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Britain and the Origins of the First World War

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David French presents an overview of the historiography on the subject.

Within hours of the start of the First World War in August 1914 Sir Edward Grey's radical Liberal and Labour critics had begun to organise themselves into the Union of Democratic Control. They protested that his policy had led Britain into a war which they believed could and should have been avoided. Their wartime activities have been ably documented in M. Swartz, The Union of Democratic Control in British Politics during the First World War (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971). They had little impact on Grey's policies during the rest of his tenure at the Foreign Office, but the debate they began on the reasons why Britain had entered the war is still being carried on today. The Union's wartime propaganda, and the post-war work of former supporters of the Union like the historian G.P. Gooch, who with H. Temperley edited the eleven invaluable volumes of documents, British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914 (HMSO, 1926-1934), rejected Grey's contention that Britain had gone to war to defend Belgian neutrality. They argued that the naturally peace-loving British people had been hoodwinked into supporting Britain's entry into the war by the sinister and selfish machinations of Grey's advisers at the Foreign and War Offices and the Admiralty: they were wedded to the shibboleth of the balance of power. A gullible and innocent public was persuaded to accept their ideas by cheap and xenophobic mass-circulation newspapers often secretly subsidised by armaments manufacturers anxious to maintain an arms race and so increase their profits. The official mandarins were believed to have exerted so much influence over Grey that the ententes with France and Russia signed in 1904 and 1907, which had begun as no more than a settling of irritating colonial disputes, were transformed by 1914 into secret and binding military alliances without any public consultation.


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