British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's Address to Parliament, 6 August 1914

With the utmost reluctance and with infinite regret, His Majesty's Government have been compelled to put this country in a state of war with what for many years and indeed generations past has been a friendly Power.

The Papers which have since been presented to Parliament will, I think, show how strenuous, how unremitting, how persistent, even when the last glimmer of hope seemed to have faded away, were the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary (note: Sir Edward Grey) to secure for Europe an honourable and a lasting peace.

Every one knows in the great crisis which occurred last year in the East of Europe, it was largely, if not mainly, by the acknowledgment of all Europe, due to the steps taken by my right hon. Friend that the area of the conflict was limited, and that so far as the great Powers are concerned, peace was maintained.

If his efforts upon this occasion have, unhappily, been less successful, I am certain that this House and the country - and I will add posterity and history - will accord to him what is, after all, the best tribute that can be paid to any statesman: that, never derogating for an instant or by an inch from the honour and interests of his own country, he has striven, as few men have striven, to maintain and preserve the greatest interest of all countries - universal peace.

The Papers, which are now in the hands of hon. Members, show something more than that.

They show what were the terms which were offered to us in exchange for our neutrality. I trust that not only the Members of this House, but all our fellow-subjects everywhere will read the communications - will read, learn and mark the communications which passed only a week ago to-day between Berlin and London in this matter.

The terms by which it was sought to buy our neutrality are contained in the communication made by the German Chancellor to Sir Edward Goschen on the 29th July. I think I must refer to them for a moment. After alluding to the state of things as between Austria and Russia, Sir Edward Goschen goes on: "He [the German Chancellor] then proceeded to make the following strong bid for British neutrality. He said that it was clear, so far as he was able to judge the main principle which governed British policy, that Great Britain would never stand by and allow France to be crushed in any conflict there might be.

That, however, was not the object at which Germany aimed. Provided that neutrality of Great Britain were certain, every assurance would be given to the British Government that the Imperial Government"

Let the Committee observe these words: "aimed at no territorial acquisition at the expense of France should they prove victorious in any war that might ensue."

Sir Edward Goschen proceeded to put a very pertinent question:- "I questioned His Excellency about the French colonies".

What are the French colonies? They mean every part of the dominions and possessions of France outside the geographical area of Europe - "and he said that he was unable to give a similar undertaking in that respect."

Let me cone to what, in my mind, personally has always been the crucial and almost the governing consideration, namely, the position of the small States: "As regards Holland, however, His Excellency said that so long as Germany's adversaries respected the integrity and neutrality of the Netherlands, Germany was ready to give His Majesty's Government an assurance that she would do likewise."

Then we come to Belgium:- "It depended upon the action of France what operations Germany might he forced to enter upon in Belgium, but, when the war was over, Belgian integrity would be respected if she had not sided against Germany."

Let the Committee observe the distinction between those two cases. In regard to Holland it was not only independence and integrity, but also neutrality; but in regard to Belgium, there was no mention of neutrality at all, nothing but an assurance that after the war came to an end the integrity of Belgium would be respected.

Then His Excellency added: "Ever since he had been Chancellor the object of his policy had been to bring about an understanding with England. He trusted that these assurances" - the assurances I have read out to the House - "might form the basis of that understanding which he so much desired."

What does that amount to? Let me just ask the Committee. I do so, not with the object of inflaming passion, certainly not with the object of exciting feeling against Germany, but I do so to vindicate and make clear the position of the British Government in this matter.

What did that proposal amount to? In the first place, it meant this: That behind the back of France - they were not made a party to these communications - we should have given, if we had assented to that, a free license to Germany to annex, in the event of a successful war, the whole of the extra European dominions and possessions of France.

What did it mean as regards Belgium? When she addressed, as she has addressed in these last few days, her moving appeal to us to fulfil our solemn guarantee of her neutrality, what reply should we have given? What reply should we have given to that Belgian appeal?

We should have been obliged to say that, without her knowledge, we had bartered away to the Power threatening her our obligation to keep our plighted word.

The House has read, and the country has read, of course, in the last few hours, the most pathetic appeal addressed by the King of Belgium, and I do not envy the man who can read that appeal with an unmoved heart. Belgians are fighting and losing their lives. What would have been the position of Great Britain to-day, in the face of that spectacle, if we had assented to this infamous proposal?

Yes, and what are we to get in return for the betrayal of our friends and the dishonour of our obligations? What are we to get in return? A promise - nothing more; a promise as to what Germany would do in certain eventualities; a promise, be it observed - I am sorry to have to say it, but it must be put upon record - given by a Power which was at that very moment announcing its intention to violate its own treaty and inviting us to do the same.

I can only say, if we had dallied or temporized, we, as a Government, should have covered ourselves with dishonour, and we should have betrayed the interests of this country, of which we are trustees.

