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004 Sir Edward Grey and the charm of birds

Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey

British government hesitates in July crisis

It is Sunday 19 July 1914. It is the fourth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

King George V announces a conference to solve the Home Rule problem for Ireland.

Strikers at St Petersburg throw up barricades against the police.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani prepare to leave Russia.

Austria-Hungary lets this moment coincide with an ultimatum to Serbia. It must comply with ten demands within 48 hours.

After deliberating with big brother Russia Serbia decides to react to the demands as favourably as possible. It promises to take a firm line with anti-Austrian statements and groupings. 

Serbia, however, adds that it cannot comply with one particular demand. It will not allow Austrian government officials to hunt down the assassins of Franz Ferdinand on Serbian territory.

The Austrian ambassador in Serbia returns home and his emperor decides to mobilize.

Military commanders in Germany return prematurely from their summer holidays.

Yet an offer to arbitrate in the Austrian-Serbian conflict is made by the British government in the person of its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey.

When on 23 July 1914 Austria-Hungary burdens the Serbians with an almost impossible ultimatum, in London Sir Edward Grey’s finest hour is supposed to come. Unfortunately the British Foreign Secretary tarries and tarries. Grey is a fervent flyfisher, but now that it comes to the crunch, he casts his bait into the water too late. He ventures to mediate, but neglects to make clear to the fighting cocks on the continent where England itself stands.

Suppose Grey had told France and Russia from the start: ‘Do not count on us, we have our hands full with Ireland ’. Would those two indeed have chosen to turn a blind eye after all while Austria slapped Serbia? Suppose Grey had said to Germany and Austria without hesitation: ‘You will upset the balance in Europe over my dead body. England is solidly behind France and Russia.’ Would Berlin have insisted much more strongly that Vienna should not bring things so much to a head?

He did not pull either scenario from the drawer of his desk. Grey’s indecision eventually cost him his reputation, even though he became especially famous because of that one oneliner. Staring from a window of the Foreign Office on the eve of the Great War, Grey is supposed to have said to a friend in a moment of lucidity: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

There is no British Foreign Secretary who served his Majesty longer than Sir Edward Grey. He took office under prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905 and did not step down until David Lloyd George took over government from that other liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at the end of 1916. No other European foreign minister had such a strong position of power in the preceding years.

Grey, who was a representative of the Liberal Party, descends from a family of office holders, among whom Earl Grey, later well-known because of the tea. Edward is the oldest of a family of seven. He is educated in Winchester and Oxford. In the pre-war years Grey proves to be a competent minister. In 1907 he signs for a détente in the hitherto strained relations of the conservative governments with Russia. For Grey it is certain that Russia is an indispensable factor in European politics for the balance of power. In Central Asia he agrees with the Russians on defining their mutual spheres of influence.

Grey also strengthens the bonds with France. When the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Marchand started an expedition to the upper course of the Nile, he called this an ‘unfriendly act’. But that was in 1895 when Grey was assistant foreign secretary. War with France was then still far from unimaginary. In the new century we see cordiality appear between London and Paris, though Grey as architect sees to it that this Entente Cordiale does not end in a straightjacket for the British, who after all are so attached to their splendid isolation.

In these pre-war days Grey, too, thinks that the greatest threat comes from Germany. He estimates that the Germans are seriously considering an invasion. The British foreign secretary is not unfamiliar with germanophobia. He assumes that during their holidays German officers are strategically mapping the British coasts. Grey’s policies, however, are not aimed at a military conflict with an economically vital Germany. The starting point is ‘containment’: Grey tries to keep Germany under his thumb by isolating it together with other superpowers, France and especially Russia.

His cautious manoeuvres and the resulting military obligations take place in an atmosphere of ‘hush hush’. War prime minister David Lloyd George for example complains in his memoirs about the inadequate intelligence from the Foreign Office during Grey’s term in office. ‘His striking physiognomy with the thin lips, the firmly closed mouth, and the chiselled features gave the impression of cold hammered steel,’ characterizes Lloyd George. ‘Add to this exterior the reticence of speech and the calm level utterance on the rare occasions when he spoke and you were led to expect imperturbable strength in an emergency.’

