Home » 1914 » Why did Britain go to war in August 1914?

Why did Britain go to war in August 1914?


IN BRIEF

Britain was a global empire content to rule the waves and trade with her dominions and colonies, not least with the subcontinent of India. Where a choice needed to be made it was better to have Russia and France on friendly terms, especially as Germany post-Bismarck under kaiser Wilhelm II was seeking its ‘place in the sun’ – as a world power, dominant in Europe with a vast swathe of central Africa too. There was no need for the murder of archduke Franz Ferdinand to escalate however Germany, through the kaiser and Reich Chancellor pushed Austria-Hungary into what they at first hoped could remain a localised war, or at least one against Russia, or maybe against France to, but ideally not with Britain as well. Despite Germany’s lies and misjudgments, Sir Edward Grey did his utmost to bring the conflicting parties to conference: neither Austria-Hungary or Germany was having anything of it – they wanted war, Germany to resolve once and for all its fears on encirclement and Austria-Hungary to prove to all minority groups in its fragmented empire that it would stand up to anyone seeking national self-government. Britain did not have a cabinet agreement to enter the war until after Germany had invaded Belgium, however close talks and agreements were with both France and Germany. Nor in the British Expeditionary Force did it have a continental army – though it could and did very quickly draw from the dominions and colonies, as well as from volunteers.

SUMMARY

Britain went to war, reluctantly, in 1914 in response, once all efforts at mediation had failed, to the belligerent machinations of specific people in the Berlin leadership who exploited the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, no matter the risk of turning a local conflict into a world war, to challenge the status quo and so earn through conquest a position as a World Power.

Britain was reluctant, as were France and Russia, even Serbia to an armed conflict. Britain, expected or at least hoped to play a neutral role by Germany, through its Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey and guided by the cabinet of a coalition Government of Conservatives and Liberals, did its utmost to mediate, through proposals for conferences and through direct and indirect diplomatic channels, in particular through briefing the German Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky. Such efforts at mediation were delayed, ignored, obfuscated and stonewalled by the likes or the Reich’s Chancellor Bethman Hollweg, and Jagow, spurred on by the albeit oscillating and sentimental diplomatically inept German monarch, kaiser Wilhelm II. Documents identified for the purposes of explaining the actions, decisions and feelings of the participants in the lead up to what became a world war by Immanuel Giess in 1965 and Annika Mombauer some fifty years later, clearly show that Germany was inclined to try its hand, an apt metaphor that indicates the gamble they took, to escape the impasse, let alone the containment or encirclement which certain German leaders felt was keeping Germany back from its rightful place on the world stage.

Understanding why Britain went to war in 1914 necessitates understanding why Germany left Britain with little choice – the Cuckoo in the European nest wanted to dictate to all on the continent and would have happily left England on the other side of the Channel. There are three parts to this understanding: Germany’s rapid rise and maturity as an industrial nation contrasting with an immaturity or at best a splenetic political form of government; the position, character and demands of a handful of German leaders who dreamt of, planned and then willed continental if not world war and the efforts, and the ramifications of the ultimatum presented to Serbia by Austria-Hungary at Germany’s behest which led to diplomatic and Diplomatic efforts by Britain to prevent the localised war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that would lead, the politicians knew, to a far wider conflagration.

IN A BIT MORE DETAIL

Britain went to war, reluctantly, in 1914 in response, once all efforts at mediation had failed, to the belligerent machinations of specific people in the Berlin leadership who exploited the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand, no matter the risk of turning a local conflict into a world war, to challenge the status quo and so earn through conquest a position as a World Power.

Britain was reluctant, as were France and Russia, even Serbia to take part in an armed conflict. Britain, expected or at least hoped to play a neutral role by Germany, through its Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey and guided by the cabinet of a coalition Government of Conservatives and Liberals, did its utmost to mediate, through proposals for conferences and through direct and indirect diplomatic channels, in particular through briefing the German Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky. Such efforts at mediation were delayed, ignored, obfuscated and stonewalled by the likes or the Reich’s Chancellor Bethman Hollweg, and  Jagow, spurred on by the albeit oscillating and sentimental diplomatically inept German monarch, kaiser Wilhelm II. Documents identified for the purposes of explaining the actions, decisions and feelings of the participants in the lead up to what became a world war by Immanuel Giess in 1965 and Annika Mombauer some fifty years later, clearly show that Germany was inclined to try its hand, an apt metaphor that indicates the gamble they took, to escape the impasse, let alone the containment or encirclement which certain German leaders felt was keeping Germany back from its rightful position on the world stage.

