Sir Edward Grey on the Causes of World War I
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British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey (l), Winston Churchill (c), Lord Crewe (r)

"It must not, however, be supposed, because the writer was for so
many years, and those the most critical, at the centre of affairs that
his account is necessarily authoritative and complete. It is precisely
the man at the centre who is often unable to see the wood for the trees." (1)
British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey

(July 16, 2019, this page in development)

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References  Page 2
June 28-July 1914: The Strategy of Hope
Causes of World War I
Sir Edward Grey: Delayed Telegrams June-July 1914
Winston Churchill on the June 28-July 1914 Crisis
June 29th-July 1914, Wagons-Lits to the French Riviera

Post-June 28-July 1914/WWI:
Effects of Atomic Detonations: Hiroshima, Nagasaki
Japan: Feasibility of Atomic Demonstration-Test in 1945
USAF Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

It generates nothing short of rapt astonishment to see so many books/articles on the causes of WWI more or less completely omit the memoirs of the one who so many WWI historians concede was "at the centre of affairs," Sir Edward Grey. If his highly detailed analysis is mentioned, it is by taking only itsy bitsy snippets of his testimony.

This should be a point of major investigation.

As is well known, many cunning people lie by omission. If many historians are right about their views on the origins of WWI, one would naturally suppose many lengthy sections of testimony from their "man at the centre" would be included to back up their conclusions. Instead. we find almost the exact opposite has happened.

"What political value the book has must be left to others to determine. It presents my own views, but its object is much more to stimulate thought than to press that these views should be accepted as conclusive."[italics added] (2)

WWI historians who wish their views to be accepted as "conclusive" may experience significant difficulties with the Foreign Secretary's analysis.

Possibly this is why many historians go out of their way to only cite microscopic fragments of the Foreign Secretary's work. Instead we hear such micro-snippets as "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."

This tiny remark explains exactly nothing, yet it is by far the most famous remark of the Foreign Secretary's very lengthy and detailed testimony. Loudly trumpeting the remark is an awfully stupid attempt to re-frame the Foreign Secretary from a known active decision-maker to that of a bystander.

Many "WWI historians" have not sought to peer deeply at all into the Foreign Secretary's testimony. And considering Foreign Secretary Edward Grey's obviously deeply central political position in the years leading up to and including the June 28-July 1914 Crisis, that's one hell of a puzzle:

"'You consider that to be important?' he asked.
'Exceedingly so.'
'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time."
'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes."(3)

The British Foreign Secretary is sober enough to admit big mistakes may have been made. Such testimony is devastating. The Foreign Secretary:

"It would be interesting to know how much the statesmen at Berlin, Paris and St. Petersburg saw of the future consequences of their action, when in 1895 they decided on joint action to restrain Japan. I am sure that British Ministers at the time did not look beyond the moment.

"Probably it is seldom that public men see much beyond direct consequences. Even in looking back with full knowledge of the event it is impossible to trace the indirect consequences of a past act beyond the earlier stages: after that they are merged in the great movement of consequences of other acts; and the mind, in endeavouring to trace them, loses itself as it does in the attempt to conceive infinity.

"Even historians with knowledge of the event, and with the materials before them on which to form a judgment, see but a little way into the causes and consequences of the great events of history."

"It is necessary to have a clear opinion at the time as to what is right, and to act upon it, but when an affair is over and one’s own part is done, it is more interesting to put what is past to question in one’s own mind and to review it, than simply to defend it without question, as if one were no wiser after the event than before."(4)

The man "at the centre of affairs", the stalwart British Foreign Secretary:

"In addition to this it must be remembered that the scope of each individual mind is fragmentary. Try as he may, each one of us can grasp but one aspect of the truth; and this is all that he can convey to others."

"This book naturally presents the British view, or, at least, that portion of it which was, and is, my own; but in it an endeavour has been made to envisage also the international aspect of the war. Indeed, the main purpose and desire has not been to make vindication or condemnation of any country the final word.

