All posts by Matthew

While They’re Away: The Story of a City at War

The Museum of Oxford is hosting a compelling new play drawn from authentic accounts of life at the home front in First World War Oxford. This original production brings to light the city’s role in the ‘War to end all wars’ and the parallel stories of the local people whose lives it changed forever. Playwright, Jeremy Allen has worked with members of the local community and delved into local archives to uncover the WW1 experiences of a varied cast of characters from Oxford’s past: including Siegfried Sassoon and Lady Ottoline Morrell, as well as many whose stories have yet to be told. City landmarks and buildings take on new meaning as their war-time role is revealed. The drama is performed in the Old Museum at Oxford Town Hall, the site of one of Oxford’s WW1 military hospitals.

An UnderConstruction Theatre production in partnership with the Museum of Oxford. Created as part of the Lost Voices of Oxford’s Great War, a community project to uncover the city’s untold First World War stories. Generously funded by the Heritage Lottery.

7.30pm on 12th and 13th March 2015

2.30pm matinee and 7.30pm on 14th March, £5/£4 concessions, The Old Museum

Ticket office: 01865 305305

Or buy online at

www.oxfordplayhouse.com/ticketsoxford

Or in person at the Oxford Playhouse Box Office

While They're Away Play Flyer

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 4 August (part 2)

Harcourt arrived at 10 Downing Street at 11:15 pm. Already there were the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey; the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith; the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George; and the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna.

The German answer to the British ultimatum is ‘unsatisfactory.’ The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, has ‘asked for his passports.’ The United Kingdom declares war on Germany.

There is a long discussion as to war tactics. Winston Churchill ‘wants to block Amsterdam & mouth of Rhine, Asquith & Grey insisted that we w[oul]d not violate neutrality of Holland.’

Harcourt told his Cabinet colleagues that he ‘c[oul]d tomorrow destroy or seize g[rea]t wireless German station in Togoland.’

There is discussion about the British Expeditionary Force. Harcourt ‘pointed out dangers of doing this to India & Crown Colonies and home (possible revolution in north). I told Asq[uith] & Grey that this was vital to me. No decision today.’

Harcourt thinks that David Lloyd George is ‘weakening in his peace “convictions” under the impression of mad popular enthusiasm in streets for war.’

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for evening of 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 4 August (part 1)

Writing from notes made on Foreign Office telegrams, Harcourt reports that John Simon and Lord Beauchamp remain in the Cabinet ‘pro tem.’

Britain will fire upon the German dreadnought The Goeben ‘in the Mediterranean if it tries to stop French transports: we are to stop her getting out to prey on our commerce in the Atlantic.’ The Cabinet decided that The Goeben ‘will be warned that if she shoots at French transports we shall sink her.’

The Cabinet is ‘sending an ultimatum to Germany & to have the answer by midnight.’ Harcourt writes that ‘Germany has informed Belgium that her territory will be violated by force of arms.’

The Cabinet discussed the seizure of German colonies. Harcourt advised the Cabinet that it was better to wait and that he was ‘holding back Dominion Exped[itionary] forces for the present & they approved.’

Germany has declared war on France. Harcourt insisted to the Cabinet, with the agreemtent of the Prime Minister, ‘that orders sh[oul]d be sent to our Mediterranean Fleet not to fire on Goeben till we have become at war with Germany. Winston [Churchill] was compelled to send these orders & at once.’

Harcourt writes that ‘there are many German spies here now & have been for a long time: we have full evidence against them & shall seize them at once.’

The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, read out to the Cabinet the ultimatum being sent to Germany: ‘we must have an assurance from Germany – similar to that from France last week – as to the neutrality of Belgium.’ Harcourt reports that Germany is ‘said to have sent an ulitmatum to Sweden & may do so to Norway.’

Foreign Secretary Grey informed the Cabinet of his desire to ‘offer Holland & Norway (as well as Belgium) a guarantee of future integrity if they will remain neutral now.’

