By Max E. Hertwig
Churchill’s faith in personal diplomacy—in solving intractable problems by meetings at the highest level—was famously expressed during his World War II meetings with Stalin and Roosevelt. It surfaced again in 1953-55, when he strove unsuccessfully to promote “a meeting at the summit” with Eisenhower and Stalin’s successors. Far less widely known, however, is Churchill’s proposal for a “conference of sovereigns” or heads of state (including, it seems, the French president) in the last days of peace before the world was convulsed by war in 1914. Like his “Naval Holiday,” the scheme failed, but certainly not for Churchill’s lack of trying.
At this stage in his career, even Churchill did not have the temerity to suggest himself as Britain’s –plenipotentiary, although as Professor Maurer has shown, he was quite ready to meet personally with his counterpart von Tirpitz, head of the German Navy. That having failed, Churchill tried in the final days to promote an even higher-level meeting, between the kings and emperors themselves. This was not unprecedented; some sources state that Kaiser Wilhelm proposed a peace conference after the Sarajevo assassinations, and private messages were being exchanged between the Kaiser and Czar Nicholas in the days before war was declared.
There is little on this episode in the literature. There is no reference to it in Churchill’s The World Crisis, Asquith’s Memoirs, Randolph Churchill’s and Martin Gilbert’s official biography, Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life or In Search of Churchill, or the biographies by Manchester, Jenkins, Rose, Charmley and Birkenhead, though Ted Morgan provides a brief reference:
War plans were under way, but Churchill still believed in an orderly Europe under the leadership of kings who would not permit a conflict to break out. At the Wednesday [29 July] Cabinet meeting, he urged Asquith to call for a conference of kings to avoid the appalling calamity that civilized nations were being forced to contemplate, but the idea came to nothing.1
The “kingly conference” was actually proposed two days earlier, in the cabinet of Monday the 27th. There is no evidence that Asquith mentioned it in his report to the King (the only written record of cabinets in those days). But Professor David Dilks suggests that he might well have written of it to his lady friend, Venetia Stanley, in whom the Prime Minister confided a great deal.
If he did, it is not in Asquith’s published letters. On the morning of July 28th, he wrote Venetia: “Winston on the other hand is all for this way of escape from Irish troubles, and when things looked rather better last night, he exclaimed moodily that it looked after all as if we were in for a ‘bloody peace.’”2 Asquith tended often to put the least charitable spin on Churchill’s machinations—but why had things looked “rather better” on the 27th?
The reason may have been the “kingly conference”: the editors of the Asquith-Stanley letters write: “Lichnowsky [the German ambassador] told Grey on the afternoon of 27 July that the ‘German government accept in principle mediation between Austria and Russia by the four powers, reserving, of course, their right as an ally to help Austria if attacked. France and Italy also accepted the conference proposal.’”3
Alas, this hope was quickly dashed. On the evening of 27 July the British ambassador in Berlin telegraphed:
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs says that conference you suggest would practically amount to a court of arbitration and could not, in his opinion, be called together except at the request of Austria and Russia. This reversal seems to have resulted from [German Chancellor] Bethmann-Hollweg’s belief, which the Kaiser did not share, that Russia would not intervene to save Serbia if this were known to risk war with Germany.4
That was the end of the “kingly” initiative, although Churchill, who had “all his war paint on,” according to Asquith, still wanted it to go forward. On July 28th Churchill wrote his wife from the Admiralty, showing his continued wish for peace while gearing up for war:
Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity. Yet I would do my best for peace, and nothing would induce me wrongfully to strike the blow. I cannot feel that we in this island are in any serious degree responsible for the wave of madness which has swept the mind of Christendom. No one can measure the consequences. I wondered whether those stupid Kings and Emperors could not assemble together and revivify kingship by saving the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance. As if it was somebody else’s operation!
The two black swans on St James’s Park lake have a darling cygnet—grey, fluffy, precious and unique. I watched them this evening for some time as a relief from all the plans and schemes. We are putting the whole Navy into fighting trim (bar the reserve). And all seems quite sound and thorough. The sailors are thrilled and confident. Every supply is up to the prescribed standard. Everything is ready as it has never been before. And we are awake to the tips of our fingers. But war is the Unknown and the Unexpected!
God guard us and our long accumulated inheritance. You know how willingly and proudly I would risk—or give—if need be—my period of existence to keep this country great and famous and prosperous and free. But the problems are very difficult. One has to try to measure the indefinite and weigh the imponderable.
I feel sure however that if war comes we shall give them a good drubbing….5
1. Ted Morgan, Churchill: The Rise to Failure 1874-1915 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 422.
2. Michael and Eleanor Brock, eds., H.H. Asquith Letters to Venetia Stanley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 129.
3. Asquith Letters, 130, n.2.
4. Asquith Letters, 130, n.3.
5. WSC to his wife (CSC Papers), Tuesday, 28 July 1914, in Randolph S. Churchill, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 3 1911-1914 (London: Heinemann, 1969), 1989-90.
Thanks to David Dilks and John Maurer for kind assistance in research.
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