On 31 July 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, considered British neutrality in the face of a European war between the Great Powers.
British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey to British Ambassador to France Sir Francis Bertie. London, 31 July 1914.
Sir, M. Cambon [the French Ambassador to Berlin] referred today to a telegram that had been shown to Sir Arthur Nicolson this morning from the French Ambassador in Berlin saying that it was the uncertainty with regard to whether we would intervene which was the encouraging element in Berlin, and that, if we would only declare definitely on the side of Russia and France, it would decide the German attitude in favour of peace.
I said that it was quite wrong to suppose that we had left Germany under the impression that we would not intervene. I had refused overtures to promise that we should remain neutral. I had not only definitely declined to say that we would remain neutral; I had even gone so far this morning as to say to the German Ambassador that, if France and Germany became involved in war, we should be drawn into it. That, of course, was not the same thing as taking an engagement to France, and I told M. Cambon of it only to show that we had not left Germany under the impression that we would stand aside.
M. Cambon then asked for my reply to what he had said yesterday.
I said that we had come to the conclusion, in the Cabinet today, that we could not give any pledge at the present time. The commercial and financial situation was exceedingly serious; there was danger of a complete collapse that would involve us and everyone else in ruin; and it was possible that our standing aside might be the only means of preventing a complete collapse of European credit, in which we should be involved. This might be a paramount consideration in deciding our attitude.
I went on to say to M. Cambon that though we should have to put our policy before Parliament, we could not pledge Parliament in advance. Up to the present moment, we did not feel, and public opinion did not feel, that any treaties or obligations of this country were involved. Further developments might alter this situation and cause the Government and Parliament to take the view that intervention was justified.
The preservation of the neutrality of Belgium might be, I would not say a decisive, but an important factor, in determining our attitude.
Whether we proposed to Parliament to intervene or not to intervene in a war, Parliament would wish to know how we stood with regard to the neutrality of Belgium, and it might be that I should ask both France and Germany whether each was prepared to undertake an engagement that she would not be the first to violate the neutrality of Belgium. M. Cambon expressed great disappointment at my reply. He repeated his question of whether we would help France if Germany made an attack on her.
I said that I could only adhere to the answer that, so far as things had gone at present, we could not take any engagement. The latest news was that Russia had ordered a complete mobilisation of her fleet and army. This, it seemed to me, would precipitate a crisis, and would make it appear that German mobilisation was being forced by Russia.
M. Cambon urged that Germany had from the beginning rejected proposals that might have made for peace. It could not be to England’s interest that France should be crushed by Germany. We should then be in a very diminished position with regard to Germany. In 1870, we had made a great mistake in allowing an enormous increase in German strength; and we should now be repeating the mistake. He asked me whether I could not submit his question to the Cabinet again.
I said that the Cabinet would certainly be summoned as soon as there was some new development, but at the present moment the only answer I could give was that we could not undertake any definite engagement.
I am, etc.
Source: British Documents on the Origins of War