The Hidden Perspective: The Military Conversations of 1906-1914 Hardcover – 15 Mar 2014
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'The history of the First World War has been exhaustively studied in relation to events of the fateful structure of the alliances. The area in between, the impact of the tactical management of diplomacy on the inevitability of war, has received inadequate attention. David Owen has filled that gap. He explains in lucid detail how Britain s abandonment of its splendid isolation in favor of entente with France and an understanding with Russia deprived the international system of any flexibility. Britain, heretofore the balancer of the balance of power, transformed itself into a direct participant in the power politics of the Continent. This decision, taken essentially in secret by military staffs, was all the more fateful because it induced rigidity in two ways. In their strategic planning, France and Russia counted on British support; Germany half-convinced itself of British neutrality. In every previous conflict, the consciousness that Britain might intervene on either side had inspired caution in both. Now, Britain weakened its capacity to induce restraint by being taken for granted by one side even as the other discounted its deterrence. David Owen s book should be essential reading for contemporary statesmen; it is a story of how overreaction to immediate problems can lead to eventual disaster.' --Henry Kissinger
'Countless new books and articles are analysing the origins of the War and the military convulsions that followed. David Owen makes a powerful contribution in his new book, 'The Hidden Perspective: The Military Conversations of 1906-1914'. He looks through the keen operational eye of a former Foreign Secretary at the high-level manoeuvrings of London and other European capitals ... [arguing] that they took on a life and logic of their own, discouraging other political and military options that might have been far more effective - and far more wise. Readers of Diplomat will enjoy - and be startled by - many details Lord Owen gives us about diplomacy as practised a century and more ago.' --Charles Crawford, Diplomat Magazine
'Well-researched, well-written and thought-provoking' --The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
David Owen (Lord Owen) trained and practised as a medical doctor before being elected a Labour MP in his home city of Plymouth. He served as Foreign Secretary under James Callaghan from 1977 until 1979. He co-founded and went on to lead the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and is now a Crossbencher in the Lords. Among many books, he is the author of In Sickness and In Power - Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 years, The Hubris Syndrome, Balkan Odyssey, and the autobiography Time to Declare.
Top customer reviews
Lord Owen has written a fascinating and revealing account of how in 1905 the incoming Foreign Secretary Edward Grey shifted from the original purpose of the Entente towards a secret military agreement with France, built on the French and Foreign Office assumption of future German aggression in Europe. Eight years of military planning for potential British army deployment then followed, mostly in secret, tying Britain into a position where "friendship entails obligations", as Grey eventually said in the House of Commons in August 1914.
Combining detailed documentation with clear explanations and personal insights, Lord Owen reveals the process by which a group of pro-French officials at the Foreign Office nudged Grey and Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman towards this secret understanding. To avoid political trouble neither the full Cabinet nor Parliament were consulted. The Crowe Memorandum of 1907, which embodied the "Foreign Office view" of officials (pro-French, anti-German) accepted by Grey is reproduced in full in an appendix.
We learn how the Military Conversations were, astonishingly, kept secret even from incoming Prime Minister Asquith for three years from 1908 until 1911, at which time three-quarters of the Cabinet voted against the Conversations. The German government had known about the secret agreement for years (via espionage). As neither an open military alliance with France nor a policy of balanced neutrality, the Conversations may have helped unsettle Germany without strongly deterring her from war.
The final chapter covers two failed attempts, again secret, to head off rising tension with Germany. First in 1912 over British fears of German plans for a naval fleet large enough to be a serious challenge; the proposed secret solution was a deal carving up the African colonies of Portugal, made with little regard for centuries of alliance and of course with total disregard for the peoples of Africa. One final attempt at negotiation was made in 1914.
Lord Owen illuminates the history by analogy with more recent crises, from Dunkirk to Suez, the Falklands War, Iraq and Syria. The result is a fascinating book.
Lord Owen emphasises the importance of democratic cabinet accountability and full and accurate information. The Chilcot Inquiry comes to mind.
The book gives a highly critical account of the Military Conversations between Britain and France, between 1906 and 1914, approved by Grey, the Foreign Secretary, who hid them from his cabinet colleagues and circumvented "democratic cabinet accountability, the cornerstone of our democracy".
These Military Conversations (and the friendship with France) led Britain down the wrong path in 1914.
Notwithstanding the 5 star rating several of the author's key arguments are open to challenge.
(1) # The Military Conversations created an expectation in both Britain and France that if France was attacked by Germany, Britain would align itself with France and send a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the continent on the outbreak of hostilities to fight alongside the French army. And, this expectation was so strong it came to be seen in both Britain and France as an obligation.#
The Military Conversations started officially in January 1906 when France asked Britain if it would give France military support if Germany attacked France following a breakdown of the talks over Morocco then taking place.
Though Britain gave France no undertaking Grey approved the Military Conversations so that plans would be in place for military co-operation including the possibility of a BEF fighting on the continent, if Britain decided to fight a war with France against Germany, and informed the Prime Minister.
Britain was not saying, "in a conflict with Germany we will support France, and this is how we will do it!" It was saying "if we support France in a conflict, we need to know how we might do it".
The British politicians and officials involved regularly stated the talks did not commit Britain in any way. Right from the start the officials concerned were explicit using phrases such as "I made it clear that we were to be in no way committed by the fact of having entered into communication.", "... I see no difficulty in such communication made on the express understanding that it commits the government to nothing".
To crown it all Campbell-Bannerman, the Prime Minister, went to Paris in April 1907 and told Clemenceau, his French opposite number, even if England supported France "... the English people would be totally averse to any troops being landed by England on the Continent in any circumstances".
You can't speak plainer than that. The French cannot rely on Britain siding with them and the BEF is not going to France. Period.
The acid test is, of course, what happened in July-August 1914. The clear majority of the cabinet was against joining the war on the side of France if it was attacked by Germany.
On Saturday the 1 August, when it was known Germany had threatened to mobilise if Russia did not stop her mobilisation and there was no sign that Russia would do so and a European war was a near certainty, following a cabinet meeting, Grey told Cambon, the French ambassador, France could not count on Britain's support and the BEF would not be sent to the continent. He said:
"France must take her own decision at this moment without reckoning on an assistance that we were not now in a position to promise."
".... we had come to a decision: that we could not propose to Parliament at this moment to send an expeditionary force to the Continent. Such a step had always been regarded here as very dangerous and doubtful. It was one that we could not propose, and Parliament would not authorize unless our interests and obligations were deeply and desperately involved."
(2) # Grey hid the Military Conversations from his cabinet colleagues and circumvented "democratic cabinet accountability" #
Lord Owen explains the whole cabinet, all 19 members, only became aware of and discussed the Military Conversations in April 1911 prompted by a second Morocco crisis concerning France and Germany.
There was a very heated discussion. He goes on to say ".... the majority of the cabinet ... decided Grey had for nearly for six years compromised [the cabinet's] freedom of decision". This is an unambiguous indictment of Grey, Lord Owen suggests he should have considered resignation, but it is an exaggeration, if not plain wrong.
The book itself explains Grey told Campbell-Bannerman, the prime minister in 1906 shortly after the Conversations started. Campbell-Bannerman sensed the matter would create a row in the cabinet and for political reasons chose to avoid this. Campbell-Bannerman was responsible for not informing the whole cabinet, not Grey.
Asquith became prime minister in early 1908 and Lord Owen says [p91] "Grey's sin of omission was not to tell Asquith when he became Prime Minister in 1908 and to leave doing so until April 1911."
The basis of this view is a letter that Grey wrote to Asquith in 1911 written in a style that suggests he was telling Asquith for the first time. [This letter is quoted and analysed this way in Roy Jenkins' biography of Asquith]
It is hard to believe that Asquith didn't know anything until 1911.
(i) The letter can also be read as a "gentle reminder".
(ii) During the period 1908-1911 Asquith chaired defence planning meetings and at least at one in 1909 reference was made to an Anglo-French plan to assist the French if the necessity arose.
(iii) It is dangerous, in most walks of life, to keep a secret from your boss. You might not tell him every detail but bosses don't like surprises. And, Grey was not the only cabinet minister to know about the Military Conversations. The Leader of the party in the Lords knew, the Secretary of State for War knew, the First Lord of the Admiralty knew. Any one of them at any time could have said something to Asquith.
