Skip to main content

Great Britain in 1914: A Great Power Turns to a "Brave Little Kingdom"

Julia Barber '09


In July of 1914, Great Britain was faced with a difficult choice. Despite politicians' naïve hopes of peace, conflict between the Great Powers loomed on the horizon. After the vicious Boer War, the pacifist tendency among the British made intervention unlikely, but as rising German hegemony threatened British economic and military stability, politicians looked for a way to unite a divided country under the banner of war. In the end, the German threat to Belgian neutrality provided the justification necessary for the disputed entry; politicians and citizens alike rallied in support of the tiny country, sensing there a threat to the values and norms that the British held dear. Although it has been argued that Britain went to war simply for Realist considerations, typically defined as defense of national security and restraint of an unchecked neighboring hegemon, the country's motives were far more complex. The united support of the British population would not have been possible without the introduction of the Constructivist lens, which presented the case as one of defense of fundamental British norms on a Belgian stage: the right of any nation[1] to rule of law, territorial integrity and respect in the world community.


What began as a local conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary swiftly escalated into Continental war, polarizing European nations along the lines of an old, festering rivalry. Both countries coveted Great Britain's backing as the necessary leverage to gain an advantage in the conflict. Reflecting the pacifist mood of his country, Sir Edward Grey, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, approached the conflict with hopes of a peaceful, diplomatic solution. Grey believed that both Germany and France saw British military aid - unlikely as it was in light of pacifistic British politics - was a powerful deterrent to initiating war. However, despite Grey's best efforts at mediation, his credibility suffered due to the necessity of pacifying isolationist domestic politicians, and diplomacy eventually failed.[2] Even as negotiations proceeded, the Germans were fine-tuning the Schlieffen Plan, a proposal to outflank French troops by invading through Belgium,[3] which would provide the inspiration for Grey's diplomatic strategy throughout the July Crisis.


Recognizing the importance both Germany and France attached to British support, Grey demanded of each in return a guarantee of the maintenance of Belgian territorial integrity. French leaders, desperate to secure British support, vetoed a preemptive offensive into Belgian territory and held their troops ten kilometers behind the border, waiting for the Germans to attack first.[4]  The Germans, who were unwilling to wait for what could have potentially been a disastrous blow to their forces, acted quickly to prevent a two-front war by mobilizing for an attack on France. German leaders demanded free passage for their troops through Belgian territory, with the promise of compensating all losses and respecting Belgian sovereignty and independence after the war was over, provided that the Belgians did not resist.[5] It was a clever strategy - France's restraint presented Germany as the aggressor, thus ensuring British support.[6] Although the Germans justified their strategy by, as one source heatedly noted, "dragging in as excuse lying rubbish alleging that France intended to violate Belgian neutrality," the Belgians refused to relinquish their neutrality.[7] In response to the Belgian appeal for diplomatic intervention, Britain issued an ultimatum to the Germans demanding assurance of Belgian neutrality one last time. At on August 4, having received no reply, the British declared war on Germany.[8]


Many historians argue that this war was a welcome one to British Realists[9] because of their perceived threat to Britain's national security. In The Diplomatic Background of the War, Charles C. Seymour argues that "ever since the Middle Ages it has been a definite principle of British policy that the Low Countries should not be held or controlled by a first-class Power." Many British strategists worried that the control of the Scheldt and the coastline immediately opposite the mouth of the Thames, would prove the base for a successful invasion of England.[10] If any power, particularly a hostile one, were to enter the Channel - Britain's home waters - British security would necessarily be threatened.[11] Grey noted that the risks of entering the war were little worse than those associated with remaining neutral; foreign trade, as well as the domestic economy, would be disrupted by any Continental war, and hardships associated with war would occur nonetheless.[12] However, although Realists probably welcomed war largely for the defense of national security, this may have seemed more like overcautious vigilance to the pacifistic public, whose support was vital in the coming conflict.


The perceived threat on Britain's national security focused on the rising star of Germany's influence on the Continent. David Stevenson argues that "Britain went to war against specifically a German violation of Belgium, and there would probably have been no Cabinet or Commons majority for resistance to a similar act by France."[13] Scholar Sir Llewellyn Woodward agrees, adding that "Great Britain had been disquieted by German competition in shipbuilding openly directed against the naval predominance which was vital to an island state without a large army and dependent for her existence upon seaborne trade."[14] The British feared that Germany would use its newly developed navy offensively, especially in wartime, when vital naval bases could be used to launch strikes on British territory or shipping.[15] Further, should France fall, Germany would gain seaports that would grant them the ability to compete aggressively with Britain's active role in world trade and politics.[16] As a result, British high command, conscious of Napoleon's long hegemonic shadow, decided to engage in a fierce arms race with Germany to avoid relinquishing control of Continental trade.[17] This commercial threat added to the Realist justification for the necessity of British military intervention to check Germany's growth.


