All posts by Mike W

War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 3 August

The Cabinet meets in the morning. Burns and Simon have resigned and Morley is ‘probably going.’

Belgium has received ‘demand from Germany for neutrality & has categorically refused. Germans concentrating at Liege.’ Grey says: “We must support Belgium & France”.

The leaders of the Conservative and Unionist opposition can see the logic of Burns’s position: ‘they agreed with Burns, fleet proclamation is a declaration of war.’

It appears that Germany has ‘offered Belgium neutrality if they allow passage of German troops.’ The German ambassador Lichnowsky has stated that Germany will not attack the French coast with its fleet, but ‘Grey does not think Lichnowsky authorised to say this.’

Asquith says that it is now necessary to mobilize the army, ‘not for Expeditionary force, but for home safety & defence.’.

A committee is appointed to deal with food supplies. The Cabinet debates extending the Bank Holiday for two days, and using postal notes for a few days whilst waiting for £1 & 10/- notes to be issued. There is fear that ‘there may be a run on P.O. Savings Bank £150 mill[ion]s.deposits.’

Asquith is in a sombre mood, and tells the Cabinet that the Cabinet’s authority is ‘ much shattered’ by the resignations, and that he fears Labour and the Irish will oppose him. He feels that he might have resigned, but he cannot see how any government could form with a majority in the House of Commons. He ‘dislikes and abhors a coalition – experiment none w[oul]d. like to see repeated.’ He will not ‘separate from Grey’; he feels that a continuance of the present government ‘remains in best interest of the country’ though it is a ‘most thankless task to me to go on.’

Simon states that ‘“if country at war it was the duty of men like himself and the Peace party to support the Govt.”: he broke down.’

The Cabinet resumes at 6 p.m. The German ultimatum to Belgium has come in: ‘very stiff.’

Churchill says “the Fleet will be absolutely ready by 4 a.m. tomorrow”.

Asquith says that ‘Army mobilisation will be completed by Sunday – we have 3 days more.’

Grey is to telegraph to Germany tomorrow morning to demand an answer over their ultimatum to Belgium.

Colliers in South Wales are said to have gone on strike as they ‘won’t dig coal for War.’

Asquith is hopeful that Simon may not resign after all.

The Cabinet decides that Lord Buxton should take up his post as Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, and sail in spite of the risk of capture.

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


Entry for 3 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

Entry for 3 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 2).

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

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

Entry for 3 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 3 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 4).

Entry for 3 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 3 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).





War or Peace? 10 days in the Summer of 1914 – 2 August

Harcourt continues to be active in the peace party. At midnight Simon and Illingworth visit his London home, 14 Berkeley Square, to ask him to join a delegation to Lloyd George at 11 Downing Street in the morning. At the meeting they agree they ’w[oul]d not go to war for mere violation of Belgian territory’, and that they would try to hold up any decision about British intervention.

Harcourt and Lloyd George go to 10 Downing Street to convey the views of the peace party to the Prime Minister at 11 a.m. Asquith listened, but ‘s[ai]d nothing.’ The Cabinet meets immediately after this, and approves the emergency financial arrangements discussed in earlier meetings, and also the war risk shipping insurance scheme. News arrives that Germany has declared war on Russia, and that German troops have invaded Luxembourg. At this stage it seems that they might be avoiding Belgium.

The German ambassador (Lichnowsky) has seen the Prime Minister, and in tears told Asquith that he believed it would be Germany that ‘is going to be crushed’ and not France. He thinks his government ‘mad.’ The Foreign Secretary Grey had seen Cambon, the French Ambassador, who was also in tears. Grey informs the Cabinet that he has told Cambon that Britain has made no decision about her action if Belgian neutrality should be violated, or the German fleet should come into the Channel. However, he wants to be able to reassure Cambon that if the German fleet attacks the French coast, Britain will intervene with her navy. He wants to be able to make a statement to this effect in Parliament tomorrow. The Cabinet decides that nothing should be said on these matters to Cambon today, though Grey wants to make this promise to France today, and is ‘much stronger than before for joining in war.’

As the Cabinet sits, a letter arrives from Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Opposition, offering support if Britain should go to war, and stating that ‘it w[oul]d be fatal to the honour and security of the U.K. to hesitate.’ Winston Churchill says he will resign if Britain does not go to war on the violation of Belgian territory; John Morley says he will resign if Britain does go to war. John Burns announces his intention to resign over Grey’s plan to use the fleet to defend the French coast. He is asked to hold off until the evening Cabinet meeting.

