In the summer of 1914, Europe was like an overheated pressure cooker on the way to explosion.
Empires, nations and nation states were all competing for what they regarded as their place in the sun.
This was the scene set by Mike Fraser, author of The Lamps Went Out, when he spoke to Glendale Local History Society at their latest meeting.
His subject was Sir Edward Grey, Liberal MP for Berwick from 1885 and Foreign Secretary between 1905 and 1916.
Mike painted a sympathetic picture of a quiet, diffident and somewhat secretive man who held high office reluctantly, coming to it out of a strong sense of duty.
Grey, although born in London, much preferred life in Northumberland and often wished that he were at his family home of Fallodon Hall fishing or bird watching.
However, once in office he performed the duties of MP and minister conscientiously and as Foreign Secretary before the war worked hard to build an accord with and between the nations of Europe and in particular an entente with France.
He was instrumental in improving relations with Russia and although Britain remained wary of Germany’s intentions, relations between the two countries thawed a little.
At the Balkans peace conference, held in London in 1913 and chaired by Sir Edward Grey, it must have seemed to him that his eight years at the Foreign Office had borne fruit.
Stability in Europe, built on a careful system of checks and balances, restraints, understandings and promises of mutual support looked as if it might ensure peace.
No nation was actively looking for war and yet by August 1914, in a very short span of time, the whole thing had unravelled and Grey had to tell the House of Commons that Britain would not be able to stand aside from the coming conflict.
Personally this was a grievous blow to a man who had laboured so tirelessly for peace and so hard to avoid war. As he put it himself, he felt ‘like a man who has wasted his life’.
He continued in office until a change of government in 1916 led to his retirement. Thereafter, in failing health, he sought more and more the solace at his home in Northumberland amongst the birds and landscape that he loved so much.
Judgement upon him has been mixed ranging from high praise to accusations of incompetence.
After Mike’s talk it would be difficult to disagree with the view that he was an important and significant Northumbrian who cared deeply for his county and his country.
The next meeting of Glendale Local History Society will be on Wednesday, March 11, at 7.30pm at the Cheviot Centre Wooler.
Gavin Kitching will speak on Football: An Ancient Pastime and Modern Sport. All are welcome.