Transcriber's Note: While the author of this work uses unusual spelling, a number of obvious typographical errors have been corrected. A complete list will be found at the end of the book.
BEFORE THE WAR
Secretary of State for War from December, 1905 to June, 1912; Lord High Chancellor from June, 1912 to May, 1915.]
Published in February, 1920 Copyright under the Articles of the Copyright Convention of the Pan-American Republics of the United States, August 11, 1910
The chapters of which this little volume consists were constructed with a definite purpose. It was to render clear the line of thought and action followed by the Government of this country before the war, between January, 1906, and August, 1914. The endeavor made was directed in the first place to averting war, and in the second place to preparing for it as well as was practicable if it should come. In reviewing what happened I have made use of the substance of various papers recently contributed to the Westminster Gazette, the Atlantic Monthly, Land and Water, and the Sunday Times. The gist of these, which were written with their inclusion in this book in view, has been incorporated in the text together with other material. I have to thank the Editors of these journals for their courtesy in agreeing that the substance of what they published should be made use of here as part of a connected whole.
PAGE INTRODUCTION 13
DIPLOMACY BEFORE THE WAR 35
THE GERMAN ATTITUDE BEFORE THE WAR 101
THE MILITARY PREPARATIONS 177
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
VISCOUNT HALDANE Frontispiece
COUNT METTERNICH Facing page 57
M. PAUL CAMBON 78
VISCOUNT GREY (SIR EDWARD GREY) 87
CHANCELLOR VON BETHMANN-HOLLWEG 101
ADMIRAL VON TIRPITZ 137
COUNT BERCHTOLD 153
COUNT OTTOKAR CZERNIN 170
BEFORE THE WAR
The purpose of the pages which follow is, as I have said in the Prefatory Note, to explain the policy pursued toward Germany by Great Britain through the eight years which immediately preceded the great war of 1914. It was a policy which had two branches, as inseparable as they were distinct. The preservation of peace, by removing difficulties and getting rid of misinterpretations, was the object of the first branch. The second branch was concerned with what might happen if we failed in our effort to avert war. Against any outbreak by which such failure might be followed we had to insure. The form of the insurance had to be one which, in our circumstances, was practicable, and care had to be taken that it was not of a character that would frustrate the main purpose by provoking, and possibly accelerating, the very calamity against which it was designed to provide.
The situation was delicate and difficult. The public most properly expected of British Ministers that they should spare no effort for peace and for security. It was too sensible to ask for every detail of the steps taken for the attainment of this end. There are matters on which it is mischievous to encourage discussion, even in Parliament. Members of Parliament know this well, and are sensible about it. The wisest among them do not press for open statements which if made to the world would imperil the very object which Parliament and the public have directed those responsible to them to seek to attain. What is objected to in secret diplomacy hardly includes that which from its very nature must be negotiated in the first instance between individuals.
The policy actually followed was in principle satisfactory to the great majority of our people. To them it was familiar in its general outlines. But for the minority, which included both our pacifists and our chauvinists, it was either too much or too little. For, on the one hand, its foundation was the theory that, amid the circumstances of Europe in which it had to be built up, human nature could not be safely relied on unswervingly to resist warlike impulses. On the other hand, this peril notwithstanding, it was the considered view of those responsible that war neither ought to be regarded as being inevitable, nor was so in fact. It was quite true that the development of military preparations had been so great as to make Europe resemble an armed camp; but, if actual conflict could be averted, the burden this state of things implied ought finally to render its continuance no longer tolerable. What was really required was that unbroken peace should be preserved, and the hand of time left to operate.
In the course of history it has rarely been the case that any war that has broken out was really inevitable, and there does not appear to be any sufficient reason for thinking that the war of 1914 was an exception to the general rule. It seems clear that, if Germany had resolved to do so, she could quite safely have abstained from entering upon it and from encouraging Austria in a mad adventure. The reason why the war came appears to have been that at some period in the year 1913 the German Government finally laid the reins on the necks of men whom up to then it had held in restraint. The decision appears to have been allowed at this point to pass from civilians to soldiers. I do not believe that even then the German Government as a whole intended deliberately to invoke the frightful consequences of actual war, even if it seemed likely to be victorious. But I do believe that it elected to take the risk of what it thought improbable, a general resistance by the Entente Powers if Germany were to threaten to use her great strength. In thus departing in 1913 from the appearance of self-restraint which in the main they had displayed up to then, the Emperor and his Ministers misjudged the situation. They did not foresee the crisis to which their policy was conducting, and when that crisis arrived they lost their heads and blundered in trying to deal with it. They did not perceive the whirlpool toward which they were heading. They thought that they could safely expose what was precarious to a strain, and secure the substance of a real victory without having to overcome actual resistance. Had they put an extreme ambition for their country aside, and been careful in their language to others, they might have attained a considerable success without a shot being fired. But they were over ambitious and in their language they were far from careful. A few unlucky words made all the difference in the concluding days of July, 1914:
"Ten lines, a statesman's life in each."
We here had done the best we could, according to our lights, to keep Germany from misjudging us. It was not always easy to do this. The genius of our people was not well adapted for the particular task. If the only question to-day were whether we always rendered ourselves intelligible to her, she might say with some show of reason that we did not. She might have grumbled, as Bismarck used to do, over our apparent indefiniteness. But that indefiniteness in policy was only apparent. Its form was due to the habit of mind which was, what it always has been and probably always will be, the habit of mind of the people of these islands. It was the defect of her qualities that prevented Germany from understanding what this habit of mind truly imported, and we have never fully taken in at any period of our history how little she has ever understood it. Let anyone who doubts this read the German memoirs which have appeared since the war. But it remains not the less true and obvious that the purpose of the British Government which fashioned the policy in question was to leave no stone unturned in the endeavor to find a way of keeping the peace between Germany and the Entente Powers. Now success in that endeavor was not a certainty, and it was necessary to insure against the risk of failure. The second branch of British policy related to the provision for defense rendered imperative by the element of uncertainty which was unavoidable. The duty of the Government of this country was to make sure that, if their endeavor to preserve peace failed, the country should be prepared, in the best way of those that were practicable, to face the situation that might emerge.
Impetuous persons ask why, if there was even a chance of a great European war in which we might be involved, we did not appreciate the magnitude of what was at stake, and, laying everything else aside, concentrate our efforts on the immediate fashioning of such vast military forces as we possessed toward the end of the war? The answer will be found in the fourth chapter. We were aware of the risk, and we took what we thought the best means to meet it. Had we tried to do what we are reproached for not having done, we must have become weaker before we could have become stronger. For this statement I have given the military reasons. In a time of peace, even if the country had assented to the attempt being made, it is certain that we could not have accomplished such a purpose without long delay. It is probable that the result would have been failure, and it is almost certain that we should have provoked a "preventive war" on the part of Germany, a war not only with a very fair prospect, as things then stood, of a German success, but with something else that would have looked like the justification of a German effort to prevent that country from being encircled. Such a war would, with equal likelihood, have been the outcome even of the proclamation at such a time of a military alliance between the Entente Powers.
Other critics, belonging to a wholly different school of political thought, ask why we moved at all, and why we did not adhere to the good old policy of holding aloof from interference in Continental affairs. The answer is simple. The days when "splendid isolation" was possible were gone. Our sea power, even as an instrument of self-defense, was in danger of becoming inadequate in the absence of friendships which should insure that other navies would remain neutral if they did not actively co-operate with ours. It was only through the medium of such friendships that ultimate naval preponderance could be secured. The consciousness of that fact pervaded the Entente. With those responsible for the conduct of tremendous affairs probability has to be the guide of life. The question is always not what ought to happen but what is most likely to happen.
On the details of the diplomatic aspect of our endeavor, and on the spirit in which it was sought to carry it out, the second and third chapters of the book may serve to throw some light. The fourth chapter relates to the strategical plan, worked out after much consideration, for the possible event of failure. The plan was throughout based on the maintenance of superior sea power as the paramount instrument. As is indicated, the conservation of sufficient sea power implied as essential close and friendly relations with France, and also with Russia. Had there been no initial reason for the Entente policy, to be found in the desire to get rid of all causes of friction with these two great nations, the preservation of the prospect of continuing able to command the sea in war would in itself have necessitated the Entente. This conclusion was the result of the stocktaking of their assets for self-defense which the Entente Powers had to make when confronted with the growing organization for war of the Central Powers.
