The British Empire

Why did Britain go to war with Germany in August 1914?

New emerging nations were challenging Britain

The emergence of new nations like the USA, Japan, Germany and Italy and the relative decline Naf Britain and the very real decline of the Ottoman empire together with Russia and France constantly looking over their backs at imagined and real enemies  -  all at the same time at the end of the c19th, made for a combustible mixture that many have seen as leading to an inevitable war. The mutual suspicions of these powers led to an arms race and an alliance system that reduced the options of countries. Empire was seen as the pre-requisite for economic success and this gave rise to imperial and trade rivalries. Social Darwinism was the prevailing orthodoxy of the time and with countries being ready to use war as an acceptable means of diplomacy, war was seen as a way of resolving international disputes.  With the decline of imperialism came the rise of nationalism with subject peoples, especially in the Balkans wanting to break away from the rulers.

Either everyone was to blame or no-one was to blame

People may want an easily digestible answer to why WW1 broke out but the complexities of international relations and of the world in those days before August 1914 mean that it is not possible. As Margaret MacMillan has said in her excellent book on the origins of WW1,'The War that ended Peace' either everyone was to blame or no-one was to blame. Was Serbia to blame for not restraining the gang that assassinated Franz Ferdinand? Was Austria to blame for wanting to destroy Serbia? Was Germany to blame for giving a blank cheque of support to Austria-Hungary? Was Britain to blame for not making her position clearer in the summer of 1914? Was Russia to blame for mobilising her armed forces against Germany and Austria-Hungary before any attempt had been made to resolve the crisis? Was France to blame for not restraining Russia.

Decisions made by just a few men

The decisions made that summer were made by a very small group of men (no women) who had all kinds of pressures on them - from politicians, from their own public, from the new media, and also from loved ones. Decisions were made at a time when communications were improving but were not as instant as they are today and this made it difficult to make decisions made on up to date information. Conrad the Austrian Chief of Staff wanted to impress his mistress, Grey the British Foreign Minister was desperate during the July crisis to return to his fishing on the Test in Hampshire whilst the Kaiser, although full of bluster wanted to avoid war. Nicholas, the Russian Tsar wanted to gain respect and revenge for previous humiliations suffered by Russia. All these men were making decisions which affected the lives of millions in a far from perfect international system and doing so without the skills and knowledge which the task demanded.

Increased Literacy brought greater feelings of nationalism

Rising levels of education had brought increased  literacy throughout much of western Europe and the working classes were now reading books and magazines produced just for them. The newly published Daily Mail was printing one million copies a day during the Boer War whilst G A Henty turned out stirring stories of Empire at the rate of one every six months. Much of these increased literacy levels resulted in greater feelings of nationalism and created feelings of insecurity as stories of invasion by our enemies increased  circulation figures for newspapers. The 'Boy's Own Paper' started in 1879 in Britain fostered a love of Empire and taught the duties of citizenship.

Possessing an empire was increasingly seen as the means of maintaining one's prosperity. Surely if a nation possessed colonies it could have its own resources of essential minerals etc whilst having a guaranteed export market. Alfred Thayer Mahon published a book (The Influence of Sea Power upon History) at the same time as Turner which argued for the creation of strong navies to maintain a colonial empire. Mahon argues that maritime nations had dominated the world over the previous 400 years as a result of their navies which gave them control of the seas. Newly emerging nations like the USA, Germany and Italy increasingly wanted an Empire for themselves which would serve as a source of raw materials, trade and for prestige and this led to a scramble to acquire colonies in the last 25 years of the century. In a world with less and less land to colonise this led to conflict and disputes between the colonial powers, nearly all European.

There were storm clouds though on the horizon and the peoples of Europe were feeling more and more uneasy about the politics of the time. The rise of nationalism in Ireland, the Balkans and in Austria Hungary challenged the existing order. Throughout the nineteenth century Europe presided over the decline of the Ottoman Empire and as it declined its subject peoples demanded to rule themselves so that by 1900 Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Greece were all independent. This movement encouraged other subject peoples around Europe to demand their independence, encouraged by great powers seeking to extend their own influence.

War was an acceptable means of diplomacy

Where there had been wars in Europe in the 19th century, they had been brief and fought by regular standing armies with little civilian involvement and indeed with little impact on civilian life. Although the Franco-Prussian and Boer wars hinted of new ways of waging war those in charge did not adapt their methodology to meet the demands of a new warfare. Barbed wire, machine guns and trench warfare had all been used by 1900 but few generals saw what the future had in store. War was still thought of as an acceptable means of resolving disputes between countries if diplomacy failed. In fact war or indeed the threat of war, was seen as an extension of diplomacy. Just how dangerous a situation this was we were to see during the July crisis of 1914.

The Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Britain increased feelings of pride

In June 1897 Britain and her Empire celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Victoria's accession to the throne. Britain seemed to rule the world having had global dominance for most of the nineteenth century. 50,000 troops from around the world escorted the Queen to St Paul's and a few days later a naval review at Spithead, off Portsmouth, saw 165 warships cruising off land for as far as the eye could see.  The nation was imbued with  feelings of pride for the Empire occupied over 12million square miles and included a quarter of the world's population.

Imperial power was illusory

This display of power though was illusory for the better informed knew that Britain's position in the world was being challenged and the USA would shortly overtake Britain as the world's greatest manufacturer followed by Germany. Although the Jubilee celebrations were all about the Empire, the Empire aroused mixed emotions, and a result of the haphazard way in which it had developed there were many among the educated classes who questioned whether the Empire was worth the effort and the expense. The New Imperialism of the time, championed by the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain called for the colonies of the Empire to be provided with the investment that would mean they could develop economically and be self sufficient but the reality was that the Empire could not defend itself and was a drain on Britain's resources. The British people had had an off and on relationship with the empire. They loved it when the newspapers were full of stories of daring do and the exploits of Gordon, Wolseley and Roberts in far away exotic places  but otherwise they were not interested. The soldiers who patrolled and fought to defend the empire were thought of as the scourge of the earth and those who went to India in the Indian Civil Service to govern it were a class apart from the rest of the country.

Britain was not fit to defend herself

The waging of the Boer War seemed to be proof that the country was not in a fit state to defend herself against an attack from a strong European country like France, Russia or Germany and without allies or friends we were at the mercy of European armies that were much more powerful than our own. The men who were sent to fight in South Africa were the smallest army we had ever sent away (in terms of stature). In 1901 the journalist Arnold White pointed out that at the Manchester recruiting station, three out of every five recruits at the start of the war had to be rejected because they failed to meet the army's already low standards.

What emerged from the Boer War was a crisis of confidence- in the fitness of the British working man and in the ability of our armed forces to defend our shores. Kitchener (Commander in Chief in South Africa ) had warned the government that there were no more soldiers to be sent to India in the event of an attack from Russia. In effect India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, was defenceless.

There had been a debate among the service chiefs and the government in the 1890s about how best to defend Britain. In 1900 the army rarely exceeded 135,000 excepting the Indian army and 30% were at any one time on garrison duty abroad. The main problem with the army was that it had hardly changed since the time of Napoleon. It lacked training facilities and in particular a General Staff. It was poorly equipped and trained and even though there had been reforms in the 1870s which had abolished flogging and the purchase of commissions, the quality of the ordinary recruit was poor.

The navy had been heavily criticised in the 1880s for not having adapted to modern times but there had been changes particularly in the introduction of the two power standard in 1889 which meant that there was a commitment from government to maintain a ship building programme to ensure the British navy was the largest in the world and larger than the next two navies added together. Maintaining a large navy meant significant investment - the Naval Defence Act of 1889 committed the country to spending £21.5 million on the navy including ten battleships and again in 1894 the Liberal government committed the country to another five year programme devoted mainly to the building of large cruisers and torpedo-boat destroyers.

Whereas the navy began to modernise, particularly under Fisher from 1904, the army seemed to be prone to any reform, largely because its commander in chief, the Duke of Cambridge was immune to any kind of change proposed by his generals. Only when Wolseley became commander in chief in 1895 did the reformers take the helm and then money was limited for much reform which had to be achieved under the existing budget. It was only when Haldane became War Minister in 1905 that the government set about producing a force that could be quickly be sent to Europe and a reserve that could provide sufficient men to back up such a fRead onorce.


Alfred von Schliefffen, architect of the Schlieffen Plan

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

A rapidly world

Trying to get to the bottom of why WW1 happened is never going to be easy though. The world in the years before 1914 was changing fast so that new technology gave us new weapons and means of communication, a popular press for the first time with an increasingly literate population but with a political system that in most countries had not matched the changes. Nearly all of the countries that went to war in 1914 were monarchies that were relinquishing their power very slowly and had archaic systems of decision making that still gave individuals  enormous amounts of power. It was as much the system of decision making that was at fault for the outbreak of war in August 1914 as the level of international tension.

Alfred Thayer Mahon

Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

Joseph Chamberlain


Richard Haldane

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