John Gittings

WorldWarOneWatch No. 2
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How Britain was pushed into war

[WorldWarOneWatch No. 2]


At a time when D-Day has reminded us of Winston Churchill as a second world war leader , we should recall the  -- usually overlooked – malign part which he played in helping to propel Britain into the world war which came before. A fascinating new study by the historian Douglas Newton of the bitter debate in the British cabinet before August 4, 1914, gives us the clearest picture yet of the role of the “war party” in which Churchill was such a prominent figure. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill took crucial steps to mobilise the fleet without approval by his colleagues. Although a minister in the Liberal government, he was regarded by Conservative leaders, writes Newton, as “their man in the Liberal cabinet”. We can also benefit from the diaries of Margot Asquith, wife of the Liberal prime minister, which have finally been published. “What a strange being”, she wrote of Churchill. “He really likes war. He would be quite damped if he were told now ‘The war is over’. He has no imagination of the heart’”.  And we have Churchill’s own words for his exhilaration when the war began (quoted in another new book by the historian Margaret Macmillan) . “‘My darling one’, he wrote to his wife, ‘Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’”

The significance of this goes way beyond our appraisal of one British politician.  It fills out a very different picture of the way Britain entered the first world war from the one which has been generally portrayed in recent coverage – that the British government stumbled into war reluctantly and that the tipping point was the German invasion of Belgium.  In his forensic study of the cabinet debates from 23 July to Tuesday 4August 1914, Newton shows how a majority against war was out-manoeuvred by Churchill and others and  “how rushed, how closely contested, and how very ‘political’ was the final choice for war.” Asquith and  Foreign Secretary Edward Grey were more inclined to war anyhow. but also felt the pressure of a hostile Tory press which “barracked for immediate mobilisation” and told the British public that it was better to wage war than suffer national dishonour. The radical anti-war Liberals were also worried that if they resigned this could pave the way for a coalition government with the Tories.


In contrast to Newton’s narrow time focus, Macmillan provides a broad sweeping account of the long build-up to war from the year 1900, showing how the international “balance of power” was breaking down as alliances shifted. There were times when Britain had contemplated the possibility of war with either Russia or France – yet both ended up with Britain in the Triple Entente. But Macmillan believes that in the end it is “dangerous thinking” to believe that the war was inevitable: “it was Europe’s and the world’s tragedy in retrospect that none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressures building up for war”.  She and Newton remind us too of the strength of the popular voice for peace in both Germany and Britain, even though it did not prevail.


In this brief survey of new WW1 scholarship, I must also mention Christopher Clark’s masterly account of how Europe “sleep-walked” into war, as the leaders of all the great powers argued, miscalculated, bluffed, or were swayed by false notions of honour and patriotism.  Like the others, Clark does not minimise the harm done by German ambitions and German militarism, but the crisis that led to war, he concludes, was “the fruit of a shared political culture” and not caused by one nation alone.


These three books alone contain a total of 1,800 pages  -- quite a challenge for any reader. Yet they provide a very necessary antidote to the general view in this anniversary year. If there were villains in this story, these were not confined to one side.


Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days (Verso); 

Margaret Macmillan, The War that Ended Peace (Profile);

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers (Penguin)';

Michael Brock ed., Margot Asquith's Great War Diary (OUP)


Published as "War Villains" in Oxford CND Newsletter, July-Aug. 2014.