(iv) Grey himself claimed in his statement to the House of Commons on the 3 August 1914 that he told Asquith in 1906 when Asquith was chancellor.
(v) A research paper "The British Cabinet and the Anglo-French Staff Talks, 1905-1914: Who Knew What and When Did He Know" [Journal of British Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 1985, Authors: John W. Coogan and Peter F. Coogan] says Asquith learnt of the talks in July 1908 when Grey briefed him on the flare-up between Clemenceau and Campbell-Bannerman the previous year.
There is another side to this issue concerning those cabinet members who got so cross with Grey in 1911 when the matter came before the whole cabinet. What were they doing between 1906 and 1911?
The Entente with France was a well know fact. The possibility of a European war was often aired in the press. Didn't any of them think to ask some probing questions? Perhaps there are two sides to cabinet responsibility.
And after 1911 the cabinet which took so much offence at being kept in the dark did not stop the Military Conversations and allowed them to continue the only difference being they were now cabinet approved.
(3) # Lord Owen says of the Cabinet meetings during the closing fateful week of the July Crisis that: "Most around the table knew that it was too late to go back to a policy of neutrality. The die had been largely cast for better or for worse on that issue in November 1911 when this Cabinet did not stop the Military Conversations". #
There were eight cabinet meetings* and not until the sixth did a majority after much soul searching agree conditions that would bring Britain into the war. Even then, the neutralists hoped war might be avoided if Germany went though only a small piece of Belgium and the Belgians didn't resist.
[*A good meeting by meeting account can be found at whostartedwwonedotcom]
Churchill described the cabinet as "... overwhelmingly pacific. At least three-quarters of its members were determined not to be drawn into a European quarrel, unless Great Britain were herself attacked, which was not likely".
There were four reasons why the Liberal cabinet finally opted for war.
(i) Britain had no formal alliance with France but because of the friendly Entente between the two countries in 1912 the French had concentrated their warships in the Mediterranean. Consequently, the French northern and western coasts were open to naval attack by Germany unless protected by the Royal Navy.
(ii) The above, combined with the wholesale German invasion of neutral Belgium which greatly aroused British public opinion against Germany, and influenced Lloyd George, the chancellor and a key man in the cabinet, brought about a majority that was willing to oppose Germany. Four cabinet ministers resigned but two later withdrew their resignations.
(iii) A third reason to intervene in the war received little attention. It was mentioned by Grey in his statement to the House of Commons on the 3 August - the balance of power.
"If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great Power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself .... if that were to happen, and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone's words come true, ... there would be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any Power?"
(iv) The Liberal cabinet also knew that if the cabinet split and the government resigned, it would be replaced by a coalition or a Conservative government both of which would go to war. If there was going to be a war it was better that the progressive Liberal party was running it.
On this basis the Military Conversations and the existence of a plan to send the BEF to France played little part in the cabinet's decision for war. If they had a role it was as a precursor of the 1912 British and French Fleet deployments. The Royal Navy had also redeployed withdrawing old battleships from Mediterranean and concentrating in the North Sea.
How far the Fleet deployments were the result an agreed formal arrangement between France and Britain can be debated. Some of the neutralist in the cabinet supported the proposal to keep the German Navy out of the Channel because they were disturbed by the possibility of fighting on Britain's "doorstep" if Germany attacked the northern French Coast.
and English military departments during which England committed itself, in case
war was imminent, to supporting the French with a British Expeditionary Force on
the continent. These talks and commitments were kept secret from all but a few
ministers and, most irregularly, even from one Prime Minister. They also
precluded England from more balanced policies that might have avoided the
tragedy of WWI.
During the second Morocco crisis, the talks went further to consider the
dismemberment of the African Empire of England's oldest and most loyal ally,
Portugal, to placate Germany, again without disclosure to the Cabinet.
The occasionally exhaustive details are enlivened by Lord Owen's comments on how
similar mistakes have been made and opportunities missed in Britain's other
wars, from WWII to Iraq, as well as pertinent observations on democratic
governance. One wishes he could expand these nuggets of wisdom in a separate
chapter or, fingers-crossed, a separate book.
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