If there is a war between France and Germany, it will be very difficult
for us to keep out of it. [The Entente has] created in France a belief
that we will support them in war…If this expectation is disappointed, the French will never forgive us.
Of course Britain did not have to honour this unofficial agreement. Italy, for example, “blatantly ignored” its commitment to Germany. Although Britain had in fact remained non-committal to war until the invasion of Belgium by Germany, its eventual support of France allowed it to maintain a relationship that would continue to protect British interests in Egypt without French interference. Until this invasion Britain merely offered France secret assurance that the Royal Navy would protect its Channel Coast, and the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, was, “thrown into despair by Britain’s refusal to declare their position”. This failure to commit to France’s cause suggests that the Anglo-French Entente was not a particularly significant factor in Britain’s decision to enter the war.
The Anglo-Russian agreement of August 1907 was made for similar reasons to the Anglo-French Entente. It was intended to settle the differences between the powers on the borders of their respective empires, in Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet. Again, maintaining this relationship would be beneficial to the British Empire, yet Britain was even less willing to come directly to Russia’s aid as it was to commit to France, once more suggesting that the ententes were not a primary cause for British involvement in the war.
As mentioned, it was not until Germany invaded Belgium that Britain declared war on Germany. The Treaty of London signed in 1839 obligated Britain to defend Belgium if its neutrality was threatened by invasion. Until this openly aggressive act on Germany’s part the majority of the Liberal government were against going to war. The official reason for Britain’s entry to the war, the treaty was regarded, certainly by the German government as a “scrap of paper”, which they asked the British government in effect to ignore. The fact that the German government felt able to request such an action implies that little importance was attached to early treaties at that time in Europe. Given Britain’s reluctance to enter war to assist a country with which they had fairly recently formed an Entente, it seems unlikely that concern over honouring an almost hundred year old treaty was Britain’s principal reason for joining a major war. In this case it seems that public opinion played an important role in the British government’s decision-making process. On July 31 Grey issued a warning to Germany declaring, “our attitude would be determined by public opinion here, and that the neutrality of Belgium would appeal very strongly to the public opinion here.”. Britain’s quick response in defence of Belgium is in contrast to its attitude towards Russia. The apparently accidental sinking of some British fishing boats during the Russian-Japanese war by the Russian fleet, which was followed by, “a moment of violent anti-Russian feeling in Britain” may have reduced Russia’s chances of immediate support from Britain.
A key factor influencing Britain’s decision to enter the war was a fear of growing German power in Europe. Their fast economic expansion coupled with the increase of her navy made her a potential threat to the British Empire. In particular it was the German naval expansion that worried Britain. Not only did German possession of a strong navy leave Britain itself in fear of attack and invasion (the British press contributed to this unease with “frequent references to Britain’s ‘secret and deadliest foe’”), its imperial gains were now also at risk. If Germany had been content to pursue a continental empire, Britain’s colonies would have been more secure but as, “Germany [became] increasingly interested in affairs outside of Europe, points of friction began to develop”. Germany’s increasing use of its navy as a bargaining tool heightened the sense of mistrust within Britain. Relations between the two countries had looked set to improve in 1912 when Haldane visited Britain to attempt an agreement. Unfortunately this potential agreement failed when he made it clear to the British government that only in exchange for an assured promise of British neutrality in the event of a war would Germany consider decelerating its ship building program. It looked with time to the British government that Germany was behaving aggressively, and that its naval expansion was a “consistently designed challenge” to the British Empire. As an island the strength of the British navy was important from a defensive point of view (Churchill pointed out that for Britain the navy was a “necessity” whereas for Germany it was a “luxury”), as a country surrounded by land the German desire for a navy could only be seen as threat to Britain and its world wide colonial gains;
Since Britain possessed by far the greatest extent of overseas territory and influence at the time, it followed that German concessions would have to be wrested largely from a reluctant Britain.
If the balance of power in Europe was to be maintained then Germany had to be stopped from winning a European war. If Britain played a part in Germany’s defeat it would have a say in how the latter could be subdued and controlled as well as standing to make territorial gains, although it seems more likely that protecting existing territories was paramount to the British government. If Britain had avoided the war then there was a possibility that Germany and the Central Powers would have been victorious, which would have threatened Britain’s position both in Europe and across the world stage.
A highly influential, although not elaborate factor in Britain’s decision to enter the war was that it was truly believed that a war involving so many great powers, investing a great deal of finance and man power in victory would ensure a war that would be ‘over by Christmas’. It seems likely that if any one of the countries involved in the war could have predicted the vast loss of life and damage to economies lasting for four years that war would have been avoided at all costs and every possible diplomatic alternative explored. However, as the events of July 1914 rapidly escalated, Britain found itself with less and less room for diplomatic manoeuvre, making alternatives difficult to realise. In once instance, for example, Grey was told that his suggestion that a Serbian reply to the Austrians was assuaging enough to act as a starting point for discussion was, “to late to act upon…as events had marched too rapidly.”
The prevalent factor influencing the British decision to enter the First World War was clearly its desire to maintain and protect the British Empire as well as to consolidate its position as a dominant world power. There is evidence to suggest that Britain’s eventual decision to support France and Russia was made in order to ensure that the friendships that had been formed with these countries would prevail. These were friendships formed in order to protect British colonial interests in the Far East and Africa. Grey believed that if Britain did not honour its unofficial agreement with France then there would be a sense that Britain had,
behaved meanly and left France in the lurch. The United States would despise us, Russia would not think it worth while to make a friendly arrangement with us about Asia, Japan would prepare to reinsure herself elsewhere. We should be left without a friend and without the power of making a friend.
Britain’s concern over maintaining the balance of power in Europe was clearly a concern over maintaining its own influence and standing and preventing Germany from taking over as a dominant economic power. The prospect of antagonising France, Russia, Japan and America by avoiding the war was made worse by Grey’s belief that, “Germany would take some pleasure in exploiting the whole situation to our disadvantage”.
By no means did the British government desire war. Its failure to commit to a definite course of action until pushed by Germany’s invasion of Belgium shows that in fact it was anxious to avoid war. Although there was some resentment towards Grey whom many believed had tied Britain to a secret treaty obligating Britain to come to France’s aid. Ultimately, however, Britain was left without a choice. As asserted at the beginning of the essay, she was essentially motivated by self-interest. Crowe sums up the fundamental dilemma faced by Britain in 1914,
Should this war come and England stand aside, one of two things must happen: (a) Either Germany and Austria win, crush France and humiliate Russia…What will be the position of a friendless England? (b) Or France and Russia win. What then would be their attitude towards England? What about India and the Mediterranean?
- Darby, Graham, Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1998.
- Groot, Gerard J De, The First World War, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2001.
- Hart, Liddell, History of the First World War, Book Club Associates, London, 1973.
- Henig, Ruth, The Origins of the First World War, Routledge, London, 2002, 3rd ed.
- Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1992, 2nd ed.
- Keegan, John, The First World War, Pimlico, London, 1999.
- Primary Documents: Treaty of London, 1839,
Groot, Gerard J De, The First World War, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2001, p.8.
Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1992, 2nd ed, p. 52.
Henig, Ruth, The Origins of the First World War, Routledge, London, 2002, 3rd ed, p.9.
Cited in Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1992, 2nd ed. p.54.
Groot, Gerard J De, The First World War, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2001, p.2.
Keegan, John, The First World War, Pimlico, London, 1999, p.76.
Primary Documents: Treaty of London, 1839, http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/london1839.htm
Cited in Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1992, 2nd ed. p.26.
Groot, Gerard J De, The First World War, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2001, p.10.
Hart, Liddell, History of the First World War, Book Club Associates, London, 1973, p. 33.
Darby, Graham, Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1998, p.50.
Henig, Ruth, The Origins of the First World War, Routledge, London, 2002, 3rd ed, p.11.
Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War, Longman, London, 1992, 2nd ed. p. 21.
Hart, Liddell, History of the First World War, Book Club Associates, London, 1973, p. 32.
Cited in Groot, Gerard J De, The First World War, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2001, p.19.