Understanding why Britain went to war in 1914 necessitates understanding why Germany left Britain with little choice – this Cuckoo in the European nest wanted to dictate to all on the continent and would have happily left England on the other side of the Channel. Britain had historically always acted against a single power dominating continental Europe so a pressure point, if not conflict formed as Wilhelmine Weltpolitik moved from being an idea to a modus operandi.

There are three parts to this understanding: Germany’s rapid rise and maturity as an industrial nation contrasting with an immaturity or at best a splenetic political form of government; the position, character and demands of a handful of German leaders who dreamt of, planned and then willed continental if not world war and the efforts, and the ramifications of the ultimatum presented to Serbia by Austria-Hungary at Germany’s behest which led to considerable diplomatic and Diplomatic efforts by Britain to prevent the localised war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that would lead, the politicians knew, to a far wider conflagration.

Germany, in contrast to its agrarian neighbours Austria-Hungary and France, was an industrial force with a rapidly expanding population; its leadership felt it needed room to grow into. Unified under the Prussian Bismark only 40 years earlier, by the turn of the century, as Hans Deltbruck put it in November 1899, ‘we want to be a world power’ which achieved ‘with England means peace; against England means – through war’. Britain, in this respect went to war because Germany dared to try aggression to achieve its aims once bungled efforts to secure Britain’s neutrality in 1924 failed.

Kaiser Wilhelm II felt Germany deserved and required the status of a Great Power too. Although a constitutional monarchy, like Britain, in Germany the kaiser wielded power with few checks. In the case of the kaiser this was unfortunate as this wilful man wished upon himself the role of a great Prince of Peace and a great warlord. (Geiss, 1965). His oscillations between the two could be tipped in favour of war as the Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg managed, for example not allowing the kaiser to apply the brakes in the final moments before the outbreak of war. () Whilst according to Michael Freund, Franz Fisher’s made Bethman Hollweg out as being like Hitler is somewhat extreme, it is nonetheless the case that it was The Reich Chancellor’s will and actions, in his own words the ‘house of cards’ that he constructed, that built a position against which Britain had to act, in the final analysis when Germany breached Belgium neutrality, though it was to support France that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, with the agreement of a split Conservative/Liberal Cabinet, presented Britain’s ultimatum to Germany. Bethmann Hollweg did not act alone, the machinations of both Jagow and Moltke significantly drove Germany’s aims to force Austria-Hungary into a local war with Serbia, even though, indeed because, this would bring Russia into the fray and in turn initiate the Schlieffen plan that required the massive and equipped German army to attack France through Belgium. Such behaviour had been in the air since the end of the previous century () and on the cards since 1907 (). It was born out of Germany’s fear of encirclement and of Russia’s burgeoning might (). Fears felt by those in power in a Reich that lacked any constitutional provision for formal deliberation of such problems and now devoid of Bismarkian ‘Realpolitik’ (), the ‘politics of sentiment’ () the way the kaiser’s rule is described. Lichnowsky described to Bethmann Hollweg Jagow’s ‘misguided’ belief that Russia would stay out of the war for a few years yet – but it was lack of guidance, or the ability or means to listen to and act on advice that allowed a handful of people in Germany’s Ministry’s to believe the outcome of their actions and the subsequent war would be an mighty Germany at the centre of Europe and of Africa.

The Sarajevo Crisis brought about by the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire should have no more brought Britain into armed conflict in continental Europe than the First and Second Balkan Wars. () Here, at the edge of Europe, with the desire for national self-determination being achieved at a cost to the Ottoman Empire () the very same movement threatened Austria-Hungary, itself ruled by a monarchy that clung to its dynasty with its threadbare grasp on its multivarious peoples and allied to the second most conservative nation after Czarist Russia, namely Germany. The murders of FF and SC gave Moltke the ‘slogan for a great war’: the excuse to flex considerable muscle. Britain, with the Foreign Minister Grey pivotal, could not have known or believed how duplicitous Germany could be, though expert insight and analysis had been and would be provided by Sir Eyre Crowe: Germany had ambitions and the means for aggrandisement both in Europe and Africa. ‘Either Germany is definitely aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy’, Crowe advised in 1907, ‘threatening the independence of her neighbours and ultimately the existence of England, or … is seeking to promote her foreign commerce, spread the benefits of German culture’. Here Crowe elucidates the dichotomy that was this fledgling cuckoo at the beginning of the 20th century: on the one hand a 20th century commercial and cultural powerhouse on the other a 19th even an 18th poltical entity where the likes of Bethmann Hollweg, according to Erdman () could dream up an ‘eighteenth century cabinet war’. Repeatedly Grey took the initiative to see if the issues could be resolved, the most important proposal on 26th July for a four power conference in London between those countries which were not directly involved: England, France, Italy and Germany (g93,94). Germany refused thinking of it as tantamount to an ‘Aeropagus before which Austria would be held’ (g90) With delay only likely to play into the hands of the mediators gp. 270 Moltke took things into his own hands and informed Lt. Colonel Biernarch the Austrian-Hungary Military attaché in Berlin to mobilise immediately.

Metaphors on the one hand help with ‘meaning making’ and are used to help explain the complex even though they evoke the bias of their authors. Even a phrase as seemingly innocuous as ‘Britain goes to war’ suggests something far less troubled, debated over and contested – war, especially on the scale and for the duration expected – requiring millions of men and many years rather than a few months to resolve, was the last thing that Britain, let alone France, Russia or even Serbia desired. In this respect Britain did not so much go to war, as have war thrust in her face with the fait accompli the German leadership, Jagow in particular, pulled off by getting Austria-Hungary to get on with what her belligerent partner wanted and open the conflict with Serbia by bombarding Belgrade. Buchanan suggested to Grey that Britain would be ‘dragged’ into war, a century later the historian Christopher Clark (2011) describes how the countries ‘sleepwalked’; reading the original documents however you see that Britain and the other leading nations made a ‘conscious decision’, Geiss’s phrase (1965) and that in Britain’s case this was to make a stand with France against an aggressive Germany that felt that duplicity rather than diplomacy, and conflict rather than conference, was the way to achieve the aims of a nation’s leadership. Britain took a reasoned, and for the times the only course of action possible, when every conceivable effort to prevent war had failed; ‘going to war’ was the consequence of failing to postpone the ‘local’ war and get the parties to mediate – an impossible task given that only Germany had the means to start, delay or avert this ‘localised’ war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

Britain could act, having the immediate means to do so with the Fleet and the British Expeditionary Force and having, only with German’s breach of Belgian neutrality, Cabinet support, not without resignations and abstentions, to do so.

What Grey did, by committing, was to refuse to remain neutral as Germany had hoped, and so to remove one of the cards that would cause Bethmann Hollweg’s ‘House of Cards’ to collapse (g340) – the neutrality of the British Empire. Moltke would get the ‘showdown’ he had desired, to use another metaphor that places Britain and Germany like a couple of barefist fighters in the ring, a metaphor that puts at arm’s length the reality, brutality, and totality of what the players knew would be calamitous. The usually misquoted HGWells’ phrase, ‘the war that will end all war’ – the title to a pamphlet he wrote in November 1914, expresses what all the leaders of the combatants understood – that this would be a war on a scale like none that had gone before, a risk the German leadership wanted to take, opening a Pandora’s Box () that a century later remains ajar. Although it was the invasion of aliens that HGWells wrote about in his fiction, several other authors had written about a fictional invasion of Britain by Germany, something that initially the Cabinet and British Military leadership planned for and what was seen as an eventuality should Germany have been successful at conquering France and Russia on the continent. In its position as the dominant and established World Power, it was the British Empire that felt it had to meet the obligation to support France, not leadt because consideration had been given to alternative outcomes: France and Russia defeating Germany leaving the defensive alliance in tatters and other parts of the British Empire vulnerable. Ultimately Britain alone did not ‘go to war’, but rather the British Empire, with Kitchener as its military leader, a stalwart of successful colonial rule in India and of battles in Sudan and Southern Africa, with dominion and colonial forces to call upon, blocked Germany’s way to Paris. Having paved the way for seeking common ground on fireign policy in 1904 gp. 274 Paul Cambon now asked Grey to reconsider their correspondence in 1912 (g148) and Poincare attempted to make it clear to Bertie that only an unequivocal of England’s support could save the peace.

With Britain’s own issue of internal national self-determination to manage, the question of Irish Home Rule and the Protestant counties of the north, postponed and with parliament’s and the cabinet’s support to do so, Germany was presented with the British ultimatum, ironically after all the prevarications of this issue when it came to Austria-Hungary and Serbia, with a short timescale – not that there could possibly have been any further reason to hope for or expect mediation.

Britain had not declared her position too late, rather she had, in hindsight naively, left the door open for as long as possible for mediation – the extent to which German leaders, Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow purposely lied about Germany’s role and actions in relation to chivying Austro-Hungary into war with Serbia and deliberately stymied British efforts to bring the Powers to conference has only subsequently been fully realised (). Though the evidence was lacking, advice and insights from the likes of Buchanan, Rumbold, Nicholson and Crowe from Britain, as well as from Poincare and Sazanov from France and Russia respectively, must have come close to confirming Grey’s fears regarding Germany’s desire to be and to prove that it was a World Power.

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