World War I Centennial: The Titanic and an Ambivalent Alliance


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 12th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

April 15, 1912: The Titanic and an Ambivalent Alliance

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

The Titanic

On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the ocean liner RMS Titanic, en route from Queenstown, Ireland, to New York City, accidentally rammed an iceberg, tearing a series of holes in the side of the massive ship. The world’s largest ship was traveling at 22.5 knots – 26 miles per hour, near its maximum speed – and five of its sixteen supposedly “watertight” compartments were breached by the force of the impact. The compartments weren’t actually watertight – they were connected at the top – and water quickly spread from compartment to compartment. Five minutes after midnight on the morning of April 15, with the ship listing heavily to starboard, captain Edward J. Smith gave the order to evacuate the Titanic.

Tragically there weren’t enough lifeboats to carry all 1,320 passengers and 892 crewmembers; the 20 lifeboats provided could accommodate half that number at most. With the lifeboats going to “women and children first,” numerous crew members and male passengers were left to go down with the ship or plunge into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. As the band played on, the ship took on more water, broke in half, and finally sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912.

The Titanic wasn’t carrying enough lifeboats in part because the relevant regulations hadn’t been revised in almost a decade. It had been eight years since the last major sinking of a passenger liner – the loss of the Danish SS Norge, with 635 people aboard, in 1904 – and while the size of passenger ships had increased dramatically in the intervening years, the complement of lifeboats had not. In fact, the Titanic was carrying more than the sixteen boat minimum required by the Board of Trade.

If other ships in the area had been closer to the Titanic (and received the message in time), their combined lifeboats might have been able to shuttle back and forth, ferrying passengers from the sinking ship to safety. However several ships weren’t paying attention to wireless messages: on board the SMS Carpathia, the wireless operator missed the first call for help because he was on the bridge. When the distress call finally got through, the Carpathia reversed course and covered the 50+ miles to the Titanic’s position in about two hours, arriving around 4 a.m., nearly two hours after the ship sank, to rescue 705 survivors from aboard the lifeboats. The rest of the passengers and crew, some 1,500 people, perished in the icy North Atlantic, victims of hypothermia and drowning.

The sinking of the Titanic foreshadowed the maritime disasters resulting from German U-boat attacks in the coming Great War – most prominently RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 out of 1,959 aboard. The captain of U-20, Walter Schwieger, attacked the Lusitania without issuing a warning or allowing its passenger and crew to evacuate to lifeboats – a breach of international conventions, resulting from the German admiralty’s policy of “unrestricted” submarine warfare. This “barbarism” elicited a wave of outrage in the United States, prompting the Germans to temporarily suspend unrestricted warfare. Their return to unrestricted attacks in February 1917 helped precipitate the entry of the U.S. into the war two months later.

On the positive side, public scrutiny of the Titanic disaster ensured that most ships were equipped with sufficient lifeboats, and also led to round-the-clock wireless monitoring, reducing the loss of life when other big ships were torpedoed during the First World War. Thus no passengers or crew were lost to drowning when the Titanic’s rescuer, Carpathia, was sunk by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-55 on July 17, 1918.

An Ambivalent Alliance

While the world reeled from the loss of the Titanic, the wheels of European diplomacy continued turning. On April 15, 1912, the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, proposed an alliance to the British foreign minister, Edward Grey, based on terms first discussed seven years before during the First Moroccan Crisis. In 1905 the British had proposed the alliance to the French; in 1912 it was the other way around.

France and Britain were longtime foes who had opposed each other from the medieval period into the age of colonialism. But in the face of growing German power, they set these tensions aside (at least temporarily) in favor of an “entente cordiale,” or friendly understanding, first agreed in April 1904. In effect, the British and French decided to resolve their colonial differences in places like Morocco so they could cooperate in Europe, stoking German paranoia about a conspiracy to encircle the Fatherland.

In May 1905, German fear of encirclement resulting from the entente cordiale drove Kaiser Wilhelm II to precipitate the First Moroccan Crisis with his infamous visit to Tangiers. As a signatory to earlier international agreements about Morocco, the German Empire could not be left out of decisions regarding the future of the country, he blustered – exactly what France and Britain set out to do in their diplomatic understanding. German opposition threatened to drive Britain and France apart, due in part to their different security situations: while France faced an existential threat from the formidable German army, Britain remained safely uncommitted behind the English Channel, protected by the Royal Navy.

Indeed, although the entente cordiale did much to bring France and Britain together, the British were typically leery of committing to an explicit military alliance, namely a defensive pact that would require Britain and France to assist each other if either were attacked by a third party – i.e., Germany. The most important reason was the longstanding British aversion to any foreign entanglements, especially treaties which might draw it into a European war.

The British were also skeptical about France’s formal military commitment to Russia, another longtime British foe. Nonetheless some British diplomats were pushing for the country to abandon its traditional isolation in favor of more formal alliances, leading for example to a formal alliance with Japan, directed against Russia, signed around this time.

It was in April-May 1905, during the First Moroccan Crisis, with international tensions running high, that the British foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne, and other key figures in the British government made a vague offer of something resembling a military alliance to the French – or at least, that’s how the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, interpreted it. Precisely what Lansdowne offered the French is unclear: while the British foreign secretary said the French and British military leaders should consult each other about plans for cooperation in a war against Germany, his proposal probably fell short of an offer of alliance, which traditional British isolationists wouldn’t have accepted.

In any event, the offer came to nothing, as the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, was forced to resign under German pressure in 1906 – the price of German acquiescence in the First Moroccan Crisis (later viewed as a diplomatic defeat for Germany, as the entente cordiale survived the German diplomatic assault). Meanwhile in December 1905 the Tory government dissolved and Lansdowne left office as foreign secretary; at this stage, both of the principals involved in the negotiations were out of power. Nevertheless other French officials didn’t forget the idea: Lansdowne’s offer was more than Britain had ever ventured before, and the French rightly viewed it as another step towards ending Britain’s policy of “splendid isolation” from Europe.

Fast forward to April 15, 1912: as Britain and France scrambled to contain German power following the Second Moroccan Crisis, Cambon (still the ambassador to Britain) suggested to the British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs, Sir Arthur Nicolson, that France and Britain revisit negotiations for a possible alliance along the lines first laid out by Lansdowne in 1905.

In addition to being nervous about Germany itself, the French were concerned about British attempts – so far unsuccessful – to reach a naval arms limitation agreement with Germany. Such an agreement would remove Britain’s main reason for participating in the entente cordiale aligning it with France against Germany – something France was counting on for its own security.

The failure of the Haldane mission left Britain receptive to closer cooperation with France, but the British were as slippery as ever when it came to actually committing to an alliance. After receiving Cambon’s proposal on April 15, 1912, Nicolson passed the proposal along to the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, who expressed interest but said the idea would have to be debated by the full cabinet – where it was certain to face opposition from old school isolationists, as always. And with that, the alliance proposal ran into the political sands yet again.

But there was no denying the general drift of events: the simple fact was that the two countries were increasingly dependent on each other for security in the face of growing German power. While Britain remained reluctant to make a formal alliance, the British were eager to reach some kind of arrangement with France about the distribution of their naval forces. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, was planning a major redeployment of the Royal navy which would bring key forces back to home waters from the Mediterranean, bolstering home defenses against the threat posed by the expanding German navy. This would leave the shipping lanes through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal, the lifeline to Britain’s colonial empire, exposed to threats from the Italian, Austrian, Turkish, and Russian navies – unless France stepped in to protect them.

Although the April 15 offer fell flat, in coming months Churchill and other British officials would enter into active negotiations with the French government aimed at coordinating their naval strategies – another step towards a de facto treaty of alliance which would involve Britain in a war between France and Germany.

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