Armand Gauthier, a doctor of medicine knowing next to nothing of naval affairs and who had achieved his post after a political scandal had caused the removal of his predecessor.[55] Gauthier’s increasingly erratic behaviour, which included at one point a demand that Goeben should be attacked before war had been declared, led to his replacement within days; however, his reaction to Lapeyrère’s wire was predictable enough. The Admiral had been involved in all the recent discussions, at which his position had been plainly stated: he could not spare ships to escort convoys. And yet now Lapeyrère wanted to alter a carefully thought out plan on the very eve of war. The Admiral was ordered on 30 July to institute the plan as originally conceived.

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                The following day continuing anxiety about the German ships resulted in the French C-in-C seeking permission to send three old ships of the Division de Complément (Suffren, Gaulois, Charlemagne), which he had earlier proposed as a reinforcement for Darrieus’ division, to Bizerta instead to guard against a surprise attack by the Germans. Not receiving a reply quickly enough to satisfy him, Lapeyrère telegraphed later that day to the effect that he would dispatch the division on his own authority unless he received orders to the contrary. Gauthier refused the request and reiterated his opposition to the formation of convoys.[56] Although he had agreed to the 1913 plan, Lapeyrère was not an enthusiastic proponent of it, especially where, in his opinion, the insistence on a timetable of sailings for the transports hindered his freedom of action and detracted from the all-out offensive at the outset.

                The flaw in the plan had always been that the troops were to be sent before French command of the sea had been guaranteed. Lapeyrère now had to weigh in his own mind the consequences of a disaster befalling the XIXth Army Corps – upon whose presence at the front the army apparently set so much store – against the possible lost opportunity of an early victory at sea. The final version of the French Army’s infamous Plan XVII, effective from 15 April 1914, stipulated that the thirty-seven steamers to be used to transport the troops were to leave between the third and seventh days of mobilization; convoys could be formed if adjudged essential but only if no significant delay resulted.[57] It was this let-out clause which Lapeyrère now wanted to utilize. His position was undoubtedly complicated in late July by the ambiguity of the attitudes of Italy and Britain: although he could, in all probability, count on the former declaring neutrality and the latter coming in as an ally of France, he could not be absolutely sure. And, by the first days of August, the clarification of this situation had been offset by the confusion reigning in Paris which in turn was exacerbated by the command structure, by friction between the C-in-C and the Naval Staff, and, above all, by the forlorn figure of Dr Gauthier. The hapless Minister, having ‘forgotten’ to order torpedo boats into the Channel, had wanted, on 2 August, to attack the Germans immediately, and then proceeded to challenge the War Minister to a duel before finally breaking down in tears, leading the President to conclude, somewhat euphemistically, that Gauthier’s nerves were on edge.[58]

                In the crisis on Sunday the situation in the Mediterranean was overlooked until the French Cabinet, having regained some of its composure later in the afternoon, drafted a telegram to Lapeyrère on the basis of the latest information regarding the whereabouts of the German ships, which placed them at Brindisi on the night of 31 July/1 August. These orders, received by Lapeyrère at 8.50 p.m. on Sunday evening, 2 August, instructed him to set sail to try to intercept Goeben and Breslau and reiterated the necessity to have the transports proceed independently. So important was this deemed that the Minister of War, Messimy, accepted responsibility for all risks.[59] Despite this generous offer, Lapeyrère remained unhappy; uncertainty surrounded him. As early as 30 July the Cabinet had voluntarily withdrawn all French troops ten kilometres from the frontier: this order had been reaffirmed by Messimy on 1 August while German mobilization continued apace. Only on the 2nd, that perilous Sunday, did the arguments of General Joffre prevail: the territory abandoned would, if captured by the Germans, have to be retaken later with great loss of life. Even so, French desperation to portray Germany as the aggressor led Joffre to declare on 3 August that no French troops must cross the frontier; any ‘incidents’ must arise as a result of German provocation.[60]

