An archduke was assassinated at Sarajevo in August 1914 and within a very short time, a continental war had developed in which Germany and Austria faced Russia and France. Why did Britain immediately join a war over events in Eastern Europe? Asquith was Prime Minister and Asquith must take most of the blame.
The need for clear-sighted, firm and if necessary flexible leadership is never greater than when war threatens. Under Asquith’s premiership, there was no one in overall charge of national policy. Government had become fragmented and uncoordinated. He was a very unusual prime minister, combining an almost complete lack of original ideas with supreme self-confidence and stubborn obstinacy. He had created a cabinet of mostly very talented men who had the ideas he lacked; each directed his own department and was given a free hand. Several of them (notably Lloyd George) had embarked on very controversial measures. Leaving even the most important decisions to the minister responsible, Asquith was easily distracted by trivia, preferring to write letters to his mistress, even during Cabinet meetings.
As a result, in the summer of 1914, we were in the midst of a crisis which felt like the prelude to civil war. The Liberal government had enacted a significant measure of Irish Home Rule; the Irish Protestants had refused to accept it, and were arming to prevent it from happening. In response, the Irish Nationalists were also arming. British Army Officers at the Curragh base in Dublin had declared that they would resign rather than enforce Home Rule. They were being actively encouraged by leading British opposition politicians and at least one senior general in London. All this was happening at a time when unemployment was high, House of Lords reform had torn the country apart and suffragettes were clamouring for the vote. No one in Britain had much time to think of what was going on in Europe.
Foreign affairs had for years been the responsibility of Grey, an undistinguished man who had hardly if ever left his native shores – an “expert” who knew little about his subject. Our international obligations were unclear. France was drawn into the War by an alliance with Russia but we had no formal agreement to come to France’s assistance. Despite this, informal talks had for years been taking place between the French General Staff and the British. The talks were quite unknown to most of the British Cabinet. In the end, we declared war because Germany had invaded Belgium. But Germany was not warned about the consequences of invading Belgium until it was too late for the German war machine to stop.
When war had been declared, Asquith looked round for an “expert” who could run it for him. For centuries, Britain had relied for her security on her Navy. But Asquith chose Kitchener. Kitchener was a general. Not surprisingly, he advised that the war would require an army on the continental scale.
Did the British people want war? Perhaps the young men did. Lloyd George walked to the House of Commons with Asquith through a pro-war demonstration:
The crowd was so dense that no car could drive through it and had it not been for police assistance, we could not have walked a yard on our way. I remember observing at the time “These people are very anxious to send our poor soldiers to face death; how many of them will ever go into battle themselves?”
But Lloyd George, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, soon found he had been unjust:
“It was an unworthy doubt of the courage and patriotism of the demonstrators. A few days later, recruiting stands were set up in Horse Guards Parade and that great open space beheld a crowd of young men surging around those stands and pushing their way through to give their names for enlistment in the Kitchener Armies. For days I heard, from the windows of Downing Street and the Treasury, the movement of a myriad feet towards the stands and the shouting of names of eager volunteers by the recruiting sergeants.
The combination of a great wave of popular patriotism with a War Minister who had decided to build up a continental-size army proved fatal. Many if not most of these first volunteers were to be killed within a few months, and their fate made patriotism a bad word in Britain for a hundred years.