The Genesis of the War

by the Right Honor-able Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minister of England 1908-1916. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1923. 8vo. 405 pp. $6.00.
So many memoirs and diplomatic compilations dealing with Mr. Asquith’s theme have been cast upon the turbulent waters of post-war controversy that new offerings, even from distinguished givers, are beginning to be received with somewhat reluctant gratitude. None the less the present volume ought to prove something more than a perfunctory addition to the intelligent reader’s library. It is not a political pamphlet or a personal apologia, but an objective narrative of events preceding and accompanying the outbreak of hostilities, written from an inside viewpoint that gives weight and interest even to a record of familiar incidents. Mr. Asquith does not favor us with startling revelations, but he illuminates known facts by presenting them in explanatory settings.
His chief original contribution is the four brief but comprehensive chapters describing Great Britain’s pre-war preparation for the storm that was seen to threaten. They suggest rather than describe in detail the vast labor of organizing the Empire for war that was accomplished during the seven or eight years before hostilities began. ‘Into the War Book, which was started in 1910, we incorporated all the predetermined action, decided upon as the result of the innumerable preceding inquiries, in the contingency of war. . . . The draft Orders in Council accompanied the King wherever he went in time of profound peace, as well as being set up in type in the printer’s office.’
The quality of its background gives the book an appeal of freshness even when it covers ofttraveled routes. It is as if the reader were walking down a familiar street with a companion who knew intimately the history of every building and its occupants and made entertaining if not piquant comments upon them as he passed. The personal impressions of prominent actors in world affairs — especially the character sketch of the Kaiser — are as interesting as they are informing.
As already mentioned, Mr. Asquith refrains from personal apologetics and only incidentally alludes to British party politics, but his book is naturally a defense of his Government’s policies before the war and its motives in joining the conflict. He quotes extensively from German political memoirs and the pronouncements of English statesmen to substantiate or illustrate his argument, and appends some forty pages of documents to his text as confirmatory evidence.
His polemics, however, are unobtrusive and suggest the historian rather than the advocate.
One interesting result of the German defeat has been to exalt Bismarck’s reputation as a statesman both at home and abroad. Mr. Asquith draws several comparisons between him and his less competent successors, among whom only one seemed to share in some degree his genius. This was Baron Marschall, for many years German Ambassador at Constantinople, who died in 1912, two months after his transfer to London. ‘I am as satisfied as one can be of anything in the domain of conjecture that, if he had remained, there would have been no European war in 1914.’ Interesting characterizations of Ambassador Page and Colonel House occur in connection with the unsuccessful mission of the latter to London and Berlin, in an effort to secure an agreement to reduce armaments, only a few months before hostilities began. The legend that Lord Kitchener’s appointment as War Minister when England entered the conflict ‘was forced upon a resourceless and ever reluctant Government by the prescience and urgency of a noisy section of the Press is, I need hardly say, a baseless and silly figment.’ This is one of the rare cases where Mr. Asquith permits personal feeling to intrude into the text.
Indeed this book has a certain distinction in its sober balancing of reticence and revelation, in what it refrains from telling as well as in what it tells. The list of acknowledgments for aid received in its preparation does not include Mrs. Asquith. An understanding reader will hardly attribute the omission to oversight.