Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Why the British Empire Entered the War

The Germans had miscalculated; the war had not been won in the first dash on Paris. They had foreseen miraculously well every possible physical factor; their greatest errors had been psychological, and throughout the war the same factor continued to upset their calculations. They had believed that the Belgians would yield in very terror and offer no resistance. They had supposed that the French would not fight because their army was not adequately prepared. They could not conceive that the Russian army would march bravely forth to certain death. But greatest of all was the German failure to analyze the Anglo-Saxon temperament, both in England, in the British colonies, and in the United States. The British were slothful, lazy, venal, cowardly. Such was the German conclusion before the war; such was the version of the British which German newspapers and comic weeklies presented throughout the war.

The failure of the English people and of the British colonies to take the place assigned them in the German formula was almost as deadly a blow to Pan-Germanism as the battle of the Marne. Home Rule was forgotten. Men ready to spring at each other's throats a few days before remembered only that they were all British and that the Germans were in Belgium. The honor of the nation admitted of but one course; immediate assistance to Belgium and France, the prosecution of the war with every man and every penny till the German menace had been destroyed. Money, trade, business jealousies played no part in the popular decision. It would cost money, not save it; it would destroy business, not create it; it would disorganize trade throughout the world in ways that might continue to cost British profits for a generation to come. War was not profitable; war was not desirable; but honor compelled men to choose many alternatives, both perilous and disagreeable, as preferable to life with dishonor.

But it was none the less known to British statesmen, if not to the people, that the war was really directed by the Germans at Great Britain herself, that its true object was to destroy England, once France was beaten. To allow France and Belgium to fight Britain's battle was cowardly and unworthy of a great people. It was also inexpedient in the extreme. If they should be beaten, England would then be forced to fight alone. Unless the British therefore proposed to surrender to the Germans, they must begin the war at the beginning or they might never begin it at all.

Battle of Marne


Nor was there any doubt from the outset in Great Britain that the German system intended the destruction of liberty and civilization as the British understood them. Militarism and autocracy the British had abhorred for a thousand years. The German claim that all nations in the world must be forced to live in accordance with German Kultur, the British could never accept. Secret diplomacy, too, of the German type, the dishonoring of treaties and the declaration of the German Chancellor that the Belgian treaty of neutrality had been nothing but a scrap of paper was also contrary to everything for which Great Britain stood. There could be no temporizing with Germany or with German Kultur; there could be no compromise. The British notion of civilization was diametrically contrary to the German and one or the other must perish.

One of Germany's most cherished beliefs had been the idea that the British Empire would fall apart the moment war was declared. They could see no reason for the support of the mother country by her colonies and were convinced that the latter would prefer to stand aside. But the colonies on the contrary responded magnificently. They all declared war immediately and promised their utmost support in men, in ships, and in supplies. Enlistments proceeded with extraordinary rapidity in Canada, in Australia, in South Africa. From no port of the world indeed did a larger proportion of men enter the service nor did any troops acquit themselves with greater gallantry than did the Canadians at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and at Lens, or the Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli.

In South Africa a revolt had been planned by the Germans with full expectation that the Boers would take the control of South Africa out of British hands. The German colonies on either side of the British South African colonies would furnish points of attack and bases of supply. An internal revolt should aid them and in a few days or at most weeks the entire south of Africa should be in German hands. To their amazement, the Boers, whom the British had defeated in the Boer War, proved loyal to Great Britain, a result of the statesmanlike work of the British after the earlier war had been won. The Boers themselves put down the revolt and in addition captured all the German colonies in South Africa.

In India, too, a tremendous conspiracy had been planned by the Germans and for a time the danger was extreme, but the British were soon satisfied that the number of people implicated was not considerable and that India was loyal. They were right. Hindu troops went to France with great enthusiasm, where they acquitted themselves with great bravery. The white British troops were withdrawn for service in France and the guardianship of India itself intrusted to Hindus. Yet throughout the war every conspiracy launched by the Germans failed. India remained not merely loyal but aided the prosecution of the war in every way possible.

One of the reasons why the Germans began the war was the belief that the British Empire was so weak and disloyal that it could not resist assault. One of the reasons why the Germans were defeated in the war was the loyalty and strength of the British Empire. The Germans were sure that the war would create a new Empire surpassing in extent and power any of the old Empires. They were right; the war has created a new British Empire, stronger, more unified than ever before, a real state whose importance in times to come will be incalculable.