The Cabinet received news of a telegram received by the French embassy reporting that German forces are said to ‘have penetrated to Verviers between Liege and German frontier.’

After the meeting of the Cabinet, Harcourt attended a meeting of ‘commerical men’ with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George.

We shall be publishing the second part of Harcourt’s entry for 4 August 1914 to commemorate the centenary of the British declaration of war at 23:00 GMT.

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 4 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 1 August

Writing up his journal from notes made in Cabinet on the reverse of Foreign Office telegrams, Harcourt reports that ‘Germany is short of 30-40% of wheat supply.’ He writes that the Lord Chancellor, Viscount Haldane, spoke at length regarding the crisis in Europe. Haldane argued that the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, should be informed that the observance of Belgian neutrality was a ‘deciding factor’ for Britain and that British neutrality should be promised ‘if France not invaded.’ Harcourt adds that the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, has still not provided any committment to the French ambassador Paul Cambon.

Harcourt describes the attitude of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, as ‘very violent’ and that Churchill is pushing ‘to mobilise the whole navy.’ The Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, responded by saying that there would be ‘no proclamation before Monday.’ Harcourt notes that Foreign Secretary Grey supported Churchill’s stance.

The Cabinet decided that a dreadnought battleship being built in Britain for Turkey should not be allowed to leave. The Cabinet also discussed a message from the German Emperor, Belgian telegrams, Italian neutrality and the suspension of the Bank Act. Harcourt writes that Churchill made a long speech on tactics to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, replied.

At 2:00 pm a meeting of the Cabinet Commitee was held in the Board Room at the Treasury. The Governor of the Bank of England, along with his Deputy and others, were informed that the Cabinet had decided to bring forward a Moratorium Bill on Monday to suspend all standing orders. The bankers requested to be allowed to deposit £15 million of gold and £30 million of securities in the Bank of England and to receive £45 million of notes in exchange.  Harcourt writes that the committee agreed but notes that ‘the B[an]k of England were very obstinate.’

The Admiralty has requested the authority to begin the ‘examination of all ships in defended ports.’ The Prime Minister has approved this and Harcourt, as Colonial Secretary, has telegraphed the orders to the British dominions and colonies. The state providing insurance for shipping in respect of  war risks is now being considered.

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 1 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 1 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 1 August 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 1 August 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 1 August 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 1 August 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 31 July

The London Stock Exchange has been closed until further notice. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, informed the Cabinet of his meeting the previous day with the French ambassador, Paul Cambon. Grey told Cambon that he was unable to answer about British support for France without consulting the Cabinet. Harcourt writes that Grey ‘proposed to tell him this afternoon that present Eng[lish] opinion w[oul]d not support our participation. If Belgium violated, might change public opin[ion] but in any case we could never promise assistance without assent of the H[ouse] of Commons.’ Grey is to meet Cambon again later in the afternoon and assured the Cabinet that he would ‘make no promise as to our action in hypothetical circ[umstance]s.’

Harcourt reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, has been gauging business opinion on the developing European crisis. The Bank of England and the City are said to be ‘aghast’ at the possibility of Britain being dragged into a conflict. One businessman predicted to Lloyd George that if Britain entered a European war there would be ‘wholesale unemployment, population starving’ and ‘England will be in revolution in a week.’ Harcourt notes that Lloyd George was ‘very eloquent ag[ain]st our participation & impressed Cabinet.’ However, Harcourt continues to believe that because Lloyd George ‘depends on public opin[ion] he may wobble over again in 2 days.’

Harcourt is now confident that ‘this Cabinet will never join this war’ although he notes that ‘several colleagues are uneasy on the subject of our treaty obligations to Belgium.’ His confidence is reinforced with news received in the morning that Austria and Russia have ‘begun talking again.’ Grey is proposing to meet the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, and ‘to suggest that Berlin should get Vienna to make some reasonable offer to St Petersburg and then if Russia proved unreasonable it might give us ground to wash our hands of Russia or to secure Russian acceptance of offer.’