                Lapeyrère’s position was more difficult: the enemy he had planned to oppose, Italy, showed no signs of joining the fray. Yet he could not afford to let the German ships make the first move as, in all probability, this would result not in some minor incident but the sinking of a troop transport. In the circumstances, despite his earlier willingness to allow independent sailing, he had now convinced himself that only by convoy could the XIXth Army Corps be transported safely. Late on the night of Sunday 2nd he telegraphed Paris again, setting out a virtual list of demands: his fleet would sail so as to be off the African coast on the afternoon of the 4th; he had ordered the transports to stay in harbour; and convoys were essential. As Sunday became Monday Lapeyrère received accurate information that Goeben had been in Messina on the previous day; finally, some hours later, at 4 a.m. on 3 August, the main body of the French fleet weighed anchor and proceeded majestically, if hardly noticed, out of Toulon harbour, safe in the knowledge that the defenceless northern coasts of France were now a British responsibility.Please click to go to the top of this page

Whether they appreciated it or not (and Burns could not have been alone in recognizing the fact[61]), the first major hurdle on the road to intervention had been crossed by the Cabinet in London, early on the afternoon of Sunday 2 August. A decision had been taken for war in the event of a certain contingency; it mattered not that that contingency might be remote. Indeed, as I have already indicated, too much emphasis has been placed on Jagow’s ‘promise’ the following day. The perception that Germany had exhausted the last reserve of goodwill was over-riding. The non-interventionist group now required an unimpeachable reason to justify their action. While Churchill remained at the Admiralty examining the naval aspects of the pledge to Cambon, Herbert Samuel had a late lunch at Beauchamp’s home with Lloyd George, Harcourt, Simon, McKinnon Wood, Pease and Morley, presumably to discuss the implications of the decision reached and to search for that unimpeachable reason. By the end of the meeting, Samuel noted, ‘They all agreed with my formula [intervention to be governed by a German assault on the northern coasts of France or a violation of Belgian neutrality] except Morley, who is now so old that the views he expresses are sadly inconsequent and inconsistent.’ Samuel went from the informal meeting to see McKenna, whom he ‘found in bed, worn out’. He then spent an hour at the Local Government Board before returning to 10, Downing Street where he had a short talk with Asquith about the ‘position in the Cabinet’, at which Asquith reiterated his conviction that he would ‘stand by Grey in any event’.[62] This confirmed the polarization of the Cabinet. Time was now running out for the ‘uncommitteds’: the choice facing them was simple. Deny their consciences and remain, safeguarding their own futures; or follow Burns’ intended course and resign on the matter of principle.

                After leaving Asquith, Samuel made his way next door, where Lloyd George had invited a number of his colleagues to tea. Amongst those present at this gathering were Hobhouse, Harcourt, Beauchamp, Simon, McKinnon Wood, Pease, Morley and Runciman. According to Runciman,

George had apparently taken it for granted that we were all opposed to declaration of war. He himself said to us while walking about the drawing-room that if we were in the war he would retire to Criccieth. He could not campaign against this war as he had done against the South African War. He said ‘There appears to be nothing for a Liberal to do but to look on while the hurricane rages.’ While we were there more detailed news of the German activities and of the perils of Belgium came in to us. So far as I was concerned I had made it clear that I was not dominated, as some of my colleagues were, by the Belgian situation.[63]

What was this ‘more detailed news’? Lichnowsky had been visited by Eyre Crowe during the afternoon with the news that a report had just been received at the Foreign Office ‘to the effect that the German troops in the neighbourhood of Nancy have crossed the French frontier at numerous points in large numbers …’ Crowe clearly let it be known that news of the alleged troop movement ‘would make a bad impression at the Cabinet meeting which is to take place in the course of the evening … and would perhaps not be without influence on the final decision.’[64] In the absence of what he perceived to be the correct lead from Grey, was Crowe pursuing his own agenda?

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The ‘perils of Belgium’ had become a godsend. Before that evening had passed there appeared to Runciman to be only four members of the Cabinet (Burns, Morley, Beauchamp and Simon) ‘who were definitely against our entering the war.’[65] A last minute appeal by the Counsellor from the German Embassy could not alleviate the effect of the latest war news: Kühlmann had gone to see Haldane after the morning Cabinet adjourned to advise ‘England to stand out at first, and then, after the first shock of arms, to dictate peace by a threat of intervention.’ Haldane seemed interested by this suggestion but then Grey appeared and replied, in effect, ‘that he had an honourable obligation to France.’[66] Samuel’s account confirms the change which had come over the centre group during the Chancellor’s tea:

