It was not a forgone conclusion that Britain and Germany would be enemies in the early Twentieth Century. Culture, history and geopolitics pointed to the two countries being allies. It took a string of spectacular German miscalculations to make them enemies.
By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, there had already been a number of points at which it seemed that two or more European powers might go to war. Given that a million soldiers from the British Empire would die fighting on the same side as France and Russia, it is striking that some of these pre-War crises nearly led to the UK going to war with its eventual allies. In 1898, French and British forces found themselves in an armed standoff over the Sudanese town of Fashoda. Then in 1904, a Russian fleet in the North Sea (somewhat implausibly) jittery about being attacked by Japanese ships mistakenly opened fire on a British fishing boat, killing three of its crew. Before the incident was mercifully sent to arbitration, the British fleet had pursued its Russian counterpart all the way to Tangiers and led to Russian ships being blocked out of the Suez Canal.
Tensions between Britain and these two countries were perhaps inevitable. The two nations on either side of the English Channel had been rivals for centuries and at that time it was manifesting itself in scrambling for colonies in Africa. Meanwhile, Russia was seen by Britain as a threat to its Indian colony.
By contrast, there should have been relatively little friction between Britain and Germany. Germany was a land power whose interests lay mainly in Continental Europe, while Britain was a naval power whose interests mostly lay outside Europe. They had little obvious need to compete for the same goals. What is more, there were clear cultural bonds between the two protestant, Anglo-Saxon nations which were personified in the figure of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German born consort who’d had a huge impact on his adopted homeland.
When the Salisbury government decided to end Britain’s non-alignment they seemed to have no particular preference whether they allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary or France and Russia. And indeed Joseph Chamberlain who was at the time probably the second most powerful politician in the UK tried to negotiate an alliance with Germany.
So why didn’t it happen? Essentially Germany very aware of its rising economic power became more ambitious and in so doing began pursuing objectives that made it a rival to Britain. It began trying to build an overseas empire of its own and trying to become a naval power. It was trying to move from being a European to a World power and Britain as the existing global superpower felt threatened by this. Its suspicion of the upstart led it to see the value in allying with other nations which felt threatened by Germany – namely France and Russia.
With the benefit of a century of hindsight, it is clear that German policymakers chose poorly. Had they focused on consolidating their power in Europe, they could have avoided alarming Britain and potentially kept it neutral or even allied with it.
That latter option would almost certainly have decisively shifted the odds in Germany’s favour in any conflict with France and Russia. Their industrial bases would have been dwarfed by those of the UK and Germany. An Anglo-German alliance would have been dominant on sea and had it not tried to compete with the Royal Navy there would have been more resources for the German Army. Furthermore, an alliance would likely have reduced the number of enemies Germany had to face. Britain’s control of the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal gave it effective control of the Mediterranean, which would have made it dangerous for Italy to find itself on the opposite side of a conflict from her. And the submarine warfare that brought America into the conflict would have been much less likely had Germany not been trying to isolate Britain.
Given the extent to which Germans are often presented as Britain’s elemental enemy, it is striking to imagine the two countries as allies dominating Europe on land and sea.