To set up the balancing of Powers as a principle was what we in this country would have been glad to have avoided had it been practicable to do so. We should have preferred the freedom of our old position of "splendid isolation." But the growing preparations of the Central Powers compelled Great Britain, France, and Russia to think of safety for each of them severally as to be secured only by treating such safety as a common interest. In the face of a new and growing danger we dared not leave ourselves to the risk of being dealt with in detail. The first thing to be done was, if possible, to convince the Central Powers that it would be to their own advantage to come to a complete agreement with us, an agreement of a business character, analogous to that which Lord Lansdowne had so satisfactorily concluded with France, and accompanied by cessation of the reasons which had led them to pile up armaments. There were highly influential persons in Germany who were far from averse to the suggested business arrangement. The armament question presented greater difficulty in that country, largely because of its tradition. But its solution was vital, for there were also those in Germany whose aim was to dispute with Great Britain the possession of the trident. Now for us, who constituted the island center of a scattered Empire, and who depended for food and raw materials on freedom to sail our ships, the question of sea power adequate for security was one of life or death. We could not sit still and allow Germany so to increase her navy in comparison with ours that she could make other Powers believe that their safest course was to throw in their lot and join their fleets with hers. We were bound to seek to make and maintain friendships, and to this end not only to preserve our margin of strength at sea, but to make ourselves able, if it became essential, to help our friends in case of aggression, thereby securing ourselves. That was the new situation which in the final result the old military spirit in Germany had created.
The balance of power is a dangerous principle; a general friendship between all Great Powers, or, better still, a League of the Nations, is by far preferable. But that consideration does not touch the actual point, which is that we did not seek to set up the principle of balancing that has given rise to so many questions. It was forced on us and was a sheer necessity of the situation. We did all we could to avoid it by negotiations with Germany, which, had they succeeded in the end, would have relieved France and Russia as much as ourselves and would have prevented the war.
Our efforts to preserve the peace ended in failure. The cause of that failure was nothing that we failed to do or that France did. It was proximately Austrian recklessness and indirectly, but just as strongly, German ambition. A real desire in July, 1914, on the part of the Central Powers to avoid war would have averted it. That Serbia may have been a provocative neighbor is no answer to the reproaches made to-day against the old Governments in Vienna and Berlin. They failed to take the steps requisite if peace were to be preserved.
People ask why the British Government between 1906 and 1914 did not discuss in public a situation which it understood well, and appeal to the nation. The answer is that to have done so would have been greatly to increase the difficulty of averting war. Up to the middle of 1913 the indications were that it was far from unlikely that war might in the result be averted. That was the view of some, both here and on the Continent, who were most competent to judge, men who had real opportunities for close observation from day to day. It is a view which is not in material conflict with anything we have since learned. The question whether war is inevitable has always been, as Bismarck more than once insisted, one for the statesmen of the countries concerned, and not for the soldiers and sailors who have a restricted field to work in, and for whom it is in consequence difficult to see things as a whole. Nor does great importance attach to-day to the triumphant declarations of those who, having chanced to guess aright, take pride in the cheap title to wisdom which has become theirs after the event. Still less does respect attach to the small but noisy minority in each of the countries concerned who in the years before 1914 were continuously contributing to bringing war on our heads by expressions of dislike to neighboring nations, and by prophecies that war with them must come. In the main Germany was worse in this feature than ourselves. But there were those here whose language made them useful propagandists for the German military party, to whom they were of much service.
Few wars are really inevitable. If we knew better how we should be careful to comport ourselves it may be that none are so. But extremists, whether chauvinist or pacifist, are not helpful in avoiding wars. That is because human nature is what it is.
Those who had to make the effort to keep the peace failed. But that neither shows that they ought not to have tried with all the strength they possessed in the way they did, nor that they would have done better had they discussed delicate details in public. There are topics and conjunctures in the almost daily changing relations between Governments as to which silence is golden. For however proper it may be in point of broad principle that the people should be fully informed of what concerns them vitally, the most important thing is those to whom they have confided their concerns should be given the best chance of success in averting danger to their interests. To have said more in Parliament and on the platform in the years in question, or to have said it otherwise, would have been to run grave risks of more than one sort. It is my strong impression that Lord Grey of Fallodon took the only course that was practicable, and that, had the danger of the catastrophe to be faced again and for the first time, the course he took would, even in the light of all we know to-day, again afford the best chance of avoiding it. He succeeded in improving greatly for the time the relations between this country and Germany, and but for the outbreak in the Near East he would probably have succeeded in navigating the dangerous waters successfully. The chance was far from being a hopeless one, and subsequent study of the facts has strengthened my impression that down to at least about the middle of the year 1913 the chances were substantially in his favor. A sufficiency at least of the leaders in other countries were co-operating with him, not all the leaders, but those who were in reality most important. The war when it came was due, not only to the failure of certain of the prominent men in the capitals of the Central Powers to adhere to principles to which for a long time they had held fast, but to the accident of untoward circumstances and the contingency that is inseparable from human affairs.
Such are some of the reasons which have led me to say what I have tried to express in the pages which follow. I have never been able to bring myself to believe that there are vast differences between the ways of thinking and habits of mind of the great and most highly civilized peoples of Europe. I have seen something of the Germans, and what I have learned of them and of their history has led me to the conclusion that, certain traditions of theirs notwithstanding, they resemble us more than they differ from us. If this be so, the sooner we take advantage of our present victory by seeking to turn our eyes from the past as far as can be, and to look steadily toward a future in which the misery and sin which that past saw shall be dwelt on to the least extent that is practicable, the better it will be for ourselves as well as for the rest of the world.
That world has been reminded of a great truth which had been partly forgotten by those whose faith lay in militarism. It is that to set up might as the foundation of right may in the end be to inspire those around with a passionate desire to hold such might in check and to overcome it. Democracy is not a system that lends itself easily to scientific preparation for war, but when democratic nations are really aroused their staying power, just because it rests on a true General Will, is without rival. The latent force in humanity which has its foundation in ethical idealism is the greatest of all forces for the vindication of right. German militarism managed to fail to understand this. Let us take pains to show our late enemies that if they make it clear that they have extinguished such militarism in a lasting fashion, the quarrel with them is at an end.
I am far from thinking that we here are perfect in our habits as a nation. We are apt not to keep in view how what we do is likely to look to others. We are somewhat deficient in the faculty of self-examination and self-criticism. Want of clarity of ground-principle in higher ideals is apt to prove a hindrance to more than the individual only. It generally brings with it want of clarity in the sense of social obligation. And this sometimes extends even to our relations to other countries.
It leads to our being misinterpreted as a nation. We have suffered a good deal in the past from having attributed to us motives which were not ours. The reason was the assumption that the apparent absence of definiteness in national purpose must have been designed as a cover for hidden and selfish ends. It is not true. We are indeed very insular, and what has been called the international mind is not common among the people of these islands. But we are kindly at heart, and when we have seemed self-regarding it has been simply because we were not conscious of our own limitations and had not much appreciation of the modes of thought of other people. We have paid the penalty for this defect at periods in our history. At one time France suspected us, I think in the main unjustly. Later on Germany suspected us, I think of a certainty unjustly. Now these things arise in part at least from our reputation for a particular kind of disposition, our supposed habitual and deliberately adopted desire to wait until the particular international situation of the moment should show how we could profit, before we gave any assurance as to the way in which we should act. What has given rise to this misunderstanding of our attitude in our relations to other countries is simply an exemplification of what has prevented us from fully understanding ourselves. It is our gift to be able to apply ourselves in emergencies, at home and abroad, with immense energy, and our success in promptly pulling ourselves together and coping with the unexpected has often suggested to outsiders that we had long ago looked ahead. This has been said of us on the Continent. It is not so. We do not study the art of fishing in troubled waters. The waiting habit in our transactions, domestic as well as foreign, arises from our inveterate preference for thinking in images rather than in concepts. We put off decisions until the whole of the facts can be visualized. This carries with it that we often do not act until it is very late. Our gifts enable us to move with energy, if not always with precision. To predict what we will do in a given case is not easy for a foreigner. It is not easy even for ourselves. We have few abstract principles, and reliable induction from our past is not easy. We are often guided by what Mr. Justice Wendell Holmes has called "the intuition more subtle than any particular major premise." Nor is help to be derived from any study of our general outlook on life, for that outlook is hard to formulate even to ourselves.
