Britain’s Response to the July Crisis, June-August 1914.

With the various alliances of Europe activated, and the continental great powers mobilising against each other, a general European war had become inevitable by the end of July 1914. It was not yet, however, a world war in the proper sense of the term. It became so on 4 August, when the British prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, issued his government’s declaration of war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In doing so, Britain’s colonies and dominions around the world were compelled to take part. Britain’s international power, as such, was vast, as it could call upon the manpower of territories as far away as India, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Moreover, it could rely on the Empire’s ability to supply it with materiel in the form of foodstuffs and industrial goods. British mobilisation therefore meant global mobilisation, and with its formal declaration in August, the transformation of the July Crisis from a local squabble between a precocious Serbia and a wounded Austria-Hungary, into a conflict of cataclysmic proportions, was now complete.

But why did Britain become involved in continental affairs in the first place? Much ink — perhaps too much — has been spilt recently attempting to answer this question, especially as the United Kingdom has become self-reflective in the context of the centenary years of the war. Broadly speaking, there are three major reasons given to explain British involvement:

  1. Britain did so to fulfil its treaty obligations, either with France and Russia or, less sordidly, with Belgium.
  2. Britain was manoeuvred into war by its foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who did so either to extend waning British influence abroad, or else because he had been taken by surprise by events, and reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to an unfolding crisis of unprecedented proportions.
  3. Britain recognised a moral threat posed by an expansionist Germany, and reacted accordingly.

All of these trends have proponents — including some major names in the historical field — but none fully satisfies the question. Britain’s entrance into the war was a complicated and intricate process, at once necessary and the harbinger of senseless bloodshed.

Britain in 1914: Paradise Lost?

Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, 1902.

British industry was the basis for the island nation’s power abroad. (Source: Wikimedia.)

It is common to think of the period before the outbreak of war as a golden era, the halcyon days of the late Edwardian and early Georgian age. The Empire had expanded to its furthest reaches — truly one on which the sun never set — and the nation basked in the glow of post-Victorian prosperity. In many ways, Britain had never had it better. As a country whose power, both imperial and otherwise, rested on its commercial weight, Britain enjoyed an unchallenged role at the head of the global industrial economy. In 1900, Britain controlled some twenty percent of international trade and, even though the United States and Germany were growing industrial powers, they did not necessarily threaten British markets so much as complement them. An apocryphal story maintains that, in the lead-up to 1914, young British boys played with tin soldiers that were made in Germany. Even if this were true, the reverse was also the case; German textiles, for instance, never kept up with the vast industry centred around Manchester. British coal production remained at world-beating levels, and industries that existed due to the extensive imperial lines of communication, such as wool, coffee and rubber, remained virtual British monopolies. The British trade economy had also put aside its struggles of the years of 1885 to 1896, in which all European and American markets suffered from a depression; between 1895 and 1913, Britain’s export market grew from £226 million to £525 million (an increase of 132 percent), while its re-exports of goods in the same period increased by eighty-three percent, from £60 million to £110 million. These riches translated to impressive social improvements at home and, even if working and living conditions in the industrial centres remained  dirty and impoverished for many of the urban proletariat, at least those conditions had increased markedly in the century or more since the Industrial Revolution had transformed Britain into the world’s premier trader. In this globalised market, it was the British Empire that constructed its web of communication and transportation, it was the British Empire that presided over international trade, and it was the British Empire that benefitted from it.

