A hundred years ago today, an aristocratic fly-fisherman and reluctant politician rose in the Commons and sentenced 800,000 British soldiers and sailors to death. Sir Edward Grey was the most powerful foreign secretary in British history. His intervention the day before Britain's declaration of war on Germany on 4 August 1914 was one of the most important parliamentary speeches ever made.
The House was fearful and confused, still believing that war could be avoided (as the Cabinet had fondly hoped until a few days before). By the end, there were "loud cheers" when Grey suggested that Britain could not "run away" from "obligations of honour".
Later, in the Foreign Office, Grey muttered words for which he is best remembered: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.''
Grey, whose eyes were failing, was clear-sighted about that at least. The next day the Continent lurched into an exterminatory world war which led, in turn, to Nazism, Stalinism, the Second World War, genocide and the long subjugation of eastern Europe. The "lamps" were not lit again until 1989.
Grey's Commons speech stands up less well to time. It was the most effective speech that he ever made – and a largely dishonest one. It contains two serious misrepresentations of the facts; an emotive red herring; an obfuscation; and finally a disguised admission of Realpolitik.
First mistruth. Grey said: "We have consistently worked with a single mind, with all the earnestness in our power, to preserve peace."
A few weeks earlier, it might still have been possible to stop the war. Britain held the key but did not use it. Or rather, Sir Edward Grey held the key. For 10 years from 1906 to 1916, he travelled abroad only once, but embodied Britain to the outside world in a way that no other foreign secretary has managed before or since. The prime minister, Sir Herbert Asquith, was distracted by the Irish question, cabinet splits and a young mistress.
Grey's behaviour during the July crisis after the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was muddled and puzzling. He gave the Germans the impression that Britain wanted to stay out of a war at all costs (as half the Cabinet and most Britons did). But he did not prevent Russian or French war-mongering, based partly on the conviction that Britain would join in.
In the final days of July, Grey put on a pyrotechnic display of mixed signals. He informed the Germans that he could keep Britain and France out of a German-Austrian-Russian war. He implied to Paris that Britain would never let France stand alone.
In pictures: First World War
In pictures: First World War
1/30 Victoria station, London
1914: A soldier saying goodbye to a loved one in the rain at Victoria station, London, as he leaves for the front
2/30 Trafalgar Square, London
1914: In Trafalgar Square, London street urchins dressed as soldiers with paper hats and canes as guns stand to attention watched by a small crowd. Behind them is a notice declaring ' The Need for Fighting Men is Urgent'
3/30 Marylebone Grammar School, London
1914: Two men conscripted to the British Army undergoing a medical check-up at Marylebone Grammar School, London
4/30 Victoria station, London
1914: Two soldiers on the concourse at Victoria station, London, about to leave for the front line. They are carrying parcels full of food and other provisions
5/30 British Army
1914: A group of new recruits in training for service in the British Army during World War I
6/30 Aisne, France
1914: A lone soldier with a bicycle stands amid the remains of a German motor convoy which lines a country lane after an attack by French field guns in the battle of the Aisne in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
7/30 Aisne River, France
1914: German sharpshooters move to a position near the front line, during the fighting near the Aisne River
8/30 German naval zeppelin
1914: The L2, a German naval zeppelin during World War I
1914: French officers dining in style in a trench near the front line
10/30 Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles
1915: Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War
1915: Soldiers arriving at a station in London to travel home for Christmas
12/30 German Army
1915: A wounded German soldier
13/30 British Army
1915: A wounded British soldier is stretchered back to camp past a carnage-strewn trench, during the World War I
14/30 Brighton Pavilion
1915: Injured Indian soldiers of the British Army at the Brighton Pavilion, converted into a military hospital
15/30 Fort Vaux, France
1916: A German rifleman beside the corpse of a French soldier in a trench at Fort Vaux, France
1916: Private F.E Henningham leaves for service in the British Army during World War I
1916: The British soldier, Drummer Bent, wearing his Victoria Cross
18/30 Somme, France
1916: Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first battle of the Somme
19/30 British Army
1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench
20/30 Austrian Army
1916: Austrian soldiers in the trenches demonstrating their gas masks
21/30 German Army
1916: Three German soldiers display rats killed in their trench the previous night
22/30 German Army
1916: A German officer leads his men through a cloud of phosphene gas set off by themselves for cover, as they run toward the British trenches
1916: A dog finds a wounded soldier lying under a tree in Austria during World War I
24/30 Royal Air Force
1916: Pilots from the Royal Air Force ready to drop bombs by hand over Germany from their aeroplane, a development as in the first stages of the war planes were thought of only as reconnaissance machines
25/30 WWI aircraft
1916: A group of World War I aircraft flying in formation
26/30 French and British troops
1916: French and British troops in a trench on the Western Front during World War I
27/30 Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey
1917: Women war workers, at Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey
28/30 American Army in London
1918: American soldiers sightseeing in London from the top of an open-decked omnibus at the end of WW I
29/30 American Army
1918: A US Army cinematographer filming a US Nieuport 28 biplane taking off during the summer counter-offensive
30/30 American Army
1918: An American cinematographer sets up his camera in a water-filled trench
Second mistruth. Grey told the Commons: "No government and no country has less desire to be involved in war over a dispute with Austria than... France." As he well knew, France had been egging Russia into a showdown with Germany for weeks.
The 3 August speech warns of the threat to the coast of northern France if Britain remained neutral. "My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet… bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside..." This is a red herring. Or rather a red-white-and-blue herring. Germany had pledged not to use its fleet in this way. The passage was intended to stir pride in Britain's mastery of the seas.
Grey turned finally to the "moral" issue of Belgian neutrality. The question was not quite as clear-cut as he portrayed it. A few days earlier, Britain (that is, Grey) refused to say clearly that a German invasion of Belgium would be a casus belli. If German troops merely passed through – and Belgium was just a little bit raped – would Britain declare war? No clear response was given, encouraging the German machinery of mobilisation.
On 29 July, five days before the Commons speech, the Cabinet discussed Belgian neutrality. It decided: "Sir E Grey should be authorised to inform the German and French ambassadors that at this stage we were unable to pledge ourselves in advance, either under all conditions to stand aside or on any conditions to join in."
That was deliberately grey – and typically Grey. By 3 August, ambiguity had been abandoned. At the end of his speech, Sir Edward obliquely admitted the truth. A continental war was now inevitable. Self-interest prevented Britain from watching the "whole of the west of Europe" fall "under the domination of a single power". In other words, "morality" and "honour" were just window-dressing. A recently discovered letter suggests that George V also believed that Realpolitik demanded the defeat of Germany. The king urged Grey the day before the Commons speech to look for pretexts to fight.
One of the great unanswered questions of history is whether this had been Grey's intention all along.
There were two conflicting impulses in the great European capitals that fateful July. The first – dominant in Britain; present in Germany; weak in Austria, France and Russia – was "let us prevent war at all costs".
The second was: "If we don't fight now, the other side will become stronger. We will have to fight later from a losing position." The Germans feared the Russians. The French feared the rising military and commercial power of Germany. So did many Britons, including Sir Edward Grey.
Was Grey, as some believe, a diffident English gentleman who botched the July crisis because he found it difficult to commit himself? Or did he secretly believe war with Germany was inevitable, to be fought sooner rather than later? Most likely, he dithered between the two positions.
A hundred years later, as regards relations with the EU, comparisons are odious – but irresistible. For Britain, now just as then, full-blooded European entanglement is distasteful. Remaining completely politically detached from Europe, as Grey finally recognised, is dangerous. Shilly-shallying between the two approaches is calamitous.Reuse content