"That would be a barren and unprofitable end. The endeavour has been made to present the facts in such a way as to discover, or help others to discover and draw, conclusions that may avoid another war of the same scope and character."(5)[italics added]

The very last thing some WWI historians want to do is to pause from making "vindication or condemnation of any country the final word." That may be why the Foreign Secretary's testimony is more or less completely ignored.

To back up a step, the future Foreign Secretary admits right at the beginning he found having to live in London in order to work for the gov't endlessly unpleasant:

"I had been elected to Parliament in 1885. My wife and I took a small furnished house in London for the Session of 1886. We had neither of us yet made much trial of town life, and the first spring did not pass without our becoming aware that it was intensely distasteful to us... This I knew well enough by 1892, and, realizing that the ties of office must intensify the exile, I entered it without any elation; indeed with depression."

"In time the contrast between the life that I loved and the life that I led for five days every week affected my spirits."

"A sense of the futility of it all now added to the depression caused by party bitterness and by town life and exile from home."(6)

The Foreign Secretary had a fishing cottage in the British countryside, preferring to spend many of his weekends there.

"Then, every Monday morning, we went back to London, I to spend the morning at the Foreign Office and the rest of the day after luncheon in the cellar-room under the House of Commons, in which I could hear the unpleasant sounds, when the obstruction in the House was very rampant and demonstrative, as it frequently was then, or when, as sometimes happened, there was open disorder in the House. Party feeling ran high in those days.(7)

Foreign Secretary Grey discusses events at the Foreign Office from the 1890's through the early 1900's, discussed the successful resolution of several big crises, then makes the following remark:

"European peace had weathered worse storms than any that now were visible above the horizon."

How closely was the Foreign Secretary looking? Hostile to Europe, he crossed the Channel once, and that reluctantly. The Foreign Secretary had virtually ZERO feel for the situation on the ground in Europe in 1914.

Long before June 1914, the American President Woodrow Wilson grew seriously concerned about the possibility of a European War. It's beyond belief that an American president, from 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic Ocean, could see the distant outlines of a looming European military clash, a catastrophic war the British Foreign Secretary, only 33 km away across the English Channel, admitted he never saw coming.

Possibly this was what the usually quite astute Foreign Secretary meant when he said "It is precisely the man at the centre who is often unable to see the wood for the trees."

President Wilson had sent his emissary, Colonel Edward House, all the way from America to first meet with the Kaiser in Berlin, then Poincaire in Paris, and lastly Sir Edward Grey, British Prime Minister HH Asquith, Chancellor of the ExChequer Lloyd George, and others in London:

"The political situation in Great Britain was almost as confused as that in Paris. The country was in a state approaching civil war on the question of Home Rule for Ireland; the suffragettes were threatening to dynamite the Houses of Parliament; and the eternal struggle between the Liberal and the Conservative elements was raging with unprecedented virulence.

"A European war was far from everybody's mind. It was this utter inability to grasp the realities of the European situation which proved the main impediment to Colonel House's work in England.

"He met all the important people---Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George, Sir Edward Grey, and others. With them he discussed his 'pact' proposal in great detail.

"Naturally, ideas of this sort were listened to sympathetically by statesmen of the stamp of Asquith, Grey, and Lloyd George. The difficulty, however, was that none of these men apprehended an immediate war. They saw no necessity of hurrying about the matter. They had the utmost confidence in Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, and Von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor.

"Both these men were regarded by the Foreign Office as guarantees against a German attack; their continuance in their office was looked upon as an assurance that Germany entertained no immediately aggressive plans.

"Though the British statesmen did not say so definitely, the impression was conveyed that the mission on which Colonel House was engaged was an unnecessary one---a preparation against a danger that did not exist."(8) [italics added]

The next day the Archduke was killed in Sarajevo.

