August 5th, 2014

Britain, World War I and the neutrality of Belgium

Could Britain have avoided declaring war on Germany 100 years ago tonight? As things stood by the evening of 4 August 1914, I think that it was politically impossible not to do so. But I am also fairly sure that that had not been inevitable two or three days earlier. Britain had other problems, particularly in Ireland, and no real reason for believing that fighting a European war would help solve them.

Britain's stated reason for declaring war on Germany, that Germany was violating Belgian neutrality, is (I believe) close to the real one. But it does gloss over some important factors. The German Empire had been formed several decades earlier by invasions of Denmark, Austria and France, and in none of these cases had Britain should the slightest inclination to go to war in their defence. And while none of them had a treaty declaring their neutrality, it is still difficult to believe that such a treaty would have caused Britain to go to war.

So what was different about Belgium? Collapse )