Winston Churchill's Brilliant Plan that Almost Prevented the First World War
On Wednesday, July 29, 1914, the British Cabinet met to discuss the European crisis. Time was running out: Austria-Hungary had just declared war on Serbia, and that afternoon would shell Belgrade. In just two days, Russia and then Germany would mobilize, and the diplomats and politicians would be sidelined.
Winston Churchill found the prospect of war exhilarating.
At midnight on July 28, he wrote his wife from his office at the Admiralty:
My darling one and beautiful,
Everything tends toward catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity.
The image of the glowering warrior-statesman of 1940-1945 is so entrenched that it takes some effort to recall Churchill’s earlier incarnations.
In July of 1914, he was First Lord of the Admiralty in Britain’s last Liberal government, and, at 39, its youngest member. Churchill had left the Conservative Party in 1904, and his stinging speeches, filled with carefully composed invective, had made him the most hated member of the Cabinet for the Tory Opposition.
But Churchill was also mistrusted by his new colleagues. Volatile, impulsive, intoxicated by words, he was regarded as a loose cannon and an unscrupulous self-promoter. After crossing the aisle, he had joined the party’s radical wing, teaming up with the flamboyant David Lloyd George to argue for social welfare policies that flew in the face of traditional Liberalism. Though he supported draconian cuts in the Army and Navy budgets, his colleagues suspected he was still too fond of guns and uniforms, and tactics and strategy.
Lloyd George was a charmer, but Churchill swept into office by the sheer force of his personality.
Years later, Violet Asquith, the Prime Minister’s intelligent and perceptive daughter, recalled her first conversation with him. “Curse ruthless time!” he said savagely, bemoaning the fact that he was already thirty-two.
“Curse our mortality! How cruelly short is the allotted span for all we must cram into it.” And he burst forth into an eloquent diatribe on the shortness of human life, the immensity of possible human accomplishment -- a theme so well exploited by the poets, prophets and philosophers of all ages that it might seem difficult to invest it with a new and startling significance. Yet for me he did so, in a torrent of magnificent language which appeared to be both effortless and inexhaustible and ended up with the words I shall always remember: “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glow-worm.”
After the encounter, she rushed into her father’s bedroom. Asquith and his daughter were extremely close, and always discussed the day’s events before he went to sleep. Violet announced that for the first time in her life she had seen genius.
“Well, Winston would certainly agree with you there,” the Prime Minister replied. “But I’m not sure you will find many others of the same mind.”
In his midnight letter to his wife on July 28th, Churchill, after expressing his sense of guilt over his excitement about the looming war, continued in another vein. “Yet I would do my best for peace,” he wrote.
…and nothing would induce me wrongfully to strike the blow… I wonder whether those stupid Kings and Emperors cd [sic] not assemble together and revivify kingship by saving the nations from hell, but we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance…
At the Cabinet meeting at 11:30 the following morning, incredibly, the situation in Ulster was still foremost on the minds of the members of government, and discussion initially centered on the prospect of civil war in Ireland, and negotiations to avert it.
The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, arrived late to the meeting, and was in a grim mood. He was very upset by the Austrian declaration of war and what he believed would be the imminent invasion of Serbia. And Berlin had once again rejected his appeal for a four-Power conference to resolve the dispute. Grey had just spoken to the German Ambassador, Prince Max Lichnowsky, and had hinted for the first time that Britain might not be able to remain neutral.
Suspecting that Germany would attack France through Belgium, the Foreign Secretary brought with him papers relating to the 1839 and 1870 treaties with that country, guaranteeing its independence and neutrality. These included extracts from speeches by the great Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. With his typical soaring rhetoric, Gladstone had proclaimed that “the day that witnessed Belgium’s absorption [by Prussia or France] would hear the death-knell of public right and public law,” and that the annihilation of Belgium would be “the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history.”
But the Cabinet was unmoved by Gladstone’s eloquence. Members agreed that any individual signatory of the 1839 treaty had the right to intervene in Belgium’s behalf if its neutrality were threated and the government in Brussels appealed for help. But there was no legal obligation to intervene, the ministers decided.
Everyone was struck by Grey’s pessimism. He deplored Austria’s “brutal recklessness” and described the situation as “very grave.” There was no longer much chance for a negotiated settlement. Both the idea of mediation by the four Powers, Italy, France, Britain, and Germany, or of direct talks between Vienna and St. Petersburg to resolve the dispute between Serbia and the Empire seemed to be dead in the water.
Then Winston Churchill spoke up.
War would be “a calamity for civilized nations,” he declared, and went on to propose exactly what he had written to Clementine the night before: that the crowned heads of Europe should meet together to devise a compromise acceptable to all the Powers.
