The One and Only BBB
- Nov 1, 2010
THE LION, THE EAGLE, THE ROOSTER, AND THE BEAR
British Alliance-Building in the Run-Up to the Great War, 1900-1911
V. S. Gowda
British Alliance-Building in the Run-Up to the Great War, 1900-1911
V. S. Gowda
Europe has always been a continent of wildly shifting alliances. The decade before the Great War, however, is notable for just how much of the continent became embroiled in the network of treaties and promises swirling around the Anglo-German rivalry at its core. At the outbreak of war, only seven nations were not obligated by the system to come to the aid of Britain, Germany, or one of their allies. Those seven, too, had informal allegiances and interests that would see them dragged in soon enough.
The process through which the two sides took a chaotic system of shifting loyalties to one defined entirely by a country’s allegiance to either the Entente or Kaiser Pact can be roughly divided into three phases. The first was the formation of the core of each alliance, beginning with the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1900. British entry into a European alliance forced a continent-wide re-evaluation of the balance of power; for Germany specifically, it signalled the end of over a decade of successfully isolating France.
This prompted a search in Berlin for a formalisation of some of the alliances it had used to keep France alone. The first, and most obvious, was Russia. Since the collapse of Austria-Hungary, Germany’s border with Russia had been its longest. Since the defeat of France in 1887, the Russian Army had been the closest challenger to the German Army. Not only was it the only continental nation with larger reserves of manpower, but it was also engaged in an expensive programme of modernisation, however tortuous and stop-start it was proving.
The Czar proved receptive, hoping German preoccupation with Western Europe would allow him to expand his influence in the Balkans and Scandinavia. Of course, the biggest prize would be the Ottoman Empire. Backed by Germany, Russia could avoid a repeat of the 1851-52 Crimean War, when a Franco-British expeditionary force had thwarted Nicholas I’s bid to deliver a final blow to the ailing Sublime Porte. The treaty of mutual friendship, initially known as the Emperors’ Pact, and modelled after the Entente Cordiale that had precipitated it, was signed in January 1902.
Emperors Wilhelm II of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia, 1902
Taken at the signing of the Emperors’ Pact, the alliance between the two monarchs pictured would fracture in less than six years
The Emperors’ Pact caused much the same reaction in London and Paris as the Entente had in St Petersburg and Berlin. Arguably, the entire Boer War was an effort to flex the muscles of the Entente’s major guarantor as a message to the Emperors’ Pact. That war and its American counterpart, the Spanish-American War, would kick off the second phase, in which the Entente seemed to lose potential allies left and right.
Spain was the first to go, somewhat inevitably, considering how clear it was that the US had chosen to take Cuba and the Philippines from them with the consent of its new allies in the Entente. The utter disaster that was the Spanish military’s performance was blamed on the unwillingness of the Cortes to adequately fund the national defence, preferring instead to feather their nests, safe in the knowledge that turnismo kept their careers safe. The King, his regency only just ended, took the army up on the promise of restored glory for Spain, and on the 17th of June 1903, the Constitutional Monarchy came to an end. The first action of the new Military Absolutism was to align itself with Germany by seeking to accede to the Emperors’ Pact.*
Spain however, despite recent successes in the Scramble for Africa, was a declining power. The fall into Military Absolutism after a humiliating, but ultimately minor, reverse was a symptom of that decline. Far more cause for concern was the drift of Italy into the Pact. This was a vibrant, growing power, with an expanding naval force and the industrial strength to back it. For the French, it was also the final piece but two to having an enemy on every inch of its land borders. Once Italy acceded to the Pact in November 1904, only Switzerland and Belgium were not a clear and present danger.
The reasons for this drift are less poetic than Spain’s. Quite simply, with Spain and the Ottoman Empire aligned to Germany, the North African colonies of the French and British Egypt became viable targets. The Ottomans would also certainly be interested in reworking the Balkan settlement, and Victor Emmanuel III’s government could see opportunity to expand upon its acquisition of Croatia in the Austro-Hungarian Collapse. Albania, Greece, and Montenegro each seemed enticing targets, if the Turkish could be convinced that the reacquisitions of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania would be enough to restore the Empire’s wounded pride.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II, 1907
Unhappy with the constitutional settlement imposed by the 1841 August Revolution, Abdul Hamid II embraced the March Restoration of 1904, and aligned the Ottoman Empire with Germany
It was the Ottoman alignment with Germany that ultimately brought an end to the many losses of Entente diplomacy. The Parliament that had gained power in the August Revolution of 1841 was more liberal and pro-British than the rest of the Ottoman Establishment. The military, in particular, had always been downright opposed, and, over the years, opposition to liberalism had come to include opposition to Britain. With the Boer War seemingly exposing British weakness, the army finally saw proof that it needn’t fear British intervention if they attacked the Parliament outright. Even better, if this was the quality of British soldiery, Egypt was, perhaps, not forever lost.
The chance to complete an encirclement of what remained of Austria, and turn the Mediterranean into a Pact stronghold was so much of a temptation to the German Foreign Ministry that they became blinded to their main ally’s original reasons for joining the Pact. By early 1905, not only did Germany seem by far the more powerful of the two key players of the Anglo-German Rivalry, but she was the new guarantor of the Ottomans. The latter fact alone would have severely lessened the value of the Pact to the Czar, but that he now seemed committed to supporting a German bid for hegemony, rather than mutual defence, was the final straw.
When Austen Chamberlain returned to the Foreign Office in April 1905, he faced what looked to be almost certain defeat if the Entente he had created was ever called upon. However, unlike his counterpart in Berlin, Oswald von Richthofen, Chamberlain was able to divine the effect of Ottoman inclusion in the Pact upon the Russian calculus. Austria and the Balkan nations caught between Germany, Italy, and the Ottomans were obvious candidates for inclusion in a new security architecture, but the Bear would be the true prize.
Sir James Colville, 8th Baronet, 1908
As UK Ambassador to the Russian Empire in 1904-1910, Colville was the man tasked with drawing Russia from Germany to the Entente
The man who would be most directly responsible for the work of converting Russia to the Entente was Sir James Colville, 8th Baronet. The Foreign Office’s premier expert on Russia, his appointment can be argued as the best thing Sir Evelyn Wavell did during his tenure as Foreign Secretary, if actually being the Foreign Secretary to sign the instrument creating the Entente is exempted due to being more the achievement of Austen Chamberlain. Sir James had studied Russia since his university days. At 20, he had made his first acquaintance with the UK Embassy in St Petersburg, in order to obtain a copy of the full publication of War and Peace. While rising through the Civil Service, he had used most of his spare money on trips to Russia. By the time he was appointed, he had worked at the Embassy for half a decade. If there was anyone who could coax the Czar to even repudiate the Pact, to say nothing of aligning himself with Britain, it was Colville.
Over the course of 1905-07, his work was relentless. The German Ambassador at one point sent a note to Berlin, in which he complained that more would have to be done to show Russia that Germany was cognisant of its concerns, where he said that ‘[Colville] must now have a more intimate knowledge of the Czar’s movements over the last two months than His Imperial Majesty’s Personal Secretary or the Czarina do.’ By the spring of 1907, Sir James’ efforts finally began to bear fruit.
In a meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II in April 1907, the Czar requested that the Ottomans be thoroughly disabused of any notion that Bulgaria or Romania were up for grabs in a general European war, and suggested that the Russian Black Sea Fleet should be given berths in Istanbul. Wilhelm merely promised that he would think about it. When there was no signal from the Russian Embassy in Constantinople that any such suggestion had been made, much less forcefully enough to have caused the expected stir in the Sultan’s Court, Nicholas decided it was enough. He wrote to Wilhelm on June 22nd, informing him that Russia would be withdrawing from the Pact. He lamented in the letter that the goal of mutually beneficial co-operation had clearly fallen by the wayside, in favour of a hubristic German challenge to British power.
The shock in Berlin was matched by the elation in London. As Chamberlain put it; ‘the fish has flopped right out of their boat, and now we must reel him in before our competition regains his wits.’ While Colville embarked upon the second part of the job, however, the Foreign Secretary began the legwork of avoiding a potential Russian entry into the Entente from destabilising the alliance as it had the Emperors’ Pact (by now already renamed in the eyes of the world as the Kaiser Pact, being so clearly now a German project). He hoped to do this through engendering a cultural unity in the Entente beyond the geopolitical insecurities that had originally brought them together.
French and British Scouts at the Entente Jamboree of 1908
The Jamboree, organised at the request of the Foreign Office, brought together scouts from the three Entente signatories in an effort to promote a cultural unity that would strengthen the foundations of the alliance beyond geopolitical convenience
To this end, he made multiple trips to France and the United States, and convinced other members of the government to do so as well. The Foreign Office, through various organisations, including the rapidly expanding Scout Association,* organised various cross-Entente events. Chamberlain’s greatest coup would be the 1909 visit of George V to France.** While old Foreign Office hands wished his father had been alive to make the Royal Visit - Prince Albert Edward’s fondness for the French, and particularly for Parisian hospitality, before his death was well known – the King managed to make an impression on the French. In his speech to the Parisian people, printed widely in the French press, His Majesty seemed to strike the perfect note of praise for democracy and liberty for a monarch visiting a nation only two decades removed from its latest republican revolution.***
Despite this, there were naturally still jitters when Colville succeeded in June 1908 in convincing Nicholas II to write to George V about the possibility of an understanding with the Entente. The exact provisions of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1909 would stay secret until long after the war, but it was generally, and correctly, speculated that it was based upon contingent events in the Balkans. What little was left of Austria would, de facto, be guaranteed by both Russia and the UK; an attempt on Slovakia, Slovenia, or the resumption of the Austro-Hungarian conflict would almost certainly bring in Serbia, and so have the Kaiser Pact use it as justification to restore the Ottomans and push Italian claims in the Balkans.
Corresponding understandings with Austria, Serbia, and Greece ensured that the tripwire would be consistent between all nations affected by the Convention. The entry of France into the Convention by a sub-protocol in 1910, promising to prepare for combat operations in the event of a Russo-German conflict, ensured that the stronger, defensive provisions of the Entente Cordiale would almost certainly be activated. Germany would not suffer a mobilised France on its border unmolested. This, in turn, would provide President Roosevelt with an automatic obligation to join, and so one which would not require a reliably unreliable US Congress to approve the war.
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, 1907
In the last two years before the war, the question of the consistently pro-Entente Roosevelt’s successor after the election of 1912 was a constant headache for the Foreign Office
Roosevelt had, in fact, become something of a problem for the Foreign Office. Not because of anything he had done or planned to do, but rather because of what he was planning not to do. He was not planning to run for re-election in 1912. Though he consistently assured the Foreign Office that the man he had groomed to be his successor, William Taft, was prepared to meet the United States’ obligations, the British were convinced that Taft was humouring the President. His predecessor, McKinley, and he had been kept in office by the people despite their interventionism, not because of it, as far as the Brits could tell. This was the strategic problem the Foreign Office and military departments were most concerned with before the September Crisis of 1911.
So, by 1911, the only nations in Europe not party to the Entente, the Kaiser Pact, or the Anglo-Russian Convention and its related treaties, were the Scandinavian nations, the Benelux, and Albania. The last was almost sure to be dragged in by Italy, even if it still naively hoped non-alignment would save it. Britain was actively courting the Danish and Dutch, and Germany was making moves in Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Christiania. Few expected their neutrality to last for long in the event of war. Those few would soon be proven wrong.
* It is often forgotten that The Scouts, today one of the most international organisations in the world, began as part of Chamberlain’s project. Intended to promote both common feeling and military values of teamwork, self-improvement, and camraderie, the organisation was the brain-child of a group of Anglo-American officers who secured the Foreign Secretary’s support as one of the first acts of the campaign to draw the Entente together.
** This in turn ended the centuries-long Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, as Lisbon was forced to accept the cruel reality that Spain would immediately occupy Portugal in the event of the alliance being extant at the outbreak of war. By 1911, Spain had made it clear that even non-alignment would result in invasion, and so Portugal was practically press-ganged into the Kaiser Pact.
*** In mid-1911, Chamberlain was convinced that he was on the verge of securing a Royal Visit to the United States. The danger the war brought to the Transatlantic voyage nixed this idea completely.