Saturday, 12 March 2016

Towards 1914

Britain’s alliances

In 1902 Britain ended its long period of isolation, which the South African War had so strikingly demonstrated, by entering into an alliance with Japan. It was strictly limited and was inspired by concerns over Russian and German influence in China and Manchuria and was only to last for five years. This gave the Japanese the assurance of Britain’s neutrality if Japan went to war with Russia. But it did not address British concerns about Russian activities in Afghanistan and Tibet.

Though relations with France remained bad over territorial disputes in East Africa,  Britain and France also had common concerns over Russia, and the British Foreign Minister, Lansdowne and his French counterpart Delcassé, sought ways to ease hostilities. In 1903 Edward VII visited France and tensions eased. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 made the need for an agreement even more urgent.

In April 1904 the Entente Cordiale was signed. Britain was allowed to consolidate its hold on Egypt and France was allowed to establish a protectorate over Morocco; Siam would be left an independent buffer between Burma and Indochina This did not, in practice, give Britain a great deal. Nevertheless, though the entente was not a formal alliance, it proved a diplomatic turning point.


The first Moroccan crisis

The Anglo-French Entente had not been aimed at Germany, but it created problems for German policy makers. In March 1905 Wilhelm II made a deliberate attempt to break it. He paid a state visit to Tangier in which he made a speech emphasizing Germany’s commercial interests in Morocco and the importance of maintaining the independence of its Sultan.This was diplomatic bluster on Wilhelm’s part. Germany had no economic interests in Morocco and certainly did not want war. But it caused French and British diplomats to discuss the military possibilities of the Entente in the event of a war with Germany.

Germany succeeded in having an international conference called at Algeciras in 1906. The conference confirmed the integrity of the Sultan's domains but sanctioned French and Spanish policing of Moroccan ports and collection of the customs dues. There was now no hope of a Franco-German rapprochement and the Anglo-French entente was solidified. The crisis revealed to British statesmen the importance of France and was the effectual end of the policy of isolation. It also revealed Germany’s potentially dangerous isolation, with only Austria-Hungary supporting its position.


The naval race

From 1897 Germany embarked on a drive for world power (Weltpolitik) which upset the relative stability of late nineteenth-century politics and posed a direct challenge to Britain. Germany felt that she was owed this status. She was by far and away the most advanced and dynamic of the great powers, but felt herself surrounded by both a backward Russia and a France that was smarting for revenge. She saw Britain as a declining power and herself best place to take advantage of this decline.

This drive expressed itself in naval policy, which was in part a response to a campaign whipped up by the Navy League. In 1898 the German Navy law announced their intention to build a battle fleet. A law of 1900 decreed that this fleet was to be strong enough to challenge the British in the North Sea. This committed Germany to a continuous, and expensive programme.

This did not mean that the German government was envisaging an offensive naval war against Britain. Admiral von Tirpitz was following contemporary strategic thinking when he calculated that if Germany had two battleships for every three floated by Britain – which meant a German North Sea fleet of some sixty battleships - then the German navy stood a good chance of victory in a defensive war. If so, then Britain would have lost her one great advantage – her naval supremacy.

The Liberal government would have preferred spending on social reform, but it was pushed by events. British naval thinking, exemplified by Sir John ('Jackie') Fisher the First Sea Lord from 1904, was driven by the ‘two-power standard’ whereby the Royal Navy was to be stronger than the combined fleets of the next two maritime powers.

In 1906 HMS Dreadnought was launched. She was 1,500 tons heavier than the last pre-dreadnought built for the Royal Navy and three knots faster and had ten 12 inch guns. This meant that she could outgun and outsail all other battleships, rendering them obsolete until the Germans build their own dreadnoughts.


HMS Dreadnought

By 1909 it was suddenly realised that the Germans were going to be building 10 Dreadnoughts against the 8 British ones that had been ordered up to then. The ‘We want eight and we won't wait’ panic then ensued, and six battleships and two battlecruisers were ordered in the 1909 programme. After that, the pace was kept up. Germany would only give up her naval plans in return for a British promise of unconditional neutrality in a Franco-German conflict, and after Algeciras, such a compromise was impossible.


The Anglo-Russian entente

On 31 August 1907 Britain and Russia had concluded the Anglo-Russian Entente in St. Petersburg. It ended decades of hostility by defining their respective spheres of interest in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, with Russia taking the northern areas of Persia and Britain taking the Persian Gulf area in the south. Its primary aim was to check German expansion into the area. Along with the Franco-Russian alliance and the Entente Cordiale, this formed the Triple Entente between the UK, France and Russia.