There were, however, cracks that were beginning to appear in this impressive veneer. The first concerned Britain’s relative economic strength. Many scholars have pointed to the increasing importance of Germany on the world markets, and corresponding decline in British trade. Between 1900 and 1913, British trade continued to grow in absolute terms, but its global market share actually began to shrink; on the eve of war, Britain’s share of world trade remained a respectable (and certainly world-leading) seventeen percent, but this constituted a decline from the twenty percent it had enjoyed at the start of the century. The gap to its nearest continental competitor, Germany, had also decreased, as Germany had increased its market share from ten to thirteen percent. These numbers also demonstrate something more about the nature of the German trade economy. At the end of the global depression of the 1880s to 1890s, Germany’s total exports stood at £165 million — a far cry from Britain’s. Yet by 1913, those exports had increased by over 206 percent, to trail Britain’s performance by only £20 million. Britain also relied more on imports than Germany; by 1913, the total value of good imported by Britain from Germany amounted to £80.4 million — almost double the amount exported to Germany. In part this had been due to the countries’ respective responses to the economic crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. German business, more state-centric, had been redirected towards areas of innovation, in which profound advances and expansions were possible. Thus, by the dawn of the twentieth century, Germany had become a world leader in chemical production, as well as refined metals and machine manufacturing. The British response, on the other hand, had been to allow businesses to govern themselves. As a result, traditional British industries of strength, such as textiles and coal, managed to prosper and pick up the slack of failing businesses in sectors without their solid foundations. In this way, while both countries emerged from the depression in positions of relative strength, those strengths were to be found in different areas.

Germany’s increasing market share should not, however, be taken to be a threat to Britain in and of itself. The very nature of the two economies virtually ensured their cooperation. Germany continued to import Lancashire textiles. Britain was obliged to rely on German chemical manufacturing and fertiliser production. Indeed, some twelve percent of Britain’s total imports came from Germany, and nearly eight percent of its exports (and some eighteen percent of its re-exports) arrived in German ports. Germany’s increasing industrial and economic might did not mean that it hung a sword of Damocles over British economic wellbeing; rather, it allowed the German state and businesses greater purchasing power to take advantage of British goods. German industry also tended to rely on loans and guarantees from banks in the City of London (the German banking system having not yet grown to the prominence that it enjoys today; in 1913, the financial capital of Europe was London, not Frankfurt.) English financial institutions also provided insurance facilities for Germany. The vast majority of Germany’s merchant marine, for example, was underwritten by Lloyds of London. An observer of the time could probably have made the observation that there was more English capital bobbing in the harbour of the great port city of Hamburg in 1913 than there was in Southampton or Portsmouth. Germany’s economic growth therefore permitted greater British financial penetration of European markets; Germany’s greater buying power benefitted British industry in times of peace. War, however, would prove to be a different story.


The Great Famine.

The Irish Famine of the nineteenth century not only severely impacted the Irish native population, but also crippled Anglo-Irish relations. (Source: Wikimedia.)

While Britain’s economic power was not necessarily waning, but certainly beginning to change shape, its political and social stability was also facing some threats. In the early years of the twentieth century, one of the defining debates within British political circles was the question of Irish Home Rule. Ireland had become an increasing problem for Westminster, just as Westminster had become an increasing problem for the Irish. The historical relationship between England and Ireland was fraught. Ireland had been the British Empire’s first destination for transported prisoners, before it had had the ability to send them half a world away, to Australia and other penal settlements. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland in the seventeenth century resulted in widespread famine and disease as a direct consequence of the military operations; Frances Stewart argues that 600,000 of a total Irish population of 1.4 million were killed in the four years of English Parliamentarian conquests, and Tim Pat Coogan labels those conquests as part of a wider programme of genocide (though, it must be noted, both the statistics and the term ‘genocide’ are contested, and Irish insurgents committed atrocities — albeit on a smaller scale — just as the English did.) In the nineteenth century, the Act of Union dissolved local Irish parliamentary representation in favour of offering Irish members of parliament 103 seats in the House of Commons at Westminster. This constituted approximately fifteen percent of the total number of MPs in the Commons, meaning that Ireland — with approximately one quarter of the total population of the British Isles at the time — was woefully underrepresented at a political level. In the 1840s, an outbreak of potato blight decimated the staple Irish food crop, while merchants continued to export maize, grains and butter, and food supplies ordered and imported as emergency relief by the government of Sir Robert Peel proved inadequate, unpalatable and too expensive for the average Irish household. Peel’s successor, Lord Russell, responded to the failure of Peel’s well-intentioned aid programme by insisting that the market would be able to provide for the people without government intervention; this laissez-faire approach to an unfolding humanitarian crisis could hardly have been less effective. The resulting Great Hunger, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, consumed the lives of approximately one million Irish people, and directly resulted in the migration of at least a million more. The famine also severely impacted the relationship between Ireland and the rest of Britain. While at the time the Irish often refused to accept English charity, seeing this as a besmirching of their dignity, the fact that food was still being exported while Irish men, women and children were starving to death or otherwise dying of malnutrition-related diseases was seen by many to be representative of an attempt by London to kill off an ‘inconvenient’ population. This was reflected in the fact that the hardest hit populations were the poorer, more isolated communities, most of whom were Irish-speaking Irish Catholics. By contrast, English-speaking Irish Protestants, who were largely centred around the urban areas and larger towns, were relatively unscathed.

