Britain did not join the Great War to protect France – despite what Netflix may claim

Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie riding in an open carriage at Sarajevo shortly before their assassination - Getty
Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie riding in an open carriage at Sarajevo shortly before their assassination - Getty

The Great War was not caused by Gavrilo Princip assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his morganatic wife in Sarajevo on June 28 1914. The chain of events that caused Princip to want to kill the Archduke went back first to 1908, when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, to help improve the security of its southern borders by eliminating the ‘nest’ of ‘terrorists’ it believed was flourishing under Serbian patronage there.

The problems there were contingent on the implosion of the Ottoman empire, and the unsuccessful attempt at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to impose a peace on the Balkans that would replace the vacuum caused by the decline of Ottoman power.

But also on hand, following its unification in 1871, was Germany, the most powerful nation in Europe, ready to take sides in any conflict that might confirm German supremacy. The whole unstable cocktail – into which one must also pour a military alliance between France and Russia, a ‘triple entente’ between those two powers and the United Kingdom, and a commitment dating back to the 1839 Treaty of London to defend Belgian neutrality against any power who sought to violate it – all created the conditions that caused the Great War.

Some of these events are the subjects of The Long Road to War, a Netflix documentary of interesting provenance. Unlike most films on the conflict, this one is made by Serbians, and it gives a Serbian perspective on the history. Given it was Austria’s declaration of war after the Sarajevo killings that was the final motive for the conflict that Britain entered on August 4 1914, it is only right that Serbia should present its own history of these events, and offer a different perspective. That, essentially is what this film is about; but it is not a complete history of the events it purports to depict.

The historians wheeled out to tell this story are almost entirely not Serbian. Some are towering figures in the field, notably Sir Hew Strachan from Oxford, Dominic Lieven from Cambridge, and Professor John Rohl of the University of Sussex, author of an acclaimed biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II; and there is a range of European scholars less familiar to British audiences. Unsurprisingly, almost all that they say is entirely sound and, to those interested in this subject, entirely familiar.

But great emphasis is placed on events in eastern Europe, more than on the differences between France and Germany, and the indisputable appetite the Germans had to start a war and assert their power is depicted as something waiting to exploit the opportunism of instability in the Balkans. That is not untrue, but there was much activity going on in Western Europe that is mentioned, but not explored with the rigour it should be.

The sequence of events is otherwise well depicted: once the murders had happened in Sarajevo, and the Serbs were targeted by the Austro-Hungarians, the Russians hastened to support their Slavic cousins. Austria had, early in July 1914, had the so-called ‘blank cheque’ from Berlin that allowed the Habsburg empire to take on Serbia and to be confident it could rely on German support if attacked by Russia.

And, if Russia entered such a conflict, the French (under their military pact with St Petersburg) would then come in on Russia’s side; and that would bring the ‘encircled’ Germans in against those powers, providing the excuse the Prussian military elite sought for the war they believed would establish them as Europe’s great hegemonic power.

But we also hear of how much the Serbian authorities did not want a war in the summer of 1914, and therefore how little they would have supported the assassinations. It had been clear before June 28 that any such act of aggression towards Austria would trigger a response, and one that would almost certainly been underwritten by the Germans. The blank cheque was duly and inevitably issued.

The film lucidly and clearly then describes the train of events in the second half of July: fortified by the Germans, the Austrians then proceeded to issue to the Serbians an ultimatum so draconian that it was certain to rejected – which was exactly what the Central Powers wanted. From the moment the Serbs and their allies saw the ultimatum, which would effectively have ended Serbia’s existence as an independent state, they knew that a major European war was inevitable.

However, the crucial business of Britain’s coming into the war is almost entirely absent. Our involvement in the conflict seems to be expressed as something of an afterthought: to British viewers, this will come as a great failing in the film. It is a matter of fact that the United Kingdom’s parliament and ministers were late into the field as matters raced out of hand in Europe. The film talks much about German nervousness about what Britain would do if France entered the war, and focuses on the events of August 2 1914 when Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London, first told Berlin that Britain would remain neutral but then, later that day, told his masters that in fact we would not, as the programme phrases it, “allow France to be crushed.”

Gavrilo Princip, Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassin, shortly after his arrest - Tim Butcher pics
Gavrilo Princip, Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassin, shortly after his arrest - Tim Butcher pics

Viewers unaware of Britain’s precise role in the days leading up to the declaration of war are likely to conclude that it entered the conflict because it felt an overwhelming urge to protect France. That, however, was not what happened. For the last few days of peace the French ambassador had sat in the Foreign Office pleading, sometimes to the verge of tears, with Dir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to ensure Britain entered any war that involved France.

Grey could not give that undertaking. He knew that the Liberal government of which he was a senior member relied for most of its support in the Commons on MPs who were, if not pacifists, opposed to British involvement in foreign wars. Another Liberal government, in 1870, under Gladstone, had refused to intervene in Prussia’s war with France that culminated in the unification of Germany and the transfer from France of Alsace and Lorraine.

What forced Grey to go to the Commons on August 3 1914 and recommend agreement to issue an ultimatum to Germany was the German violation of Belgian neutrality the previous day. As he made clear, if Britain did not act to defend Belgian neutrality, its word would count for nothing in a world where it was the major imperial power. That is why we entered the Great War, and our involvement unquestionably prolonged it by years. Yet that vital aspect of history is not explored.

Aside from this odd slant to the history of the conflict, here are inevitably limitations to how well a documentary can be made about the events of the 40 or so years that preceded the Great War. Most obviously, there is no newsreel footage of any events before the late 1890s: some of the film shown is anachronistic, and all of its soundtrack manufactured. But these are minor flaws in the production of this documentary. The real problem is that this film presents itself as a comprehensive account of what happened before August 4 1914, and it isn’t.