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 20




‘A terrible business’




Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey 

The decision taken at the Sunday evening Cabinet to focus on the issue of Belgian neutrality relieved the waverers (or should they now be known as ‘ditherers’?) of a crushing burden. Intervention would now arise from, to use Churchill’s description of three years previously, ‘a casus belli which everyone here would understand’. Lloyd George would not have to defend the indefensible: that a small cabal of Ministers had decided upon a policy in August 1911 which, despite the ‘singularly thin and deceptive document’ (Morley’s description of the Grey-Cambon letter), was unofficially ratified and put into effect the following year. The consequences of that policy would only have to be justified privately; publicly, the responsibility could be effectively disguised. It was perhaps understandable therefore, that, at dinner that night, Lloyd George ‘seemed wonderfully fresh’ and ‘spoke very strongly regarding the observance of Belgian neutrality’ while Simon, who had just written his draft letter of resignation, ‘looked very gloomy’.[1]


On the morning of Monday 3 August Asquith received two letters, ‘one from J. Morley, the other from the Impeccable [Simon] — announcing that they must follow J. Burns’s example’.[2] While some doubt remained regarding the positions of McKinnon Wood[3] and Hobhouse,[4] the next most likely candidate to add his name to the list of resignations remained Beauchamp. If Burns and Morley were considered a lost cause, Asquith and Grey had not yet given up on Simon. Grey asked Simon ‘to breakfast with him alone’ on Monday, when Grey’s ‘firmness of judgement, combined with his distress that his life’s work for peace should be ruined,’ were, according to Simon’s memoirs, a great help.[5] Having planted the seeds of doubt in Simon’s mind, Grey then went to the Foreign Office before the next meeting of the Cabinet as ‘it was necessary to see the telegrams in case there was something urgent or new to be considered.’[6] Asquith’s morning was taken up with an approach by Bonar Law and Lansdowne, who now, unlike Sunday, ‘laid great stress upon Belgian neutrality.’[7] The ineluctable momentum of the German military machine and the necessity for a quick victory in the west was about to negate all the efforts of German diplomacy.

While the major units of the British Fleet had been placed on full alert and had proceeded to their war stations, such had been the intensity of the debate in the Cabinet, coupled with the lack of an effective spokesman (the Prime Minister himself was also acting as Minister for War), that the position of the Army had received little consideration following Asquith’s note to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on Saturday morning. Not until late Sunday night would Asquith write out the order for the mobilization of the Army, but this was not taken to the War Office (by Haldane) until eleven o’clock on Monday morning. It was therefore with some consternation that Henry Wilson paid his usual morning visit upon Arthur Nicolson only to discover that there was ‘no decision yet to mobilize.’ It had been a principle feature of Wilson’s plan that the arrangements made between himself and the French General Staff ‘had always assumed a simultaneous mobilization of the two military forces.’[8] Eventually, at nine minutes past one o’clock that afternoon, Wilson was informed of Asquith’s order, which, he then discovered, was incomplete as it sanctioned mobilization but not embarkation.[9] The final order for mobilization would not be given until four o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, 4 August, some three days after the French had mobilized. Wilson’s continued anger at his own side was in contrast to one significant change on Monday. The French Ambassador now knew that British intervention was assured. When Wilson saw Cambon in Nicolson’s room, the Ambassador ‘held out both hands to me. So different from day before yesterday.’ Nicolson’s own anxiety was not to last for much longer: the news of the German ultimatum to Belgium for free passage was received in the Foreign Office at 10.55 a.m., just before the Cabinet was about to reconvene, and was confirmed as Grey was speaking in the House that afternoon. Time was running out for the ditherers.

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‘The Germans,’ Asquith noted, ‘with almost Austrian crassness, have delivered an ultimatum to Belgium & forced themselves on to their territory, and the Belgian King has made an appeal to ours’. At the morning Cabinet only ‘Sweetheart’ (Beauchamp) decided to join Burns, Morley and Simon. ‘That is 4 gone!’ Asquith informed Venetia Stanley soon after. ‘We had a rather moving scene in which everyone all round said something — Ll. George making a strong appeal to them not to go, or at least to delay it. In the end, they all agreed to say nothing to-day and to sit in their accustomed places in the House.’[10] The all-important appearance of unity had been preserved. The strategy of Asquith and, amongst others, Samuel, of waiting upon events was working. Samuel also described the emotional meeting:

The fateful Cabinet is just over. Burns, Morley, Simon & Beauchamp have resigned. No announcement to be made yet. The rest of us stood firm as we are sure our policy is right, much as we hate the war. The Germans have invaded Belgium, and the King has appealed for our help. It is said they have also invaded Holland and Switzerland — every neutral state within reach [this information was premature with regard to Belgium and false regarding Holland and Switzerland]. Our participation in the war is now inevitable. Those four men have no right to abandon us at this crisis — it is a failure of courage. The Cabinet was very moving. Most of us could hardly speak at all for emotion. The Prime Minister goes on out of sheer sense of duty. As I write I hear the crowds cheering in Whitehall. The world is on the verge of a great catastrophe. After all the suffering there may perhaps emerge a finer civilisation, and the bitter experience of these days may bring a greater hatred of the use of force in the next generation.[11]

Following the meeting, Grey was not able to return to the Foreign Office until two o’clock hoping then for a period of quiet contemplation in which to rehearse the speech he had begun to prepare the previous evening. Instead, he found Lichnowsky, desperate to know what the Cabinet had just decided. It was to prove the last of the increasingly strained interviews Grey had had to conduct with the German Ambassador; he did not wish to pre-empt his speech and Lichnowsky departed, a broken man. Grey then raced across to Haldane’s house nearby for a quick lunch before proceeding to the Commons[12] where, at three o’clock, in the Chamber which ‘was crammed to such an extent that all the middle part of it was occupied by chairs’,[13] the Foreign Secretary rose to speak.

