Within weeks of taking office in December 1905, Foreign Minister Edward Grey agreed to enter detailed talks with his French counterparts about sending a British Expeditionary Force to France in the event of a German attack. Neither the Cabinet nor Parliament was told. Indeed, Grey only informed Asquith in 1911, three years after he became Prime Minister, but which time the 'hidden perspective' of the Foreign Office, whose attitude was described by German Ambassador Metternich as 'more French than French', was firmly established, and Britain all but obliged to stand by their side in the event of a war.
Following a Cabinet revolt after the details of the Military Conversations were revealed, Haldane, the Secretary for War, attempted to slow Germany's rapid naval expansion on a mission to Berlin, advocating a land deal in Africa as an incentive. These talks failed, with Britain backing off from the words 'benevolent neutrality'. But another mission to Germany was underway as late as July 1914.
In this scholarly and eloquent work, which builds on extensive primary sources, Lord Owen argues that the outbreak of war in 1914 was far from inevitable, and instead represented eight years of failed diplomacy. Britain was the only country with the political and military strength to force Germany and France to negotiate, and instead was stuck in the mud of the Continent. The need for transparent government is particularly relevant today as Sir John Chilcot prepares to publish his Iraq Inquiry.
David Owen (Lord Owen) served as Foreign Secretary under James Callaghan from 1977 until 1979, and as an EU peace negotiator in former Yugoslavia from 1992-1995. He is now an Independent Social Democrat in the House of Lords. His other publications include In Sickness and In Power - Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 years, The Hubris Syndrome, Balkan Odyssey, and the powerful autobiography, Time to Declare.
'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