A foreign secretary's pyrotechnic display of mixed signals that sentenced 800,000 British soldiers and sailors to death

Historians are split over what Sir Edward Grey thought he was doing in early 1914. In any event, it was fatal

Share

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.

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron visiting a primary school last year  

The only choice in schools is between the one you want and the ones you don’t

Jane Merrick
Zoë Ball says having her two children was the best thing ever to happen to her  

Start a family – you’ll never have to go out again

John Mullin
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn