HL Deb 06 August 1914 vol 17 cc417-25

My Lords, later in the evening I shall have to make some further observations with reference to the financial situation in respect to the Currency Bill which will be coining up from another place before very long, and with which, of course, I cannot in any way deal until it has formally reached us. But before that occurs I think the House may expect that I should make a few general observations on the situation of foreign affairs so far as it, has now developed. The main facts are, of course, familiar to the House from the newspapers. The newspapers, under the obligation which they feel to supply all possible information to the public, contain a number of items of news which for the time being cannot be verified, but so far as the general course of events is concerned the public, through the newspapers, is as well informed as those can be who have access to official information.

I desire to make one or two observations as to the circumstances in which, to our profound regret, we find ourselves engaged in war with Germany. It is important to note, with regard to the chain of circumstances which has brought about this event, that we have been under no engagement either to France or to Russia beyond what is known to the House and to the public at large. There were no secret engagements or understandings between us and any of the Powers with whom we were friendly. But it is important to observe two points in which, in our view, the national honour and the national interests were alike involved. In the first place, there was the question of the neutrality of Belgium. I need not enter into any historical description of that neutrality, which was provided for by the Treaty of 1839, to which the Great European Powers as they were at that time—not, of course, precisely the same as are the Great Powers now—were parties. That Treaty ensuring the neutrality of Belgium was not merely collective in character. It was a Treaty which in practice made it an obligation upon any one of the signatories to protest against, in the first place, and, in the second place, to prevent if possible, any infringement of it either from outside or by one of the parties to the Treaty itself. It might have been possible that a difficulty would arise if the infringement of the neutrality of Belgium had taken place with Belgian consent. With that difficulty we were not confronted. Belgium, as we know, has not merely protested with vigour against the infringement of her neutrality, but she is showing a splendid spirit in resisting it. We are therefore not concerned with what might have resulted from the position in which we should have been placed in the face of Europe if Belgium had agreed to the passage of German troops through her territory. The view that we have taken is that any violation in substance of the neutrality of Belgium would make us take part in supporting the maintenance of that obligation, an obligation infringed by those equally bound with ourselves to regard it as absolutely sacred.

Then there was another question which we had to consider in relation to the possible position. That was the question of what might happen at sea. It was an aspect which not only affected our friends in France, but also directly affected us. Everybody will remember that during a long period of years, even centuries, our defences faced France. Our great naval stations were all on the coast facing France, and in consequence our powerful defences were there. But when the understanding with France came about, the position to a certain extent automatically changed. The direct effect of that understanding was the weakening of the French maritime defence in the Channel and the corresponding weakening of our maritime defence in the Mediterranean. Your Lordships will see that that result was inevitable, without any formal arrangement between the two Powers that each should fill the gap left by the other. As a matter of fact, there was no formal arrangement of that kind. We had no arrangement with France to defend France in the Channel; she had not agreed to take our place in the Mediterranean. But that position was the inevitable result of the friendly agreement between the two Powers, since neither kept a large force in a place at which it could only be directed against the other. That was the effect of our friendship upon the distribution of the Fleet.

But that is by no means the only point which was in our minds with reference to the possible use by the German Navy, if war between France and Germany broke out, of the British Channel. We felt that our national interest and security were also deeply involved in any such use of our neighbouring seas, even beyond what are technically called British waters, by the Navy of Germany. I do not believe that it would in any case have been possible, whether we were engaged in this conflict or not, for this country to witness passively the sight of the narrow seas becoming the theatre of a great naval conflict. At no period, I think, would it have been easy for the country to tolerate such a position. But now, with the enormously increased range of weapons and with the vastly increased speed of vessels of different kinds it would have been absolutely impossible. In fact, it seems to me, my Lords, that it was practically necessary for us to declare, in relation to the waters immediately contiguous to this country, something in the nature of the Monroe Doctrine as it is understood in America. The Americans, as we all know, would assert and enforce that doctrine not merely over such waters as Chesapeake Bay, though those waters are not, according to the European standard, territorial water, but over such a great stretch as the Gulf of Mexico itself; and in our view it was almost imperative that some such doctrine in the case of war between France and Germany should be asserted by us. And these are, generally speaking, the reasons why Sir Edward Grey gave the assurance to M. Cambon which your Lordships will find at page 74, No. 148, of the White Paper [Cd. 7467], to this effect— I am authorised to give an assurance that if the German Fleet conies into the Channel or through the North Sea to undertake hostile operations against French coasts or shipping, the British Fleet will give all the protection in its power. In addition to that, my Lords, there was the further question of our food supply and the possible risk which might be run by that, greatly enhanced if a war between France and Germany, we being at peace, had led to a development of the situation which threatened us and compelled us to be involved. In that case the free use of those waters by even a potential enemy would have made most acute and difficult that problem of the maintenance of our food supply which is, of course, of such tremendous importance to us in this country.

