It is usually the generals who carry the blame for the carnage of the first world war. Derek Coombs reconsiders Roy Jenkins's biography of Asquith and argues that the politicians have escaped lightlyby Derek Coombs / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
After the last election New Labour’s landslide was frequently compared with the Liberal landslide of 1906, and Tony Blair’s cabinet with Herbert Asquith’s reforming Liberal cabinet of 1908. The belief that Asquith represented the pinnacle of achievement for a reforming British prime minister has been reinforced by edition upon edition of Roy Jenkins’s biography of Asquith. But is it true? Was Asquith really such a great prime minister? Surely the example of Asquith is a much more sombre one for Blair; by 1914 his large majority had evaporated and he had allowed Britain to drift into a war which led to a 40-year period of unimaginable global carnage. This was in part the result of allowing too much autonomy to one of his most able ministers, Edward Grey.
From 1908 to 1914 Asquith’s premiership was preoccupied with domestic politics, particularly the Irish Question, where he achieved little, and later, women’s suffrage, which he implacably opposed. He thus delegated foreign policy making almost entirely to Grey and paid little attention to the threat of war coming from the continent.
In August 1914 Russia and Germany had declared war over the dispute between Austria and Serbia. France was tied to Russia by the Franco-Russian alliance. Grey was obsessed with the idea of supporting France, although there was no treaty between the two countries. He was supported in this by the Germanophobes in the foreign office. The matter was also party political. Traditionally the Unionist party had looked to a close relationship with Germany, whereas the Liberals had sought closer ties with France. Grey used the long-standing international treaty of 1839, guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, as an excuse to support the French. France believed that with British and Russian help it could secure its borders against a newly united Germany and even regain territory lost after the defeat of Napoleon III.
During the Campbell-Bannerman administration in 1906, foreign secretary Grey had been asked by France (during the Moroccan dispute) what help it could expect in the event of a German attack. Without consulting the cabinet Grey replied that Britain would not stand aside. He even agreed to an exchange of military information and joint planning. It was not until 1911-three years into Asquith’s premiership-that the matter was finally put before cabinet, after France had asked for the collaboration to be stepped up.
Grey’s speech to the Commons on 3rd August 1914, one day before war was declared on Germany, referred to that Moroccan crisis in 1906: “If war had been forced on France then, on the question of Morocco… the subject of agreement between this country and France, an agreement exceedingly popular on both sides… in my view public opinion in this country would have rallied to support France.”
Grey’s speech failed to mention the cabinet’s grave concern about promises to the French, reflected in a letter from Asquith to Grey on 5th September 1911: “Conversations such as that between Gen. Joffre and Col. Fairholme seemed to me rather dangerous; especially the part which referred to possible British assistance. The French ought not to be encouraged in present circumstances to make their plans on any assumptions of this kind.”
In the spring of 1912 the French asked again for naval co-operation and received it, although this time with cabinet approval after an eloquent appeal from Grey. This encouraged France to be more intransigent towards Germany than it otherwise would have been.
Should Asquith have done more to rein in Grey? Undoubtedly he should have; but that was not Asquith’s way. In cabinet he always sought consensus. And it seems that his respect, even deference, for Grey obscured his vision.
In July 1914 the cabinet had overruled any commitment to war. In fact, on 27th July, only a few days before Grey’s speech on 3rd August, Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said: “There could be no question of our taking part in any war in the first instance.” He knew of no minister in favour of it.
On 1st August Germany declared war against Russia in support of Austria. On the same day Germany asked France for a promise of neutrality in a Russo-German war. France declined. Grey warned Germany not to count on British neutrality. The cabinet-with only the smallest Commons majority and faced by a united pro-war Unionist party-threatened to split. Grey declared that if a policy of non-intervention was agreed he would resign. Asquith had severe doubts but lacked the resolution to overrule Grey, and said that he would resign if Grey did. Lloyd George, too, by 2nd August had decided not to oppose war.
On 3rd August agreement was reached that Grey be authorised to reassure the French that the British fleet would not allow the German fleet to make the Channel the base of hostile operations against France. The Belgians then rejected the German request for free passage for their troops in the war against France; and Britain rejected the German offer to keep their fleet out of the Channel in exchange for neutrality. The stage was set.
On 4th August 1914 the war began. At 10:30pm the king held a privy council at Buckingham palace, attended by only one minister and two court officials. This council sanctioned the proclamation of a state of war with Germany from 11pm. That was all. The cabinet played no part once it had resolved to defend the neutrality of Belgium. It did not consider the ultimatum to Germany which Grey sent after consulting only the prime minister (perhaps not even him). Nor did the cabinet authorise the declaration of war. Parliament did not give formal approval until it voted without a division on 6th August a credit of £100m. Only Ramsay MacDonald and some radicals spoke against war.
At the outbreak of war Britain’s regular army was very small. Each division had only 24 machine guns (two per battalion). Kitchener complained that the government had declared war without an army and without the means to equip one. But Grey told the Commons: “If we are engaged in war, we shall suffer, but little more than we should suffer even if we stand aside.”
Although Asquith proved a poor war leader and was replaced by Lloyd George in 1916, it is sometimes said in his defence that at least he took Britain united into war. It is also argued that popular support for war was so strong that it was impossible to stand in the way. In fact, public opinion and elite opinion were not at all homogeneous. The liberal press was lukewarm about war and the City of London was against it. If Lloyd George had been prime minister in 1914 it is possible that Britain might have stayed out of a much more limited war between Russia and Germany.
Asquith could have led the country-and the world-in a different direction, but he did not. The Kaiser was not a monster in the Hitler mould; but Asquith did nothing to try to resolve great power tensions. The first world war has cast a bloody shadow across the modern history of Europe and the world. It continues to haunt the public imagination-as the 80th anniversary of the end of the war will show, later this year. Without the first world war there would have been no Hitler, no second world war, no Holocaust, no cold war. It is a heavy price to have paid for a weak leader.