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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.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Over the next few months we will experience something really quite extraordinary. This is because we can now start to premise select sentences about the First World War with ’100 years today…’ On the 28th June we commemorated the centenary anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and on the 28th of the following month we were able to do the same for the outbreak of the conflict itself. And there will be many more of these poignant reminders. On August 4th we remember probably one of the most pivotal moments in UK history: the British declaration of war. There are many ways you can commemorate this event in Oxford but one such illuminating choice is to watch ‘A Night at the Cinema in 1914’: a special compilation of archival footage from the British Film Institute (BFI) which seeks to recreate a typical night out in 1914. This excellent film is coming to the Phoenix Picture House in Oxford on the night of the 4th August and will showcase a memorable miscellany of comedies, dramas, travelogues and newsreels including:

  • a comic short about a face-pulling competition
  • a sensational episode of The Perils of Pauline
  • scenes of Allied troops celebrating Christmas at the Front and…
  • an early sighting of one of cinema’s greatest icons.

Take yourself back to a hundred years ago and see where the world of film all began. See the trailer here and keep an eye on the Phoenix Picture House website for the latest information.


From the British Film Institute National Archive

First World War Display at the Oxford Central Public Library

As we reflect upon the 98th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, there could be no better time to explore the wealth of literature (both fiction and non-fiction) centred on the Great War of 1914-1918. If you would like to extend your knowledge on the conflict and/or explore a new and interesting perspective then take some time to visit the Oxford Central Public Library as it is currently running a display of its First World War books, DVDs and music CDs (level 1). There is also a range of excellent reference works available for study in the Reference Library (level 2). All the items on display are available for loan during opening hours and if you would like to find out more about the library, please see the Oxfordshire Libraries Website for further information:


Solider reading in the trenches © National Library of Scotland

lib Ox

New WW1 themed display at the Oxford Central Library

First World War Roadshow

A First World War Roadshow event will be held at Banbury Museum on Saturday November 3rd 2012.  Members of the public are invited to bring their documents, artefacts and stories from the First World War to be added to the Europeana 1914-1918 online archive.

Picture of two women holding letters

Visitors at Roadshow in Dublin ready to share their story.

Project staff from the University of Oxford and Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum will be on hand to digitise and talk about the objects and add these and the stories to the website. Subject experts and representatives from historical associations and societies will be present to help people learn more about their objects and family history.

The stories and digital versions of the objects will be available for people across the world to enjoy via the Europeana 1914-1918 website, while the items themselves remain with their owners.

When: Saturday 3rd November 2012. 10-4.30
Where: Banbury Museum, Spiceball Park Road, Banbury OX16 2PQ

Europeana 1914-1918: collecting memories

The First World War stretched across countries and over continents. It involved not only those at the front but also people at home and elsewhere. Only a fraction of the stories, objects and memories that remain after the war are widely available or even known. There are stories that have never been told beyond the family, and objects that are kept in people’s homes: letters, photos, diaries, souvenirs, and other items that tell a story about the war and those who were affected. The Europeana 1914-1918 project is now working to collect these unknown memories and objects and make them available online for the world to see and share.

About the Europeana 1914-1918 project

The Europeana 1914-1918 project invites anyone who has a Europeana 1914-1918 logostory or object relating to the time of the First World War to share it. At the Europeana 1914-1918 website (, people can record their stories and upload digital versions of any objects they hold.  A series of Roadshow events are held across Europe to assist people with the digitisation and sharing of their stories.

Europeana 1914-1918 is based on an initiative at the University of Oxford where people across Britain were asked to share their family letters, photographs and keepsakes from the war. The success of the idea – which became the Great War Archive – encouraged Europeana, Europe’s digital archive, library and museum, to bring other national or local institutions across Europe into an alliance with Oxford University.

Available for everyone to explore

The Europeana 1914-1918 online collection is constantly growing. Every item in the collection originates from, or relates to, someone’s experience of the First World War, either abroad or at home. The material can be explored at

Educators Workshop: World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings

Do you teach the First World War in any discipline at at Further or Higher education level? On Thursday 6th September we will be running a workshop to introduce a new digital project with resources for teaching: World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings. 

World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings brings together a range of innovative digital resources intended to reappraise the War in its historical, cultural, social and geographical contexts. The resources include digitised primary sources, e-books, images, interactive maps and simulations, and are organised into cross-disciplinary themes such as medicine, politics, and the topography of the War. At the heart of the site is a showcase of new academic perspectives on the War by leading scholars, presented in blog format so that readers can contribute comments of their own.

A distinctive feature of the resources and commentaries is that they have been licensed as open educational resources, so that they can be used, with or without adaptation, for teaching and learning in both formal and informal contexts.

The website has been developed by the team at the University of Oxford responsible for the acclaimed First World War Poetry Digital Archive and Great War Archive ( and funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) World War One Commemoration Programmes (

The workshop will explore the usefulness and relevance of the thematic collections for teaching and studying topics related to World War I . It will begin with an introduction to the thematic collections and academic commentaries. You will then investigate the collections yourself, select resources that might enhance your students’ learning and plan how you might use them. Members of the project team will be on hand to help out, and there will be ample opportunity for feedback and discussion.

Your contribution will help us not only to assess the value of the collections in encouraging students to consider different ways of approaching the War, but also to extend our understanding of how academic staff engage with open educational resources.

The workshop will take place at the University of Oxford IT Services, from 10.00am to 4pm on the 6th September 2012. Coffee and lunch will be provided, and reasonable travel expenses will be reimbursed for participants from outside Oxford. Places are limited. Please contact if you are interested in attending.

‘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