- Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-16: The View from Downing Street selected and edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock
Oxford, 566 pp, £30.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 822977 3
- Margot at War: Love And Betrayal In Downing Street, 1912-16 by Anne de Courcy
Weidenfeld, 376 pp, £20.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 297 86983 2
- The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush To War, 1914 by Douglas Newton
Verso, 386 pp, £20.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 1 78168 350 7
The Prince was walking up and down in silence. He caught me by the hands and said: ‘Oh! say there is surely not going to be “warr” (pronouncing it like “far”). Dear, dear Mrs Asquith, can we not stop it?’ (wringing his hands) … ‘I do not understand what has happened. What is it all about?’
Millions of people then and ever since have shared the bafflement and anguish of Prince Lichnowsky and have asked the same questions. If the Kaiser’s ambassador to London, a warm anglophile, felt so impotent and overwhelmed by events, no wonder the lightning onset of the Great War has remained the historical question of the last hundred years. Or rather questions, for following on the heels of ‘How did it start, and why?’ comes ‘Could it have been prevented? – and if so, by whom?’, ‘Who was to blame?’ and, for the British anyway, ‘Could we have kept out of it?’
No other event has generated such an endless line of huge books, some reaching back to the Franco-Prussian War, others obsessively going over the last few days leading up to the declarations of war on 3 and 4 August. The pace of events is so hurtling, the outcome so tragic, that for all their length most of these books are impossible to put down, and accordingly tend to be received as magisterial masterpieces, although their conclusions may be utterly different from one another. The question is never laid to rest. The hunt goes on for the smoking gun, the killer fact (these often deployed metaphors being the worst possible in the circumstances).
Margot Asquith kept a diary for 47 years, off and on, starting when she was 12 years old. Yet it is only the two and a half years from July 1914 to Asquith’s fall in December 1916 that Michael and Eleanor Brock have chosen to publish. Even within this period, they tell us, they have excluded most of her musings on her family, as well as lists of many of the guests she entertained so frenetically. On the other hand, the book is plumped out by the editors’ introduction of 116 pages, mostly sketching the domestic and international background to the crisis and occupying nearly half as much space as the diary extracts themselves. Margot’s journals too, it seems, are to be conscripted into the hunt for the truth about the war.
At first sight, this is an odd approach, for the Brocks never stop pointing out how ignorant she was, how crass, how deformed by snobbery (she insisted on Asquith shedding the last traces of his Yorkshire accent). Nor do they claim that she possessed an instinctive judgment to make up for her lack of formal education (she spent most of her youth on the hunting field, where she acquired her distinctive broken nose). She has no idea that Britain’s army is only a third the size of Germany’s, she thinks the war will be over in a year, then when it isn’t, she bets Kitchener that it will be over in another six months. Like her husband, she fiercely opposes conscription, then admits she was wrong. In April 1916, she offers the bizarre reflection: ‘I wonder if we have not got too big an army.’ She sees no political future for Winston Churchill with his ‘noisy mind’ and childish egotism, and doubts whether Lloyd George will ever become prime minister (three months before he topples her husband). In fact she starts a new volume of the diary at the end of July 1916 by claiming that ‘Henry’s position in the country and in the cabinet is stronger than it has ever been.’
Despite or partly because of all her defects, the diaries never cease to entertain, and they turn out to be remarkably enlightening too, if not always in the advertised way. Margot Tennant had always possessed the self-confidence and judgmental sweep of someone born to great wealth and social prominence. Her family were pioneers of chemical bleaching. The Tennant plant outside Glasgow was the largest chemical works in the world at the time, and its towering chimney was a famous landmark, known as Tennant’s Stalk. Until her marriage at the age of 30 to the widowed Herbert Henry Asquith, she was proudest of her role as leader of the Souls. She thought that, for all their academic brilliance, Asquith’s children by his first wife, Helen, were poor successors to her own coterie:
The clever group of nowadays is very inferior to my clever group called ‘Souls’. They are sexless and soulless, and so disloyal that they only hang together by a thread of mutual love of gossip and common capacity to say bright things, read bright and blasphemous novels, modern and very moderate poems (which crop up like weeds every day); and an unimpulsive, uninspired, dry desire to go against authority under the name of anti-cant.
Margot was a goose, but she was a hissing goose. While her judgments may not always be acute, they are almost always sharp. Of Mary Curzon, for example: ‘The latter a very good type of decorative West End furniture – beautiful, silly, idle, and wonderfully, amazingly dull; always saying she is a fool and never minding it; never getting accustomed to her beauty, therefore never really interested in anything and with little or no power of admiration.’ Mrs Asquith’s arrogance is often staggering. She treats being the prime minister’s wife as a sort of high constitutional office. When the Zeppelins raid London, she sends for the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to give her a personal report. When the government is under fire in the newspapers, she instructs the director of the government press bureau to make plans for suspending the Times and the Daily Mail. Her loathing of the reptiles rivals that of a later Downing Street consort, Denis Thatcher. ‘I hate all journalists – it’s a vile profession. Nothing is sacred; even corpses are copy.’
Her social energy and curiosity are so beguiling that at times one regrets the editors’ exclusive focus on the war and begins to wish that they had listened to Margot’s musing that it is possible that her ‘children and great-grandchildren … would rather read about the war in proper books, and hear from me of the kind of clothes and manners, foods and amusements of society than the perpetual political crises’.
Anne de Courcy’s Margot at War is lighter in tone and lacks scholarly pretensions or apparatus. But it conveys Margot’s milieu with a nice touch and takes time away from this enclosed self-regarding world to give us vivid and sharp vignettes of the harder times being experienced by other classes. De Courcy too records very well Margot’s tortured jealousy, not only of her husband’s dalliance with Venetia Stanley but of his daughter Violet’s almost incestuous passion for her father. Not that Margot had any real grounds for complaint. She had, after all, been flirting with Asquith while Helen was still alive. He wrote to her: ‘You have made me a different man and brought back into my life the feeling of spring time’ – just the sort of stuff he wrote Venetia twenty years later. Margot quickly came to believe that Helen was ‘no wife for him. She lives in Hampstead, and has no clothes.’
Yet Margot is anything but smug about herself. ‘Hurting people’s feelings seems to be my prevailing vice … I am haunted by what Mama always said: “Dear Margot! She never improves.”’ She knows why she annoys people so much: ‘Irritability, plus a very keen tongue, gets on other people’s nerves, I find, and bores them … It is really nerves and a devouring energy: I have several skins too few.’ She was quite aware of how mocking her stepchildren were behind her back.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 37 No. 2 · 22 January 2015
Ferdinand Mount questions the revisionist critique (led by Christopher Clark) of the Fischer thesis that German expansionism both underlay and triggered the outbreak of war in 1914 (LRB, 8 January). However, he seems to have misread some of the evidence deployed by modern historians.
Document 123, in ostensibly revealing German feelers for British neutrality on Saturday, 1 August 1914, was an artful part of the carefully constructed White Paper (or ‘dodgy dossier’ as Douglas Newton labels it) issued by the British government the day after its declaration of war on Germany. In fact, the German proposals designed to secure British neutrality had emanated from Chancellor Bethmann on Wednesday, 29 July, not from his ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, in London on 1 August. Unfortunately, the offer to respect French territorial integrity in exchange for British neutrality wasn’t sufficient. What was required was respect for Belgian neutrality (not to mention French colonial possessions). As Germany’s defence against the Franco-Russian alliance – and the threat of a two-front war it represented – relied on a massed assault on France, passing through southern Belgium, there was little that Bethmann could say other than that Belgium would be fully compensated after the war if it denied passage to German armies and Germany was thereby compelled to invade. France, which had no plans to attack Germany through Belgium, could give unequivocal assurances to Britain with regard to Belgian neutrality.
What actually happened that Saturday was not revealed in the White Paper, and Mount misconstrues it. Lichnowsky was approached twice by the foreign secretary, Edward Grey, with a proposal that Britain would remain neutral if Germany refrained from attacking France in the event of a war between Germany and Russia (Grey offered to guarantee French neutrality). The proposal was confirmed in a telegram Grey sent to his ambassador in Paris. Far from ‘wobbling’ when confronted with this possibility, the Kaiser grasped it with both hands, insisting that Moltke abandon the long-established plan (first drafted by his predecessor as chief of staff, Schlieffen) to march through Luxembourg and then Belgium en route to France. Refusing the order, Moltke burst into tears and went home. A telegram from Berlin to George V, seeking confirmation of this démarche flushed out Grey’s foolishness: there was, after all, no prospect of France abandoning its treaty obligations to support Russia in a war with Germany. Grey was forced to draft a reply citing a ‘misunderstanding’. A deflated Wilhelm recalled Moltke, and confirmed the original plan.
Of course, it could be argued (as it was by A.J.P. Taylor) that the Schlieffen Plan itself ‘caused’ the war: but it can equally be argued that it was the encircling Franco-Russian Treaty that ‘caused’ the Schlieffen Plan. Surely what matters in the Fischer debate is what was in the minds of the German leadership that July.
Mount claims that the Kaiser put ‘harsh pressure’ on the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, to launch a major retaliation for the assassination of his nephew. Actually, at a lunch with the veteran Austrian ambassador to Berlin, Wilhelm somewhat off-handedly assured his guest that the emperor’s request for support in taking steps against Serbia would be granted, subject to Bethmann’s approval (which duly followed). Yet the next day, 6 July, Wilhelm set off for a three-week Baltic cruise, having assured those military advisers who were not yet on holiday that no special preparations for conflict were required. Moltke himself was taking the cure at Carlsbad, as he did every year. Bethmann was about to return to his country estate in Hohenfinow. His deputy, Jagow, was on honeymoon in Italy. Tirpitz was summering on his own estate. If the provision of the ‘blank cheque’ to Austria was part of some carefully conceived plan of aggression, the German leadership disguised it well.