I pass to some of the further developments. Our general attitude was decided, as I have said, by those two considerations—in the first instance, that of the possible infringement of the neutrality of Belgium; and, in the second place, by the threatening aspect of affairs in the waters immediately surrounding these islands. But in the meantime various things had happened. Sir Edward Grey had been in perpetual communication, friendly communication, with the representatives of all the great Powers; and on July 29 a telegram came from Berlin conveying an offer from the German Government to us. The German Chancellor asked our Ambassador to call upon him and he made an offer to Great Britain to this effect: He understood that it had been the main principle of our policy that we would not see France finally crushed in a conflict; and therefore, he said,— Provided that the neutrality of Great Britain were certain, every assurance would be given to the British Government that the Imperial Government aimed at no territorial acquisitions at the expense of France should they prove victorious in any war that might ensue. Sir Edward Goschen goes on to say that he questioned His Excellency about the French colonies, and he said that he was unable to give a similar undertaking in that respect. The Chancellor went on to say that it depended upon the action of France what operations Germany might be forced to enter upon in Belgium, but when the war was over Belgian integrity would be respected if she had not sided against Germany. One desires to speak with moderation, but I cannot help saying that this offer was of such a nature that, if it had been made between private persons in their private affairs, a man of the most restrained habit could only have responded to it by declining the further acquaintance of the man who offered it, and a person of hot temper would be likely to respond to it with a blow. Sir Edward Grey, in his reply—No. 101 in the White Papers—showed his sense and our sense of what such an offer meant. He said— What he asks us in effect is to engage to stand by while French colonies are taken and France is beaten so long as Germany does not take French territory as distinct from the colonies. From the material point of view such a proposal is unacceptable, for France, without further territory in Europe being taken from her, could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy. Sir Edward Grey went on to say— The Chancellor also in effect asks us to bargain away whatever obligation or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could not entertain that bargain either. That was a quite direct reply. But Sir Edward Grey concluded by saying that if the present crisis could safely be passed his endeavour would be— to promote some arrangement to which Germany could be a party, by which she could be assured that no aggressive or hostile policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia, and ourselves jointly or separately. And looking back the House will see that, in spite of what had occurred, Sir Edward Grey remained untiring in his efforts to preserve peace. On July 31 Sir Edward Grey telegraphed to Sir Edward Goschen his hope that the conversations proceeding between Austria and Russia might lead to a satisfactory result. He went on to say that— It has occurred to me that, in the event of this mistrust preventing a solution being found by Vienna and St. Petersburgh, Germany might sound Vienna, and I would undertake to sound St. Petersburgh, whether it would be possible for the four disinterested Powers to offer to Austria that they would undertake to see that she obtained full satisfaction of her demands on Servia, provided that they did not impair Servian sovereignty and the integrity of Servian territory. Sir Edward Grey went further still. He went on to remark— I said to the German Ambassador this morning that if Germany could get any reasonable proposal put forward which made it clear that Germany and Austria were striving to preserve European peace, and that Russia and France would be unreasonable if they rejected it, I would support it at St. Petersburgh and Paris, and go the length of saying that if Russia and France would cot accept it, His Majesty's Government would have nothing more to do with the consequences; but, otherwise, I told the German Ambassador that if France became involved we should be drawn in. That was on July 31. On the same day Sir Edward Goschen had spent an hour with the Secretary of State, urging him most strongly to accept the proposal and to make another effort to prevent the terrible catastrophe of European war. And, my Lords, now we find that Germany and some of the other Powers involved are endeavouring to explain that it was not they who had forced the situation, but that the opposing parties, either by mobilising or by some action of the kind, had made it impossible for them to stand out.

When these interchanges and telegrams have been studied, I believe that history will say that Germany might have stood honourably aloof. She was not directly threatened and never need have been directly threatened by any mobilisation of the Russian troops; and it will, I think, be difficult for Germany to explain how it came about that, even at the last moment, she did not put stronger pressure upon her Austrian allies to accept in substance the almost abject submission which Servia offered, and the rejection of which was the original cause of the partial mobilisation of Russia. I think we must all feel, my Lords, that in the whole of this vast theatre of conflict there is nobody to whom greater sympathy ought to be extended by all than to our Foreign Secretary. During all the anxious weeks of the Balkan wars the representatives of the Powers toiled here in London for the preservation of peace. He laboured more abundantly than they all, and in proportion to those labours must necessarily be the disappointment and chagrin with which he now witnesses the destruction of those labours, which for the time at any rate seemed to be so fruitful and to promise the permanent peace of Europe.

