Sunday, 12 March 2017

Towards 1914 (2): The two alliances

The French fleet in Kronstadt, 1891
Wikimedia Commons

The Dual Entente

The idea of an alliance between Republican France and tsarist Russia - unlikely as it might seem -  was not new.  It had been advocated by panslavists and French nationalists, but it remained insignificant so long as Bismarck nursed Russia and encouraged France overseas. As Russo-German relations cooled, the Reinsurance Treaty was allowed to lapse. Meanwhile Russia and France were becoming increasingly close economically and were hostile to what they saw as Britain’s expansionism.

In July 1891 the French fleet paid a symbolic visit to Kronstadt and diplomatic notes were exchanged. In August 1892 Russia promised to go to war if France were attacked by Germany alone and in return France promised to come to Russia’s help if she were attached by Germany (but not if she were attacked by Austria-Hungary). This agreement, though narrowly worded, was full of significance for the future: Europe was now on the way to being organised into two armed camps. 

At the end of 1893 a diplomatic convention was signed (and ratified in January1894) to reinforce the military one. In 1894 Nicholas II paid a state visit to Paris. But so secret was this alliance that the public did not become aware of it until 1897 and most French ministers did not know its precise terms until war broke out.

The existence of the two alliances, the Triple Alliance and the Dual Entente, did not directly cause the First World War. French and Russian interests continued to diverge in many ways. However, the alliances narrowed the room for manoeuvre in Europe. Russia was committed to the defence of France against Germany; Germany was bound to prevent the disintegration of Austria-Hungary in the face of Russian pressure.

Britain and the Ottoman Empire

At the turn of the century Britain abandoned its previous foreign policy of 'splendid isolation'. It also cooled on its support afor the Ottoman Empire that had been the keystone of its policy throughout the 19th century?

In 1895 another Balkan crisis loomed when a series of officially instigated massacres of Armenians took place in Turkey. Public opinion was greatly agitated in Britain. The British government wished to condemn the massacres but at the same time not allow a repeat of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. 

An American photograph of Armenian
dead in Erzurum, eastern Turkey
Public Domain

Britain had become thoroughly disillusioned with Abdul Hamid II, who had failed to implement the promised reforms. It now seemed morally impossible to defend Turkey. At the same time the old strategic arguments for defending the access to the Mediterranean seemed out of date:
(1) the Straits could no longer be defended successfully against the combined Franco-Russian fleets;
(2) the route to India could be better secured by maintaining control of Egypt and was no longer dependent on the balance of power in south-east Europe.
On 19 January 1897 the British Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury spoke in the Lords in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. This speech marked a dramatic reversal of British foreign policy by condemning the entry into the Crimean War.
‘The parting of the ways was in 1853 when the Emperor Nicholas’s proposals were rejected. Many members of the House will keenly feel the nature of the mistake that was made when I say that we put all our money on the wrong horse.’
But this remarkable change in policy did not have an immediate practical outcome. In 1897 Britain was isolated. She was at odds with France over the Sudan and relations with Germany were worsening.

Britain and Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Public Domain

By the end of the nineteenth century Kaiser Wilhelm II's unpredictable behaviour was causing great concern in Britain.

In 1893 Britain had protested against German railway building in Asia Minor, which had begun in 1888 when a German syndicate obtained a concession from Turkey.

Germany took the side of Britain’s opponents in colonial disputes and wars. From 1889 Britain and Portugal were at odds over Delagoa Bay (Maputo Bay, Mozambique) which arose when the Portuguese seized the railway running from the bay to the Transvaal. In 1894 Germany sent two warships to) as a demonstration against British pressure on Portugal.

(The dispute was referred to arbitration, and in 1900 Portugal was condemned to pay nearly 1,000,000 pounds in compensation to the shareholders in the railway company.)

On 2 January 1895 news of the Jameson Raid, an excursion by British freebooters into the Transvaal, reached Berlin. On the following day the Kaiser sent a telegram to President Paul Kruger congratulating him on its suppression. British public opinion was outraged.

In July 1897 Bernard Heinrich von B├╝low became secretary of state (and chancellor in 1900) and Alfred von Tirpitz became head of the Admiralty.

Alfred von Tirpitz
Bundersarchiv Bild

This marked a new turn in German politics, the abandonment of Bismarck’s contention that Germany was a ‘satiated’ power. It coincided with increased anti-German feeling in Britain as newspapers whipped up a campaign against German goods.

In 1898 Wilhelm visited Abdul Hamid II and secured a Turkish concession to Germany to extend the Berlin-Baghdad Railway to Basra, thus giving Germany access to the Persian Gulf.
During the Boer War Britain’s sense of isolation increased. The one consolation was her naval supremacy which enabled her to ride out world opinion.

The world c. 1900

Was the First World War inevitable?
In some respects the world was more orderly than it had ever been. Much had been done to mitigate the disorder of international competition. Colonial disputes had gone to arbitration and had been peacefully resolved. More questions were decided by arbitration between 1880 and 1900 than in the previous eighty years. Many people believed, with reason, that the world was becoming more peaceful.

There was also acceptance of the need to limit armaments, however difficult this might be to achieve in practice. The first Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1901.

In 1899, at the instigation of Nicholas II, a conference met at the Hague, where it was decided that a permanent court of arbitration should be set up to which disputes could be referred and the International Court was set up in the same year. It was agreed to prohibit some modern weapons such as dum-dum bullets and poison gas.
A second Hague Conference met in 1907.

The enhanced prestige of the United States can be seen in the success of the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation which ended the Russo-Japanese War in August1905. The treaty recognised Japan’s paramount interest in Korea and marked the formal abandonment by Tsarist Russia of her Far-Eastern dreams.

Britain's alliances

The Anglo-Japanese alliance: In 1902 Britain ended its long period of isolation, which the Boer 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.

The Entente Cordiale: As colonial conflicts died down relations with France improved. Britain and France  had common concerns over Germany and the British and French Foreign Ministers sought ways to ease hostilities. In May 1903 Edward VII visited President Loubet in Paris. Overcoming initial hostility, he charmed the Parisians. He had paid many previous visits to Paris and spoke fluent French. French statesmen believed the king personally directed foreign policy, and for them the visit had the highest diplomatic importance. They listened with he told them not to trust the Kaiser.

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. The Entente was severely limited, as it did not commit either power to come to the aid of the other if attacked. Nevertheless, it was a diplomatic turning point, ending centuries of Anglo-French hostility.

A Punch cartoon showing a sour
German response as John Bull
walks off with the harlot, Marianne
Public Domain


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