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Staff Talks Exposed
In August 1911 at the height of the Agadir crisis Haldane persuaded Asquith that the international situation demanded a review of Britain’s military preparations for war. On 23 August 1911 a CID meeting attended only by those ministers who had prior knowledge of the staff talks was held. The ministers present were Asquith, Grey, Haldane, McKenna, Churchill, and Lloyd-George. Both Churchill and Lloyd-George had been courted by Haldane for over two years and both were briefed on the plans to send the BEF to France sometime before the August meeting. Lloyd-George was anti Prussian militarism rather than anti-German and had underlined his stance in the Mansion House speech he delivered on 21 July 1911. Following a lack luster naval presentation the general consensus of the meeting was that the option of sending the BEF to France in the event of war was the only viable strategy. McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty, dismayed at the inequitable hearing ensured that the reminder of the Cabinet was made aware of the staff talks. The CID meeting ultimately resulted in three things; the subject of the staff talks being debated by the full cabinet during November 1911, an acrimonious debate that almost cost Grey his job. The result was a stalemate with Asquith agreeing that no further talks should take place without Cabinet approval. It brought forward and legitimised the continental nature of the Anglo-French military planning presenting it as a viable alternative to the traditional purely naval options. It proved the catalyst that moved Asquith to replace McKenna with Churchill at the Admiralty with the mandate to:
‘… create a War Staff at the Admiralty, such as had already been imposed [by Haldane] on the War Office, and to make the admirals co-operate more with that other service department rather than operating in sublime or complacent isolation.’ Roy Jenkins, Churchill, (London: Macmillan, 2001), p. 205.
In 1912 Churchill found himself fully occupied with Britain’s naval position in the Mediterranean. The construction of Dreadnought class battleships by both Italy and Austro-Hungary had rendered the British battleships in the Mediterranean obsolete. Faced with the option of their replacement or withdrawal, cost and the growing German navy forced Churchill’s hand. Britain unilaterally opted for withdrawal. Almost simultaneously the French decided to realign their fleet and reinforce the Mediterranean leaving their Atlantic and Channel coasts exposed. This French decision came following naval discussions during which Churchill had suggested the Mediterranean reinforcement idea as the best way to serve French interests. To German eyes this was more than a coincidence and Berlin assumed a deal had been signed. No deal had been signed although the French clearly wished for one. Despite France’s failure to gain a British commitment Poincaré, the French Prime Minister, confided to the Russian Foreign Minister that,
‘while no written agreement between France and Great Britain was in existence …… a verbal agreement [had been made] between the Governments of France and Great Britain in which Great Britain had declared her readiness to come to the aid of France with her land and naval forces should France be attacked by Germany.’ Memorandum by Sazonov, quoted in Stieve, Isvolsky and the World War. Quoted in: Geoffrey Miller, The Millstone Chapter 21 Summary and Conclusion The Moral Commitment.
This knowledge may have reinforced Russia’s belligerent stance in July 1914. The years of military conversations, which had lacked British political oversight and direction, had built up French expectations but had not resulted in any defined British obligation to France. In a twist of irony the talks that came closest to a formal agreement were those conducted by Churchill in 1912 with full cabinet knowledge.
By 1914 Britain had shifted from isolation to continental engagement through a process of détente with her 19th century imperial rivals France and Russia. The naval arms race with Germany had been won by Britain and both countries knew it. Relations with Germany had improved, both countries had worked together to settle the 1912/13 Balkan crises that resulted in the Treaty of London. During 1913 and 1914 the pace of arms increases across Europe had picked up with Russia’s latent power beginning to show. Russia had initiated a programme to add an additional 500,000 men to her standing army. In Britain the central focus of attention was the crisis in Ireland and a new Home Rule Bill. To many in Britain the July crisis when it came was just another Balkan crisis that should be handled like the previous ones.
By the 27 July 1914 Grey realized that his earlier strategy of working with Germany would fail. Germany, aware of Russia’s growing strength and knowing that she would not back down the way she had in 1908, had no intention of restraining Austro-Hungary. Grey had never properly outlined the reasons behind Britain’s switch to Continental engagement, or the possible cost, to the majority of his cabinet colleagues. At a cabinet meeting on 29 July 1914 this resulted in an overwhelming majority of members opposing Grey’s proposed promise of support for France, only the Liberal Imperialist trio and Churchill were convinced that Britain would have to intervene on the side of France. Grey believed that although no treaty had been signed support for France had become a matter of honor. In cabinet on the 2 August he stated;
‘We have led France to rely upon us and unless we support her in her agony I cannot continue at the Foreign Office.’ George, Lord Riddel, War diary, London, 1933, p. 6, 2 August 1914. Quoted in: Bentley B. Gilbert, ‘Pacifist to Interventionist: David Lloyd George in 1911 and 1914. Was Belgium an Issue?’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), p. 880.
Between the 30 July and 4 August 1914 the Liberal Cabinet walked a tightrope of indecision, unwilling to face the final question, the question that would have split the cabinet and handed power to a pro-war Conservative party. Ultimately it was the violation of Belgium neutrality that provided the umbrella under which the cabinet dissenters could make their moral choice to ‘tow the line’ and retain the integrity of the government. On 4 August 1914 Britain stumbled into war with Germany. In August 1914 the Cabinet had been free to make the choice between peace and war. It was the perceived need to protect Britain’s Imperial position and interests against German European hegemony that had tipped the decision in favor of war.
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