Part I - Apex of Empire
Part II - Away from Isolation
Part III - Dreadnoughts
Part IV - Failed Negotiations
In 1897, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria was held amidst a flurry of imperial pomp and ceremony for an empire upon which the sun never set. It was 22nd June and the public had descended upon the imperial capital to witness a grand procession of imperial glamour. Fifty thousand soldiers, led by Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, marched in two columns towards St. Paul’s Cathedral for a thanksgiving service, composed of contingents from across the Empire: cavalry from New South Wales, camel riders from Bikaner, hussars from Canada, police from Hong Kong, troops from Niger, Jamaica, Malaya and Guiana, Cypriot Zaptiehs and Indian Lancers. ‘How many millions of years has the sun stood in heaven?’ asked the Daily Mail. ‘But the sun never looked down until yesterday upon the embodiment of so much energy and power’. ‘Rome’ Le Figaro declared ‘has been equalled, if not surpassed, by the power which in Canada, Australia, India, in the China Seas, in Egypt, Central and Southern Africa, in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean rules the peoples and governs their interests’. The procession continued with the survivors of Balaclava and the 1857 Indian Mutiny as well as a succession of a crown prince, twenty-three princesses, a grand duke, three grand duchesses, four duchesses and forty Indian potentates on horse back while guns fired and bells tolled. Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India and ruler of a quarter of the globe followed and arrived at St. Paul’s under a small white parasol, to be greeted by her son, the Prince of Wales.
British Empire: 1897
Four days later, the force that held the empire together was displayed in the Solent in all its majesty. The British Empire was built and maintained by sea power, and on a dull weekday afternoon, one hundred and sixty five black hulled ships of the Royal Navy lay in five lines, stretching for a total of thirty miles, with forty thousand crew and three thousand naval guns, in the most formidable assembly of ships in the history of the world. More than half of the entire world’s shipping belonged to the British merchant navy, and to protect this vast web of world wide trade, Britain had scattered the globe with coaling stations and a force with which to hold together the considerable collection of Britain’s imperial possessions. For Britain, naval supremacy held the balance between worldwide supremacy and destitute ruin. Without the protection of her vast navy, the British Isles would be open to invasion; the empire stripped away, merchant shipping swept from the seas and profitable trade broken inexorably. Yet with the navy strong, no continental power, even with a large army, could even seriously consider invading Britain, and the Empire beyond the reach of the continental powers continued to prosper and flourish behind a wall of battleships and cruisers.
HMS Majestic: one of the finest ships in the Royal Navy
The zenith of Empire was at Omdurman, in the Sudan on 2nd September 1898, when the 20,000 strong Anglo-Egyptian army of the Sirdar, Major-General Kitchener destroyed a 52,000 strong army of Muslim fanatics – the Ansar, commanded by the Khalifa. In a battle of civilisations, the modern army of Maxim guns, artillery and Lee-Metford rifles faced an army from another age, armed with clubs, sticks, swords and spears. Crying ‘There is one God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’, they were mown down by the product of British modernity and industry. Thousands of square miles had been added to an already glorious Empire. Gordon had been avenged. The next time the army went into battle, the results would be very different.
The 21st Lancers charge at Omdurman
The Boer War began a protracted era of imperial doubt – that is, concern that the glory and power of the Empire may not be what it seemed. The outcome of a century of antipathy between Briton and Afrikaner/Boer in South Africa was the war that began in 1899, nominally over the status of British ‘uitlanders’ in the Transvaal and what the Boers saw as an aggressive forward policy on Britain’s part to promote their rights. However, South Africa’s mineral wealth – diamonds and gold – gave the country greater value and helped crystallise the collision course that the British and Boers had relentlessly set upon since Cecil Rhodes’ clumsy private invasion in 1896. The war began with the usual enthusiasm, with General Sir Redvers Buller being sent to South Africa to tumultuous acclaim. Early optimism waned and gave way to fatalism – the towns of Ladysmith, Kimberley and most prominently, Mafeking were quickly besieged, and the British Army suffered three ‘reverses’ during the ‘Black Week’ of December. The hero of the Second Afghan War, Lord Roberts was despatched to shore up the situation, and swiftly brought about the relief of the three towns, with Mafeking’s relief particularly welcomed after the country’s intent following of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s gentlemanly defence. Within a few months, Roberts had occupied the Transvaal and Orange Free State, announced victory, and departed for home, leaving his Chief of Staff, Kitchener in charge.
The dead at Spion Kop
Meanwhile, Britain’s diplomatic detachment – ‘splendid isolation’ – as it was called, became all the more pronounced as Europe queued up to criticise perfidious Albion. Britain’s traditional enemies were France and Russia. France was Britain’s greatest rival in the colonial sphere, with the two nations nearly coming to blows over squabbles resulting from the scramble for Africa. Generally accepted as the world’s second great naval power, the French had always looked at new ways to undercut the Royal Navy’s strength and thereby challenge Britain in the wider world. A great panoply of differences separated the two countries: Egypt, Tunis, Morocco, Siam, Newfoundland, the Upper Niger, Uganda. The Anglo-French antagonism culminated at Fashoda in 1898, when French and British forces came to a standoff over possession of a Sudanese mud fort. With Salisbury’s threat of war, France backed down, but her divided population remained indignant, and when the British army came to difficulty in South Africa, the French press were quick to carp. The threat to Britain from Russia came from her seemingly ceaseless movement south, pressuring the Balkans, Constantinople, Persia, Afghanistan and China. The Bear had been engaged by Britain in the ‘Great Game’ in Asia, in a contest of strategy, influence and power. With all British eyes on the protection of India, Russia’s annexation of the decrepit Khanates of Central Asia throughout the 1870s appeared an aggressive move. Similarly, Britain was quick to offset ambitious Russian moves against Turkey in 1877, when the Russian army had been on the brink of capturing Constantinople. With the recent Russian challenge in Manchuria and the ongoing construction of the Trans Siberian railway, Britain’s strategic concerns for the defence of her empire in the face of Russia expansion remained pronounced. Enemies of both, British strategists had long considered serious the possibility of having to fight both France and Russia at the same time.
This may have been acceptable to the British had it not been for the inclusion of one more crucial ingredient into the European balance of power: Germany. In the 1850s, Prussia was an agrarian, simple nation. Yet by 1870, Chancellor von Bismarck had welded together the most powerful military nation in Europe after vanquishing Denmark, Austria and France in 1864, 1866 and 1870 respectively. Fortunately for Britain, Bismarck was a relatively benign influence on Europe, and kept the continent in check by a series entangling intrigues that ensured that France, eager for revanche after the defeat 1870 were kept isolated. Britain was happy to acquiesce in Bismarck’s new system in the realisation that his diplomacy worked for the preservation – not expansion – of Germany. Yet the fiery new Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, who came to the throne in 1889 had a different agenda. In 1890, he ‘dropped the pilot’ – sacked Bismarck and appointed a series of more subservient Chancellors. Seeking a ‘place in the sun’, Wilhelm set out to expand the power and influence of Germany, firstly by expanding its colonial possessions and then, upon reading Captain Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History to set about the building of a large navy. For this goal, he was aided by his extravagantly bearded Navy Minister Admiral Tirpitz, who had a long service with the German navy and witnessed its shameful performance in 1870, and in their analysis, concluded that the key to world power of the scale and magnitude of that enjoyed by Great Britain was the creation of a great navy, by which the German Empire could project its power across the globe. In the Navy Laws of 1897, Tirpitz called for the building of nineteen battleships as well accompanying vessels in order to render it impossible for the largest naval power (obviously referring to Britain) to engage the German fleet in battle without suffering such attrition so as to render their supremacy at sea under grave risk. To accompany Germany’s new fleet building schemes, Kaiser Wilhelm chose to flex his country’s muscle concerning a number of issues: sending a congratulatory telegram to Transvaal President Paul Kruger upon the repulse of the Jameson Raid upset British sentiment, whilst his 1898 proclamation to be ‘protector’ of all Muslims, in Damascus did more to infringe upon British and Russian sensitivities. To Britain, Germany wasn’t just speaking as if she were making a power bid, but her new navy suggested that she was actively setting about to do so. With relations between Britain and Germany strained, the German press was not reluctant to look with satisfaction as the British army in South Africa floundered.
Kaiser Wilhelm II: sought to expand German power in the world whether the world liked it or not
The Boer War underpinned Britain’s strategic and diplomatic difficulties. Disliked by Russia, France and Germany, she was, to quote the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, ‘friendless’. With Japan’s growing power in the Far East and the United States achieving local hegemony in the Americas, Britain appeared to be threatened on all sides. If war came, it was feared, then Britain may be crushed under the collective weight of all those who envied her. Suddenly, a sense of gloom pervaded British thinking – the glory of the Diamond Jubilee seemed a distant memory, and the glitter and ceremony of the army’s procession had supposedly been revealed as a sham after the army’s poor performance before the arrival of Roberts. Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’, that status of detached aloofness now looked to be dangerous folly. Underlying pessimism came to the surface in Kipling’s Recessional:
Far-call'd our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!
Eventually, the Boer War was won, but at great cost to Britain and greater cost to the Boers. The war that had begun with a lack of fighting on a Sunday in reverence of God’s day of rest had ended with a scorched earth policy, atrocities committed by both sides, and ‘concentration’ camps designed to accommodate civilians, whose appalling conditions helped create a popular backlash against the new imperialism, a blow from which it never quite recovered.
Many Britons would have agreed with the sentiment of Cecil Rhodes’ statement that he ‘would annex the planets’ if he could. Yet by the end of the Boer War, Queen Victoria was dead and Rhodes dying. With the glitter of empire stained, and Britain strategically vulnerable amidst the antipathy of France, Russia and Germany, it was clear that Britain needed a new foreign policy and a new defence policy.
Between 1902 and 1914, Britain would seek to alter her situation in the world in order to guard against new threats to her security.