The Germans saw control of Belgium as the gateway to a French defeat, and thus German political dominance of Europe. This was an unsupportable condition for British national security. In his speech on August 3, Grey noted that "If Belgium lost her independence, then Holland and Denmark would lose theirs; and if France were beaten to her knees and lost her position as a Great Power, England would be faced by" the unchecked threat of a rising hegemon.[18] Prime Minister Asquith noted that it was against British interests for the French to fall to German forces, reflecting the common British fear of any alteration to the comfortable balance of power in Europe.[19] However, the British had a more practical reason to fear German expansion; in A German Plan for the Invasion of Holland and Belgium, J. Steinberg presents a German plan, first developed in 1897, for an invasion of France by way of Belgium that contained a clause for an attack on Britain.[20] Although Steinberg deplores the plan for its audacity and callousness, the plan serves most alarmingly as evidence that "the Germans sincerely believed that they, as well as the nations first in the field, had a right to... supreme world empire."[21] This diplomatic atmosphere during the development of the July Crisis removed the possibility of remaining neutral as an attractive option; if their allies in the Entente won, Britain would face mistrust in a changed political climate, destabilized by the power vacuum left by their former enemy. However, if the Germans won, Britain faced German control of the Continent, a consequence so terrible that military intervention seemed a small price to pay to ensure it would never happen.[22]


In spite of this convincing case for European intervention, most British politicians did not think in Realist terms - the overwhelming non-interventionist trend among politicians and civilians alike made a policy of interference difficult to justify. Reflecting a prevalent self-deception, many policymakers hoped for a diplomatic solution that would essentially resolve the entire conflict without necessitating British intervention.[23] David Lloyd George, then a Cabinet Minister, remarked on the blind optimism of the Cabinet: "Even then I met no responsible Minister who was not convinced that, in one way or another, the calamity of a great European war would somehow be averted."[24] Indeed, many Cabinet members were actively and "invariably hostile to any action upon the Continent,"[25] reacting to the growing sense of rejecting "the moral evil of war" as a legitimate policy tool.[26] Among more Liberal and Radical politicians, the prospect of military interference leading to war was viewed as one that might result, not only in the upset of the comfortable balance of power, but also in Europe's ruin.[27] Both Cabinet and country required a more compelling justification for intervention.   


Within this wave of pacifist sentiment lay an even stronger deterrent to intervention: a strong isolationist trend that responded with great hostility to any 'entangling alliances' that might lead the country into war. Seymour notes that " was one thing to recognize the German menace abstractly, and quite another to enter into a concrete war against Germany for the defence of France."[28] Even as divided as it was, the Cabinet primarily saw France's predicament as the result of that country's alliance with Russia, and hoped to avoid a similar obligation at all costs.[29] Before the Belgian crisis galvanized public opinion towards action, vocal opposition to intervention of any kind cued Grey to retain freedom to act as best he could, mainly by cautioning France not to depend on help that was not yet promised. Grey was forced to alert a dismayed French Ambassador Paul Cambon that his government "did not feel, and public opinion did not feel, that any treaties or obligations of this country were involved."[30] In spite of Grey's assurances that the limited action he was taking left the British Government free to make decisions, the Cabinet remained divided on the subject of British interference in what was seen as a "European quarrel."[31] As long as Britain was under no direct attack, Grey could not unite the Cabinet and country behind him in the face of the German threat.


This evidence shows that the conditions in Britain in the days leading up to the July Crisis were necessary, but not sufficient to prompt British entry into the escalating European conflict. It had become necessary to "find a reason for taking the ultimate step which would check a German bid for the mastery of Europe."[32] As David Stevenson eloquently states, "...the British government went to war for reasons of calculated national interest, although it was able to unite opinion behind it because it appeared also to be committed to an altruistic cause."[33] Belgium was the apparent casus belli that politicians could manipulate to explain their rapid about-face on the subject, and that the public could seize upon as a just cause for war. Despite Stevenson's confident claim, it is unclear whether government officials truly believed in the necessity of coming to Belgium's defense, or whether this policy was truly nothing but hot air. Either way, the introduction of the Belgian plight, as well as the careful cultivation of a morally-charged Constructivist mindset in viewing the European conflict, galvanized British support for the campaign.