The Foreign Secretary:

I had been more than eight years at the Foreign Office, in the centre of all the troubles; it was natural to hope, even to expect, that the same methods which had preserved peace hitherto, when it had been threatened, would preserve it still."(9)

"...it was natural to hope..." The Great Powers' June 28-July 1914 catastrophic strategy of hope is addressed here. The Foreign Secretary's leisurely experience in dealing with previous local crises on the Continent has led him, as well as all the other Great Powers, to mistakenly assume no local crises on the Continent would ever require prompt arbitration.

"So it's patience."

"Lots of patience. The famous story goes, 'How do you make these beautiful British lawns?' and the answer is, 'Oh, you just roll them for 200 years.'
They've never thought of things in terms of quick returns."(10)
Freeman Dyson, (British) physicist, Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton.

In 1914 it was almost as if the British Foreign Office did not understand the concept of time. The Foreign Secretary Grey candidly admits he belonged to the Victorian Era, and that by 1914 another Era had arrived:

"Those of us who grew to maturity in the nineteenth century acquired our sense of values and formed our first opinions in the latter part of the Victorian age.

"The general point of view in domestic affairs was already changing rapidly before 1914. The war may be regarded as the division between two epochs in foreign affairs as well. We, who were in foremost places in 1904, belonged to one epoch and have lived on into another. We are now confronted by problems that are new to us, our vision may be rendered unsteady by things that seem disquieting or alarming, because they are strange to us."(11)

By "the same methods", the foreign Secretary is referring to using the telegraph to begin arbitrating crises. However by 1914 European/British telegraph operations was constantly prone to impossibly-long delays in transmitting telegrams. Furthermore, by 1914 other ways of reliably communicating/transporting messages were in rapidly advancing everywhere in France, Germany, America (and in Britain). The Foreign Secretary:

"Each time that there had seemed to be danger of war I had been more and more impressed with the feeling of the unprecedented catastrophe that a war between the Great Powers of Europe must be under modern conditions."(12)

The position of this website is it was precisely that feeling is what ought to have pushed the Foreign Secretary into making arrangements, by 1908-09 at the latest, for promptly arbitrating local crises on the Continent. That he took 3 or 5 or 9 months to successfully arbitrate a crisis gives NO assurance future European crises could also be handled in the same leisurely manner.

Mr. Grey goes on about "the feeling of the unprecedented catastrophe that a war between the Great Powers of Europe must be under modern conditions":

"So impressed with this was I that it seemed impossible that the rulers and ministers of other countries should not be impressed with it too. Was it not this that had, in the difficult years from 1905 till now, made the Great Powers recoil from pressing anything to the point of war?"(13)

Here the Foreign Secretary forgets the governments of the Great Powers in Europe were anything but stable; and from June 28-July 1914 they were foundering:

"Solomon hath pronounced, that in counsel is stability. Things will have their first, or second agitation: if they be not tossed upon the arguments of counsel, they will be tossed upon the waves of fortune; and be full of inconstancy, doing and undoing, like the reeling of a drunken man."
Sir Francis Bacon, The Essays

The Foreign Secretary quite mistakenly attributes to Russian, German, Austria-Hungary and French govt's a stability then enjoyed only by Great Britain. And without stability, it's difficult for all the Great Powers to see dangers in the same light, particularily at the same moment. Without stability, intense local crises might quickly escalate to dragging in one or more of the Great Powers. And, rather unsuprisingly, that's exactly what happened from June 28 through July 1914.

Furthmore, one could argue that, aside from the Foreign Secretary's undeniable talent for successful crisis arbitration, previous to the July 1914 Crisis, Russia, Germany and France's armies were still getting built up. Possibly none of those Great Powers wanted to risk a General European War in large part because each felt itself not strong enough yet. The writings of the Chief of the German General Staff, von Moltke, express exactly this sentiment.

