World War 1: Edward Grey and the run-up to war

The run-up to the outbreak of war has long been the subject of discussion by historians, yet Edward Grey’s diplomacy has often been overlooked. Could he have prevented war, or was war inevitable?

According to Harry Young, writing in The Journal of Modern History (December 1976), there was a misunderstanding between Grey and the German Ambassador, Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, over British neutrality. He wrote: ‘At 11:14am on August 1, Lichnowsky sent a telegram to Berlin which indicated Grey had proposed that, if Germany were not to attack France, England would remain neutral.’ 

The Kaiser, who was set on attacking Russia in support of Austria-Hungary, was reported to have been elated. But his joy proved to be short-lived, with King George telegraphing Berlin to explain that Grey had meant British neutrality if France and Russia were not attacked.

So the question is, did Grey make himself clear, or was Lichnowsky set on trying to prevent British entry into the war by only mentioning France?

Luigi Albertini has provided probably the most noted rejection of this ‘misunderstanding’. In his Le origini della guerra del 1914 (written in 1942), he argued that a dull-minded Grey blundered into proposing the abandonment of Russia through Anglo-French neutrality. However, the historian Edward Corp portrayed Grey in an even worse light, arguing that Grey offered British neutrality only in support of France because he disliked Russia.

Whatever the reason, there’s little doubt that Grey detested war. Even after he was satisfied that the cabinet would permit intervention, he attempted to pressure France into taking steps to back down and prevent the war.

The assassination

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, and the subsequent moves by the Great Powers over the next few weeks, it gradually became clear that Grey's crucial battle would be waged within a divided cabinet. How could Grey placate them all and prevent a split? Few diplomatic options remained open to him.

On 1 August, with cabinet talks reaching breaking point, Grey still thought in terms of avoiding a general war. As late as 3:10pm he telegraphed Edward Goschen, British Ambassador to Berlin, saying that: ‘I still believe that if only a little respite in time can be gained before any Great Power begins war, it might be possible to secure peace.’

The cabinet could not agree on the British stance. Yet Grey remained resolute. He denied Winston Churchill permission to mobilise the navy, and quashed moves to send an expeditionary force to the continent. It soon became clear that the only solution lay in Belgium – a country whose independence Britain guaranteed.

When the Kaiser refused to guarantee Belgian neutrality by telegram, Grey’s diplomacy changed. It is said that after Churchill received word of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia shortly after 9:30pm, Grey gave his assent to mobilise the fleet. The fervent anti-war MP Herbert Asquith did not disapprove, and as Churchill left, Grey told him: “You should know I have just done a very important thing. I have told [the French Ambassador] Paul Cambon that we shall not allow the German fleet to come into the Channel.”

On 3 August, Belgian territory was violated, and British intervention became obligatory to the eyes of the most disobedient cabinet members. As such, Grey's efforts to keep the peace ended on the evening of 1 August.