World War I Centennial: Britain and France Team Up (Sort Of)


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 28th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 23, 1912: Anglo-French Naval Convention

The rise of German power on land and at sea in the first years of the 20th century forced Britain and France, rivals since the medieval period, to put aside their differences to contain the growing German threat. This was a huge change for Britain, which had previously emphasized its “splendid isolation” from the Continent of Europe by avoiding long-term, formal commitments to France or any other European power.

Following the Second Moroccan Crisis in July-November 1911, it became clear to forward-thinking British ministers that Britain would have to put aside its traditional reluctance and cooperate with France. The big goal for First Lord Winston Churchill, heavily influenced by the retired Admiral Jackie Fisher, was an Anglo-French Naval Convention that would essentially give the French navy responsibility for guarding the Mediterranean, allowing Britain to concentrate its naval power in the North Sea against Germany.

Churchill had to overcome institutional resistance from Britain’s civilian government as well as the military: in addition to Britain’s traditional reluctance to enter into entangling alliances, the Mediterranean – a “British lake” since the Napoleonic wars – was the key link to the Suez Canal and Britain’s colonies in the Far East. Thus the First Lord spent much of the first half of 1912 carefully lining up support.

On April 23, 1912, the Admiralty produced a map showing proposed areas for responsibility for the French and British navies, and in June Churchill’s adviser Fisher explained the rationale behind the proposed Anglo-French Naval Convention: “As to the policy of reducing the Mediterranean Fleet, the matter is most simple. The margin of power in the North Sea… requires this addition of the Mediterranean battleships … We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre.”

Churchill reinforced this message in conversations with key Cabinet members: on May 6, 1912, he reminded the Secretary of War Richard Burdon Haldane that the main naval confrontation of the next war would take place in the North Sea, not the Mediterranean.

Still, Churchill had to make compromises with some key players, including Lord Kitchener, the British consul general in Egypt, who was responsible for security in the entire Mediterranean basin. On July 4, 1912, Churchill, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, and Lord Herbert Kitchener met in Malta, where Kitchener agreed to move British battleships out of the Mediterranean – as long as the Royal Navy maintained two or three battle cruiser squadrons (as opposed to just one) to keep the Austro-Hungarian navy bottled up in the Adriatic Sea. Later, stubborn opposition from traditionalists in the British cabinet forced Churchill to keep four battle cruiser squadrons in the Mediterranean – but he got permission to withdraw the battleships.

Let's Make a Deal

On July 23, 1912, the British admiralty drew up a draft Anglo-French Naval Convention, which was then relayed to French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré for review. At first Poincaré was not impressed, noting that there was no formal commitment by Britain to join the French in a war against Germany: “To begin a military or naval convention by saying that it means nothing so far as the Governments are concerned is superfluous and quite out of place in such a convention. If the Entente does not mean that England will come to the aid of France in the event of Germany attacking the French ports its value is not great.”

Subsequent revisions to the text hardly removed this ambiguity, with the final version merely providing that “if either Government had grave reason to expect an unprovoked attack by a third Power, or something that threatened the general peace, it should immediately discuss with the other whether both Governments should act together to prevent aggression and preserve peace, and if so what measures they would be prepared to take in common.” This technically preserved Britain’s freedom to stay out a war between France and Germany.

But communication between the French and British was taking place at several levels – and some of the most important exchanges occurred between British and French military officers, leaving diplomats in the dark. While the French might grumble about the actual text of the Naval Convention, discussions with top British military officers left little doubt that Britain would honor its commitment to protect the northern coast of France against German attacks.

Of course, this assumed that when the time came, pro-French cabinet members would be able to persuade Parliament to declare war on the basis, essentially, of an informal agreement – a remarkably casual approach to both foreign affairs and domestic politics, even by the standards of the day.

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