Belgium and British Intervention (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 8)

Today, we tackle the puzzling sequence of events that bring the United Kingdom fully into the war against the Central Powers—something about which even its French allies were “profoundly uncertain” until the 11th hour—and that would help make the war, thanks to the involvement of the Dominions, properly global. Just as the Asquith government was divided over the wisdom of sending an army to the Continent, even as Austria declared war on Serbia and Russia mobilized, so was the British public. However, once Germany sent an ultimatum to neutral Belgium demanding passage for its troops on the way to France, British public opinion—as well as remaining fence-sitters in the cabinet—swiftly turned towards favoring intervention. Why then, when war had been imminent for some time—a war that would involve Britain’s most valuable Entente partner in France—and why over small, non-allied Belgium, in particular?

The answer we develop in class is built around some of my own recent work (an early version of the paper is discussed here), which argues that the international laws of neutrality, which are publicly known, can help third party states (like the British in 1914) identify useful interventions—but only when the laws are violated, as they were when German troops stormed through Belgium in an attempt to wheel around the bulk of the French army. Compliance, on the other hand, might allow expansionist states that it’s worth fighting to mask their intentions and prompt intervention, or balancing, only when it’s too late. In fact, I argue that we shouldn’t judge some laws—in particular neutrality laws—on rates of compliance when their workins are less about compliance and more about identifying profitable interventions.

Waverers in the UK did seem to view intervention as worthwhile once Germany tipped its hand; the violation of Belgian neutrality, which both Britain and Germany expected would provoke British intervention, thus served as a strong signal to the British leaders and public that German war aims were more expansive than a mere desire to support the Dual Monarchy in a punitive campaign against Serbia. Consider a counterfactual: had it only tried to engage and tie down the main French force on their common border, claims that Germany was only aiming to support the Dual Monarchy might’ve been more credible. As it was, going through Belgium led the British to believe that, in victory, Germany couldn’t credibly promise not to dominate the Continent—a belief that would be confirmed in many Allied minds with the publication of Germany’s “September Program,” which stated that “[t]he aim of the war is to provide us with [security] guarantees, from east to west, for the foreseeable future, through the enfeeblement of our adversaries” (quoted in Hastings, p.100). While this might’ve been a wishlist at the time, it was certainly a set of aims that the British expected that Germany would be unable to turn down if it were victorious on the Continent, with Belgium conquered and France prostrate.

In light of this commitment problem, which became acute once the British became more convinced that Germany would attempt to dominate the Continent, we can see

  1. how the violation of Belgian neutrality—as opposed to the imminent invasion of a bigger ally in France—tipped the scales in favor of British intervention, and
  2. how international law can work, helping states identify desirable interventions, not despite but because it is violated.

If you’re interested in the workings of the laws of neutrality model, I’ll post a new version soon. In the meantime, after Tuesday’s exam, we’ll dive straight into the homefront and the battlefield as our protagonists take in “the superb spectacle of the world bursting into flames”…


2 thoughts on “Belgium and British Intervention (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 8)

  1. Pingback: A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: behind the lines I: the laws of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 14) | The Wolf Den

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