“Happily there seems… no reason why we should not be more than spectators.”
The British Prime Minister took this view on the 24th of July 1914
, the day upon which Austria
sent it ultimatum
. This view was the majority in the Cabinet. Yet on the 6th of August the Cabinet agreed to send 4 divisions to France. This development links to many different stories. It is primarily the process of the transformation of the view of the Cabinet. But within this many different narrative strands become apparent. The issue of why Britain did not stay out of the First World War
encompasses many questions but we shall limit ourselves to outlining the denouement of the most important issues. These encompass, why Britain ended its splendid isolation, why Germany became the potential enemy, why a different outcome did not occur, was Belgium really the deciding factor and the power of public opinion. But ultimately the issue revolves around the time and particular situation. Between the 24th of July and the 6th of August the British cabinet was forced to decide how to react to a German invasion of Belgium. If the Germans limited their penetration to the Ardennes
, Churchill one of the most inclined to war saw little cause for British intervention. Yet irrespective of German violation of Belgian neutrality
there was a key fear for the British: the neutralisation of French power and German dominance on the continent. It was the fear of the consequences of failing to become involved that was the underlying cause for intervention. It was the wholesale violation of Belgium that converted many on the cabinet to support British intervention and confirmed the worst suspicions of Grey
(the Foreign Secretary) and Churchill
To understand why Britain was so concerned about continental affairs in 1914 one needs to understand the military background and its consequences. In 1897 a vast armada gathered at Spithead to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the dominant glory of the British navy. Britain possessed five ports which it saw as the key to the world: Dover, Gibraltar, the Cape, Alexandria and Singapore. Its Mediterranean Fleet of 10 battleships ensured British mastery of the region as did 3 battleships in the Far East and a vast number of smaller ships dotted around the globe. Yet this did not mark the peak of British naval power. One way of measuring this is by comparing the total number of British battleships with that of all the other nations in the world. In 1883 one saw 38 British to the 40 of all others. By 1897 this near parity had been transformed to see the British have 62 battleships compared to a combined 96 of the nations of the world. Now one might say that the number of British ships was still impressive as indeed it was. But British foreign policy required dominance of the globe which meant in all regions of interest for Britain which included the Far East, the Mediterranean, the Americas and the Cape. This was no longer possible with the rise of the national navies of France, Russia, Japan, Italy, Austro- Hungary, The USA, Argentina and Brazil the last three of which had already achieved superiority in their region by 1900. The period from 1897 until the fighting of the First World War marked a period in which British foreign policy saw a fundamental shift because of the naval situation.
Britain had been proud of its naval supremacy and felt that this guaranteed the Empire and its dominant trading position. But now it was becoming evident that vast as the British navy was it could not maintain dominance in all regions of interest. So Lansdowne, the Foreign Secretary reacted with the policy of a graceful withdrawal from the Americas effectively leaving the defence of Canada to the grace and goodwill of the USA. This process went one step further in the Far East. Britain’s sea power was outnumbered by the combined total of the Russian and French ships in the region who had three more battleships and 4 more cruisers. The Admiralty decided on an alliance with Japan which was signed in 1902 and renewed in 1911 which meant if two powers attacked one the other would become involved, the later version of which altered this to need only one aggressor for both to be at war. Now this indicates Britain’s new need to form alliances to ensure it best protected its specific interests. Interestingly in this case the enemies were France and Russia, Britain’s future allies. Since 1897 Admiral Tirpitz, who was in charge of the German navy, had set the policy of outnumbering the British in Home Waters and to achieve this set the aim for the German navy of building 38 battleships.
Thus one can see the British were facing growing challenges around the globe to their traditional naval might. In response to all this the Committee of Imperial Defence was set up and Sir John Fisher began naval reforms. He decided to focus the British naval might primarily on Home Waters and then on the Mediterranean which was made possible by the Japanese victory over the Russians in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 with the Battle of Mukden as well as the defeat of the Russian fleet. Ironically this strategy freed up the British to be isolationist in continental affairs. So at this stage although British naval power was no longer as dominant as it had once been it was no longer so compromised as to make the nation reliant on continental support to maintain its position.
The key comes when considering the Mediterranean fleet which was becoming threatened by French, Austrian and Italian growth. To remain larger than all combined Churchill estimated between £15 and £20million would need to be spent. This was seen as too high and so the alternative was to form an alliance with France who was capable of guaranteeing the Mediterranean. The symbolism of British naval power in that famous sea was great and to ultimately leave control of it to a recent rival was a very significant change. This was not lost on contemporaries. The Standard on the 29th of May 1912 reveals this reality:
“Because of the formidable and threatening Armada across the North Sea, we have almost abandoned the waters of the Outer Ocean, we are in the position of Imperial Rome when the Barbarians were thundering at the frontiers. The ominous word has gone forth. We have called home the legions.”
The British naval power was being focused on Germany. This helps show one why in 1914 Britain seemed a natural enemy of Germany. She felt threatened. As Sir Eyre Crow of the Foreign Office commented:
“The building of the German fleet is but one of the symptoms of the disease. It is the political ambitions of the German Government and nation which are the source of mischief.”
A concurrent development with this was a growing realisation of the importance of land forces. Conscription was urged by Roberts, Milner and others for the British army was at this stage and indeed until the war itself broke out a rather small force which in failed to give it power in the outbreak of a continental war. Until now it had not seemed necessary to have a larger force as Britain’s power was guaranteed on the sea but a German land victory over France might give her new ports such as Antwerp which could threaten Britain. 1911 saw the confirmation of this reality by the Committee of Imperial Defence. Hankey, the omnicompetant secretary of this Committee said:
“From that time onwards there was never any doubt what would be the Grand Strategy in the event of our being drawn into a continental war in support of France. Unquestionably the Expeditionary Force or a greater part of it, would have been sent to France as it actually was in 1914.”
The fascinating development of British naval and military policy meant that between 1897 and 1914 there was a vast change. This vast change saw the British recognise Germany as the main threat to British naval power and respond accordingly. This was in turn related to the growing economic power of Germany who could now afford a vast fleet. But importantly the growing wealth and industrialisation of other nations meant that they were able to challenge British naval power as has been shown. The result was that the British realigned their naval policy which as a consequence saw an alliance with France as beneficial in freeing the burden of the Mediterranean. A further key development was the defeat of Russia by Japan which in the long term reduced the clash of interests between Russia and Great Britain as their eastern expansion slowed almost to a halt and the Persian question seemed able to be solved diplomatically. These key developments facilitated a situation where British interests could be in keeping with those of France and Russia in 1914. The last important point which can be drawn from what has just been discussed is the new importance of a land force in the war. It was on the land that the real battle would be fought. The British Navy would act a neutralising force but could the British rely on the French to survive a land war? This was a question that was difficult to decide.
When the assassinations of Archduke Francis Ferdinand
and his wife on the 28th of June occurred the British public did not respond favourably to the Serbians
. This distinct lack of support remained in some papers even when they decided that Germany should be opposed. Horatio Bottemly
, editor of the John Bull weekly said “Serbia must be wiped out”. Yet by August many papers were still peacelike especially within the regional press, for example the Cambridge News (28th July) and the Yorkshire Post (27th July). The Pall Mall Gazette
astonishingly referred to the Germans as being peacelike on the 1st of August. This is difficult to understand. It was the Germans who had given Austria support with her ultimatum of the 24th of July to the Serbians and agreed to the unacceptable condition that the investigation should be carried out by the Austrians. The Serbs who had been urged to be as concilatory as possible by the Russians agreed to all the conditions save this one. The Kaiser
was overjoyed at the news and felt it would stave off war. But the German military and the politicians ultimately felt it was the right time for war. It was the Near Eastern question which precipitated the war. In 1912 the First Balkan War
had been fought and in 1913 the Second was fought. The First World War was indeed the Third Balkan War. These event were precipitated by the weakness and effective withdrawal from Europe of the Ottoman Empire. The Balkans were now left to be divided amongst the Austro-Hungarian Empire an any other power which was strong enough. This facilitated the nationalist expansion of Serbia and the necessary Russian interest in the defence of their Southern Slav
brothers. This should be linked to the Russian interest in the passage of the Bospherous
and the Dardanelles
. They needed to be able to export their grain. The increasing German links to the Ottoman Empire meant that this was potentially endangered. As Bethmann
stated on the 26th of July:
“If war must break out, better now than in one or two years time when the Entente will be stronger”.
The Germans feared the new railway links of Russia with Poland and the long-term effects of France’s new three-year period of national service. In terms of responsibility for the war the Germans and Austrians must bear the brunt. In the two earlier cases Germany had urged caution. Now this had changed. It was this change that meant Britain was all the more likely to join the war for it was on of German expansion. Interestingly the Germans did not really have a fundamental conflict of interest with the French but their military plans did not take account of this. They were based Schlieffen
and Moltke’s outlook which was clouded by a traditional rivalry with France. Indeed when the Kaiser ordered the halt of the German army and asked it should instead be sent to Russia Moltke
refused saying there was no alternative. This intransigence was vital in Britain joining the war for it meant two things. First that their attempts to ensure that if the French took up neutrality France would not be attacked would fail. This meant the moral obligation Britain had to France since their 1904-5 entente with France with their naval and consultation agreements would be pulled upon. Secondly and related to this point is that this meant the question of Belgian neutrality and the treaty of 1839 would arise.
Hopefully this helps one understand why Asquith
and the Cabinet were faced with such a difficult decision in late July and early August 1914. In many ways it was the actions of the Germans which led to Britain entering the war. So far one can see the general preconditions were ripe for Britain to be relatively likely to enter the war. Now it is time to see why Asquith and the Cabinet gave the answer to the two above questions that they did on the 6th of August. On the 2nd of August Asquith outlined his six guiding principles to Venetia Stanley
“We have no obligation of any kind to either France or Russia to give them military or naval help. The despatch of the Expeditionary force to help France at this moment is out of the question and would serve no object. We mustn’t forget the ties created by our long-standing and intimate friendship with France. It is against British interests that France should be wiped out as a Great Power. We cannot allow Germany to use the channel as a hostile base. We have obligations to Belgium to prevent her being utilised and absorbed by Germany”.
One can see from this that Asquith did not feel legally obligated to help the French or the Russians and that as late as this he did not feel Britain should send a land force at all. The two key points he reveals are that Britain doesn’t want France to be ended as a Great Power and that he does not want Germany to gain control of the channel. This is in stark contrast to 1870-1 when Britain was relatively satisfied to see French power reduced and felt no fear from a German occupation of the North French coast. But even so he was reluctant to allow Britain to be dragged into a war. His views were reflected in the majority of the cabinet who were very reluctant to declare war on Germany. It was Grey and Churchill who emphasised the above points. The Foreign Office backed this warlike stance. The domestic situation in Britain saw the Conservatives follow a very warlike stance. Men such as Austin Chamberlain
and Bonar Law
feared Liberal weakness of attitude but were willing to give Grey their support. But what the rivalry and difference of opinion between the Tories and the Liberals ensured was a greater degree of cabinet unity than would have been otherwise possible. Asquith felt that 3/4s of Liberal MPs were against intervening in the war by the end of July. Twenty-two Liberals of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the 30th of July backed the view that:
“Any decision in favour of participation in a European war would meet not only with the strongest disapproval but with the actual withdrawal if support from the government”.
Furthermore on the 31st of July the Cabinet agreed that “British opinion would not now enable us to support France.” Grey who had not initially supported a backing of Belgium threatened to resign if Britain did not give some sort of commitment to it. This threat given the political climate could have been disastrous and was significant in facilitating Britain’s entry into the war. Morley, Simon and Beauchamp resigned over this decision adding themselves to John Burns who resigned on the 1st of August in response to Churchill convincing Asquith to mobilise the navy upon hearing of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia. As Asquith argued to Samuel and Pease;
“The National situation id far from ordinary and I cannot persuade myself that the other party is led by men, or contains men, capable of dealing with it.”
So political and personal rivalry played its part. Lloyd George the man best placed to lead an anti-war party declined this role and this was crucial in preventing the split over the issue from rupturing the cabinet beyond all salvation.
It was in this context that Belgium became the key trigger issue. Grey emphasised to the Germans that:
“If there was a violation of Belgian neutrality… it would be extremely hard to retrain public feeling”.
On the 2nd of August Lloyd George, Harcourt, Beauchamp, Simon, Runciman and Pease agreed that they would only sanction war in the event of “the invasion wholesale of Belgium” which allowed Beauchamp and Simon too withdraw their resignations. One can see that if the Germans proceeded only through the Ardennes it was possible that Britain would not have gone to war. This becomes clearer given the disposition of the cabinet and Asquith’s emphasise on the fact that Britain did not have to guarantee Belgian neutrality in a strict sense as had been argued earlier, for example in 1905. But Germany did enter Belgium because of Krupp’s development of a new 420mm Howitzer which could beat down the fortress of Lieges and the innovative use of their reserves to protect their centre and left. Ironically it was this a military innovation that was to swing public and cabinet opinion against Germany. It made more real Grey’s argument of 3rd of August to the Commons:
“If France was beaten in a struggle of life and death… I do not believe that… we should be in a position to use our force decisively to… prevent the whole of the West of Europe oppositie us… falling under the domination of a single power.”
So at 11pm on the 4th of August Britain went to war upon hearing of the news of Germany entering Belgium. As Asquith wrote to Venetia Stanley; “this simplifies matters”. Both Harcourt and Addison agreed that the German invasion of the whole Belgium precipitated the ultimate dominance of three factors: the North Sea and the English Channel, North-West France as well as Antwerp and Belgian independence. What is most interesting about the decision to enter the war is that for all the factors that affected Britain and France entering favourable relation, for example Britain’s exit from the Moroccan crisis and that created a new rivalry with Germany. It was up to the cabinet to decide to pursue a war policy. Their reluctance to do so indicates that for all the literature that had been building up to war, for example the Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, it was never something to be lightly entered into simply for honour. Honour did matter but so did practical considerations. That the rivalry did not seem to mean inevitable war is interesting. Ultimately it was Germany’s own aggressive self-confident stance that affected both the public and politicians and caused a reluctant Britain to become determined and enter the war.