Prewar Years: Great Britain

English: The World in 1897. "The British ...

The world in 1897. The territories coloured pink belonged to the British Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arguably the most influential of all the great powers was the British Empire. Despite its relatively small population, Britain had been able to expand across the globe, with direct or indirect rule of over a quarter of the landmass of the globe, stretching to Canada, Australasia, the Subcontinent, and various African colonies. In order to maintain this influence, Britain relied upon its preponderant position in global finance, as well as the Royal Navy. Britain had been the first industrial power, and, by dint of imperial control, had access to the greatest wealth of natural resources, including precious metals, cotton and linen, coal, oil, and fine gemstones. In turn, the Bank of England, which was semi-autonomous from the government, nonetheless acted as a de facto arm of British foreign policy. During the late 1890s, for example, Britain largely bankrolled the infrastructure modernisation projects of the Ottoman Empire, in return for expanded influence within the Sublime Porte’s Middle Eastern holdings. Britain’s control of Egypt (and, more specifically, the Suez Canal) meant that it regulated shipping that wished to bypass the Horn of Africa. British money also assisted Japanese rearmament at the beginning of the century, and would later bolster the French and Russians.

While British finance was largely responsible for the creation of British control around the world, this control was maintained by the Royal Navy. Since its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and its exploits during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1789-1815, the British Royal Navy had built a reputation as the most formidable naval force in the world. This position was no idle boast; by 1914, the Royal Navy’s ranks included some 209,000 men – nearly 250% more than that of its nearest rival, the Imperial German Navy, as well as double the number of ships. This force was vital in order to defend Britain’s overseas territories; to that end, RN ships could be found, at any given moment, in every ocean around the world. In addition, under the leadership of First Sea Lord Admiral Baron John Fisher (better known as “Jacky” Fisher), the navy underwent a massive modernisation programme in the mid-1900s, culminating in the scrapping or sale of some 150 ships to free up funds for newer vessels. Fisher’s brainchild, the HMS Dreadnought, put to sea in 1906.

English: Photograph of British battleship HMS ...

HMS Dreadnought, Jacky Fisher’s pet project, rendered all other battleships obsolete when it was launched in 1906. It sparked a new phase in the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dreadnought was the first of a new type of battleship: heavily armoured, armed only with large-calibre guns to deliver massive amounts of firepower, and powered by steam turbines that propelled her at an unprecedented 21 knots. At a stroke, the Dreadnought rendered all other battleships in any fleet obsolete. This technical advantage, added to the construction expertise of Britain’s great shipbuilding yards, meant that the Royal Navy could clearly argue that, on the eve of war in 1914, it was not only the largest navy in the world, but also the most advanced.

For all this, however, Britain was uneasy with its obligations as a world power. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain had been a participant in the so-called “Concert of Europe.” This idea held that, in order to maintain peace and avoid another war on the scale of that wrought by Napoleon, a balance of power should be held between the European great powers. What this meant in theory was that these great powers (here being Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire) would hold their positions and not attempt to gain more geopolitical power. If one were to do so, it would be incumbent upon the other powers to find some means of compensation. In this way, no one power or bloc would gain an advantage over another, thus mitigating the chances of war.

In practice, however, Britain ignored the Concert of Europe. Indeed, its foreign policy at this time was one of “splendid isolationism”, arguing that it should not entangle itself in European continental affairs. On a handful of occasions, it had bent or broken its own rule. In 1839, Britain signed the Treaty of London, in which it guaranteed the territorial sovereignty of the newly-formed Kingdom of Belgium. By doing so, Whitehall had promised that, if Belgium were to be attacked by another country, Britain would act as Belgium’s protector. More directly, in order to safeguard its investments in Ottoman Turkey, London had sided with Constantinople and Paris in 1853 after Russia launched a campaign against the Ottoman Empire, thereby sparking the 30 month-long Crimean War. Britain had courted controversy during the Boer War in South Africa, when its war against the Boer settlers (i.e. of Dutch background) caused considerable unease in both the Netherlands and Germany. And, in 1898, British forces in Egypt intercepted a French expedition along the Nile at Fashoda, nearly sparking a war between the two colonial powers. But, in general, if London saw an issue as a purely European affair, it took great pains to stay out of it as much as possible. In spite of French appeals for assistance in 1870, for instance, Britain remained assiduously neutral as the Prussian Army beat the forces of Napoleon III, in a war that led to the formation of united Germany. Britain also kept silent during France’s war with Austria in 1859 over the independence of Italy, and in Austria’s ill-fated war with Prussia in 1866.