When the Cabinet resumed at 6.30 [Samuel wrote to his wife] the situation was easier, the point of contention was not pressed, and with the exception of the two I have mentioned [Burns and Morley], we remained solid. Had the matter come to an issue Asquith would have stood by Grey in any event, and three others would have remained. I think all the rest of us would have resigned. The consequence would have been either a Coalition Government or a Unionist Government, either of which would certainly have been a war ministry. Moreover, the division of or resignation of the Government in a moment of utmost peril would have been in every way lamentable. I still have hopes that Germany will neither send her fleet down the Channel nor invade Belgium, and we shall be able to keep England at peace while rendering to France the greatest of all services — the protection of her northern coasts from the sea and the protection of her 150 miles of frontier with Belgium. If we can achieve this, without firing a shot, we shall have accomplished a brilliant stroke of policy. For this object I have been working incessantly all the week. If we do not accomplish it, it will be an action of Germany’s, and not of ours which will cause the failure and my conscience will be easy in embarking on the war... [67]

Did Samuel actually provide the formula around which the waverers could group, or was the ‘march of events’ doing this? How seriously was the threat of coalition Government viewed, and with it the possible destruction of the Liberal Party as a force in British politics? Had not C. P. Scott warned 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’?[68] Was Samuel a decisive influence, or did he embroider his account to his wife to exaggerate his own rôle? Samuel’s comment that he still hoped Germany would not invade Belgium seems designed more to allay his wife’s fear than to represent an accurate description of the likely course of events. Indeed, fifteen years later, he would admit that ‘no definite conclusions were reached’ at the informal meetings that afternoon as it ‘had become fairly clear that the Belgian issue would arise in the most acute form.’[69] Masterman had, that morning, passed a note to Lloyd George: ‘If I had to decide now I would guarantee Belgium and the Fleet policy. If Germany accepts that, no war. But I am with McKenna and Runciman in fighting for time, sooner than break up the Cabinet …’[70] This was the key to Samuel’s efforts that weekend: to wait until an action of Germany compelled British intervention and salved the Cabinet’s collective conscience. Was this not what Asquith himself was trying to do? And, once this did occur, the historical record could then be altered so that the obligation to uphold Belgian neutrality and not the pledge to safeguard French coasts became the principal determinant.[71] Samuel’s rôle was superfluous from the moment Grey spoke to Cambon at 2.30 on the afternoon of Sunday 2 August. Following the conversion of the centre group and the imminent utilization of the issue of Belgian neutrality the mood at the evening Cabinet had changed, but this was not Samuel’s doing. If Samuel did play a part, it was to counsel for inaction, not action. Time was to be his ally. It was agreed that Grey’s speech to the House the following day would make it apparent that a substantial violation of Belgian neutrality would compel British intervention. This concession was aimed at the likes of Lloyd George. The Chancellor had gone so far ‘as to urge that if Germany would consent to limit her occupation of Belgian territory to the extreme southerly part of Belgium ... he would resign rather than make this a casus belli [72] During the meeting Churchill returned to the Admiralty where, at 7.06 p.m., he sent a signal to Malta authorizing communication between Milne and Lapeyrère ‘in case Great Britain should decide to become ally of France against Germany.’[73]

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The ‘Belgian issue’ was also to prove extremely useful to Lloyd George. Pressed subsequently to state how far he had pushed his opposition to British intervention, Lloyd George declared that he ‘would have resigned rather than consent to our going to war if Germany would have agreed not to violate Belgian neutrality or if even she would have agreed only to pass over the small projecting piece between Luxemburg and France … ’[74] Was this the same man who had long acknowledged that a German advance would, of necessity, violate Belgian neutrality and who, like Asquith, had sat through the August 1911 C.I.D. meeting?[75] ‘Up to last Sunday’, Lloyd George declared on 4 August, ‘only two members of the Cabinet [clearly Grey and Churchill] had been in favour of our intervention in the War, but the violation of Belgian territory had completely altered the situation. Apart from that it would have been impossible to draw us into war now.’ Confusingly, however, Lloyd George then went on to state that, ‘At the same time … we could not have tolerated attacks on the French coasts of the Channel and had the Government done so public opinion would have swept them out of power in a week.’[76] This unconsciously confirmed the truth: that the pledge to France was the main determinant. At one point during Sunday’s debate, Grey pleaded emotionally, ‘We have led France to rely on us, and unless we support her in her agony, I cannot continue at the Foreign Office.’[77] Harcourt, looking to Lloyd George to provide a lead for the radicals, implored the Chancellor to ‘Speak for us. Grey wishes to go to war without the violation of Belgium.’[78] Lloyd George remained quiet. As the argument continued on the question of the ‘defenceless’ coasts of France, to which even Morley acquiesced,[79] Harcourt caved in. ‘I can’t refuse this’, he informed Jack Pease.[80] For Harcourt as well, the spectre which loomed following a Cabinet split would be a coalition.[81] The excuse of Belgium was used to maintain cabinet unity and appeal to popular sentiment, but not crucial to the actual decision to intervene. Once outside the Cabinet room that evening, Simon, like Burns earlier in the day, recognized this and decided to resign. He informed Asquith:

