British Parliament debates the war

3 Aug 1914 15:00
  • London
UK Parliament circa WW!

On Monday 3 August the House of Commons debated the war - the first time in the build-up to war that it had done so. The moves towards war by the Liberal government came in for sharp criticism not only from Labour MPs but from Liberal back-benchers. But there was no vote.

The previous day, John Burns (President of the Boad of Trade) had resigned his cabinet post in protest at the government's decision that the British fleet would take action against the German fleet if it "came into the Channel or through the North Sea to undertake hostile action against French coasts or shipping." Burns regarded this as tantamount to a declaration of war against Germany. In his resignation letter he wrote:

"Why four great powers should fight over Serbia no fellow can understand. This I know, there is one fellow who will have nothing to do with such a criminal folly, the effects of which will be appalling to the welter of nations who will be involved. It must be averted by all the means in our power. Apart from the merits of the case it is my especial duty to dissociate myself, and the principles I hold and the trusteeship for the working classes I carry from such a universal crime as the contemplated war will be. My duty is clear and at all costs will be done."

By the time ministers resumed their discussions on Monday, they knew that Germany had issued an ultimatum to Belgium demanding passage for its troops through the country. They did not at first know what response the Belgian government had made. 

At around 10am on Monday, the German ambassador, Karl Max von Lichnowsky, met Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. He told Grey that, if Britain stayed neutral, the German fleet would not attack the coast of northern France.  Lichnowsky went away with the impression that Grey, personally, would like Britain to remain neutral if at all possible.

News of Belgium's rejection of the German ultimatum came in a telegram received by the Foreign Office at 10.55am. Grey subsequently claimed that he was unaware of it until after his Commons speech that afternoon.

The Cabinet met at 11am. Everyone understood that the government intended to go to war with Germany over the question of Belgian neutrality. John Morley (Lord President of the Council),  John Simon (Attorney General) and Lord William Beauchamp (Commissioner of Works) intended to resign. Simon and Beauchamp withrew their resignations during the meeting, and Morley agreed to say nothing until after the Commons debate. Churchill's earlier unauthorised mobilisation of the fleet was approved.

It was a bank holiday and a large crowd had gathered around Parliament, waiting for news. When Edward Grey rose to speak at about 3pm, every MP was in attendance, for the first time since 1893. He began by saying:

"To-day events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved. Russia and Germany, at any rate, have declared war upon each other."

He went on to say: "I have assured the House - and the Prime Minister has assured the House more than once - that if any crisis such as this arose, we should come before the House of Commons and be able to say to the House that it was free to decide what the British attitude should be..." Yet in fact there was to be no vote, and no opportunity for the House to decide anything at all.

Grey's speech was somewhat rambling, and listeners appear not to have been sure where it was heading. At one point Lord Derby, a pro-war Tory, muttered: "By God, they are going to desert Belgium!"

Grey told MPs of Germany's undertaking not to make a naval attack on the northern French coast if Britain remained neutral, but said that was "far too narrow an engagement for us." He spoke about the German ulitimatum to Belgium - which he said might not have reached him in accurate form - and made no mention of the Belgian response, saying only:

"Well, Sir, until one has these things absolutely definitely, up to the last moment, I do not wish to say all that one would say if one were in a position to give the House full, complete, and absolute information upon the point."

After speaking for about 90 minutes, Edward Grey concluded by saying:

"I have put the vital facts before the House, and if, as seems not improbable, we are forced, and rapidly forced, to take our stand upon those issues, then I believe, when the country realises what is at stake, what the real issues are, the magnitude of the impending dangers in the West of Europe, which I have endeavoured to describe to the House, we shall be supported throughout, not only by the House of Commons, but by the determination, the resolution, the courage, and the endurance of the whole country."

The House appears to have taken this as a commitment to war and broke into applause. That was the closest MPs came to voting on the war.

Tory leader Bonar Law and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, both expressed their approval.

"I think the verdict of history will be that they are wrong" - Ramsay MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, then rose to speak. His speech was short, but still managed to ramble somewhat. It could hardly do otherwise, given the indistinct target that Edward Grey's speech presented. But it included slices of memorable acuity. Of Edward Grey's arguments, he said:

"I think he is wrong. I think the Government which he represents and for which he speaks is wrong. I think the verdict of history will be that they are wrong."

Ramsay MacDonald
Ramsay MacDonald

Perhaps believing that the fight against the war was not yet quite over, Ramsay MacDonald added: "I am perfectly certain, when his [Edward Grey's] speech gets into cold print to-morrow, he will not persuade a large section of the country."

On the question of Belgian neutrality, he said:

"If the right hon. Gentleman could come to us and tell us that a small European nationality like Belgium is in danger, and could assure us he is going to confine the conflict to that question, then we would support him. What is the use of talking about coming to the aid of Belgium, when, as a matter of fact, you are engaging in a whole European War which is not going to leave the map of Europe in the position it is in now."

Scepticism over Edward Gray's statement was not confined to Labour MPs. 28 members of the governing Liberal party met in the lobby to adopt a resolution stating that Grey had failed to make the case for war.

The debate was suspended shortly after Ramsay MacDonald's speech, to be resumed in the evening.