Again, there is no historical consensus on the culpability of the British government in the Great Hunger. A number of historians, particularly descendants of those who made up the Irish migrant diaspora during and immediately after the famine years, label the circumstances of the event a deliberate genocide, while others, such as Cormac Ó Gráda, point to the well-meaning but unsuccessful efforts of Peel’s government, as well as the sizeable charitable donations of, among others, Queen Victoria, as evidence for a conclusion of unintended negligence. What is beyond doubt is that the Great Hunger changed the complexion of Anglo-Irish relations forever. For one, it enflamed Irish nationalist sentiment against a British government that, they believed, had (at best) sacrificed them on the altar of commercial export surpluses, or (at worst) had used trade and economics as precision instruments to excise Irish Catholics from the British bodies social and politic, through an implicit policy of ethnic cleansing. It was in this context that the foundations were laid for what would ultimately become the Irish Republican Army. But the famine had a more insidious and less obvious consequence. It shifted the terms of the arguments related to Irish representation at Westminster. Irish nationalists had decried the dissolution of the Irish parliament because it had removed local governance from their hands, and the Irish representation in the Commons was hardly commensurate to their representation in the British population as a whole. But the famine’s massive demographic effects had changed the picture markedly. Where the Irish population had made up twenty-five percent of Britain’s total as of the Act of Union, a century later the combination of British population growth, coupled with the attrition of the Hunger and the resultant migration, now meant that Ireland made up a little less than ten percent of the whole. Ireland’s share in the Commons was now over-representative, and it was this fact that began to concern English political elites. Furthermore, the famine saw an explosion of Irish nationalist political institutions, including the Home Rule League (which eventually became the Irish Parliamentary Party.) This meant that, from about the 1870s onwards, British general elections consistently returned pro-Irish anti-Union MPs to the British parliament, whose major objectives were, in fact, to remove the influence of the Westminster parliament from Irish affairs, and to reimpose a local parliament. Over time, this would develop into a programme for full Irish independence, but for much of the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the aim of Irish nationalists was devolution.

Herbert Henry Asquith.

Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister of Great Britain between 1908 and 1916. His Liberal government’s inability to pass the Budget in 1909 led to the formation of an uneasy alliance with Home Rule Irish MPs in 1910. (Source: Wikimedia.)

