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By 1914 tensions and rivalries between European countries had reached their limit. In late July war was declared by Austria-Hungary on Serbia. The inevitable had finally occurred. Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th August 1914. This essay will establish the events that led to Britain’s role and participation in what was to be a horrific and terrible war for all parties involved.
Selborne’s 1902 memorandum on Germany’s naval power seems to have been the first sign that Germany had replaced Russia as the greatest danger in the minds of British foreign policy makers. Lord Selborne was the 1st British Lord of Admiralty and was key to informing the government of German naval dangers. His memorandum argued that the German naval fleet was designed for operations in the North Sea and was therefore directly threatening Britain. If Britain were involved elsewhere then Germany were a definite threat, with Britain’s response would be limited. Despite Selborne’s fears of Germany’s naval prowess, some historians believe that the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-5 was the turning point in which Germany were now seen as Britain’s greatest danger.
Russia’s defeat to Japan showed that their army was not fully committed to the war and their lack of desire/organisation had cost them dearly. Germany’s Navy had now overtaken Russia as the World’s 3rd strongest. This deeply worried Britain who were very protective of their own Navy. Others believe that the Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907 settled fears over Russia for the time being, which turned British heads towards Germany’s threat. Until then the Committee of Imperial defence had regarded Russia as Britain’s main enemy.
Britain’s main concern was protecting her Empire. Abiding by the Entente Cordiale and the Treaty of London was the least of Britain’s fears. The historian Keith Wilson (‘The Policy of the Entente 1904-14’) argues that Britain’s foreign policy makers were more interested in the Empire. In this period of history, Britain had the largest Empire and were determined to both preserve and expand it. However, both Germany and Russia had become direct threats to Britain’s Asian colonies and in particular India. Russia too were very prominent in expanding their Empire and had become increasingly curious about Asian colonies. In particular Russia were keen on areas of land around the frontiers of India. For example, Russia had begun to develop contacts in Northern Persia and had gained land in Penjdeh in 1885.
The Russian army also believed that they could pass their army through the enormous mountain barrier in Afghanistan. This could lead the Russian army straight into India with the British army and Navy still halfway around the world. On the other hand, Germany had built a railway that ran from Berlin-Baghdad. They were keen to extend this down to the Persian Gulf. This meant that once again India’s position was in threat by Germany on this occasion. The Treaty of London and the 1904 Entente Cordiale put Britain in a position in which they were involved with potential foreign disputes. Britain, though not obliged, were in a position in which they were expected to act, if in the case of the Entente Cordiale, France was attacked by Germany then Britain were expected to provide military support. In the case of the Treaty of London, if Belgium became non-neutral then some action would have to be taken, though not necessarily by Britain.
Protecting Belgium and France from Germany were very important for Britain because they both were pathways for German troops to position themselves in an area that could threaten Britain and actually carry out the threat. The Northern French dockyards were especially significant for both Britain and France as Germany could set up their naval base directly in line with Britain. This therefore made the two agreements important for Britain. Britain too feared that their would be a balance of power in Europe in the form of Germany. This would be devastating for Britain and so were keen to avoid this happening.
Britain’s self-interest was the most important reason for explaining their participation in World War I not their obligation to France or Belgium. Britain were worried by Germany’s increasing Naval strength as well as the threat posed by Germany to their Indian colony. Germany were also growing at a fast rate economically. By 1906-10 they had overtaken Britain in their percentage of World manufacturing capacity. If we accumulate these points, then it becomes very clear why the government was worried. They felt that Germany were encroaching on their strengths and were trying to undermine British vigour. Britain wanted to preserve their Empire and maintain their own European strength. What happens to France and Belgium was unimportant unless Germany or any other country became a direct Naval threat towards Britain.
However, as Grey expertly sums up, Britain feared losing respect from other states if they did not stick to the two agreements that they had made with Belgium and France. ‘If, in a crisis like this, we run away from those obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty, I doubt whether, whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of very much value in the face of the respect we should have lost…’ explained Grey to the House of Commons. Another factor for helping France and Belgium was that France were their only real allies. If they were to be seen shirking their responsibilities then Britain were likely to lose France as their allies and revert back to their time in splendid isolation. Britain did not want to break ties with neither France nor Belgium as both were seen as buffers to Germany.
There were several reasons behind the British governments decision to declare war on Germany on the 4th August 1914. I believe that the Entente Cordiale and Britain’s keenness to remain allies with France was the most important reason for Britain going to war in 1914. Had they not had an agreement and an understanding with France, then Britain were potentially vulnerable from a German or even a Russian attack. This could even mean an attack on Britain’s Empire and especially India.
Shorter-term reasons for going to war such as the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France and Britain’s fear of Germany’s increasing Naval strength provide us with an insight to the responsibility of the British government towards German actions and its obligation to France. Longer-term reasons such as keeping Belgium neutral (the Treaty of London) were still essential in protecting Britain’s front but maybe less important than the short-term reasons (that have been explained above). Overall, Britain stuck to its guns and kept to their responsibilities in defending France and keeping Belgium interest, which is why I believe that Britain were committed to war and were right to fight against Germany.