Lord who of where? I hear you mutter! I refer, of course, to Sir Edward Grey, a man who served as Foreign Secretary for eleven years during what could be described as one of the most dangerous periods of British history. In so far as I have any political heroes, he is one of them.
In considering the particular enigma I refer to in my title it is important to remember that Grey, born in 1862, was a Wykehamist. For the benefit of my foreign readers that means he was schooled at Winchester College. Founded in 1382 it is the oldest public (that means 'private', of course!) school in the land and it has a reputation for rigorous intellectualism combined with religiosity. Not that Grey lived up to it, at least the intellectualism, because he was, by all accounts, a poor scholar. In fact, so poor were his exam results that strings had to be pulled to get him a place at Balliol College, Oxford, where his idleness resulted in a barely scraped Third! Naturally, being apparently lazy and thick but a toff, the only place for him to work was in government! He won a parliamentary seat at the age of 23 on behalf of the old - not to be confused with the current shysters - Liberal party.
Grey married quite young and after his 'honeymoon' his equally young wife made it quite clear that she did not enjoy the physical side of marriage and there-after they lived as 'brother and sister'. In direct contradiction of today's 'lifestyle advice', they lived very happily together not least because both of them found society life tedious and much preferred to escape at every opportunity either to the banks of the River Hitchen where they rented a cottage, or, back to their home county of Northumberland. Country life and living meant everything to both of them.
Even before the 19th century passed into the 20th, Grey learned from his experience as a junior minister that Germany was going to be trouble! Thus, when he was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1905 he was well prepared for what would be an 11-year (to the day) tenure dominated by trying to work with, around or mostly against, a German leadership which, in my opinion, was suffering with a group psychosis. It did not require great genius on the part of Grey to realise that war with Germany was probable rather than just possible but even so, false optimism or just plain, old-fashioned wishful thinking might have fooled other men into relaxing their guard. That did not happen with Grey who, whilst trying to placate Germany as and when it was possible without too much cost, pursued a straightforward policy based on the likelihood of war. So far, so good and, one might say, so 'Wykehamist'!
But there was one aspect of Grey's policy which then, and when it was discovered, and now, raises questions of his probity. Grey knew that given German militarism and its obvious aims then France would be the prime target. Thus, he bent all his efforts into aligning Britain with France - as far as he was able. In pursuing this policy he helped to facilitate secret staff talks between the British and French army commands. Over time, these talks became extremely detailed making provisional arrangements as to the size and deployment of the British force, where they would land, how they would be transported, where they would be deployed and so on. And all of this was done in secret. Not just kept secret from the country but even from his own Cabinet!
As you would expect, Margaret MacMillan in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, puts it much better than I could:
It is the military conversations that have remained the most controversial over the years. Did Grey, that upright Wykehamist, deliberately deceive the Cabinet and the British people by keeping the talks and the arrangements that were being made secret? More importantly, did the conversations commit Britain to come to France's support in the event of a German attack on France? Grey himself repeatedly answered No to both questions before and after 1914 but the reality is less clear cut. When the conversations started in 1906, Grey informed the Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman, but did not tell the full Cabinet, perhaps because he feared opposition from the radical wing of the Liberal Party. The Cabinet was not officially informed of the conversations until 1911, during another crisis over Morocco. [My emphasis.] The House of Commons and the public did not learn about them until Britain was about to go to war in 1914. Accordingto Lloyd George, most of the Cabinet were shocked: 'Hostility barely represents the strength of the sentiment which the revelation aroused: it was more akin to consternation.' Grey reassured his colleagues by saying that Great Britain was still quite free to do what it pleased. Again this is debatable.
And indeed it has been debated ever since! Given the general political atmosphere at the time with the strenghtening of the Entente Cordiale, the French can be forgiven for assuming that Britain would instantly come to their aid in the event of a German attack, but Grey made clear on numerous occasions that no matter how detailed the staff talks were he could promise nothing without the consent of the British Parliament. The fact that he ducked out of actually telling Parliament until the last moment must have been noted by the shrewder French politicians and military. The French Minister of War said of the British army in 1912 that, "The machine is ready to go: will it be unleashed? Complete uncertainty." And after the war, Joffre said, "Personally, I was convinced they would come, but in the end there was no formal commitment on their part. There were only studies on embarking and debarking and on the positions that would be reserved for their troops."
So, to quote a phrase, when it comes to producing "duplicitous bastards" this country can stand proud! The irony, of course, is that the biggest 'DB' of the lot was that upright, uptight, Old Wykehamist, Lord Grey of Fallodon. My hero!
ADDITIONAL: I couldn't resist this famous photo of him in old age with a friendly robin perched on his hat: