One hundred years ago in the summer of 1914, the World War I began. Over the next four years of industrialised-war madness, 70 million military personnel were mobilised in different countries around the world. Nine million combatants died. Empires tumbled. New states were born. So were new social and artistic movements, and all sorts of radical state controls over our everyday life that unhappily linger on.
Countless new books and articles are analysing the origins of the War and the military convulsions that followed. David Owen makes a powerful contribution in his new book, The Hidden Perspective: The Military Conversations of 1906-1914. He looks through the keen operational eye of a former Foreign Secretary at the high-level manoeuvrings of London and other European capitals. He pays particular attention to high-level secret discussions between the UK and French military high commands that started in 1906. He argues that they took on a life and logic of their own, discouraging other political and military options that might have been far more effective – and far more wise.
Readers of Diplomat will enjoy – and be startled by – many details Lord Owen gives us about diplomacy as practised a century and more ago. London presided over a mighty global empire. Yet it had a tiny diplomatic organisation – a mere 140 full diplomats when the Great War started, mostly from the country’s social elite. It was only in 1907 that the Foreign Secretary had lost his powers of personal patronage to appoint new diplomats: until then the default position had been to bring in plenty of Etonians. Official documents were written in high mandarin style and often by hand, sometimes using abbreviations (no doubt to save time) that presage today’s text-speak: “I sd it would be much more convenient if these cd be omitted.”
It’s hard nowadays to work out what Europe’s top diplomats back in those days actually knew about the issues they were so grandly discussing. Count Bernhard von Bulow who served as German Foreign Secretary was impressed by the contradictions in the way London’s leaders looked at the world: “English politicians know little about the Continent … they are naive in their conscious egotism and in a certain blind confidence. They find it difficult to credit really bad intentions in others. They are very quiet, very phlegmatic and very optimistic.”
These days, European foreign ministers are always on the road, dropping into each other’s offices to the point where it is hard to imagine a world in which that is not happening. Sir Edward Grey served as British Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916: no one has held this high office longer. There is no evidence that he had ever visited continental Europe before taking office. In his long years as Foreign Secretary he apparently made only one visit abroad, to France in early 1914. Worse, he had had no personal experience of military action. He did not grasp that British involvement in a land war on the European continent with modern weapons could lead to unimaginable casualties. Loftily oblivious to his own ignorance, he followed his personal and political instincts: when in doubt, London should side with Paris against Berlin. As this book describes so well, his policies had disastrous consequences.
As the twentieth century began, London presided over astonishing success but faced disconcerting new problems. Other countries were starting to follow the British example and industrialise their economies. In 1860 the UK, with its first-mover advantage in the industrial revolution, had had a staggering 20 per cent share of the world production. By 1900 the US and Germany were assuming the global economic lead, with Japan coming up fast.
The rise of Germany was the key problem in Europe. After centuries of fragmentation, Europe’s multifarious small German states had come together under Prussia’s lead. A new German Empire was growing by leaps and bounds, determined to follow London and Paris in building powerful land and sea forces and acquiring overseas territories to secure for Germany its own ‘place in the sun.’ In 1871 the French had experienced humiliating defeat by Prussia and seen a new German Empire proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It made sense for Paris to stick close to London – and Moscow – to keep this mighty new Germany under control.
In 1906 at the start of his long term of office as Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey took a far-reaching decision. He joined Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War, in authorising top-level British ‘military conversations’ with French generals about options for Britain defending France if war in Europe broke out. The generals brooded on the technological challenges of mobilising huge numbers of soldiers quickly by using railway networks. Decades later, in 1969, British historian A J P Taylor famously argued that Europe’s intricate railway timetables played a calamitous role in starting World War 1: once mobilisations of troops started, the process could not be stopped or even varied by military planners without chaotic consequences.
Precisely because the UK and France controlled so many overseas territories and colonies, German pressure to expand its trade and influence kept bringing about messy new confrontations in unexpected places. In 1906 Sir Edward Grey described his exchanges with German Ambassador Count Metternich, who complained that the British government was becoming “more French than the French” in defending Paris’s position on Morocco. The Foreign Secretary insisted that British public opinion did not favour support for German positions: “what made a nation most likely to take part in war was not policy or interest, but sentiment.” England (sic) would find it impossible to be neutral if war broke out between Germany and France.
London had its reasons for being unimpressed with Germany’s erratic Kaiser Wilhelm II. He had come out against the British in the Boer War. In 1908 he gave the Daily Telegraph a magnificently calamitous newspaper interview that no spin doctor today could steer into the long grass: “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares!”
The crafty French Ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, met British Ministers to press the case for making these supposedly informal UK/France military discussions into firm understandings. He argued, not unreasonably, that by the very act of looking secretly and in great detail at bilateral military contingency planning, London had raised expectations in Paris. Paris needed to know whether to base its own planning (including those railway timetables for vast troop movements) on British intentions. War could break out suddenly: “the need for action would be a question not of days, but of minutes.” If a crisis erupted London could not reserve to itself the luxury of leisurely weighing up the pros and cons of supporting the French cause.
Sir Edward Grey and others insisted that the military discussions should not be interpreted by Paris as signifying a formal defence commitment. But this pedantic formalism was unconvincing.
Lord Owen shows that perverse and unexpected diplomatic consequences flowed from these secret discussions that the Cabinet heard about only in 1911. British top-level attention was diverted from other powerful unilateral options (naval blockades and other more “remote” military actions) that did not involve huge numbers of British troops fighting in continental Europe. These exchanges allowed the French to avoid building up their own army to help deter attack from Germany. Worst of all, London’s influence with Berlin was reduced: the Germans knew that if it came to a conflict London would side with Paris.
In short, London boxed itself in on multiple levels simultaneously: “British diplomacy suddenly acquired a continental rigidity that had been absent for many decades.” Errors of basic diplomatic technique led to millions of deaths.
International understandings and alliances ebb and flow. Yet core principles of diplomacy are based on commonsense truths about human nature. Above all, if you want to understand the intentions and concerns of other people, it’s quite a good idea to talk to them: “nothing can really disguise one simple fact: to get an agreement you have to want agreement.” Then you need to get down into what David Owen describes as the frustrating mire of detail with its “hands-on, nitty-gritty, face-to-face” negotiations needed to reach tough compromises that all concerned are ready to accept then implement.