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How Long Before the Sunset ? British attitudes to war, 1871-1914

Rowena Hammal examines the fears and insecurities, as well as the bombast and jingoism, in British thinking.

British attitudes to war in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have frequently been described as ‘jingoistic’. This term, which originated in 1878 from a music hall song supporting British intervention in the Russian-Turkish war, is helpful in depicting an increasingly bullish and popular imperialism which was a feature of the period. However, the paradox of late imperialism was that its swagger and bombast were accompanied by deep insecurities. Many contemporaries feared that the British Empire had reached its zenith and was destined to collapse, and that the security of Britain itself was also in doubt. A stream of popular ‘invasion’ literature highlighted the threat which other European powers, particularly the newly formed Germany, posed to mainland Britain. The ruling classes worried about the ‘degeneration’ of the British population, fearing that Britain would not have the military strength to vanquish its enemies in the ‘war to come’, a conflict which was increasingly seen as inevitable. This article will examine the causes and the impact of these fears.

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