Britain’s malaise regarding the European balance of power had largely come about as an unintended consequence of its own expansion. In particular, Britain became preoccupied with two areas of its empire: India and, increasingly, Ireland.

India was the British Empire’s “jewel in the crown.” With its massive stores of expensive spices, dyes and precious metals, the British Raj was one of the major reasons why the British economy was in such a dominant position at the turn of the century. Britain held a monopoly on the Subcontinent, and this was only enhanced by India’s enormous population, which could be employed to work for British interests at little expense. Yet it was this importance that made India the weak point in the Empire. Britain had often been forced to act when it felt India was threatened; its support of the Ottomans during the Crimean War was also predicated on the assumption that, were Russia to defeat Turkey, it would be able to secure a land route to threaten India. Furthermore, while much of the Indian population was largely compliant, there was a nascent but growing movement for independence. British rule had been strengthened after the mutiny of the Indian sepoy regiments in 1857, but the British presence in India stood at roughly 200,000, compared to a native Indian population of some 300 million.

English: British India. Corpses of famine vict...

Victims of the Indian Famine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Discontent was exacerbated by British economic policies that were founded principally on exploitation. In many cases, overenthusiastic British exports of food from India led to terrible shortages among the native populations. In 1899, for example, a largely avoidable famine cost the lives of up to 10 million Indians. This, coupled with the discriminatory and often brutal legal position of the natives, and their marginalisation in society, led to festering resentment, and the slow rise of Indian nationalist or religious particularist movements.

The matter was even more acute in Ireland. Ireland had been part of the British Empire since the sixteenth century, but had been the centre of a relatively strong resistance movement since Oliver Cromwell’s bloody genocidal campaigns there in the seventeenth century. By the twentieth century, Ireland had become a dangerous powder-keg on Britain’s doorstep, and Whitehall was acutely preoccupied with the question of whether Ireland could be granted home rule (i.e. autonomy within the Empire). Adding to the urgency of reform debate was the emergence of Irish nationalist armies, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as the Land Wars of the late 1800s; these were waged by Irish reformists who hoped for fairer distribution of land and goods, since British rule and trade priorities had resulted in numerous famines in Ireland, most recently the Great Famine of 1845-1849, which halved the Irish population.

Italiano: Il Ministro degli Esteri britannico ...

Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sum total of all this was that, by 1900, Britain had largely marginalised itself from European politics. This was reinforced by the tenure of Sir Edward Grey as Foreign Secretary. As Britain’s chief diplomat, Grey outlasted two cabinets, and served as Foreign Secretary for an unprecedented 11 years. Grey, as the only continuous element in British affairs in these crucial years, introduced a predictability to the British Foreign Office; Britain would focus on its internal affairs and those of the dominions, rather than on its supposed position as a European power. This, then, meant for two key characteristics of British foreign policy. Firstly, it was clear that Britain would act if and when it felt that its own predominance was threatened. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it created an expectation amongst Britain’s would-be rivals that Britain was unwilling to involve itself in any continental affairs.


Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.

  • Hinsley, F. Harry (ed.) British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1977.

  • James, Lawrence. The Rise & Fall of the British Empire. London. Abacus. 2005.

  • Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914. London. Allen & Unwin. 1980.

  • Kennedy, Paul M. The Realities behind Diplomacy: Background Influences on British External Policy, 1865-1980. London. Allen & Unwin. 1981.

  • Metcalf, Thomas R. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1994.

  • Steiner, Zara. The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898-1914. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1969.

  • Steiner, Zara. Britain and the Origins of the First World War. New York. St. Martin’s Press. 1977.

  • Wilson, Keith M. The Policy of the Entente: Essays on the Determinants of British Foreign Policy 1904-1914. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1985.

  • Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918. Cambridge. Polity Press. 1986.

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