The Darkest Days

A new account of the weeks before the outbreak of World War I explodes the myth that Britain played an in any way commendable role in the events that led to the catastrophe of August 1914, finds Dominic Alexander

The Darkest Days

Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (Verso 2014), xxix, 386pp.

In 1990 Saddam Hussein’s troops were supposed to have been tearing babies out of incubators in Kuwait. This atrocity story was not true, but, like so many of its kind, it helped to stampede public opinion, and indeed politicians, into supporting the first Iraq war. More recently a group, referred to as Khorasan, had its tenuous existence inflated into a threat supposedly more dangerous even than IS/ ISIS. This bit of manipulation helped justify an extension of the US and its allies bombing of Iraq to Syria. The truth about this sort of atrocity or scare story generally comes out, but the damage has always already been done, and the decision to go to war taken.

Justifications for war only need to have an immediate impact. The purpose is simply to drive events within a febrile atmosphere towards the intended direction. Thus it is so often said that we must not pass by without taking action, or we must take our international obligations seriously, and certainly we must never be trapped by the past. Or indeed learn from history. The justifications and arguments for Britain’s involvement in war in 1914 sound astonishingly familiar to the pro-war moralising of the last couple of decades (see p.5 for example). Those who argue against war are characterised as failing to face up to the realities of the situation, or refusing to make tough decisions, but it is not we who are being unrealistic about the casualties, destruction and unrealisable ends of wars. Towards the end of this superbly argued and narrated book, Douglas Newton is able to assert with authority: ‘Let no one imagine that those who support war are always realists, and those who oppose it are always sentimentalists’ (p.307).

War mongering on all sides

In many standard accounts, it is claimed that Britain was simply reacting to German aggression, and was drawn into war reluctantly. This was a conceit that existed from the start, and Newton quotes one minister, Herbert Samuel, claiming that if peace was broken ‘it will be an action of Germany’s and not of ours which will cause the failure, and my conscience will be easy in embarking on the war’ (p.189). This is how one of the more reluctant members of Cabinet allowed himself to be drawn into the war camp. The argument about the origins of the First World War is usually framed around whether German actions were in fact either so aggressive, or so bungled, so as to spark the world war. Indications of German militarism and aggression therefore serve to vindicate British involvement in a necessary war.

Newton shows that there is an entirely different way of looking at these events; it does not actually follow that if Germany was war-mongering, then Britain was justified. The book’s argument is bound up with a very detailed, and indeed gripping, narrative of the two week period leading up to Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, and concentrates on the arguments and events in Britain. The result is an indictment of British rulers for their enthusiasm for war, and a demonstration that Britain does indeed deserve bear serious responsibility, at the very least, for its own involvement in the conflict, if not also for the outbreak of war in general.

The argument is immune to any case based on Germany’s particular responsibility; however aggressive Germany was, Britain’s rulers clearly welcomed the opportunity to go to war against its rival. Newton points out that Britain was the only major power ‘to resort to a declaration of war at the very instant her own ultimatum expired’ (p.278). The craving for war in the establishment reaches absurd proportions with a Foreign Office blunder. A letter was sent to the German ambassador, written on the assumption that Germany had declared war against Britain. In fact this turned out not to be the case, and a junior official had to be sent on the embarrassing errand to retrieve the mistaken document and replace it with one that correctly admitted that Britain had declared war on Germany. The accident highlighted how keen the British state was to cast Germany as the aggressor: ‘a German declaration of war suited the men at the Foreign Office, so they had jumped at the shadow of it (p.272).

The myth of Belgium as catalyst

It is usually held that the catalyst and justification for Britain’s involvement was the German invasion of Belgium. This allowed the government to present the case to the public that Britain was intervening to protect a small, neutral country from vicious invasion by its powerful neighbour. In fact however, Newton shows that the Belgian issue was, until late in events, largely secondary. Indeed, Cabinet on the 29th July ‘rejected the idea that any military advance into Belgium must be a trigger for war’, causing the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey to threaten to resign (p.61). From the start, Cabinet was divided between a minority of pro-war hawks that nevertheless included Prime Minister Asquith, Grey, and Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, against a range of radical liberals who were more or less determined to oppose the drive to war.

