As the Monday Night Cabal and Milner’s wider circle of friends and associates continued their manoeuvres through much of 1916, the issue which above all others fired their fears, was talk of peace. To the Secret Elite who had invested in the war, who had funded the war and who facilitated the war, this was a pivotal moment. Their aims and objectives were nowhere in sight. Indeed, cessation of the war would a greater disaster than the huge loss of life if it continued.

Somme injured being carried to a casualty station.

The bloodletting across the western front was suitably reducing the masses who might be induced to rise against the middle-class plutocracies, but even in 1916 there was still a sense of denial about the human cost in the purified air of the upper echelons. In early February, Sir Edward Grey told President Wilson’s emissary from America, Colonel House, that Britain had not been seriously hurt by the war, ‘since but few of her men had been killed and her territory had not been invaded.’ [1] Whether this was a stupid lie or callous disregard for the tragedies suffered in every part of the land we will never know, but in that same month (February, 1916) the Times carried column after column of the lost legions of dead and missing every day. [2]

The cost of peace did not bear contemplation. Think of the massive and unprecedented loans that could only be repaid if there were spoils of victory to plunder. Think of the manufacturers whose investments in new plant, new infrastructure and expanded capacity was predicated upon a long war. There were billions of pounds and dollars to be made from extortionate prices, but that only followed a period of sustained and costly investment. The profiteers had initially bought into procuring the loans and providing the munitions because they had been promised a long war. Such are the prerequisites of greed.

Nor would a negotiated peace safeguard the future of the Empire. Indeed it would have had the opposite effect. If Great Britain and the Empire and all of the Allies could not defeat the German/Austro-Hungarian/Ottoman powers, then the message would reverberate across the world that the old order had passed.

Austrialian casualties recovering in Cairo after Gallipoli.

Given the massive loss of life already inflicted on the troops from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the outcry against a feeble Mother country that had given up the struggle would grow to a clamour. Any notion of a commonwealth of nations would dissolve in cynical spasms of derision. [3] And a negotiated peace would leave Germany free to continue her plans of expansion into the Near and Far East. The real reasons for war, the elimination go Germany as a rival on the world stage, would not be addressed at all. Peace would be a calamity for the Elite under such circumstances. To talk of it was sacrilege.

The flying of ‘Peace Kites’, as Maurice Hankey described Colonel Houses’s approaches, brought one benefit for Milner’s intriguers. Those members of Asquith’s coalition who were attracted to a negotiated peace exposed their lack of commitment to the ultimate goal. Reginald McKenna, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, felt that Britain would gain a ‘better peace now [January 1916] than later, when Germany is wholly on the defensive.’ [4] The Secret Elite were watching and listening. Literally.

As Asquith’s personal confidante and permanent secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, [5] Maurice Hankey was privy to many confidences but even he was surprised to learn that the Director of Naval Intelligence, Captain Blinker Hall, [6] had in his possession American diplomatic codes and was monitoring the telegrams sent from Colonel House to President Wilson. What the Americans claimed was that they would broker ‘a reasonable peace’ [7] and call a conference. If Germany refused to attend, the USA would probably enter the war on the side of the Allies. [8] Note that the promise was definitely not absolute.

House 1916 sailing to Europe

In late January, Hankey went to Hall at the Admiralty on another pretext [9] and discovered to his horror that Colonel House’s visit was a ‘peace stunt’. 1916 was, after all, an election year, and President Wilson had to appear to be a serious peace-broker. It was a sham. Worse still, Sir Edward Grey had given the Americans an assurance that he would trade Britain’s blockade, euphemistically called the ‘freedom of the seas’, against an end to German militarism. Hall claimed that this priceless secret information had not been shared with Arthur Balfour, First Lord of the Admiralty, which begs the question, with whom was it shared? The Foreign Secretary had made promises behind the backs of his cabinet colleagues, and we are expected to believe that Captain Hall told no-one? Grey was clearly mentally exhausted. Fearful that he might miss an opportunity to ‘get a decent peace’, if the war ‘went wrong’ Sir Edward Grey brought the American proposals before the War Committee in March 1916. They ignored it. When the Americans again pressed for a decision on the President’s offer to intervene in May 1916, the Cabinet was split. Asquith, Grey, McKenna and Balfour were apparently in favour; Lloyd George and the conservative leader Bonar Law, were against.

Alarm bells sounded. The Army Council, a body whose admiration for Alfred Milner could hardly have been stronger, threatened to resign if the War Council insisted on discussing ‘the peace question’, [10] but the threat had not passed.

Asquith was prepared to accept that ‘the time has come where it was very desirable’ to formulate clear ideas on proposals for peace and at the end of August suggested that individual members of his cabinet put their ideas on paper for circulation and discussion. [11] In September E.S. Montagu, then Minister for Munitions, advised that it was not safe to ignore the possibility of a sudden peace since no-one was more likely to ‘get out’ when the fight was up, than the Germans. [12] He also asked what an unqualified victory might mean. The General Staff brought forward their own Memorandum [13] which erroneously claimed that the French Prime Minister, Briand, would likely have ‘very decided views worked out, under his direction, by very clever people who swerve him and who do not appear on the surface of political life.’ They also offered their opinion on how an armistice might be managed to Britain’s advantage.

Hoover was not an altruistic philanthropist. He was a profiteering racketeer.