The statement which Grey made to Cambon this afternoon, and which he does not propose to reveal to Germany until the announcement is made in the House of Commons tomorrow, will, I think, be regarded as tantamount to a declaration that we take part in this quarrel with France and against Germany. I think we should not take part, and so I must resign my post.[82]

Clearly, Simon took no account of the ‘Belgian issue’; he realized that the die had been cast when Grey made the pledge to Cambon.

The final problem for the remaining wavering members of the Cabinet, having decided to use the ‘Belgian issue’ as a ready made excuse for intervention, was whether Belgium would actually resist the German onslaught. The Belgians, Churchill had warned Lloyd George in 1911, must ‘be made to defend themselves.’

How do we know [Churchill continued] what their secret relations with Germany are? All their interests are with the French; but it is possible that British neglect & German activities may have led to some subterranean understanding — for instance, that the Germans sh[oul]d not go above the Namur-Liège line, & that the Belgians, in consideration of this, should forbid either British or French troops to come to their aid. This w[oul]d deprive us at once of the Belgian army and of the strategic position on the German flank, as well as of a casus belli wh[ich] everyone here w[oul]d understand … [83]

Samuel recalled that, ‘We did not know definitely what course Belgium would take. We had to contemplate the possibilities of (a) acquiescence, (b) formal resistance, (c) vigorous resistance. For my own part I thought (c) was probable. It is certainly not the case that the whole Cabinet expected (a) or (b).’[84] Crewe also ‘expected resistance’,[85] while Runciman admitted that there was ‘no uniformity of view on this subject in the Cabinet.’[86] Fortunately for those Ministers who needed the excuse of Belgium, the German ultimatum for free passage of troops, delivered that evening in Brussels, was resisted and was coupled with an appeal by King Albert for diplomatic intervention.[87]Please click to go to the top of this page







[1]     Pease’s diary entry for 2 August 1914, quoted in, Wilson, The Policy of the Entente, p. 140.

[2]     Jannen, The Lions of July, p. 321. Grey argued that the 1867 Treaty jointly guaranteed neutrality: action would only be required if all the other signatories agreed to do so.

[3]     Minute by Clerk on Villiers to Grey, no. 10, 2 August 1914, BD, XI, no. 476.

[4]     Lichnowsky to Foreign Office, 2 August 1914, in Lichnowsky, Heading for the Abyss, pp. 418-20.

[5]     Jagow to Lichnowsky, tel. no. 216, 3 August 1914, German Diplomatic Documents, no. 714, p. 520; Moltke to Jagow, 2 August 1914, in Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 179, pp. 350-4; Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 2 August 1914, Kautsky (ed.), German Diplomatic Documents, no. 654, p. 488.

[6]     Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 2 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 113, pp. 145-7; General Sir Henry Wilson, Diary entry for 2 August, Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 155.

[7]     Runciman’s Memorandum on the proceedings of the cabinet, 2 August 1914, quoted in Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, pp. 92-3.

[8]     Unlike Burns, who definitely declared his intention to go, in the morning session Morley merely stated that he would resign if Britain went to war. Wilson, The Policy of the Entente, p. 137.

[9]     Runciman to Spender, 4 November 1929,. Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[10]    Morley, Memorandum on Resignation, pp. 11-2.

[11]    Churchill, Great Contemporaries, pp. 104-5 [my emphasis].

[12]    Pease’s diary entry for 2 August 1914, quoted in Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 95.

[13]    Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, p. 10 [my emphasis].

[14]    On 2 August a signal was sent from Berlin to Goeben: ‘Hostilities have commenced against Russia. War with France certain: hostilities will probably only begin on August 3. Great Britain very probably hostile. Italy neutral. Acknowledge.’ Berlin to cruisers abroad via Vittoria, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/4065.