Grey, who was ‘received with great cheering as he rose and advanced to the table’,[14] commenced by declaring ‘that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved’. Therefore, he ‘would like to clear the ground that the House may know exactly what obligations the Government is or the House can be said to be in coming to a decision upon the matter.’ After a hesitant start, Grey developed his theme, which, in view of the need not to delve too deeply into the commitment to France, was that he ‘would like the House to approach the crisis in which we are from the point of view of British interests, British honour (loud Opposition cheers), British obligations (renewed cheers), and free from all passion.’ In the opinion of those members still hoping for Britain to remain uncommitted, Grey was to fail on all counts. ‘We are accustomed to cool well balanced moderate speeches from him and to see him carried away by passion and presenting such an obviously biased view was most alarming,’ noted Arthur Ponsonby, a leading member of the Liberal Foreign Affairs Committee.[15] Charles Trevelyan, like Ponsonby not the most disinterested spectator, agreed: ‘I was prepared for bad news, but in no way for the barefaced deliberate appeal to passion.’[16] From the other side of the political spectrum, Arthur Balfour considered that Greyput the case so moderately that he carried the whole country with him’.[17] Clearly, reaction to the speech, described as ‘probably the most historic speech which has been made for a hundred years’, would not depend upon political affiliations.[18]

Grey commenced with the question of British obligations, by reminding the assembly that both he and Asquith had ‘assured the House more than once, that if any crisis such as this arose we should come before the House of Commons and be able to say to the House that it was free to decide what the British attitude should be (cheers); that we would have no secret engagement (cheers) to spring upon the House and should not tell the House that because we had entered upon that engagement there was an obligation of honour on the country.’ His statement that ‘In this present crisis up till yesterday we had also given no promise of anything more than diplomatic support’ was greeted, in the absence of knowledge of the pledge to Cambon, with no more than ‘Ministerial cheers from below the gangway.’ The debate of the previous day, after which the decision was reached with ‘much difficulty’, was soon forgotten. Despite the cheers, the performance of the Foreign Secretary remained stumbling as he approached the most difficult part of his speech — the question of any British obligation to France.

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Grey began his exposition of the recent history of Anglo-French relations by referring to the Moroccan crisis of 1906 which had come ‘at a very difficult time’ when ‘a General Election was in progress, and I was spending three days a week in my constituency and three days at the Foreign Office.’ When asked a question at the time ‘whether if that crisis developed and there were war between France and Germany we would give armed support’, Grey had replied that he ‘could promise nothing to any foreign Power unless it was subsequently to receive the whole-hearted support of public opinion here when the occasion arose.’ In 1906 the Foreign Secretary had ‘made no promise and … used no threat’ and this position, he declared, was accepted by the French Government,

but they said to me at the time, I think very reasonably, “If you think it possible that public opinion in Great Britain might when a sudden crisis arose justify you in giving to France the armed support which you cannot promise in advance, unless between military and naval experts some conversations have taken place you will not be able to give that support, even if you wish to give it, when the time comes.” There was force in that. I agreed to it and authorized these conversations to take place, but on the distinct understanding that nothing which passed between military and naval experts should bind either Government or restrict their freedom to come to a decision as to whether or not they would give their support when the time arose.

At this point Asquith leant across and spoke to Grey. When he recommenced, Grey admitted that he had authorized the conversations without informing the Cabinet, which ‘could not be summoned, and an answer had to be given.’ Only Campbell-Bannerman, Haldane and Asquith were consulted. The conversations took place, ‘but on the distinct understanding that it left the hands of the Government free whenever a crisis arose.’ It would be another five years, Grey also admitted, before the rest of the Cabinet was fully informed. Then, in 1912, ‘after a discussion of the situation in the Cabinet, it was decided that we ought to have a definite understanding in writing, though it was to be only in the form of an unofficial letter, that these conversations were not binding upon the freedom of either Government.’ Grey then read his letter to Cambon, which was ‘the starting point for the Government with regard to the present crisis.’ It was obvious from the letter, he maintained, that ‘we do not construe anything which has previously taken place in our diplomatic relations with other Powers in this matter as restricting the freedom of the Government to decide what attitude they shall take now or restricting the freedom of the House of Commons to decide what their attitude shall be. (Hear, hear.)’[19]

The origins of the present crisis, Grey argued, differed from that of the Moroccan disputes and had

not originated with regard to anything on which we have a special agreement with France; it has not originated with regard to anything which primarily concerns France. It originated in a dispute between Austria and Servia. Well, Sir, I may say this with the most absolute confidence, no Government and no country has less desire to be involved in war over the dispute between Austria and Servia than the Government and country of France. (Loud cheers.) They are involved in it because of their obligations of honour (cheers) under a definite alliance with Russia. It is only fair to state to the House that those obligations of honour cannot apply in the same way to us. (Ministerial cheers.) We are not a party to the France-Russian Alliance; we do not even know the terms of that Alliance. Now so far I have, I think, faithfully and completely cleared the ground with regard to the question of obligation.

But had he? Certainly, Lord Hugh Cecil was impressed by ‘the extraordinary dexterity with which he dealt with the weak spot of his argument’. The weak spot, as Hazlehurst has noted, ‘was the nature of Great Britain’s obligation to France. Grey explained the historical development of the military conversations which had taken place … since 1906. But he stopped short of urging that they entailed any obligation to act.’[20]

Grey then came to what he thought the current situation required. When he stated that ‘We have had for many years a long-standing friendship with France,’ he was greeted with both cheers and a reminder from ‘an honourable Member’ that such a friendship had also recently existed with Germany. ‘But how far that friendship entails,’ Grey continued, ‘ … let every man look into his own heart and his own feelings and construe the extent of the obligation, for himself. (Cheers.)’ By appealing to the individual and collective consciences of the House Grey effectively removed the personal responsibility he bore for the present situation. ‘With wonderful skill’, Cecil noted, ‘he did not argue the point [concerning Britain’s obligation], but he changed to a note of appeal to the individual conscience, thereby disarming criticism … without any departure real or apparent from perfect sincerity.’[21] Grey proceeded to put his own personal point of view:

The French Fleet is now in the Mediterranean. (Cheers.) The northern and western coasts of France are absolutely undefended. When the French Fleet comes to be concentrated in the Mediterranean, there is a very different situation from what it used to be because the friendship which grew up between the two countries had given to them a sense of security that there was nothing to be feared from us. Her coasts are absolutely undefended, her Fleet is in the Mediterranean, and there has been for some years concentrated there, because of the feeling of confidence and friendship which has existed between the two countries. My own feeling is this, that if a foreign Fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the unprotected coasts of France, we could not stand aside (loud cheers) and see the thing going on practically within sight of our eyes, with our arms folded, looking on dispassionately doing nothing, and I believe that would be the feeling of this country. (Cheers, and hon. Members, “No, no.”) There are times when one’s own individual feeling makes one feel that if the circumstances actually did arise it would be a feeling that would spread with irresistible force throughout the land — in face of a thing happened.

