A grave military threat has emerged on the Continent. King George presses for an expeditionary force to be sent to quell the danger while Grey, a Liberal MP, fails to see any reason why Britain should intervene. Such a passage could summarise events following the outbreak of the 1789 French Revolution as much as it could, we have just learned, the eve of one of the most horrific conflicts the world has ever witnessed one hundred years ago.
It is interesting such a historical echo should have emerged when it has, because 2014 has already been a year of the most calamitous portent. Here, on the anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, we are forced to witness events beyond our control in Israel, Iraq and Syria – but more ominously Ukraine – that threaten to drag the world once more into a general war. With this fresh ‘July Crisis’ it is, perhaps, only the freshly reopened wounds of the last two irreparably destructive world conflicts that make such an idea seem hyperbolic.
One of the bitter tragedies of the First World War is that it appeared, at least from far, so pointless and so easily avoidable. It is for that reason many people, including this writer, have reserved a particular animosity towards then-Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey (from 1916 Viscount Grey) for so forcefully making the case along with Winston Churchill for declaring war on Germany – when both Asquith’s Cabinet and the Liberal party as a whole were dead against it.
Those who criticise Grey argue that, without British involvement, the Germans would have easily overrun the French and ended the war, as was widely forecast, by Christmas. Germany would have, in this way, indirectly dominated Europe but, with France greatly weakened by the eurozone crisis and François Holland’s cack-handed reaction to it, not to mention young Germans now throwing off the self-imposed shackles of war guilt, that is scarcely different to the realities of the modern European Union. To play devil’s advocate, one could even invoke Jack Reed in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds: “Don’t you understand that England and France own the world economy and Germany just wants a piece of it?”
It is certainly attractive, at least to this writer, to consider an alternate history in which 37 million people were not killed in vain, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires were preserved, the Bolsheviks did not take over Russia, and Irish Home Rule – finally passed by an Act of Parliament in September 1914 – was actually enacted, thus preventing the horrendous Irish War of Independence and leaving the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland intact. The most glittering prize, however, would have been that the Second World War never occurred.
Now we find history may have judged Grey too harshly. A letter written by his nephew, Sir Cecil Graves, has emerged which relays his meeting with George V a month after Grey’s death in 1933. Incredibly, we find the King telling Sir Cecil that Grey’s opinion of the war during a meeting they had on August 2, 1914, was much the same as that of the rest of the Liberal Cabinet – “he could not possibly see what justifiable reason we could find for going to war.” Even more shockingly, the letter relates that the King replied: “You have got to find a reason, Grey.”
The reason, of course, fell into Grey’s lap two days later when German soldiers violated Belgian neutrality by crossing the border on their way to Paris. This is often presented as a fait accompli for British entry into the war, though as the powerful country in the world at the time, the British Empire could more or less pick and choose which treaties she wished to abide by. Not for nothing did German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg express his astonishment that Britain was prepared to go to war over a “scrap of paper” – and it is worthwhile noting that said scrap, the 1839 Treaty of London, was no more specific in its guarantee of military assistance than the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Ukrainian territorial integrity – which was signed by both the United States and the United Kingdom.
It is a revelation that may well serve to damage the idea of constitutional monarchy. Bagehot, in The English Constitution, noted the Monarch had the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. Whether ‘the right to encourage’ includes pressing a minister to declare war on a hitherto friendly nation is a matter for constitutional historians to decide. But it is not the first time a king – and a George at that – has pushed this nation into an ill-considered war that not only cost Britain dearly but also caused irreparable damage to the fabric of European civilisation. An allusion to the outbreak of the French Revolution was made at the beginning of this article. This was, perhaps, misleading and a result of the irresistible urge to link Viscount Grey with his great-uncle the Earl Grey.
The more obvious parallel with George V’s urging of war with Germany is his ancestor George III’s disastrous insistence on taking a hard line with the revolting but ultimately loyal American colonists during the 1770s. When in 1776 this finally led said colonists to abandon all hope of reconciliation with the Crown they had hitherto regarded as the guarantor of their liberties as Freeborn Englishmen, the King insisted on prosecuting war to its bloody end against the cries of indignation from Whig MPs such as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, who saw the American Declaration of Independence as a just rebellion against the perceived tyranny of a monarch who would deny them their natural liberty.
But this is not some misplaced sense of regret over the loss of the American Colonies more than 200 years ago. The success of the American Revolution was, in many ways, a great victory for the world but it also had dark and terrible aftershocks. Louis XVI had brought France to the brink of bankruptcy through his alliance with the nascent American Republic, forcing him to convene the Estates General (a tricameral parliament) in 1789, in order to raise taxes. It is one of the great ironies of history that this, combined with the blossoming of republican and libertarian ideas which flowed from the success of the American Revolution, should cause Louis to not only lose his throne but also his head. Thereafter followed a quarter of a century of almost continuous, total, war which shook the foundations of European civilisation and sowed the seeds of a new, more malignant ideology which would terrorise the planet for two centuries – Communism.
But neither is this a criticism of constitutional monarchy – this writer remains convinced of its merits despite its more obvious faults detailed here. Woodrow Wilson was, after all, reelected on a specifically anti-war ticket in 1916 only to break his promise to the American people within five months. If one is to believe the likes of Jack Reed, this was through pressure brought by J.P. Morgan after loaning the Allies $500 million ($350 billion today), which he of course wanted to get back. This could just as easily be used as a criticism of an elected head of state.
What this constitutes is a plea for peace; a reminder of the horrors of general war, the ease with which – in the longview – they may be avoided, and an encouragement of those who would most suffer its repercussions to ask themselves: “Who would benefit from war?” It is a warning against the fatheadedness of kings, the weakness of politicians and the avarice of financiers. It is an appeal to reason and reflection and a hope that, as we have not yet gone to war with Russia over the Budapest Memorandum, the conflict in Ukraine may be resolved without us doing so. With the howls of the dead echoing down the centuries, let us pray they do not do so in vain.