[(right) von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, 1914]

The balance of power between the Russian, German and French govt's and their militaries may have finally been tilted in favor of the militaries in the months leading up to the regicide in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Foreign Secretary Grey begins to detail events during the July 1914 Crisis:

"When Lichnowsky came back from Berlin after a visit there subsequent to the murder of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, he was no longer in the confidence of his Government. He had then nothing to tell except that he feared something very strong was preparing, and he did not know what it was. It was in fact the ultimatum to Serbia.

"The documents, with their marginal notes, revealed by Herr Kautsky, tell how that ultimatum was prepared. Had Lichnowsky continued to be the trusted representative of his Government, had they dealt frankly with him, and through him with us, after the murder of the Archduke, war might have been avoided."[italics added] (14)

This is a massively important point the Foreign Secretary makes. The alarming accumulation of industrial-scale armaments/Maxim machine guns and the dramatic expansion in the size of French, German and Russian armies in the years leading up to July 1914 have been detailed by historians, e.g., Niall Ferguson: The Pity of War. It is not implausible that by the time of the June 28-July 1914 Crisis the German military had become so strong it did not take much to push Prince Lichnowsky aside.

U.S. President Wilson's emissary Edward House's letter describing his 1914 visit to the Kaiser in Berlin is, well, terrifying:

"The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies."

[(right) German Kaiser Wilhelm II]

It is nothing short of astonishing that emissary's House's alarming report of hyper-militarism in Germany did not prompt Foreign Secretary Grey to immediately make arrangements between the representatives of the Great Powers for the prompt arbitration of any future local crises on the Continent that might have threatened the peace of Europe/Britain. Unfortunately, as noted above, the opposite seems to have happened:

"Though the British statesmen did not say so definitely, the impression was conveyed that the mission on which Colonel House was engaged was an unnecessary one---a preparation against a danger that did not exist."(8)[italics added]

The description of Emissary House's visit to Berlin continues:

"It will be observed that Colonel House had taken the advice of Sir William Tyrrell [Foreign Secretary Edward Grey's private secretary], and had sailed directly to Germany on a German ship—the Imperator.

"Ambassador Gerard had made preparations for his reception in Berlin, and the American soon had long talks with Admiral von Tirpitz, Falkenhayn, Von Jagow, Solf, and others.

"On the whole, Von Tirpitz [Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office] thus made no attempt to conceal his feeling that the purpose of the House mission was extremely distasteful to him.

"Even more than the unsympathetic politeness of the German Cabinet the general atmosphere of Berlin was depressing to Colonel House. The militaristic oligarchy was absolutely in control.

"Militarism possessed not only the army, the navy, and the chief officers of state, but the populace as well.

"He [Emissary House] had come to Berlin not merely to talk with the Cabinet heads; his goal was the Kaiser himself. But he perceived at once a persistent opposition to his plan.

"He [Kaiser Wilhelm] encouraged Colonel House to visit London, talk the matter over with British statesmen, and then return to Berlin."(15)

It cannot be denied that part of the problem was Sir Edward' Grey's open hostility to Europe, specifically, a hostility to visiting Europe. The Foreign Secretary hated visiting ALL industrial cities (including London).

If the Foreign Secretary had been suffciently alarmed by Emissary's House's sobering report, Grey could have stepped on Wagon's-Lits luxury express train at Charing Cross in London and been in Berlin in under 24 hours. Again, this isn't rocket science. HM Queen Victoria and British King Edward VII had their own Wagons-Lits railcars, traveling throughout Europe as comfortable as ducks on a lake.

Instead of stepping on Wagons-Lits at Charing Cross to go determine for himself exactly how dangerous the situation in Berlin was, the British Foreign Secretary instead stepped on the train at Waterloo Station and went fly-fishing in Hampshire. And probably not a single official in Whitehall (the seat of gov't in London) said a word.

"A Cabinet which was compelled by political and economic exigencies to concentrate its energies on domestic problems left the whole field of foreign affairs to Sir Edward Grey."
Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer (afterwards British Prime Minister).(16)

Regarding German militarism: a parallel situation seems to have booted up within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 2013 the Austrian Army Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf had reportedly pushed for preventative war against Serbia no less than 25 times.

