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UK GL52 6BR
More by accident than design the British
commercial classes acquired the greatest Empire the world has ever
known. So big did it become that by 1900 the sun never set on the
Empire. By 1924 one third of the world spoke English. The Empire was
four and a half times the size of the USA and sixty times the size of
France and was completely self sufficient.
These areas were originally explored and
mapped either out of curiosity, or desire to supply the essential raw
materials for the Industrial Revolution that was taking place in
England. Later missionaries determined to convert 'the heathen'
people in these colonies to Christianity.
It was the need to stamp out piracy at sea
that caused the British to create the largest and most powerful Navy
in the world. The Royal Navy - again more by accident than design -
became the policeman of oceans.
It was the need for political stability and
law and order within these colonies that required Armed Forces to be
sent to back up the British appointed native police forces.
Taken as a whole, the colonies were governed very well - certainly
better than some since they gained their independence this
The junior sons of upper and middle class British families made
lifetime careers - either in the Army or Colonial Civil Service -
living in, and administering these far off colonies; and they
established in them systems of democracy, justice, education and
government that endure to this day.
Upon gaining self governing Dominion Status
and then Independence, nearly every former colony joined the
subsequent .The 'Empire' meant different things to different classes of
British people. For commercial classes it meant profit and nothing
more; to the Colonial Civil Service 'The Empire' meant high quality
public service: to the Army, exciting foreign duties and adventures
maintaining law and order: to religious people it meant more converts
to their faith: and to the ordinary people and politicians in England
it swelled their illusions of world wide dominance, greatness and
Americans - understandably - have never properly understood the
British people's 19th and early 20th century perceptions of 'Empire',
nor the mid 20th century British idea of the Commonwealth.
It is important to remember to judge people
- not by the latest fashionable
perceptions of today, but by the
perceptions of the people in those days. Fifty years
hence fashionable perceptions will be different again.
BY JUNE 1897 the 78 year-old Queen
Victoria had reigned over Great Britain and her Empire for 60 years.
To mark the occasion a Diamond Jubilee was proclaimed, complete with
a Spithead naval review on the 26th June.
To give some idea of the size of the Navy at
the time - in spite of the order that the battle fleet in the
Mediterranean and the squadrons on foreign stations were to remain at
their posts, 165 warships, stretching for 30 miles, carrying 40,000
men and 5,000 guns were assembled in the Solent. The Channel Squadron
alone had 11 battleships, all under six years old, and superior in
fire power, armour and speed to anything else afloat. It represented
the largest and most formidable navy the world had ever
was the Royal Navy which had destroyed Napoleon's fleet at Trafalgar
nearly a century before. It was the Royal Navy which made possible
the building and protection of the British Empire.
In 1897 the Empire covered one quarter of
the land surface of the globe and one quarter of the world's
population. The nations of the Empire traded with each other.
To serve it, and others, was the British Merchant Navy and in
1897 this accounted for more than half the steamships afloat in the world. But it was the Royal Navy who
guaranteed their protection and which policed the oceans of the
world, ensuring safety and free trade for all.
But Britain could not be isolated from events on the continent
- only 20 miles away. Britain had always had an interest in preserving a European balance of power. If any
country threatened to dominate the Continent and control the Channel
ports, then Britain would ally herself with the opposing coalition,
sometimes with a small army. This was how Britain had gone to war
against Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France and Napoleon.
By 1900 the German nation was developing
fast. Its population in 1871 expanded to 49 million as against 45
million in Britain, and then exploded to 56 million in 1900 and 65
million in 1910. The population of France between 1891 and 1910 rose
barely at all, from 37 million to 39 million.
In 1871 Britain was the largest coal
producer in the world (112 million tons annually). German coal
production was half of Britain's; but by 1913 it was equal.
By 1914 Germany was producing more than
twice as much steel as Britain. With Germany's huge economic
expansion came a desire to play a role in world affairs. Plans were
made for a great German navy. The British resented the German
economic and (especially) naval rivalry.
