Sir Edward Grey’s strategy from 25 July onwards was to make it appear that he sought answers to intractable problems by offering plausible solutions, and to urge the Germans in particular to cling to the hope that peace was still possible. Grey knew precisely what had been arranged by and through Poincaré’s visit to Russia. Sazonov and the Russian military had begun mobilisation. His prime objective was to gain time for the Russians by delaying Germany’s defensive response. He achieved this by presenting Britain as an ‘honest broker’ for peace. Sir George Buchanan in St Petersburg ensured that Grey was kept fully informed, thus allowing him to don the mantle of peace-maker to Russia’s advantage. British neutrality sat at the epicentre of this charade like a prize exhibit at an auction. Sazonov desperately wanted Grey to openly commit to the entente, but to no avail. [1] The Germans repeatedly sought clarification about ‘England’s’ intentions, but Grey held to the official line. Britain was not bound by any obligation to enter into war. He had told this lie so often he might even have started to believe it.

Over that weekend of 25–26 July, while the Russians secretly began their mobilisation, the British political leaders left town for their country pastures.

Chancellor Bethmann-Holweg

The German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, arrived unannounced at the Foreign Office with an urgent message from Chancellor Bethmann, imploring Sir Edward Grey to use his influence at St Petersburg against any form of mobilisation. No one was available to see him, and Lichnowsky had to postpone his appeal until Monday. [2] It was an old trick and such a simple deception. By being allegedly out of touch for the weekend, formal diplomacy was put on hold and the Russians were gifted two more valuable days for unrestricted mobilisation. Grey’s convenient absence stalled Lichnowsky but did not in any way hinder the Foreign Office from repeatedly making diplomatic moves aimed at buying more time for Russia’s military preparations. An offer of British mediation was immediately accepted by Germany but rejected by Sazonov and Poincaré. [3] Grey then proposed that the ambassadors of Italy, Germany and France should meet with him in London to find a peaceful solution to the diplomatic conflict. [4] This offer was made in the full knowledge that Italy had long planned to betray her commitment to the Triple Alliance.

Germany and Austria were themselves aware that it was very unlikely that the Italians would support them. Bethmann b1914 map shows Italy as part of the Triple Alliance. Italy did not join with Germanyelieved that ‘the ill-will of Italy appeared almost a certainty’. [5] As matters stood, Germany knew she would find herself isolated at the conference and that the vote count was bound to be three to one in favour of Russia’s view. A further stumbling block was the insistence that Austria accepted the Serbian Reply as a basis for negotiation. [6] No specific condition was placed on any other nation, and Russia remained free to continue her ‘preparatory measures’ for mobilisation. [7] In truth, the conference was proposed not as a means to find a settlement but to give the massive Russian military machine time to move its armies up to the German frontier.

Germany advocated the eminently more sensible proposition that direct negotiations between Vienna and St Petersburg offered the best chance of peace. Grey agreed, but Sazonov did not. Knowing full well that Austria had just declared the Serbian Reply unacceptable, Sazonov said he considered it satisfactory and the basis for talks on which Russia ‘willingly held out her hand’ to Austria. [8] This was yet another of the ‘peace proposals’ that Grey, Sazonov and Poincaré knew could never be acceptable. Forewarned that any peace proposal emanating from Grey was a ruse, Poincaré and Sazonov knew how they were expected to respond. When Grey suggested a solution and Germany accepted, Poincaré or Sazonov would say no. Likewise, if Germany proposed a peace move, Grey would accept and be seen as the man of moderation, but either Poincaré or Sazonov would then reject it. War was the object, not peace.

Sir Arthur Nicolson

During that same weekend of 25–26 July, with the British Cabinet absent from London, Sir Arthur Nicolson in the Foreign Office kept his finger on the beating pulse of the European crisis. Across at the Admiralty, another secret decision drew war ever closer. At four on the Sunday afternoon, the first sea lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg sent, with Churchill’s prior approval, an order to the fleet to remain concentrated at Spithead. Quietly and unassumingly, the fleet was mobilised. Note the coincidence: both the first lord of the Admiralty and the foreign secretary were absent from their posts, yet key departmental decisions were taken that deliberately brought war ever closer. As far as the public were concerned, nothing untoward was happening. It was just another summer weekend.

Diplomatic proposals and counter-proposals criss-crossed Europe over the next five days as a variety of options for mediation, negotiation or direct interventions emanated from London, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. Some were genuine; some were intended to deceive. Grey’s suggestions were consistent in that they always supported the Russian position and never at any time sought to question or constrain Sazonov. More ominously, the Foreign Office began to insist that German preparations for war were much more advanced than those of France or Russia. [9] No evidence from the British archives has ever been presented to justify this allegation. [10] Britain had thousands of representatives, businessmen, bankers, tradesmen and tourists in Germany during those crucial weeks. Military and naval attachés, consuls in all the larger cities and, of course, senior diplomats in Berlin all served to represent the interests of the British Crown.

