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 114th installment in the series.
April 21–24, 1914: French Cheer British Royals on State Visit
After a millennium of rivalry, in the first years of the 20th century France and Britain put aside their age-old differences and embraced each other in the “Entente Cordiale” (friendly understanding)—less out of some newfound appreciation of each other’s qualities than their shared fear of Germany. But the friendship was real enough, as demonstrated by the rapturous welcome for King George V and Queen Mary when the royal couple paid a state visit to France from April 21 to 24, 1914.
The Anglo-French relationship had always been complicated, to say the least, characterized over the centuries by equal parts antagonism and admiration. Even when diplomatic relations were at their worst, the British elite venerated French culture and cuisine, and it was de rigueur for educated aristocrats to drop French phrases in casual conversation and have a French-speaking governess for their children. On the other side many French admired Britain’s representative government, commercial success, and world-straddling empire—and even, on occasion, English aesthetics (in the 18th century English gardens were all the craze in French landscape design).
Under the Third Republic the democratic French also displayed a certain sentimental fondness for the British royal family, especially among French monarchists nostalgic for the lost glories of their own Bourbon dynasty. This fascination with the British royals was on full display during the official state visit of George V, who was greeted by huge crowds of cheering French citizens everywhere he went during the three-day stay in France.
After crossing the English Channel in the royal yacht with an escort of British and French warships, the royal couple proceeded from Calais to Paris, where they arrived via the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne in the late afternoon, and were officially greeted by President Poincare along with other high officials including the President of the Senate, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, and all the French government ministers. After a visit to the Foreign Ministry President Poincare and the French First Lady hosted the royal couple at a state dinner at the Elysee Palace.
The following day the king and queen were accompanied by President Poincare and the First Lady to the parade ground at Vincennes, where they reviewed French troops, followed by an official reception at the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall of Paris, and then a state dinner with the President and First Lady hosted by the royal couple and foreign secretary Edward Grey at the British Embassy. The royal couple also attended the Paris Opéra, where they were received with rapturous applause. Finally the next day was filled with more informal pursuits, including a visit to the horse races at the Auteuil Hippodrome.
The royal couple made a very favorable impression with their “common touch,” which pleased the egalitarian French then just as it did four decades years later, when Roland Barthes wrote about the phenomenon of “The ‘Blue Blood’ Cruise.” Thus French newspapers reported that the king cheerfully drank a toast with everyone who approached him at the Hôtel de Ville, and L’Illustration, a weekly magazine, outdid itself with breathless praise for the king’s humility and magnanimity.
In the background was always the issue of security, meaning the German menace, as President Poincare obliquely hinted in his effusive official address on April 21: “After a long rivalry which had taught them imperishable lessons of esteem and mutual respect, France and Great Britain have learnt to be friends, to approximate their thoughts and to unite their efforts… I do not doubt that, under the auspices of your Majesty and your Government, these ties of intimacy will be daily strengthened, to the great profit of civilization and of universal peace. This is the very sincere wish I express in the name of France.”
But beneath the flowery rhetoric a great deal of ambiguity remained in the Anglo-French relationship, as there was still no formal treaty of alliance between them, leaving it to British discretion whether they would take France’s side in the event of war with Germany. It was by no means certain that they would.
A week later, on April 28, 1914, Grey seemed to throw a bucket of cold water on French hopes when a member of Parliament asked him “whether the policy of this country still remains one of freedom from all obligations to engage in military operations on the Continent.” In reply the foreign secretary coolly referred back to a statement by Prime Minister Asquith the previous year, to the effect that, “As has been repeatedly stated, this country is not under any obligation not public and known to Parliament which compels it to take part in any war.”