This led to a peculiar crisis of politics in the early twentieth century, as Britain’s grasp on Ireland began to fragment. Irish Catholics, generally on the side of the Home Rule proponents, consistently sent Home Rule nationalists to Westminster. Conservatives and other Unionists were joined by Irish Protestants, normally centred around the northern districts of Ulster, who did not want to see the united parliament and leadership weakened. However, as nationalists were represented disproportionately within the 103 Irish seats in the Commons, this led to a bizarre situation. This situation is typified by the election of Asquith in January 1910. Asquith’s Liberal Party, stung by the rejection of its Budget by the House of Lords the year before, was forced into an election in which it suffered the loss of 123 seats; most of these were picked up by Arthur Balfour and the Conservative Party, but neither party achieved the number of Commons seats necessary to govern in its own right. In order to maintain government, Asquith therefore negotiated with John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which had won seventy-one of Ireland’s 103 seats. In doing so, Asquith promised to push Irish Home Rule through the Commons and Lords, which he eventually attempted in 1912. Here, then, was the paradox of prewar British politics: in order to maintain power in Britain, the Liberals were forced to deal with nationalists within the Commons, whose aim was to introduce legislation that would make their place within the Commons void, as they would (presumably) return to an Irish home parliament (and thereby, equally presumably, take with them the determining majority of Asquith’s government.) As complex as this was, worse was to come; upon tendering the Third Irish Home Rule Bill to parliament in 1912, Asquith set into motion a chain of events that nearly resulted in civil war, as Ulster-based Unionists prepared violently to resist Irish rule, and the British Army based at Curragh threatened not to follow orders if it was, indeed, ordered to restrain the Ulstermen. The Ulster Volunteers themselves had multiplied to over 100,000 men, with over 50,000 rifles and machine guns, as well as cavalry, motorised corps, and (perhaps more importantly) luminaries within politics and society, and some two million signatories to their petition to remain trenchantly British in the face of what they saw as Catholic opportunism. It was this force, marching “beneath the largest Union Jack ever made”, and made up of people who saw themselves as patriotic Britons, with whom the British government prepared to go to war in the opening days of 1914. In the House of Commons, a young but increasingly recognisable government minister, Winston Churchill, warned the Ulster Volunteer Force (and, implicitly, the Tories sitting in opposition) that the government was ready to go to war against them if need be. The UVF’s response was to prepare to sabotage rail lines, communications, and other vital services, if and when Irish Home Rule became a reality.

Ulster Volunteers in 1914.

In 1914 there were real fears that the armed Ulster Volunteer Force might cause a civil war in the United Kingdom, if Home Rule were granted in Ireland. (Source: Wikimedia.)

In later years, historical hindsight on these events has been less than perfect. Two schools of thought pervade the literature. One — that prewar Britain was enjoying its golden age of peace and prosperity — has already been mentioned. Another is nearly the diametric opposite: Britain was on the edge of the abyss, and the Irish Question was the weight under which that cliff-face was crumbling. Had it not been for the outbreak of the Great War, this narrative suggests, Britain would have torn itself to pieces over the question of whether the halls of Irish power were to be found on the banks of the Thames or the Liffey. This is perhaps overstating the case; when civil war did eventuate, between 1919 and 1921, it was traumatic to be sure, but hardly cataclysmic, nor an existential crisis for the British state. Nevertheless, politically, Ireland preoccupied the Home Office and the prime minister. Given this preoccupation, Whitehall gave little attention to events on the continent until the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914.

Britain and Europe.

This did not mean, as some have suggested, that Britain ignored continental affairs. Events in Ireland came under the purview of the Home Office. Issues involving the army would certainly require the attention of the War Ministry. But British foreign diplomacy was the fiefdom of the Foreign Office and its head, the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

Historian Margaret MacMillan suggests that Britain entered the twentieth century assuming “that it could remain detached, as it had always preferred, from the continent.” But in any way that mattered, this “preference” was never realised. As we have seen, Britain was already tied to the continent — particularly Germany — in the sense of trade relationships. More than this, Britain had other relationships, and other concerns, which permeated throughout Europe. Thus, for all the British rhetoric of its “splendid isolationism”, the country was never removed from the affairs of its neighbours.

Russian depiction of the Triple Entente.

The Triple Entente was an unprecedented diplomatic understanding between France, Russia and Britain. It did not, however, guarantee alliance in wartime, and no one side agreed as to what it meant in a practical sense. (Source: Wikimedia.)

