Asquith Was Forced to Enter War
Unionist Editor Tells How Leaders of British Opposition Exerted Pressure on Cabinet in 1914 and Saved the Situation.
A REMARKABLE story of the hesitation that prevailed in government circles in England in the latter part of July, 1914, with reference to the part, active or passive, that Britain was to take, is told, by L. J. Maxse in the National Review. His narrative is to the effect that a section of the Asquith cabinet, termed the Potsdam party by political opponents, was determined not to support France and that assurances were withheld from the French Ambassador. He goes on to tell how a number of prominent Unionists,
including Mr. Balfour, got together and forced the hands of Mr. Asquith. It must be borne in mind that the writer had always been opposed politically to the Liberal Administration and that his fears for the course which Britain was to take, so strongly manifested at this crisis, may have been influenced by the lack of confidence that he felt in the Government.
Mr. Maxse is now afraid that the same elements which he believed nearly kept Britain from going to the rescue of her Allies will use such influence as they have to bring about a premature peace that would be favorable to Germany. For that reason it is doubly interesting to read what he says with reference to the happenings of Black Saturday, (August 1, 1914):
The anxieties of that week to outsiders as well as insiders may be imagined. Everything for which England stood in the world, including her own self-respect, was at stake. The whole story has not yet been told, and some parts of it may never be known, but the more vividly we realize our hairbreadth escape, the better is the chance of our preventing a ruinous war from being crowned by a yet more ruinous peace. By Friday afternoon (July 31) His Majesty’s Ministers had wobbled into this position. A small party containing the less bad elements of the cabinet were waiting to see - preferring to move in the right direction, i.e. to the support of France, but afraid to do so—while another faction of dangerous dimensions was definitely treacherous and active and determined in its perfidy. Alone at this date stood Mr. Winston Churchill, who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had already burnt his boats and was doing duty. I cannot be suspected of partiality to this politician in saying what angers many of my friends, but such a narrative is perfectly useless unless one is prepared to record what one believes to be true without fear or favour, and it is a fact that this week—and the following week—was the great fortnight of Mr. Churchill’s career. It is only regrettable that he has not succeeded in the interval in living up to those spacious days, but if once more he can manage to pull himself together, and prevent his defeatist colleages from selling the pass at the peace, much will be forgiven him. On Friday evening, though feeling miserable as to the course of affairs, after a conversation with my friend George Lloyd (Member for West Staffordshire), who was in touch with the situation and shared my uneasiness, I played an unforgettable game of lawn tennis with an eminent statesman—it was that awkward combination a three game, as the others may remember. The situation at the moment v'as that the patriotic press was thundering away on the assumption that Great Britain would stand by her threatened partners of the Entente. There were, moreover, significant naval movements, corroborating this assumption, while the organizers of the British Expeditionary Force at the War Office were decidedly “doing their bit,” all the
more because a genius among them had invented the phrase “precautionary period,” which permitted certain measures to be taken on the ipse dixit of the Secretary of State without reference to the Cabinet and without a civilian’s realizing how important they were when time was the only thing that mattered. Everything was ripening for decision, but my lawn-tennis friend in reply to my obvious remark. “There seems to be a certain amount of naval and military activity,” replied, “Yes, but I fear the Government have come to no decision upon the question of policy.” In other words, the Unionist Press, with the best intentions in the world, was being misled on the facts and was misleading the public by assuming that all would be right on the night. I rang up one journalistic friend after another—but by this time they had become so carried away by their own optimism that
a caution could hardly get a hearing, and some of them politely intimated that I must be crazy in imagining that even this Government could abandon France. I implored them to be on their guard as everything now depended on the Press, and pointed out that so far there had not been a whisper of a suggestion in any Ministerial newspaper that we should support France. I made myself a nuisance, and returned again and again to the charge and ultimately instilled some doubts, though I could not quote any authority. It was, at any rate, encouraging that during these most painful hours nowhere did I meet on the part of a single soul with whom I exchanged opinions that faintest shadow of a doubt or hesitation as to the only possible role of England at this crisis. It was merely that my friends simply could not believe that there could be any faltering in any Government, however
composed, when the path was so plain, and they discounted my fears as political prejudice.