No such conference between the heads of government or heads of state had ever taken place. Diplomacy was conducted entirely by Foreign Ministers meeting with ambassadors.
Ironically, when the first summit meetings did eventually occur, at Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, and Munich in September 1938, Churchill would bitterly denounce the result. “It is a disaster of the first magnitude,” he declared, and told Neville Chamberlain, “’Thou are weighed in the balance and found wanting.’”
But in July 1914, a meeting of the Kings and Emperors of Europe might well have averted war.
Americans and the British like to personify their enemies. And so in innumerable cartoons, posters, poems, and pamphlets the Kaiser was reviled as the bloodthirsty War Lord who had unleashed his armies on a peaceful continent.
It’s certainly true that the mercurial Wilhelm, with his sometimes violent rhetoric (telling troops departing for China they ought to behave like Huns) and his bravado (Germany stood beside its ally, he declared, “like a knight in shining armor,” brandishing “the mailed fist”) was not a force for peace and reconciliation in the two decades before the war.
In particular, the naval race with Britain that he insisted upon had unfortunate consequences for relations with that country. One of his fondest memories of England was watching with his grandmother, Queen Victoria, while the Royal Navy steamed past Portsmouth. Why shouldn’t the Emperor of the most powerful nation on the continent have his own fleet?
However, it was not the Kaiser but his Chancellor who insisted on his sailing to Morocco in 1905 and showing the flag, bringing Europe to the brink of war, and in the other pre-1914 crises, Wilhelm had always pulled back from the precipice.
He was so mistrusted by military and civilian leaders that he was kept out of the loop during the July Crisis. The Chancellor, Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg, waited more than twenty-four hours before forwarding to the Emperor the Serbian reply to the Austrian ultimatum.
When he saw it, on the morning of July 28, the Kaiser declared:
A brilliant performance for a time-limit of only 48 hours. This is more than one could have expected! A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every reason for war drops away, and Giesl [the Austrian ambassador to Serbia] might have remained quietly in Belgrade. On the strength of this I should never have ordered mobilization!
The following day, Wilhelm told Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, head of the navy, that “it would be madness if it came to a general war because of that [an Austrian-Serbian quarrel]… The Serbs had really conceded everything except for a few bagatelles.”
He then suggested a compromise, the “Halt in Belgrade” proposal. The Austrians would occupy the Serb capital until it was clear that the government had honored the commitments it had agreed to in reply to the ultimatum. Belgrade would be held as a Faustpfand, a pledge.
The Kaiser then wrote a long letter to his Foreign Minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, describing the proposal, repeating that the Serbian reply was a “capitulation of the most humiliating kind” and that now “every cause for war is gone.” But pressure had to be applied to the Serbs, who were “Orientals, and thus deceitful” and “masters of procrastination.” Hence, the Faustpfand.
The Minister of War was upset: “He makes senseless utterances that show clearly he does not want war any longer.”
A proposal for a Halt in Belgrade was also made independently by Sir Edward Grey and by the Italian Foreign Minister.
Neither they nor the Kaiser knew that Austria was not capable of attacking its southern neighbor until August 12, and that its war plan called for troops to sweep below the capital from the west and annihilate the Serbian Army in the center of the country.
But the proposal reveals that the Kaiser on July 29 was still very anxious to avoid war.
There was nothing Wilhem adored more than state visits. He was always pressing King Edward VII and then his son George V, and leading British politicians, to come to Berlin, and he was perpetually angling for an invitation to Windsor.
If Winston Churchill’s suggestion had been endorsed by the Cabinet and forwarded to the King, George would have sent the Kaiser a proposal for a meeting, and Wilhelm would have accepted with alacrity.
Nicholas II mistrusted his volatile and conniving German cousin, and was uncomfortable in his presence. But the Czar dreaded war and had just inaugurated an exchange of letters with the Kaiser, the famous “Willy-Nicky” correspondence, in an attempt to find a solution to the crisis. He, too, would have welcomed a meeting. Franz-Joseph, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, would have been obliged to go along. He, too, was unhappy at the prospect of war.
For days, the two proposals for mediation had been reiterated: mediation by the four Powers not involved in the dispute and direct talks between Vienna and St. Petersburg. These had been repeatedly cold-shouldered by the Foreign Ministries in Berlin and Vienna.
Here was a chance to make an end-run, to circumvent the civilian and military leaders in both capitals who were determined to go to war.
Unfortunately, after Churchill spoke, Asquith immediately shot down the proposal.
“The Austrian Emperor is bitter,” he said, “and we hear that the Czar is violent and they are far apart -- no help can be looked for in this direct.”
The observation was manifestly untrue.
