We're a maritime nation - we've grown by the sea and live by it; if we lose command of it we starve.
Erskine Childers, author,
The Riddle of the Sands
Britain was a hugely wealthy country.
The sea was Britain’s lifeblood. British merchant ships, guarded by the Royal Navy, traded goods across the globe. British industry generated great riches. London was the financial centre of the world.
Did all British people benefit from such wealth?
Only the ruling classes really benefited. Millions lived in poverty. Discontent was growing. Industrial workers downed tools in strikes over poor conditions and low pay.
Barely two-thirds of men and no women had the right to vote.
Suffragettes waged a sometimes violent campaign to change this. British politics was divided over Home Rule for Ireland, which was on the verge of civil war.
By 1914 the United Kingdom looked increasingly disunited.
Model of HMS Hercules
The largest model here is a shipbuilder’s model of ‘Dreadnought’ battleship HMS Hercules, launched in 1910. The Dreadnoughts marked a revolution in speed, armour and firepower, and symbolised the Royal Navy’s determination to rule the waves.
Model of SS Nonsuch
SS Nonsuch was a merchant ship. Britain relied on ships such as this to bring in food and raw materials and to export its goods. Almost half of the world’s merchant shipping was British.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Model of SS Gloucester Castle
SS Gloucester Castle was a mail ship. Ships such as this enabled families and businesses to keep in touch across vast distances. As well as carrying post, mail ships carried passengers emigrating from Britain to new lives in the Empire and the United States.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
‘England and the Empire were never greater than they are to-day.’
The Times, New Year’s Day, 1914
Most Britons were proud of their empire, the greatest the world had ever seen.
Every fourth person on Earth owed allegiance to the British Crown. Many had emigrated from Britain, while millions more, notably in India, lived in lands conquered by the British.
Did all Britons feel pride in the Empire?
Most Britons believed that Britain’s empire was a force for good. British emigrants who had sailed for new lives in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa felt pride in both their adopted homelands and the ‘mother country’.
Yet doubts about the future of the British Empire were growing. People living in Britain’s overseas possessions increasingly demanded greater freedoms to control their own affairs.
Britain’s worldwide empire also aroused the envy of its European neighbours.
‘There are always clouds in the international sky.’
David Lloyd George, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, 17 July 1914
For decades Britain had existed peacefully, if not always harmoniously, with its European neighbours.
But, from the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany’s aggressive attempts to compete as a world power worried Britain, France and Russia.
Was Europe sliding towards war?
Between 1900 and 1914 several diplomatic crises were triggered by the growing fear and distrust felt by Europe’s statesmen. Huge sums of money were spent on armies and navies.
By 1907 Europe had split into two main camps: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy joined together in one, and France, Russia and Britain in the other. Yet until the summer of 1914, there seemed no immediate reason for war.
Germany had been unified in 1871.
Britons admired this new nation for its music, literature, philosophy and science, and initially saw it as a friend.
Any future war seemed likely to be against France, Britain’s old enemy, or against Russia, which threatened British India.
By 1900, Germany industry was overtaking Britain’s, allowing it to build a formidable army and a rival fleet of warships. Britons now began to see Germany as a threat.
Kaiser Wilhem II’s coat
Kaiser Wilhelm II, favourite grandson of Queen Victoria, was the Emperor of Germany.
His cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, gave him this Russian cavalry officer’s coat. Wilhelm was intelligent and open-minded in many ways but also restless and insecure.
His love of uniforms reflected Germany itself, where the army strongly influenced politics and society. The Kaiser was born with a withered arm, which explains the shorter sleeve.
Tinplate toy ship
The Kaiser built a navy to show Germany’s strength, hoping to unite his politically divided people in ‘loyalty to, and love for the Emperor and the Reich’.
Patriotic German parents could show pride in their nation by buying their children a toy battleship or a sailor suit.
For the British people, Germany’s navy was a threat to the supremacy of the Royal Navy, and to Britain itself.
Germany’s emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1902
On 28 June 1914 a Serbian-backed terrorist shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
War in south-east Europe
Austria-Hungary, encouraged by Germany, set out to punish Serbia. It declared war.
Crisis rapidly spreads
This immediate crisis stirred old tensions and anxieties, drawing in allies and supporters on both sides.
A divided continent
Leaders were willing to risk war to defend or extend their own national interests. Germany was determined to support Austria-Hungary, its only reliable ally. Russia decided to stand up for the Serbs.
Within weeks Europe’s leaders had prepared their armies and navies for war.
Europe at war
Germany believed it could gain an advantage by striking first. It declared war on Russia and then on Russia’s ally in the west, France.
Will Britain intervene?
Some Britons did not want to join the fight. The British government, led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, agonised over whether to support Russia and France. But it feared German domination of Europe. A victorious and hostile Germany would threaten Britain’s security and its position in the world.
Britain declares war
Germany’s invasion of Belgium, to get to France, tipped the balance. Britain had long promised to protect Belgium’s right to be neutral.
On 4 August 1914 Britain - with its global empire - declared war on Germany.