But Lloyd George painfully makes clear that during the July crisis of 1914 Grey fell short of expectations. Three years earlier, however, Grey had nicely lived up to his promise, when Germany and France collided again about Morocco during the Agadir crisis. The Germans despatched the gunship Panther to North Africa and escalation was imminent. Together with prime minister Asquith Grey preferred to warn Germany using bold language. This proved to be effective. Germany went into its shell. Grey however did not learn his lesson to act accordingly in recurrent matters.

It is generally assumed that Grey, who was cautiousness personified, did not anticipate the danger in that lovely summer of 1914. Great Britain was especially busy with the Home Rule matter: the Irish who want to break away from Great Britain. When during a cabinet meeting the shadow of the July crisis finally fell across the Irish matter, Winston Churchill described this moment as follows: ‘The quiet grave tones of Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard, reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to the Serbians. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began to fall and grow upon the map of Europe’.

A week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the German ambassador arrives to point out to Grey that tensions might rise considerably. Grey is requested by Germany to admonish Russia to be calm. It is Grey’s choice to play the role of sympathetic mediator who now and then calls out to ‘…take it easy’, whereas he should have banged his fist on the table. Also on 23 July, the crucial day of the Austrian ultimatum, he loses valuable time. Yet he makes an attempt to prolong the 48 hours within which Austria expects Serbia to react, but this message is not received in Vienna.

In Berlin they still rather like Grey’s proposal for international mediation between Russia and Austria. After all it is not the German emperor’s aim to get involved in a large-scale conflict. He only wants to create the conditions for Austria to make short work of Serbia. This variant virtually goes down in history as ‘Halt in Belgrade’. Shortly before midnight of 25 July the German ambassador in London is charged to inform Grey that they are to talk about his mediation plan. Unfortunately Grey has already left London to spend the weekend on his estate.

So the wartrain thunders on and will eventually reach Sir Edward Grey’s station. Without consulting the British cabinet Grey directed some admonishing words, ‘entirely calm but very grave’, to the German ambassador on 29 July. Should the conflict between Austria and Serbia not be ‘localized’, it would not be ‘practicable’  for Great Britain to stay aside. Grey links this with the horrifying prediction that a war would be the ‘greatest catastrophe’ the world has ever seen. It is all too late. From Berlin the emperor and his chancellor are no longer able to assume control in Vienna. Later both Grey and his Russian colleague Serge Sazonov will put the blame for the escalation of the conflict on Germany.

When on 4 August Germany declares war on Belgium, England’s aloofness is also finished.  Grey did not connect Britain’s fate inextricably to Serbia, France or Russia, but Germany should keep its hands off neutral little Belgium. Historically Grey was proved right by a treaty from 1839, which had guaranteed the neutrality of the young Belgian nation. It was also signed Prussia. To Grey this treaty was a matter of honour, but the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is said to have dismissed this during a conversation with the British ambassador as a ‘scrap of paper’. In his memoirs Grey observed that even though the invasion of Belgium had been the reason to participate in war, his own premonition inspired him to help France in the first place.

During the war Grey gradually discovers that foreign policy can hardly withstand military dynamics. He works hard to strengthen the ties with France and Russia. It is agreed that neither of the three will strive for individual peace. You can also hold Grey accountable for the important London Pact of april 1915, according to which Italy sides with the allies. But he misinterprets the political mood in Turkey and Bulgaria who will join with the Central Powers. Neither does he succeed in winning over Greece and Romania for the allied cause fully and in time. His reputation which was so sparkling before the war has begun to do justice to his name, greyish.

When David Lloyd George becomes prime minister in 1916, Grey has to step down as foreign secretary for Arthur Balfour, who used to be prime minister for the Conservatives. That same year Grey joins the House of Lords as Viscount Grey of Fallodon. During the First World War he already makes out a case for the formation of a League of Nations, something which also the American president Woodrow Wilson will start promoting.

A diplomatic mission, which he leads in September 1919 in order to persuade the United States to accept the Treaty of Versailles, fails. Grey is British ambassador in the United States for two years. Meanwhile his eyesight deteriorates. In 1925 his memoirs are published under the title of Twenty-Five Years. In these memoirs he speculates about an English-American-German alliance to guarantee world peace. Another world war is to precede the realisation of this atlantic thought.

Before he dies in 1933 at the age of 71, childless after two marriages, one more important book of his is published: The Charm of Birds. Exactly! The other side of Sir Edward Grey is that of the ornithologist. It is a pity that he did not make a better study of the German eagle.

Next week: Jean Jaurès

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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