The first and most obvious of Britain’s ties was the Triple Entente. This was a diplomatic understanding linking Britain with France and Russia, and had been in place since 1907. Britain’s involvement in this agreement was not, however, a ringing endorsement of friendship between London, Paris and St. Petersburg. Indeed, all three countries had long histories of mutual antagonism. Britain and France had very nearly gone to war only a few years prior, during the Fashoda Incident. In 1904, Whitehall and the Quay d’Orsay had inked the Entente Cordiale, an historic agreement that delineated spheres of influence in the colonial world, with the aim of avoiding similar confrontations. The 1907 agreement was an extension both of this and an Anglo-Russian naval agreement. In each of these cases, British diplomats were reacting shrewdly to changing situations in Europe. Partially, the agreements were in direct response to German expansionism. Germany, however, was not Britain’s only concern. Fashoda had been a reminder of French adventurism in the colonial sphere. Meanwhile, the Russians had recently lost a war with the (in part British-backed) Japanese over the Korean Peninsula; during that war, Britain and Russia had nearly come to blows when the Russian Baltic Fleet, steaming around the world to engage the Japanese in the Pacific, left the Baltic and mistook a group of British trawlers for Japanese warships. The ensuing barrage was a lesson in Russian naval gunnery inefficiency — they did not hit a single vessel — but also in the teetering dangers of the relations between the great powers. As it was, cooler heads prevailed, but Britain’s subsequent closing of the Suez Canal to Russian traffic was probably one factor in the eventual sinking of the Russian fleet at the hands of the Japanese in the Tsushima Strait. Furthermore, a fundamental objective of Russian foreign policy remained the militarisation of the Black See and the securing of the Bosporous Straits — which ran through the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and into the Dardanelles — to Russian naval and commercial traffic. This objective had always concerned London, as expanded Russian influence in Asia Minor would put Russian soldiers in a prime position to launch a drive towards India — the jewel in the British imperial crown. It was largely the safeguarding of India that caused Britain to intervene against Russia in the Crimean War of the 1850s, when St. Petersburg went to war with the Ottoman Empire, and anxieties hardly abated after the joint Anglo-Franco-Ottoman victory in that conflict. The Foreign Office was therefore, quite justifiably, concerned by the timbre of Russian “diplomacy”; the 1907 agreement, and the subsequent confirmation of the tripartite entente, were means by which Whitehall could keep tabs on its continental sometimes-enemies.

The agreements, therefore, served a dual purpose. On the one hand, they allowed Britain to keep an eye on competitive imperial powers by binding itself to them in loose agreement. On the other hand, they sent a message to Germany, warning against its own brand of imperial adventurism. Yet the Triple Entente was and remains a misconstrued agreement. Grey was not, as MacMillan suggests, attempting to keep Britain disengaged from the continent. Far from it; the agreements in and of themselves implied expanded British influence in European affairs, and ensured that Europe would continue to be a preoccupation of the Foreign Office. This was in keeping with British policy since at least 1815; throughout the nineteenth century, Britain had been insistent on maintaining a European balance of power that did not favour any one great power (except, where possible, Britain itself.) On occasion, it had even intervened. This was hardly isolationism, and the agreements of the 1900s were continuations of longstanding policies. But there is a tendency in the historiography to look upon the agreements as binding alliances. Certainly, even at the time the French believed them to be; at the point at which war was declared between Germany and France, Paris fully expected Britain to come to its aid. Yet it did not, because fundamentally the entente was an undertaking to discuss and consult, but certainly not to defend or act on behalf of. Indeed, nothing in Britain’s various agreements bound it to any course of action. Rather, they afforded it with a vast degree of diplomatic wiggle room.

The nature of the entente has been pointed to as an example of Grey’s vacillation, his wilful vagueness; it is argued by Sean McMeekin and others that this contributed to the unstable diplomatic atmosphere of the July Crisis, as Germany and others could not predict Britain’s probable course of action, should general war break out. The French appear to have been confused. The Germans certainly were; at various points, the Kaiser and his retinue believed that Britain might remain neutral, or enter the war on Germany’s side. At other times, the army seems to have been resigned to the fact that Britain would be an enemy. Yet this reading of Grey is unfair to the erstwhile diplomat. As Britain’s longest-serving foreign secretary, Grey was hardly a novice and, while the entente may not have been a binding alliance, it did send a diplomatic message that Britain believed that it was capable of dealing and coming to understandings with Paris and St. Petersburg. Whitehall may not have had complete confidence in France or Russia, and may very well have used the entente as a means to keep a watchful eye on their more dangerous tendencies. But it clearly believed that it could exert some sort of influence over them. For better or worse, then, and to varying degrees of efficacy, Britain had publicly declared that its immediate diplomatic future was intertwined with, though not dictated by, the Republic of France and the Russian Empire. In any event, the entente also geographically bracketed Europe. It thus sent another clear message: Britain was still concerned with keeping the European balance of power in stasis. A power that threatened that balance was therefore unlikely to be viewed favourably by Grey and his Foreign Office colleagues.