[15]    Notes of an Interview between Grey and Temperley, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[16]    Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, p. 2.

[17]    Crewe to Temperley, 8 May 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[18]    Runciman to Spender, 4 November 1929,. Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386. Herbert Samuel could not recall where the suggestion originated.

[19]    ‘There was little for me to do’, Grey added, ‘circumstances and events were compelling decision.’ Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, p. 10.

[20]    Charles Hobhouse, undated diary entry for August 1914, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 179.

[21]    Asquith to Stanley, 2 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 113, pp. 145-7 and n. 4.

[22]    McKenna to Spender, 8 May 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[23]    C. P. Scott, diary entry for 3-4 September 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, p. 103. Simon added that ‘That old windbag’ Haldane counted for nothing.

[24]    Quoted in, Gilbert, David Lloyd George, vol. II, p. 108.

[25]    Samuel to his wife, 2 August 1914, in Lowe & Dockrill, Mirage of Power, vol. III, pp. 489-91.

[26]    Asquith to Stanley, 2 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 113, pp. 145-7

[27]    Runciman to Spender, 4 November 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386. Runciman added, in 1929, that he was ‘not sure that I would hold the same view now.’

[28]    Churchill to Lloyd George 1/3 August 1914, WSC Comp, vol. II, pt.iii, pp. 1996-7. There is some confusion as to whether the notes passed between Churchill and Lloyd George on Saturday 1 August or Monday 3 August; however, in view of the context, it would appear that Saturday is the more probable date.

[29]    Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 91.

[30]    Domvile’s diary entry for 2 August 1914, Domvile MSS, NMM Dom 24.

[31]    Ponsonby to his wife, 3 August 1914, quoted in, Jones, Ponsonby, p. 84.

[32]    McKenna to Spender, 8 May 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386. Sir Henry Wilson recounts that, by 10 o’clock that evening, cheering crowds had gathered outside Buckingham Palace: diary entry, 2 August 1914, Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 155.

[33]    Asquith to Stanley, 2 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 113, pp. 145-7. See also, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, pp. 96-7 and, in particular, his comment that, ‘The bland disingenuousness of the first and third points, and the breathtaking strategic ignorance of the second, reveal the extent to which the cabinet’s deliberations had resulted in a convergence of views.’

[34]    At the C.I.D. on 23 August 1911 Asquith reverted to the question of what would constitute a sufficient force to ‘overwhelm a serious raid’ upon British shores. Assuming that a decision was made in favour of intervention on the Continent, he argued, ‘it was obviously desirable that our intervention should be effective, but at the same time it was necessary to retain sufficient force in this country to meet all probable contingencies.’ Asquith asked his military advisers once more for their opinions. Henry Wilson rigidly maintained his contention that the General Staff believed ‘our whole available strength should be concentrated at the decisive point, and that point they believed to be on the French frontier.’ However, perhaps sensing some opposition from Asquith, Wilson admitted that the dispatch of five divisions ‘would no doubt be almost as great as the dispatch of six.’ Field Marshal Sir William Nicholson added that it was better to send four divisions than none. Committee of Imperial Defence, minutes of the 114th meeting, 23 August 1911, PRO Cab 38/19/49. Asquith informed Haldane on 31 August 1911: ‘The impression left on me, after consideration of the whole discussion, is … that, in principle, the General Staff scheme is the only alternative but … that it should be limited in the first instance to the dispatch of 4 divisions. Grey agrees with me, and so (I think) does Winston.’ Asquith to Haldane, 31 August 1911, quoted in, Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 193.

[35]    Quoted in, Blake, Unknown Prime Minister, pp. 223-4. Argument has been divided over what effect the pledging of Conservative support had in the deliberations of that day. Asquith and Grey both denied that the message made any difference and this view had generally been accepted, with only one strong dissenting opinion (Wilson, Policy of the Entente, chapter 8 passim). Blake perhaps best summed up the situation: ‘The truth would seem to be that although an Opposition can probably prevent the Government going to war, because in war a democracy must be united, it cannot force a Government into war.’ The Unknown Prime Minister, p. 223. See also, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 41; Cassar, Asquith as War Leader, p. 21.

[36]    Battenberg to Churchill, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879.

[37]    Charles Hobhouse, diary entry for 17 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 118.

