The government and opposition forces tried to end the discussion about Grey’s statement at 20.15 on 3 August, but the rank and file Liberal and Labour members stood their ground.

Percy MoltenoThey desperately insisted on an immediate debate. Democracy demanded it. Percy Molteno, the Liberal MP for Dumfriesshire and an outspoken critic of the Boer War, was first on his feet to lament the lies that had passed as assurances from his own government over the years. In a passage that would echo down the ages and still resonates a century later Molteno declared:

‘They have brought us to the brink of disaster without our knowing, and without our being warned. I say that at the last moment, they should give the people of this country a chance to decide. This is a continuation of that old and disastrous system where a few men in charge of the State, wielding the whole force of the State, make secret engagements and secret arrangements, carefully veiled from the knowledge of the people, who are as dumb driven cattle without a voice on the question.[1]

The unknown dead, victims of the bitter warWhat an apt metaphor. The dumb driven cattle were being herded towards the global abattoir for reasons they would never properly know. A few men wielding the whole force of the state had unleashed the demon war and sanctioned the slaughter. Molteno pointed an accusatory finger at the now empty benches where the politicians who had fronted the decision had been sitting.

Another Liberal, W. Llewellyn Williams, accused Sir Edward Grey of disguising his motives and falsely arousing war fever: “If you had asked any man in this country, whatever his politics might be, whether he would calmly contemplate the entrance of his country into this quarrel, he would have said, ‘No’ . . . Even today this country does not want war . . . Now is the only time to speak before the war fever has come to its height. I beg and implore this Government . . . to use every effort in their power to avert this terrible calamity, not only to our own prosperity, but to the civilisation of the world.” [2]

In his absence, Grey was berated for ‘the sinister injustice’ of seeing Germany as the enemy while ignoring that fact that Russia had mobilised her forces first. It was a basic truth. Russia had mobilised first. Russia had caused the war. The objectors could see that Britain was being railroaded into war and asked what benefit it would be if Germany were crushed by an all-conquering Russia? One Liberal Member wanted to know why Belgian neutrality was suddenly of such vital consequence to Britain’s national honour when no one suggested making war to protect the integrity of Finland, which was being suppressed by a ‘semi-civilised barbaric and brutal’ Russia?

Joseph King MP

The warmongers sought to close the quasi-debate by shouting down speakers, but such loutish behaviour only served to spur on the North Somerset Liberal MP Joseph King. He tore apart the pretence of parliamentary unity by asking why the Conservative Members from Ireland had not given immediate assurances of their support. By the time Mr King reminded them that ‘a short time ago the Hon. Members [from Ulster] were declaring they would invite the kaiser over’, [3] he was being drowned out. His views on Russia and the expediency of their mobilisation are worthy of note. King stated that because of all the internal uprisings, localised and national strikes and threats of civil war, Russia had mobilised her army and thrown the whole of Europe into war for its own sake. He concluded: ‘if we are fighting for Russia at the present time, we are fighting for an amount of tyranny and injustice and cruelty which it is quite impossible to think of without the deepest indignation’. [4]

Joseph King’s final point was equally stunning. When Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was first announced, the prime minister had extended his tender respect to the great family of nations headed by the Austrian emperor, and he offered them ‘affectionate sympathy’. Five weeks later, that same government was proposing to wage war against them. King called it ‘tragic, bitter and cynical’. He asked if British foreign policy had become so shifting and changing that the people to whom every sympathy was offered one day were our declared foes the next. He was not given an answer. What he could not understand because of all of the confusions around him was that foreign policy had not changed one iota since the moment that the Secret Elite decided that Germany had to be crushed. The lies, the deviousness, the secrecy, the posturing and the pretence had ambushed the voices of reason raised against war.

As each and every contributor attacked government policy, challenged every step, asked more and more telling questions, it became ever more evident that there was a very strong body of articulate opinion ranged against Sir Edward Grey.Arthur Balfour with Winston Churchill

At which point, Arthur Balfour, former Conservative prime minister and a member of the Secret Elite ’s inner circle, rose menacingly. He had heard enough. Balfour derided their objections as the ‘very dregs and lees of the debate, in no way representing the various views of the Members of the House’. With consummate arrogance he patronised all that had been said before his interruption, stating that what they were engaged in was a ‘relatively impotent and evil debate’. [5] How could this be a serious occasion, he asked, when none of the senior government ministers were present?

