Britain and the Origins of the First World War: Christopher Ray Queries the Accepted Picture of a Reluctant Victim of Forces beyond Her Control. (the Unpredictable Past)

Article excerpt

Accounts of the outbreak of World War One often communicate a sense that Britain was propelled into the conflict by force of circumstance, that it was, in some way, an accidental belligerent or a bystander `dragged' into war by forces beyond its control. Certainly, the events in the Balkans that led to hostilities were far removed from Britain's normal concerns and had little direct bearing on its relations with other powers in Europe. And, if the mood of detachment in Britain, which prevailed throughout July 1914, had continued unchanged, then there might he grounds for viewing its eventual participation in the war as `accidental'.

This, however, is not the case for, on Monday 3 August 1914, London witnessed an uncharacteristic public clamour for intervention that decisively pushed Britain into war. Until that day the majority of Britons seemed resolved that their country had no business becoming involved in a Continental war and, as the European Powers began to mobilize against each other, that it was yet another case of `six of one and a half dozen of the other'. There can be little doubt that it was news that Germany intended the invasion of neutral Belgium, guaranteed by Britain under the treaty of 1839, that tilted the balance in favour of a British intervention, changed the public mood from indifference to war fever and propelled the nation towards action.

Yet, if this appears to provide an overall explanation for British intervention, it actually explains very little. While the British people seemed content to see their Continental friends, if not actual allies, march to Armageddon with few qualms, why did the fate of Belgium weigh so heavily with them? And, was it conceivable that, if the French had marched into Belgium in order to forestall an expected German attack aimed, primarily at them, then Britain would have joined with Germany and declared war on France? This proposition seems highly unlikely and to discover Britain's real motivation for entering the war it is necessary to explain why British public opinion reacted so strongly to German actions and, in so doing, to discover what Britain's true role had been in the generation of the conflict.

Britain turns against the Germans

For most of the nineteenth century British defence planning was aimed primarily at France and Russia. Both posed threats to British colonial possessions overseas, France in Africa and Russia in the Far East. And, during the course of the century Britain had gone to war with both, with France from the end of the eighteenth century until 1815 and with Russia in the period 1854-5. British interests were also best served by the maintenance of a balance of power in Europe and in the prevention of the Continent being dominated by any one state. The large ground forces at the disposal of France and Russia were, consequently, a further factor in Britain's animosity towards these two countries. However, from the middle of the century, the rise of Germany into the ranks of the first-class powers helped to counterbalance this threat and allowed Britain to keep its distance from events on the Continent while remaining in `splendid isolation'.

It was not until the late 1890s that this began to change as tensions grew between Britain and Germany. To a certain extent this was based on the time-honoured principle in Britain of maintaining the balance of power in Europe and the consequent fear that Germany, after its defeat of France and its subsequent unification under the leadership of Prussia in 1871, might rise to dominate the Continent. It was, however, also based on the disappointment in Germany that Britain did not seek closer relations and remained somewhat condescending in its dealings with it. This was further compounded by Britain's preference for friendly relations with the United States, often at the expense of Germany, which became apparent after 1898. During the Spanish-American War of that year, Germany had sought to limit the extent of the American victory by raising a united European front against the United States in support of Spain. …