When Churchill met Grey after his speech, he asked  "what happens now."  Grey said that an ultimatum would be sent to Germany warning it not to violate Belgian territory. There had been no mention of an ultimatum in the Commons debate.

The Cabinet met again at 6pm, but no ultimatum was drafted. Instead, the Cabinet authorised a telegram to Sir Edwad Goschen, Britain's ambassador to Germany, saying:

"His Majesty's Government are bound to protest against this violation of a treaty to which Germany is a party along with themselves, and must respect an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with, and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany."

The telegram made no mention of a military response by Britain. It was not sent until Tuesday morning. On the same morning, the Cabinet authorised an ultimatum to Germany, which was sent at 2pm.

The Commons debate resumed at 7pm. Edward Grey passed on to the House the news that Belgium had rejected the German ultimatum. Perhaps - rather incredibly - he had not been told of it earlier. Or perhaps, discovering that Liberal disent was emerging, he thought it wise to add some facts to his earlier presentation. He made no mention of the telegram that was to be sent to Germany. Oddly, in view of all that had been said before, he added:

"Of course, I can only say that the Government are prepared to take into grave consideration the information which it has received. I make no further comment upon it."

Liberal MP Philip Morrell then addressed the House to "to put before it, as clearly as I can, the reasons why many of us - and I believe I speak for a good many on this side of the House - feel unable to agree with the Government in the policy they are now pursuing."

He discussed the German naval threat the French coast and the impending violation of Belgian neutrality, and then said:

"I do not think that these two reasons, although they may be diplomatic reasons, are the real reasons why we are going to engage in this perilous venture. I believe we are going to war now because of the fear and jealousy entertained in this country unfortunately, and fostered by large sections of the Press - the fear and jealousy of German ambition. I believe that is the real reason why hon. Gentlemen opposite are asking this country to go to war, and I do not think there would be any war fever in the country except for the demands made by the Party opposite [the Tory Party] and their supporters in the Press. At any rate, I believe I am justified in saying it is abundantly clear that it is this fear of Germany which is to-day driving us to war."

He added:

"After listening to the right hon. Gentleman [Edward Grey] and the reasons he has given, while we must admit the strength of his speech and its sincerity, I say I do not believe he has given a sufficient reason for our undertaking at this time, here and now, the terrible peril and danger of involving this country in war."

"There should be a supreme effort made to save this terrible wreckage of human life" - Edmund Harvey

Other Liberals expressed similar views. Liberal MP Edmund Harvey said:

"I am convinced that this war, for the great masses of the countries of Europe, and not for our own country alone, is no people's war. It is a war that has been made - I am not referring to our Leaders here—by men in high places, by diplomatists working in secret, by bureaucrats who are out of touch with the peoples of the world, who are the remnant of an older evil civilisation which is disappearing by gradual and peaceful methods. I want to make an appeal on behalf of the people, who are voiceless except in this House, that there should be a supreme effort made to save this terrible wreckage of human life, that we may not make this further sacrifice upon the altar of the terrible, bloodstained idol of the balance of power, but should be willing to make great sacrifices of patience in the sacred cause of peace."

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Keir Hardie
Keir Hardie

The build-up to war had been accompanied by an international financial crisis that was to persist for months. Parliament had unanimously passed a Bill for the relief of the stock exchange.

Keir Hardie (ILP) spoke immediately after Edmund Harvey and began by asking whether comparable efforts were going to be made "for the relief of the inevitable destitution which is bound to prevail among the poor."

Hardie went on to say:

"So far as some of us are concerned—here I do not speak for the party with which I am connected for the present moment, but for myself personally—we shall endeavour to ascertain what is the real feeling of the country and especially of the working classes of the country, in regard to the decision of the Government, We belong to a Party which is international. In Germany, in France, in Belgium and in Austria, the party corresponding to our own is taking all manner of risks to promote and preserve peace.

"Some of us will do all we can to rouse the working classes of the country" - Keir Hardie

I say respectfully to the House that some of us will do all we can to rouse the working classes of the country in opposition to this proposal of the Government, but especially we have the right to ask what action is now going to be taken to alleviate, as far as possible, the sufferings of those who are bound to be hard hit by war, whether we take part in it or not."

The House eventually adjourned at 9.23pm, without a vote having been taken on the Government's policy.

It appears to have been clear to all present that the British Government was set on a course for war. But that was not yet clear to the German Government.

Lichnowsky, the German ambassador, had not attended the debate, fearing that he would become a target for jingoists. Told of Edward Grey's opening speech, he seems to have detected in it no decisive change of direction. He reported to the German Foreign Secretary on Monday night that "although the speech is marked by deep distrust of our political intentions, one can nevertheless gather from it that the British Government has in all probability no immediate intention of taking part in the conflict or of abandoning the neutrality she has so far observed."

To understand differently, he would have had to have been in the House of Commons gallery to hear the cheers at the end of Grey's speech and to notice the assumptions that lay beneath MPs responses to it.

As for Edward Grey and the Liberal cabinet, they evidently had no intention of allowing Parliament to participate in their decision-making.

In his office that evening, Edward Grey is widely reported to have said:

"The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime."