As the centenary of the First World War approaches we should ponder why Britain and her vast empire entered the disastrous conflict.
The simplified triggers for the war widely taught to us sanitise the nation’s motives for entering a war that was to claim the lives of a generation of young men. A more detailed reflection, recognising that self-interest compelled Britain to fight, would allow us to fully appreciate the true reasons for the sacrifice of a generation. Stoked up notions of Britain coming to the rescue to avenge Belgium is a distortion that merely regurgitates wartime propaganda. The Education Secretary’s remark that Britain went to war for a ‘noble cause’ is a simplistic assertion that totally disregards the calculations made by the prominent makers of British foreign policy in July and early August 1914.
Should Michael Gove add Herbert H. Asquith’s letters to Venetia Stanley to the bibliography of the Great War syllabus? Pupils would read the former Prime Minister’s explanation that “Belgium simplified matters”. Belgium was a convenient justification. A mistake is made by failing to place a sufficient focus on France. As the political Great Game was played in Europe, Britain’s self-interest required her to preserve France irrespective of Belgium’s fate. If Britain was to play the Great Game in Europe successfully, France had to survive as a Great Power. Field Marshall Kitchener and Asquith were two of many who understood this. British interests could not afford a repeat of the Franco-Prussian war which curtailed French power.
To prevent this, a British Expeditionary Force fighting in Flanders was needed to avert a major erosion of French influence. A post-war future whereby the Channel ports were not in friendly hands would have dealt a huge blow to British security and commercial interests. If the French were subdued the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, realised that Britain would face a continent in which the trident would be in German hands. Grey’s warning of an overhaul of the balance of power in Europe revealed Britain’s desire to preserve her own position. The Government’s awareness of the immediate threat to itself should not be airbrushed out of history, but unfortunately normally is.
Recollections of history often fail to appreciate that what would come to pass was not assured. What if the Dual Alliance powers had won and the Empire had remained neutral? Britain would be remembered by the phrase: “nous somme trahis!” (We are betrayed!). Aloofness from the continent would have also ended the Anglo-Russian friendship. The Russian bear would then have acted in Asia against British interests which relied upon friendly Russian co-operation. British neutrality would have ensured that post-war issues would be resolved without reference to British interests and most likely against them.
By shifting the focus away from Belgium and onto France and Russia, we can begin to appreciate, like the Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald, that excuses for war were sought after. However, proponents of war inside the Cabinet such as Grey, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill should not have worried about supplying excuses. Crucial support in Parliament came from the Conservatives, unqualified by reference to Belgium. This alongside the common man’s belief that you do not abandon your friends when they are in danger would have proved sufficient for a declaration of war to have been made without a backlash.
Those who recognise the imperial considerations that were at the forefront of British entry into the Great War do not do so with the purpose of belittling Britain. Neither should their rational understanding be immediately cast away as unpatriotic. It would do the war and its remembrance a disservice to glorify why our nation fought in it. Britain’s priorities were on an imperial scale when the decision for war was made in 1914 and to suggest otherwise would ignore the diplomatic realities of the moment.
If the Great War’s centenary makes us reflect, let a focus fall upon Britain’s position in July and early August 1914 and the imperatives that arose from it. Otherwise, the reason for Britain’s entry will continue to be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.