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There was no mention of obligation to be found. Grey had developed the argument and then cut it short before reaching the logical conclusion. So apparently compelling was this appeal that even a severe critic of Grey’s foreign policy, the writer J. A. Hobson, was forced to accept it. ‘What Grey said about the French defenceless north coast’, Hobson informed C. P. Scott that evening, ‘makes it clear we had a real obligation to defend that coast.’[22] Having made his appeal to individual consciences, the Foreign Secretary then turned to a subject upon which he was on much firmer ground: the consideration of British interests.

But I want to look at the thing also without sentiment from the point of view of British interests (cheers), and it is on that that I am going to base and justify what I am presently going to say to the House. If we are to say nothing at this moment, what is France to do with her Fleet in the Mediterranean? If she leaves it there with no statement from us on what we will do, she leaves her northern and western coasts absolutely undefended at the mercy of a German fleet coming down the Channel to do as it pleases in a war which is a way of life and death between them. (Cheers.) If we say nothing, it may be that the French Fleet is withdrawn from the Mediterranean. We are in the presence of a European conflagration. Can anybody set limits to the consequences which may arise out of it? Let us assume that to-day we stand aside in the attitude of neutrality, saying, “No, we cannot undertake and engage to help either party in the conflict.” Let us assume the French Fleet is withdrawn from the Mediterranean; let us assume that the consequences — which are already tremendous in what has already happened in Europe even in countries which are at peace — in fact, equally whether countries are at peace or war; let us assume that out of that come consequences unforeseen which make it necessary at a sudden moment, that in defence of vital British interests we should have to go to war. Let us assume, which is quite possible, that Italy, who is now neutral (some Ministerial cheers) — because, as I understand, she considers this war is an aggressive war (cheers), and the Triple Alliance being a defensive alliance her obligations do not arise — let us assume that consequences which are not yet foreseen, which perfectly legitimately, consulting her own interests, made Italy depart from her attitude of neutrality at a time when we are forced in defence of vital British interests to fight ourselves. What will be the position in the Mediterranean then? It might be that at some critical moment those consequences would be forced upon us when the trade routes in the Mediterranean might be vital to this country. Nobody can say that, in the course of the next few weeks, there is any particular trade route then opening of which may not be vital to this country. What will our position be then? We have not kept a fleet in the Mediterranean which is equal to deal with a combination of other fleets alone in the Mediterranean. That would be the very moment when we could not detach more ships for the Mediterranean and we might have exposed this country from our negative attitude at the present moment to a most appalling risk.

From ‘the point of view of British interests’, Grey maintained, ‘we felt strongly that France was entitled to know and to know at once (cheers) whether or not in the event of attack upon her unprotected northern ands western coasts she could depend upon British support’. It was at this point, after the appeal to consider British interests rather than honour or obligation, that Grey announced the details of the pledge which had been given to Cambon on Sunday. It was greeted with cheers. Significantly, the report of the speech which appeared in Tuesday’s Times was headlined, ‘Naval assistance for France’, perpetuating the notion that the war could be fought ‘on the cheap’. Jagow’s ‘promise’ was quickly dismissed: Grey understood ‘that the German Government would be prepared if we would pledge ourselves to neutrality to agree that its Fleet would not attack the northern coast of France. (Hon. Members.— “Oh!” and cheers.) I have only heard that shortly before I came to the House, but it is far too narrow an engagement for us. (Loud cheers.)’[23] Without any further explanation, Grey promptly changed the subject: ‘And, Sir, there is the more serious consideration, becoming more serious every hour — there is the question of the neutrality of Belgium. (Cheers.)’

                Sir Edward then explained in some detail the history of, and interpretations placed upon, the 1839 Treaty. When mobilization had commenced in Europe, Grey maintained that he ‘knew that this question must be a most important element in our policy’. It was for this reason that he had ‘telegraphed at the same time in similar terms to both Paris and Berlin to say that it was essential for us to know whether the French and German Governments, respectively, were prepared to undertake an engagement to respect the neutrality of Belgium.’ Grey read out the French reply in full; when he paraphrased the German reply (that Jagow ‘rather doubted whether they could answer at all, as any reply they might give could not fail, in the event of war, to have the undesirable effect of disclosing [to] a certain extent part of their plan of campaign’) the House erupted with ‘Ironical laughter.’ Arthur Ponsonby was not laughing: ‘If Germany had attacked us’, he recorded, ‘I should be in the street myself waving a flag but to plunge us into a war because of the technical interpretation of a treaty made in 1839 is criminal folly. I feel sick and have left off sleeping again.’[24]

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Further ‘ironical laughter’ followed when Grey declared, ‘It now appears from the news I have received to-day, which has come quite recently — and I am not yet sure how far it has reached me in an accurate form — the news is that an ultimatum has been given to Belgium by Germany, the object of which was to offer Belgium friendly relations with Germany on condition that she would facilitate the passage of German troops through Belgium.’ If, he argued, Belgium were ‘compelled to submit to allow her neutrality to be violated, of course the situation is clear. Even if, by agreement, she admitted the violation of her neutrality, it is clear she could do so under duress … If her independence goes the independence of Holland will follow’. This again raised the question of British interests, if the Continent were to become dominated by a single Power.

It may be said, I suppose, that we might stand aside, husband our strength, and that, whatever happened in the course of this war, at the end of it intervene with effect to put things rights and to adjust them to our own point of view. If in a crisis like this we ran away (loud cheers) from those obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty, I doubt whether whatever material force we might have at the end it would be of very much value in face of the respect that we should have lost; and, do not believe, whether a Great Power stands outside this war or not, it is going to be in a position at the end of this war to exert its superior strength. For us, with a powerful Fleet which we believe able to protect our commerce and to protect our shores, and to protect our interests if we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer even if we stand aside. We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside. (Cheers.)

