Sir Edward Grey fabricated Belgian neutrality into his cause celebre. In the final days of an epoch that was rushing towards oblivion, the warmongers in London, Paris and St Petersburg forced the pace with unrelenting determination. Localised Austrian retribution on Serbia had deliberately been transformed by the Secret Elite into an altogether greater cause for carnage. Diplomacy had been made to fail. Dishonest men could now throw up their hands in horror and cry ‘inevitable’ war. Democracy was contemptuously abused by hidden forces that had the political and financial power to manipulate public opinion. Propaganda misrepresented motive, moulding fear into hysteria and empowering the madness that swept reason aside. The great plan for war against Germany that would establish the primacy of the British Empire was almost complete. The last requirement was the ‘just cause’ to win over and inspire the British people.

On Saturday, 1 August, an excited Isvolsky sent a telegram from Paris to St Petersburg: “The French War Minister informed me, in hearty high spirits, that the Government have firmly decided on war, and begged me to endorse the hope of the French General Staff that all efforts will be directed against Germany …” [1]

General Joffre French military commander

France had ‘firmly decided on war’ almost 24 hours before Germany had announced mobilisation or declared war on Russia. General Joffre was straining at the leash. He sent Poincaré a personal ultimatum that he would no longer accept responsibility for the command of the French army unless a general mobilisation was ordered. [2] Poincaré did not need much encouragement. At 4 p.m. that day, telegrams ordering the French general mobilisation were sent from the central telegraph office in Paris. By that point, Serbia, Austria, Russia, France and Great Britain had begun military measures of one sort or another. Germany alone among the powers concerned had not yet done so. [3]

At this crucial juncture, Grey and the Foreign Office stirred forlorn hope into a frenzy of confusion. That Saturday afternoon, the German leaders had gathered at the kaiser’s palace in Berlin. Bethmann and von Jagow arrived with sensational news from Lichnowsky in London; the British government had just given a promise that ifLeft to right, Moltke, Jagow Bethmann Germany did not attack France, England would remain neutral and would guarantee France’s neutrality. [4] Hugely relieved, the kaiser called for champagne. He sent a telegram to King George: ‘If Britain guarantees the neutrality of France, I will abandon all action against her.’ [5]

The king summoned Grey to Buckingham Palace that evening to help frame a response. King George replied: ‘I think there must be some misunderstanding of a suggestion that passed in friendly conversation between Prince Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey.’ [6] There was no British guarantee of French neutrality. It had simply been another delaying tactic, a ruse to gain whatever advantage in time. In the BBC drama “37 Days”, this incident was excused as ‘a cock-up, not a conspiracy’, a scrambled message blamed on the telephone reception. [7] In fact Lichnowsky was given the information directly by Grey’s private Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell, at Sir Edward’s request, and was later contacted by telephone by the Foreign Secretary. The German Ambassador was therefore able to discuss the ‘offer’ twice on 1 August, and had no doubt in his mind about what was, at face value, a game-changing offer. [8]

At 5 p.m. that day, after waiting in vain for twenty-four hours for an answer to his telegram demanding that the Russians stop all military movements on his border, the kaiser ordered general mobilisation. Germany was the last of the continental powers to take that irrevocable step. How does that possibly fit with the claim that Germany started the First World War? An hour later in St Petersburg, Pourtales, the German ambassador, went to Sazonov and asked him three times if the Russian government would halt the mobilisation. In the full knowledge that it meant a European war, Sazonov replied that it would continue. Count Pourtales handed him Germany’s declaration of war and burst into tears. [9] Time: 6 p.m., 1 August.

Germany’s declaration was an understandable reaction but a tactical mistake. Russia had been mobilising with the definite intent of attacking Germany, but Sazonov had been instructed that he should not make an actual declaration of war. The vital message oft repeated by Grey to Poincaré and Sazonov was that France and Russia must, as far as possible, conceal their military preparations and intent on war until Germany had swallowed the bait. The British people would never support the aggressor in a European war, and it was imperative that Germany should be made to appear the aggressor. It was akin to bullies goading, threatening and ganging up on a single boy in the school playground, but the moment he had the audacity to defend himself, he was to blame.

What else could Germany have done? She was provoked into a struggle for life or death. It was a stark choice: await certain destruction or strike out to defend herself. Kaiser Wilhelm had exposed his country to grave danger and almost lost the one precious advantage Germany had by delaying countermeasures to the Russian mobilisation in the forlorn hope of peace. The German army depended entirely upon lightning success at the very start of a war on two fronts. Germany’s only effective defence was through offence.

On 1 August, the London Daily News declared: “The greatest calamity in history is upon us . . . At this moment our fate is being sealed by hands that we know not, by motives alien to our interests, by influences that if we knew we should certainly repudiate . . [10]

The Daily News had summed up the situation perfectly. The British people knew nothing of the hands that were sealing their fate. They would never have gone to war in support of Russia. Indeed, in a war between Russia and Germany, there was every chance that the man in the street would support Germany. Public opinion was not clamouring for war; every liberal, radical and socialist paper in the kingdom stood against participation in a European conflict. Nor was there any obvious sign of rabid jingoism. Yet. The Secret Elite knew precisely what would move public opinion:

Belgium. If Britain’s excuse for entering the war was focused well away from Russia, then Grey’s final requirement would fall into place and the lock would be sprung. People would clamour for war if the cause became the defence of ‘gallant little Belgium’ against a contemptible German invasion. It was Belgian neutrality that would furnish him with the best excuse for entering the war. This fact had been thoroughly thought through for over a decade.