The original international obligation which pro-war members of Cabinet used to brow beat the radicals was not originally the defence of the neutrality of Belgium, but had to do with somewhat shadowy naval arrangements with France dating back to July 1912. Under this agreement, Churchill was able to reduce the navy’s presence in the Mediterranean, to bolster the forces ranged against Germany in the North Sea (p.33). So, in 1914, after a fierce argument, Cabinet narrowly agreed to authorise Grey to promise the French that the British navy would defend France against any German naval attack. This effectively committed Britain to joining a war involving France and Germany, before the question of Belgium even arose (p.183). Equally, it could well be argued that commitment encouraged France to think in more belligerent terms in relation to Germany. Far from them being a passive party in a series of events which led to war, the stance of British leaders, like those of other states, clearly was driving the situation towards the outbreak of war. 

It was assumed in Britain that German mobilisation would follow directly on from the Russian, but no efforts were made to hold Russia back from full mobilisation, or to calm the situation in any way (pp.93, 110-12). Thus, the charge against Britain is not dependent upon the absence of aggression on the part of other states, but rather it fits into a picture of imperialist governments collectively willing war, not merely ‘sleepwalking’ into it passively and ineptly. The reason for the enthusiasm for war in Britain was revealed in the right-wing press where it was argued ‘quite openly that the moment was favourable for Britain to join in a war, when she could fight alongside two formidable allies, and crush her imperial, commercial and naval rival – Germany’ (p.115).

Churchill and naval manoeuvres 

The same naval commitment was used once again to justify Britain’s entry into the war when Grey spoke to Parliament on the 3rd August. Here the Foreign Secretary claimed both that Britain had preserved a ‘free hand’ in its naval arrangements with the French, and yet at the same time that these same arrangements entailed a moral obligation to go to war on behalf of France. This was, of course, also in the national interest since if the French were obliged to defend their own coasts then there would be ‘a whole series of perilous “consequences unforeseen” if Britain were to “stand aside in an attitude of neutrality”’ (p.220). He speculated that Italy might threaten British trade routes, and that it would become impossible to defend the Empire’s sea routes. Grey’s speech made the rhetorical trick of starting from a hypothetical German action and a few joint naval manoeuvres to conclusion that the country was under mortal threat.

The government’s determination to go to war is not only revealed by its rhetoric, but actual naval preparations. Churchill emerges as a significant villain throughout these events, although, clearly, he was reflecting the inclinations of naval leaders as well as his own. At each step along the way, Churchill chose the most aggressive action possible. Even before the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia, the Admiralty had taken the decision to put the navy on war stations. Considering that Russia’s mobilisation is often now held to be an aggressive move that bounced Germany into war, it may well be asked whether the fact that ‘Britain’s mighty navy was almost wholly mobilised and the fleet ordered to war stations even before it was clear that war would explode’, did not at least undermine any possible diplomatic routes out of the coming war. Even more damning in regard to his own role is that ‘by Churchill’s own admission’ these decisions ‘pre-empted Cabinet decisions’ (p.52).

The characterisation of the war as primarily a naval one, which would not therefore be costly, was one means by which Grey in particular was able to sell the idea of British intervention in the conflict. Newton shows that this argument was always specious, particularly since Germany showed some anxiousness to seek a deal with Britain over the issue, even offering a guarantee that it would not attack the northern coast of France (pp.220-1 and p.224). After Grey’s speech to parliament on August 3rd, Churchill seized the moment to move naval dispositions further towards pre-existing Anglo-French plans for the joint defence of the channel, as if war had already been declared. As Newton argues: ‘Acting ahead of events, once again, he sought to shape them’ (p.226).

The argument for German war guilt often focuses on the military’s preponderant influence over government policy there, in contrast to the situation in the supposed liberal democracies of Britain and France. Yet, in the role of Churchill and the navy in Britain’s case, it seems that military forces were no less to the fore in pushing for war in this ‘liberal’ constitution, and no less contemptuous of any parliamentary or democratic process which had the potential to restrain war. Indeed, as early as the days of 26th to 28th July, Churchill’s rush to move battleships through the Channel to war stations acted as a clear signal to Russia and France that Britain was preparing for war, so increasing their confidence in opposition to Germany. Yet, Churchill ‘had again evaded the Cabinet’ and acted without any evidence of aggressive preparations by the German navy (pp.52-4).

