WWI: Great Britain Enters

The beginning of August was tense and stressful for the major European powers.

You may have noticed we haven't talked a lot about Great Britain entering the war yet. With Russia and France gearing up to go to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, what was Great Britain thinking? They were not a part of France and Russia's initial alliance, so how did they get involved at all?

By the night of Sunday August 2nd 1914:

  • Russia, France, Germany & Austria-Hungary had all mobilized

    • Russia and Germany had declared war on each other

    • Austria Hungary had declared war on Serbia

  • Russian troops had crossed the German border

  • German troops sweep through neutral Luxembourg with intentions to go through Belgium and down into France in an effort to surround the French army.

That same day, the German ambassador in Brussels delivered the Belgian Foreign Minister an ultimatum presenting false intelligence that the French were planning on violating Belgian neutrality to pass through and attack Germany.  Therefore, Germany would need free passage into France for "self protection" purposes and demanded an answer within 12 hours. (Secretly, Belgium had been in constant contact with France so they were able to identify this as false)

The Prime Minister, Baron Charles de Broqueville and King Albert I, along with all other governmental ministers involved, voted unanimously to reject the ultimatum. not only that but to put up as much of a fight as possible against any incoming German forces. In response to the news, a German diplomat was heard saying:

"Oh, the poor fools! Why don't they just get out of the way of the steamroller." (MacMillan, 623)

It is the act of respecting Belgium's neutrality that was of grave concern to Great Britain. There were many in the government that were against war and against siding with France. But a quick turn of evens within 48 hours changed many of the governments' minds, coming to the conclusion that defense of Belgium's neutrality and preservation of its independence was a necessary task.

"Geography meant that, down through the centuries, Britain could never stand by unconcerned while another power took over the low countries with their crucial waterways by which goods and often armies funneled back and fourth from the continent to Britain." (MacMillan, 621)

Therefore, the aggression of Germany to take not only neutral Belgium and Luxembourg but France as well as British interests entering mainland Europe from all of these countries was reason enough and essential to keep them defended and open for business. And by Sunday night a "majority was starting to for....of those for whom a German violation of Belgian neutrality would be cause for war." (MacMillan, 621)

A British cartoon by F.H. Townsend from Punch in 1914 depicting "young" Belgium barring "elderly" Germany's path. Wikimedia commons.

A British cartoon by F.H. Townsend from Punch in 1914 depicting "young" Belgium barring "elderly" Germany's path. Wikimedia commons.

Belgium was a very proud country that cherished their independence and their freedom. They understood that as a small country in a developing modern Europe, their independence was something to be valued and meticulously protected against the great powers of Europe. For this reason they had nor pursued any military alliances that would make them dependent on one country or another. This prevented them from being used as leverage in negotiations between any of the great powers in Europe.

As a culture, they were dominated with French traditions but much of the government was pro-German conservatives all with catholic ties. (MacMillan, 622)

Located between French and German borders, they detected hostility between the two countries well before the assassination of the Archduke increasing their military spending in early 1913. They had a decently developed defense with military outposts on all of their boarders. While they were equally worried about the intentions of France and Germany on its boarders, they also really resented Great Britain for "leading the international crackdown on their King, Leopold II in the Congo" for his horrific treatment, extortion, and cover-up of the local population. (MacMillan, 622)

By the next morning, word of the Belgian government denying the ultimatum had spread throughout the country and the Belgian flags were flying everywhere in the streets and countryside. That day in parliament "all the measures proposed by the government including war credits passed unanimously." (MacMillan, 623) And King Albert and the Queen were cheered through a crowd leaving the parliament building. Later that day King Albert let King George V know of the ultimatum, asking for help. 

Le Soir French newspaper headline, August 4, 1914--Germany violates Belgian neutrality. Wikimedia Commons.

Le Soir French newspaper headline, August 4, 1914--Germany violates Belgian neutrality. Wikimedia Commons.

The next  morning, Tuesday August 4th, Great Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding a guarantee that Belgian neutrality would be respected. If their neutrality were to be violated that would force Great Britain to declare war on Germany. They had until 11 p.m. that night to agree to the ultimatum. When Big Ben struck 11 p.m. there was no response and Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Great Britain WWI Recruiting Poster. Wikimedia Commons.

Great Britain WWI Recruiting Poster. Wikimedia Commons.