Harcourt reports that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was ‘very angry’ that the Cabinet rejected his wish to instigate a plan devised by the Committee of Imperial Defence for national war shipping risk insurance. Churchill’s hiring of the Cunard ship Acquitania and commandeering of South Wales coal yesterday have both been cancelled.

The meeting of the Cabinet concluded at 1:00 p.m. following further discussion of the situation in Ireland. The Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, told all ministers that they must not go far from London.

In the afternoon, Harcourt reports that the European crisis is ‘suddenly much worse.’ Russia has fully mobilised both its army and navy. Germany has declared itself to be ‘in a state of war’ and that ‘either she or France may strike tonight.’

The Bank rate has been put up to 8% and there has been a ‘considerable run on Banks for gold from depositors.’ The Prime Minister had an audience with the King between 3:15 and 4:00pm in the afternoon and then met with the Governor of the Bank of England.

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 6).

Entry for 31 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 6).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 30 July

Harcourt writes that news reached him in the morning that a search of ships had been made at Gibraltar the previous night. This was contrary to orders sent by the Admiralty. Harcourt responded by sending telegrams to all British dominions and colonies to prevent such searches. He fears that searches of German vessels may provoke an ‘incident.’

He continues to be alarmed by the attitude of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Harcourt has learnt that Churchill has hired the Acquitania from the Cunard shipping company and speculates whether Churchill intends to use the ship for the transport of troops to Belgium or as a guard ship in Mersey. Harcourt also reports that Churchill has ‘commandeered all coal in South Wales’ and is said to have spent over £1,000,000 on ‘Precautionary stage expenses.’ Harcourt thinks Churchill ‘has gone mad’ and fears that ‘he is carrying his preparations too far & getting prematurely in the war stage.’

During Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, informed Harcourt of a ‘shameful proposal’ received from Bethmann Hollweg ‘that we should declare our neutrality on promise from Germ[an] Govt. that they w[oul]d respect neutrality of Holland: ditto of Belgium after they had violated it to attack France: w[oul]d not, after crushing France, annex European territories (tho’ take her Colonies): subsequently offer us European neutrality & friendship in general affairs.’ The proposal was rejected.

The French ambassador, Paul Cambon, is to see Grey today to ‘put the question are we going to help France if war breaks out’. Grey is to respond that he cannot answer without a Cabinet, which is to be held tomorrow, but will ‘tell him that in pres[ent] circ[umstance]s public opinion here not support or enable H.M.G. to give an affirmative answer.’ Harcourt reasons that if Cambon is ‘wise’ he ‘will accept non-committal answer sooner than negative’

Harcourt has declined to send a telegram asking Australia to place her fleet under the command of the British Admiralty on the grounds that it was ‘premature, unnecessary & that I wanted initiative to be taken by Australia.’ He received an ‘unofficial’ offer to do so from Australia at 5 p.m. With regret, he telegraphed the Admiralty’s request for the Australian fleet to go to ‘War stations.’

He has been informed by Emmott and Vernon, of the Colonial Office, that the French delegates to the New Hebrides Commission ‘must return to France on Sat[urday] (convinced that war will be declared by Monday).’

John Morley has informed Harcourt that he will resign from the Cabinet upon his signal.

Harcourt ends his entry for the day in pessimistic mood: ‘War situation I fear much worse tonight. Pray God I can still smash our Cabinet before they can commit the crime.’

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 30 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 29 July

Ireland again tops the Cabinet agenda. Harcourt reports that the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, arrived at Cabinet half an hour late following talks with the German ambassador. He describes the situation in Europe as ‘very bad’ with the Austrians refusing to continue negotiations in St Petersburg. News reached the Cabinet during its meeting that Russia has mobilised troops in ‘certain towns on her Southern frontier.’

The Cabinet discussed Britain’s liabilities for the guarantee of Belgian neutrality under the terms of the European treaty of 1839. Harcourt outlines the difficulty of the British position: ‘Russia says we can prevent Europ[ean] war by saying we shall support France – Germany says we can prevent it by saying we shall not do so.’ Harcourt writes that Foreign Secretary Grey ‘is afraid that at any moment France may ask us if we mean to stand by her.’ No Cabinet decision was made on this matter today.