Now all this, our peculiar gift, if kept under control, may well have its practical advantage, but, as the case stands, it is apt to bring in its train a good deal of disadvantage. In periods when nations are trying to render firm the basis of peace by remolding and giving precision to their aims, so that these can be made common aims, lack of definiteness in national ideals is a sure source of embarrassment. At a time when democracy is more and more claiming in terms to occupy the whole field it becomes increasingly desirable that the higher purposes of democracy should become clear to the people themselves. For the practise of a country can never be wholly divorced from its theory of life. The tendencies of the national will are bound up with the nation's science, with its literature, with its art, and with its religion. These tendencies are affected by the capacity of the nation to understand and express its own soul. Beyond science, literature, art and religion there lies something that may be called the national philosophy, a disposition rather than a definite creed. This sort of philosophy is different in France from what it is in Germany, and in Germany from what it is in the English-speaking countries. The philosophy of a people takes shape in the attitude its leaders adopt in their estimation of values and of the order in which they should be placed. And this turns on the conceptions and ideas which are current in the various departments of mental activity. It is thus that a philosophy of life has to be given some sort of place in his professions even by the statesman who has to address Parliament and the public. He is driven to make speeches in which a good many conceptions and ideas have to be brought together. And it gives rise to a great difference of quality in such utterances if the general outlook of the speaker be a large one. But this requires that he should know himself and be aware of the conceptions and ideas which dominate his mind, and should have examined their scope before employing them.
How some of those who were deeply responsible for the conduct of affairs tried to think in the anxious years before the war, and how they endeavored to apply their conclusions, is what I have endeavored to state in the course of what follows. They doubtless made mistakes and fell short of accomplishment in what they were aiming at. It is human so to do. But they tried what seemed to them the wisest course, and I have yet to learn that it was practicable to have followed any different course without a failure worse than any that occurred. After all, in the end the British Empire won, however hard it had to fight.
DIPLOMACY BEFORE THE WAR
If in this chapter I speak frequently in the first person and of my own part in the negotiations which it records, it is not from any desire to make prominent either my own personality or the part it fell to me to play. The reason is that I have endeavored to write of what I myself heard and saw, and that in consequence most of what follows is, for the sake of accuracy, largely transcribed from my personal diaries and records made at the time when the events to which they related took place. So frequent an employment of the personal pronoun as has been made in these pages would ordinarily be a blemish in taste, if not in style also, but in this case it seemed safer not to try to avoid it.
Many things that happened in the years just before 1914, as well as the events of the great war itself, are still too close to permit of our studying them in their full context. But before much time has passed the historians will have accumulated material that will overflow their libraries, and their hands will remain occupied for generations to come. At this moment all that safely can be attempted is that actual observers should set down what they have themselves observed. For there has rarely been a time when the juridical maxim that "hearsay is not evidence" ought to be more sternly insisted on.
If I now venture to set down what follows in these pages, it is because I had certain opportunities for forming a judgment at first hand for myself. I am not referring to the circumstance that for a brief period I once, long ago, lived the life of a student at a German University, or that I was frequently in Germany in the years that followed. Nor do I mean that I have tried to explore German habits of reflection, as they may be studied in the literature of Germany. Other people have done all these things more thoroughly and more extensively than I have. What I do mean is that from the end of 1905 to the summer of 1912 I had special chances for direct observation of quite another kind. During that period I was Secretary of State for War in Great Britain, and from the latter year to April, 1915, I was the holder of another office and a member of the British Cabinet.
During the first of the above periods it fell to me to work out the military organization that would be required to insure, as far as was practicable, against risk, should those strenuous efforts fail into which Sir Edward Grey, as he then was, had thrown his strength. He was endeavoring with all his might to guard the peace of Europe from danger. As he and I had for many years been on terms of close intimacy, it was not unnatural that he should ask me to do what I could by helping in some of the diplomatic work which was his, as well as by engaging in my own special task. Indeed, the two phases of activity could hardly be separable.
I was not in Germany after May, 1912, for the duties of Lord Chancellor, on which office I then entered, made it unconstitutional for me to leave the United Kingdom, save under such exceptional conditions as were conceded by the King and the Cabinet when, in the autumn of 1913, I made a brief yet memorable visit to the United States and Canada. But in 1906, while War Minister, I paid, on the invitation of the German Emperor, a visit to him at Berlin, to which city I went on after previously staying with King Edward at Marienbad, where he and the then Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, were resting.
While at Berlin I saw much of the Emperor, and I also saw certain of his Ministers, notably Prince von Buelow, Herr von Tschirsky and General von Einem, the first being at that time Chancellor, and the last two being respectively the Foreign and War Ministers. I was invited to examine for myself the organization of the German War Office, which I wished to study for purposes of reform at home; and this I did in some detail, in company with an expert adviser from my personal staff, Colonel Ellison, my military private secretary, who accompanied me on this journey. There the authorities explained to us the general nature of the organization for rapid mobilization which had been developed under the great von Moltke, and subsequently carried farther. The character of this organization was, in its general features, no secret in Germany, altho it was somewhat unfamiliar in Anglo-Saxon countries; and it interested my adviser and myself intensely.
At that time there was an active militarist party in Germany, which, of course, was not wholly pleased at the friendly reception with which we met from the Emperor and from crowds in the streets of Berlin. We were well aware of the activity of this party. But it stood then unmistakably for a minority, and I formed the opinion that those who wanted Germany to remain at peace, quite as much as to be strong, had at least an excellent chance of keeping their feet. I realized, and had done so for years past, that it was not merely because of the beaux yeux of foreign peoples that Germany desired to maintain good relations all round. She had become fully conscious of a growing superiority in the application to industry of scientific knowledge and in power to organize her resources founded on it; and her rulers hoped, and not without good ground, to succeed by these means in the peaceful penetration of the world.
I had personally for some time been busy in pressing the then somewhat coldly received claims for a better system of education, higher and technical as well as elementary, among my own countrymen, and had met with some success in asking for the establishment of teaching universities and of technical colleges, such as the new Imperial College of Science and Technology at South Kensington. Of these we had very substantially increased the number during the eight years which preceded my visit to Berlin; but I had learned from visits of inspection to Germany that much more remained to be done before we could secure our commercial and industrial position against the unhasting but unresting efforts of our formidable competitor.
As to the German people outside official circles and the universities, I thought of them then what I think of them now. They were very much like our own people, except in one thing. This was that they were trained simply to obey, and to carry out whatever they were told by their rulers. I used, during numerous unofficial tours in Germany, to wander about incognito, and to smoke and drink beer with the peasants and the people whenever I could get the chance. What impressed me was the little part they had in directing their own government, and the little they knew about what it was doing. There was a general disposition to accept, as a definition of duty which must not be questioned, whatever they were told to do by the Vorstand. It is this habit of mind, dating back to the days of Frederick the Great, with only occasional and brief interruptions, which has led many people to think that the German people at large have in them "a double dose of original sin." Even when their soldiers have been exceptionally brutal in methods of warfare, I do not think that this is so. The habit of mind which prevails is that of always looking to the rulers for orders, and the brutality has been that enjoined—in accordance with its own military policy of shortening war by making it terrible to the enemy—by the General Staff of Germany, a body before whose injunctions even the Emperor, so far as my observation goes, always has bowed.
But I must now return to my formal visit to Berlin in the autumn of 1906. I was, as I have already said, everywhere cordially welcomed, and at the end the heads of the German Army entertained me at a dinner in the War Office, at which the War Minister presided, and there was present, among others, the Chief of the German General Staff. They were all friendly. I do not think that my impression was wrong that even the responsible heads of the Army were then looking almost entirely to "peaceful penetration," with only moral assistance from the prestige attaching to the possession of great armed forces in reserve. Our business in the United Kingdom was therefore to see that we were prepared for perils that might unexpectedly arise out of this policy, and not less, by developing our educational and industrial organization, to make ourselves fit to meet the greater likelihood of a coming keen competition in the peaceful arts.
One thing that seemed to me essential for the preservation of good relations was that cordial and frequent intercourse between the people of the two countries should be encouraged and developed. I set myself in my speeches to avoid all expressions which might be construed as suggesting a critical attitude on our part, or a failure to recognize the existence of peaceful ideas among what was then, as I still think, a large majority of the people of Germany. The attitude of some newspapers in England, and still more that of the chauvinist minority in Germany itself, did not render this quite an easy task. But there were good people in these days in Germany as well as in England, and the United States might be counted on as likely to co-operate in discouraging friction.
Meanwhile there was the chance that the course of this policy might be interrupted by some event which we could not control. A conversation with the then Chief of the German General Staff, General von Moltke, the nephew of the great man of that name, satisfied me that he did not really look with any pleasurable military expectation to the results of a war with the United Kingdom alone. It would, he observed to me, be in his opinion a long and possibly indecisive war, and must result in much of the overseas trade of both countries passing to a tertius gaudens, by which he meant the United States.
I had little doubt that what he said to me on this occasion represented his real opinion. But I had in my mind the apprehension of an emergency of a different nature. Germany was more likely to attack France than ourselves. The German Emperor had told me that, altho he was trying to develop good relations with France, he was finding it difficult. This seemed to me ominous. The paradox presented itself that a war with Germany in which we were alone would be easier to meet than a war in which France was attacked along with us; for if Germany succeeded in over-running France she might establish naval bases on the northern Channel ports of that country, quite close to our shores, and so, with the possible aid of the submarines, long-range guns and air-machines of the future, interfere materially with our naval position in the Channel and our fleet defenses against invasion.
I knew, too, that the French Government was apprehensive. In the historical speech which Sir Edward Grey made on August 3, 1914, the day before the British Government directed Sir Edward Goschen, our Ambassador in Berlin, to ask for his passports, he informed the House of Commons that so early as January, 1906, the French Government, after the Morocco difficulty, had drawn his attention to the international situation. It had informed him that it considered the danger of an attack on France by Germany to be a real one, and had inquired whether, in the event of an unprovoked attack, Great Britain would think that she had so much at stake as to make her willing to join in resisting it. If this were to be even a possible attitude for Great Britain, the French Government had intimated to him that it was in its opinion desirable that conversation should take place between the General Staff of France and the newly created General Staff of Great Britain, as to the form which military co-operation in resisting invasion of the northern portions of France might best assume. We had a great Navy, and the French had a great Army. But our Navy could not operate on land, and the French Army, altho large, was not so large as that which Germany, with her superior resources in population, commanded. Could we, then, reconsider our military organization, so that we might be able rapidly to dispatch, if we ever thought it necessary in our own interests, say, 100,000 men in a well-formed army, not to invade Belgium, which no one thought of doing, but to guard the French frontier of Belgium in case the German Army should seek to enter France in that way. If the German attack were made farther south, where the French chain of modern fortresses had rendered their defensive positions strong, the French Army would then be able, set free from the difficulty of mustering in full strength opposite the Belgian boundary, to guard the southern frontier.
Sir Edward Grey consulted the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Asquith, and myself as War Minister, and I was instructed, in January, 1906, a month after assuming office, to take the examination of the question in hand. This occurred in the middle of the General Election which was then in progress. I went at once to London and summoned the heads of the British General Staff and saw the French military attache, Colonel Huguet, a man of sense and ability. I became aware at once that there was a new army problem. It was, how to mobilize and concentrate at a place of assembly to be opposite the Belgian frontier, a force calculated as adequate (with the assistance of Russian pressure in the East) to make up for the inadequacy of the French armies for their great task of defending the entire French frontier from Dunkirk down to Belfort, or even farther south, if Italy should join the Triple Alliance in an attack.
But an investigation of a searching character presently revealed great deficiencies in the British military organization of these days. We had never contemplated the preparation of armies for warfare of the Continental type. The older generals had not been trained for this problem. We had, it was true, excellent troops in India and elsewhere. These were required as outposts for Imperial defense. As they had to serve for long periods and to be thoroughly disciplined, they had to be professional soldiers, engaged to serve in most cases for seven years with the colors and afterwards for five in the reserve. They were highly trained men, and there was a good reserve of them at home. But that reserve was not organized in the great self-contained divisions which would be required for fighting against armies organized for rapid action on modern Continental principles. Its formations in peace time were not those which would be required in such a war. There was in addition a serious defect in the artillery organization which would have prevented more than a comparatively small number of batteries (about forty-two only in point of fact) from being quickly placed on a war footing. The transport and supply and the medical services were as deficient as the artillery.
In short, the close investigation made at that time disclosed that it was not possible, under the then existing circumstances, to put in the field more than about 80,000 men, and even these only after an interval of over two months, which would be required for conversion of our isolated units into the new war formations of an army fit to take the field against the German first line of active corps. The French naturally thought that a machine so slow moving would be of little use to them. They might have been destroyed before it could begin to operate effectively. Both they and the Germans had organized on the basis that modern Continental warfare had become a high science. Hitherto we had not, and it was only our younger generals who had even studied this science.
There was, therefore, nothing for it but to attempt a complete revolution in the organization of the British Army at home. The nascent General Staff was finally organized in September, 1906, and its organization was shortly afterwards developed so as to extend to the entire Empire, as soon as a conference had taken place with the Ministers of the Dominions early in the following year. The outcome was a complete recasting, which, after three years' work, made it practicable rapidly to mobilize, not only 100,000, but 160,000 men; to transport them, with the aid of the Navy, to a place of concentration which had been settled between the staffs of France and Britain; and to have them at their appointed place within twelve days, an interval based on what the German Army required on its side for a corresponding concentration.
All the arrangements for this were worked out by the end of 1910. Both Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig took an active part in the work. Behind the first-line army so organized, a second-line army of larger size, tho far less trained, and so designed that it could be expanded, was organized. This was the citizen or "Territorial" army, consisting in time of peace of fourteen divisions of infantry and artillery and fourteen brigades of cavalry, with the appropriate medical, sanitary, transport and other auxiliary services. Those serving in this second-line army were civilians, and, of course, much less disciplined than the officers and men of the first line. Its primary function was home defense, but its members were encouraged to undertake for service abroad, if necessary; and a large part of this army, in point of fact, fought in France, Flanders and in the East soon after the beginning of the war, in great measure making up by intelligence for shortness of training.
To say, therefore, that we were caught unprepared is not accurate. Compulsory service in a period of peace was out of the question for us. Moreover, it would have taken at least two generations to organize, and meanwhile we should have been weaker than without it. We had studied the situation and had done the only thing we thought we could do, after full deliberation. Our main strength was in our Navy and its tradition. Our secondary contribution was a small army fashioned to fulfil a scientifically measured function. It was, of course, a very small army, but it had a scientific organization on the basis of which a great expansion was possible. After all, what we set ourselves to accomplish we did accomplish. If the margin by which a just sufficient success was attained in the early days of the war seems to-day narrow, the reason of the narrow margin lay largely in the unprepared condition of the armies of Russia, on which we and France had reckoned for rapid co-operation. Anyhow, we fulfilled our contract, for at eleven o'clock on Monday morning, August 3, 1914, we mobilized without a hitch the whole of the Expeditionary Force, amounting to six divisions and nearly two cavalry divisions, and began its transport over the Channel when war was declared thirty-six hours later. We also at the same time successfully mobilized the Territorial Force and other units, the whole amounting to over half a million men. The Navy was already in its war stations, and there was no delay at all in putting what we had prepared into operation.
I speak of this with direct knowledge, for as the Prime Minister, who was holding temporarily the seals of the War Secretary, was overwhelmed with business, he asked me, tho I had then become Lord Chancellor, to go to the War Office and give directions for the mobilization of the machinery with which I was so familiar, and I did this on the morning of Monday, August 3, and a day later handed it over, in working order, to Lord Kitchener.
I now return to what was the main object of British foreign policy between 1905 and 1914, the prevention of the danger of any outbreak with Germany. Sir Edward Grey worked strenuously with this well-defined object. If France were overrun, our island security would be at least diminished, and he had, therefore, in addition to his anxiety to avert a general war, a direct national interest to strive for, in the preservation of peace between Germany and France. Ever since the mutilation which the latter country had suffered, as the outcome of the War of 1870, she had felt sore, and her relations with Germany were not easy. But she did not seek a war of revenge. It would have been too full of risk even if she had not desired peace, the Franco-Russian Dual Alliance notwithstanding. The notion of an encirclement of Germany, excepting in defense against aggression by Germany herself, existed only in the minds of nervous Germans. Still, there was suspicion, and the question was, how to get rid of it.
I have already referred to the visit I paid to the Emperor at Berlin in the autumn of 1906. He invited me to a review which he held of his troops there, and in the course of it rode up to the carriage in which I was seated and said, "A splendid machine I have in this army, Mr. Haldane; now isn't it so? And what could I do without it, situated as I am between the Russians and the French? But the French are your allies—are they not? So I beg pardon."
I shook my head and smiled deprecatingly, and replied that, were I in his Majesty's place, I should in any case feel safe from attack with the possession of this machine, and that for my own part I enjoyed being behind it much more than if I had to be in front of it.
Next day, when at the Schloss, he talked to me fully and cordially. What follows I extract from the record I made after the conversation in my diaries, which were kept by desire of King Edward, and which were printed by the Government on my return to London.
