Trevor Wilson
The Myriad Faces of War

On this day, a Sunday, Labour was holding a mass anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, and it was evident that many Liberal and Irish back-benchers were of the same persuasion. 'I suppose,' Asquith wrote to his confidante Venetia Stanley that day, 'a good 3/4 of our own party in the H. of Commons are for absolute non-interference at any price. It will be a shocking thing if at such a moment we break up—with no one to take our place' (by which he presumably meant no one tolerable to himself as an alternative Government). If Asquith was using the expression 'absolute non-interference at any price' in its literal sense, then he was plainly misrepresenting the attitudes of his parliamentary followers. With negligible exceptions, they all believed in war for certain vital interests.

For example, they would rather fight than tolerate a German war plan that, however benevolently, involved a military occupation of British territory or a naval occupation of the Channel. The problem—and, despite his hyperbole, Asquith doubtless recognized this—was the magnitude of the price that non-interference in war would exact. If it were sufficiently low, involving expansion of German influence in the Balkans but not elsewhere, then Asquith could hold his party and Government together in refusing to be drawn in. Churchill, for example, was happy to offer assurances that Balkan quarrels were no business of Britain's. Alternatively, if the price were sufficiently high, such as the Channel's being turned into a German lake, then again Asquith's task would be easy. Only a negligible group among his followers would resist going to war in such circumstances. The problem was what would happen if the issue were not so clear-cut: if the war were not confined to Eastern and South-Eastern Europe but spread to Western Europe as well, and yet still did not involve vital British concerns with blinding clarity. That was the situation confronting Asquith on 2 August.

Two incompatible views promptly manifested themselves. One was that of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. As a number of testimonies bear out, Grey during these days was in a profound state of shock. He had been aware since the Sarajevo murders that Europe had entered a dangerous phase. He had also imagined that he knew how it would be resolved: by Germany's and Britain's imposition of a negotiated settlement on the Balkan disputants. The discovery that the German Government had no intention of maintaining the peace in the Balkans, and was actively encouraging Austria-Hungary into war at whatever risk, shook him to the core. A Cabinet colleague, Herbert Samuel, reported of Grey: '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.' For Grey the corollary was plain. If Germany was prepared to impose war on all Europe, Britain must resist German expansion in the West.

This attitude proved 'unacceptable' to a majority of the Cabinet, including Samuel. In his view, '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.' Samuel would intervene only for certain specific reasons: first, to preserve the Channel and the Channel ports from attack and occupation by the German fleet and army; and, secondly, to maintain the independence of Belgium, 'which we were bound by treaty to protect and which again we could not afford to see subordinated to Germany.' That is, Samuel was not prepared to go to war to maintain the balance of power, only to resist so glaring a manifestation of its destruction as the termination of Belgian independence or a German domination of the Channel. In expressing this view he was not speaking as one of the Cabinet's more extreme anti-war members. Asquith placed Samuel among 'a moderating intermediate body,' as distinct from the group whose intransigence was most likely to disrupt the Cabinet—the group that included, if it was not led by, Lloyd George. Yet between Samuel's views and those of this latter group there was no essential difference.

Shortly before the Cabinet met on the morning of 2 August, a number of Ministers gathered at Lloyd George's official residence. Their conclusion was: 'all agreed we were not prepared to go into war now, but that in certain events we might reconsider [the] position, such as the invasion wholesale of Belgium.' After the Cabinet meeting this group reassembled for lunch, with a few additional individuals, including Samuel. The latter found 'general agreement' with his views. During the rest of the day, which included another Cabinet meeting, 'we remained solid.' His conclusion last thing at night was that if the question of war and peace had come to an issue during the day, all but a handful of the Cabinet would have been against war.

It is usual to portray Asquith as handling his colleagues with consummate mastery at this juncture. To prevent a rupture, he allowed decisions to be made only on those aspects of the situation concerning which there was general agreement. For example, there was near-unanimity that the German navy should not be allowed to use the Channel to wage war against the French. On the crucial issue of Britain's involvement in a Franco-Germen war on land he forestalled discussion until he was ready to carry an undivided Cabinet into the struggle.

This is a glamorized view. Certainly, Asquith avoided a decision and played for time. But this was all he could do if he was to escape a situation in which his Cabinet would fall apart at a time when his own position was hopelessly self-contradictory. For Asquith occupied no coherent place at this point. By common consent, he meant to stand by Grey if the intransigence of the Cabinet caused the Foreign Secretary to resign. Yet in the several accounts Asquith gave of how he viewed the actual issues he came down not with Grey but with Samuel—and so, essentially, with Lloyd George. When he claimed that he was prepared to leave office along with Grey, it was in opposition to those, among whom he included Lloyd George, who opposed intervention 'in any event.' This was an obtuse statement. Lloyd George was not against intervention 'in any event.' And Grey was prepared to resign for reasons with which Asquith apparently did not concur.

Writing privately on 2 August, Asquith said that he was quite clear in his mind about the right and wrong of the situation. Britain had a long-standing friendship with France and an interest to prevent it from losing its great-power status. But Britain was under no obligation to aid France or Russia militarily or navally. In so far as he chose between these positions, it was by concluding that there was no question at that moment of Britain's dispatching a military force to France. There was only one obligation requiring British military action. This was with regard to Belgium, which must not be 'utilized and absorbed by Germany.' In so saying Asquith was adopting virtually Samuel's position. What course, then, lay open to the Prime Minister on 2 August? He could not lead his party into the war that was threatening on that day because there seemed no likelihood that it would consent. Nor, in terms of his reiterated position, did he have any grounds for resigning along with Grey and forming a war Government that had shed most Liberal Ministers. Well might he play for time, avoid decision, and hope that events would somehow clarify the issue one way or the other.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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