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The French Staff Talks
Grey’s first action on entering the Foreign Office was to reiterate a commitment he had made in the run up to the election to ensure a continuity in British foreign policy, his second was to become his most controversial. On 29 December 1905 Grey was made aware by fellow ‘Coefficients’ member Col. Repington, the military correspondent to The Times, that secret informal talks had started in April 1905 between British and French staff officers with the aim of coordinating operations against Germany in the event of war (There is no evidence to indicate that Lansdowne or any members of the Balfour government were aware of any talks taking place during 1905.). Sir George Clarke secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) confirmed the talks to Grey in a briefing on 9 January 1906.
Following a consultation with Haldane, Grey, without consulting his Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman, or gaining cabinet approval authorized a continuation of the talks. Campbell-Bannerman was presented with a ‘fait accompli’ when he returned to London on 27 January 1906. Grey determined to ensure his promise of continuity in British foreign policy probably believed that to gain cabinet approval for the talks could well result in a dilution of British support for France at the Algerciras conference discussing Morocco. Campbell-Bannerman, whilst fearing that the talks ‘constituted something “very close to an honourable undertaking” which he opposed’ chose to conceal the talks from the remainder of his cabinet. (John W. Coogan & Peter F. Coogan, ‘The British Cabinet and the Anglo-French Staff Talks, 1905-1914: Who Knew What and When Did He Know It?’, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1985), p. 113.). Only five members of the new 1906 Liberal Cabinet were aware of the talks; Campbell-Bannerman, Grey, Haldane, Tweedmouth (First Lord of the Admiralty), and Ripon (Liberal Leader in the House of Lords). Campbell-Bannerman’s reasoning for not telling the remainder of the cabinet centered on two elements. The staff talks covered to his mind a hypothetical issue. To win the election he had had to pull a fractured Liberal party back together and he was not prepared to risk splitting his fragile Liberal coalition over such a contentious ‘hypothetical’ issue.
From their inception the talks lacked co-ordination and became compartmentalised. Haldane and Tweedmouth saw them primarily in their respective single service military terms. Grey viewed them solely in diplomatic terms, a mechanism to keep France close to Britain. The affect of this compartmentalism on British policy would not become clear until the next Moroccan crisis. The authorization of military talks went well beyond the original terms of the Entente and looked, particularly to the French, like a prelude to an Alliance. Campbell-Brown never had to address the confusion caused by this compartmentalism. His death in April 1908 followed by the resignations of Tweedmouth and Ripon that October left only two members of the cabinet aware of the talks. The new Prime Minister Asquith was told about the talks in July 1908 and, like his predecessor, was not prepared to pay the political price by raising the issue of the talks in cabinet. The Army and Navy continued to make plans that would ultimately prove to be mutually exclusive.
The Anglo-Russian Entente
In August 1907, following 14 months of negotiations, Grey achieved what his predecessors Salisbury and Lansdowne had only managed to aspire to, a settlement of colonial differences with Russia covering Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. Russia, despite its defeat by Japan in 1905, was perceived in Britain as a latent power whose revival was inevitable. The Liberal government chose negotiation rather than countering the perceived Russian threat to India militarily. This choice was driven by cost and a change in British strategic thinking following CID foreign invasion discussions in 1905 and 1907 which identified Germany, due largely to its naval expansion, not Russia as Britain's main potential enemy. The wording of Anglo-Russian entente contained no overt European element but it represented to German eyes a shift in the Balance of Power in favor of the ‘Triple Entente’. Grey had had this in mind when on 20 February 1906 he had written:
‘An entente between Russia, France and ourselves would be absolutely secure. If it is necessary to check Germany it could then be done.’ G.P. Gooch and Harold Temperley (eds), British Documents on the Origin of the War 1898-1914, Vol III, (London 1928) No 299, p. 267.
Central to Grey’s thinking was that the Russian army, as France’s ally, would provide:
‘the great counterpoise to Germany on land.’ K.M. Wilson, THE ANGLO-FRENCH ENTENTE REVISITED, Canadian Journal of History, August 1996, pp. 227-255.
The Russo-Japanese war had curtailed Russian aspirations in the Far East; the Anglo-Russian Entente limited them in the Near and Middle East. In response Russia turned to the Balkans to ensure a share in the spoils as the Ottoman Empire continued its collapse. The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austro-Hungary in October 1908 proved the first test of Russia’s Balkan policy. Blocked in her attempts to gain access through the Dardanelles by a reneging Austro-Hungary and a refusal by Grey to support her claim Russia, unwilling to risk war, was forced to back down by a combination of Austro-Hungary and Germany. Humiliated Russia was left to console Serbia.
Testing the Entente Cordial
Coincident with the Balkans crisis relations between Germany and France were worsened by the Casablanca affair. In September 1908, six deserters, three of German nationality, from the French Foreign Legion, under a safe conduct issued by the German consul, aided by a Moroccan soldier attached to the consulate, attempted to board a German ship berthed at Casablanca. The deserters were seized by the French officials after considerable violence. In November 1908 at the height of the Bosnia annexation crisis and Casablanca affair Grey was urged by Cambon, the French Ambassador, to resume the naval conversations. In response Fisher the First Sea Lord, without official backing, proposed that the French fleet should concentrate in and defend the Mediterranean, whilst Britain would withdraw her ships for operations in the North Sea and the Baltic. This proposal was turned down by the French but the rational behind it would appear again in 1912.
On 1 July 1911 Germany announced that she had sent a gunboat to the Moroccan port of Agadir. The gunboat was sent supposedly to protect German interests there, but was in reality sent to challenge France whose soldiers had occupied Fez the Moroccan capital earlier in the year. British interests were twofold; to prevent Germany threatening her trade routes by gaining control of a port along the Moroccan coast and to fulfill British obligations under the terms of the 1904 Entente to support France in any attempt by her to establish a protectorate in Morocco. This obligation was a secret clause in the Entente that only became public knowledge when it was leaked and published in Le Temps.
Next: Part 5 - ‘Staff Talks Exposed’