What spurious nonsense. Senior government ministers had actively chosen not to be present. If these discussions were denied the trappings of a ‘serious occasion’, it was entirely because those ministers refused to be there. Balfour betrayed his real purpose when he ‘ventured to think’ that the points which had been raised might be misunderstood in the country and would certainly be misunderstood abroad. [6] Was Balfour sent in to bring it to a halt? He said as much when he alluded to the damage these opinions might do abroad. War had not been formally declared, but Parliament was being silenced, and it took a former Conservative prime minister to bring the discussions to a close. Arthur James Balfour, member of the Society of the Elect of the Secret Elite did the job for them.

The Guardian described the debate as ‘serious and patriotic, and its prevailing tone reflected that of sober opinion in the country’. [7] Leo Amery called the voices raised against war ‘the radical crank section’, [8] and The Times, in summarising the events, dismissed the protest in a single sentence. [9]

It was already too late for reason. Grey left the House of Commons to force the issue by sending Germany an ultimatum to stop the invasion of Belgium within 24 hours. When Grey forwarded that infamous demand to Berlin, it required a positive reassurance that Belgian neutrality would not be violated. The deadline was set for midnight on 4 August 1914. At some stage during the day an unknown person realised that Greenwich Meantime was set one hour behind Germany, and a decision was taken to advance the deadline to match the time in Berlin. There has never been an official explanation why it was made, or by whom, or at what stage in the day. This decision had to be sanctioned by Sir Edward Grey, so the question to be asked is: why? Is this the action of a man who had reputedly tried every possible diplomatic channel to protect the peace of Europe? No. The two actions do not sit together. Was Sir Edward Grey afraid of some last-minute change of heart by the German military or a timely intervention by the kaiser? Perhaps, as A.J.P. Taylor famously wrote, they just wanted to get it settled and go to bed. [10] Yes, that is precisely what happened. They wanted to get this war against Germany started, and no insignificant time difference would be allowed to halt it.

If an unbiased observer was invited to take a hard look at how the British Empire in all of its manifestations went to war, they would be amazed that such a process of undemocratic decision making permitted a tiny clique of elected officials, bolstered by a larger, less visible, but overwhelmingly influential cabal, to achieve their ultimate goal: war with Germany. The Cabinet played no part whatsoever in this process once it had sanctioned the primacy of Belgian neutrality. No one, with the possible but unrecorded exception of the prime minister, was given sight of the ultimatum sent by Sir Edward Grey.

Before he had even sent it, Grey was fully aware that the condition he demanded had already been violated. German troops were heading into Belgium. The Cabinet did not authorise the declaration of war. It was never asked to. Parliament itself was informed of events, belatedly, but was given neither proper time to debate nor any opportunity to vote on war or neutrality. Opposition to the war was stifled as quickly as possible.

So, who declared war?

King George V (left) with his cousin Czar Nicholas II

Technically, it was King George V who, as a matter of royal prerogative, had to sanction the proclamation of a state of war from 11 p.m. on that fateful night. A Privy Council meeting was held late on in Buckingham Palace. It began at 10.30 p.m. in the presence of His Majesty, one Lord of the Realm [11] and two court officials; it ended with the royal assent. It was a dark deed done by a lesser monarch in the presence of men whose names are long forgotten. The act was purely symbolic but ultimately catastrophic. It was as if some medieval right cursed the twentieth century. The will of the Secret Elite was sanctioned by a pliant monarch whose pen unleashed the hounds of hell.

[1] Percy Molteno, Liberal MP for Dumfriesshire, in Hansard, House of Commons, War in Europe Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1848–51.
[2] Llewellyn Williams, Liberal MP for Carmarthen Boroughs, in Hansard, House of Commons, War in Europe Debate, 3 August 1914,
vol. 65, cc1856–58.
[3] Joseph King, Liberal MP for North Somerset, Hansard, in House of Commons, War in Europe Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1865–66.
[4] Ibid., cc1868.
[5] Arthur Balfour in Hansard, House of Commons, War in Europe Debate, 3 August 1914, vol. 65, cc1881–82.
[6] 50 Ibid.
[7] The Guardian, 4 August 1914, p. 6.
[8] Amery, The Leo Amery Diaries, p. 106.
[9] After hours of debate, The Times reported : ‘The sitting was suspended for a time, and later on the adjournment motion, several Radicals criticised the government after Sir Edward Grey had acquainted the House with the terms of the German ultimatum to Belgium.’ The Times, 4 August 1914.
[10] A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914–1945, p. 27, footnote 2.
[11] William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, First Commissioner of Works, a
man who is more remembered for his public exile following revelations of his sexual preferences than his involvement in witnessing the declaration of war. His reward was to be appointed lord president of the Council to replace Lord Morley, who had resigned from Asquith’s Cabinet in protest over the war.