Bio of the Day: Sir Edward Grey

by thegreatwarrevisited

Sir Edward Grey was a Liberal politician who was the British Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916 and later the Ambassador to the United States.

He attempted to mediate during the July Crisis to defuse the tensions, attempts that came to naught. Unfortunately he did not successfully communicate to Germany England’s resolve to defend Belgian neutrality. When the war finally began he famously remarked: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”.

Grey is usually depicted as a gentle, civilised figure who lamented the coming of war in 1914 with unaccustomed eloquence, and wrote find books on birdwatching and fly-fishing. A widower of fifty-two, his personal affairs were less arid than most of his contemporaries assumed. He conducted a lively love life, albeit much more discreetly than his colleague Lloyd George; Grey’s most recent biographer identifies two illegitimate children. Some of his contemporaries disdained him. Sir Eyre Crowe, a Foreign Office official who was admittedly prone to intemperance, called Grey ‘a futile, useless, weak fool’. The foreign secretary’s accustomed taciturnity caused Lloyd George, for one, to conclude that there was less to him than met the eye; that his economy with words reflected not strength of character, but debility. Grey spoke no foreign languages, and disliked Abroad. Although a highly intelligent man, he was also a narrow one, subject to violent mood swings. 

Yet from 1905 to 1916 he ran Britain’s foreign policy as a private bailiwick. Lloyd George wrote: ‘During the eight years that preceded the war, the Cabinet devoted a ridiculously small percentage of its time to a consideration of foreign affairs.’ The Asquith government’s attitude to such matters, and to the other European powers, reflected an epic moral conceit, manifested in a condescension which especially upset the Germans. The French ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, observed sardonically that nothing gave greater pleasure to an Englishman than to discover that the interests of England matched those of mankind at large: ‘and where such a confluence does not exist, he does his best to create it’. At a dinner party where several members of the government were present, Lord Northcliffe asserted contemptuously that Britain’s newspaper editors were better informed about foreign affairs than any cabinet minister. The chancellor said of the foreign secretary: ‘Sir Edward Grey belongs to the class, which through heredity and tradition, expects to find a place on the magisterial bench to sit in judgment upon and above their fellow men, before they ever have any opportunity to make themselves acquainted with the tasks and trials of mankind.’

Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War