One particularly hopeful friend, who thought himself en rapport with the'Foreign Office, conceived that he had had “the straight tip” from Sir Edward Grey, and declared that there was nothing to worry about. But I was not reassured, as I had traced a certain amount of mystification to the Foreign Office. —probably attributable to a loss of nerve. That night (July 31) I dined with friends connected with a leading Mugwump organ that was likely to keep step with the Head of the Government. After dinner we rang up the editorial office, which returned a most uncertain sound that sent our hearts into our boots, indicating, as it did, a wobble preparatory to a scuttle. When I got home I rang up General Henry Wilson, then living in Draycott Place. To my anxious inquiry he answered, “We are in the soup.” Hoping against hope, I asked, “What soup?” as there was a good sense in which we might be “in the soup.” His answer was disquieting, and he suggested a meeting at breakfast the following morning.
It was a most melancholy little company that foregathered round the hospitable board of General and Mrs. Wilson on Black Saturday morning (August 1). It will remain graven on my memory so long as I remember anything. Nor are the others likely to forget it, if only because it was productive. The party consisted, besides our host and hostess, of Lady Sybil Grey, Lady Aileen Roberts, L. S. Amery, M.P., and myself. At first we were speechless. We simply hung our heads. England was to look on while Germany attacked France. Such was the policy. Mr. Lloyd George has since admitted that the fate of our brilliant neighbors was of such indifference to the Liberal Party that unless the attack came through Belgium—which at the moment had not been mentioned -we should abstain. As he told an American interviewer:
If Germany had been wise she would not have set foot on Belgian soil. The Liberal Government, then, would not have intervened. Germany made a grave mistake. (Mr. Lloyd
George, in an interview with Mr. Henry Beach Needham, Pearson’s Magazine, March, 1915).
We were naturally in despair. No one could see any daylight until one of our number suggested bringing in the Unionist Opposition to save the situation. The Party Leaders had lately been conferring together at Buckingham Palace over the interminable Irish question. Could they not be persuaded to discuss the European crisis? It was not thought very hopeful, but it was the only hope. As there was no time to lose, we there and then constituted ourselves into an informal “Pogrom,” as it was called, under the inspiration of the General, whose service at this juncture is fully known on the other side of the Channel, though unknown here. It was obviously “unusual,” not to say “irregular,” but then great wars only come once in a century, and we felt this to be a decisive moment in the history of the world, threatening a tragedy that would for all time make English men and English women ashamed of themselves, while there was a real risk that Europe might be blotted out. It was very late, but it was not yet too late. As Ministers were wobbling the wrong way they might wobble the right way under sufficient pressure. The “Pogrom” broke up for the day, and saw little more of each other—there was no time for gossip—but touch was kept by telephone, and I often thought during those busy hours how much the enemy, with all his espionage, could have learnt had he tapped one or two private wires. Happily, von Kuhlmann was so taken up with watching 10 Downing Street that he had no time for 7 Draycott Place, which became the pivot of the plot. There have since been occasional differences between Sir Henry Wilson and certain politicians, while soldiers have not always seen eye to eye with him, and the circumstances under which he became Chief of the Imperial General Staff this year caused some perturbation. Nevertheless, speaking as one knowing what he did in the opening days of that sultry August, I remain lost in admiration of his wonderful nerve and
unrelaxing grip of a formidable situation. Í do not pretend to know all the work of disinterested enthusiasts at this time—“the Pogrom” may even have contained recruits unknown to me—but among those conspicuous in the good cause were Mr. Wickham Steed, Foreign Editor of the Times, a man or unrivalled knowledge of foreign politics and keenness, and Lord Lovat. whose passionate and single-minded zeal makes him invaluable in a tiger hunt. Amery also was AÍ, while George Lloyd was an essential element of success.
There must be some fairly full private diaries of these exciting days which this sketch may bring forth. There is no reason whatever why we should not know the inside history, and many reasons why we should. We have the impressions of Prince Lichnowsky, Mr. Gerard, Baron Beyens, and Mr. Morgenthau, giving the diplomatic point of view. Why not those of humbler people from a different angle of vision, as history consists of the sum of all human effort, obscure as well as distinguished. It is not a question of seeking kudos for individuals so much as to prevent those who would have ruined us then if they could from having another innings. Among British Ministers most mischievous at the moment were the Earl Beauchamp, K.G., who still presumes to lecture his Peers on the state of Europe. He was rumoured to have formed “a cave,” which sat in Belgrave Square, consisting of colleagues of a like mind with himself, who were playing the Potsdam game.
