The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 112th installment in the series.
April 15, 1914: Russia Pursues Naval Treaty with Britain
The European alliance system was undoubtedly a major cause of the First World War, but the image of a rigid structure bringing about conflict with mechanical inevitability isn’t quite accurate. On one side, the Triple Alliance wasn’t much of a triple anything: Germany and Austria-Hungary were closely bound to each other, but the third member of the defensive pact, Italy, was unreliable, to say the least. Meanwhile there was no formal diplomatic agreement governing the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain; rather, it was an informal coalition hinging on France, which had a defensive alliance with Russia and a mostly unwritten “Entente Cordiale” (friendly understanding) with Britain.
Indeed, the Brits were a cagey lot who prized their traditional independence from Europe and remained leery of any commitments that might embroil them in a Continental conflict. They were especially reluctant to promise intervention with land forces, a prospect that summoned nightmarish memories of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. But as the world’s dominant naval power—and at the same time, an overstretched empire looking for ways to cut costs – Britain was more receptive to the idea of naval conventions that could reduce demands on the Royal Navy while serving as a force multiplier for British sea power. That was the thinking behind the Anglo-French Naval Convention of 1912, as well as Russian overtures for a similar agreement in the final months before war broke out.
The Russians had a number of reasons to want a naval convention with Britain: it would firm up British commitment to the Triple Entente, deter Germany and Austria-Hungary, and let France know that Russia was pulling its weight in their alliance. But the most important reasons were the super-dreadnought battleships Britain was building for the Ottoman Empire, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I (latter pictured above, rechristened HMS Agincourt), which threatened to change the balance of power in the Black Sea, frustrating Russian plans to conquer the Turkish capital of Constantinople.
As this complex dynamic illustrates, Britain and Russia were what today might be termed “frenemies,” happy to cooperate in some areas, like containing Germany, but openly competing in others, like the Middle East and Asia. Nevertheless the Russians hoped that Britain might be persuaded to sell the battleships to Russia instead of Turkey as part of a naval convention, and were willing to offer concessions in Persia and Central Asia—where the British feared Russian influence might someday threaten India, the crown jewel of the British Empire—to sweeten the deal. Eventually Anglo-Russian agreement might even extend to a formal three-way alliance with France, converting the Entente into a solid military bloc containing Germany.
This was the gist of a letter sent by Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov to the Russian ambassador in London, Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff, on April 15, 1914, in which Sazonov observed:
The English, filled with their old insular mistrustfulness, must not lose sight of the fact that they will one day find themselves under the inexorable necessity of taking an active part in the struggle against Germany, if she undertakes a war, the only aim of which can be to tilt the balance of power in Europe in her own favor. Is it not better from every point of view to secure oneself in advance… by an act of political farsightedness which would make an end of the steadily growing ambitions of Germany?
The following day, the Russian naval minister broached the idea of Russia buying the dreadnoughts with the British ambassador to St. Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan. The Russians also called on their French friends to act as intermediaries and present the Russian case for an Anglo-Russian naval convention, possibly followed by a full alliance. In the second half of April, King George V and British foreign secretary Edward Grey were due to visit Paris, where President Poincare, Premier Viviani, and foreign minister Gaston Doumergue would make the Russian case.
The British, ambivalent as always, were distinctly lukewarm about the proposed naval convention with Russia, but some progress was made: Grey agreed to the idea in principle in April, and on May 19, 1914, he met with Benckendorff and the French ambassador Paul Cambon back in London, apparently to set up preliminary negotiations between the British and Russian admiralties. Meanwhile on April 27 British undersecretary for foreign affairs Sir Arthur Nicolson noted: “I know the French are haunted with the same apprehension—that if we do not try to tighten up ties with Russia she may become weary of us and throw us overboard. In that case we should be in an exceedingly awkward position, as she could cause us an infinity of annoyance, to put it mildly, in the Mid and Far East, without our being in any way able to retaliate.”
But as always diplomacy proceeded at a sedate pace, and was swiftly overtaken by events following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 (there was no more need for a convention when Russia and Britain were allied in an actual war against Germany). That’s not to say that the negotiations had no result. In the final months of peace German newspapers caught wind of the rumored Anglo-Russian Naval Convention, further stoking German paranoia about “encirclement” by the Triple Entente. Like Russia’s Great Military Program and planned Black Sea buildup, ironically the negotiations for a naval convention with Britain managed to inflame German fears without adding appreciably to Russian security.