Commemorations are being held across the globe to mark the centenary of Britain’s entry into the Great War. As statesmen declare the importance of learning from history, brutal conflict persists in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and at many other locations worldwide.
One of the most poignant, and prophetic, comments on the eve the outbreak of war came from Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary:
The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
Grey is Britain’s longest continuously-serving Foreign Secretary and he had witnessed the decline in Anglo-German relations since his tenure had begun in 1905. Whilst both royal houses attempted to portray an outward veneer of civility and peace, the growing naval race, geostrategic competition and a breakdown in trust were leading to an irreversible deterioration in relations.
In January 1910, the British Ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, wrote:
There is soreness in Germany about the anti-German tone of General Election speeches in England, and great interest in the result of the Election.
In a letter dated the 26th October 1910, Grey wrote to Goschen regarding negotiations for a naval agreement between Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy:
On Germany’s part such an agreement would mean the renunciation of ambitions for the hegemony of Europe. The way in which she receives the proposal…will be a test of whether she really desires peace and security from all attack for herself or whether she has ambitions which can be gratified only at the expense of other Powers.
Thoughts of war were already very much present in the mind of the Foreign Secretary and he was in no doubt about which country was the potential aggressor.
By December 1911, Goschen was reporting further bad news having met with German Chancellor Theobald von Bethamnn-Hollweg:
He [the Chancellor] told me that he had seen Mr Fox, the Secretary (I think) of the ‘Anglo-German Friendship Society’ , for a few moments and told him that, while appreciating the efforts of that Society, he did not think the present moment suitable for an interchange of visits, exhibitions etc. and that the less public attention was drawn to the relations between the two peoples the better.
The correspondence between the Foreign Secretary and his Ambassador became increasingly focused on military matters throughout 1912 and 1913, particularly the German naval build-up and the consequences of the Balkan Wars and other rumblings on the continent for Britain’s strategic position in Europe.
Whilst King George V and Russian Tsar Nicholas II continually to delude themselves that their bond of blood with Kaiser Wilhelm would be sufficient to prevent war – and all made frequent visits to one another and proclamations of friendship – within the British Foreign Office there was a sense of inevitability that the peace would be shattered.
The Germans, despite a determined imperial arrogance, were also likely in little doubt about the inevitability of war. It is well-reported that as Goschen departed Berlin on 4th August 1914, 100 years ago today, Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg apparently voiced his amazement that Britain would go to war for a ‘scrap of paper’ (the 1839 neutrality agreement with Belgium). Bethman-Hollweg’s later explanation of the moment paints a different picture.
Even without this paper, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the myriad alliances and counter-alliances across Europe, the war was coming.
To think that a century on war is on the doorstep of Europe once again shows that our history lessons are not being heeded.
National Archives Catalogue Ref: FO/800/62