Mr Austen Chamberlain on the Origin of the War

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 2, March 1922, No. 3, pp. 256-258, (911 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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(The following statement by the leader of the House of Commons on the Origin of the War was made in the course of the debate on the Anglo-French Pact on February 8, 1922. It was little noticed in the Press at the time, and in view of the definiteness of the statements made as to (i.) the obligations assumed by the Government having tied the hands of the House of Commons, (ii.) the secrecy of those obligations, (iii.) the fact of those secret obligations and not the case of Belgium having been the primary cause of the war, it has seemed worth while to rescue these pages from the oblivion of Hansard. The lively interchange of opinions provoked by the statement affords an interesting glimpse of the present stage of development of professional political opinion on the subject. It will be observed that Sir Donald Maclean still believes that Britain went into the war because of Belgium, and that this view is now officially treated with mild contempt. The important passages in Mr. Chamberlain’s statement have been italicised.)

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: I would beg the Noble Lord to consider what might have been the altered condition of the world to-day if such a pact had existed in 1914. No man can speak dogmatically about the might-have-been but at any rate I think that it is worth the while of the House and the country to consider a little in what position we did find ourselves, and how it might have been altered had there been such a pact enforced then. We found ourselves on a certain Monday listening to a speech by Lord Grey at this box which brought us face to face with war and upon which followed our declaration. That was the first public notification to the country or to anyone by the Government of the day of the position of the British Government and of the obligations which it had assumed. It is true that Lord Grey, speaking at this box, said that it was for the House of Commons to decide whether they would enter into war or not. Was the House of Commons free to decide? Relying upon the arrangements made between the two Governments the French coasts were undefended—I am not speaking of Belgium, but of France. There had been the closest negotiations and arrangements between our two Governments and our two Staffs. There was not a word on paper binding this country, but in honour it was bound as it had never been bound before—I do not say wrongfully; I think rightly.

Mr. O’CONNOR : It should not have been secret.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: I agree; that is my whole point, and I was coming to it. Can we ever be indifferent to the safety of the French frontier or to the fortunes of France. A friendly Power in possession of the Channel ports is a British interest, treaty or no treaty. Conversations or no conversations, it will always be a British interest, as it always has been a British interest which this Parliament and this country would be prepared to defend. The hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. O’Connor) says that if the facts were as I stated them to have been, and as I believe they were, it ought not to have been secret. So I think. Suppose that engagement had been made publicly in the light of day. Suppose it had been laid before this House and approved by this House, might not the events of those August days of 1914 have been different? Is it not, at any rate, clear that our intervention came as a great surprise and a great shock to the German Government, that they were wholly unprepared for it, and that some few among them—I claim Admiral von Tirpitz as an example—saw at once that German ambitions would never be realised in the war in which they had already engaged and from which they could not escape. If we had had that, if our obligations had been known and definite, it is at least possible, and I think probable, that war would have been avoided in 1914.

Sir F. BANBURY: Why did not the Government say so at the time?

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: I was not a member of the Government at the time.

Sir F. BANBURY: But the Prime Minister was.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: I am responsible only for myself.

Mr. THOMAS: The country was asked to support it for an entirely different reason.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: I put on one side the case of Belgium, which is not pertinent to the arguments I am now addressing to the House. It is common ground to us all that we were pledged to fight for Belgium.

Sir D. MACLEAN: We went into the war on account of Belgium.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: We had such a Treaty with Belgium. If it had been France only we could not have stayed out after the conversations which had taken place, and it would not have been in our interests to have stayed out, and we could not have stayed out without loss of security and honour. When there are obligations of that kind it is better for us, and it is in the interests of peace, that they should be public and known, and then it is much less likely that peace will be challenged.