Keir Hardie speaking at Trafalgar Square peace rallyBritain’s involvement in a European conflict came so suddenly that peace movements were deliberately denied time to grow into mass protest. Despite that, great rallies were held in London and Glasgow to voice loud opposition to the war. In Trafalgar Square on Sunday 2 August, the vast crowd overflowed into Whitehall and the Strand. More men and women gathered there to demonstrate in favour of peace and neutrality than any of the great Suffragette meetings of the previous decade. [1] They were addressed by the Socialist Leader in Parliament, Keir Hardie, who urged the vast crowd to stop the war and ‘make it impossible for governments to do things in our name, without our sanction having been sought’. [2] Labour Members of Parliament protested vehemently about the secret treaties and speaker after speaker condemned an alliance with the ‘brutal policy of Russia’ demanding that the government should resign. A mass rally on Glasgow Green on 9 August was addressed by John Maclean who demanded an armistice and called on the people of Europe to refuse to murder one another for ‘sordid world capitalism.’ [3] As ever, the Secret Elite attitude to protest was to ‘disregard the screamers’. [4]

The liberal press had been unequivocal in their condemnation of the war party in Britain and made the mistake of underestimating the impact of the mobilisations in Europe. They had focused on the failure of King George’s efforts to bring reconciliation to the opposing sides in Ireland, the sensational trial of the former French prime minister, Joseph Caillaux’s wife in Paris and Russian labour troubles and problems in Persia, unaware that they were being betrayed by the government they so studiously supported.

Lord Northcliffe, Press Baron

Not so the organs of the Secret Elite. The Times and the Daily Mail, the Morning Post and the Spectator took a strong anti-German line in the run up to the war, safe in the knowledge that it was but days away, while the Daily Telegraph presented a much more creditable and balanced view warning of ‘an indescribable catastrophe’ should Britain be involved in a war against Germany. [5] Liberal observers, writers and readers, backbench politicians and supporters were genuinely outraged when the Northcliffe press talked of Russia fighting on behalf of ‘civilised relations between peoples’ [6] and claimed that the peace of the world would be protected by this action. To go to war on the side of Serbia was even more ridiculous. The day before war was declared the Guardian caustically stated in its leader, ‘if it were physically possible for Serbia to be towed out to sea and sunk there, the air of Europe would at once seem cleaner’. [7]

That 3 August issue of the Manchester Guardian will always be memorable for its last-ditch effort to puncture Northcliffe’s ‘sinister infatuation’ with war against Germany and galvanise public opinion to demand that Britain should take no part in the war in Europe unless directly attacked. The manifestos of two Committees hastily established to stand publically for British neutrality were printed across one full page. The British Neutrality Committee was backed by the well-respected Lord Courtney of Penwith, a politician who had long poured scorn on the insincerity of international treaties agreed between European nations. [8] Ramsay MacDonald, then chairman of the Labour MPs in Parliament, A.G. Gardiner, editor of the Daily News, the historian G.M. Trevelyan, J.A. Hobson, the writer, journalist, economist and anti-imperialist, and other notables collectively condemned the false assurances from Asquith and Grey that Britain had no secret commitments or obligations to go to war. The second Committee was drawn up to voice the strength of feeling in favour of neutrality and included the Mayor of Manchester, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Bishop of Hereford, C.P. Scott the editor of the Manchester Guardian, Lord Welby, Lord Rhondda and more. [9] But it was all too little and too late. They had been betrayed by politicians they trusted.

Germany map showing threats from East and West 1914

What’s more, they could see that Germany was not to blame. The Guardian’s editorial leader analysed the situation, and concluded with absolute clarity: “Germany was not free to choose; whether war was to come depended not so much on what she did as on what Russia meant to do. Having convinced herself, and not without cause, that Russia meant war, she conceived that her policy was for her soldiers to determine on purely military grounds. And they held…that as war had to come it was Germany’s duty to take advantage of the initiative that her superior system of mobilisation gave to her…Germany’s position is graver than it has been since the days of the great Frederic. With the genius and the brilliancy of France on the one flank and the overwhelming numbers of Russia on the other, she felt that she was fighting against the odds for her very existence.” [10]

How true. Such an objective analysis of the Russian mobilisation and immediate threat to Germany bore the indelible mark of the pre-war Liberal press. Both the Manchester Guardian and the Daily News urged every citizen ‘to oppose to the utmost, the participation of this country in the greatest crime of our time’. [11] While the peacemakers desperately tried to apply the brakes, the newspaper organs of the Secret Elite, especially the triumphal Times, stepped on the accelerator. They had been preparing the nation for the ‘inevitable’ war since July. Liberals papers remained steadfastly pacifist. Then the awful truth dawned. After Edward Grey’s Statement to Parliament on 3 August, the outraged editors and leader writers suddenly realised that Asquith’s Liberal government had been lying to the country for years, deliberately denying the existence of the secret agreements with France, Russia and Belgium, lulling Parliament and the nation into a false sense of security and so thwarting any semblance of reasoned judgement on what posed as Britain’s foreign policy, [12] but it was far too late. The men of war were already riding the high seas.

[1] Manchester Guardian 3 August, p.6.
[2] Ibid., p.10.
[4] The term was first used by Viscount Alfred Milner as advice to his liberal friends when dealing with anti-Boer War protests.
[5] Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 41.
[6] Ibid., p. 58.
[7] Manchester Guardian, Monday August 3, 1914.
[8] The Spectator, 30 January 1909, p. 22.
[9] Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 61.
[10] Manchester Guardian 4 August 1914.
[11] Willis, England’s Holy War, p78.
[12] Manchester Guardian 4 August 1914.