by Michael Haskew
The old proverb that states, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” gained significant meaning for the government and people of Great Britain at the turn of the 20th century. For hundreds of years, Britain and France had been sworn enemies, fighting one another off and on in countless wars for empire and preeminence on the European continent. Then, in the last years of the 19th century, Britain had largely withdrawn from the European political arena, entering a period of “splendid isolation.”
Allegiances Shift at the Coming of the Century
By 1904, however, times had changed. France and Imperial Russia, another longtime rival of Great Britain, had concluded an alliance in 1894. With King Edward VII, a confirmed Francophile, on the British throne and Sir Edward Grey, a liberal statesman and diplomat, serving as Foreign Secretary, dialogue was undertaken between Britain and France, resulting in the Entente Cordiale. This landmark series of five agreements settled longstanding issues concerning the colonial ambitions and territorial holdings of the two European powers on the African continent and eased years of strained relations.
Three years later, Britain concluded an agreement with Russia that was known as the Anglo-Russian Convention. After the Czarist regime’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the British believed that Russian imperialism was on the wane. The successful conclusion of the agreement brought Russia more fully into the Western political arena and settled issues between the two countries related to expansion and influence in Central Asia.
The Threat of the German Empire
The catalyst for the reawakening of British involvement in foreign affairs and the nation’s willingness to engage in diplomacy with traditional adversaries was the common threat posed by the German Empire, a nation formally unified under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1871. Two decades later, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck and overtly embarked on a course of military and diplomatic assertiveness that he believed would bring Germany to a dominant position on the continent. By that time, Germany had already concluded treaties of mutual support with Austria-Hungary and Italy, a political arrangement that came to be known as the Triple Alliance.
During its years of splendid isolation, Great Britain had concentrated on the security of its far-flung empire, depending on the strength of the Royal Navy to safeguard its worldwide colonial holdings. The British perceived the Kaiser’s promise to build a German Navy that would rival any in the world as a direct threat to their own national security.
While the Russian government was concerned with the potential for German expansion in the East, France still smarted from its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The Prussian Army had won a decisive victory on the battlefield, captured the French capital of Paris, and forced other concessions, including the cession of the long disputed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia. The stunning victory had contributed directly to German unification under Bismarck, who earned the nickname of the Iron Chancellor.
Recognizing the Entente for What It Was
With the growth of German nationalism and imperialistic ambitions, the previously demonstrated military capabilities of Prussian land forces, and the potential cooperation among the signatories of the Triple Alliance, the leaders of Great Britain, France, and Russia found themselves sharing common national interests. The conclusion of the Entente Cordiale and the Anglo-Russian Entente resulted in the alliance of the Triple Entente, effectively countering the Triple Alliance.
The Germans recognized the Triple Entente for what it was – a concerted effort to surround their young nation and contain its territorial ambitions within Central Europe. Less than a decade later, the existence of the Triple Entente would be seen as a contributing factor in the outbreak of World War I.