Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
Germany And Belgium
In the last issue (April 2014) we published a substantial part of a long statement of 3 August 1914 by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and the response to this by Ramsay MacDonald. Later that same day Grey came back to Parliament to report on correspondence he had received from the Belgian legation regarding an offer from the German Government. This was published in the April issue, but for reasons of space the responses to this, and Grey’s earlier statement, from Philip Edward Morrell and Keir Hardie, were held over to the current issue. These are published below, following Grey’s statement.
Philip E. Morrell was Liberal MP for Henley, 1906-10, and Burnley, 1910-18. His family made a fortune from the brewing industry and Morrell was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. His mother was the daughter of the President of St John’s College, Oxford, and his father-in-law was Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Morrell died in 1943. Keir Hardie was born into a working class family in Newhouse, North Lanarkshire. He was elected as an Independent for West Ham South in 1892. In 1900 he helped to form the Labour Representation Committee from which the Labour Party was born in 1906. He represented Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare from 1900 until his death in September 1915 at the age of 59.
Sir Edward Grey: “I want to give the House some information which I have received, and which was not in my possession when I made my statement this afternoon. It is information I have received from the Belgian legation in London, and is to the following effect:—
”Germany sent yesterday evening at seven o’clock a Note proposing to Belgium friendly neutrality, covering free passage on Belgian territory, and promising maintenance of independence of the kingdom and possession at the conclusion of peace, and threatening in case of refusal, to treat Belgium as an enemy. A time limit of twelve hours was fixed for the reply. The Belgians have answered that an attack on their neutrality would be a flagrant violation of the rights of nations, and that to accept the German proposal would be to sacrifice the honour of a nation. Conscious of its duty, Belgium is firmly resolved to repel aggression by all possible means.”
“Of course, I can only say that the Government are prepared to take into grave consideration the information which it has received. I make no further comment upon it.”
Mr Morrell: “I assure the House I feel very strongly and keenly the responsibility of my position. I hope the House will give me a short hearing while I endeavour to put before it, as clearly as I can, why many of us—and I believe I speak for a good many on this side of the House—feel unable to agree with the Government in the policy they are now pursuing. I am quite ready to admit that the Foreign Secretary made, as he told us he did, every possible effort to secure peace in Europe. The only question we ask ourselves is whether, since the failure of his efforts, he has really made a sufficient attempt to make fair terms with Germany, and to secure the neutrality of this country in the war which has unhappily broken out.”
“First of all, let me deal with what he said. The right hon. Gentleman has told us he admits there are no formal obligations binding this country to intervene in this war. None whatever. No formal obligation with regard to France, at any rate up till yesterday. As regards the letter of 22nd November, 1912, which he read out to this House, I submit that it is conclusive from that point. That letter perfectly and clearly intimated to France that we could not undertake to support her in a European war, and, as he fairly put it, it was entirely open to this House, and it is so even now, to decide whether we are going to intervene in this war at all.”
“We may consider our own interests, or rather we may consider and are bound to consider the views of those who send us hereto this House when we are dealing with a question of this sort. What are the two formal reasons which are given us why it is essential for us, at the present time, to undertake warlike operations against Germany and Austria? There are only two reasons. They are, in the first place, that we are bound to protect the Northern coast of France, and, in the second place, that we are bound to intervene to prevent any passage of German troops across Belgian soil. In spite of the cheers which have greeted this statement, I venture to think that the right hon. Gentleman in the speech he made went some way to supply the answer to those two reasons that he urged. With regard to the coast of France, he made it perfectly clear that the German Government offered to this country, that if we pledged ourselves to neutrality, Germany would undertake not to attack the northern coast of France. That was an undertaking which was cheered from this side of the House and which found a good deal of sympathy. But the right hon. Gentleman went on to say that that was far too narrow an engagement.”
“Then I come to the second point—to the question of Belgium. I want the House to realise that we are not dealing with a country which refuses all negotiations. Germany has never put herself in that position. She has not said, ‘We refuse to negotiate; we claim the right to march our troops across Belgium, and we claim the right to attack the coast of France.’ That is not what Germany says. I quote the words of the right hon. Gentleman as I took them down. ‘They would guarantee Belgian integrity’—(An HON. MEMBER: “At the end of the war!”)—and the reply to that was, ‘We cannot bargain away our interests in Belgian neutrality.’ In other words, we are asked now to involve this country in all the perils of this great adventure, because, forsooth, Germany is going to insist on her march some troops—(Interruption)—because Germany insists on her point of view. I am quite prepared to admit that if Germany threatened to annex Belgium, or to occupy Belgium, or if she disregarded the rights of nationality, we might be bound under our Treaty Obligation to go to war to protect Belgium. But what, after all, is the actual fact? What is it we are asked to do?”
