What factors were influential in the British decision to enter the First World War?

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Judith Pugh

Marking tutor: Ian Whitehead

What factors were influential in the British decision to enter the First World War?

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 by Serb nationalists may have been the spark that tipped Europe over the edge into war, but it is generally considered that the complex group of alliances and grievances routed in history that existed between the major European powers at the time made diplomatic alternatives difficult to realize.  France, for example, still felt hostility toward Germany due its defeat and consequently because of the land it lost (Alsace and Lorraine) to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War.  If required to go to war, “France intended …to use the opportunity to …recover the lost provinces.”.  Germany itself was tied in to the war through its alliance with Austria-Hungary. However, it is important to recognise that alliances and past grievances alone are not by and large considered adequate reasons to go to war.  For the powers that made the decision to fight, ultimately the chief rationale was that they would benefit more from joining the war than by staying out of it all together.  Germany, for example, had alienated Russia and France and needed to honour its agreement with Austria-Hungary to gain security and ensure it was not surrounded by hostile powers.  France, as mentioned, stood to recover land from Germany if victorious.  According to Groot (2001), “Self-interest is the most important factor influencing any decision to declare war”.  This essay will examine the factors that influenced Britain’s decision to join the First World War and will argue that on the whole Britain was, like most of the central powers, highly motivated by self-interest and that its ententes with France and Russia were not the most significant factors in the decision.  

Although not the most significant factors in the British decision to go to war, its moral (rather than technical) obligations to France (and to a lesser extent Russia) did have an impact.  Originally designed to consolidate Britain’s position in Egypt, and put an end to its colonial squabbles with France, the 1904 Anglo-French Entente was made with Germany’s, “changing position and policies” in the minds of both parties.  For example, to Britain it seemed that Germany’s creation of a large navy might pose a serious threat and an agreement with France seemed to offer some security.  Germany’s, “dramatic economic expansion” was also “viewed with alarm by [her] neighbours…in particular France”.  By 1914, even by 1906 in fact, the agreement had evolved into one that, although not technically requiring Britain to support France in the event of a war against Germany, certainly implied a moral obligation on Britain’s part in such an event, even if the British government protested that there was no commitment to the idea.  In February 1906, Sir Edward Grey, at the time Foreign Secretary, wrote,

Join now!

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 ...

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