Britain and Germany

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Introduction

On 2 August 1914 Germany invaded Luxembourg, and delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian King. They demanded passage through Belgium for the vast German Army that was in the process of carrying out a sweeping engulfment of the French Army - the von Schlieffen Plan.

Two days later following King Albert the First's refusal, Germany invaded Belgium. That same day - 4 August 1914 - Britain declared war on Germany.

What in the space of just 24 years had brought these two erstwhile industrial partners (whose monarchs were related through Britain’s Queen Victoria) to such a state of affairs?

In looking into this subject it is vitally important to have at least a general grasp of European affairs outside the purely British German sphere, and for this reason I have drawn in parts of the tangled web that made up European politics at this time.

On 18 March 1890 Kaiser Wilhelm II of the recently united (Under Prussia) Germany dismissed his Chancellor - Otto von Bismarck. A famous cartoon of the time depicts the Kaiser leaning over the side of a ship as Bismarck steps off the boat. The caption runs - Letting off the Pilot.

Bismarck was in many ways the true founder of the new Germany and his departure would unleash attitudes and aspirations within the Kaiser and the militaristic society that dominated German life.

Wilhelm II had two over riding ambitions - an overseas empire befitting his country's wealth and status (that is his own status) and a navy that would rival Britain's. At this period in time Britannia truly ruled the waves throughout the world - allowing it to dabble in what was euphemistically called gunboat diplomacy.

 
 

Building Empires

From about 1850 the race to gain overseas possessions had truly taken off with the advantage being easily held by Britain with its enormous merchant fleet defended by the Royal Navy.

By 1914 Great Britain controlled about 30 million square kilometres of territory with some 354 million inhabitants. To put this in perspective, France controlled 9 square million kilometres and only 42 million people. Germany - the most formidable military and economic society in Europe - could only boast an empire of a mere 2.6 million square kilometres and 12 million inhabitants.

Britain's trade with its colonies ran to almost 37% whilst Germany's to about 0.5%. Britain had a merchant fleet of 12 million tons whilst Germany lagged with 5.2 million tons. Yet Germany was truly the economic powerhouse of Europe. Her economy in 1900 was the second strongest in the world, only rivalled by that of the USA.

Whilst Germany's economic strength worried the British it was an amicable rivalry built on trade, and whilst Germany had the economy Britain controlled the trade routes.

What Britain saw as her's by right, Germany saw as an obstruction to greater wealth and power. It was a classic case of an Empire at the height of its powers versus an Empire in the making which could only expand by taking by force from others.

The world had already been divided up and with the aid of the Royal Navy Britain had the Lion's share.

The Naval Race

The Naval Race

Testing Britain's Resolve

Testing Britain's Resolve