On 6 June 1897 William II appointed Admiral
Tirpitz, Navy Minister. Tirpitz presented to the Kaiser at a top
secret memorandum which read:-
'the most dangerous naval enemy
at the present time is England ... Commerce raiding ... against
England is so hopeless because of the shortage of coaling stations on
our side and the great number on England's side . . . Our military
situation against England demands battleships in as great a number as
possible ... A German fleet ... needs 1 fleet flagship, 2 squadrons
of eight battleships each, 2 reserve battleships. A total of 19
battleships. This fleet can be largely completed by 1905'.He then went on to
outline the cost.
To justify this expansion to the taxpayers,
it was necessary that England (who was friendly to Germany) be
thought of as an enemy. Justifications for a big navy poured forth.
'A policy of adventure is far
from our minds ... but in maritime questions Germany must be able to
speak a modest, but above all, a wholly German word.'
On 26 March 1898 the Navy Bill passed in the
German Reichstag with 2l2 votes against l39.
In October l899 the Boer War broke out. In
January 1900 British cruisers stopped three German mail steamers off
the African coast and searched them on suspicion of carrying arms and
ammunition to the Boers. A storm of protest swept Germany. Tirpitz
seized the moment. He drafted a new Navy Bill. To defend it he
developed his famous Risk Theory. It was . . .
'that a larger British fleet had
had of necessity to be scattered round the world. But a smaller,
concentrated German fleet
have a good chance of victory against the Royal Navy in the North
At the beginning of the twentieth century
Britain had the biggest empire the world had ever known, she was at
the zenith of her power and glory; but by the end of the century - so
vast were the changes that had taken place in every sphere of life -
Britain had by then relinquished it.
The twentieth century has been the most
turbulent in Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Dominant throughout has been the rise of
Germany to 1918, her fall and rise to 1942: her fall in 1945 and her
In the period from the beginning of the
century to 1914 British policy towards Europe was clear and sensible.
This was the period of 'splendid
isolation', when Britain could feel
secure behind the shield of the Royal Navy, but was careful to
preserve a European balance of power. If any country threatened to
dominate the Continent, Britain would join with the opposing
coalition to prevent it.
Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary from 1905 to
1915, saw in the first decade of the century that the danger to the
European balance of power came this time not from France but from
A Germany, ruling the Continent, determined
to challenge British naval supremacy, and with its huge High Seas
Fleet enjoying access to the Channel ports, would pose an
unacceptable danger to Britain and her sea routes to the
In warning in 1911 of the possibility of war
with Germany, Churchill persuaded the to finance a huge increase in naval expenditure. As Lord of
the Admiralty he completely reformed the Navy and took an intense
interest in every aspect of it. This included converting many coal
fired battleships to oil to extend their range and efficiency - to
say nothing of his concern about working conditions in the ships'
engine rooms. This of course meant securing reliable supplies of oil,
so he created what is now the great company - British
War came - as Churchill foresaw
- and a most terrible war it was. Nothing like it in history had ever
been known. It lasted from September 1914 to November 1918 and for
the first time ever involved a vast army of civilians in the
factories most of whom were women. Their contribution to the war
effort eventually brought about their enfranchisement.
But the suffering and loss of life on both
sides was so grievous that by the time it ended many young women
could never marry because there were not enough young men. Of the 70
million men in uniform 9 million were to die leaving 3 million widows
and 10 million orphans.
can envisage the anxieties caused to families waiting for news of
their loved ones. In England the Flanders Poppy commemorates to this
day the appalling slaughter and suffering.
The root causes of this war are complex. Two
historical features stand out (1) the awakening in Central and
Eastern Europe of minority national aspirations and (2) the
commercial rivalry between the Great Powers.
Diplomacy could not contain the new which in turn swept away reason and prudence on all
Since 1870, Germany had developed into a major power and this
de-stabilised the balance of power in Europe. Germany felt jealous of
England and France and thwarted in its hopes for further expansion.
By 1914 it was spoiling for a fight. But no-one had any idea of the
horrendous consequences of war waged using the new technologies of
There were close ties between the British
and German royal families, but it was a feud in that family that
eventually triggered the First World War. The last German led Europe into an abyss that was to become known as the
Great War 1914 -1918. He was the English grandson.