Harcourt remains committed to leaving the goverment if there is a decision for war. He claims to be certain that ‘I can take at least 9 colleagues out with me on resigination.’ He also notices a change in the attitudes of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill who are ‘less bellicose today.’ He suspects that their opinions fluctuate with popular opinion and that soon they will be ‘wobbling back to war.’

Churchill has moved his ships in the North Sea to ‘war stations.’ Grey is proposing to meet the French and German ambassadors in the afternoon and will inform the German ambassador that he ‘may not assume that we [Britain] shall not join France.’ The French ambassador is to be told ‘you must not assume that we shall join you.’ Harcourt believes this to be a ‘sound, strong & honest diplomatic position.’

After Cabinet, Harcourt went to the Colonial Office to send ‘Precautionary telegrams’ to the British colonies and dominions.

At the close of the day, Harcourt notes ‘European situation getting worse tonight.’

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 6).

Entry for 29 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 6).

War or Peace? 10 Days in the Summer of 1914 – 27 July

Harcourt records a meeting of Asquith’s Cabinet held at the House of Commons at 5:30pm. The Cabinet first discussed the situation in Ireland before turning its attention to the ‘Austro-Servian crisis.’ Harcourt describes an ‘inconceivable’ German proposal put to Winston Churchill by the German businessman Albert Ballin seeking British neutrality in any prospective German action against France.

Harcourt remains firmly committed to British abstention from any war on a ‘Servian issue’ and is working to form a peace party ‘which if necessary shall break up the Cabinet.’ He contrasts the attitude of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who is working hard for peace, with the ‘belligerent’ David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

He has heard reports that the first shots were fired by Serbia on Austria earlier that afternoon.

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 27 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 27 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 27 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 27 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

War or Peace? 10 Days in the Summer of 1914 – 26 July

Having missed the previous day’s cabinet, Lewis Harcourt, Colonial Secretary, motored over from Nuneham Courtenay to the nearby home of his friend the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith. The chief topic of their private meeting was the break down of the Buckingham Palace conference called to discuss the Irish Home Rule crisis, the most pressing concern facing the government in the Summer of 1914.

Their discussions briefly turned to the ‘probable Austro-Servian war’. Harcourt was adamant that ‘under no circ[umstance]s’ would he be a party to British participation in a European war. Harcourt’s biggest concern was the attitude of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, whom he believed capable of precipitating naval action without reference to his Cabinet colleagues. Asquith ‘pooh poohed’ Harcourt’s concerns.

Harcourt’s political journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: From Downing Street to the Trenches.

Entry for 26 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 26 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 1).

Entry for 26 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 26 July 1914 from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914

In July 1914 there was no certainty that Britain would become entangled in the ‘Austro-Servian War’ which emerged from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June. The Liberal government in London was deeply divided over Britain’s possible role in a European conflict. A major new source for the deliberations that took place in H.H. Asquith’s Cabinet in the Summer of 1914 is Lewis Harcourt’s political journal. Harcourt, who was Colonial Secretary, sat next to Asquith at the Cabinet table. He maintained a record of proceedings despite being warned more than once by his colleagues not to do so. No official Cabinet diary was kept until David Lloyd George began the practice in December 1916.

Monogram on Lewis Harcourt’s ministerial trunk in which his political journal was housed before it was acquired by the Bodleian Library.

Monogram on Lewis Harcourt’s ministerial trunk in which his political journal was housed before it was acquired by the Bodleian Library.

To mark the centenary of British intervention in the First World War on 4 August 1914, we shall be posting entries from Harcourt’s journal on this blog from 26 July to 4 August. The journal traces the slide into war, and captures the changing opinions of individuals and groupings of ministers both for and against intervention.

Harcourt’s journal features in the Bodleian Libraries exhibition The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches.