Friday, May 13, 2011

Why did Great Britain go to war in August 1914? - Pt 1


In 1914 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, summed up Britain’s strategic position in a note written to David Lloyd George:

‘We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world.  We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in unmolested enjoyment of our vast and splendid possession, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.’  CAB/1/32/3. 1.1.14, Quoted in: Clive Ponting, Thirteen Days: Diplomacy and Disaster -The Countdown to the Great War, (London: Pimlico, 2003), p. 41.

Churchill’s summation was equally applicable to Britain at the end of the 19th century.  At the turn of the century Britain’s ruling elite began to perceive that the Empire had reached its prime and was beginning to suffer from Imperial overstretch.  In relation to her European rivals British financial and economic decline was also perceived.  These factors drove Britain to a policy of détente with her key rivals France and Russia in an attempt to reduce her commitments to a manageable level.  The policy of détente took Britain out of her ‘Splendid Isolation’ and into ‘Continental Engagement’.  From a British perspective détente with Europe’s newest power Germany was not an option.  The rapidly growing German navy could threaten Britain where she was most vulnerable, close to home along her seaborne communications.  If in 1914 Britain had stepped back and allowed Germany to defeat France, Germany, with ownership of the French channel ports, could have turned the full resources of Europe against BritainBritain’s maritime supremacy, along with her Imperial status, would have become a thing of the past.


British overseas expansion, the growth of an Empire, and Imperialism grew out of the twin imperatives of the Industrial and Financial revolutions.  The Industrial revolution provided the manufactured goods for export, whilst the financial revolution provided Britain with the competitive edge in International trade.  Between 1688 and 1850 Imperial expansion was achieved through a combination of conquest and trade protectionism through tariffs.  This expansion was influenced and controlled by an alliance between the established landowners and the new gentlemen-capitalists born out of the financial revolution.  Members of this alliance were either part of or close to the countries ruling elite, profiting from a system of patronage and underwriting political stability.  During this period the Empire was largely run using a 'hands-off' approach particularly in the White Dominions, with the ruling elite only engaging in overseas ventures where it felt its interests were seriously challenged.  India being an example; India was regarded as the Jewel of the Empire with any threat to her being acted upon immediately.  The Opium war with China had an India dimension as the British Indian economy was dependant on China buying Opium.

During the early 1800's the growth of the middle class began to challenge the 'divine' position of the upper 'ruling' class.  From 1815 reforms were introduced to reconcile the class differences and to preserve domestic political stability, patronage was constrained; income tax introduced and by 1860 'Free Trade' replaced protectionism:

'The high-spending, high-tax, protectionist state of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had been resented bitterly by both the business and working classes who saw it principally as a device for furthering the interests of the landed elite who ran it. ..... Free trade certainly became a hugely popular cause in Britain.’  Peter Cain, ‘British Free Trade, 1850-1914: Economic and Policy’, ReFRESH, Autumn (1999), p. 2

Many in Britain found the 'burdens of colonialism outweighed its alleged benefits' (David Thomas, ‘World-wide Imperialism’, Extract from ‘Europe Since Napoleon’). In 1852 Disraeli, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, famously declared 'These wretched colonies will aIl be independent in a few years and are millstones around our necks' (Thomas, ‘World-wide Imperialism’).Twenty years later he was to change his mind.

The New Imperialism

By the late 1860's Britain's ruling elite were experiencing a steady decline in power in favour of the middle classes and were faced with an industrial working class which had started to organise itself and demand rights.  These internal pressures, coupled with the growing strength of Russia and a new phase of European imperialism, prompted the British ruling elite to opt for a greater involvement in their Empire:

‘By the 1880s assumptions that, because of Britain’s absolute naval supremacy, the only serious threats to the empire would be from powers able to attack British colonies overland no longer seemed valid.  The naval building of France and Russia caused anxiety in the 1880s.  By the end of the century Germany ……. Japan, Italy, and the United States were also acquiring fleets of modern warships.  Thus from the 1880s other powers were acquiring the means to support probes into areas where Britain had not faced serious competition before, ….’P.J. Marshall (ed), The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (Cambridge: BCA, 1996), p. 54

The main exponent of this new imperialism was the Conservative party (In 1872 Disraeli, then the leader of the Conservative party in opposition, committed the Conservatives to a general policy of imperial consolidation and expansion), although Joseph Chamberlain (Liberal Unionist) and Lord Rosebery (Liberal) supported them.  Chamberlain and Rosebery differed in their interpretation of the new imperialism.  Chamberlain advocated a self sufficient Greater Britain where tariff reforms would create a sphere of imperial preference.  Rosebery fearful of the impact of tariff reforms on the City of London remained committed to free trade and believed in the eventual creation of a Pan Anglo-Saxon Confederation.  Both of these versions of the new imperialism were in reality reactions to perceived Imperial overstretch.  Assertiveness, in the form of gun boat diplomacy in East Asia and the maxim gun in the scramble for Africa, coupled with free trade Imperialism and social Darwinism, became the mainstays of the new British imperialism.  The British government would force dependant parts of the Empire (India) to accept free trade and used naval power to persuade weaker nations outside Europe to sign free trade agreements.  Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theories were applied to Imperialism.  Science had proved that the white man was destined to rule over lesser races!

Contrary to the earlier imperialism, that came to be viewed by many in Britain as un-English military despotism, the new imperialism of the late 19th century was regarded in Britain as an ideal, the Empire a British birthright.  Central to the development of this ideal was the Public School system which through its emphasis on character, manliness, sport and patriotism prepared its pupils, many from the middle classes, to fill their rightful place in the Empire.  British society found that the Empire provided a source of 'second-hand excitement, a stage show of exploitation and warfare with all suffering either romanticised or removed'.  (Ken Anderson, ‘The British Empire Website’, Extract from ‘The Myth Exploited’).  This stage show was publicised through papers like the Daily Mail, the first mass daily aimed at a newly created mass literate readership (In 1876 Disraeli's government passed an Education Act providing for basic state education for all.).  Younger minds were indoctrinated with the deeds and 'valour' that won the empire through adventure stories with apt titles like 'With Roberts to Pretoria'.

By the turn of the century the empire was perceived as an essential element in British life and prosperity and had become a central point in British patriotism.  To many Britons the preservation of the empire had become a matter of life and death.

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