It would be unfair to comment critically upon such a sentiment, which was based, not upon the knowledge of the massive brutality of modern warfare, about which Grey remained largely ignorant, but upon the privation which would be suffered due to the disruption to foreign trade.[25] ‘At the end of this war,’ Grey declared, ‘whether we have stood aside or whether we have been engaged in it, I do not believe for a moment — even if we had stood aside and remained aside — that we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the west of Europe opposite to us, if that had been the result of the war, falling under the domination of a single Power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such …’ The remainder of the sentence ‘was lost in a loud outburst of cheering.’

When the cheering had subsided, Grey announced that, although ‘Mobilization of the Fleet has taken place (cheers) [and] mobilization of the Army is taking place (renewed cheers)’, there had been ‘no engagement yet with regard to sending an expeditionary armed force out of the country’. This policy, he maintained, was dictated not by the prospect of the signal such a move would send, but because ‘in the case of a European conflagration such as this, without precedent, with our enormous responsibilities in India and other parts of the Empire, or countries in British occupation, with all the unknown factors, we must take very carefully into consideration the use which we make of sending an Expeditionary Force out of the country until we know how we stand.’ Once more a British interest had taken precedence over a British obligation.

There is but one way [he continued] in which the Government could make certain at the present moment of keeping outside this war, and that would be that it should immediately issue a proclamation of unconditional neutrality. We cannot do that (cheers); we have made a commitment to France, which I have read to the House, which prevents us from doing that. We have got the consideration of Belgium also which prevents us from any unconditional neutrality, and without those conditions absolutely satisfied and satisfactory we are bound not to shrink from proceeding to the use of all the forces in our power. If we did not take that line by saying we will have nothing whatever to do with this matter — that no conditions of the Belgian Treaty obligations, the possible position in the Mediterranean, with damage to British interests, and what may happen to France form our failure to support France — if we were to say that all of these things mattered nothing, were as nothing, and to say we would stand aside, we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world, and should not escape the most serious and grave consequences. (Cheers, and a Voice “No.”)

‘Our unanimity’, Arthur Balfour subsequently declared, ‘is very largely due to Grey’s speech. It was a wonderful achievement. He is a curious combination of the old-fashioned Whig and the Socialist, and it is interesting to observe how the two strains are always appearing. He is a great figure and a great man. It was wonderful how in his speech he drew you on to the irresistible conclusion that war was inevitable for us.’[26] Grey concluded his ‘speech which will alter the map of Europe’[27] with a calculated appeal to the passion he effected to disdain: ‘I have put this vital fact before the House, and if, as seems only too probable, we are forced, and rapidly forced, to take our stand upon those issues, then I believe, when the country realizes what is at stake, what the real issues are, the magnitude of the impending dangers in the West of Europe which I have endeavoured to describe to the House, then I believe we shall be supported throughout, not only by the House of Commons, but by the determination and the resolution, the courage, and the endurance of the whole country.’

The Foreign Secretary resumed his seat to ‘Loud and prolonged cheers’. During the speech Arthur Nicolson had waited anxiously in his room at the Foreign Office, where he was visited by Henry Wickham Steed of The Times. Nicolson asked Steed how he thought “it would go.” “If you mean Grey’s speech,” Steed answered, “it will go excellently. He only has to tell the truth and he will have the House and the country with him.” Nicolson was not convinced: “I wish I felt as sure as you,” he replied. “There is a good deal of active opposition and the crisis has come so rapidly that the country does not know what it is all about.” They continued to discuss the situation until, presently, ‘a secretary came into the room with a strip of paper torn from the tape machine’ to exclaim, “They have cheered him, sir”. Nicolson’s relief was obvious: “Thank goodness!” he declared. A few minutes later Nicolson’s private secretary burst into the room straight from the House to announce “a tremendous success … The whole House was with him.”[28] Nicolson ‘sank back in his chair in the attitude of a man from whose shoulders a crushing burden of anxiety has been lifted. “Thank God!” he said fervently. “Now the course is clear, but it will be a terrible business.” ’[29]

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The cheers which sounded throughout the House sounded the death knell for the non-interventionist cause. But not every one cheered. Arthur Ponsonby viewed the House with distaste: ‘There was a horrible feeling of panic about the whole thing’, he noted, ‘and the horrible raucous cheers which greeted the strongest anti-German passages in Grey’s speech gave me a despairing feeling of utter hopelessness.’[30] This feeling was shared by Charles Trevelyan who believed that Grey ‘gave not a single argument why we should support France. But he showed he had all along been leading her to expect our support and appealed to us as bound in honour.’[31]

Asquith, who must still have harboured some doubts as to reception he would receive in the House when the history of the ‘obligation’ was revealed, was genuinely overwhelmed by his friend’s performance: ‘Grey made a most remarkable speech — about an hour long — for the most part conversational in tone & with some of his usual ragged ends; but extraordinarily well reasoned & tactful & really cogent — so much so that our extreme peace-lovers were for the moment reduced to silence’.[32] Samuel, who was not carrying as much baggage as Asquith, was a more objective observer; objective enough to recognize the ‘weak spot’. He wrote to his wife at 5.30 p.m.: ‘Grey has made his able statement. But too much France and not enough Belgium and Channel in it to please me. However, the H[ouse] of C[ommons] is almost solid.’[33] For Simon, still sitting on the fence, the reaction to the speech must have proved distinctly uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, he subsequently described it as ‘one of the few parliamentary speeches which not only removed doubts but worked a positive change in a large body of opinion — solidified the national resolve and effected my conversion.’[34]

With the overwhelming majority of the House behind the Government, Churchill wasted no time in sending Asquith and Grey a request ‘for immediate action’:

In consequences of declarations in the House this afternoon, I must request authorisation to put into force the combined Anglo-French dispositions for the defence of the channel. The French have already taken station & this partial disposition does not ensure security. My naval colleagues & advisers desire me to press for this; & unless I am forbidden I shall act accordingly. This of course implies no offensive action unless we are attacked.