This is no time to indulge in reflections of a general character, but I cannot help observing that it is almost the most em- bittering feature in the whole situation that this tremendous crisis and conflict, caused if you will to some extent by dynastic ambition or by a racial rivalry founded on ignorance, yet in the main must be described as having come into being, not so much in spite of our extended material civilisation, but even almost because of it. The perpetual growth in facilities of communication and transport, the ever-increasing applications of science to armaments, the ever-quickening consciousness of international rivalry among the nations, born, one cannot deny, to some extent from the developments of education and from half assimilated knowledge supplied by an excited Press—all those have tended to make this outbreak more frightfully sudden and more amazingly widespread than could possibly have been the case in a state of civilisation less advanced. Very possibly the passions of days gone by might have been as vigorous and as bitter, but the power of their expression would have been eminently less. There would have been a longer time for consideration, there would have been a better chance than there has been for the opinion of the sober-minded to assert itself, and most certainly there would have been a less appalling prospect in the actual collision than there is at this moment. All that we can do is to keep our heads as cool as we can and to keep our hearts up, and we must keep our minds set on the direct course which we believe is dictated both by honour and by regard for the interests of this country.


The noble Marquess, during the course of his speech, referred more than once to the documents contained in the White Paper which lies on your Lordships' Table. May I, at the outset of my remarks, say a word of protest as to the manner in which this House has been treated in respect of the production of these Papers. They have been freely quoted in the Press, and I have reason to believe that they have been in the hands of members of the other House of Parliament; but my knowledge, and I am afraid the knowledge of many of your Lordships, of these important Despatches depends really upon what we have been able to collect from the published extracts which appeared in the daily papers this morning. I must say that that seems to me to denote very serious mismanagement at one point or another.


I am very sorry.


These documents and the account of them which the noble Marquess has given to us cannot have failed to produce a profound impression upon public opinion in this country. No one can peruse them even in a most perfunctory manner without coming to the conclusion that the case which His Majesty's Government are able to make for the action which they are taking at this grave crisis is an even stronger case than many of us had supposed. I am sure that there is no member of this House who does not, from the bottom of his heart, abhor and detest the idea of involving this country in war. But there are some terms upon which peace would be unendurable, and I am bound to say that these Despatches seem to me to establish beyond doubt that the provocation which this country has received is one which no self-respecting country could have endured.

And, my Lords, I desire to give full credit to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for the efforts which he has made throughout to maintain unbroken the peace of Europe, up to the supreme effort which he made on July 31 last—an effort which, as the noble Marquess told us just now, might well have been successful if there had been genuine good will on the other side. I am quite unable to read Sir Edward Grey's Despatch without the feeling that those to whom it was addressed, far from desiring peace, had set their hearts upon war. Our diplomacy seems to have been throughout absolutely sincere. I wish I could say the same of the diplomacy to which it has been opposed. I do not think any one can have failed to be deeply shocked by what I can only describe as the cynical attempt made to bribe this country, and not this country alone, into a disregard both of its Treaty obligations and of those other obligations which are not less sacred because they are not embodied in a signed and sealed document.

Under the one category there fall our Treaty obligations to Belgium, and I am sure your Lordships must have observed with admiration the gallant attempt which the Belgian Army has made to stand up against overpowering odds in the defence of the City of Liége. To the other category belong our obligations to France—obliga- tions of honour, which have grown up in consequence of the close intimacy by which the two nations have been united during the last few eventful years. I say unhesitatingly that if the Government of this country had ignored either the one class of obligation or the other, we should never have been able to look either friends or enemies in the face again. And, my Lords, I willingly pay my tribute of admiration to the dignity and firmness with which those attempts have been met by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in this country. We may at any rate say this, that we embark in this tremendous contest with no sinister ambition, no unavowable motives, with a clear conscience and with clean hands, and, I believe, with the public opinion of this country behind us. The noble Marquess knows—he knows it from unofficial as well as from official sources—that in the action which he and his colleagues are taking to uphold the interests and the reputation of this country he has our ungrudging support; and I believe I may add that he has not only our support but the support of every right-thinking man in this country.