Charles Trevelyan and WW1


Charles Trevelyan, MP for Elland 1899-1918, did not support Britain going to war in 1914. He resigned as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education once war was declared. Trevelyan held fast to his stance throughout the war. His letter, dated 5th August 1914, stating the reasons why he opposed war is reproduced below. Trevelyan was disowned by the Liberals within nine months and he was rejected at the ballot box when he sought re-election for Elland in December 1918. Letters and comments in the local press were invariably hostile to Trevelyan.


Please note that these are Charles Trevelyan’s words. The Greater Elland Historical Society does not wish to detract from the war effort of the many local people from all backgrounds and beliefs. We encourage anyone to read the local and national newspapers to form their own opinions about Britain and The Great War. The 1914-1918 Weekly Courier is online at It would be fair to state that local opinion was very supportive of the war effort. We cannot ignore the fact that Elland’s MP held equally strong anti-war views.


“Sir, - I should be glad if you would insert this letter in your paper, in order that my constituents may be aware of my course of action.


I deeply regret that I have felt myself obliged to resign my position in the Liberal Government. A subordinate Minister does not have the same direct responsibility as a Cabinet Minister. But as he is taken to approve of the accomplished acts of a Government, he is bound to sever his connection with it when he takes objection to so serious an act of policy as an initiation of a war.


Until a few days ago I believed, I think in common with most Englishmen, that our country would adopt in this crisis an attitude of strict neutrality. In my view neither the original quarrel, nor the remoter conflicts arising out of it, ought to have been regarded as involving ourselves. With the whole of the racial struggle between Serbia and Austria we have not the least interest with the loathsome murder or the passionate retribution. It is not worth the life of a single British sailor.


Yet country after country has stepped in, first Russia because she wished to protect Serbia, then Germany because she wished to protect Austria and was bound by treaty. Then France was compelled by her alliance to support Russia. And so from one end of Europe to the other arose the portent of unwilling and unenthusiastic millions marching to slaughter at the orders of their incompetent governors.


But at least England was free from any treaty obligation to enter into this war or to take either side in the struggle. We had a right to the hope and belief, which a week ago were general, that our rulers would be able to keep us out of it. A week ago there was no war fever to hamper the keepers of the peace.


But within the last few days we have suddenly discovered that our hands were not, as was alleged, unfettered after all. Over and over again we have been told by the friends of the Entente Cordiale that it only meant a bond of friendship with France. We now know, what we always suspected, that it carried with it the duty of enmity to Germany.


That is why Sir Edward Grey’s appeal to “honour” leaves many of us untouched. For we have always said that our friendship was not exclusive, when we rejoiced that France, our ancient enemy, had now become our friend. And for some years now past many of us have been anxiously combatting the spirit which has been declaring Germany, our ancient friend, to be our present enemy.


We are going to war because we do not want to see France crushed. I want as little in the interests of civilisation to see Germany crushed. Yet who dares to judge the event of so huge a cataclysm and to say that between France, Russia and England, German civilisation may not go down in ruin.


And what then? Are we going to rejoice because Russia will be victorious, with its savage recuperative forces of countless populations to brood over our stricken western civilisation?


And remember it is for Russia first and foremost that we are fighting. The French did not to fight. But they were dragged into it by their treaty with Russia. We are now having to protect them because they put themselves at the mercy of the Tsar’s ministers. So now Liberal England, so truly Liberal in more than a party sense, will be losing its prosperity and its lives, which are even more dear to it, for the sake of a system which during the last ten years has been more illiberal, more reactionary, than even the infamous regime of Bomba.


When our Government entered upon the negotiations immediately precedent to this war with this spirit in their minds, that Germany must be regarded as the suspect enemy and France as the friend, I think it is not unnatural that other causes of friction should have been incapable of adjustment. I disapprove as heartily as anyone of the infringement of Belgian neutrality by Germany. But I am bound to say that if France had committed the offence I think that we should have found some protest sufficient short of plunging our country into war.


Again, when we saw fit to deny to Germany its ordinary right as a belligerent to make a naval attack on an enemy’s coastline which had been left undefended, and when Germany was ready to waive that right in return for our neutrality, it did not argue an attitude in Germany out of which an accommodation might not have been obtained. But we were in no real humour for it. We had chosen our side already.


We ought in my opinion to have had no side in this quarrel except the one overwhelming interest of our own people. That interest is peace.


I cannot agree with Sir Edward Grey when he says “If we are engaged in war we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside.” We shall be subject to crushing taxation, which we should have escaped as neutrals. We shall increase enormously, it may be that we shall double our national debt. We shall completely lose all the trade of the nations against whom we are fighting. However overwhelming the victory of our navy our commerce will suffer terribly. It by no means went unscathed in the days of our complete naval predominance.


In war too the first productive energies of the whole people have to be devoted to armament. Cannon are a poor industrial exchange for cotton. We shall suffer a steady impoverishment as the character of our work changes. As war proceeds more and more the workers are drawn into the fighting ranks and the breadwinners disappear.


All this I felt so strongly that I cannot count the cause adequate which is to lead to this misery. So I have resigned.


But now, having made my protest, let me say to those who agree with me and those who do not, this is no time for more words or continued recrimination. The time will come later when we shall debate the origins of the disaster. Blunder or no blunder the war is here. That is the terrible present. And our simple common duty is to help to save our dear country.”


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