After our breakfast I called upon George Lloyd, and together we went to see Mr. Jasper Ridley, son-in-law of Count Benckendorff, Russian Ambassador in London. Mr. Ridley had thought that all was going well, and was astounded and horrified at the latest developments. He promised to go at once and see the Ambassador, and afterwards got into communication with Mr. Balfour, who from the moment he realized the gravity of the situation was wholly admirable and played a part entirely in accordance with his high reputation. Later in the day Jasper Ridley telephoned to say that he had seen Count Benckendorff, who, except as regards one detail, confirmed our disquieting account of the situation. George Lloyd and I then went to the French Embassy, where we were so fortunate as to be received by M. Paul Cambon. Will either of us ever forget the interview? I would record it here, but hesitate to do so, not that it could in any way embarrass His Excellency, whose grave and dignified appreciation of the situation would make the same impression on the reader as it made on us. As a diplomat of immense experience, who had long been in England, and knew and admired the English, M. Cambon was able to make great allowance for the difficulties in which our Government found itself. At the same time, while avoiding all criticism of British policy, M. Cambon made no attempt to disguise the delicacy of Anglo-French relations should the common enemy succeed in manoeuvring us into different camps.
The French Ambassador was necessarily under the impression of two disconcerting events. On the previous day Sir Edward Grey had informed him that at the Cabinet Council that morning “the Cabinet had thought that for the moment the British Government were unable to guarantee us (France) their intervention . . . and that before considering intervention it was necessary to wait for the situation to develop.” M. Cambon had inquired: “If, before intervening, the British Government would await the invasion of French territory. I (the French Ambassador) insisted on the fact that the measures already taken on our frontier by Germany showed an intention to attack in the near future, and that, if a renewal of the mistake of Europe in 1870 was to be avoided, Great Britain should consider at once the circumstances in which she would give France the help on which she relied.” The only satisfaction he got was the promise of another Cabinet Council. As a last resort, President Poincare had addressed an autograph letter to the King, which had been sent over by special messenger from Paris and delivered by M. Paul Gambon personally. In this moving
document the President informed His Mnjesty :
From all the information which reaches us it would seem that war would be inevitable if Germany were convinced that the British Government would not intervene in ft conflict in which France might be engaged; if. on the other hand, Germany were convinced that the Entente Cordiale would be affirmed, in case of need, even to the extent of taking the field side by side, there would be the greatest chance that peace would remain unbroken. ... It is, I consider, on the language and the action of the British Government that henceforward the last chances of a peaceful settlement de-
To this the King—or rather the King’s Government—replied, as the draftsmanship is quite unmistakable, in approved “Wait-and-Sce” fashion. After compliments to France the King was made to say:
As to the attitude of my country, events are changing so rapidly that it is difficult to forecast future developments; but you may be assured that my Government will continue to discuss freely and frankly with M. Gambon any point which might arise of interest to our two nations.