What exactly was the British Foreign Secretary doing in 1913? Britain had made a non-binding entente with Russia in 1907. Russia was Serbia's protector. If Austria-Hungary moved against Serbia, Russia might well intervene to prevent Serbia's collapse.

Worse, Russia mobilizing against Austria-Hungary might alarm Germany, Austria-Hungary's ally. Suppose Germany, strictly as a precaution, decided to mobilize it's military along the German-Russian border? How exactly would this maneuver not create immense problems for European stability?

The point is this: couldn't the British Foreign Secretary have learned in 1913 about Austria-Hungary's von Hotzendorf pushing for preventative war against Serbia? Would this likely been published in The London Times? Wasn't the London Times delivered daily to the Foreign Office? Didn't Sir Edward Grey work in the Foreign Office 5 days/week? Hadn't the unifier of modern Germany von Bismarck warned the next major European war would start over some damn fool thing in the Balkans?

Didn't Britain have an ambassador to Austria-Hungary? (Maurice de Bunsen) Couldn't the 2013 British ambassador to Austria-Hungary have brought the alarming military development promptly to Sir Edward Grey's attention?

Given due respect to the British Foreign Secretary, and he deserves much more than his harsh critics have offered, his feeing for the political/military situation in Austria-Hungary circa 1912-1914 leave the impression of somebody staring through the equivalent of NASA's Hubble Telescope watching events at an ungodly distance away.

Exactly what was preventing the British Foreign Secretary from seeing the major risk to European stability if Austria-Hungary moved against Serbia? What was preventing von Hotzendorf from looking relentlessly for any serviceable pretext in order to push for war with Serbia?

This was not isotope-dilution mass-spectrometric analysis of Greenland pre-Cambrian ice-sheet cores for lead aerosol levels in pre-industrial Rome, or peer-reviewing The Journal of the American Chemical Society. Who had restrained von Hotzendorf each time was Archduke Ferdinand. Without the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in position to restrain Hotzendorf, just what the hell else was Foreign Secretary Grey and Whitehall thinking could have happened?

Sure enough, within hours of the June 28th regicide, von Hotzendorf, free from constraint of the archduke, was pushing for war with Serbia.

Sir Edward Grey had known for years about the military build-ups in Germany, Russia & France. He must have realized the bigger the German military becomes, the greater the danger that in an intense local political crisis it might wrest control of foreign policy from the German Foreign Office.

Given the massive armaments stockpiles in France, Germany and Russia, the danger of any one or more of the Great Powers' militaries taking control of foreign affairs would be off the scale of European/British history. Yet the British Foreign Secretary undertakes no plans whereby the Great Powers could promptly arbitrate intense local crises on the Continent. This is a major puzzle.

This was one of the greatest mistakes, if not the greatest mistake all the Great Powers made prior to the Austria-Serbian Crisis. And, sure enough, almost immediately after the regicide in Sarajevo, the Austrian, German and Russian militaries began struggling to wrest control of foreign policy from their govt's.

The danger of the military gaining control of the gov't cannot be over-stated. As the days in early July ticked by, the Great Powers' militaries gained more and more influence over their political govt's. This dynamic became so strong that by the time the Great Powers had woken up and suggested a conference it was too late: the Austrian Ultimatum (a de facto declaration of war) had already been sent days before.

"And what about Russia? I know of nothing to alter the opinion, expressed in this conversation, about the Tsar, Sazonof, and Benckendorff; but it may fairly be thought, in the light of after-knowledge, that more allowance should have been made for the inherent instability in Russian Government; for the possibility that, in a moment of great crisis and excitement, the Tsar might be rushed into some imprudent act.