He spoke of the Anglo-French Entente. He said that it would be wrong to infer that he had any critical thought about our entente with France. On the contrary he believed that it might even facilitate good relations between France and Germany. He wished for these good relations, and was taking steps through gentlemen of high position in France to obtain them. Not one inch more of French territory would he ever covet. Alsace and Lorraine originally had been German, and now even the least German of the two, Lorraine, because it preferred a monarchy to a republic, was welcoming him enthusiastically whenever he went there. That he should have gone to Tangier, where both English and French welcomed him, was quite natural. He desired no quarrel, and the whole fault was Delcasse's, who had wanted to pick a quarrel and bring England into it.
I told the Emperor that, if he would allow me to speak my mind freely, I would do so. He assented, and I said to him that his attitude had caused great uneasiness in England, and that this, and not any notion of forming a tripartite alliance of France, Russia, and England against him, was the reason of the feeling there had been. We were bound by no military alliance. As for our entente, some time since we had difficulties with France over Newfoundland and Egypt, and we had made a good business arrangement (gutes Geschaeft) about these complicated matters of detail, and had simply carried out our word to France.
He said that he had no criticism to make on this, except that if we had told him so early there would have been no misunderstanding. Things were better now, but we had not always been pleasant to him and ready to meet him. His army was for defense, not for offense. As to Russia, he had no Himalayas between him and Russia, more was the pity. Now what about our Two-Power standard. All this was said with earnestness, but in a friendly way, the Emperor laying his finger on my shoulder as he spoke. Sometimes the conversation was in German, but often in English.
I said that our fleet was like his Majesty's army. It was of the Wesen of the nation, and the Two-Power standard, while it might be rigid and so awkward, was a way of maintaining a deep-seated national tradition, and a Liberal Government must hold to it as firmly as a Conservative. Both countries were increasing in wealth—ours, like Germany, very rapidly—and if Germany built we must build. But, I added, there was an excellent opportunity for co-operation in other things. I instanced international free trade developments which would smooth other relations.
The Emperor agreed. He was convinced that free trade was the true policy for Germany also, but Germany could not go so quickly here as England had gone.
I referred to Friedrich List's great book as illustrating how military and geographical considerations had affected matters for Germany in this connection.
The Emperor then spoke of Chamberlain's policy of Tariff Reform, and said that it had caused him anxiety.
I replied that with care we might avoid any real bad feeling over trade. The undeveloped markets of the world were enormous, and we wanted no more of the surface of the globe than we had got.
The Emperor's reply was that what he sought after was not territory but trade expansion. He quoted Goethe to the effect that if a nation wanted anything it must concentrate and act from within the sphere of its concentration.
We then spoke of the fifty millions sterling per annum of chemical trade which Germany had got away from us. I said that this was thoroughly justified as the result of the practical application of high German science.
"That," said he, "I delight to think, because it is legitimate and to the credit of my people."
I agreed, and said that similarly we had got the best of the world's shipbuilding. Each nation had something to learn.
The Emperor then passed to the topic of The Hague Conference, trusting that disarmament would not be proposed. If so, he could not go in.
I observed that the word "disarmament" was perhaps unfortunately chosen.
"The best testimony," said the Emperor, "to my earnest desire for peace is that I have had no war, tho I should have had war if I had not earnestly striven to avoid it."
Throughout the conversation, which was as animated as it was long, the Emperor was cordial and agreeable. He expressed the wish that more English Ministers would visit Berlin, and that he might see more of our Royal Family. I left the Palace at 3.30 P.M., having gone there at 1.0.
On another day during this visit Prince von Buelow, who was then Chancellor, called on me. I was out, but found him later at the Schloss, and had a conversation with him. He said to me that both the Emperor and himself were thoroughly aware of the desire of King Edward and his Government to maintain the new relations with France in their integrity, and that, in the best German opinion, this was no obstacle to building up close relations with Germany also.
I said that this was the view held on our side too, and that the only danger lay in trying to force everything at once. Too great haste was to be deprecated.
He said that he entirely agreed, and quoted Prince Bismarck, who had laid it down that you can not make a flower grow any sooner by putting fire to heat it.
I said that, none the less, frequent and cordial interchanges of view were very important, and that not even the smallest matters should be neglected.
He alluded with satisfaction to my personal relations with the German Ambassador in London, Count Metternich.
I begged him, if there were any small matters which were too minute to take up officially, but which seemed unsatisfactory, to let me know of them in a private capacity through Count Metternich. This I did because I had discovered some soreness at restrictions which had been placed on the attendance of German military officers at maneuvers in England, and I had found that there had been some reprisals. I did not refer to these, but said that I had the authority of the sovereign to give assistance to German officers who were sent over to the maneuvers to study them. I added that while our army was small, compared with theirs, it had had great experience in the conduct of small expeditions, and that there were in consequence some things worth seeing.
He then spoke of the navy. It was natural that with the increase of German commerce Germany should wish to increase her fleet—from a sea-police point of view—but that they had neither the wish, nor, having regard to the strain their great army put on their resources, the power to build against Great Britain.
I said that the best opinion in England fully understood this attitude, and that we did not in the least misinterpret their recent progress, nor would he misinterpret our resolve to maintain, for purely defensive purposes, our navy at a Two-Power standard. Some day, I said, there might be rivalry, but I thought we might assume that, if it ever happened, it would not be for many years, and that our policy for the present was strongly for Free Trade, so that the more Germany exported to Great Britain and British possessions, the more we should export in exchange to them.
He expressed himself pleased that I should say this, and added that he was confident that a couple of years' interchange of friendly communications in this spirit would produce a great development, and perhaps lead for both of us to pleasant relations with other Powers also.
There were during this visit in 1906 other conversations of which a record was preserved, but I have referred to the most important, and I will only mention, in concluding my account of these days in Berlin in September, 1906, the talk I had with the Foreign Minister, Herr von Tschirsky, afterward the German Ambassador at Vienna before the war, and reported as having been a fomenter of the Austrian outbreak against Serbia. He may have been anti-Slav and anti-Russian, but I did not find him, in the long conversation we had in 1906, otherwise than sensible as regards France.
I explained that my business in Berlin was merely with War Office matters, and, even as regards these, quite unofficial.
He said that there had been much tendency to misinterpret in both countries, but that things were now better. I might take it that our precision about the Entente with France, and our desire to rest firmly on the arrangement we had made, were understood in Germany, and that it was realized that we were not likely to be able to build up anything with his own country which did not rest on this basis. But he thought, and the Emperor agreed, that the Entente was no hindrance to all that was necessary between Germany and England, which was not an alliance but a thoroughly good business understanding. Some day we might come into conflict, if care were not taken; but if care was taken, there was no need of apprehension.
I said that I believed this to be Sir Edward Grey's view also, and that he was anxious to communicate with the German Government beforehand whenever there was a chance of German interests being touched.
He went on to speak of the approaching Hague Conference, and of the difficulty Germany would have if asked to alter the proportion of her army to her population—a proportion which rested on a fundamental law. For Germany alone to object to disarmament would be to put herself in a hole, and it would be a friendly act if we could devise some way out of a definite vote on reduction. Germany might well enter a conference to record and emphasize the improvement all round in international relations, the desirability of further developing this improvement, and the hope that with it the growth of armaments would cease. But he was afraid of the kind of initiative which might come from America. The United States had no sympathy with European military and naval difficulties.
I said that I thought that we, as a Government, were pledged to try to bring about something more definite than what he suggested as a limit, but that I would report what he had told me.
He then passed to general topics. He was emphatic in his assurance that what Germany wanted was increase of commercial development. Let the nations avoid inflicting pin-pricks, and leave each other free to breathe the air. He said that he thought we might have opportunities of helping them to get the French into an easier mood. They were difficult and suspicious, he observed, and it was hard to transact business with them, for they made trouble over small points.
On my return to London I sent to Herr von Tschirsky some English newspapers containing articles with a friendly tone, so far as the preservation of good relations was concerned. He replied in a letter from which I translate the material portion:
"I see with pleasure from the articles which your Excellency has sent me for his Majesty, and from other expressions of public opinion in English newspapers, that in the leading Liberal papers of England a more friendly tone toward Germany is making itself apparent. You would have been able to derive the same impression from reading our newspapers, with the exception of a few Pan-German prints. Alas! papers like The Times, Morning Post and Standard can not bring themselves to refrain from their attitude of dislike, and are always rejoicing in being suspicious of every action of the Imperial Government. They contribute in this fashion appreciably to render weak the new tone of diminishing misunderstanding which has arisen between the two countries. If I fear that under these circumstances it will be a long time before mutual understanding has grown up to the point at which it stood more than a century ago, and as you and I desire it in the well-understood interests of England and Germany, still I hope and am persuaded that the relations of the two Governments will remain good."
