Magazine article The Spectator

The War for a Worse World

Magazine article The Spectator

The War for a Worse World

Article excerpt

IN NOVELS set in 1914, or in memoirs of that year, there is often a scene in which one character, who is sometimes the hero, buys a newspaper at a railway bookstall, reads the report of the murder in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, and says grimly, `This means war.'

The Asquith government was less prescient. Though the Archduke was murdered on 28 June, it was not till 24 July, the day after Austria-Hungary delivered its ultimatum to Serbia, that the Cabinet held its first foreign affairs discussion of the month. While regarding that ultimatum as `the gravest event for many years in European politics' and as 'a possible prelude to a war in which at least four of the great powers may be involved', Asquith was still able to write that `happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators'. At least half the Cabinet were of his opinion. It was only the previous day that his chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, had assured the Commons that relations with Germany were better than they had been for years.

Five days later, when the possibility of German violation of Belgian neutrality was raised, Asquith was able to assure the King that `the Cabinet considers that this matter, if it arises, will be one of policy rather than of legal obligation'. Even on Friday 31, by which time the French, on the verge of mobilisation, were urging the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to make it clear that Britain would come to their aid if Germany declared war, Asquith still thought he might keep a speaking engagement in Chester on the Saturday, and proceed to Lord Sheffield's house in Anglesey for the rest of the weekend: `if I come, it will be by the train wh. gets to Holyhead at 6.45 p.m.,' he wrote.

But his weekend had to be abandoned. At 11 in the evening on 4 August, we were at war with Germany, `the only Allied Power , as A.J.P. Taylor wrote, to declare war on Germany rather than the other way round'.

Why did we do so? The question is still worth asking if only on account of the puzzlement one feels at seeing the government reverse, in so strange, abrupt, and haphazard a fashion, the settled policy of the United Kingdom for 100 years. Between 1815 and 1914 no British army was engaged in war in western Europe. That century, which had seen the United Kingdom attain unprecedented power, wealth and prestige, had been governed by one assumption: that while we had an interest in the peace of Europe, and in the balance of power on the Continent, that interest did not require us to go to war there. Britain was a naval and imperial power, whose greatness depended on freedom from European entanglements.

In truth, this policy went still further back. When the elder Pitt declared that he would conquer Canada on the banks of the Elbe, he meant that he would finance Prussia to fight France in Europe, while we took the opportunity to expel the French from North America and indeed India. It was true that the ambitions of revolutionary and Napoleonic France had subsequently compelled us to modify this policy; but even then we maintained the Blue Water strategy, and though Wellington fought a long campaign in the Peninsula, we never engaged the full might of the French army till Napoleon's escape from Elba precipitated the campaign of Waterloo.

So the reversal of policy in 1914 still deserves examination, especially since, even apart from the appalling waste of young lives, it was to be disastrous for the United Kingdom and the British Empire. Never before was victory in war so dearly bought. The war raised our national debt by a multiple of 11 and overseas assets were sold to finance it at what subsequently proved to be ridiculously low valuations. Before 1914 British overseas investments were worth more than the foreign investments of France, Germany and the United States put together. By July 1917 President Woodrow Wilson could happily say that Britain and France would soon be `financially in our hands'. …

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