Treaty of London, 1839.

In spite of what Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser believed, the British viewed the Treaty of London as far more than simply a “scrap of paper.” (Source: Wikimedia.)

Even if the terms of the entente engendered some confusion and ambiguity, the same could not be said for one of Britain’s cornerstone continental treaties. In 1839, the Treaty of London guaranteed the independence of the neutral Kingdom of Belgium. Among the signatories had been Viscount Palmerston, representing Great Britain, and Bernhard von Bülow, representing the then-German Confederation. Upon the German unification of 1871, the responsibility of the Confederation transferred to the new German Empire. The treaty was still in effect in 1914. Therefore, as all sides prepared for war, the signatories were legally obliged to respect Belgian neutrality and territorial integrity — a position the British had continuously reaffirmed. The French had understood this; before the war, Joffre had drawn up his plans for war with Germany, which involved a drive through Belgium. His political masters, however, had recognised that this would impinge on Belgian neutrality, would anger Britain, and therefore — at best — would cause the British to ignore their entente with the French, and — at worst — go to war against France in order to defend the legal agreement to safeguard Belgium. As a result, Joffre was forced to revise his plans, forsaking the military advantage that would be enjoyed by the push through Belgium in favour of the diplomatic necessity of keeping the British on side. The German General Staff, however, prepared their own plans — the infamous Schlieffen Plan — arguing for the primacy of military expediency. The advantage of going through Belgium would cancel out the dangers of angering the British. This view was accepted by both the army (which seems to have believed that war with Britain was inevitable, regardless which route it took into France) and the politicians; the chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, famously declared that he could not believe that Britain would go to war with Germany over a “scrap of paper.”

The July Crisis.

All of these issues were at play in the British political arena as the July Crisis unfolded. Indeed, so much commanded the attention of British diplomats and politicians that many historians have suggested that the British were taken almost completely by surprise when the crisis escalated towards the end of the month. These historians generally reject the importance of the Treaty of London, thereby essentially agreeing with Bethmann-Hollweg’s “scrap of paper” thesis. At the same time, they argue that Whitehall was so preoccupied with the question of Irish Home Rule (specifically, whether the issue might lead to bloodshed, and whether it would fatally undermine the Asquith government) that it was blindsided by events on the continent that it did not care to observe until it was too late. At that point, Britain either close to align with France and Russia out of its commitment to the Triple Entente, or else did so because it believed it would benefit most from allying with France and Russia. The first suggests misguided and slavish devotion to an alliance system. The second, historians such as Niall Ferguson and John Charmley suggest, was a kind of perfidy; Britain, they argue, had no reason to enter the war, and its act of doing so constituted a betrayal of the interests of the British people in favour of the interests of the people’s political masters.

HMS Agincourt.

The HMS Agincourt was originally earmarked for the Ottoman Navy, but was repossessed and pressed into Royal Navy service when war was declared in 1914. (Source: Wikimedia.)

In fact, Britain had every reason to be concerned by circumstances on the continent. Indeed, its interests were so intricately tied with European affairs that the Empire could hardly have considered not becoming involved once the Balkan crisis became a general European one. Britain’s commercial interests were closely tied to Germany’s but they were also tied to just about every power. Russian modernisation in industry — particularly railways — had been accomplished preponderantly through French finance, but British money was also heavily invested in this. The British had also seen the Balkans as a key area of commercial development. British trade also found its way readily into French ports. British money and expertise had been pouring into the Ottoman Empire, where the navy had made use of the British admiral, Limpus, in order to assist its modernisation. The Ottoman Navy had even ordered two British Dreadnought-type battleships — the Sultan Osman I and the Resadiye — and had paid for them. In the event, they would never be delivered; upon the outbreak of war in August, the Admiralty would repossess the ships for British use (rechristened as the HMS Agincourt and the HMS Erin, respectively.) This action alone demonstrates that wherever the war might touch, British interests were very much at stake. Before the war, one report suggested that Lloyds of London was so heavily invested in the insurance of the German mercantile fleet that, even if Britain went to war with Germany and sank that fleet, Lloyds would most likely fulfil its obligations to the Germans. So, far from being isolated from any potential conflict, it was in fact all but inevitable that Britain might be drawn in if a widespread conflict eventuated.