A year after the visit I had paid to Berlin the Emperor came over to stay with King Edward at Windsor. This was in November, 1907. The visit lasted several days, and I was present most of the time. The Emperor was accompanied by Baron von Schoen, who had become Foreign Minister of Prussia, after having been Ambassador to the Court of Russia, and by General von Einem, the War Minister, whose inclusion in the invitation I had ventured to suggest to the King, as an acknowledgment of his civility to myself as War Minister when in Berlin. There were also at Windsor Count Metternich and several high military officers of the Emperor's personal staff and military cabinet. To these officers and to the War Minister I showed all the hospitality I could in London, and I received them officially at the War Office.
But the really interesting incident of this visit, so far as I was concerned, took place at Windsor. The first evening of my visit there, just after his arrival in November, the Emperor took me aside and said he was sorry that there was a good deal of friction over the Bagdad Railway, and that he did not know what we wanted as a basis for co-operation.
I said that I could not answer for the Foreign Office, but that, speaking as War Minister, one thing I knew we wanted was a "gate" to protect India from troops coming down the new railway. He asked me what I meant by a "gate," and I said that meant the control of the section which would come near to the Persian Gulf. "I will give you the 'gate,'" replied the Emperor.
I had no opportunity at the moment, which was just before dinner, for pursuing the conversation further, but I thought the answer too important not to be followed up. There were private theatricals after dinner, which lasted till nearly one o'clock in the morning. I was seated in the theater of the Castle just behind the Emperor, and, as the company broke up, I went forward and asked him whether he really meant seriously that he was willing to give us the "gate," because, if he did mean it, I would go to London early and see Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office.
Next morning, about 7.30 o'clock, a helmeted guardsman, one of those whom the Emperor had brought over with him from Berlin, knocked loudly at the door and came into my bedroom, and said that he had a message from the Emperor. It was that he did mean what he had said the night before. I at once got up and caught a train for London. There I saw the Foreign Secretary, who, after taking time to think things over, gave me a memorandum he had drawn up. The substance of it was that the British Government would be very glad to discuss the Emperor's suggestion, but that it would be necessary, before making a settlement, to bring into the discussion France and Russia, whose interests also were involved. I was requested to sound the Emperor further.
After telling King Edward of what was happening, I had another conversation in Windsor Castle with the Emperor, who said that he feared that the bringing in of Russia particularly, not to speak of France, would cause difficulty; but he asked me to come that night, after a performance that was to take place in the Castle theater had ended, to his apartments, to a meeting to which he would summon the Ministers he had brought with him. He took the memorandum which I had brought from London, a copy of which I had made for him in my own handwriting, so as to present it as the informal document it was intended to be. Just before dinner Baron von Schoen spoke to me, and told me that he had heard from the Emperor what had happened, and that the Emperor was wrong in thinking that the attempt to bring in Russia would lead to difficulty, because he, Baron von Schoen, when he was Ambassador to Russia, had already discussed the general question with its Government, and had virtually come to an understanding. At the meeting that night we could therefore go on to negotiate.
I attended the Emperor in his state rooms at the Castle at one o'clock in the morning, and sat smoking with him and his Ministers for over two hours. His Foreign Minister and Count Metternich and the War Minister, von Einem, were present. I said that I felt myself an intruder, because it was very much like being present at a sitting of his Cabinet. He replied, "Be a member of my Cabinet for the evening." I said that I was quite agreeable.
They then engaged in a very animated conversation, some of them challenging the proposal of the Emperor to accept the British suggestions, with an outspokenness which would have astonished the outside world, with its notions of Teutonic autocracy. Count Metternich did not like what I suggested, that there should be a conference in Berlin on the subject of the Bagdad Railway between England, France, Russia, and Germany.
In the end, but not until after much keen argument, the idea was accepted, and the Emperor directed von Schoen to go next morning to London and make an official proposal to Sir Edward Grey, This was carried out, and the preliminary details were discussed between von Schoen and Sir Edward at the Foreign Office.
Some weeks afterward difficulties were raised from Berlin. Germany said that she was ready to discuss with the British Government the question of the terminal portion of the railway, but she did not desire to bring the other two Powers into that discussion, because the conference would probably fail and accentuate the differences between her and the other Powers.
The matter thus came to an end. It was, I think, a great pity, because I have reason to believe that the French view was that, if the Bagdad Railway question could have been settled, one great obstacle in the way of reconciling German with French and English interests would have disappeared. I came to the conclusion afterward that it was probably owing to the views of Prince von Buelow that the proposal had come to an untimely end. Whether he did not wish for an expanded entente; whether the feeling was strong in Germany that the Bagdad Railway had become a specially German concern and should not be shared; or what other reason he may have had, I do not know; but it was from Berlin, after the Emperor's return there at the end of November, 1907, that the negotiations were finally blocked.
Altho these negotiations had no definite result, they assisted in promoting increasing frankness between the two Foreign Offices, and other things went with more smoothness. Sir Edward Grey kept France and Russia informed of all we did, and he was also very open with the Germans. Until well on in 1911 all went satisfactorily. In the early part of that year the Emperor came to London to visit the present King, who had by that time succeeded to the throne. I had ventured to propose to the King that during the Emperor's visit I should, as War Minister, give a luncheon to the generals who were on his staff. But when the Emperor heard of this he sent a message that he would like to come and lunch with me himself, and to meet people whom otherwise he might not see.
I acted on my own discretion, and when he came to luncheon at my house in Queen Anne's Gate there was a somewhat widely selected party of about a dozen to meet him. For it included not only Lord Morley, Lord Kitchener, and Lord Curzon, whom he was sure to meet elsewhere, but Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, who was then leading the Labor Party, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, our great naval commander, Lord Moulton, Mr. Edmund Gosse, Mr. Sargent, Mr. Spender, the editor of the Westminster Gazette, and others representing various types of British opinion. The Emperor engaged in conversation with everyone, and all went with smoothness.
He had a great reception in London. But enthusiasm about him was somewhat damped when, in July, 1911, not long after his return to Germany, he sent the afterwards famous warship Panther to Agadir. The French were naturally alarmed, and the situation which had become so promising was overcast. Our naval arrangements and our new military organization were ready, and our mobilization plans were fairly complete, as the German General Staff knew from their military attache. But the point was, how to avoid an outbreak, and to get rid of the feeling and friction to which the Agadir crisis was giving rise. Our growing good relations were temporarily clouded.
The sending of the Panther to Agadir was not a prudent act. It imported either too much or too little. It is said to have been the plan of Herr von Kiderlen-Waechter, at that time the Foreign Secretary and generally a sensible statesman, and to have been done in spite of misgivings expressed by the Emperor about its danger. The circumstances of the moment were such that one can not but feel a certain sympathy with the German perturbation at the time. The march of the French Army to Fez had come on them suddenly, and it at least suggested a development of French claims going beyond what Germany had agreed to at the Algeciras Conference nearly six years previously. Those who wish to inform themselves about the commotion the expedition of the French stirred up in Germany, and of the efforts the Emperor and Bethmann Hollweg had to make to restrain it, will do well to read the latter's account of what happened there in the second chapter of his recent book. But to think that the sending of a German warship could make things better was to repeat the error of judgment which had characterized "the ally in shining armor" speech of the German Emperor to Austria when she formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina three years before. Instead of using diplomatic methods something that looked like a threat was allowed to appear, and the answer was Mr. Lloyd George's well-known declaration of July 21, 1911, in the City of London. The sending of the Panther, if intelligible, was certainly unfortunate.
In the winter, after the actual crisis had been got over, there was evidence of continuing ill-feeling in Germany, and the suspicion in London did not diminish. In January, 1912, an informal message was given by the Emperor to Sir Ernest Cassel for transmission through one of my colleagues to the Foreign Office. I knew nothing of this at the time, but learned shortly afterward that it was to the effect that the Emperor was concerned at the state of feeling that had arisen in both countries, and thought that the most hopeful method of improving matters would be that the Cabinet of St. James's should exchange views directly with the Cabinet of Berlin. For this course there was a good deal to be said. The peace had indeed been preserved, but, as Herr von Bethmann Hollweg told me later on, not without effort. The attitude of Germany toward France had seemed ominous. The British Government had done all it could to avert a breach, but its sympathy was opposed to language used in Germany, the spirit of which seemed to us to have in it an aggressive element. We did not hesitate to say what we thought about this.
