The chain of events which brought Europe to the brink of war in 1914 is very complicated. Historians have constantly argued over whether conflict was inevitable and tried to attribute the blame for the conflict of World War I. The possibility of war had existed for some time prior to 1914 as huge powerblocks emerged across Europe. The alliance of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy was balanced by the understanding that existed between the might of France and Russia.
Britain however had attempted to remain as separate from European matters since the Crimean War.Britain was the largest Imperial power on earth and chose to retreat into the massive wealth and trade afforded to her by overseas territories. At the turn of the century it was by no means certain to whom British alliance would be given in the event of war.Anglo-Russian relations were tense during this period due to the threat the Russian Bear posed to Britain’s most important overseas possession, India. Prior to 1904 Russia had been increasing incursion into Persia and thus threatening Afghanistan which lay within Britain’s sphere of influence. Russia was therefore Britain’s main rival to her hegemony in Asia. For this reason the majority of the British army was stationed in India whilst the responsibility for Guarding the British Isles and British shipping (the annual revenue of which amounted to £1,200,000,000 sterling) to the formidable British Navy.In 1903, despite great attempts from the then foreign minister Landsdowne to avert it, war broke out between Russia and Japan. Japan and Britain were on good terms but the decision was made to avoid involvement in the crisis. To the great surprise, however, of the European powers by 1905 the Japanese forces had soundly defeated Russia. This however did not allay British fears for her frontiers in India particularly one of their alternative routes into Asia had been blocked. Politicians such as Lord Curgon favoured using direct force to temper Russia’s ambitions but the resources for such a course of action were not at the governments disposal.The defeat of Russia also severely shook the balance of power in Europe. Just as the British army’s weaknesses had been highlighted by the Boers, so defeat in Asia showed the disarray of Russian troops. Compared to the formidable power of the ever expanding German army, Russia seemed weak. It seemed increasingly important that Britain avoid conflict in Asia whilst maintaining the balance of power in Europe. For these reasons negotiation with Russia seemed the logical step.Talks were opened in 1906 in St Petersburg against the backdrop of potential revolution. Despite the frosty nature of the talks and the constant danger of the talks collapsing, eventually progress was made. Persia, it was agreed, was to remain an independent power. It was however to be separated into three spheres of influence. The Russian sphere in the north a British sphere and a third neutral sphere which was open to the commerce of both. Thus the Chief negotiator Arthur Nicholson had succeeded in gaining a buffer against Russian interests in India.The previously anti-Tsarist liberal government under which the talks had been concluded, were thus absolved from the need to build a large Indian army. This allowed Britain to concentrate on European issues particularly on the worrying ambitions of the increasingly powerful Germans. Entente with Russia also served to lessen the chance of any Russian-German understanding which would have had a disastrous effect on the balance of European power. As well as having an imperial aspect, Britain’s understanding with Russia kept Germany separate in Europe and complemented a new entente that was developing between Britain and France, Russia’s national ally.France like Britain was a huge imperial power and a rival to British domination in Africa. Prior to 1904 if suggestions had been made by the France for a convergence of interests in North Africa. Eventually it was the crisis of the Russo-Japanese war, which threatened to give Russia hegemony in China or to involve Britain in an unwanted conflict which pushed her towards Russia’s ally France. As with Russia it was colonial factors which facilitated entente with France. The entente showed France and England reaching agreement over the running of several colonies including vital North African territories.It was a conservative government who signed the entente with France in 1904 giving verbal assurances that ‘under certain eventualities’ that France could rely on British support. The clear shift of British policy towards France was highlighted on the 24th of June 1905 when the Admiralty prepared embryonic plans for a naval war between Britain and Germany, with Britain acting to defend France.This entente however was by no means stable especially after the 1906 election. The French establishment distrusted the new liberal government seeing them as too pacifist and possible pro-German. The liberals seemed to be overtly interested in introducing German style social reforms. This combined with the Liberals traditional anti-Tsarist stance stood the entente on infirm ground.It was for these reasons that in 1906 a entourage led by Edward Grey met with their French counterparts to discuss the liberal view of the Entente. Whilst secret assurances were given that if France were attacked by Germany they would be supported by Britain. The government however refused to commit troops to the increasingly troubled region of Morocco.The first Moroccan Crisis occurred because of French concern over German ambition in North-Africa. It was a problem the liberals had inherited and whilst reluctant to aid France militarily they were prepared to use diplomatic means to aid their neighbours. On January 16 the