Revealed: how King George V demanded Britain enter the First World War

Anita Singh — July 26, 2014

George V and sir Edward grey

It is a letter that throws fresh light on one of the darkest periods in Britain’s history.

A note which has remained in private hands for a century details a previously undocumented meeting between George V and his Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, on the eve of the First World War.

The King, mindful of his position as a constitutional monarch, made no public declarations about the situation in Europe in the lead-up to the conflict.

But in the newly-disclosed meeting, the King informed Sir Edward it was “absolutely essential” Britain go to war in order to prevent Germany from achieving “complete domination of this country”.

When Sir Edward said the Cabinet had yet to find a justifiable reason to enter the conflict, the King replied: “You have got to find a reason, Grey.”

Historians have no record of the meeting which took place at Buckingham Palace on August 2 1914, two days before Britain went to war.

It was revealed in a letter written by Sir Cecil Graves, Sir Edward’s nephew, who met with the King a month after his uncle’s death in 1933.

George V had summoned Sir Cecil – a future director-general of the BBC – to the Palace, where he offered his condolences before recalling the events of 1914.

The King “told me of the interview he had with Uncle Edward two days before the outbreak of war. It lasted for one and a half hours,” Sir Cecil wrote.

“He told me that Uncle Edward had said that he could not possibly see what justifiable reason we could find for going to war.

“HM said in reply, ‘You have got to find a reason, Grey.’”

The King told Grey “that, if we didn’t go to war, Germany would mop up France and having dealt with the European situation would proceed to obtain complete domination of this country.

“For that reason,” Sir Ceci wrote, “he felt that it was absolutely essential that whatever happened we had got to find a reason for entering the War at once…

“The next day he had a private letter from Poincaré [the French President] urging our participation in the War, and almost at the same time, a telegram arrived from King Albert [of Belgium] about the violation of Belgium.

“He sent this straight across to Uncle Edward with a note to the effect that here was the reason and there was no need for him to try and think of anything.”

The envelope that Arian Grey discovered among his grandfather's records. Click to enlarge

The envelope that Arian Grey discovered among his grandfather’s records. Click to enlarge

On August 3, shortly after receiving the King’s note, Sir Edward gave a speech to Parliament in which he said: “it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved”.

He returned to his room in the Foreign Office and made the now famous remark as he watched the lamps being lit outside: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

The following day, when the chimes of Big Ben rang out at 11 pm, Britain was at war.

The letter was unearthed by Sir Edward’s great-great-nephew and grandson of Sir Cecil, Adrian Graves.

Mr Graves inherited Sir Cecil’s papers, which he kept in their original Asprey case alongside his fishing tackle, but had never studied them.

“My grandfather was involved in the First World War – he was one of the first to be captured, at the Battle of Mons, and later awarded the Military Cross. The case contained some of his records and papers relating to the war and his captivity.

“I decided to look through them as the centenary of August 4 was coming up, and I came across an envelope. Written on the front were the words, ‘Interview with King’. I had never known it was there,” Mr Graves said.

Among the heirlooms passed down to Mr Graves is Sir Edward’s gold pocket watch. It has no glass cover because the Foreign Secretary had failing eyesight and could tell the time only by touching the face.

Mr Graves said: “I hold it and think: was my great-great-uncle feeling the hands as they approached 11 pm and realising that war was almost upon us?”

At the time of the meeting with George V, Britain’s Cabinet remained divided over whether Britain should go to war.

Prof Hew Strachan, military historian and author of the recent The First World War: A New History, said: “It is clear that the King took a more active role in thinking about the country’s foreign policy than most conventional accounts allow for.

“If Grey said these things, it was in order to make clear to the King that the Government was not yet in a position to support France. Belgium provided everybody with the way in.

“The letter stresses the thrust of Grey’s policy: the need to be firm with Germany while not encouraging the French and Russians to rush into war. Grey wants a diplomatic deal.”

Prof David Reynolds of Cambridge University, author of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the 20th Century, said: “What we are hearing here, if this is a true rendition of events nearly 20 years before, is a weary Grey airing his worries in private on August 2.

“The document also reminds us that George V, although always conscious of his place as a constitutional monarch, was a king who privately offered strong views to his ministers and that those views were taken seriously.

“From this document, we do learn something about Grey but we learn rather more about George V.”

Sir Edward’s remark about the lamps going out is the inspiration for the Lights Out project, which is urging every household in Britain to turn out the lights at 11 pm on August 4.

His role in the conflict will be examined in a BBC Parliament programme, To War, broadcast on August 3 at 8 pm.