The main message from Berlin to Vienna had been to act quickly after the assassination, if action there was to be. But a large part of the Austrian army was engaged on harvest duty: so even a threat to Serbia couldn’t be issued till late July. By the time Wilhelm returned from his cruise, Austria had issued an ultimatum, and had rejected Serbia’s reply. Wilhelm (like Edward Grey) found the Serbian reply conciliatory – sufficiently so that he offered to act as a mediator between the parties. Later, he urged the Austrians to ‘halt at Belgrade’ (just across the border) as the sole token of military action. As evidence piled up that Russia was pushing Serbia to resist, Bethmann urged the Austrians – at whatever cost – to accept British mediation: ‘We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged by Vienna, wantonly and without regard to our advice, into a world conflagration.’ Wilhelm was still writing to his cousin the tsar on 29 July, offering to mediate between Belgrade and Vienna.
That was the day, according to another revisionist historian, Sean McMeekin, when a full-scale European war became inevitable, with Tsar Nicholas approving general mobilisation against Austria and Germany. This could not be reversed, and finally forced Germany’s hand on 1 August, when Nicholas refused to halt the process. McMeekin concludes, in words echoing Clark’s, that ‘the idea that Germany “caused” or “intended” or “willed” the First World War … is not supported by the evidence.’
Mount cites Fischer as claiming that dreams of a greater Germany – nurtured since Bismarck’s time – ‘were held consistently throughout the First World War, and shared by the erratic actors’: of whom Mount names the Kaiser, Moltke and Bethmann. Moltke, as it happens, was removed from office in September 1914; Wilhelm was sidelined by Hindenburg and Ludendorff in 1916; and Bethmann became a cipher well before he departed in 1917. The generals, of course, were fully signed up to Mitteleuropa, but it was not they who had stumbled into war in August 1914. Meanwhile, there were plenty of non-Germans who dreamed of a smaller Germany: Tsar Alexander told his ministers in 1894 that the point of the Franco-Russian Treaty was to ‘destroy’ Germany in its current form, and replace it with ‘a number of small weak states’. The wife of Alexander’s nephew told the French ambassador in St Petersburg on 22 July 1914 that ‘there’s going to be a war … our armies will meet in Berlin … Germany will be destroyed.’ Blame for the war may not be shared equally, but it was certainly shared. It is time to let go of Fischer.
Sorry to pull at a loose thread in Ferdinand Mount’s excellent analysis, but I had understood the phrase attributed to the Kaiser about the contemptible British army was propaganda made up in the War Office.
Vol. 37 No. 3 · 5 February 2015
David Elstein writes as if there were only two positions to take on the matter of whether Germany was to blame for starting the First World War (Letters, 22 January). Either the growth of German power and hubris was the driver and trigger of the war; or the responsibility was shared equally among all the great powers, which would repudiate the idea of German war guilt enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. But there is a third way to consider, which is Niall Ferguson’s thesis that Germany, though the weakest of the major powers, nonetheless bore the primary responsibility.
Germany’s main fear wasn’t so much Franco-Russian encirclement as Russia’s industrial prowess and its plan to build strategic railways terminating in Poland; these would be completed by 1916 and would pose a grave threat to German security. The solution was a pre-emptive war against Russia, but one in which the onus for its outbreak would be made to fall on Russia. Elstein writes, citing the revisionist historian Sean McMeekin, that ‘a full-scale European war became inevitable, with Tsar Nicholas approving general mobilisation against Austria and Germany.’ In fact Russian mobilisation occurred in stages, and this critically affected the actual outbreak of the fighting.
Russia began with a partial mobilisation that it intended only as a feint to warn Austria not to proceed to the occupation of Belgrade. Russia notified Germany of its intentions, and received assurances from the Kaiser that Germany would not regard this move as a reason to declare war under the terms of its Austrian alliance. But as the Russians mobilised, Germany did declare war, catching Russia flat-footed. It was no easy matter logistically for the Russians to pivot from a partial to a full mobilisation at such short notice, and the Germans knew this. Germany hoped to keep the conflict local by securing British neutrality and warning France to back off, without any real expectation that France actually would. If France did get involved, Germany had the Schlieffen Plan, which had been updated from its original formulation in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and was intended as a defensive measure.
Elstein and other revisionists act as if the Kaiser was in control of the decision to go to war. He was in fact a notorious vacillator, having backed down twice before in the two Morocco crises (1905, 1911), much to the chagrin of his generals, who found such behaviour dishonourable. The generals were determined this time to hold the Kaiser’s feet to the fire. ‘It was not they [the generals] who had stumbled into war in August 1914,’ Elstein writes, but in fact they were the ones determined that war would break out when they disingenuously told the Kaiser, in response to his panicky entreaty to pull back, that the timetables governing mobilisation had taken on a life of their own and could not be reversed.
Fischer may have mischaracterised the growth of German power as the long-term driver of war and underestimated the responsibility of other powers in this regard, but clearly Germany did trigger the outbreak of war, which makes it the prime guilty party. Why was it that this crisis, unlike previous ones, could not be settled among the great powers? Because this time, Germany, its general staff in particular, was keen to have the issue finally joined.
University of California, Los Angeles