One hundred years ago this April Britain signed the 'Entente Cordiale' with France. A few observers expressed reservations at the time in what would today be denounced as the extreme right-wing, 'Little England' press, but such protestations were drowned by a wave of enthusiasm for such a startling Diplomatic Revolution. The agreement was hailed as a triumph of reason, progress and diplomatic agility. Britain had at last ended her age-old enmity with France, abandoned imperial adventurism, and had emerged from her self-imposed chauvinistic isolationism. Instead, she was to embrace a more communitaire spirit of diplomacy with our neighbours across the Channel. In reality, however, the Entente proved disastrous both for Britain and for the peace of Europe. The Entente was largely the inspiration of a Francophile social and political elite and was founded upon a flawed appreciation of the contemporary strategic position.
The Entente emboldened France and her ally Russia, alienated Germany and served to poison international relations for 10 years. It was thus of paramount significance in escalating the Great Power mistrust that culminated in the fateful decisions which precipitated the First World War in the summer of 1914.
The decision to sign an Entente with France was based upon a flawed assessment of Britain's strategic position in 1904 which concluded that Britain in isolation would be unable to defend her overseas interests. Much of this self-doubt arose from the Boer War of 1899-1902. Recruitment for the war had revealed the physical deterioration of large sections of the industrial working classes as two-thirds of would-be recruits were rejected on grounds of physical incapacity. The war itself had dragged on for three years and highlighted the military deficiencies in a supposedly all-powerful Empire. Britain was left diplomatically isolated, ridiculed for her military blunders and vilified as an aggressor prepared to exploit immoral methods of using concentration camps to imprison women and children. The Imperial Defence Review of 1902 concluded that Britain's Empire was seriously over-committed and vulnerable to attack from hostile alliances. As Germany, led by the maverick Kaiser Wilhelm II, pursued her Weltpolitik (World Policy) of winning a 'place in the sun', and, in particular, built a formidable fleet of battleships, it seemed clear that Britain could no longer afford the luxury of isolation.
Despite the pessimism of the Foreign Office, however, Britain's strategic position remained secure in 1904. Her defence was founded upon her naval supremacy, which, despite German expansion, remained unassailed. The Royal Navy had twice as many battleships as Germany and was the equal to the next two largest fleets. This was supported by an extensive network of naval bases and by the world's largest merchant fleet. Britain produced 18 per cent of the world's manufactured goods and her Empire occupied a quarter of the world's land surface. Britain's alliance with Japan in 1902 safeguarded her Far Eastern Empire and enabled her to concentrate her naval strength in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. Of course Britain's status as a great power had diminished relatively since 1815 as her neighbours industrialised, but her supremacy could only have been seriously challenged by a most unlikely alliance of enemies. It can be argued, therefore, that the defeatism of the Foreign Office after 1902 heralded in many ways the appeasement policy of the 1930s.
Britain's entanglement with France was born out of an exaggerated fear of Germany. Despite alarms following the creation of a United Germany in 1871, the new Reich proved to be a force of stability in central Europe and indeed, before 1900, ties of blood, history, and commerce suggested that she was Britain's most natural ally. Germany's much vaunted naval expansion of the 1890s was intended by Admiral Tirpitz …