Arthur Ponsonby was not so sure: he believed that there was a ‘danger that Winston will provoke an incident.’[35] Trusting in Winston’s judgment, at five o’clock the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary gave their approval.[36] Consequently, at 9.45 p.m. that evening (following the outbreak of war between France and Germany), de Saint-Seine met Battenberg at the Admiralty to concur that the Anglo-French naval agreement should be implemented as soon as possible.[37]

The Cabinet met briefly once more at six o’clock to consider the new situation created by confirmation of Germany’s ultimatum to Belgium. As there remained some confusion over the state of Army mobilization, and as Churchill was not yet content with the dispositions in the Channel, it was decided to postpone the sending of a British ultimatum to Berlin to respect Belgian neutrality. Now that the course to be followed seemed clear, Asquith could again consider the question of Cabinet unity. The support shown to Grey in the House left both Simon and Beauchamp (who were never as committed as Burns and Morley) in an invidious position.[38] ‘You will be relieved to hear that there is a slump in resignations’, Asquith was able to inform Venetia Stanley on Tuesday. ‘I wrote last night a strong appeal to the Impeccable, with the result that he & Beauchamp have returned to the fold, & attended the Cabinet this morning. J. M[orley] remains obdurate & I fear must go …’ Of the meeting which took place that morning, Asquith noted that ‘We had an interesting Cabinet, as we got the news that the Germans had entered Belgium, & had announced to ‘les braves Belges’ that if necessary they w[oul]d push their way through by force of arms. This simplifies matters, so we sent the Germans an ultimatum to expire at midnight, requesting them to give a like assurance with the French that they w[oul]d respect Belgian neutrality. They have invented a story that the French were meditating an invasion of Belgium, & that they were only acting in self-defence: a manifest and transparent lie.’[39]

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With matters thus ‘simplified’, Churchill informed Battenberg and Sturdee that an ultimatum would be sent to Berlin and that, as a consequence, the German Ambassador ‘will ask for his passports’. Churchill then wanted to know at what time the rupture should take place: ‘At what hour of daylight or darkness would it be most convenient for us to begin hostilities. Immediate reply is necessary in order to put hour into the ultimatum.’ Concerned that enough time should be allowed for the new dispositions to be assumed following his meeting the previous evening with de Saint-Seine Battenberg minuted ‘Anytime after midnight tonight.’[40] The ultimatum dispatched to Berlin at two o’clock that afternoon was a bland document requesting an assurance regarding Belgian neutrality by midnight (which was taken to mean Central European Time), otherwise the British Government would ‘take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium’.[41] ‘We knew about seven o’clock’, Lloyd George admitted, ‘that Germany did not intend to give way in regard to Belgium. We knew this from a telegram which had been sent and which had been tapped, but we had no official intimation.’[42]

Churchill’s attention had been diverted that morning by the news of the fortuitous sighting of Goeben and Breslau by two British battle cruisers. In fact, although the Cabinet remained unaware of this, the first act of war had been perpetrated against British property. After taking in a small amount of coal of varying quality at Messina, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon in his flagship Goeben had slipped quietly out of harbour under cover of darkness at 1 a.m. on the night of 2/3 August, heading west at 17 knots; his intention was to harass and delay the transportation of the Algerian Army Corps so that the French would have ‘to make great efforts to protect them.’ To accomplish this, at first light on Tuesday 4th, Goeben would be off Philippeville and Breslau off Bona where they would hoist Russian colours, so as to be able to approach the shore without raising an alarm, and ascertain what ships were lying in the harbours. Then German colours would be broken out and the ports and ships bombarded. Afterwards the two ships would continue to steer to the west until out of sight of land before turning east to return to Messina for more coal.[43] During the shelling of the French ports, the British ship Isle of Hastings was seriously damaged.[44]

                On the run back to Messina, the German ships blundered into the battle cruisers Indomitable and Indefatigable which had been detached from Milne’s command on Battenberg’s orders and were racing to Gibraltar to prevent Goeben escaping into the Atlantic. The news that the German battle cruiser was in sight was flashed to the Admiralty where it arrived at 10.58 a.m. Battenberg promptly picked up a signal form and hastily jotted down his instructions to Admiral Milne: ‘Very good. Hold her. War Imminent. Goeben is to be prevented by force from interfering with French transports.’ This went too far for Churchill to authorize contravening, as it did, the undertaking given to Asquith and Grey the previous night; Churchill therefore circled the first six words and noted ‘This to go now’, but the final sentence would have to await confirmation.[45] The truncated signal was sent at 11.20 a.m.[46] Churchill immediately sought approval to send Milne the order to use force if necessary. It appeared as if Ponsonby’s fear of Churchill ‘provoking an incident’ might be justified. The First Lord approached Asquith and Grey at midday to inform them that Goeben and Breslau had been found ‘west of Sicily’ and were being shadowed. It would be a great misfortune, Churchill declared, to lose these vessels, as would be possible, in the dark hours. In Churchill’s opinion, Goeben was ‘evidently going to interfere with the French transports which’, he asserted erroneously, ‘are crossing today.’[47] Asquith and Grey were informed of the order that had already been sent to hold Goeben and demanded an immediate decision as to whether he could add the final sentence, ‘If Goeben attacks French transports you should at once engage her.’[48]

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Both this, and the approach to Asquith and Grey the previous evening, highlighted an important fact. Churchill was a forceful advocate for the Navy, who counted on virtually automatic approval from Asquith for decisions taken unilaterally. Since the resignation of Colonel Seely in April following the Curragh incident, Asquith himself had held the seals of the War Office.[49] This in itself goes far towards explaining both the extent to which the position of the Army was ignored in the endless round of Cabinet discussions, and the confusion regarding the order for mobilization. Churchill again got his decision, with one proviso. At ten minutes past midday, using Downing Street notepaper, he ordered that Milne should be sent the additional signal, ‘If Goeben attacks French transports you should at once engage. You should give her fair warning of this beforehand.’ This was immediately transmitted to Milne who received it shortly after 5 p.m.[50] The First Lord then returned to the Cabinet room to explain the situation to his colleagues, presumably trusting that they would acquiesce in his fait accompli; however, as Grey had yet to telegraph the ultimatum to Berlin (which would not go till two o’clock), the Cabinet refused to sanction any overt act of war. Whether, if Churchill had had available the consul’s report from Algeria concerning the damage caused by the German warships to the British steamer Isle of Hastings, the Cabinet may have decided differently is a moot point, but the First Lord was not overly perturbed. In Asquith’s famous description: ‘Winston, who has got on all his war-paint, is longing for a sea-fight in the early hours of to-morrow morning, resulting in the sinking of the Goeben.’[51]

                Churchill had no option but to return to the Admiralty and telegraph new orders to Milne, just five minutes after Grey at last dispatched the ultimatum to Germany:

from Admiralty to All Ships at 2 p.m. (216 out)

The British ultimatum to Germany will expire at midnight G.M.T. August 4th. No Act of War should be committed before that hour at which time the telegram to commence hostilities against Germany will be dispatched from the Admiralty.

