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Britain and the Origins of the First World War

Christopher Ray queries the accepted pictures of a reluctant victim of forces beyond her control.  

Accounts of the outbreak of World War One often communicate a sense that Britain was propelled into the conflict by force of circumstance, that it was, in some way, an accidental belligerent or a. bystander 'dragged' into war by farces beyond its control. Certainly, the events in the Balkans that led to hostilities were far removed from Britain's normal concerns and had little direct bearing on its relations with other powers in Europe. And, if the mood of detachment in Britain, which prevailed throughout July 1914, had continued unchanged, then there might he grounds for viewing its eventual participation in the war as 'accidental'.

This, however, is not the case for, on Monday 3 August 1914, London witnessed an uncharacteristic public clamour for intervention that decisively pushed Britain into war. Until that day the majority of Britons seemed resolved that their country had no business becoming involved in a Continental war and, as the European Powers began to mobilize against each other, that it was yet another case of 'six of' one and a half dozen of the other'. There can be little doubt that it was news that Germany intended the invasion of neutral Belgium, guaranteed by Britain under the treaty of 1839, that tilted the balance in favour of a British intervention, changed the public mood from indifference to war fever and propelled the nation towards action.

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