Foreign Office papers which were shared with the Cabinet in October 1916, showed that Germany was prepared to offer peace to Belgium irrespective of Britain’s position. Herbert Hoover who was running the scandalous Belgian Relief programme, [14] warned the Foreign Office that the German government intended to negotiate with the Belgian government in exile. He alleged that the Germans would evacuate the country, guarantee complete economic and political liberty and pay an indemnity for reconstruction purposes. Furthermore, in order to end the conflict with France, they were prepared to cede the whole of the province of Lorraine under the condition that the French would promise to supply five million tons of iron ore each year to Germany. Their ‘terms’ also included independence for Poland and an unspecified ‘arrangement’ in the Balkans. [15]

(A knowledgeable observer will have noted that in combining the Belgian Relief agency with the supplies of iron and steel from Briey and Longwy, two of the biggest scandals of the First World War were rolled together as a lure to peace.) [16] Hoover had no truck with such suggestions. When he next went to Brussels, the German-American member of the Belgian Comite Nationale, Danny Heinemann, approached him to try to find out what the British terms for peace might be. Hoover claimed that ‘he was not in the peace business’. He most certainly was not. He was in the business of profiteering from war.  [17]

Though a conservative, Lord Lansdowne thought that the time to consider what was meant by 'peace'.

The more circumspect Lord Lansdowne, a member of Asquith’s coalition cabinet as Minister without Portfolio, asked a telling question on 13 November, 1916: ‘… what is our chance of winning [the war] in such a manner, and within such limits of time, as will enable us to beat our enemy to the ground and impose upon him the kind of terms we so freely discuss?’ [We might well read this as a ‘get-real’ moment, but when he continued by regretting that the Allied cause remained ‘partly vindictive and partly selfish’ to the extent that any attempt to get out of the impasse of a stalemate was viewed in negative terms, Lansdowne’s immediate future in politics was decidedly limited. [18]

Kitchener’s timely and suspicious death in June 1916 brought to an end any chance of his interference in what he looked forward to as a just peace, [19] but for the Secret Elite, their immediate problem focussed on politicians who clearly lacked the commitment to crush Germany. Asquith had run his course. His prevarications and capacity to ‘wait and see’ had no place at a time when the Secret Elite needed decisive firmness to see it through. Although Asquith went to considerable lengths in Parliament in October 1916 to shun any notion of a settlement, it was too late. His pain was heartfelt [20] when he declared:

‘The strain which the War imposes on ourselves and our Allies, the hardships which we freely admit it involves on some of those who are not directly concerned in the struggle, the upheaval of trade, the devastation of territory, the loss of irreplaceable lives—this long and sombre procession of cruelty and suffering, lighted up as it is by deathless examples of heroism and chivalry, cannot be allowed to end in some patched-up, precarious, dishonouring compromise, masquerading under the name of Peace.’ [21]

Less than two months later the men who had even considered defining peace had gone from government: Asquith, Grey, Lansdowne, Montagu and McKenna were disposed of. They had committed sacrilege. Their unforgivable sin was the contemplation of peace. There would be no peace.

[1] Edward Mandell House and Charles Seymour, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, 1915-1917, p.175.
[2] By this time there were daily examples of the horrendous waste of life on the Western Front. one example amongst hundreds can be found in The Times 1 February, 1916, p.10.
[3] Alfred Milner and his associates in the Round Table group in Britain had from 1905 onwards worked tirelessly to promote the Empire and indeed prepare the Empire of r ‘the coming war’. See Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the first World War, pp. 153-160.
[4] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, Volume 1, 1877-1918, p. 245.
[5] This secretive committee was originally formed in 1902 to advise the prime minister on matters of military and naval strategy. Maurice Hankey had been Assistant Secretary since 1908 and was the immensely authoritative Secretary from 1912 onwards.
[6] The nerve centre of British intelligence was in Room 40 at the Admiralty where the highly secretive Captain (later Rear- Admiral) William ‘Blinker’ Hall monitored radio and telegraphic messages from Germany and German ships. Britain had had possession of all German codes from the first months of the war. See Blog; Lusitania 1: The Tale of there Secret Miracles, 28 April 2015.
[7] House and Seymour, The Intimate Papers, p. 135.
[8] Ibid., p. 170.
[9] Allegedly, Hankey visited Hall on 27 January 1916 to discuss a ploy to put false German banknotes into circulation and the conversation just happened to wander into Mandell House’s visit to Sir Edward Grey. So they would have us believe. Roskill, Hankey, p. 247.
[10] CAB 42/14/12.
[11] CAB 42/18/ 8.
[12] CAB 42/18/ 7.
[13] CAB 42/18/10.
[14] See Blog; Commission For Relief in Belgium 13: As If It Had Never Happened. posted on 25 November 2015.
[15] FO 899 Cabinet Memoranda 1905-1918, Memorandum by Lord Eustace Percy, 26 September 1916.
[16] See our four Blogs on Briey from 12 November 2014 onwards.
[17] See Blog; Commission For Relief in Belgium 12: Hoover, Servant Not Master, posted on 18 November 2015.
[18] Harold Kurtz, The Lansdowne Letter, History Today, Volume 18 issue 2 February 1968.
[19] Randolph S. Churchill, Lord Derby, King of Lancashire, p. 210.
[20] Asquith had lost his son Raymond, on 15 September 1916, at the Somme. It was a crushing personal blow.
[21] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 11 October 1916, vol 86 cc95-161.