What’s also puzzling is that the wily Asquith was not in the habit of offering his own opinions right off the bat. Charles Hobhouse, the Postmaster-General, who kept a detailed diary of Cabinet meetings, noted of the Prime Minister that
…everybody likes him, and has great admiration for his intellect…. On the other hand, he has little courage; he will adopt the views of A with apparent conviction and enthusiasm, but if the drift of opinion is against A he will find an easy method of throwing him over. He is nearly always in favour of the last speaker, and I have never seen him put his back to the wall.
Why did Asquith torpedo what was, in retrospect, an excellent opportunity to avert the Great War?
It may have had something to do with his daughter Violet.
Asquith had an unusually intense relationship with his daughter. When Violet married his private secretary, the Prime Minister wrote:
For 20 years you have been the most perfect of companions, & I have tried to be to you not a Father, but an intimate & understanding friend. During all that time we have never failed one another: thank God! I can’t remember even one moment when we have ever been apart. You always understood me, & I believe I have always understood you. It has been a perfect relationship.
And now that you are leaving me, in a time of great strain & stress, I could not bear to think that you should ever be far away. Do not ever let us break or even suspend the chain wh. has always bound us together. Let us maintain the old close intimacy... My life wd. be impoverished without you. I beg and pray of you to keep our divine companionship as it always as been...
Your loving & devoted & dependent Father.
Violet Asquith, no more familiar with Freud than her father, replied,
Most Beloved, I read your precious letter in the train with many tears–but also with a great & deep pride that I shld. have meant anything to you–who have always meant everything to me–since I can remember & are still the closest–the most passionately loved of all human beings to me. You lie at the very bottom of my heart–nothing can ever get beneath you–or that deep and absorbing love of you which has always been the first principle of my existence.
But Violet was also enraptured by Winston Churchill. It was not a romantic relationship. The uxorious Churchill was faithful to Clementine from their engagement in 1908; he was the polar opposite of his priapic comrade-in-arms, Lloyd George.
Yet Churchill was in some respects a more formidable rival of Asquith’s than Maurice Bonham-Carter, whom Violet married.
When she returned from her first meeting with Winston, breathless with excitement, and confided her feelings to her father, she omitted telling him that she had discovered, to her amazement, that the autodidact had never read Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” “This (unusual) act of censorship,” she wrote, “was proof that I had forged a new loyalty.”
Any suggestions about Asquith’s motives are, of course, highly speculative.
Churchill had floated hare-brained ideas before the Cabinet on various occasions.
Hobhouse disliked him: He is “really a spoilt child endowed by some chance with the brain of a genius.”
Nervous, fretful, voluble, intolerably bumptious and conceited, he squanders
...our time and his own in increasing orations. These are interspersed with tags of Latin and French which are a source of unfailing amusement and contempt for the P.M.
Asquith, though he shared the impatience of other Ministers with their impetuous colleague, seems to have been genuinely fond of Churchill. But a subconscious feeling of jealousy may have colored the relationship and exacerbated the sense of irritation at Winston that Asquith frequently felt.
The Prime Minister was also distracted by his relationship with a young woman his daughter’s age, Violet’s friend Venetia Stanley. He wrote to her daily, sometimes more than once, and sometimes during Cabinet meetings. The crisis in Europe was distressing to the Prime Minister chiefly because it prevented him from meeting her in Portsmouth, where she was staying. When he learned on August 1 of the Russian mobilization, he wrote:
I can honestly say that I have never had a more bitter disappointment. All these days -- ever since Thursday in last week…I have been sustained by the thought that when today came I should once more see your darling face, & be with you, and share everything and get from you what I value most, & what is to me the best of all things in the world -- your counsel & your understanding & your sympathy and your love.
The Russian mobilization was not distressing because it brought the prospect of war one step closer, but because it prevented him from seeing his girlfriend.
Great events have great causes, no doubt, but they are precipitated by the decisions of individuals -- individuals who are emotional, irrational, and conflicted.
Unfortunately, minutes were not kept of Cabinet meetings at this time, so historians have to rely on the brief summary the Prime Minister always wrote for the King, and the letters, diaries, and memoirs of individual members. We can’t know how vigorously Churchill defended his brilliant proposal, or what anyone else said of it. We can only infer that it was deep-sixed by a feckless leader who may have been affected by jealousy and was distracted by personal relations.
Poised on the brink of war, the nations of Europe looked to Britain. By July 29, Churchill’s idea of a summit meeting between George V, Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Franz-Joseph, and, presumably, the King of Italy Victor Emmanuel III, was the only way of breaking the deadlock and sparing the world the greatest man-made catastrophe it had ever experienced. We still live with its consequences one hundred years later.
Jeff Lipkes is the author of Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, 1914, a second edition of which appeared earlier this year, along with a translation of Henri Pirenne’s La Belgique et la guerre mondiale, Belgium and the First World War, and a collection of the letters of Sir Edward Grey, Dear Katharine Courageous.