Grey turned Belgian neutrality into his cause célèbre. He told Prince Lichnowsky, that it would be extremely difficult to restrain public feeling in Britain if Germany violated Belgian neutrality.

Prince LichnowskyLichnowsky asked whether Grey could ‘give me a definite declaration of the neutrality of Great Britain on the condition that we [Germany] respected Belgian neutrality’. It was an astonishing suggestion, an enormous concession and one that could have spared Britain and Belgium the horrors of war. Lichnowsky was prepared to concede exactly what Grey claimed the British Cabinet wanted. Belgian sovereignty would be respected in exchange for a promise of Britain’s neutrality. Duplicitous as ever, Grey blurred the issue and avoided an honest reply, reassuring Lichnowsky that ‘for the present there was not the slightest intention of proceeding to hostilities against Germany’. [11]

When the kaiser read the diplomatic note from his ambassador, he wrote in the margin: “My impression is that Mr Grey is a false dog who is afraid of his own meanness and false policy, but who will not come out into the open against us, preferring to let himself be forced by us to do it.” [12]

Absolutely, though Grey still had two objectives: to gain as much time as possible for Russia and to turn the public in favour of war.

Of course, Lichnowsky’s proposal on neutrality was never revealed to the Cabinet or House of Commons. Had it been, a significant majority would have agreed to it. Grey’s deception might never have come to light had Chancellor Bethmann not exposed this offer in the Reichstag on 4 August: “We have informed the British Government, that as long as Great Britain remains neutral, our fleet will not attack the northern coast of France, and that we will not violate the territorial integrity and independence of Belgium. These assurances I now repeat before the world . . . [13]

Grey ensured that every offer of peace and neutrality from Berlin was rejected or suppressed, while at the same time his Cabinet colleagues were informed that he was outraged by the way in which Germany had ‘put aside all attempts at accommodation’ while marching steadily to war. [14]

Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, Charles Hobhouse saw a marked change in the foreign secretary at this time. Hobhouse wrote in his diary that from the moment it became clear that Germany would violate Belgian neutrality, Grey, who was ‘sincerity itself, became violently pro-French and eventually the author of our rupture with Germany’. [15]. Grey became violently pro-French? How little Hobhouse and most of his Cabinet colleagues knew of the real Grey, knew of his years of secret planning for war on Germany, knew of the agreements he had put in place with France. Their ignorance was, to an extent, understandable.

Asquith in the House of CommonsOn four separate occasions over the previous two years, Grey and Asquith stood at the despatch box in the House of Commons and solemnly assured Parliament that Britain was entirely free from any secret obligations to any other European country. [16] In a private letter to his ambassador in Paris, Grey noted: ‘there would be a row in Parliament here if I had used words which implied the possibility of a secret engagement unknown to Parliament all these years committing us to a European war.’ [17]

Hobhouse was not witnessing a sudden change in Grey’s attitude but an unmasking; the revelation of his real commitment to a cause that could not be named: the Secret Elite’s war to destroy Germany. Hobhouse saw Grey in a new light as the ‘author of our rupture with Germany’. [18] Did he belatedly realise that Sir Edward Grey bore heavy responsibility for the First World War?

Clearly, Grey was poisoning the Cabinet atmosphere with pro-French, anti-German rhetoric. Crucially, he now placed Belgium at the centre of the heated discussions. The issue was suddenly about loyalty to Belgium and about Britain’s standing as a Great Power, which would be damaged for ever if she stood aside while Belgium was ‘crushed’. He diverted the arguments away from Russian mobilisation, misrepresented the kaiser’s intentions and made no mention of Serbia. He cited the treaty dating from 1839, falsely claiming that it obliged Britain to take up arms in defence of Belgium. Asquith and Churchill agreed, but Grey met strong resistance from the majority of the Cabinet. [19]

He later claimed that the question of Belgian neutrality emerged for the first time at the end of July 1914. Long after the war ended, when the Secret Elite had to mask and blatantly misrepresent their pre-war actions, Grey wrote that Chancellor Bethmann’s very mention of Belgium on 29 July ‘lit up an aspect that had not been looked at’, [20] as if it had suddenly dawned on him and the Foreign Office that Belgium would play a strategic part in a continental war. It was an outrageous lie, and one that has been perpetuated ever since.

1. Isvolsky to Sazonov, 31 July 1914, in Fay, Origins of the World War, vol.II, p. 531.
2. Sidney B Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 532.
3. Lawrence Lafore, The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War, p. 261.
4. Lichnowsky to Jagow, London, 1 August 1914, DD562, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 343.
5. George Malcolm Thomson, The Twelve Days, p. 152.
6. Richard F Hamilton and Holger H Herwig, Decisions for War, p. 140.
7. Terry Boardman,
8. Lichnowsky to Jagow, London, 1 August 1914, DD562, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 343.
9. Sidney B Fay, Origins of the World War, vol. II, p. 532
10. Harry Elmer Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice, p. 87.
11. Lichnowsky to von Jagow, London, 1 August 1914, DD596, in Geiss, July 1914, p. 346.
12. Ibid., p. 347.
13. John S Ewart, Roots and Causes of the Wars, vol. I, p. 136.
14. Hamilton and Herwig, Decisions for War, p. 141.
15. Edward David, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, p. 179.
16. E D Morel, Truth and the War, pp. 47–9.
17. E D Morel, The Makers of War, p. 47.
18. Edward David, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, p. 179.
19. Hamilton and Herwig, Decisions for War, pp. 138–9.
20. Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, vol. II, p. 175.