Belgium served the unique role in the July Crisis of a banner under which all parties could unite. Politicians who had previously advocated peace found in Constructivist British norms a publicly acceptable excuse to justify their support of the war and intervention in British interests. Even Lloyd George, one of the most vocal opponents of war, came around in the face of the threat on Belgian neutrality; Zara Stein argues that "Belgium would be for him, as for almost all the others, a way out of an impossible moral dilemma. It would allow him to abandon whatever traditional radical principles he had inherited... without ceasing to claim that heritage."[34] Unionists and Liberals alike recognized the powerful appeal of the maintenance of Belgian neutrality - the country essentially became the battleground for a confrontation of Germany. The radical parties that had before divided the Cabinet pledged their support to the cause, but Steiner suggests that "[b]ehind the cheers lay more than a decade of unconscious preparation in which Germany had emerged as Britain's enemy."[35]


Grey and his supporters seized on the Treaty of 1839 as the link that bound Britain to interfere in the European conflict. The Treaty guaranteed the maintenance and protection of Belgian territorial integrity by the signatories, including Britain, France and former Prussia, in return for the country's neutrality. Belgium was compelled to refuse entry by either France or Germany and to resist a violation of neutrality - whatever form it took - at all costs, or risk sacrificing the protection of the other Great Powers.[36] The defiant Belgian resistance to the German advance made Belgian King Albert's appeal for British diplomatic intervention uncomfortable to ignore. The country had done all it could to resist on its own, and it was Britain's moral duty to come to its aid.[37]


Grey and his supporters, recognizing the necessity of British action to check Germany, used this Constructivist concept of a moral duty to gather politicians' support for military intervention. It was an effective tool in the wake of months of indecision: David Lloyd George recalls that "even the meek M. Paul Cambon said that the only question was whether the word "honour" was to be expunged from the British dictionary."[38] Eyre Crowe, the Assistant Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office, strengthened Grey's message by playing on the pull of Britain's loose ties to the Entente, arguing that despite the lack of a contractual bond, "a moral bond was being forged" when the Entente was created. What purpose could this moral bond have, he argued, if not to prove that in a just quarrel England would stand by her friends"?[39]   It was vital to Britain's image as a Great Power that the country should not stand aside when a defenseless neighbor and ally was threatened. Remaining aloof would only damage Britain's respect and reputation on the world stage. In response to a German speech acknowledging shock and horror at Britain's aggression towards her rival, British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen retorted that "it was... a matter of 'life and death' for the honor of Great Britain... [the Treaty of 1839] had to be kept, or what confidence could anyone have in engagements given by Great Britain in the future?[40] Through this lens, neutrality and nonintervention seemed downright dishonorable, much less politically unsound.


In addition to concern about the British reputation, the introduction of the Belgian question also prompted the country to consider the moral principles it held dear. If Britain accepted a German invasion of Belgium, it "would be surrendering in the twentieth century all that England had fought and risked her existence for, in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries,"[41] ideas such as a nation's right to territorial integrity and autonomy, as well as respect on the world stage. The defense of these moral principles proved to be irresistible: as David Stevenson argues,

The guarantee of Belgian independence, integrity, and neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London embodied a long-standing national interest. To uphold it against Germany's unprovoked attack was also to defend the rights of small nations and the rule of law, and to demonstrate that aggression would not pay. For these reasons, the Belgian issue mattered for both the Left and Right of British political opinion and played a major part in uniting that opinion in favor of war.[42]


Prime Minister Asquith, in a speech given at Dublin at the beginning of the war, outlined the moral position of the British government in defense of Belgian neutrality. He argued that the public right due Belgium and all the smaller nations of Europe meant "that room must be found and kept for the independent existence and the free development of the smaller nationalities, each for the life of history a corporate consciousness of its own. Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland... they must be recognized as having exactly as good a title as their more powerful neighbors... exactly as good a place in the sun."[43] Once again, it is unclear whether Asquith truly believed what he was saying; nevertheless, he convinced the British public. These principles were a vital part of British self-constructed identity, so that in effect, a policy of noninterference was aligned with a lack of patriotism, thus galvanizing public and politicians alike.


The case of Belgium as the victim of unprovoked German aggression proved to be exceptionally well-suited for arousing British norms of protecting and promoting the autonomy of small nations. Germany's 'unprovoked attack' provided a strong lens that allowed British citizens to separate 'good' and 'bad' Germans. This Constructivist mindset, already held by many of the most powerful politicians, "became an orthodoxy" held by all.[44] Latent anti-German sentiment, fed by years of rivalry and assumed mutual enmity, rose to the surface once given a moral cause to rally behind.[45] In addition, the Belgian plight was highly romanticized; in Fay's Origins of the World War, written shortly after the end of the War, the "little Kingdom" is described as issuing a "brave reply" to German ultimatums in spite of overwhelming odds.[46] Likewise, the understated appeal for 'diplomatic interference' in spite of heavy losses sustained on the Belgian front[47] and a small, badly-trained army emphasized Belgium's proud self-sufficiency, another appealing quality to the sympathetic British supporters.[48] In Britain, norms and values of nationalism and fierce defense of the principles of self-government flourished in response to the plight of their perceived fellow nation.[49]


British citizens could scarcely resist such a calculated appeal to their deeply-held norms and beliefs. The rapid change in Liberal opinion of the war is best demonstrated in a few sample extracts from the Liberal journal Daily News. Originally reluctant to consider war, and eager to "express their indignation at the swift and tragic movements on the Continent," the journal describes the next day's demonstrations surrounding the Cabinet as it decided on a course of war on Belgium's behalf as "extraordinary scenes of enthusiasm."[50] A previously divided Cabinet was electrified by the cause; likewise, Lloyd George recalls that "the populace caught the war fervor... I shall never forget the warlike crowds that thronged Whitehall and poured into Downing Street, whilst the Cabinet was deliberating on the alternative of peace or war."[51] In a diplomatic letter to the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Comte de Lalaing, the Belgian Minister at London, rejoiced that when war was declared on August 4, the country's esteem for Belgium was at an all-time high: "In the military clubs the health of the brave Belgians is drunk, newspapers of all shades praise our nation."[52] Perhaps the public, aware all along of the threat to their national and trade interests, likewise only needed an excuse to become enthusiastic. Nevertheless, ignorant of the subsequent horrors of war, British public opinion was fired by Belgium's plight, and British intervention in the Continental conflict, though once barely possible, was now inevitable.


This remarkable transformation from aggressive nonintervention and isolationism to celebration in the streets at the declaration of war could only have been accomplished with an appeal to fundamental British norms and values. In retrospect, Lloyd George remarks that at the beginning of the July Crisis, war seemed hardly possible: it "was something into which [we] glided, or rather staggered and stumbled, perhaps through folly, and a discussion, I have no doubt, would have averted it."[53] Regardless of the simplifying effects of hindsight, Lloyd George raises an interesting point - the public remained ignorant of the complex sequence of diplomatic maneuvering executed by Grey and his colleagues until at last the Cabinet deliberated a declaration of war on Germany.[54] Presented through this lens, Belgian neutrality appears as a kind of diplomatic ace up Grey's sleeve, an appropriately dramatic justification for what Winston Churchill perceived as "the flaming action taken" in the name of the British people.[55] As a last-minute tactic to rally support behind the British intervention, it proved surprisingly effective.


The reflections of British politicians on the political atmosphere during the July crisis provide a partially clear window into the diplomatic mind in 1914. Lloyd George defends the Government's handling of the Belgian conflict, arguing that the War was neither "intrigued and organised and dictated by financiers for their own purpose" nor "produced by a growing jealousy of Germany's strength and prosperity." Rather, "Money was a frightened and trembling thing: Money shivered at the prospect.... Here were no eager men praying for the hour to arrive when they could strike down a great commercial rival."[56] However, it is difficult to accept that British politicians were completely immune to the temptation of finally confronting their longstanding economic and political rival. Although the Belgian conflict provided a convenient excuse for interference, the list of evidence suggesting the German threat and the benefits of a potential intervention are too convincing to ignore. Churchill notes that "[t]he more I reflect upon this situation the more convinced I am that we took the only practical course that was open to us or any British Cabinet"[57] in the face of the "enormous political task" that awaited Grey and his colleagues.[58] Churchill was more correct than he realized. Indeed, it was only through careful, Constructivism-based manipulation of the Belgian problem that the Government was able to rally the public so effectively for a primarily Realist conflict.


In the end, the extent to which British citizens and politicians believed in the necessity of interfering in Belgium is unclear. The primary documents from 1914 tell only so much, and only what is off the record can reveal the truth. Either way, the introduction of the Belgian conflict reveals a savvy political maneuver on the part of British policymakers. Indeed, such a move is particularly interesting now, in an age of controversial wars and pacifistic citizens. Time will tell whether contemporary politicians will read from the past and repeat this move, or if the brutal lessons of World War I can deter modern governments from entering another such war without considering the consequences.      


Churchill, Winston S.. The World Crisis, 1911-1914. New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1928.


Falls, Cyril. The Great War, 1914-1918. New York: Capricorn Books, 1959.


Fay, Sidney Bradshaw. The Origins of the World War. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930.


Lloyd George, David. The War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 1914-1915. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933.


Perris, G. H.. The Campaign of 1914 in France and Belgium. New York: Henry Hoolt and Company, 1915.


Schmitt, Bernadette E. and Harold C. Veldeler, The Rise of Modern Europe: The World in the Crucible, 1914-1919. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984.


Seymour, Charles. The Diplomatic Background of the War, 1870-1914. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927.


Stein, Zara S.. Britain and the Origins of the First World War. New York: St Martin's Press, 1977.


Steinberg, J.. "A German Plan for the Invasion of Holland and Belgium, 1897." In The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914, edited by Paul M. Kennedy, 155-198. Boston: Allen & Unwin Publishers, 1979.


Stott, James Brown, ed.. Diplomatic Documents Relating to the Outbreak of the European War, Part 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1916.


Stevenson, David. The First World War and International Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.


Woodward, Sir Llewellyn. Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1967.

[1] The right of any European nation. British colonial interests could hardly have supported such a view of a country outside of the Continent.

[2] Zara S. Stein, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, (New York: St Martin's Press, 1977), 227. Grey ended up disappointed, "outraged at the way Germany and Austria have played with the most vital interests of civilization, have put aside all attempts at accommodation made by himself and others, and while continuing to negotiate have marched steadily towards war." In light of this, the debate continues today over whether or not the threat of British interference, even when credibly expressed, could have truly effectively staved off war.

[3] David Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 23.

[4] Ibid, 34.

[5] Sidney Bradshaw Fay, The Origins of the World War, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), 541.

[6] Sir Llewellyn Woodward, Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918, (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1967), 19.

[7] Cyril Falls, The Great War, 1914-1918, (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), 31.

[8] Fay, 546.

[9] I use the term "Realists" loosely in this paper, not to refer to those who specifically defined themselves as Realists, but rather to those who espoused Realist values, such as the preservation of national security, power politics, and the consciousness of a delicate balance of power between states, threatened here by a rising hegemon in the form of Germany. Likewise, the term "Constructivists" applies to those who rationalized state interactions based on socially constructed norms, beliefs, values and identities, or those who used these social constructions to further other aims.

[10] Charles Seymour, The Diplomatic Background of the War, 1870-1914, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927), 277.

[11] Stein, 238.

[12] Stevenson, 37.

[13] Ibid, 36.

[14] Woodward, 4.

[15] Seymour, 282

[16] Stein, 282.

[17] Bernadette E. Schmitt and Harold C. Veldeler, The Rise of Modern Europe: The World in the Crucible, 1914-1919, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984), 5.

[18] Fay, 543.

[19] Stevenson, 36

[20] J. Steinberg, "A German Plan for the Invasion of Holland and Belgium, 1897," in The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914, edited by Paul M. Kennedy, 155-198, (Boston: Allen & Unwin Publishers, 1979), 155.

[21] Seymour, 28.

[22] Stevenson, 37.

[23] Stein, 238.

[24] David Lloyd George, The War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 1914-1915, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933), 51.

[25] Seymour, 252.

[26] Woodward, 6.

[27] Ibid, 19.

[28] Seymour, 276.

[29] Lloyd George, 62. At this time, Lloyd George notes, the Russians were tremendously unpopular in British public opinion, making the choice to intervene tremendously difficult. In the end, however, the Franco-Russian alliance was the lesser evil. (p.61)

[30] Fay, 535.

[31] Fay, 536, Stein, 233.

[32] Stein, 237.

[33] Stevenson, 38.

[34] Stein, 235.

[35] Stein, 241.

[36] Seymour, 281-283.

[37] Ibid, 276-277.

[38] Lloyd George, 47.

[39] Woodward, 19.

[40] Fay, 545.

[41] Seymour, 283.

[42] Stevenson, 35.

[43] G. H. Perris, The Campaign of 1914 in France and Belgium, (New York: Henry Hoolt and Company, 1915), xi

[44] Stein, 277.

[45] Ibid, 233

[46] Fay, 541.

[47] Perris, 8.

[48] Schmitt and Vedeler, 32.

[49] Perris, 15.

[50] Lloyd George, 63.

[51] Ibid, 60.

[52] James Brown Stott, ed., Diplomatic Documents Relating to the Outbreak of the European War, Part 1, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1916), 453.

[53] Schmitt and Vedeler, 22.

[54] Perris, 44.          

[55] Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1914, (New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1928), 235.

[56] Lloyd George, 68-69.

[57] Schmitt and Vedeler, 218.

[58] Churchill, 235.