This article is an edited transcript of The Causes of the First World War with Margaret MacMillan on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 19 December 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
When World War One broke out in 1914, famously sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Britain – the world’s largest empire and most important industrial power – had spent the previous 100 years pretending it wasn’t especially interested in the political machinations of continental Europe. So what caused Britain to enter the Great War?
The British came in partly because of Belgium, a neutral state when Germany invaded it (and Luxembourg) as part of the Schlieffen Plan at the start of World War One.
The British cared strongly about the rights of neutral nations and the whole notion of neutrality, in part because they had so often been neutral themselves.
The idea that neutrality might not be respected, that powers would simply ignore it, was something that alarmed the British.
There was a feeling that standing by and allowing such a fundamental principal to be ignored might lead to troubling consequences in the longer run. The idea of Belgium, a relatively small country, being steamrollered by Germany did not sit well with the British, especially when reports of German atrocities crossed the channel.
Ultimately, above all else, the British were compelled to enter the fray – just as they joined the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19th century and World War Two in 1939 – because the prospect of a hostile power controlling the entirety of the facing seacoast and the waterways that led into Europe was intolerable.
Britain depended on trade with Europe and the county’s long-term interests meant that countering Germany was pretty much unavoidable. In particular, Britain couldn’t afford to see France, with which it had a strong relationship and alliance, defeated.
Could Britain have done anything to avoid war?
Some historians think that Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, could have taken the crisis more seriously early on – for example, making it clearer to the Germans that Britain would enter the war if they persisted with their invasion of France and forced a conflict.
Such a move would have been difficult, not least because it would have required parliamentary approval and there were a lot of Liberal Party MPs who didn’t want Britain to go to war.
It’s also debatable whether Germany and Austria-Hungary, who were seemingly prepared to risk all and go to war, would stop in the face of such a threat. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to wonder if Britain could have stepped up earlier and been more forceful about the dangerous consequences of Germany’s actions.
Did Germany go to war in August 1914 thinking that Britain wouldn’t get involved?
It’s possible that the Germans persuaded themselves that Britain wouldn’t get involved simply because, intent on a quick victory, that’s what they wanted to believe. It’s also likely that Germany wasn’t all that impressed with Britain’s relatively small – 100,000-strong – army and doubted its ability to make a significant difference.
While the Germans undoubtedly respected the British Naval force, the rapid, purposeful nature of their progress through Belgium and into France – not to mention the formidable size of their army – allowed them to disregard Britain’s capacity to make a meaningful and timely intervention.
As we now know, such complacency was misplaced – a small British Expeditionary Force did make a difference, playing an important part in slowing the German advance.