Special addition to Mediterranean, Indomitable, Indefatigable sent at 2.5 p.m.

This cancels the authorisation to Indomitable and Indefatigable to engage Goeben if she attacks French transports.[52]

Unable to open fire, the two British battle cruisers began silently to shadow the German ship back to Messina. Throughout the afternoon the range began to open as, by virtue of her superior speed, Goeben began to pull away from her pursuers and, by evening, was lost to sight. In the days which followed a mixture of faulty dispositions, Churchill’s imperfectly worded operational orders, German bravado and plain bad luck combined to ensure the escape of the German ships, and their safe arrival in Constantinople, where their presence would be directly responsible for actively forcing Turkey into the war.[53]

In attempting to presume upon his colleagues’ new-found enthusiasm for the war, Churchill had miscalculated. The other miscalculation concerned a force of a different character — the moral force engendered by the years of Anglo-French naval and military negotiations. At the commencement of the crisis the French Ambassador in St Petersburg 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.’[54] By the evening of Friday, 31 July 1914, when the international situation looked extremely grave, Cambon complained to Grey ‘that it was on your advice and under your guarantee that we moved all our ships to the south’.[55] Then, the following day, Cambon had (in Nicolson’s words) ‘pointed out that at the request some time ago of our Admiralty the French had sent all their fleet to the Mediterranean on the understanding that we would protect their northern and western coasts.’ As Nicolson tendentiously declared, ‘This was a happy inspiration on the part of Cambon and to this appeal there could be but one answer’.[56] Nicolson was wrong; there was no understanding. Did not the 1912 letter specifically declare that ‘The disposition, for instance, of the French and British fleets respectively at the present moment is not based on an engagement to co-operate in war’? The ‘understanding’ was, in fact, no more than an agreement 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.’[57] Cambon shamelessly used the November 1912 letter from Grey in support of his contention, and this was enough for Nicolson who, having decided that Britain could not stand aloof, was not prepared to delve too deeply into the claim; yet the letter had specifically denied the pledge that Cambon was now trying to redeem.

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                Asquith attempted, not very convincingly, to hold out against the onslaught, maintaining as late as Sunday, 2 August, that ‘We have no obligation of any kind either to France or Russia to give them military or naval help.’[58] However, he was also forced to admit that ‘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.’[59] As a result of the first Cabinet discussion that day, Cambon was informed of the British Cabinet’s pledge to safeguard the Channel.[60] Even Churchill, who had held out longest in 1912, trying to avoid a formula that could be turned against Britain, was also swept along, almost exhilarated by the prospect of war. As I have argued, the giving of this pledge to Cambon all but guaranteed British intervention.

                The fact remained that, since the 1904 Anglo-French Entente and the “discovery” of Germany as the new potential enemy, the British position in the Mediterranean was always going to be intrinsically weak. This was particularly so after the Italian and Austrian navies began constructing dreadnoughts. Despite the concerns of various sections of the Government, it might have been more desirable if the option first mooted in 1895, and resurrected by Churchill in 1911 – the complete evacuation of the Mediterranean – had been carried out, coupled with a clear statement as to the rationale behind the move. As Nicolson had argued in May 1912:

There seems to me only two courses to take if the naval people do insist upon evacuating the Mediterranean, and that it, first, either to add a very considerable sum to our naval budget so as to enable us to organise a fleet specially for the Mediterranean, but as this would mean a large addition to the £45,000,000 already voted for the Naval Budget, I imagine the Government would hardly be disposed to put forward such a proposal. The other alternative is to come to an understanding with France on the subject which would, I do not deny, be very much of the character of a defensive alliance. I think certain members of the Cabinet see this very clearly and would be disposed to agree to it, but I do not know if they would be able to carry all their colleagues with them. In fact I doubt if such would be the case.[61]

Although it would have been politically dangerous after 1911 (following the turmoil of two general elections the previous year and a fall in support for the Liberals), Nicolson’s suggestion would have removed the option available to Asquith and Grey of holding out against intervention until, when the decision was reached, it was too late to have any effect on the actions of the other Powers. This must forever remain an imponderable: whether, by virtue of an existing firm commitment to France, the British Cabinet had had no choice other than to announce publicly their support for the French in late July 1914, such an announcement (if issued in time) would have possessed a restraining influence. As Niall Ferguson has noted, Grey’s refusal publicly to commit himself had, by Sunday 26 July, produced the opposite effect to that intended. Paris counted on British intervention as much as Berlin counted on British neutrality. When the contradiction was noticed, Jagow remarked to Jules Cambon, “You have your information. We have ours.” Unfortunately, Ferguson adds, ‘the source was identical in each case.’[62]

                Despite valiant attempts to deny it, Fisher’s dictum, expressed in his usual language, was never going to be resolved by a Government with a declining Parliamentary majority, with a huge Empire to defend, locked into a naval race with Germany, and yet committed to an increase in social spending:

As to the policy of reducing the Mediterranean Fleet, the matter is most simple [Fisher argued in 1912]. The margin of power in the North Sea is irreducible and requires this addition of the Mediterranean battleships. Is it proposed to build another fleet for the Mediterranean, and also perhaps for China, and so on? We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre. The moral effect of an omnipresent fleet is very great, but it cannot be weighed – at least in the Cabinets of the Powers – against a main fleet known to be ready to strike and able to strike hard.[63]