In the afternoon, the peace party meet for lunch at Lord Beauchamp’s house in Belgrave Square. Many are angry that they are being pushed into decisions too quickly, and Simon thinks they ought to have resigned. Harcourt disagrees as he now believes that ‘a German fleet attack & capture of French territory’ on the Channel coast is ‘a British interest.’ The party agree that a German traverse of Belgian territory was not a cause for war, but that occupation or a threat to Belgian independence was a ‘vital Brit[ish] interest.’

The Cabinet meets again at 6.30 p.m. Grey has told Cambon that no British decisions have been made, and Cambon has accepted this ‘quietly’. Churchill has met the French naval attaché, and has arranged to ‘open “the joint naval signal books”’, a decision that angers Morley who says that this was an ‘attempt to create an alliance for war.’ Grey says he will not inform Germany about the decision to intervene against a German fleet attack on the French coast. Some of the Cabinet feel this is a mistake. It is now clear that the Germans have entered French territory via Luxembourg. Simon asks Churchill ‘if any orders given to attack German fleet if they come out tonight.’ Churchill says ‘definitely “No.”’ Harcourt says ‘it w[oul]d be monstrous to attack them if they were coming out not ag[ain]st us and without having been informed of our decision.’

John Burns says he must resign as nothing has changed.

As Colonial Secretary Harcourt receives a letter at 10 p.m. from the Admiralty suggesting placing a South African garrison and guns in Walfisch Bay in German West Africa. He rushes to McKenna’s house where the Prime Minister is dining to persuade him that this scheme is ‘mad’ and that such a position ‘w[oul]d be eaten up by Germans in an hour.’

Arthur Ponsonby visits Harcourt at 11.30 p.m. to ask how the peace party is getting on. He tells Harcourt that the peace M.P.s are split – ‘many of them think the violation of Luxembourg vital!!! Not one memb[er] of Cab[inet] (not even Grey) attaches any importance to this!!’

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

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

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


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

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


Entry for 2 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).

Entry for 2 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 3).


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

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

Entry for 2 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).

Entry for 2 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 5).


Entry for 2 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 6).

Entry for 2 August from the political journal of Lewis Harcourt (page 6).



From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916


From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916

2:00pm | Monday 24 March 2014 | Bodleian: Convocation House | Tickets £11 | details

Mike Webb will be talking about his book to be published alongside the Bodleian Libraries Exhibition, The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches, 1914-1916

step-into your place-poster


The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches, 1914-1916 [Bodleian Exhibition 2014]

This is an update on earlier posts about the First World War exhibition at the Bodleian Library. The final title has been agreed. It will run from 12 June until 2 November 2014.

JJ Poster 80

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster no. 80, from the John Johnson collection.


Using letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians, all in some way connected with Oxford University, the exhibition will relate contemporary experiences of the Great War. It concentrates on the years 1914 to 1916, from the outbreak of war to the end of the battle of the Somme and the fall of Asquith. One of the themes of the exhibition is the challenge of leadership during wartime, and it will feature a variety of manuscript and print materials revealing different experiences and perspectives.  It includes letters of three Oxford-educated Prime Ministers: H.H. Asquith was brought down by the war, and Harold Macmillan’s experiences in the trenches were the foundation of his political career.  Clement Attlee fought at Gallipoli. Private papers of politicians relate stories from the Cabinet where aims and strategy were debated, detailing arguments and personality clashes not noted in the official record.  Letters of Oxford alumni who served as junior officers in the trenches on the western front and in far flung parts of the empire convey not only their experiences but also their ideas and beliefs about the war.  In Oxford academics engaged in fierce public debate about the war, while in one Essex village, the local rector compiled a diary to record the impact of war on his community, forming a chronicle which he passed on to the Bodleian Library at the end of each year. The rich print resources of the Library, including trench maps, posters, pamphlets and books, many acquired during the war, provide a backdrop to the personal stories.

The exhibition is part of a series of three different but connected exhibitions in three countries looking at ‘War in the Archives’. The Bodleian exhibition is the second of the three, between August 1914 Literatur und Krieg at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach,  which opened last week, and 1914, La Mort des Poètes at the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg, which will open in the Autumn of 2014.  At the core of the partnership is the German expressionist poet Ernst Stadler, born in 1883 in Alsace, then part of Germany, educated at Strasbourg and Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He was killed by a British shell at Zandvoorde in October 1914 in an action noted in the diary of brigadier Ernest Makins now among the Bodleian’s collections. In the Bodleian’s own archive there is an entry in the register for Ernst Stadler of Magdalen College, admitted to the Library to study English literature in November 1906.