[38]    Churchill to Battenberg and Sturdee, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879.

[39]    Grey had informed Cambon on 22 November 1912: ‘I agreed that, if either Government had grave reason to expect an unprovoked attack by a third Power or something that threatened the general peace, it should immediately discuss with the other whether both Governments should act together to prevent aggression and to preserve peace, and, if so, what measures they would be prepared to take in common. If these measures involved action, the plans of the General Staffs would at once be taken into consideration, and the Government s would then decide what effect should be given to them.’

[40]    Asquith noted on 4 August 1914 that ‘Winston, who has got on all his war-paint, is longing for a sea-fight in the early hours of to-morrow morning … ’ Asquith to Stanley, 4 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 115, pp. 149-51.

[41]    Minute by Battenberg, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879.

[42]    Minute by Sturdee, ibid.

[43]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 196, sent 1.30 p.m., 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 147. Milne was also authorized that evening to enter into communication with Admiral Lapeyrère, the French C-in-C.

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

[45]    Grey to Bertie, 5.40 p.m., 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/19.

[46]    Cambon’s comment quoted in, Thomson, The Twelve Days, p. 173.

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

[48]    Jagow to Lichnowsky, tel. no. 216, 9.30 a.m., 3 August 1914, German Diplomatic Documents, no. 714, p. 520.

[49]    Grey to Cambon, private, 2 August 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/55.

[50]    There is, however, evidence that Asquith let slip the decision as the result of an injudicious remark to Lichnowsky, probably on the morning of Monday 3 August. M. de Fleuriau, the Counsellor at the French Embassy, complained to Crowe that von Kühlmann, the German Counsellor, had published in that afternoon’s Westminster Gazette a ‘statement from the text of which it seems quite clear that when writing it he had before him the substance if not the words’ of Grey’s ‘secret communication’ to Cambon. When Nicolson inquired as to how  von Kühlmann could have acquired his information, it was left to Grey to admit that the indiscretion ‘arose out of something the Prime Minister said to Prince Lichnowsky.’ This was the full extent of Grey’s explanation. Minutes by Crowe, Nicolson and Grey on Bertie to Grey, no. 124, 3 August 1914, BD, XI, no. 536.

[51]    Précis of conversation, Admiralty, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/988; WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 11-12; Miller, Superior Force, pp. 3-4, 33. Milne was subsequently recalled on 12 August. At the meeting with de Saint-Seine on the afternoon of Sunday 2nd, Churchill also declared that the package containing the secret signal books could be distributed and opened — but not yet used.

[52]    Anglo-French Convention, London, 6 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/988; Lumby, pp. 431-2; Halpern, Naval War in the Medt., pp. 26-7. However, as noted above, Admiral Milne had already declared that, ‘In view of small numbers and strength of British Mediterranean Fleet’, he considered it ‘necessary to keep force concentrated in order to carry out orders to assist French Fleet to protect transports’. He was concerned that ‘cruisers or light cruisers detached to protect trade routes might be captured and would be severe loss.’ Milne proposed, therefore, not to take ‘any action at present to protect trade in Eastern Mediterranean Basin.’ C-in-C to Admiralty, no. 375, 31 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/19.

[53]    This dispute is summarized in Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 135 ff.

[54]    ‘If the enemy were so engaged’, wrote Vice-Admiral Bienaimé, who would later emerge as one of Lapeyrère’s severest critics, ‘he would not be free to detach ships to attack the transports; and, in any case, by these vessels passing singly and at high speed they would be safe, for the target they presented was small, and the risk to the enemy incommensurate with the gain.’ Vice-Admiral Bienaimé, quoted in The French Fleet in the Mediterranean, August 1-7, 1914, The Naval Review, 1919, vol. 7, p. 494.

[55]    Barbara Tuchman, August 1914, (London, p’back, 1980), p. 91.

[56]    Captain Voitoux, writing in Revue Politique et Parlementaire, quoted in Naval Review, 1919, vol. 7.

[57]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 144.

[58]    Tuchman, August 1914, pp. 149-50.

[59]    Capt. Voitoux, op. cit.

[60]    Brigadier-General E L Spears, Liaison, (London, 1930), pp. 10-11.

[61]    As will be seen, Simon also appreciated the implication.

