Entente Cordiale: why Britain went to war in 1914

After decades of unbroken prosperity and peace in Europe, and with a very small army in comparison with her neighbours, why did Britain enter into a continental war in 1914?

As early as January 1902, William Robertson, then a Lieutenant Colonel and head of the foreign section of military intelligence, enquired of the Foreign Office regarding Britain’s treaty obligations to Belgium in the event of a breach of that country’s neutrality by either France or Germany. He was becoming aware of a growing antagonism in Europe and by October of that year said: “That instead of regarding Germany as a possibly ally we should recognise her as our most persistent, deliberate and formidable rival …


The extraordinary “Wully” Robertson rose from Private to Field Marshal of the British army. Quartermaster to the BEF in 1914, he was made Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1915. He strongly disagreed with David Lloyd George’s strategic ideas in late 1917 and was soon replaced by Sir Henry Wilson.

1904: unlikely Allies

Robertson’s warning was noted in Government circles, although many considered France – so recently confronting Britain at Fashoda – and Russia, the traditional risk to India – to be equally threatening to British interests. These long-term enemies became unlikely friends when Britain and France signed an agreement in April 1904 formally titled the Declaration between the United Kingdom and France Respecting Egypt and Morocco, Together with the Secret Articles Signed at the Same Time but best known as the Entente Cordiale. The agreement specifically covered the interests of the two parties in Egypt and Morocco but was to prove sufficiently robust as a basis of friendly relations to ward off German challenges until 1914. France was already in alliance with Russia.

After their 1906 landslide election victory, Liberal leaders Asquith, Grey and Haldane were politically disposed to taking action to defend the interests of Britain and empire, being among the “small minority of Ministers in the cabinets of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith [who] were convinced that the gains to be derived from the entente with France outweighed the liabilities attached to it“. Churchill and to a lesser extent Lloyd George could also be counted into this minority.

10 years on: France and Britain celebrate the years of the Entente, in the spring of 1914


Britain began planning for a war in coalition against Germany when, by entering in 1905 into what Sir Edward Grey would later call “conversations”, it began to exchange information with France concerning military capability and intentions. The conversations survived the change to a Liberal Government in 1906. Throughout, great care was taken on the British side, despite much pressing on French behalf, to avoid specific commitment or entry into a formal alliance.

The figures responsible for “conversations” with France
Grey Haldane Grierson Wilson
Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary Sir Richard Haldane, War Minister Sir James Grierson, Director of Military Operations Sir Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations


Soon after taking office, the new Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Edward Grey, wrote to his colleague Richard Haldane, Minister for War:

Foreign Office, Jan. 8 1906
My dear Richard,
Persistent reports and little indications keep reaching me that Germany means to attack France in the spring. I don’t think these are more than the precautions and flourishes that Germany would make apropos of the Morocco Conference. But they are not to be altogether disregarded. A situation might arise presently in which popular feeling might compel the Government to go to the help of France . I don’t think you need to give any definite answer in a hurry but I think you should be preparing one.
Yours ever, E. Grey

Haldane: “The Prime Minister asked whether it could be made clear that the conversations were purely for military General Staff purposes and were not to prejudice the complete freedom of action of the two Governments should the situation the French dreaded arise. I undertook to see that this was put in writing“.

Despite the talks being fomented by her ally, “the momentous decision was London’s: whether voluntarily to bind Britain, if it fought, to the military fortunes of France” [Williamson, see references]. While the conversations may have been unofficial at first, they became a key part of British planning.

German-fuelled crisis in 1911 forces British hand

The Kaiser rattles his sabre: the German ship “Panther” was at the centre of the 1911 Agadir crisis, which brought a general war in Europe much closer

Asquith called an emergency meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence on 23 August 1911, with the current outlook gloomy in the wake of Germany’s latest sabre-rattling at Agadir. According to the Naval Assistant Secretary to the Committee, Captain Maurice Hankey, those assembled “were reminded at the outset that the expediency of sending an expedition to the Continent. had been treated as a matter of policy which could only be determined when the occasion arose by the Government of the day“. But any uncertainty was considerably diminished by the end of the session, the meeting accepting that there was a very real threat from Germany and that Britain’s interests were best protected by participating in a war on the continent.

During the day, Brigadier General Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations and a Francophile with an intimate knowledge of the ground shown on his impressively large map, gave a typically voluble presentation of the military plan as it stood, which by that time was defined in considerable detail despite the uncertain basis upon which it was formulated. Sir Arthur Wilson later spoke for the Admiralty and in comparison his explanation of naval thinking appeared unprepared and vague. Although “no formal conclusions were recorded” as a result of the meeting, said Hankey, “from that time onward there was never any doubt what would be the Grand Strategy in the event of our being drawn into a continental war in support of France“. It meant preparation for the despatch of a British Expeditionary Force to deploy in France, on the left flank of the French Army, in conformity with French planning in anticipation of a battle of encounter, following an attack by Germany that was probably going to come through Belgium, south of the River Meuse.

Conceived by Haldane and nurtured with enthusiasm by Wilson, this plan remained in place without revision – other than in detail – until the first shots were fired. But, clearer though things were to all at the Committee of Imperial Defence that day, it did not yet mean British commitment, for the Entente remained just that and did not develop into formal defensive alliance. The Anglo-French conversations were not revealed to the Cabinet until 1912 and it was only in August 1914 that Parliament became aware.

Emerging views on how Britain would fight a war in Europe

At the very outset of the military talks with France, Britain spoke of sending a force of 100,000 or 120,000 men – five or six Divisions. This appears to have been mentioned by Major General James Grierson to French Military Attache Major A. Huguet, in a chance personal meeting in Hyde Park as early as 16 December 1905.

Such a figure survived much discussion, not a little disagreement and a considerable reorganisation of the British Army in 1908. The proposed force was very small in comparison with those employed by Germany and France, but was believed by some to be sufficient and of high enough quality to tip the balance in favour of the Entente.

This had been a central theme of Wilson’s at the 23 August meeting, and Haldane later reiterated the point: Our purpose was quite a different one. It was purely defensive. We knew how high a level of military organization had been attained in France. She had a large army, an army not so large as that of Germany, but comparable with it in quality. Her ally, Russia, also had a large army on the other side of Germany, although one not so perfectly organized as that of France. By adding to the French military defensive forces a comparatively small British Expeditionary Force of very high quality, organized as far as possible on the principle about which von der Goltz, in the introduction to his famous book, “The Nation in Arms”, had written, we could provide what that eminent writer had suggested would be formidable, could it be properly organized, even against the German masses of troops.

The British army undergoes major reorganisation and crisis, 1908-1914

“Bravo, Ulster! Unloading the guns at Donaghadee”. The Curragh crisis was a serious moment for the British army on the eve of war in 1914.

In 1905 Arthur Balfour reported the view of Committee of Defence to the House of Commons, suggesting that the “profitless wrangle between the advocates of different schools” should come to an end and that “As the British Fleet and British Army should be available for the defence of the British Empire in all parts of the world, our force should be as far as possible concentrated at the centre of the Empire“. That is, a good proportion of the army would need to be based at home, not so much for defence (although there were still divergent views regarding the threat of invasion) but for flexibility of deployment overseas. This stance suited Haldane and Wilson, who needed the army to be at home so that it could be moved quickly to France.

Reform began while the army was still engaged in the Boer War in South Africa – arguably as early as the submission of the Army Estimates in February 1901 by new Secretary of State for War, William St. John Brodrick. It continued through the tenure of his eventual replacement Hugh Arnold-Forster and was accelerated by Haldane. The Elgin Commission of 1903 and the War Office (Reconstitution) Committee – usually known simply as the Esher Committee – of 1904 played notable parts in advising the Ministers, all three of whom were forced to consider the complex demands of garrisoning Empire and in particular India, the need for home defence and the possibility – turning into probability during Haldane’s time – of war in Europe.

Strife in Ireland over Home Rule added to the demands on affordable military capacity. By 1914, despite continuing arguments over budgets, the relative priorities of the army and navy and the details of proposals made, the army had implemented considerable changes in its operational and administrative structures, all of which contributed to an efficient and war-ready machinery. Chief among the developments were the abolition of the single Commander-in-Chief; the establishment of the Committee of Imperial Defence as a body to advise the Prime Minister on strategy; the establishment of the Army Council and a properly constituted and trained General Staff. The standard of training and armament was improved and brought up to date in the light of experience of the wars in South Africa and Manchuria, and expressed in the Field Service Regulations of 1909.

Six Divisions and associated cavalry were stationed at home by 1914 and in most respects was ready to be sent to France should need arise. But the Expeditionary Force was perhaps not quite the “perfect thing apart”. As pointed out by Bidwell and Graham, the army still had no wholly agreed tactical doctrine – the use of cavalry and artillery in particular being subject to considerable debate. But there is nothing unusual about disagreement among military men of the best ways to use the troops and armaments at their disposal. Uncertain doctrine seems to have had little bearing on the performance of the army in the early, mobile, phase of the war in France.

There were two very much more serious disagreements among senior military figures, both current in the few months prior to declaration of war, which did affect the army and its performance in the field: Ireland and compulsory military service.

The possible use of British military force to coerce Unionists in the north of Ireland led to the “Curragh Incident” of March 1914, when Brigadier-General Hubert Gough and a number of officers, faced with the alternative of marching against Ulster or resigning from the service, chose the latter. Although it was resolved quickly the crisis was by no means over. it went on raging for several months, practically till the outbreak of the First World War, which ended the controversy for the time being. The ramifications were most serious: Secretary of State for War Jack Seely (he replaced Haldane in 1912) resigned, designate Commander-in-Chief of the BEF General Sir John French retired, and bad blood was created among the military hierarchy and politicians.

The argument over compulsory service was a much more drawn-out affair, and perhaps less poisonous but nonetheless a source of rivalry and friction. Many of those who believed that Britain needed a large standing army on the European scale formed the National Service League in 1901: under the presidencies of Lord Raglan and Lord Frederick Roberts of Kandahar it became a loud and pressing voice for compulsory service. Against it were figures of equal standing including General Sir Ian Hamilton. Haldane later said that “no doubt it would have been a nice thing to have in 1914 a great army” made up of national servicemen. But such an army would have taken two generations at least to raise and train in peace time, and if we had laid out our money on it after 1870 instead of on ships, we should not have had the sea power which Tirpitz says gave us “bulldog” strength. In strategy and in military organization you can not successfully bestride two horses at once. [Haldane]

By around 1912, the army was ready for the expected war. It was of the size, shape and readiness to be deployed in accordance with a well tuned plan and seemed a wholly suitable instrument with which to implement the defensive, empire minded, foreign policy of the world’s wealthiest nation in alliance with France and Russia.

Was Britain ready for war in 1914?

The British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was well equipped and well trained; but was the army ready for war?

When men could finally look back and review the Great War and the unprecedented and improvised steps that had to be taken in order to win, it was all too easy to form the opinion that Britain had entered into it poorly prepared. Even Sir Douglas Haig, victorious Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders, who had been involved in pre-war planning and presumably had an appreciation of the complexities and sensitivities of the time, said in 1919: In the first place, we were unprepared for war, or at any rate for a war of such magnitude. We were deficient in both trained men and military material, and, what was more important, had no machinery ready by which either men or material could be produced in anything approaching the requisite quantities.

At least one of the members of the Cabinet that been responsible for the British condition when it entered into war took the alternative view that it had not at the time been as simple as Haig’s comments suggest, or that the “war of such magnitude” could have been foreseen: When . even distinguished commanders in the field express regret at the want of foresight of the British nation in not having prepared a much larger army before 1914, I would respectfully ask them how they imagine it could have been done. [Haldane]

Haldane was right. Given the contemporary assumptions of its likely role in a war in Europe and the known factors of its military, political, economic and industrial position in 1914, and given that it had no desire for conflict but was prepared to defend the interests of the nation and its Empire, Britain was as prepared for war as it could reasonably be.

If Britain could have known in advance that the war would need six Divisions to become sixty; if it had foreseen large-scale fighting on three continents; if it had believed that the economies of the Great Powers would find ways to continue to pay for war years after the point at which economists predicted it would have become impossible, then Haig’s retrospective comment would have been reasonable. Had this all been so, Britain could be said to have been unprepared for a war of such magnitude. But these things were not known and could not reasonably have been predicted. Britain was prepared enough to have identified the main enemy, forged a close relationship with two vital allies, reorganised and modernised its army, built an unassailable naval superiority and deployed at a place and time to assist in the decisive defeat of Germany at the Marne.

Useful bibliography

  • Samuel R. Williamson Jr, The politics of grand strategy: Britain and France prepare for war, 1904-1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969)
  • Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, Soldiers and Statesmen 1914-1918 (London: Cassell and Company, 1926). Robertson rose to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff by 1915.
  • R.B. Haldane, Before the war (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1920) and Autobiography (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929).
  • Major General Sir Frederick Maurice, Haldane 1856-1915: the life of Viscount Haldane of Cloan (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1937).
  • Lord Hankey, The Supreme Command 1914-1918 (London: George Allen and Unwin Limited, 1961).
  • Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, Fire-Power – the British Army weapons and theories of war 1904-1945(London:George Allen and Unwin Limited, 1982).
  • Colonel John K. Dunlop, The development of the British Army 1899-1914 (London: Methuen, 1938).


The British battles and engagements of the Great War