Announcing ‘The Great War and Global History’ conference, Oxford 9-10 January 2014

Great War and Global History conference poster

‘The Great War and Global History’ conference
9-10 January 2014
Maison Française, Oxford

A two-day conference hosted by the Oxford Centre for Global History, Changing Character of War programme and Maison Française d’Oxford.  Convenors: Hew Strachan, James Belich, John Darwin



Patrick O’Brien (LSE)
‘Warfare with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and the Consolidation of British Industrial Supremacy’

Georges-Henri Soutou (Paris)
‘They Marched Singing into Bankruptcy: Finance in the First World War’



Dominic Lieven (Cambridge)
‘Imperialism, War and Revolution: a Russian Angle’

Hans van de Ven (Cambridge)
Title TBC



Hervé Drévillon (Paris)
‘Identities and Otherness as Agents of Globalization in Early Modern Wars‘

Tamara Scheer ((Ludwig Boltzmann-Institute for Social Science History, Vienna)
‘Habsburg Empire’s National Identities during World War One’



Jos Gommans (Leiden)
‘Fair Play in Early Modern Warfare’

Douglas Porch (California)
‘From Carnot to Reynaud: The Ascent and Disintegration of the French Nation in Arms, 1793-1940’



Margaret MacMillan (Oxford)
Title TBC

Stig Förster (Bern)
‘The Myth of the Short-War-Illusion in 1914. A Long-Term Perspective’



Tonio Andrade (Atlanta)
‘The Global Military Balance: A Long View, 900-1918’

Naoko Shimazu (Birkbeck)
Title TBC



Martin Ceadel (Oxford)
Title TBC

Karen Hagemann (UNC)
‘Women, War and the Nation: Gendering the History of the Wars Against Napoleon’

To register contact
For further information see:

George Butterworth, Railways, and WW1

George Butterworth’s letters addressed to his father at NER offices must have landed here in his father’s in-tray.

Entrance, NER Head Office, York

Entrance to the former North Eastern Railway head office at York

Recently it was announced that the AHRC would be funding a PhD studentship, Britain’s Railways in the Great War, 1914-1918, to begin in September 2013. The project is to be managed by the Science Museum Group, and will address ‘six core inter-connected themes – political, administrative, economic, technical, cultural and social … to explore the basic questions of how, and how well, the railways coped’ (see the project outline).

Railways are frequently mentioned in the papers I have been researching for material for the Bodleian Library’s 2014 exhibition on the First World War, usually in the context of delays to journeys in England in wartime conditions, or transportation from the French coast to the front. George Butterworth, the composer, and alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford, was a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. His papers include his wartime diary and letters to his father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, who was a general manager of the North Eastern Railway. Sir Alexander’s office was in the grand new NER headquarters at York, later the main offices of the North eastern region of British Railways, and my father’s own place of work from 1968-1983 (see the family railway blog, Memories of a Railwayman).  George Butterworth’s railway connection explains his wry comments about his journey from London to Bodmin, the depot of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Regiment which he joined as a private in August 1914: ‘We decided unanimously that the transport arrangements were not creditable to the Committee of Railway Managers.’ He describes the train as ‘ordinary’ with the ‘space reserved quite insufficient, many having standing room only.’ Nevertheless, the journey was ‘a hilarious one—beer and singing ad lib.’

Once Butterworth had reached France in August 1915 with the Durham Light Infantry things did not improve. His battalion marched in the middle of the night to a railway where the men sat down and waited for a train to take them to the front: ‘the transport arrangements at this point were defective, as we had to wait about two hours by the side of the line, during which time some fifty trains must have passed us, mostly empty and returning to the base.’ Eventually their train turned up, comprising ‘three first class compartments for the officers and cattle trucks for the men, 40 in each.’ Rumours spread that they were heading straight to the front, ‘but after a few hours journey the train pulled up at a small wayside station’ and they were marched ‘five very hot and dusty miles’ to their billets in a village.

