Could Churchill’s bold plan have averted WW1?


At the Cabinet meeting in Downing Street on the morning of July 29 1914, Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, arrived late and grim-faced from a meeting with German Ambassador, Prince Max Lichnowsky. Berlin had rejected his appeal for a four-Power conference to resolve the dispute. Grey had told Lichnowsky for the first time that Britain might not be able to remain neutral, if Germany invaded Belgium.

The Cabinet agreed that any country who had signed the 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality had the right to intervene if that neutrality were threated and the government in Brussels appealed for help, although there was no legal obligation to intervene.

Grey was pessimistic. All chance of chance for a negotiated settlement seemed to have slipped away in the face of Germany’s recklessness. Describing the Cabinet meeting, Jeff Lipkes, says, ‘Then Winston Churchill spoke up. War would be “a calamity for civilized nations,” he declared, and went on to propose . . . that the crowned heads of Europe should meet together to devise a compromise acceptable to all the Powers.’

Lipkes points out that this suggestion was an innovation. No such conference between the heads of government or heads of state had ever taken place. Diplomacy was conducted entirely by Foreign Ministers meeting with ambassadors.

In fact, of course, no such meeting took place in 1914. But Churchill’s bold proposal raises perhaps the most fascinating counter-factual topic of the war. Had George, Wilhelm and Nicholas been persuaded to meet in person to settle the international crisis what might have been achieved?  Could such a meeting in July 1914, between the Kings and Emperors of Europe, have averted war?

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