Even after the Agadir incident was quite closed, the tension between Germany and England had not passed away. The military party in the former country began to talk of a "preventive" war pretty loudly. Even so moderate an organ in Berlin as the Post wrote of German opinion that "we all know that blood is assuredly about to be shed, and the longer we wait the more there will be. Few, however, have the courage to imitate Frederick the Great, and not one dares the deed."
The Emperor therefore sent his message in the beginning of 1912, to the effect that feeling had become so much excited that it was not enough to rely on the ordinary diplomatic intercourse for softening it, and that he was anxious for an exchange of views between the Cabinets of Berlin and London, of a personal and direct kind. As the result of this intimation, the British Cabinet decided to send one of its members to Berlin to hold "conversations," with a view to exploring and, if practicable, softening the causes of tension, and I was requested by the Prime Minister and Sir Edward Grey and my other colleagues to go to Berlin and undertake the task. Our Ambassador there came over to London specially to discuss arrangements, and he returned to Berlin to make them before I started.
I arrived in the German capital on February 8, 1912, and spent some days in interviews with the Emperor, the Imperial Chancellor, the Naval Minister (Admiral von Tirpitz), and others of the Emperor's Ministry. The narrative of my conversations I have extracted from the records I made after each interview, for the preservation so far as possible of the actual expressions used during it.
My first interview was one with Herr von Bethmann Hollweg, the Imperial Chancellor. We met in the British Embassy, and the conversation, which was quite informal, was a full and agreeable one. My impression, and I still retain it, was that Bethmann Hollweg was then as sincerely desirous of avoiding war as I was myself. I told him of certain dangers quite frankly, and he listened and replied with what seemed to me to be a full understanding of our position. I said that the increasing action of Germany in piling up magnificent armaments was, of course, within the unfettered rights of the German people. But the policy had an inevitable consequence in the drawing together of other nations in the interests of their own security. This was what was happening. I told him frankly that we had made naval and military preparations, but only such as defense required, and as would be considered in Germany matter of routine. I went on to observe that our faces were set against aggression by any nation, and I told him, what seemed to relieve his mind, that we had no secret military treaties. But, I added, if France were attacked and an attempt made to occupy her territory, our neutrality must not be reckoned on by Germany. For one thing, it was obvious that our position as an island protected by the sea would be affected seriously if Germany had possession of the Channel ports on the northern shores of France. Again, we were under treaty obligation to come to the aid of Belgium in case of invasion, just as we were bound to defend Portugal and Japan in certain eventualities. In the third place, owing to our dependence on freedom of sea-communications for food and raw materials, we could not sit still if Germany elected to develop her fleet to such an extent as to imperil our naval protection. She might build more ships, but we should in that case lay down two keels for each one she laid down.
The Chancellor said that he did not take my observations at all in bad part, but I must understand that his admirals and generals were pretty difficult.
I replied that the difficulty would be felt at least as much with the admirals and generals in my own country.
The Chancellor, in the course of our talk, proposed a formula of neutrality to which I will refer later on.
I left the Chancellor with the sense that I had been talking with an honest man struggling somewhat with adversity. However, next day I was summoned to luncheon with the Emperor and Empress at the Schloss, and afterward had a long interview, which lasted nearly three hours, with the Emperor and Admiral von Tirpitz in the Emperor's cabinet room. The conversation was mainly in German, and was confined to naval questions. My reception by the Emperor was very agreeable; that by Tirpitz seemed to me a little strained. The question was, whether Germany must not continue her program for expanding her fleet. What that program really amounted to we had not known in London, except that it included an increase in battleships; but the Emperor handed me at this meeting a confidential copy of the draft of the proposed new Fleet Law, with an intimation that he had no objection to my communicating it privately to my colleagues. I was careful to abstain even from looking at it then, for I saw that, from its complexity and bulk, it would require careful study. So I simply put it in my pocket. But I repeated what I had said to the Chancellor, that the necessity for secure sea-communications rendered it vital for us to be able to protect ourselves on the seas. Germany was quite free to do as she pleased, but so were we, and we should probably lay down two keels for every one which she added to her program. The initiative in slackening competition was really not with us, but with Germany. Any agreement for settling our differences and introducing a new spirit into the relations of the two nations would be bones without flesh if Germany began by fresh shipbuilding, and so forced us to do twice as much. Indeed, the world would laugh at such an agreement, and our people would think that we had been fooled. I did not myself take that view, because I thought that the mere fact of an agreement was valuable. But the Emperor would see that the public would attach very little importance to his action unless the agreement largely modified what it believed to be his shipbuilding program.
We then discussed the proposal of the German Admiralty for the new program. Admiral von Tirpitz struggled for it. I insisted that fundamental modification was essential if better relations were to ensue. The tone was friendly, but I felt that I was up against the crucial part of my task. The admiral wanted us to enter into some understanding about our own shipbuilding. He thought the Two-Power standard a hard one for Germany, and, indeed, Germany could not make any admission about it.
I said it was not matter for admission. They were free and so were we, and we must for the sake of our safety remain so. The idea then occurred to us that, as we should never agree about it, we should avoid trying to define a standard proportion in any general agreement that we might come to, and, indeed, say nothing in it about shipbuilding; but that the Emperor should announce to the German public that the agreement on general questions, if we should have concluded one, had entirely modified his wish for the new Fleet Law, as originally conceived, and that it should be delayed, and future shipbuilding should at least be spread over a longer period.
The Emperor thought such an agreement would certainly make a great difference, and he informed me that his Chancellor would propose to me a formula as a basis for it. I said that I would see the Chancellor and discuss a possible formula, as well as territorial and other questions with him, and would then return to London and report to the King (from whom I had brought him a special and friendly message) and to my colleagues the good disposition I had found, and leave the difficulties about shipbuilding and indeed all other matters to their judgment. For I had come to Berlin, not to make an actual agreement, but only to explore the ground for one with the Emperor and his ministers. I had been struck with the friendly disposition in Berlin, and a not less friendly disposition would be found in London.
The evening after my interview with the Emperor I dined with the Chancellor. I met there and talked with several prominent politicians, soldiers, and men of letters, including Kiderlen-Waechter (the then Foreign Secretary), the afterward famous General von Hindenburg, Zimmermann of the Foreign Office, and Professor Harnack.
Later on, after dinner, I went off to meet the French Ambassador, M. Jules Cambon, at the British Embassy, for I wished to keep him informed of our object, which was simply to improve the state of feeling between London and Berlin, but on the basis, and only on the basis, of complete loyalty to our Entente with France. It was, to use a phrase which he himself suggested in our conversation, a detente rather than an entente that I had in view, with possible developments to follow it which might assume a form which would be advantageous to France and Russia, as well as to ourselves and Germany. He showed me next day the report of our talk which he had prepared in order to telegraph it to Paris.
I had other interviews the next day, but the only one which is important for the purposes of the present narrative is that at my final meeting with the German Chancellor on the Saturday (February 10). I pressed on him how important it was for public opinion and the peace of the world that Germany should not force us into a shipbuilding competition with her, a competition in which it was certain that we should have to spare no effort to preserve our margin of safety by greater increases.
He did not controvert my suggestion. I could see that personally he was of the same mind. But he said that the forces he had to contend with were almost insuperable. The question of a retardation of building under the proposed Fleet Law was not susceptible of being treated apart from that of the formula of which he and the Emperor had both spoken. He suggested that we might agree on the following formula:
1. The High Contracting Powers assure each other mutually of their desire for peace and friendship.
2. They will not, either of them, make any combination, or join in any combination, which is directed against the other. They expressly declare that they are not bound by any such combination.
3. If either of the High Contracting Parties become entangled in a war with one or more other powers, the other of the High Contracting Parties will at least observe toward the power so entangled a benevolent neutrality, and use its utmost endeavor for the localization of the conflict.
4. The duty of neutrality which arises from the preceding article has no application in so far as it may not be reconcilable with existing agreements which the High Contracting Parties have already made. The making of new agreements which make it impossible for either of the Contracting Parties to observe neutrality toward the other beyond what is provided by the preceding limitations is excluded in conformity with the provisions contained in Article 2.
Anxious as I was to agree with the Chancellor, who seemed as keen as I was to meet me with expressions which I might take back to England for friendly consideration, I was unable to hold out to him the least prospect that we could accept the draft formula which he had just proposed. Under Article 2, for example, we should find ourselves, were it accepted, precluded from coming to the assistance of France should Germany attack her and aim at getting possession of such ports as Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne, a friendly occupation of which was so important for our island security. Difficulties might also arise which would hamper us in the discharge of our existing treaty obligations to Belgium, Portugal, and Japan. The most hopeful way out was to revise the draft fundamentally by confining its terms to an undertaking by each Power not to make any unprovoked attack upon the other, or join in any combination or design against the other for purposes of aggression, or become party to any plan or naval or military combination, alone or in conjunction with any other Power, directed to such an end.