But on whose side? To some extent, this question was answered by the existence of the entente. Britain had declared its stake in Europe — albeit extremely loosely — on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance. But other, more immediate events in Europe soon served to weigh more heavily on Whitehall. At the outset, there was certainly little to suggest that Britain had decided on its course of action. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Britain seemed — like much of Europe — to believe that there was no reason why the outrage would become anything other than a localised squabble. The Foreign Office and its German counterpart had already been planning a meeting between the Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell, and the German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, as early as April (i.e. before the barest hint of a crisis.) In July, those plans were still expected to go ahead, though their objectives had changed; now, Tyrrell and Jagow would be using the opportunity to plan a sober and calculated united response to the Austro-Serbian dramas. Grey fully supported Tyrrell’s initiative here, but events conspired against the two diplomats. The nature of these events perhaps hint at the fact that neither Whitehall nor Wilhelmstraße recognised the pressing dangers; the original plan was to meet on 8 July near Düsseldorf, but Jagow only returned to Berlin from his honeymoon on 6 July, and was therefore exhausted, while Tyrrell, suffering from stress and seasonal illness, chose this time to take a leave of absence, from which he would not return until 20 July. Yet neither man outright cancelled their undertakings and, from the Tyrrell family correspondence, it appears that plans were made to reconvene in Germany sometime in September 1914. Of course, by that stage, such a meeting would be impossible; in the midst of the July Crisis, however, neither the Foreign Office nor the Auswärtiges Amt saw any reason to believe that their diplomatic relations would cease within a period of weeks or even days.

4 August 1914

German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on 4 August 1914. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Yet, unbeknownst to the envoys, behind the scenes the actions of various men were making a diplomatic resolution to the crisis impossible. Britain’s devotion to the concept of the balance of power meant that it was extremely likely to intervene if and when Germany and Russia chose to intervene in the Austro-Serbian emergency. Simply put: were either side to gain a position of dominance on the continent, but Britain were to stay out of the conflict, Britain would, in turn, face an untenable position, in which that side would dominate European markets and be able to freeze out British investments. Furthermore, any victorious side not supported by Britain would be unlikely to look upon it kindly. Furthermore, while the entente made it more likely that Britain would side with France and Russia, this was hardly a foregone conclusion. The question persisted as to which side would threaten British interests the most in its potential victory. This question appeared to be answered on 1 August. On this day, the German government put into motion its war plans. Its first objective was to secure passage for its armies through Belgium, into France. In order to do so, it sent an ultimatum to the Belgium government in Brussels, demanding free passage for German troops through Flanders. This was, of course, not something that Belgium could countenance, since it would not only abrogate its terms of neutrality (in assisting, through inaction, the mobilisation of one hostile power against another), but would also prove to be a dangerous precedent. What, after all, was to stop the Germans from staying? Indeed, German plans called for using Belgian lodgings to accommodate troops, and Belgian roads and railways to transport them. Effectively, the Belgians would be surrendering their sovereignty to the Germans, with no guarantee that that situation would be temporary. On 3 August, then, Belgium refused the German terms, while Britain reaffirmed its commitment to Belgian neutrality and sovereignty. For Germany, however, the entire wartime strategy rested on the ability to knock out the French as quickly as possible, and a cornerstone of that strategy was the army’s passage through Belgium. Therefore, the next day, the Germans crossed the border into Belgium, breaking the Treaty of London and invading a neutral power whose protection had been specifically guaranteed by Great Britain.