Evading democracy

Other members of the government apart from Churchill also showed contempt for the due processes of liberal democracy. Asquith sought to shut down any parliamentary debate on Grey’s speech of August 3rd, itself only a small concession to democratic process. Eventually a debate was allowed under an adjournment motion, but parliament was not being allowed to debate any motion which would either ‘endorse or reject the idea of British intervention in the war’ (p.241). Newton shows that throughout the whole story, the pro-war party took every opportunity to stifle debate, rush through decisions that would put in place triggers for war, such as the pledge to France, and to avoid allowing the neutralist majority in Cabinet to restrain their enthusiasm for war. Indeed Cabinet never made a formal decision for war, and the composition of the ultimatum to Germany was left in the hands of Grey and Asquith (p.266). In sum, Newton convincingly makes the case that ‘there was no democratic decision for war’ (p.300). Any notion that Britain fought the First World War as a necessary defence of liberal values against militarism and authoritarianism falls apart completely in the face of the detailed examination of how the decision for war was made.

Of course, it was not just a few figures at the summit of government that forced the country into war, nor was it just senior civil servants, or even the naval command specifically. A whole network of ruling-class opinion was pushing for Britain to intervene, illustrated most tellingly in the strident campaign of the Conservative press and the Tory party to force intervention upon Britain. This included the printing of false rumours that the Germans had already invaded France. These stories made up ‘a critical part of the case against Germany’ (p.203). Newton emphasises that despite the ferocity of the pro-war agitation, the government would still have been in a position to refuse to take a pro-war stance (p.75). Indeed, considerable space is devoted to the arguments for neutrality that appeared in the left-liberal press, and the very significant anti-war movement that had the potential, at least, to mobilise a significant mass of people against the war (particularly pp.167-74).

Given the preponderance of neutralist radicals inside the Cabinet during these weeks, a political majority against war was clearly a distinct possibility. Newton quotes a number of observers that the public mood was distinctly cool, and not in most cases at all jingoistic; there was ‘deep anxiety rather than eagerness for war’ (p.174). Once again, this emphasises the government’s culpability for Britain’s entry into the war; it did not rest upon public enthusiasm for war, as the myth has it. It seems clear that part of the pro-war party’s strategy was to force the pace of events, precisely to prevent the possibility of opponents in the Cabinet, or the anti-war movement outside it, from gaining the upper hand.

Nonetheless, the radicals in Cabinet allowed themselves to be converted to the pro-war cause, or picked off and isolated one by one. Moreover, the leadership of the labour movement was too willing to fall in behind the ruling-class clamour for war, in Britain as in France, Germany and elsewhere. A telling quotation from the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb dismissed the anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 2nd August as ‘undignified and futile’ (p.172). Right there is an assumption that somehow the ruling-class view will necessarily prevail, and a troubling contempt for the potential power of mass movements to change the direction of events. However, Newton’s detailed narrative demonstrates by how thin a margin the decision for war was made. It reveals that if the anti-war movement had had more time to organise and rally the widest potential support, the outcome might have been very different.

Imperialism and war

One lacuna in Newton’s account arises from its structure as a narrative of the last two weeks before the outbreak of war. Without detailed context of the history of the previous fifteen or twenty years, the book is only able to hint at the reasons why the British ruling class was so determined to go to war with Germany. Imperial competition is certainly the implicit context for war enthusiasm stemming from government, state and the press, but since this argument is usually dismissed or ignored in the mainstream historical debate, it is something of a missed opportunity for elaboration here. Nonetheless, arguably this would have required a different book, and the one we have here is a tremendously useful antidote to the brigade of opinion celebrating Britain’s role in World War I. In many ways, it would be very good to read The Darkest Days in conjunction with Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain which gives an additional depth of background to both Britain’s militarism and imperialism, and to anti-war and anti-imperialist feeling in the country.

The Darkest Days is a landmark book not only for its robust demonstration that the British establishment bears a serious share of the blame for an unnecessary war, but also for its dissection of how a minority can manipulate events and stampede opinion into accepting the necessity of war. All the tricks familiar from recent wars are here, either in embryo or in their full expression, from dubious media manipulation, to less than honest disclosure to parliament and the public. The agenda for war gets set well behind the scenes and for reasons that are not admitted in public discourse. Instead, the pro-war party relies on such stratagems as fanning the fear that unless something is done, then disaster will follow. Invariably, war itself is the disaster, not the solution.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

Tagged under: