Nearly one hundred years ago, on the evening of August 3, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary and Berwick MP, looked out of the Foreign Office window and famously declared that “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”.
Earlier that day, he had presented, in a grave, dignified, unemotional speaking style, a moral case for Britain to support the French in their likely military conflict with Germany and had been greeted with a ‘hurricane of applause’.
It was one of the most momentous debates in House of Commons history and the opponents of war were routed.
When the German government ignored Britain’s ultimatum regarding Belgium’s neutrality the following day Britain declared war and “the war to end all wars” began.
For Grey the speech was both a triumph and a defeat, since in the 33 days following the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, he had sought a diplomatic solution to the ‘July Crisis’. Reportedly, when he was congratulated in private following his speech, he shouted “I hate war, I hate war”.
Grey, 52 years old, a widower with failing eyes, was then in his 29th year as an MP and ninth year as Foreign Secretary.
When this crisis began he was the longest-serving European Foreign Minister and had successfully built informal ‘ententes’ with France and Russia to protect the British Empire and to discourage German European expansion.
Controversially he had surreptitiously encouraged Anglo-French military co-operation, but he had also enjoyed diplomatic success during crises in Morocco and the Balkans.
He was from a distinguished political background. His great-uncle Charles, the second Earl Grey from Howick Hall, will be forever associated with the 1832 Reform Act, and his grandfather, Sir George Grey, was an MP for 40 years and Home Secretary three times.
A notoriously reluctant politician, Grey was much happier bird-watching at Fallodon, his Northumberland home, or fishing at his cottage in Hampshire, than in Whitehall.
He always wanted to escape he said to the “eternal benediction of the English countryside”. Grey bemoaned the fact that he, unlike his six siblings, was born in London rather than at Fallodon, but he suffered many more serious misfortunes during his life.
His father died when he was 12, both his wives pre-deceased him, two brothers were killed by animals in Africa, and both Fallodon and his cottage were destroyed by fire.
Dorothy, his first wife, apparently abhorred sex and they lived as brother and sister, while he, according to his most recent biographer, conducted discreet affairs and allegedly fathered illegitimate children.
He was an unusual Foreign Secretary since he spoke no foreign languages, knew little of “abroad” and only once had officially visited Europe, but he had immediately appreciated the danger in a situation in which Austro-Hungary, supported by Germany, blamed Serbia, supported by Russia, for the Sarajevo assassination.
It was only, however, with the delivery of the formidable Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia that on July 24 he brought the issue to a Liberal Cabinet whose members then regarded war in Ireland as far more likely than any European war.
The majority of the Cabinet were opposed to British military involvement and allowed Grey merely to seek a diplomatic solution through traditional Great Power negotiation.
Grey sought to restrain the French and Russians while trying to simultaneously deter the German government from military action.
The former were told not to rely on British support, while the Germans were told not to rely on British neutrality.
By August 1, however, with armies mobilising across Europe, the question was no longer whether there would be a European war, but rather would Britain be involved?
Grey threatened to resign if France was not supported. His anti-war opponents knew that if the government collapsed and the pro-war opposition formed a government, then there would be war anyway.
The German threat to ‘brave little Belgium’ gave a Cabinet majority a legitimate basis for supporting war, although in reality the German threat to the French coast was the key perceived strategic issue. Grey was thus given the task of obtaining the support of the House of Commons the next day.
Niall Ferguson criticises Grey for continually pursuing an anti-German policy, while others criticise him for not more vigorously declaring opposition to Germany earlier in order to clarify the adverse consequences for Germany of military action.
The latter view, however, ignores the political reality of a then largely anti-war cabinet. An almost blind Grey, uninterested in military strategy, was a rather ineffective war-time Foreign Secretary, only staying in the Cabinet out of loyalty to Asquith, the Prime Minister, who elevated him to the House of Lords in 1916.
With the fall of the Liberal government later that year Grey retired on December 11, exactly 11 years after he had assumed office.
Following the war Grey was briefly ambassador to the United States and in 1922 he re-married and later wrote a bird-watching book to go with his earlier classic book on fly-fishing. In 1928 he was proud to become chancellor of Oxford University.
Grey died on September 7, 1933. His funeral at Embleton Church was followed by a memorial service in Westminster Abbey and his ashes were placed with his first wife’s at his beloved Fallodon.
According to G. M. Trevelyan “a great Englishman was gone”.
Grey remains Britain’s longest continuously serving Foreign Secretary.
○Mike Fraser BA, MSc, MPhil. Mike plans to give talks on the First World War and to produce pamphlets on various related topics. If you are interested then contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org