Friday, May 13, 2011

Why did Great Britain go to war in August 1914? - Pt 2

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The Boer War

Britain’s period of arrogant Imperialism stopped abruptly with the Boer war.  The war provided the catalyst for the nation’s Imperial ‘shock’ and in Kipling’s words ‘no end of a lesson’ (Rudyard Kipling, extracted from The Lesson’.).  The performance of the British army during the war clearly demonstrated that British military development had not kept pace with the expansion of the Empire.  Abroad condemnation over the conduct of the war exposed Britain to humiliation in the eyes of her European rivals.  Both Russia and France looked to take advantage of Britain’s preoccupation in South AfricaRussia speeded up her penetration of northern Persia, increased pressure on Afghanistan and by implication India and continued her expansion into ChinaFrance sought support from Russia and Germany in her attempts to establish French rule in Morocco whilst at the same time ending British rule in Egypt.

Britain’s Declining Status

In reality Britain’s world status had been slipping away under pressures from foreign competition since the 1880’s.  The proliferation of industrialisation, coupled with the ‘Great Depression’ of 1873 – 1896 which saw many countries re-impose or raise trade tariffs, saw Britain’s industrial lead overtaken and her commercial preponderance undermined.  Even Britain’s naval supremacy was challenged.  Until the 1890’s only European powers had navies that could threaten British naval supremacy.  Britain by controlling access to the North Sea, the Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal had since the end of the Napoleonic wars effectively achieved ‘Command of the Seas’.  British ‘Command of the Seas’ depended on maintaining numerical superiority and was codified in the ‘The Two Power Standard’.  According to the ‘Standard’ Britain would maintain a fleet of battleships equal to those of the 2nd and 3rd ranked naval powers combined.  The growth of the Japanese fleet in the 1880’s and the US fleet in the 1890’s began to severely strain the ‘Standard’ at the extremes of the Empire.  By the end of the Boer war Britain’s tax system had been stretched as far as the political will of the day would allow and according to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Austen Chamberlain, in 1904 there were insufficient finances to support Imperial defence.  In a memorandum to his Cabinet colleagues Austen Chamberlain wrote:

‘the time has come when we must frankly admit that the financial resources of the United Kingdom are inadequate to do all that we should desire in the matter of Imperial defence’.  University Library, Birmingham, Austen Chamberlain Papers, AC 17/2/24, Cabinet memorandum, 28 April 1904.

Britain increasingly perceived herself as isolated and overstretched.  Politically the Boer war clarified two opposing schools of thought.  Conservatives and Liberal Imperialists believed Imperialism should be refocused on consolidation and efficiency rather than expansion.  Liberal Imperialists were a faction of the Liberal party that was active from about 1890 until the outbreak of the First World War.  The faction, inspired by the Liberal politician Lord Rosebery (Archibald Primrose), actively supported the Boer war at a time when much of the Liberal party were opposed to the conflict.  This radical wing of the Liberal party denounced the individualistic wealth grabbing Imperialism epitomised in Africa and began to question the values associated with the new Imperialism.

The Growth of Anti-German Sentiments

The Boer war also had a significant psychological effect on the wider British public.  In 1895 there was an illegal armed raid, initiated by Cecil Rhodes, on the Boer Transvaal State.  The ‘Jameson Raid’ as it became known was repulsed by the Boers.  A telegram, ‘the Kruger telegram’ sent to the Boer president in 1896 by the German Kaiser, congratulating the Boers on repulsing the raid ‘unleashed emotions [in Britain] far in excess of the actual event’ (Zara S. Steiner, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1977),p. 20.).  From 1896 until the outbreak of the Boer war the newspapers in both countries ‘reverberated with mutual recriminations’ (Steiner, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, p. 20.).  During the war recriminations continued with pro-Boer feelings in Germany being widely reported in the British press.  By the end of the Boer war the wider British public perceived Germany as the new enemy.

Where had these anti-German sentiments originated?  In the first half of the nineteenth century British views of the German people were generally favorable.  Germany was respected in both cultural and intellectual terms.  It was the method of German unification that presented to many in Britain a distinction between the reactionary, unscrupulous and militaristic Prussia and a Germany that was basically liberal and cultured.  After 1871 English liberal idealism became alarmed at the dangers represented by the ‘new’ Germany’s doctrine and politics.  Conservatives more concerned with Britain’s vital interests were split over the impact of German unification.  Some saw the unification as the means to contain the European aspirations of Britain’s main rivals Russia and France.  Others were not so sure.  Earl Cowley (Henry R. C. Wellesley) the British Ambassador in Paris 1852-1867 stated presciently ‘I have no faith in the friendship of Prussia and if she ever becomes a Naval Power she will give us trouble’.  (P. M. Kennedy, ‘Idealists and Realists: British Views of Germany, 1864-1939’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 25 (1975), p. 141.).  Central to most British fears was the German natural tendency to use force.

The next 20 years saw both Britain and Germany in general agreement over most European issues.  It was the German bid for African colonies in 1884-85 that caused the first real Imperial clash between the two countries.  Britain was forced to back down following threats by Bismarck to cause difficulties in Egypt.  Despite growing imperial animosity behind the scenes attempts were made by British leaders aimed towards some form of Anglo-German alliance between 1898 and 1901.  Germany refused the limited British advances in the hope that Britain would in the end be forced into full membership of the Triple Alliance.  Britain’s main reason for trying to gain an alliance with Germany was to check Russian expansion into China.  In reality there was never going to be an alliance as no true ‘quid pro quo’ existed.  Germany was never going to fight Russia in the Far East and Britain was not going to defend German interests in EuropeUltimately it was the British experience of ‘overstretch’ coupled with the erratic implementation of an ill conceived post Bismarck German foreign policy, stemming from the flawed character of the Kaiser, which included Tirpitz’s German naval expansion that marked Germany in many British eyes as aggressive and dangerous.  This perception of Germany was captured in an article published anonymously that appeared in The National Review in November 1901.  The well written article, entitled ‘British Foreign Policy’ by ‘A.B.C. etc.’ proposed a policy of hostility towards Germany and friendship with Britain’s main rival Russia, created a sensation at the time.  One of the contributors to the article was Sir Edward Grey, who became Foreign Secretary in the Liberal Government of December 1905.  Grey’s involvement in the writing of the article was not generally known until after the First World War. (‘British Foreign Policy’ by A.B.C., etc. National Review, November, 1901.).  It was a combination of these factors that would underpin the British anti-German sentiments in political and public circles up to the declaration of war in 1914.

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