Assess the claim that the most important reason why Britain went to war in 1914 was to defend Belgian neutrality
September 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War. The trigger to the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on the 28thJune. The subsequent invasion of Belgium elicited the British response of a declaration of war. However, there are a number of extremely significant long term factors which mounted the build up to war. Of crucial importance was Britain’s policy towards Germany. The relations between Germany and Britain had been deteriorating since the beginning of the century, primarily due to Germany’s decision to develop its navy.
Britain perceived this to be a considerable threat as any menace to the Royal Navy posed an unparalleled threat to British domestic security and that of its empire, its trading potential, and compromised its ability to supply itself with resources. As a result the naval race broke out. The resulting, extremely tense relations between the two countries set the foundations for war well before the outbreak in 1914. The aim was to build a fleet based in the N. Sea of sufficient size to pose a significant threat to Br if it found itself at war with a 3rd party.
Germany’s construction of the fleet began in 1898 and escalated dramatically in 1906 with the unveiling of the new British battle ship the Dreadnought. It has been argued by certain historians that the terse relationship between Germany and Britain was of limited importance in contributing towards the outbreak of war. This was because 1912-14 the naval race slowed considerably and Germany and Britain managed to co-operate over the Balkans war 1912-13 and the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
However, it is still apparent that both countries had been gearing themselves for war for some time and that the damage caused by the rivalry had……. Similarly the development in the relationship between Britain, France and Russia was partially significant. Since the start of the 1900’s Britain had also been stepping away from its policy of isolation and in 1904 made the ‘Entente Cordiale’ with France. Moreover, in 1907 Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian agreement.
These agreements were viewed a step in the direction of war as they bound the countries closer together, as a result each felt obligated to support the other in the event of a declaration of war. The closeness of the links, in particular between France and Britain were illustrated further after 1904 in the First and Second Moroccan Crises. In both 1905 and 1911, Britain showed it was willing to support France in Morocco, as had been agreed by the Entente Cordiale. Moreover, during the crisis British and French naval and army commanders started discussions about how they could work together against Germany if necessary.
It both events had proved the level of commitment Britain would offer to France; its obligations to France were reinforced, and the defensive agreements showed it was clearly preparing for the prospect of war. Although the alliances are often considered a large step towards war, in fact their significance is limited. At the time they were viewed as nothing more than a matter of settling previous colonial disputes and preserving its imperial interests; neither agreement committed Britain to war nor were directed at Germany.
The main significance of Britain’s links to France and Russia lay in the role that Foreign Secretary Grey played in supporting them. Neither the Entente Cordiale nor the Anglo-Russian agreement necessitated British support for France or Russia; the entente was based around resolving conflicts over colonial territories and the agreement with Russia a means of defending the empire against the continued Russian threat. However, politicians Grey and Asquith believed that Britain had an obligation to aid France.
Grey asserted that abandoning France would be “running away from her obligations of honour and interest”. As a result in a Cabinet meeting on 2nd August, Grey threatened to resign unless the Cabinet backed him. It also seemed likely that Asquith would resign alongside Grey. This put considerable pressure on the Cabinet and was successful as all but 2 members supported Grey. Also of quite great importance in the Cabinet’s decision to go to war was that the Liberals were aware that a refusal to enter war would result in a coalition with the Conservatives.
This would still have resulted in war, and clearly did not want the party to be usurped. In addition to the influential civil servants in the Foreign Office, such as Grey who were pushing the gov towards war, public opinion played a fairly significant role in putting the Cabinet under pressure to challenge Germany. The arms race was supported by public opinion and the campaign to build the Dreadnoughts was very popular. 900-1914 many books and newspapers encouraged British people to think of G as an enemy; one of the bestselling books of 1903 was about a British sailor who discovers that German ships are preparing to attack, The Daily Mail also had much to say about war dangers and the threat of the “Prussian Huns”, finally magazines also including intellectual periodicals included articles about the “German Peril”. Moreover, specialist pressure groups also sprang up to push the gov to respond to the G threat.
The Navy League agitated for a stronger navy and The National Service League pressed for conscription to produce a stronger army. Public demonstrations in favour of the war culminated on the 3rd August with demonstrations in Trafalgar Sq. Although there is ultimately only so much influence public opinion can have on a government’s decision to enter war, it placed politicians under a great deal of pressure and was teamed with the Liberal Cabinet fear of a rise in popularity of the Conservatives who could replace the Liberals or form a coalition. The British public was also in strongly in support of the defence of Belgium.
Moreover, like the situation with France, Grey also believed that supporting Belgium neutrality following the German invasion on 3rd August was a matter of moral obligation and honour. Similarly to France, Britain had signed the Treaty of London in 1839 in relation to Belgium. However this was not a binding agreement but simply meant that Britain had the “right but not the duty” to intervene. As a result it was once again more significantly Grey’s threat of resignation in support of Belgium neutrality and the potential public outrage if it was not supported that put the British government under pressure to declare war.
Thus the invasion was of partial importance however it is arguable that Britain would have entered the war eventually in defence of France and of its own interest. Moreover, the Liberal Cabinet had come to the conclusion that unity had to prevail in order for the Liberals to remain in power; the defence of Belgian simply provided a more ‘palatable’ reason to present to the public. In summary, it is evident that the invasion of Belgium was not the most significant factor in understanding why Britain entered WWI.
It is evident that the long running rivalry which had mounted between Britain and Germany from the start of the century would have ultimately resulted in Britain entering the war anyway. The threat posed to France and Belgium simply accelerated the process as Britian felt it had an obligation to defend them, an obligation which was crucially pushed forth by politicians such as Grey, and slightly less significantly the public. Thus put significant pressure on the government, triggering fears that the Liberals would be forced out of power as a result.