“We are asked to go to war because there may be a few German regiments in a corner of Belgium territory. I am not prepared to support a Government which goes to war under those circumstances. We are not merely proposing to go to war for inadequate reasons, but we are doing even more than the Belgian Government are asking us to do. As I understood the right hon. Gentleman, the Belgian Government asked him if he would give diplomatic support, and the reply was that he did not think diplomatic support was sufficient. We have to consider whether it is worth the while of this country to do even more than the Belgian Government asks us to do, in order to have the privilege of intervening in a European war. I do not agree with it. I do not think that these two reasons, although they may be diplomatic reasons, are the real reasons why we are going to engage in this perilous venture.”
“I believe we are going to war now because of the fear and jealousy entertained in this country unfortunately, and fostered by large sections of the Press—the fear and jealousy of German ambition. I believe that is the real reason why hon. Gentlemen opposite are asking this country to go to war, and I do not think there would be any war fever in this country except for the demands made by the Party opposite and their supporters in the Press. At any rate, I believe I am justified in saying it is absolutely clear that it is fear of Germany which is to-day driving us to war. I ask myself whether we have not in times past suffered enough, paid enough treasure, and paid enough of the blood of the subjects of this country in order to preserve what John Bright once called that ‘foul fetish—the balance of power in Europe.’ I ask myself, too, whether we can now be sure we shall preserve that balance of power.”
“The right hon. Gentleman said very little about Russia. Let us remember that in going to war in this way we are going to war just as much to preserve the despotism of Russia as to interfere with German ambition. For my part, although I have no particular love for the German Empire, or for German methods, I have still less love for Russia or Russian methods. Without engaging in a war to support despotism, in my opinion it is perfectly possible for the right hon. Gentleman and the Government to arrange an honourable neutrality with Germany, a neutrality which would be perfectly honourable to this country. I regret it still more because I think the country is being rushed into war without its knowledge.”
“No one a week ago could have foreseen that we were going to take a step like this. After listening to the right hon. Gentleman and the reasons he has given, while we must admit the strength of his speech and its sincerity, I say I do not believe he has given a sufficient reason for our undertaking at this time, here and now, the terrible peril and danger of involving this country in war. I have only one other point. The right hon. Gentleman said, at the end of his speech, that we shall not suffer much more if we engage in war than if we stand aside. He used words to that effect. It was an unworthy remark in an otherwise able speech. It was a pity he should appeal to the British people on these grounds. If we engage in war, we shall suffer in our country, and we shall also suffer, I believe, as regards our influence in Europe. I regret very much at the end of eight years the best you can say of the policy which has been pursued—of the Triple Entente—is that it should have landed us into such a war as this.”
Mr Keir Hardie: “I desire for a very few minutes to intervene in this Debate. Both Houses of Parliament have passed, with absolute unanimity, a Bill for the relief of the Stock Exchange. We Members, from these benches, offered no objection, but we now demand to be informed what is going to be done for the relief of the inevitable destitution which is bound to prevail among the poor? As the Foreign Secretary informed us, whether we take part in the conflict or not, there is bound to be much suffering. That involves starving children. Will the Government pass with the same promptitude as we have done the Bill for the relief of the Stock Exchange and the business interests, the Bill to compel education authorities to feed hungry school-children? We ask for an answer. We are far more interested in the sufferings of the poor than we are in the inconvenience to members of the Stock Exchange. Most of the Members of this House have a more direct interest in the Stock Exchange than they have in the sufferings of the poor (HON. MEMBERS: “No, no!” “Shame!” and “Name!”).
“The proof of that will be found if the same promptitude be shown in redressing and alleviating the poverty of the poor as we have shown in the other case. What action is to be taken, not merely to ensure a sufficient food supply, but to safeguard the public against being robbed by food speculators? Surely that issue is urgent and important! Not only will workers be thrown out of work by the million—it will not simply be by the thousand, but by the million—but the unscrupulous gang who form the food ring will take advantage of the war crisis to rob the poor than the market justifies. They have already commenced, without justification of any kind. We are entitled to demand from the Government—not merely to request, but to demand— to be informed what action is to be taken to safeguard the interests of the working classes in the crisis we are now approaching.”
“One word more. The decision of the Government has been to come without consulting the country. It remains to be seen whether the Government and the House of Commons represents the country on this question. So far as some of us are concerned—here I do not speak for the party with which I am connected for the present moment, but for myself personally—we shall endeavour to ascertain what is the real feeling of the country and especially of the working classes of the country, in regard to the decision of the Government. We belong to a Party which is international. In Germany, in France, in Belgium and in Austria, the party corresponding to our own is taking all manner of risks to promote and preserve peace. (An HON. MEMBER: “Why do they not control the German Emperor?”) I am asked, why do they not control the German Emperor? For the same reason we do not control the Liberal Cabinet—we are not strong enough. But we are growing. My point is that in all these countries the party corresponding to our own is working strenuously for peace, and especially throughout Germany.”