Grey’s responsibility for British intervention stemmed more from what he did not do. The pattern was set in January 1906 when the military conversations commenced without the knowledge of the Cabinet as a whole. It continued in 1911 when the Continental strategy was settled by a small group of ministers. The Cabinet rebellion of November that year forced Grey momentarily to face the logical outcome of his policy. ‘I greatly fear that France expects our military and naval support’, Loreburn had warned Grey some days after the August 1911 C.I.D. meeting. ‘I fear’, he added, ‘that we have been drifting in this business, and that in a very natural desire to avoid making up our minds prematurely, and to avoid telling disagreeable things to our French neighbours, we have got into a position in which it will be more difficult than it would have been at an earlier stage.’[64] Grey was to continue ‘to avoid telling disagreeable things’ to the French. Once delivered to Cambon he must have hoped the 1912 letter would never again see the light of day. Loreburn, one of Grey’s strongest critics in 1911, was to write in October 1914: ‘I feel sure that Grey and the others did earnestly desire to avoid war but they had tied themselves up with France. I feel very sorry for them in a way and would be more sorry but for the consequences of what they have done.’[65] For Arthur Ponsonby, on the first full day of the World War, the sense of betrayal was complete. ‘Grey while declaring we were free had committed us to France all the while … The horror and misery before us is immeasurable.’[66]Please click to go to the top of this page





[1]     Riddell, diary entry, 2 August 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 5 and McEwen (ed.), The Riddell Diaries, p. 87.

[2]     Asquith to Stanley, 3 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 114, pp. 147-9.

[3]     Riddell recorded on Sunday evening that McKinnon Wood was still ‘considering the advisability’ of resigning. Riddell, diary entry, 2 August 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 4

[4]     Hobhouse seemed ‘to have made up his mind after the Sunday evening cabinet.’ Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 98.

[5]     Simon, In Retrospect, p. 95.

[6]     Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, p. 12.

[7]     Asquith to Stanley, 3 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 114, pp. 147-9.

[8]     Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 155.

[9]     Wilson, diary entry for 3 August 1914, Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 155; Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 101, n. 1.

[10]    Asquith to Stanley, 3 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 114, pp. 147-9.

[11]    Samuel’s letter to his wife, 3 August 1914, quoted in, Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, pp. 163-4.

[12]    Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, pp. 12-3.

[13]    Asquith to Stanley, 3 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 114, pp. 147-9. ‘There were chairs up the gangway and the place was packed’, noted Arthur Ponsonby in his letter to his wife of 4 August, quoted in Jones, Ponsonby, p. 84.

[14]    All the quotations which follow from Grey’s speech are from the report in The Times of Tuesday, 4 August 1914.

[15]    Ponsonby to his wife, 4 August 1914, quoted in, Jones, Ponsonby, p. 84.

[16]    Trevelyan’s “personal account”, quoted in, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 44. Trevelyan, a junior minister, also resigned his post in protest.

[17]    Riddell, diary entry for 11 September 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 31.

[18]    The comment on Grey’s speech belongs also to Balfour: Riddell, diary entry for 11 September 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 31. Charles Trevelyan noted ‘that the Liberals, very few of them, cheered at all, whatever they did later, while the Tories shouted with delight.’ Trevelyan’s “personal account”, quoted in, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 44.

[19]    When reading the letter to Cambon, Grey inadvertently left out the final sentence: ‘If these measures [to concert the actions of the two Governments] 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.’ It would be nine years before the omission was noticed, at which time a conspiratorial interpretation was placed upon it. Grey claimed that the omission was innocently caused by a member interjecting a question regarding the date of the letter before he had finished reading it. In any event, as Grey rightly points out, the letter was published in full in the White Paper  soon after. See, Twenty-five Years, vol. II, pp. 16-7.

[20]    For Cecil’s comment and Hazelhurst’s observation see, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 44.

[21]    Cecil’s comment quoted, ibid.

[22]    Hobson to C. P. Scott, 3 August 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C P Scott, pp. 94-5. Hobson continued: ‘But that [the obligation] would have been met by accepting Germany’s undertaking not to cross the Straits of Dover. When we refused that bargain for neutrality, and insisted further on the preservation of neutrality of Belgium, we virtually made that the casus belli. This I personally regard as indefensible, though Germany’s brutal behaviour to Belgium merits every reprobation. However the harm appears to be done.’ However, as will be seen, Grey was soon to dispose of the argument based upon Jagow’s ‘promise’.

[23]    See Hobson’s comment in the previous footnote. Hobson’s contention contains the contradiction common to the attempts to argue that the German promise was a missed opportunity. While admitting that Germany’s behaviour in violating Belgian neutrality was ‘brutal’ and meriting ‘every reprobation’, Hobson ignores the fact that this perception of German behaviour mitigated against accepting Berlin’s word that a  promise ‘not to cross the Straits of Dover’ would be honoured.

[24]    Ponsonby to his wife, 5 August 1914, quoted in Jones, Ponsonby, p. 85.

[25]    Grey argued: ‘Foreign trade is going to stop, not because the trade routes are closed, but because there is no other trade at the end. Continental nations engaged in war, all their populations, all their energies, all their wealth, engaged in a desperate struggle — they cannot carry on the trade with us that they are carrying on I times of peace, whether we are parties to the war or whether we are not.’

[26]    Balfour in conversation with Riddell, diary entry for 11 September 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, p. 31.

[27]    Ibid.

[28]    Not quite the whole House, according to the Radicals. See note 30.

[29]    The conversation is quoted in, Wickham Steed, Through Thirty Years, vol. II, pp. 26-7.

[30]    Ponsonby to his wife, 4 August 1914, quoted in, Jones, Ponsonby, p. 84. Ponsonby continued: ‘Philip [Morrell] very courageously got up and arranged that the debate should be continued on the adjournment. My committee met immediately again. I had great trouble in getting a resolution passed it took more than an hour. I was then torn to pieces by people who wanted to see me and finally had a few moments on the terrace with Massingham and a few others. A very hurriedly early dinner which I could not pay for as I have only 1/6 left. Then again the House crowded to the full and excited. Philip spoke not badly his case was good but his manner always irritates the House a little. Wedgw[ood] was too wild. Keir Hardie dwelt on a bad point. I had almost decided not to speak but Philip urged me to. I had prepared nothing but I made up my mind to say a word. I had as I always do for some reason or other dead silence and wrapt attention. I shot out half a dozen sentences amid protests and a few feeble cheers. My reference to Grey’s speech was much resented but I genuinely felt it at the time.’ This was the last hurrah for the radicals. As Joll has noted, ‘those few radicals in Parliament who on 3 August criticized the government’s decision for war were dismissed by Balfour with the words, “What we have been hearing tonight are the very dregs and less of the debate.” ’ Joll, The Origins of the First World War, p. 183.