It needs more than good-will to preserve peace in a crisis; it needs steadiness and strength. The Tsar was not strong, and the Kaiser was not steady, and in each country there was a military element."[italics added](17)

On this, too, the British Foreign Secretary Grey was exactly right on point. The puzzle is the Foreign Secretary had years of warnings about such latent instability. Again, he mysteriously formulates no plan between the representatives of the Great Powers to promptly arbitrate local crises.

"On June 28, the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was murdered. In Austria the popular excitement and indignation caused by the crime were intense, and the sympathy of the world was with Austria.

For the first weeks the attitude of the Government in Vienna was neither extreme nor alarmist."(18)

This is a remarkable statement. Apparently Britain's famous "Splended Isolation" was working overtime, only this time in reverse, sealing the British Foreign Office off from serious events in Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Russia.

"The word 'war,' Berchtold [Austrian Foreign Minister] recalled of the Monday [June 29th, the next day] following the assassination, 'was on everyone's lips.'"

"As if to preempt any possible wavering on the part of the foreign minister, Berchtold was besieged all day [Monday, June 29th] by officials hoping to put steel into him for a clash with Serbia. Opinion was nearly unanimous. Austria's minister president, Count Karl Sturgkh, was all in for war, as were General Alexander Krobatin, the war minister, and Leon von Bilinski, the common imperial finance minister."

"Monday evening Conrad [von Hotzendorf] arrived at the Ballplatz [Vienna] to sound out Berchtold...Skipping the usual pleasantries, Conrad proposed straightaway that Austria-Hungary mobilize against Serbia, beginning on Wednesday, 1 July... 'Nothing will have the slightest effect' the chief of staff argued, 'but the use of force.'"(19)

"[Tuesday, June 30th] If Austria let this act of ...aggression go unpunished, Berchtold told the emperor [Franz Joseph I], "our southern and eastern neighbors would be so certain of our powerlessness that they would consequently bring their work of destruction [of the empire] to its conclusion."(20)

"...on 30 June, 2 days after the Sarajevo incident, the [Russian] General Staff, under pressure from Tsar Nicholas II, approved the dispatch of 120,000 three-line rifles, with 120 million rounds, to Serbia."(21)

Was the British ambassador to Austria-Hungary downplaying the govt's reaction in his telegrams to the British Foreign Office?

"There seemed to be good reason for the hope that, while treating the matter as one to be dealt with by Austria alone, they would handle it in such a way as not to involve Europe in the consequences."

Amazing. "There seemed to be good reason for the hope..." In effect, this was official British policy from June 28th through until very late in July 1014. From immediately after the regicide on June 28, 1914, it seems almost every single European/British official was hoping the 1914 Balkans Crisis would blow over, because if it didn't they had the greatest catastrophe on Earth right in front of them.


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( ) References:

(1) Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon: Twenty Five Years, 1925 at xiv.

(2) Ibid, at xxi.

(3) Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of Silver Blaze, 1892

(4) Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon: Twenty Five Years, 1925 at 21, 24.

(5) Ibid, at xvi.

(6) Ibid, at 26, 30, 31.

(7) Ibid, at 30.

(8) The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I: Burton Jesse Hendrick, 1922.

(9) Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon: Twenty Five Years, 1925 at 291, 292.

(10) Freeman Dyson, Institute of Advances Studies, Princeton (interview): Wired Magazine

(11) Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon: Twenty Five Years, 1925 at xvi.

(12) Ibid, at 292.

(13) Ibid, at 292.

(14) Ibid, at 296.

(15) The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page [US Ambassador to Britain] Volume I, by Burton J. Hendrick, 1922

(16) Lloyd George: War Memoirs Volume I, 1938, at 89.
https://archive.org/stream/warmemoirsvolume035284mbp/warmemoirsvolume035284mbp_djvu.txt

(17) Sir Edward Grey of Fallodon: Twenty Five Years, 1925 at 296, 297.

(18) Ibid, at 299.

(19) Sean McMeekin: July 1914 Countdown to War, 2014, at 30-31.

(20) Ibid, at 35.

(21) Ibid, at 59.

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