The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914, by Douglas Newton

A. W. Purdue extols a powerful contribution to the debate over the decision for war

August 21, 2014

Few historians have challenged the consensus that Britain had no option but to declare war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Douglas Newton joins that select number with this powerful, if rather polemical, attack on the way the nation was led to war by the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, the prime minister H.H. Asquith and the other dominant Liberal Imperialists, volubly supported by Winston Churchill, in the Liberal Government.

As the fuse ignited by the assassination at Sarajevo slowly burned, Newton argues that the ministers who were determined to support France and Russia spent late July manipulating and misleading the majority in the Cabinet who favoured neutrality. By early August, there was a majority in favour of war. Not only was the Cabinet bamboozled, but in the final days before war was declared Parliament was effectively muzzled: not only was there no vote on the decision to go to war, but the war faction ensured that there was not even a full debate.

Behind the success of Grey and those who agreed with him was a determination, which they knew was backed by the Conservative opposition, that if there was to be a war, Britain must enter it on the side of France and Russia. Most members of the Cabinet and of the Liberal majority in Parliament were blissfully unaware of the extent to which, under the guidance of Grey, the ententes with France and Russia had moved from being understandings as to the settlement of colonial differences to becoming virtual alliances with secret military arrangements attached. Grey, Newton alleges, was determined all along that Britain should not remain neutral, but could not reveal the real reasons, namely that he had gone so far in his commitments to France that he felt Britain could not “with honour” stand aside. He had therefore to dissemble and proclaim repeatedly that there was no binding commitment that could prevent British neutrality, and went through the motions of proposing conferences of the powers that might bring about a peaceful solution, while rejecting German proposals as unhelpful or Machiavellian.

Publicly professing an even-handed approach, the foreign secretary put little pressure for restraint on Russia, even though a major step towards war was the mobilisation of the Russian Army. His ability to swing the majority of the Cabinet behind him was, of course, aided by fears of the collapse of the government and by Germany’s clumsy diplomacy and its final gift, its intention to attack France through Belgium. This gave the war party its excuse for the declaration of war, although even then a sleight of hand, the misrepresentation of Britain’s legal obligation to protect Belgium neutrality, was necessary.

The Darkest Days is powerfully argued and Newton’s thesis is compelling, but there are problems with his exegesis. Those radical members of the Cabinet with whom he sympathises – including Lewis Harcourt, Sir John Simon, Sir Charles Trevelyan and William Lygon, the Earl Beauchamp – were certainly outwitted, but they were also less than heroic, too easily satisfied with comforting assurances and too concerned to keep differences within the Cabinet out of the public gaze; even the effects of their actual, threatened or withdrawn resignations were nullified by their agreement to keep them secret. Above all, they lacked a leader. Astonishingly, David Lloyd George (who, had he stuck with his initial support for neutrality, could have fulfilled that role) is given less attention here than a minor player like Beauchamp. He almost disappears under a cloak of invisibility, yet he was the only possible leader for the neutralists until expedience made him change sides.

This immensely readable book makes a timely contribution to the developing debate over Britain’s decision for war, although it paints too black and white a picture of the deliberations of men under extreme pressure. Neither Grey, nor any other member of the Cabinet, was eager for war, except perhaps Churchill, who, unhealthily excited at the prospect, did his bit to hasten it by his orders to the fleet. No one, including Grey, who seems to have believed that war would be a largely naval affair for Britain, could see the horrors that lay ahead.

The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914

By Douglas Newton
Verso, 416pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781781683507 and 3514 (e-book)
Published 28 July 2014

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