“I confess that I heard with a feeling akin to wonder this afternoon the refusal by our Foreign Secretary on behalf of the Cabinet, even to consider the offers made on behalf of the German Government to keep this country out of the dispute. If the neutrality of Belgium can be secured after the war, if the Germans offer not to bombard the coast of France—if these can be made the basis for further negotiation, then every form of justification of the Cabinet for going into the war will have been taken away. I say respectfully to the House that some of us will do all we can to rouse the working classes of the country in opposition to this proposal of the Government, but especially we have the right to ask what action is now going to be taken to alleviate, as far as possible, the sufferings of those who are bound to be hard hit by war, whether we take part in it or not. Our honour is said to be involved in entering into the war. That is always the excuse. I suppose our honour was involved in the Crimean War, and who to-day justifies it? Our honour was involved in the Boer War. How many to-day will justify it? A few years hence, and if we are led into this war, we shall look back in wonder and amazement at the flimsy reasons which induced the Government to take part in it.”
Violation Of Belgian Neutrality
The following day, 4 August, Andrew Bonar Law, Canadian-born leader of the Conservative Party, asked Prime Minister Henry Herbert Asquith if he had any statement he could make to the House. Hansard heads Asquith’s statement ‘ULTIMATUM TO GERMAN GOVERNMENT’ ‘Reply Demanded by Midnight (4th August)’.
The Prime Minister (Mr Asquith): “In conformity with the statement of policy made here by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary yesterday, a telegram was early this morning sent by him to our Ambassador in Berlin. It was to this effect:
“The King of the Belgians has made an appeal to his Majesty the King for diplomatic intervention on behalf of Belgium. His Majesty’s Government are also informed that the German Government has delivered to the Belgian Government a Note proposing friendly neutrality entailing free passage through Belgian territory and promising to maintain the independence and integrity of the Kingdom and its possessions, at the conclusion of peace, threatening in case of refusal to treat Belgium as an enemy. An answer was requested within twelve hours. We also understand that Belgium has categorically refused this as a flagrant violation of the law of nations. His Majesty’s Government are bound to protest against this violation of a Treaty to which Germany is a party in common with themselves, and must request an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium may not be proceeded with, and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany. You should ask for an immediate reply.”
“We received this morning from our Minister at Brussels the following telegram:—
“German Minister has this morning addressed Note to the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs stating that as Belgian Government have declined the well-intended proposals submitted to them by the Imperial Government, the latter will, deeply to their regret, be compelled to carry out, if necessary by force of arms, the measures considered indispensable in view of the French menaces.”
“Simultaneously—almost immediately afterwards—we received from the Belgian Legation here in London the following telegram:—
“General staff announces that territory has been violated at Gemmenich (near Aix-la-Chappelle).
“Subsequent information tended to show that the German force has penetrated still further into Belgian territory. We also received this morning from the German Ambassador here the telegram sent to him by the German Foreign Secretary, and communicated by the Ambassador to us. It is in these terms:—
“Please dispel any mistrust that may subsist on the part of the British Government with regard to our intentions by repeating most positively formal assurance that, even in the case of armed conflict with Belgium, Germany will, under no pretence whatever, annex Belgian territory. Sincerity of this declaration is borne out by the fact that we solemnly pledged our word to Holland strictly to respect her neutrality. It is obvious that we could not profitably annex Belgic territory without making, at the same time, territorial acquisitions at expense of Holland. Please impress upon Sir E. Grey that German Army could not be exposed to French attack across Belgium, which was planned according to absolutely unimpeachable information. Germany had consequently to disregard Belgic neutrality, it being for her a question of life or death to prevent French advance.
“I have to add this on behalf of His Majesty’s Government: We cannot regard this as in any sense a satisfactory communication. We have, in reply to it, repeated the request we made last week to the German Government, that they should give us the same assurance in regard to Belgian neutrality as was given to us and to Belgium by France last week. We have asked that a reply to that request, and a satisfactory answer to the telegram of this morning—which I have read to the House—should be given before midnight.”
Message From Imperial Duma Of Russia
House of Commons 25 August 1914
Mr SPEAKER: “I have to inform the House that since the House adjourned, I have received a telegram from the President of the Imperial Duma of Russia, M. Michael de Rodzianko, which I should like to read to the House:—
“August, 10th 1914.”
“The Duma of the Empire, assembled in extraordinary Session, in view of the exceptional events passing in the civilised world, begs the House of Commons of Great Britain to accept their warm and sincere greetings in the name of the sentiments of profound friendship which unite our two great nations. The whole of Russia has welcomed with enthusiasm the resolution of the British people to give their powerful support to the friendly nations in the historic struggle which is developing at this moment. May God bless the arms of the friendly nations of the Triple Entente. Long live his Majesty King George and his valiant Fleet and Army! Long live the British Parliament! Long live Great Britain!”
“In reply I sent the following telegram:—
“I hasten to thank you warmly for the telegram in which you have been good enough to convey to me the sentiments of friendship which the Duma of the Empire has expressed towards the House of Commons. As soon as the House meets again, towards the end of this month, I shall not fail to inform it of this graceful manifestation of the cordial relations which so happily exist between our two countries.”