Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why did Great Britain go to war in August 1914? - Pt 3


Back to Part 2

The Balance of Power Theory

At the turn of the century, faced with imperial overstretch, the Conservative government with Lord Lansdowne as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was forced to compromise the ‘free hand’ policy of his predecessor Lord Salisbury and bring Britain out of ‘Splendid Isolation’.  Salisbury’s ‘free hand’ policy is encapsulated in the ‘Balance of Power’ theory which to British politicians meant ‘that of denying preponderance to any one Power by throwing Britain’s weight into the scale’ (John Charmley, Splendid Isolation?: Britain and the Balance of Power 1874 - 1914, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999),p. 3.).  The United States naval expansion was effectively ignored and Britain accepted that it did not have an army capable of defending the Canadian border.  In November 1901 Britain signed the Hay – Pauncefote Treaty that granted the United States exclusive regulation and management powers over the proposed Panama Canal and signalled British withdrawal from American waters and concerns.  This one-sided concession to the United States had much to do with the aspirations for a ‘Greater Britain’ and a Pan Anglo-Saxon Confederation.  Following the failure to gain an agreement with Germany to check Russian expansion into China Britain, still believing that she needed an ally in the Far East, turned to Japan.  In January 1902 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed.  Lord Selborne (First Lord of the Admiralty) wanted an alliance with Japan which would enable Britain to redistribute her navy to European waters to maintain ‘The Two Power Standard’ against Russia and France.  Coincident with this desire was the realisation by the Admiralty that German naval expansion posed a significant threat to Britain.  Lansdowne, struggling to negotiate British foreign policy through the simultaneous demise of China and Turkey needed to relieve the pressure on Britain somewhere.  The terms of the Anglo-Japanese treaty obliged Britain and Japan to offer mutual support if either faced more than one other Power when following their objective of maintaining the independence of China.  Despite John Charmley’s protestation; John Charmley describes Lansdowne’s policy as ‘a continuation of Salisbury’s in different circumstances’ and goes to a great deal of trouble to stress that the change in British foreign policy came with the change in government in December 1905 (Charmley, Splendid Isolation?. p. 280 & 324), this treaty represented a significant change in British foreign policy and as Zara Steiner states:

‘Britain had incurred an obligation to go to war which was conspicuously absent from agreements made in the post-1830 period.’ Steiner, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, p. 28.

The Entente Cordial

On the 7 July 1903 the French initiated the negotiations which were to lead to the Entente Cordial in April 1904.  French aspirations over Morocco led them to talks with Britain.  Britain unable to reach any agreement with Russia and fearful of a war in the Far East involving her alliance partner welcomed the talks as an opportunity to resolve the Moroccan issue and confirm her position in Egypt.  After the negotiations had been dragging on for several months both parties were provided with a new incentive to improve their relations.  The start of the Russo-Japanese war in February 1904 raised fears in Britain and France that if France aided her Dual Alliance partner Russia, Britain would be drawn into the war on the side of Japan.  On 8 April 1904 the Anglo-French Entente was signed.  From a British perspective the Entente was from the outset a settlement of outstanding colonial differences not an alliance and was perceived by Lansdowne as a welcome limitation of Britain’s liabilities, but by no means vital or indispensable:

‘Six days before the Entente with France was signed Lansdowne told Balfour that the French were “getting increasingly querulous over Newfoundland, and the permanency of Britain’s occupation of Egypt.”  Lansdowne had told Cambon that if terms could not be agreed over Newfoundland there could be no agreement.’  Charmley, Splendid Isolation?: Britain and the Balance of Power 1874 - 1914, p. 311.

The French perspective differed.  Delcassé the French Foreign Minister stated during the spring 1904.  ‘A Franco-British alliance has always been my dream ……’. (Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain,Germany and the Coming of the Great War, (Chatham: Mackeys, 1992),p. 350.).  The French were prepared to start with something small and insignificant and proceed from there.

The first test of the Entente came from Germany on 31 March 1905 when the Kaiser landed at Tangier.  With France’s ally Russia engaged in war with Japan, Germany driven by domestic problems and a loss of international status hoped to humiliate France.  Despite significant French pressure Lansdowne refused to enter into an alliance with France.  His only concession was that the British government would offer ‘strong opposition’ to any German demand for a port. (Charmley, Splendid Isolation?, p. 321.).  Delcassé was forced to resign and France finally agreed to attend, with Germany, a conference on Morocco’s future.  The date for the conference was set for 16 January 1906.  By this date a new party was in power in Britain.

Sir Edward Grey

In December 1905 the Liberal Party was swept into power in a landslide election victory following the failure of a Conservatives election campaign that focused on tariff reform.  The Cabinet of the Liberal Party that assumed power contained the ‘defacto’ leaders of the Liberal League, the Liberal Imperialist faction of the Liberal party, H.H. Asquith (Chancellor), R.B. Haldane (Minister for War), and Sir E. Grey (Foreign Secretary).  This trio, with Grey in particular, was the driving force behind Britain’s final decision for war in 1914.  Much controversy has surrounded Grey’s performance as Foreign Secretary with perceptions of him ranging from:

‘a stick to be used by someone else’ (Keith Robbins, Sir Edward Grey – A Biography of Lord Grey of Falloden, (London: Cassell, 1971), p. 106.), to ‘His significance lies in his passivity, a passivity which is not one of weakness but is borne by an iron kernel of convictions.’ (Terry Boardman, ‘The New World Order’, A lecture presented at an anthroposophical conference on modern history in Keene, New York State, August 2001.)

Contrary to his claims in his memoirs Grey entered the Foreign Office with well developed anti-German sentiments, as is evidenced by the 1901 A.B.C. article to which he contributed, personal correspondence in 1903 and contributions he made to an informal dinning group called ‘The Coefficients’.

‘By January 1903, Grey was writing to his friend Henry Newbolt: “I have come to think that Germany is our worst enemy and our greatest danger…….” ’.  Boardman, ‘The New World Order’.

These expressions of Grey’s anti-German sentiments, when viewed alongside a letter on Foreign policy written by Grey to Roosevelt in 1906 (Grey’s policies were; ‘Entente but not Alliance with France and Russia, accompanied by constant efforts to achieve more friendly relations with Germany’. G.M. Trevelyan, Grey of Fallodon, (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1937), pp. 115-116.), a year into Grey’s tenure at the Foreign office, point to a continuity between Grey’s ‘pre-office’ thoughts and his ‘in-office’ policies.  This would suggest that the anti-German mandarins at the Foreign office, Hardinge and Crowe, did not influence him disproportionately, particularly during his first vulnerable year in office.

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