I am glad, and I think the country will be glad, to turn to the reply which my right hon. Friend made, and of which I will read to the Committee two of the more salient passages. This document, No. 101 of the Papers, puts on record a week ago the attitude of the British Government, and, as I believe, of the British people.

My right hon. Friend says: "His Majesty's Government cannot for a moment entertain the Chancellor's proposal that they should bind themselves to neutrality on such terms. What he asks us in effect is to engage to stand by while French Colonies are taken if France is beaten, so long as Germany does not take French territory as distinct from the Colonies. From the material point of view -"

My right lion. Friend, as he always does, used very temperate language: "- Such a proposal is unacceptable, for France, without further territory in Europe being taken from her, could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy."

That is the material aspect. But he proceeded:- "Altogether, apart from that, it would be a disgrace for us to make this bargain with Germany at the expense of France, a disgrace from which the good name of this country would never recover. The Chancellor also in effect asks us to bargain away whatever obligation or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could not entertain that bargain either."

He then says:- "We must preserve our full freedom to act, as circumstances may seem to us to require."

And he added, I think in sentences which the Committee must appreciate:- "You should... add most earnestly that the one way of maintaining the good relations between England and Germany is that they should continue to work together to preserve the peace of Europe... For that object this Government will work in that way with all sincerity and goodwill.

"If the peace of Europe can be preserved and the present crisis safely passed, my own endeavour will be to promote some arrangement to which Germany could be a party, by which she could be assured that no aggressive or hostile policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia, and ourselves, jointly or separately.

"I have desired this and worked for it" - the statement was never more true - "as far as I could, through the last Balkan crisis, and Germany having a corresponding object, our relations sensibly improved.

"The idea has hitherto been too Utopian to form the subject of definite proposals, but if this present crisis, so much more acute than any that Europe has gone through for generations, be safely passed, I am hopeful that the relief and reaction which will follow may make possible some more definite rapprochement between the Powers than has been possible hitherto."

That document, in my opinion, states clearly, in temperate and convincing language, the attitude of this Government.

Can any one who reads it fail to appreciate the tone of obvious sincerity and earnestness which underlies it; can any one honestly doubt that the Government of this country in spite of great provocation - and I regard the proposals made to us as proposals which we might have thrown aside without consideration and almost without answer can any one doubt that in spite of great provocation the right hon. Gentleman, who had already earned the title and no one ever more deserved it - of "Peace Maker of Europe," persisted to the very last moment of the last hour in that beneficent but unhappily frustrated purpose?

I am entitled to say, and I do so on behalf of this country - I speak not for a party, I speak for the country as a whole - that we made every effort any Government could possibly make for peace.

But this war has been forced upon us. What is it we are fighting for? Every one knows, and no one knows better than the Government, the terrible, incalculable suffering, economic, social, personal and political, which war, and especially a war between the Great Powers of the world, must entail.

There is no man amongst us sitting upon this bench in these trying days - more trying perhaps than any body of statesmen for a hundred years have had to pass through - there is not a man amongst us who has not, during the whole of that time, had clearly before his vision the almost unequalled suffering which war, even in a just cause, must bring about, not only to the people who are for the moment living in this country and in the other countries of the world, but to posterity and to the whole prospects of European civilization.

Every step we took we took with that vision before our eyes, and with a sense of responsibility which it is impossible to describe.

Unhappily, if in spite of all our efforts to keep the peace, and with that full and overpowering consciousness of the result, if the issue be decided in favour of war, we have, nevertheless, thought it to be the duty as well as the interest of this country to go to war, the House may be well assured it was because we believe, and I am certain the country will believe, that we are unsheathing our sword in a just cause.

If I am asked what we are fighting for I reply in two sentences: In the first place, to fulfil a solemn international obligation, an obligation which, if it had been entered into between private persons in the ordinary concerns of life, would have been regarded as an obligation not only of law but of honour, which no self-respecting man could possibly have repudiated.

I say, secondly, we are fighting to vindicate the principle which, in these days when force, material force, sometimes seems to be the dominant influence and factor in the development of mankind, we are fighting to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed, in defiance of international good faith, by the arbitrary will of a strong and overmastering Power.

I do not believe any nation ever entered into a great controversy - and this is one of the greatest history will ever know - with a clearer conscience and a stronger conviction that it is fighting, not for aggression, not for the maintenance even of its own selfish interest, but that it is fighting in defence of principles the maintenance of which is vital to the civilization of the world.

With a full conviction, not only of the wisdom and justice, but of the obligations which lay upon us to challenge this great issue, we are entering into the struggle. Let us now make sure that all the resources, not only of this United Kingdom, but of the vast Empire of which it is the centre, shall be thrown into the scale.