[62]    Samuel to Spender, 24 June 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[63]    Runciman to Spender, 4 November 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[64]    Lichnowsky to Foreign Office, 2 August 1914, in Lichnowsky, Heading for the Abyss, p. 421.

[65]    Runciman to Spender, 4 November 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[66]    Interview with Kühlmann, 22 February 1929, in G P Gooch, Studies in Diplomacy and Statecraft, (London, 1942), pp. 82-3.

[67]    Samuel to his wife, 2 August 1914, Lowe & Dockrill, Mirage of Power, vol. III, pp. 489-91

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

[69]    Samuel to Spender, 24 June 1929, Spender mss., BL Add MSS 46386.

[70]    Quoted in Wilson, The Policy of the Entente, p. 139.

[71]    George Riddell believed that, on Sunday, there were ‘four parties in the Cabinet’ which he listed as: (1) that headed by Asquith and Grey; (2) the ‘Peace Party’, headed by Simon; (3) another group headed by Lloyd George, ‘in favour of intervention in certain circumstances’; and (4) ‘a party headed by Mackinnon Wood and Masterman which was endeavouring to compose the differences between the other three parties with a view to avoiding a split in the Government.’ Significantly, Riddell did not mention Herbert Samuel. Riddell, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 3.

[72]      C. P. Scott, diary entry for 4 August 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, pp. 96-7.

[73]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Malta, C-in-C, Hong Kong, no. 200, sent 7.6 p.m., 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 148. Milne’s War Orders No. 2 – which had been sent to him in May 1913 – stipulated that a book of signals, labelled “Secret Package A”, had been prepared for the purpose of joint communication and that, during a period of strained relations, a cypher telegram would be sent ‘that in the event of war these arrangements are to become operative.’ Manifestly, according to these orders, Milne could only open Secret Package A in the event of war actually breaking out, which had not occurred when he received the Admiralty telegram on Sunday evening. In view of this, as he had no other way of communicating safely with the French, he sought permission to use the contents of the Secret Package as a cypher immediately, before the formal declaration of war; in so doing, he was exercising the same caution that Churchill had shown to Saint-Seine earlier that afternoon. A signal was duly sent from London at 9.40 the following morning (3 August) authorizing the use of the cypher; despite this Milne remained unable to contact Lapeyrère by wireless. C-in-C to Admiralty, no. 387, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 149.

[74]    C. P. Scott, diary entry for 3-4 September 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, p. 104.

[75]    See, for example, Lloyd George to Churchill, 15 September 1911, WSC Comp., vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1125-6.

[76]    ‘He had done his utmost for peace but events had been too strong for him.’ C. P. Scott, diary entry for 4 August 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, pp. 96-7.

[77]    Riddell diary entry for 2 August 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 6.

[78]    Harcourt to Lloyd George, 2 August 1914, quoted in, Gilbert, David Lloyd George, vol. II, p. 109.

[79]    Morley, Memorandum on Resignation, p. 12.

[80]    Harcourt to Pease, 2 August 1914, quoted in Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 95.

[81]    Arthur Ponsonby saw Harcourt late on Sunday evening. Harcourt ‘said the Cabinet had not split yet but it might and then there would be a coalition.’ Ponsonby to his wife, 3 August 1914, quoted in, Jones, Ponsonby, p. 84. Morley would subsequently turn on Simon and Harcourt, blaming them in particular, for selling out. Riddell, diary entry for 5 November 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 39.

[82]    Simon to Asquith, 2 August 1914, quoted in Wilson, The Policy of the Entente, p. 137 and Dutton, Simon, p. 30.

[83]    Churchill to Lloyd George, 31 August 1911, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. ii, pp. 1118-9; see also, Randolph Churchill, Winston S Churchill, vol. II, p. 530.

[84]    Samuel to Spender, 24 June 1929, Spender mss, BL Add MSS 46386.

[85]    Crewe noted: ‘I can only speak for myself. I expected resistance (1) from pride founded on Flemish history, (2) over-valued forts, Brialmont, Liège, Namur, Antwerp, (3) prompt French aid. But non-resistance would have meant germanisation of Belgium: our secular policy attacked.’ Crewe to Spender, 8 May 1929, Spender mss, BL Add MSS 46386.

[86]    Runciman to Spender, 4 November 1929, ibid.

[87]    As Grey noted on Monday in the Commons, ‘Diplomatic intervention took place last week on our part. What can diplomatic intervention do now?’.



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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