Crisis in the Balkans

In 1908 Balkan issues re-emerged to destabilize Europe. In 1908 the Young Turks, a nationalist and westernizing group, led a successful revolution forcing Abdul Hamid to issue a new constitution. The instability in the Balkans convinced the Austrian foreign minister Aehrenthal, that the status quo was not in the Habsburg interest as the weakening of Turkey was stirring up the South Slavs within the Empire and also outside it. In October 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia- Herzegovina, taking Russia by surprise as it pre-empted negotiations over the Balkans that were already taking place between the two powers. In spite of misgivings Germany backed Austria-Hungary. 

The annexation was a humiliation not only for Russia but also for Serbia which regarded itself as the protector of all South Slavs (‘Greater Serbia’ or ‘Yugoslavia’) including the Bosnians. There were massive demonstrations in Belgrade, where parliament voted emergency funds for war.

The crisis ended in March 1909.  The annexation was reluctantly accepted and Austria made formal amends to the Turks by agreeing to pay for crown property in the provinces but the damage had been done. There was now a distinct possibility of open conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. Serbia was now implacably hostile to Austria and it began to support openly the South Slav revolutionary movements. Meanwhile Russia began to step up her arms programme.


The second Moroccan crisis

After 1908 the central powers and the Entente grew ever further apart. The next conflict arose (again) over Morocco. Like China and Turkey, it was a crumbling state and a prey to the interference of the European powers. When a Berber rebellion took place in 1911 the French sent an expedition to occupy Fez, the capital, thus putting central Morocco under direct French control. The French remained in Fez after the crisis had died down. On 1 July the Kaiser ordered the gunboat Panther to Agadir on the grounds that German nationals in Morocco needed protection (even though there weren’t any!).

This stirred up alarm in Britain, forcing Lloyd George to state publicly that Britain could not be treated as of no account in a question that affected her interests. This was read as a declaration of support for France in a war against Germany. In November France and Germany reached a compromise (Morocco would become a French protectorate in return for economic concessions to German interests and a slice of territory in the French Congo). However, public opinion was inflamed in both France and Germany and the British then stepped up the production of Dreadnoughts.

In September 1911 Italy declared war on Turkey and landed troops in Tripoli. When the Italians bombarded the Dodecanese the Turks closed the Straits, and this launched a new crisis in the Balkans.


The First Balkan War

With Turkey embroiled in a war with Italy, the Balkan states moved in. In March 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro formed the Balkan League under Russian auspices to take Macedonia away from Turkey. The war began when Montenegro declared war on Turkey, on 8 October 1912, to be followed by Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. The league was able to field a combined force of 750,000 men was soon victorious.

The Turkish collapse was so complete that all parties were willing to conclude an armistice on Dec. 3, 1912. A peace conference was begun in London, but after a coup d'état by the Young Turks in Constantinople in January 1913, war with the Ottomans was resumed and again the Turks were routed. Under a peace treaty signed in London on May 30, 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territory, including Macedonia and Albania. The creation of an independent Albania was a coup for Austria-Hungary as it cut off Serbia from the sea.


The Second Balkan War

This began when Serbia, Greece, and Romania quarreled with Bulgaria over the division of their joint conquests in Macedonia. On June 1, 1913, Serbia and Greece formed an alliance against Bulgaria, and the war began on the night of June 29/30, 1913, when King Ferdinand of Bulgaria ordered his troops to attack Serbian and Greek forces in Macedonia. The Bulgarians were defeated, however, and a peace treaty was signed at Bucharest between the combatants on August 10, 1913. Under the terms of the treaty, Greece and Serbia divided up most of Macedonia between themselves, leaving Bulgaria with only a small part of the region.

The war was a foretaste of what was to come. For the first time a military aircraft (Romanian) was seen flying over a large civilian centre (Sofia). There were appalling atrocities on both sides. 21% of the Bulgarian troops were killed or wounded or died from disease.

The political consequences of the wars were considerable. An enlarged Serbia was now the prominent Balkan power and Russia’s only ally in the region. The Austrians were deeply anxious about Serbia’s ability to stir up trouble among their Slav subjects.


The coming of war

In 1913 the European powers were preparing for a possible war in what has been called ‘the great acceleration’ of the arms race. In March the German government introduced a new army bill designed to provide superiority over Russia in the following year. In confidence the party leaders in the Reichstag were told that the increases were justified by the expectation of the ‘coming world war’. The French urged on the Russians the necessity of completing the railways which would enable them to present Germany with a war on two fronts. The British government was proceeding with its naval programme. Russia was so fearful of the implications of the Berlin-Baghdad railway that she began a huge expansion of her forces and even contemplated seizing the Straits.

Yet none of the powers wanted a world war, and right up to 1914 imperial difficulties were negotiated on a case by case basis.  The over-riding factor behind the war was Austrian fear of Serbia. She was prepared to go to war because she could rely on German support and Germany was prepared to back Austria because of her new interest in Turkey and her calculation that if there had to be a war, it should come sooner rather than later.

The entry of France into the war was made inevitable by the plan drawn up in 1905 by the German chief of staff, Alfred von Schlieffen and arouse out of his concern that Germany could be ‘encircled’ by simultaneous attacks from France and Russia. This required that if war broke out with Russia, France should be eliminated by a pre-emptive knock-out blow. Since this attack was to come through Belgium, it risked bringing Britain into the war, since Belgian independence was guaranteed by international treaty.


Sarajevo and after

On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip (right). Princip was a member of the Young Bosnians, one of a group that sought an independent Yugoslav state. The group had been supplied with weapons by an ultra-nationalist organization called the Black Hand.

The assassination gave the Austro-Hungarians the excuse needed to deal with Serbia. On 23 July the Vienna government presented an ultimatum to Serbia that was designed to be humiliating and to be rejected. In support of Serbia, the tsar ordered the partial mobilization of Russian forces. Serbia then accepted most though not all of the terms.

On 28 July Austria declared war on Serbia. On 30 July Russia mobilised against Austria-Hungary and Germany.

On 31 July the Germans began to mobilize. On 1 August Wilhelm was told by his generals that the forces that had been prepared for a war in the west could not be redeployed on the Russian front - the Schlieffen plan had to go ahead - Germany now had to attack France. On the same day Germany declared war on Russia. On 3 August it declared war on Belgium and France. In the early hours of 4 August Germany invaded Belgium.


Britain declares war


The German invasion of Belgium transformed British opinion (see left for Mr Punch's view), and on 4 August Britain declared war in Germany. On 6 August Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. 

Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary is reputed to have said,


'The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.'

Sir Edward Grey
The war had crept up on a Britain distracted by the crisis in Ulster, with Grey making policy over the heads of his colleagues.  Britain was not bound by treaty to defend Russia or France from attack, though the invasion of Belgium was clearly a threat to her interests as well as being the breaking of an international treaty. Lloyd George believed that Grey mishandled the situation by failing to warn the German ambassador in time that Britain would take its treaty obligations to Belgium so seriously: ‘Had [Grey] warned Germany in time of the point at which Britain would declare war…the issue would have been different.’  We will never know if he was right.


The Liberals in power: 4 Ireland

The Ulster Volunteers

Of all the rebellions which presaged the ‘strange death of Liberal England’, that over Home Rule was undoubtedly the most intractable.

The question of Home Rule

The Liberals were committed by their need for Nationalist votes to pass a Home Rule Act, but this had never been approved by the British electorate, and it involved coercing a quarter of the population of the island of Ireland into (as they saw it) giving up their British allegiance.



In the meantime the South African War had radicalized Irish politics, with many Irish Catholics supporting the Boers. In 1905 Arthur Griffith began the process of bringing the various nationalist factions and societies together as Sinn Féin. In its early stages it was a feminist and pacifist organization, but after 1916 it would morph into a very different party.

One pressing problem was over how Irish Home Rule would affect the rest of the United Kingdom. Churchill advocated the division of the UK into ten or twelve separate ‘provinces’, each of which would have its own assembly, but his proposition was greeted with derision: why should Britain be dismembered just to please the ‘disloyal’ Irish? However, Asquith continued to home that Home Rule would be a first step towards a wider devolution.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Liberals in power: 3. Industrial disputes and the suffragettes

'Strange death'

In 1935 the journalist George Dangerfield wrote of the ‘strange death of Liberal England’. Roy Jenkins has also noted the government’s ‘strange ailments’. What went so wrong with a government elected in a landslide victory that brought about so many major reforms?

The extent of the government’s problems can be seen from the summer of 1911. It was in the middle of the Agadir crisis (the Germans sent a gunboat to Morocco and until the dispute was resolved in October, Europe seemed on the brink of war) and at the same time a railway strike which paralysed the North and the Midlands.  This is symptomatic of a rash of troubles that beset the Asquith government in the years before 1914. It was dealing with multiple crises and often was often on the back foot.

During 1912 and 1913 the authority of the government was diminished by the Marconi scandal which involved four ministers.
Both Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs, the Attorney-General, had engaged in share transactions in the American Marconi Company, which while not dishonest, were unwise, as the government later awarded contracts to the British Marconi Company.
The investigation was unpleasantly tinged with anti-Semitism.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Liberals in power: 2 The 'People's Budget' and the fight with the Lords


This was the title Lloyd George gave his 1909 budget and it sprang from his temperance, Nonconformist background. It was in part the product of the government’s greatly increased need for income: the Dreadnought building programme and the increased social security costs. Because it was also extremely redistributivist, it was not a traditional Liberal budget (Gladstone would have regarded it with horror).