He and I then sat down and redrafted what he had prepared, on this basis, but without his committing himself to the view that it would be sufficient. We also had a satisfactory conversation about the Bagdad Railway and other things in Turkey connected with the Persian Gulf, and we discussed possibilities of the rearrangement of certain interests of both Powers in Africa. He said to me that he was not there to make any immediate bargain, but that we should look at the African question on both sides from a high point of view, and that if we had any difficulties we should tell him, and he would see whether he could get round them for us.
I replied that I also was not there to make a bargain, but only to explore the ground, and that I much appreciated the tone of his conversation with me, and the good feeling he had shown. I should go back to London and without delay report to my colleagues all that had passed.
I entertain no doubt that the German Chancellor was sincerely in earnest in what he said to me on these occasions, and in his desire to improve relations with us and keep the peace. So I think was the Emperor; but he was pulled at by his naval and military advisers, and by the powerful, if then small, chauvinist party in Germany. In 1912, when the conversations recorded took place, this party was less potent, I think a good deal less, than it appears to have become a year and a half later, when Germany had increased her army still further. But I formed the opinion even then that the power of the Emperor in Germany was a good deal misinterpreted and overestimated. My impression was that the really decisive influence was that of the Minister who had managed to secure the strongest following throughout Germany; and it was obvious to me that Admiral von Tirpitz had a powerful and growing following from many directions, due to the backing of the naval party.
Moreover, sensible as a large number of Germans were, there was a certain tendency to swelled-headedness in the nation. It had had an extraordinarily rapid development, based on principles of organization in every sphere of activity—principles derived from the lesson of the necessity of thinking before acting enjoined by the great teachers of the beginning of the nineteenth century. The period down to about 1832 seems to me to correspond, in the intellectual prodigies it produced, to our Elizabethan period. It came no doubt to an end in its old and distinctive aspect. But its spirit assumed, later on, a new form, that of organization for material ends based on careful reflection and calculation. In industry, in commerce, in the army, and in the navy, the work of mind was everywhere apparent. "Aus einem Lernvolk wollen wir ein Thatvolk werden" was the new watchword.
No doubt there was much that was defective. When it came to actual war in 1914, it turned out that Germany had not adequately thought out her military problems. If she had done so, she would have used her fleet at the very outset, and particularly her destroyers and submarines, to try to hinder the transport of the British Expeditionary Force to France, and, having secured the absence of this force, she would have sought to seize the northern ports of France. Small as the Expeditionary Force was, it was enough, when added to the French armies, to make them so formidable as to render the success of von Kluck uncertain if the troops could be concentrated to resist him swiftly enough. Again, Germany never really grasped the implications of our command of the sea. Had she done so, I do not think she would have adventured war. She may have counted on England not coming in, owing to entanglements in Irish difficulties. If so, this was just another instance of her bad judgment about the internal affairs of other nations.
In fine, Germany had not adequately thought out or prepared for the perils which she undertook when she assumed the risks of the war of 1914. No doubt she knew more about the shortcomings of the Russian army than did the French or the British. On these, pretty exact knowledge of the Russian shortages enabled her to reckon. There we miscalculated more than she did. But she was not strong enough to make sure work of a brief but conclusive campaign in the West, which was all she could afford while Russia was organizing. Then, later on, she ought to have seen that, if the submarine campaign which she undertook should bring the United States into the war, her ultimate fate would be sealed by blockade. In the end she no doubt fought magnificently. But she made these mistakes, which were mainly due to that swelled-headedness which deflected her reasoning and prevented her from calculating consequences aright.
There was a good deal of this apparent even in 1912. It had led to the Agadir business in the previous summer, and the absence of wise prevision was still apparent. I believed that this phase of militarism would pass when Imperial Germany became a more mature nation. Indeed, it was passing under the growing influence of Social Democracy, which was greatly increased by the elections which took place while I was in Berlin in 1912. But still there was the possibility of an explosion; and when I returned to London, altho I was full of hope that relations between the two countries were going to be improved, and told my colleagues so, I also reported that there were three matters about which I was uneasy.
The first was my strong impression that the new Fleet Law would be insisted on.
The second was the possibility that Tirpitz might be made Chancellor of the Empire in place of Bethmann Hollweg. This was being talked of as possible when I was in Berlin.
The third was the want of continuity in the supreme direction of German policy. Foreign policy especially was under divided control. Von Tschirsky observed to me in 1906 that what he had been saying about a question we were discussing represented his view as Foreign Minister of Prussia, but that next door was the Chancellor, who might express quite a different view to me if I asked him; and that if, later on, I went to the end of the Wilhelmstrasse and turned down Unter den Linden I would come to the Schloss, where I might derive from the Emperor's lips an impression quite different from that given by either himself or the Chancellor. This made me feel that, desirous as Bethmann Hollweg had shown himself to establish and preserve good relations, we could not count on his influence being maintained or prevailing. As an eminent foreign diplomatist observed, "In this highly organized nation, when you have ascended to the very top story you find not only confusion but chaos."
However, after I had reported fully on all the details and the Foreign Office had received my written report, matters were taken in hand by Sir Edward Grey, and by him I was kept informed. Presently it became apparent that there were those in Berlin who were interfering with the Chancellor in his efforts for good relations. A dispatch came which was inconsistent with the line he had pursued with me, and it became evident that the German Government was likely to insist on proceeding with the new Fleet Law. When we looked closely into the copy of the draft which the Emperor had given to me, we found very large increases contemplated, of which we had no notion earlier, not only in the battleships, about which we did know before, but in small craft and submarines and personnel. As these increases were to proceed further, discussion about the terms of a formula became rather futile, and we had only one course left open to us—to respond by quietly increasing our navy and concentrating its strength in northern seas. This was done with great energy by Mr. Churchill, the result being that, as the outcome of the successive administrations of the fleet by Mr. McKenna and himself, the estimates were raised by over twenty millions sterling to fifty-one millions.
In the summer of 1912 I became Lord Chancellor, and the engrossing duties, judicial as well as administrative, of that office cut me off from any direct participation in the carrying on of our efforts for better relations with Germany. But these relations continued to be extended in the various ways practicable and left open to Sir Edward Grey and the German Chancellor. The discussions which had been begun when I was in Berlin, about Africa and the Bagdad Railway, were continued between them through the Ambassadors; and just before the war the draft of an extensive treaty had been agreed on.
Then, after an interval of two years, came a time of extreme anxiety. No one had better opportunities than I of watching Sir Edward's concentration of effort to avoid the calamity which threatened. For he was living with me in my house in Queen Anne's Gate through the whole of these weeks, and he was devoting himself, with passionate earnestness of purpose, to inducing the German Government to use its influence with Austria for a peaceful settlement. But it presently became evident that the Emperor and his Ministers had made up their minds that they were going to make use of an opportunity that appeared to have come. As I have already said, I think their calculations were framed on a wholly erroneous basis. It is clear that their military advisers had failed to take account, in their estimates of probabilities, of the tremendous moral forces that might be brought into action against them. The ultimate result we all know. May the lesson taught to the world by the determined entry of the United States into the conflict between right and wrong never be forgotten by the world!
Why Germany acted as she did then is a matter that still requires careful investigation. My own feeling is that she has demonstrated the extreme risk of confiding great political decisions to military advisers. It is not their business to have the last word in deciding between peace and war. The problem is too far-reaching for their training. Bismarck knew this well, and often said it, as students of his life and reflections are aware. Had he been at the helm I do not believe that he would have allowed his country to drift into a disastrous course. He was far from perfect in his ethical standards, but he had something of that quality which Mommsen, in his history, attributes to Julius Caesar. Him the historian describes as one of those "mighty ones who has preserved to the end of his career the statesman's tact of discriminating between the possible and the impossible, and has not broken down in the task which for greatly gifted natures is the most difficult of all—the task of recognizing, when on the pinnacle of success, its natural limits. What was possible he performed, and never left the possible good undone for the sake of the impossible better; never disdained at least to mitigate by palliatives evils that were incurable. But where he recognized that fate had spoken, he always obeyed. Alexander on the Hypanis, Napoleon at Moscow, turned back because they were compelled to do so, and were indignant at destiny for bestowing even on its favorites merely limited successes. Caesar turned back voluntarily on the Thames and on the Rhine, and thought of carrying into effect even at the Danube and the Euphrates, not unbounded plans of world-conquest, but merely well-considered frontier regulations."