Magazine article The Spectator

With Friends like These

Magazine article The Spectator

With Friends like These

Article excerpt

One hundred years ago, on I May 1903, King Edward VII arrived in Paris on the last stop of a European tour. It had already sparked some controversy: His Majesty's Protestant subjects were not happy that he had dropped in at the Vatican to see the 93-year-old Pope, Leo XIII. What came next, however, was to be far more radical, and would have unimaginably deep consequences.

Not even the King's most senior ministers had more than an inkling at the time of what he was up to. Irritated by his nephew the Kaiser, and depressed at the surge of German power in Europe, the King had come to Paris to bury the idea that France was Britain's traditional enemy. He was determined to sow the seeds of an alliance between the two nations; what would come to be known as the Entente Cordiale was conceived during his visit.

A century later, when relations between Britain and France are probably worse than at any time since Waterloo, the old Entente is strained. But feelings between the two nations were little better when King Edward made his initiative. His first official biographer, Sir Sidney Lee, reported that the crowds that turned out to witness the King's arrival in Paris were merely `sullenly respectful'. One of the King's private secretaries, Fritz Ponsonby, drew the monarch's attention to some booing from the bystanders. 'The French don't like us,' he observed. `Why should they?' the King replied.

However, during his stay the King used every opportunity to plead for a new friendship between the two nations and their peoples. Without recourse to a spin doctor, he managed in under three days to turn public opinion around and to present himself as France's best friend in the world. He announced at a banquet in his honour, 'Our great desire is that we may march together in the path of civilisation and peace.' When he left, the crowds were cheering themselves hoarse.

While Mr Balfour, his prime minister, and Lord Lansdowne, his foreign secretary, watched more or less from the sidelines, the King sought to capitalise on this triumph. He invited Emile Loubet, the French president, to London two months later, where there were talks both at head- of-state and at ministerial level about formalising the new friendship. His ministers, schooled in Lord Salisbury's doctrine of splendid isolation, had not wanted the King to go near Paris. Now that he had, there was nothing they could do to stop the momentum of this new alliance. Over the next few months, French and British diplomats discussed and removed every possible cause of Anglo-French grievance, not least in various colonial disputes. A treaty of formal alliance was signed by the countries foreign ministers on 8 April 1904. Now, officially, Britain and France were the best of friends.

The Entente survived throughout that century, though its cordiality was at times questionable. The terms of the treaty left Britain with no choice but to join in the Great War, though the status of Britain as a guarantor of Belgian neutrality would have seen to our participation anyway. More complex is the question of whether the Kaiser would have felt so determined to blow up the Balkan crisis of the summer of 1914 into a Europe-wide conflict if he had not, to use his own words, felt 'encircled' by Britain, France and Russia. Russia and France had long been close, and in 1908 the alliance had become a Triple Entente after a meeting on the Baltic between King Edward and his kinsman Tsar Nicholas II. The Kaiser certainly felt that he was being hemmed in, and that the Entente's agenda was headed by the desire to contain Germany. From what we know of King Edward's private thoughts, the Kaiser was right. Whether the war that resulted would have happened without this alliance must remain a matter for speculation, or for books of counterfactual history.

Although there were political and military strains between the British and the French during the Great War, and certain doubts about the French level of vindictiveness against Germany at Versailles, the serious difficulties did not emerge until after 1939. …

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