[31]    Trevelyan’s “personal account”, quoted in, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 44.

[32]    Asquith to Stanley, 3 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 114, pp. 147-8.

[33]    Samuel’s letter to his wife, 3 August 1914, quoted in, Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel, p. 164.

[34]    Simon, In Retrospect, p. 95.

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

[36]    Churchill to Grey and Asquith, 3 August 1914, WSC Comp, vol. I, pt. iii, p. 15.

[37]    Note by Battenberg, Battenberg mss., IWM DS/MISC/20, reel 5, item 363b. It was ‘to be clearly understood that this implies no offensive action on the part of the British forces, who will not carry out any warlike action unless attacked by German forces.’

[38]    Simon’s motivation is explored in Dutton, Simon, p. 30.

[39]    Asquith to Stanley, Tuesday, 4 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 115, pp. 149-51.

[40]    Churchill to First Sea Lord, C.O.S., minute by Battenberg, 4 August 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO800/375.

[41]    A reply was not expected and none was forthcoming, so a second document was prepared for delivery to the German Ambassador explaining that a state of war would exist by 11 p.m. An incorrect version of this was delivered after it was mistakenly believed that evening that Germany had already declared war on England and, when the error was discovered, a corrected version was substituted late that night by Harold Nicolson, the son the Permanent Under-Secretary. Nicolson, Lord Carnock, pp. 423-6.

[42]    Lloyd George in conversation with Riddell, 9 August 1914, Lord Riddell’s War Diary, pp. 11-2. Lloyd George continued: ‘Asquith, Grey, McKenna, and I sat there waiting, and then Big Ben began to strike — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. As eleven struck we felt it was the stroke of doom. I think it was the most dramatic moment in my life. The terrible sense of responsibility; the necessity for taking a step the consequences of which it was impossible to foretell; a step which might wreck the world and might wreck civilisation. We pulled a lever which might land us on a star or land us in chaos.’

[43]    Der Krieg Zur See, p. 40. Although Souchon’s intentions thereafter were not stated his options were limited, and a breakout into the Atlantic does not appear to have figured amongst them; perhaps he just wanted to play for time, to see what Admiral Haus and the Austrian fleet would do. Ultimately, the continued necessity to obtain coal would impose its own limitations upon Souchon’s movements, but not without some belated direction from Berlin.

[44]    It would be interesting to speculate what effect this news might have had on the deliberations in London on 4 August if it had arrived immediately by acting as a casus belli to justify forthwith the instigation of hostilities in the Mediterranean. There seems little doubt that Churchill would have put this information to good use if available in time but, with the delay in reporting and the pressure on the wires, it was not received at the Foreign Office until just after midday on the 5th. See, Acting Consul-General, London to Sir Edward Grey, 5 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[45]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Indomitable, Indefatigable, no. 213, minute by Churchill, 4 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[46]    Narrative from the Indomitable: the escape of the Goeben, Naval Review, 1919, vol. 12, p. 110. The signal was received aboard Indomitable with some disgust if only because they thought the message – apart from ‘War Imminent’ – a waste of W/T: ‘the less one puts it to use the better.’

[47]    It would be another five hours before further news was received from Paris that the transports would not sail, due to the presence of Goeben, and that the French Fleet had been given orders to bring Goeben to action ‘if possible’. Bertie to Foreign Office, no. 132, 1.15 p.m., 4 August 1914 (rec’d 5 p.m.): ‘Following from Military Attaché:— It is hoped to bring from Algeria a force of about 20,000; at present it is not deemed advisable to commence transportation across Mediterranean owing to presence of German warships; probable time for transportation 12 days; probable destination neighbourhood of Belfort.’ Fifteen minutes later Bertie sent a dispatch (no. 134) from the Naval Attaché which was also received in London at 5 p.m.: ‘French fleet have been given orders to bring Goeben to action if possible. Goeben is at present off Algerian coast.’ PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[48]    Churchill to the Prime Minister, Sir Edward Grey, 4 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[49]    On 3 August Asquith recorded that ‘After to-morrow Haldane is going to help me every day at the W.O. and we have kept back Kitchener in case of need.’ Kitchener, who had been about to return to Egypt, was installed as Secretary of State on 5 August. See Asquith Letters, no. 114 and 166, pp. 147-9, 157.

[50]    Note by Churchill, 10 Downing Street, no. 214, 12.10 p.m., 4 August 1914, marked “for immediate action”, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[51]    Asquith to Venetia Stanley, Asquith Letters, 4 August 1914, no. 115, pp. 149-51.

[52]    Admiralty to All Ships, no. 216, 4 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19. Note: Churchill was in error concerning the time of the expiration of the ultimatum: it was timed to expire at midnight, Central European Time, which was 11 p.m. G.M.T. This confusion over time zones was a common feature of the saga of the escape.

[53]    Despite the signing of the Turco-German alliance on 2 August, the Ottoman Government was to prove singularly reluctant to commit her forces until the action of Souchon in the Black Sea in October compelled the Russians to declare war. See the earlier volumes of this trilogy: Straits, chapter 21 and Superior Force, chapter 15.

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

[55]    Quoted in, Charmley, Lord Lloyd, p. 33.

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

[57]    Grey to Cambon, 22 November 1912, Lumby, p. 106.

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

[59]    Memorandum by Asquith, 2 August 1914, quoted in, Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister, pp. 223-4. The consideration of British interests is also discussed by Niall Ferguson (“The Kaiser’s European Union”), in his Virtual History, pp. 228-280.

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

[61]    Nicolson to Bertie, 6 May 1912, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/356.

[62]    Niall Ferguson, “The Kaiser’s European Union”, in Ferguson (ed.), Virtual History, p. 265.

[63]    Battleships and Trade in the Mediterranean, Memorandum by Fisher, 26 June 1912, F.G.D.N., vol. II. p. 469.

[64]    Loreburn to Grey, 26 August 1911, in, Lowe and Dockrill, The Mirage of Power, vol. III, pp. 436-8.

[65]    Loreburn to Scott, 14 October 1914, in Wilson (ed.), The Political Diaries of C P Scott, p. 106.

[66]    Ponsonby to his wife, 5 August 1914, quoted in Jones, Ponsonby, p. 85.




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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