Conference of Morocco was opened. Whilst it’s finding favoured German policy by guaranteeing Moroccan independence, the French were satisfied by the provisions which gave France and Spain power over the Moroccan police and France power over the Moroccan banks. These provisions clearly left Morocco well within the French sphere of influence and ripe for future exploitation. Much of the gains France made during the conference were aided extensively by the support and agitation of the British. Throughout the period in question fear had been steadily growing as Germany became ever more powerful and ambitious. Foreign Minister Grey was greatly concerned at the effect Germany’s ever increasing industrial and military power. The insensitive nature of the German foreign policy in areas such as Africa also contributed to the increasing mistrust with which she was seen. The possibility that some sort of agreement between Britain and Germany could be decided upon decreased in the ten years prior to the war, British public opinion was violently anti-German . Britain’s main rivalry at this time however was concerned with the ever expanding size of the German navy.For a century prior to World War I, the British navy had been the most powerful on Earth , and the pride of the British people. The destruction of the Russian fleet by the Japanese however had severely altered the balance of power. After 1905 the British found themselves the only naval power greater than the ever-growing German fleet. After 1906 an Anglo-German arms race saw frantic ship building in both countries. The stakes were raised however when Britain launched her first Dreadnought. This new heavily armed boat serves as an example of the seriousness with which the government viewed the possibility of British naval superiority being usurped. The British press constantly agitated in favour of yet more ship building and reflected the opinion of much of the public that the Kaiser was little more than a despot.The naval arms race also helped to push Britain even closer to France and Russia. The secure situation in Asia allowed for much of the fleet to be moved from India to the Mediterranean, where it joined the French fleet, and the build up of the British fleet to be stationed in the North Sea.Although France also distrusted Germany, some attempt at reconciliation was made in 1909 when a Franco-German treaty was signed to promote economic equality and co-operation in Morocco. Despite the treaty France continued to exert by far the most influence over Morocco. The French decision to send an expeditionary force to Fez in an attempt to establish a protectorate shattered this short lived agreement. In response to this action, which the French had not consulted with Germany about, the 1909 treaty was nullified. The crisis reached its zenith when the German gunboat Panther arrived at Agadir, an act that was seen by many as a direct threat of war.Britain was now placed in a very difficult position. To ignore the crisis would risk the entente and the cabinet felt that too severe a reaction would lead to war with Germany. The possibility existed that France would come to terms with Germany over the crisis without the aid of British diplomacy. This was of course unacceptable since this would see closer relations between these powers face Britain in an even more isolated position.Grey therefore insisted that any discussions over Morocco should include Britain. Eventually assurances were given to France that the 1904 entente would be honoured provided France tried to settle peacefully with the Germans. France agreed to give up some of her territories thus appeasing German interest in North Africa. Thus the crisis of Agadir served to strengthen the entente and separate France and Germany. However that small amount of land gained by Germany during the crisis fuelled antagonism against Britain thus giving Turpitz an excuse to build yet more ships.The reasons for Britain’s choice of France and Russia as allies was found not initially in European consideration. At the turn of the century the defence of India and the Empire was seen as the most important job of foreign policy. The decision not to enter an alliance with Russia not only protected territories in Asia but inevitably brought Britain closer to Russia’s ally France. During the ten years prior to 1914 British involvement around the world was continually geared towards maintaining the balance of power in Europe. As German power expanded it also became necessary to keep France and Russia from entering any alliances with her.It was only when Britain’s colonial interests were made secure that she could turn to Europe. Ironically the treaties which tied Britain to France and Russia were defensive and geared towards avoiding war. The weakness of British ground troops made it imperative that she ally herself with a European group and thus tip the balance of power away from Germany.Unfortunately British and German aims were quite incompatible.
Britain’s naval supremacy and her interest in Europe were inexorably linked. The weakness of the British Expeditionary force made European alliances vital. The Germans on the other hand had to balance European concerns against their colonial ambitions. A strong navy was seen as an indispensable stepping stone to imperial glory. This naval expansion caused a kind of cold war between Germany and Britain which made any Anglo-German alliance unlikely. Bibliography *Steiner Zara S, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, Macmillan Press Ltd, 1977*Ensor Robert, England 1870-1914, Oxford at Clarendon Press, 1936*Monger, The End of Isolation, Thomas Nelson and Son Ltd, 1963*Schmitt B E, The Coming of the War 1914; The Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, New York, 1947