On 28 November 1915 Butterworth wrote to his father about his turn in the trenches.  At the end of the letter he mentions the pioneer battalion raised by the North Eastern Railway Company (the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers): ‘I hope the N.E.R. Battalion will have luck—it is rather thankless work out here, and our Pioneer Battalion has certainly had more than its share of artillery and machine gun fire.’


Memorial in York to the 2236 men of the NER who died in the Great War



‘Daring the Huge Dark’: Eight Lives of the Great War

This is a provisonal title for the Bodleian’s centenary exhibition in 2014 which will be centred on the lives of eight (possibly more) Oxford alumni, using their letters and diaries to find new perspectives on the Great War. Edmund Blunden, alumnus of Queen’s College, has inspired the exhibtion title. ‘Daring the huge dark’ is from his poem Flanders Now. I think it conveys something of the foreboding with which individuals, and the nation, entered unfathomed depths, and yet ‘daring’ reminds us of the courage needed by ordinary men and women to endure.

I recently made a brief visit to the Somme, and took this photograph looking over to Thiepval Wood and the Memorial from a point near the village of Mesnil, close to the entrance to ‘Jacob’s Ladder‘. This was a communication trench  that led down to the British line at Hamel in the Ancre valley. Blunden describes it (and this whole section of the front) in Undertones of War, and it is mentioned in his poem, Trench Nomenclature. The tranquillity of the present scene is in marked contrast to the description of the area in his poem Thiepval Wood, which begins with the lines:

The tired air groans as the heavies swing over, the river-hollows boom;
The shell-fountains leap from the swamps, and with wildfire and fume
The shoulder of the chalkdown convulses.
Then the jabbering echoes stampede in the slatting wood

Thiepval Monument from the Mesnil-Hamel road

The image below is a detail from a trench map in the Bodleian Library drawn up just before the Somme offensive began, and shows the proximity of the British (blue) and the German (red) lines around Thiepval. The above photograph was taken from the fork in the road just north east of Mesnil, looking across to Thiepval village, with Thiepval Wood in the middle distance. Thiepval Memorial stands about 200 metres south-east of the chateau marked ‘CH’ on the trench map on the western edge of the village. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ can be seen running between Mesnil and Hamel.

The trenches between Hamel and Thiepval, June 1916

Gilbert Murray and the First World War

Godfrey Elton post card 1915

Postcard to Gilbert Murray from Capt. Godfrey Elton, 4th Hampshire Regt., Baluchistan, July 1915, MS. Gilbert Murray 28, fol. 7

Thanks to Katie Longo for an excellent talk about the Gilbert Murray papers and the Great War on Friday 18 May. It was good to see the room packed with academics, students and library staff. It was particularly pleasing to have Gilbert Murray’s grandson in attendance as he was able to add some fascinating insights.

Towards the Great War Centenary

On Friday 18 May Katie Longo (Balliol College, Oxford) will give a talk, Towards the Great War Centenary: selections for an exhibition (1:00 pm, Seminar Room, Pitt Rivers Museum – see the CSB Calendar). This is also an opportunity to hear about plans for the Bodleian’s 2014 exhibition.

Katie was appointed to this year’s Balliol-Bodley Scholarship, which affords Balliol postgraduates the opportunity to work with Western MSS. in the Bodleian Library in support of cataloguing or curatorial research. With the 2014 exhibition in mind, Katie has been exploring the papers of Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. Murray is a good starting point for asking certain questions about contemporary perceptions of the Great War. He is well known for his association with conscientious objectors and with the foundation of the League of Nations; and yet in 1914 he wrote a pamphlet justifying the British war position. Katie has been surveying the Murray papers, concentrating on the early part of the war, with several questions in mind. What is his general attitude to the war? Does he have a realistic understanding (in terms of the scale, duration, likely losses, strategy etc.)?  What is the source of his information (official sources, friends, newspapers, propaganda, soldiers at the front etc.)? What is his attitude to Germany and the Germans?

Over the course of the next few months I will be surveying some of the major archives of Oxford alumni, politicians, academics, writers, soldiers and others held in the Bodleian and elsewhere in the University, to ask such questions, and to find out what impact the war had on these individuals and their circles. Do their views change as the war develops, especially after the Somme in 1916, Passchendaele in 1917, and the German breakthrough in the Spring of 1918?  How do they react to the armistice in November 1918 – is there a sense of victory, a feeling that the war was worthwhile, or that it was futile? I hope to gain a sense of what the war meant to them as it happened, when none of them had the benefit of hindsight or any foreknowledge of how the post-war world would unfold.