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Peace and War
Britain in 1914
By Nigel Jones
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2014 Nigel Jones
All rights reserved.
1. The Darkening Sky
On New Year's Day 1914, the strong man of Britain's Liberal government, Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, gave his thoughts on the coming year to the Daily Chronicle, a top-selling popular newspaper that was effectively the house organ of Lloyd George's radical wing of Liberalism.
The chancellor's message was soothingly reassuring, his normal tone of aggressive eloquence muffled by the olive branch that he bore in his beak as a dove of peace. Contrary to recent fears, he told his interviewer, the likelihood of conflict in Europe was diminishing, not increasing. Any signs of strain in Anglo-German relations were subsiding 'owing largely to the wise and patient diplomacy of Sir Edward Grey' – an emollient reference to Lloyd George's cabinet colleague, the foreign secretary. Thanks to this new spirit of harmony, the chancellor continued, 'Sanity has been more or less restored on both sides of the North Sea.'
Indeed, the 'Welsh wizard' added, in a bullish swipe at another cabinet rival, the ever-belligerent young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, he was so confident that the year ahead would bring peace rather than war that he would stand fast against Churchill's demand for an increase in the year's naval estimates to keep Britain comfortably ahead in its naval race with Germany. The Kaiser's Germany, forecast the chancellor, was no longer interested in beating Britain at its own naval game, and would concentrate on building up its armies to defend itself against potentially hostile neighbours on its borders rather than on strengthening its High Seas Fleet. 'That is why I feel convinced that, even if Germany had any idea of challenging our supremacy at sea, the exigencies of the military situation must necessarily put it completely out of her head,' concluded the chancellor, complacently adding for good measure: 'Never has the sky been more perfectly blue.'
The peace message was born of wishful thinking (like all chancellors, Lloyd George liked to keep a firm grip on the government's purse strings and was against spending money unless it was absolutely necessary). Holding the lid down on naval expenditure suited his fiscal schemes, as well as dealing a satisfying snub to young Winston. The slightly smug confidence of this New Year interview was widely felt by many other Britons – particularly those who shared Lloyd George's radical views. The socialist journalist H. N. Brailsford, for example, confidently opined:
In Europe the epoch of conquest is over, and save in the Balkans, and perhaps on the fringes of the Austrian and Russian Empires, it is as certain as anything in politics that the frontiers of our national states are finally drawn. My own belief is that there will be no more wars among the six Great powers.
This faith in peace was often curiously allied, among progressive thinkers, with a fervent admiration for Germany. Ignoring the evident militarist nature of the Wilhelmine empire, along with its obvious ambition to supersede Britain as Europe's premier power, many on the Left looked enviously at the advanced social welfare structures that the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had put in place to appease the growing power of his country's social democratic movement. The rudimentary skeleton of a welfare state – old-age pensions and health insurance – that Lloyd George introduced with his 1909 'People's Budget' had existed in Germany for several decades, and few wished to contemplate the awful possibility that the millions of socialist-minded workers whose toil and sweat had driven Germany to top place among Europe's industrial powers could, with a swift change of uniform, become a conquering horde trampling the continent under their jackboots. Another Liberal minister, the Lord President of the Council John Morley – the embodiment of Gladstonian rectitude – even called Germany the 'high-minded, benign and virile guardian of Europe's peace'.
THE PROPHECY OF POETS
If politicians were happy to bask in the warm glow of contentment generated by their own complacency, it was left to poets – those unacknowledged legislators of the world, as Shelley had called them – to pick up the more disturbing vibrations of the prevailing Zeitgeist. In Russia the great poet Aleksandr Blok told his readers prophetically, 'If you only knew the darkness that is to come', while in Germany the young Expressionist Georg Heym, who would fall through the ice of Berlin's Havel River to drown before his dark prophecies became grim reality, described a hallucinogenic vision in his poem 'The War':
Tower-like he crushes the embers' dying gleams,
And where day is fleeting fills with blood the streams,
Countless the corpses swept into the reeds,
Covered with white feathers, where the vulture feeds.
More pragmatically, another young poet, the handsome and well-connected Englishman Rupert Brooke, gave a newspaper interview, while on a world tour, that was considerably less optimistic than Lloyd George's fatuous Panglossian fluff. Under the headline 'General European War is Opinion of Political Writer from Great Britain', Canada's Calgary News Telegram reported that Brooke predicted the imminent outbreak of a global 'struggle in which practically every country will participate'; the paper then added that Britain needed to build more and still more of Brooke's friend Churchill's Dreadnought battleships to counter the German threat. Unlike the politicians, more sensitive souls were clearly tapping into waves from the future – waves as yet unseen but deeply felt nevertheless.
Back in London, a rather different sort of poet, Osbert Sitwell, an aesthetic young aristocrat, had recently joined the elite Grenadier Guards, stationed at the Tower of London. In his autobiography Great Morning, Sitwell recalled how his brother officers in 1914 – amidst their routine round of humdrum duties interspersed with pleasurable nights at the music halls and West End clubs – were wont to consult a palm-reader so fashionable that even Winston Churchill was reputed to use her services:
My friends, of course, used to visit her in the hope of being told that their love affairs would prosper, when they would marry, or the directions in which their later careers would develop. In each instance, it appears, the cheiromant [palmist] had just begun to read their fortunes, when, in sudden bewilderment, she had thrown the outstretched hand from her, crying 'I don't understand it! It's the same thing again! After two or three months, the line of life stops short, and I can read nothing ...' To each individual to whom it was said, this seemed merely an excuse she had improvised for her failure: but when I was told by four or five persons of the same experience, I wondered what it could portend ...
'Beneath it all,' wrote a later poet, Philip Larkin, 'the desire for oblivion runs.' In 1916, under the influence of the war, the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud would postulate the idea of the 'death instinct' – the notion that, parallel to our appetite for life, a darker stream shadows us always, tending towards our extinction. It seems clear that, beneath the evident bursting energy of the Edwardian world with its inventiveness, passion for new technology and forward-looking thought, other powerful forces were stirring in the subterranean collective unconscious – a force resembling a gigantic blind mole fumbling towards the surface, tunnelling its way beneath the smooth lawns of tranquillity.
The writer J. B. Priestley has described how he spent the first seven months of 1914 'running at a standstill' – on the surface engaged in a frenetic round of activity, yet accomplishing very little. It was as if he – and with him the whole nation – were waiting for something, anything, to happen. 'Historic rationality cannot reach it,' mused Priestley:
We can of course point out – and it is wise to do so – that the very things that were supposed to preserve peace did in fact greatly help to end it. Thus the great powers ... were prepared for war, whereas if they had all been unprepared for war there would not have been one. Again, the very system of alliances, interlocking for better protection, pulled one country after another into war: the powers were like mountaineers roped together but with the rope itself nowhere securely fastened above or below them. Even so, and at the risk of offending every historian, I believe it is useless examining and brooding over every document, telegram, mobilisation order, putting the blame first on one foreign office, then on another. If the war had not arrived one way, it would have arrived some other way. What was certain was its arrival.
EUROPE TAKES SIDES
According to the popular image, the crisis touched off by the shots at Sarajevo that culminated in the Great War arrived out of Lloyd George's 'perfectly blue' sky, unexpectedly and savagely interrupting the sedate concert of European nations with the force of a cloudburst ruining a summer garden party. The image is false. It may not have been conscious of the fact, but Europe had been gearing up for war for more than a decade. In April 1914 Britain and France were celebrating ten years of the Entente Cordiale, the informal agreement that had ended almost a millennium of hostility and intermittent but fairly regular warfare between the two neighbours.
Officially merely a tidying-up of colonial rivalries and disputes between the British and French empires, in Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere in Africa, the Entente in fact marked the end of almost a century of 'splendid isolation' in which Britain had held herself loftily aloof from European affairs. Ever since finally trouncing Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Britain had steered clear of continental involvement. Mistress of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, ruling dominions covering a quarter of the globe's surface on which the sun never set, Britain smugly sat behind the steel castles of her navy – easily the strongest fleet in the world – and gazed down condescendingly upon the quarrels of 'lesser breeds without the Law', as the bard of empire, Rudyard Kipling, had called them.
Kipling, in fact, was far from the unthinking jingo imperialist he is often portrayed as being. In 'Recessional' (the poem in which he refers to the 'lesser breeds') he issued a stark warning against imperial hubris, cautioning that Britain's empire – for all her 'Dominion over palm and pine' – was doomed, like those of the ancient world, to crumble into dust. 'Recessional' was written in 1897, after Kipling had seen Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee review of the fleet at Spithead and watched with pride as no fewer than 195 grim, grey warships had steamed by. But, despite being hugely impressed by this stupendous display of power, Kipling had foreseen the certainty of imperial overstretch and decline:
Far-called, our Navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
As late as the 1860s, Britain's prime minister, Lord Palmerston, had still been building forts along her southern coastline to repel the threat of a cross-Channel invasion by another Bonaparte emperor, Napoleon III. But in the early years of the new century – perhaps taking Kipling's warnings on board – Britain's post-Victorian rulers had initiated overtures to the old enemy, France. However, when the brash new kid on the European block, Bismarck's Germany, had contemptuously smashed France's armies in the 1870–1 Franco-Prussian War, proclaiming a new German empire in that holy of holies, the Palace of Versailles itself, the news came as a cold douche of realism for Britain: a wake-up call to look to her defences anew.
With the benign approval of Victoria's son Edward VII – a frequent visitor to belle époque Paris, with his own louche reasons for wanting good relations with France – diplomats cautiously extended the hand of amity across the Channel. The result was the eventual signing of the Entente, followed by a similar understanding with Germany's other principal potential enemy, Russia. Thus, by the end of the twentieth century's first decade, Europe was divided into two armed camps: the Triple Entente of France, Russia and Britain; and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (though when push came to shove, Italy would throw in her lot with the Entente, to be replaced as a German ally by Turkey).
The Entente, however, was still an informal and loose alliance. Britain continued to rely on its navy as its main weapon to maintain its global empire and protect it from invasion, while its small army acted as a gendarmerie policing the far-flung empire. Almost alone among European nations, Britain scorned to conscript its youth into the army. The same game spirit of amateurism which still dominated its cricket and football teams pervaded its military thinking too. But events in Europe were exercising a magnetic force, pulling Britain along in their wake. Just as far-sighted diplomats awoke to the German threat and made their dispositions with France accordingly, so too did two able and clear-thinking men: one a politician, the other a general.
Richard Burdon Haldane was a ponderous, portly Scottish lawyer whose agile brain belied his elephantine appearance. As secretary of state for war in the multi-talented cabinet of giants that was the 1906–14 Liberal government, Haldane pushed through a thorough-going reform of the army that gave Britain at least the nucleus of a modern, professional fighting force. In 1907–8 Haldane had created the Territorial Army out of the hodge-podge of militia, volunteer and yeomanry units that had formed the army's reserve since the Napoleonic Wars. The Territorials would learn the soldiering trade at weekend and summer camps.
Haldane, like so many progressives, was a passionate admirer of things Teutonic. (He translated the words of the gloomy German philosopher Schopenhauer, and even described a German philosophy seminar as 'My spiritual home'.)
But notwithstanding his open sympathies – which would cost him his cabinet job when a hysterical anti-German press campaign drove him from office after the war began – Haldane was a clear-eyed realist who knew that if war came, it would be with his beloved Germany. His Territorials were a first tentative step towards girding Britain for an all-encompassing industrial conflict like none she had seen before.
Despite his unsoldierly appearance and the military top brass's cheerful contempt for the 'Frocks', as they called frock-coated politicians, Haldane worked well with soldiers – especially with his fellow Scot, Douglas Haig, the future commander of the British Army in the war, and with the unlikely figure of Sir Henry Wilson, the gangling, arrogant Irish Unionist who was appointed Director of Military Operations at the War Office in 1910. Wilson's unprepossessing appearance – not helped by a facial scar that made him reputedly 'the ugliest man in the Army' – concealed a shrewd mind and unmatched skills as a backstairs intriguer. Informal 'conversations' between the British and French military high commands had been underway since December 1905, shortly after the Entente had come into force. A fervent Francophile, Wilson was determined to upgrade these casual chats into a proper, full-blown military co-operation.
Even more sure than Haldane that a war with Germany was inevitable, Wilson was equally certain where the coming conflict would be fought: on the rolling downs and among the slagheap-strewn coalfields of north- eastern France, and on the flat, featureless polders of Belgian Flanders. To spy out the lie of the land, the incongruous figure of the lanky, snaggle-toothed soldier could often be seen, in the years before 1914, laboriously pedalling a bicycle around the future battlefields. So sure was Wilson that war was coming that he devised a plan to move an army of four divisions, called the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), across the Channel in double- quick time as soon as war was declared, or even looked likely.
The French warmly welcomed the plan for the deployment of what they called 'L'Armée Wilson'. The French commander, General Joseph Joffre, laid his war plans for resisting a German invasion on the assumption that a strong British force would be deployed on his left wing, guarding the Channel ports. To quell French fears that the BEF would be far too weak to stand up to a German juggernaut numbering nearly a million, Wilson declared that the fighting quality of his troops, with their special skill at rapid musketry, would more than make up for their inferiority in numbers.
If the French were well aware of Wilson's plans to back them up to the hilt in the coming war, his political masters were not so well-informed. A convinced Conservative politically, Wilson despised the Liberal cabinet as 'dirty, ignorant curs', told them as little about his plans as he possibly could, and did what he could to obfuscate and conceal his real bellicose intentions. Only a semi-secret civil-military committee, the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), containing a small core of select ministers, was vouchsafed a hint of the extent of the planned British deployment in France in the event of war. As a result, as the true scale of Britain's commitment to France became clear when the crisis broke in 1914, it came as a rude shock to the more pacifist or neutral-minded Liberals.
Excerpted from Peace and War by Nigel Jones. Copyright © 2014 Nigel Jones. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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