Such was the strategic position of Downing Street nearly four weeks after the War Council of Potsdam had decided upon war, and when the ultimatums were already
Everything depended on His Majesty’s Opposition. Unluckily, like most crises— is it accident or design? this storm had been timed for a week-end. which before the war had become a veritable ritual involving a general clearance from London of “everybody who is anybody.” We dared not wait until Monday. It was too late to stop the exodus, though Lord Edmund Talbot, Chief Unionist Whip, who played the part of “a white man,” stayed in London and devoted himself to collecting his leaders at a meeting at Lansdowne House late on Saturday night, that the situation might be fully considered and action taken. It was surprising to hear that a rumor had reached the French Embassy that Unionists statesmen were “doubtful,” and that the Asquith Government could not rely upon them in supporting France. This canard was speedily dissipated, thanks to Mr. Balfour, and was subsequently thought to have originated in an infelicitous conversation between a leading Foreign Office official and a Unionist statesman rather given to super-subtlety, which the official had misunderstood. From the moment Mr. Balfour appreciated what was happening he never wavered. He was to spend the week-end at Hatfield, but he promised to come up after dinner to Lansdowne House and was in touch with the First Lord of the Admiralty. Mr. Bonar Law was not so easy to move, though, as we shall see, he played a great and decisive part. He was spending the week-end on the river at Mr. Edward Goulding’s, where he was playing lawn tennis with Mr. F. E. Smithan exciting contest interrupted by the arrival of Lord Charles Beresford, who was splendid and unremitting all through these days, and Mr. George Lloyd, who came down by car to persuade their Leader to return to town. Mr. Bonar Law had, however, been unwittingly misinformed as to the position of the Government by Mr. F. E. Smith, who had learned from Mr. Winston Churchill that everything was going swimmingly - the truth being that Mr. Churchill, being all right himself, thought that he could carry the Cabinet, in which he was in a hopeless minority. Sir Edward Carson, who was also at Mr. Goulding’s, feared the worst of the Asquith Government. However, the emissaries succeeded in their mission, and Mr. Bonar Law promised to return to London. It is important in this free discussion of our public men to realize that none of these Unionists had any hesitation whatsoever as to England’s duty, and, as we know, they represented national opinion. Meanwhile Lord Edmund Talbot had telegraphed to Lord Lansdowne at Bowood, while Mr. Amery went down to Broadstairs, where he
found Mr. Austen Chamberlain entirely innocent, I believe, of the situation, but thoroughly sound and anxious to do anything to retrieve it. He came back to London, but arrived too late for the Lansdowne House meeting, though he was closely associated with Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law in the subsequent demarche. Lord Milner was also, I think, at Lansdowne House, with the Duke of Devonshire, the rest of the party consisting, besides Mr. Balfour and Mr. Bonar Law, of General Wilson. George Lloyd, and possibly one or two others. Of this I only speak from hearsay as I was not there—indeed, I thought it unwise to thrust myself forward in this delicate affair, because though on friendly terms with some responsible statesmen I knew they despised my opinion upon everything connected with Germany as much as I distrusted theirs.
This little meeting at Lansdowne House, which only broke up towards midnight, was infinitely more important than other gatherings at the same place which have made much more noise in the world, because this time something more serious than noise was made—namely, History. May we not be allowed to have among the records of the war an authentic account of the proceedings in which General Wilson is understood to have played a conspicuous part?
Black Saturday was undeniably one of the blackest days in British history. Nor was the prospect any better on Sunday morning (August 2), when M. Cambon had another interview with Sir Edward Grey, which must have verged on the painful for both of them. Our Cabinet was mentally and physically incapable of giving France any assurance of support. Early on Sunday morning (August 2) Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Austen Chamberlain called on Mr. Bonar Law with the draft of a letter which they suggested should be sent by the Opposition to the Prime Minister. It was strongly urged by persons mistrustful of politicians that from any communication to the Government the fatal word “Private” should be omitted, as no private communication could help Ministers in urgent need of “ginger.” This advice was taken. I have heard that Mr. Bonar Law demurred to the draft of his colleagues, and that he sat down at his own table and wrote an alternative which can only be described as a classic. It ran as follows:
Dear Mr. Asquith:—Lord Lansdowne and I feel it our duty to inform you that in our opinion, as well as that of all the colleagues whom we have been able to consult, it would he fatal to the honor and security of the United Kingdom to hesitate in supporting France and Russia at the present juncture, and we offer our unhesitating support to the Government in any measures they may consider necessary for that object.
Yours very truly,
August 2, 1914 A. BONAR LAW.
This letter was taken by Lord Lansdowne’s car to No. 10 Downing Street, where the Cabinet was then sitting, shortly after mid-day. There is every reason to suppose that it was thoroughly welcome to Mr. Asquith, who sincerely wished to have his mind made up for him in the right direction, and who dextrously used the Unionist missive as indicating a possible Coalition of Liberals and Unionists, thus knocking the bottom out of the Potsdam Party, and reducing its numbers to exiguous proportions. The Cabinet rapidly came to its bearings and realized that there was only one policy unless England was to be eternally damned. Whereas in the early morning our Allies regarded us askance, and the sinister phrase Perfide Albion was echoing through the Chanceries of Europe, by the afternoon France had received her first definite assurance of British support
in the shape of our Navy. There were other acutely anxious moments, as, for instance, concerning the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force—which may be retailed in another Indiscretion but the die was cast and Great Britain committed to withstand the Pan-German avalnnche.