Berlin Potsdamerplatz 1914No one filed an official report warning of German preparations for war. The major newspapers had foreign correspondents in Germany. They observed nothing untoward. Not just that. No other diplomatic mission shared Grey’s unwarranted view. [11] The anti-German cabal of Grey, Nicolson and Crowe created yet another myth.

On the evening of 28 July, the German Chancellor, Bethmann, sent a telegraph to Vienna putting pressure on Berchtold to negotiate and immediately notified Britain and Russia that he had done so. Germany was cooperating to maintain the peace. Bethmann did all he could to persuade Berchtold to hold frank and friendly discussions with St Petersburg. He informed the British ambassador that ‘a war between the Great Powers must be avoided’. [12] Bethmann was determined to make Austria reconsider the consequences of events that were unfolding, but by the following morning he had received no response from Berchtold. All that day he waited in vain for an answer. Berchtold’s silence was unnerving. More and more reports were relayed to Berlin confirming Russian mobilisation.

Helmuth von MoltkeHelmuth von Moltke, German Chief of Staff, was able to report that France was also taking preparatory measures for mobilisation: ‘it appears that Russia and France are moving hand in hand as regards their preparations’. [13] There was much cause for concern in Berlin. The German military authorities demanded precautionary defensive measures. That evening, Bethmann indignantly fired off another three telegrams to Berchtold, adamant that there was a basis for negotiations. [14] His subtext was that Germany’s promised support would be cancelled.

The German ambassador in London telegraphed Berlin on the 29th to say that the British believed that a world war was inevitable unless the Austrians negotiated their position over Serbia. Lichnowsky begged Sir Edward Grey to do all he could to prevent a Russian mobilisation on Germany’s borders. The consequences would be ‘beyond conception’. [15] Grey promised to use his influence and keep Sazonov as ‘cool-headed as possible ’. [16] He did not. Far from trying to calm Sazonov, Grey made no attempt at intervention. Instead, he met again with Lichnowsky that evening and sowed the seeds of confusion that deliberately included conditions and suppositions that mixed hope with dire warnings. [17]

Grey wrote four dispatches on 29 July that were later published as official documents in the British Blue Book. After the war, when some limited access was granted to national and parliamentary archives, it transpired that the telegrams had never been sent. It was part of a cosmetic charade to imply that Britain had made every effort to prevent war. Bethmann and the kaiser, on the other hand, genuinely tried to apply the brakes and gain some control of the deteriorating situation. The German chancellor vigorously opposed any military measures that would ruin his diplomatic appeals.

Prince Henry of PrussiaUnfortunately, he was almost the last man standing in that particular field. In Berlin, they held to the fading hope that British diplomats were men of honour, and great store was placed on the reassurances that King George V had recently given to his cousin, Prince Henry of Prussia.

The prince was convinced that the king’s statement ‘was made in all seriousness’ and that England would remain neutral at the start, but he doubted whether she would do so permanently. [18] Germany pursued peace right up to the last minute. As Lloyd George later put it: ‘The last thing that the vainglorious kaiser wanted was a European war’ [19] His and Bethmann’s valiant efforts failed because the Secret Elite and their agents had already engineered the war they so wanted.

Buying time for the Russians was one problem, but getting the Cabinet and Parliament to agree to war required an entirely different approach.

1. Imanuel Geiss, July 1914, pp. 214–15.
2. George Malcolm Thomson, The Twelve Days, p. 80.
3. Sidney B Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 377.
4. Harry Elmer Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p. 26.
5. Pierre Renouvin, La Crise Européene et la Grande Guerre, p. 112.
6. Thomson, TheTwelve Days, p. 86.
7. Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 383.
8. Renouvin, La Crise Européene, p. 117.
9. Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, vol. II, p. 162.
10. Hermann Lutz, Lord Grey and the World War, p. 244.
11. Ibid.
12. Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 431.
13. Moltke to Bethmann, Berlin, 29 July 1914, DD349, in Geiss, July 1914, pp. 282-4.
14. Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 435.
15. Lichnowsky to Jagow, London, 29 July 1914, DD357, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 286.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid. pp. 288–90.
18. Prince Henry to Kaiser, Kiel, 28 July 1914, KD 374, in Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 500.
19. Lloyd George, War Memoirs, p. 34.