It would be naïve, however, to assume that Britain would put itself on the line purely for the sake of Belgium. Rather, Britain was alarmed by what the invasion of Belgium represented, rather than the invasion itself. Germany had demanded that Britain remain neutral in the coming war. But Belgium had done so, and had been rewarded with invasion. Germany had therefore not only torn up the “scrap of paper”, but it had also shown itself to be no respecter of international law, nor treaties to which it had been a signatory. It was this that was the last determining factor; if Britain did remain neutral, and the Germans did succeed in beating the French and the Russians, what guarantee did Britain have that, now possessing Channel ports and dominating the continental balance of power, Germany would not turn on the island nation? Other historians have shown that France and Russia were hardly dependable partners, but Germany, precocious and strident, was becoming increasingly dangerous to a Britain that prized European stability above all else. To the British Foreign Office, the invasion of Belgium was a betrayal of all the hard work and diplomacy that had built such a strong Anglo-German relationship. To the government as a whole, Belgium might as well have been a stand-in for Britain, a timely warning against inaction, and a reminder that Britain could expect the same treatment should Germany win. In short, by 4 August, as German troops swarmed over the eastern border and headed towards Liège, Whitehall only had one decision to make. By invading “brave little Belgium”, Germany had committed the very last act in a string of events that brought Britain and its empire into the war.


Britain’s entry into the war brought about its irremediable escalation. That escalation, however, has been the subject of intense debate in the century since it occurred. In the myriad academic and popular histories that have been written in those years (and especially as the centenary came about), writers have attempted to answer questions of war guilt, agency, and whether or not certain powers should have become involved. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which was one of the first (and one of the best-selling) of the “centenary books”, reminded us that the origins of the war were to be found in the Balkans, in the post-assassination scrap between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Yet the event that turned this into a world war (ostensibly, at least) was not the firing of two shots by a Bosnian-Serb activist, resulting in the deaths of the Austrian heir to the throne and his Czech wife, in Sarajevo on 28 June. Rather, the immediate stimulus for the global conflagration occurred 37 days later, and approximately 1,500 kilometres northwest of Sarajevo, when German soldiers entered Belgium and therefore incited the British Empire to action. To the British, Belgium represented the last straw in a series of calculations that made their entry into the war a logical result of evenhanded diplomacy. It did not do so for “humanitarian” or “altruistic” reasons. That is to say, Britain acted in order to defend its interests, first and foremost. This was not a stupid policy or a hoodwink orchestrated by Grey or anyone else. This was also not a British government that was so preoccupied with Ireland that it responded in a panic to an unobserved European crisis; Britain may have been taken by surprise, but no more so than any other European government. Nor did Britain go to war because German economic interests threatened its own. In fact, German economic strength benefitted Britain, as long as Europe remained balanced. Certainly, Britain feared a Europe dominated by Germany, but it would also have feared a Europe dominated by France or Russia. After the war, Jagow would blame “this damned system of alliances” for causing the escalation of the war, yet this was not necessarily the case in the example of Britain. Its ties with France and Russia made it more amenable to these powers, but that relationship did not necessitate war. 

1914 recruits.

August 1914: British volunteers swarm to recruitment offices. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Though the Germans never intended to compel Britain to war, their insistence on the Belgian phase of the Schlieffen Plan was a disastrous misstep that could hardly go unanswered by Whitehall. In part this was due to the fact that Wilhelmstraße became tied to military necessity. But it was also due to the fact that the Germans failed to read the warning signs emanating from the Foreign Office. Some historians have criticised Grey and Asquith for being deliberately obtuse and lulling the Germans into a false sense of security. On the contrary, the British government had followed a consistent line, and Belgian territorial integrity represented the very final line in the sand: this far, and no further. On 4 August 1914, the Germans crossed that line, and on the same day the British responded.

Further Reading.

  • Bostridge, Mark. The Fateful Year: England 1914. London: Viking, 2014.
  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Allen Lane, 2012.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. London: Allen Lane, 1998.
  • Kennedy, Paul. The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.
  • MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. London: Profile, 2013.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. London: Icon, 2013.
  • Mantel, Gordon. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Marwick, Arthur. Britain in the Century of Total War: War, Peace and Social Change 1900-1967. London: Pelican, 1970.
  • Otte, T.G. July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Pennell, Catriona. A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-18. Oxford: Polity Press, 1986.


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