Great Britain before World War I

great britain before world war one
A map of the world, circa 1900, with the British Empire coloured red

Britain before World War I had enjoyed almost a century of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Despite the rapid advances of the United States and Germany, Great Britain remained the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, the source of the greatest inventions of the age. The development of steam engines revolutionised British manufacturing, transport, labour and society. Gigantic factories were filled with steam-powered machinery, capable of mass-producing all manner of products. Britain became the manufacturing centre of Europe, importing raw materials from its colonies and trading partners, to be turned into goods for sale. British shipbuilders were the busiest in the world, constructing thousands of vessels for trade and defence. Within Britain itself, a vast network of canals allowed longboats to move cargo; in the mid-1800s canal boats were superseded by trains and railways, another local development.

Beyond its own shores lay Britain’s empire, a vast sprawl of territories and possessions on which ‘the sun never sets’. The empire spanned 35 million square kilometres or a quarter of the globe; its showpiece colonies of India, Australia, Canada and South Africa were the envy of the world. During the 1870s Britain began to acquire even more territory, as British settlers and invaders employed new technologies, like railways and improved weapons, in their pursuit of colonisation. Most of the gains in this period were in Africa, where Britain acquired new colonial possessions: from Egypt in the north to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the south. Colonisers dreamed of an Africa controlled by Britons, from Cairo in the north to the southern Cape. Plans were even drawn up for a British railway running the entire north-south length of the African continent. This vast British Empire was, first and foremost, an economic concern. The colonies supplied a wealth of raw materials and produce, such as gold and silver, other metals, diamonds, cotton and wool, meat and grain, timber and tea. Britain’s domination of foreign trade was matched by its naval power, with the Royal Navy the world’s largest naval force through most of the 1800s. The showpiece of British progress was the Great Exhibition of 1851. Held in the Crystal Palace, a gigantic glass building in London, the exhibition was attended by more than six million people and featured more than 13,000 exhibits.

great britain before world war i
The Great Exhibition, held in London in 1851

Britain was not without its problems, both domestic and imperial. Rapid industrial growth during the 1800s had lined the pockets of the middle- and upper-classes – but the industrial working classes toiled for long hours in difficult conditions, with no rights or protections. Industrialisation and rapid urban growth spawned all manner of social problems: poverty, crime, prostitution, child labour, urban living conditions, inadequate sewage, poor sanitation and disease were rampant in British cities, particularly London. Writers like Charles Dickens highlighted the social ills of the age, while reformers like Henry Mayhew and Matthew Arnold urged fundamental social and economic change. There were also demands for political reform. The British parliament was democratically elected, but only those with a minimum amount of property were entitled to vote (by the mid-1800s this was only around one in seven males). In 1819 a crowd of 70,000 gathered in St Peter’s Square, Manchester to demand political reform. They were charged by soldiers on horseback and more than a dozen were killed; the event became known as the Peterloo Massacre. In the 1840s a working-class movement called Chartism began demanding universal suffrage, the secret ballot and other reforms. The British union movement began to take shape in the 1850s, seeking to improve the rights of workers. A left-wing group, the Fabian Society, emerged towards the end of the 1800s. Members of this group participated in the formation of the British Labour Party in 1900.

“At the dawn of the 20th century, Great Britain remained a commercial and maritime empire without equal… But the ‘weary titan’ faced new challenges, as British vulnerabilities became apparent, forcing a major diplomatic realignment. The Boer War, which dragged on from 1899 to 1902, had demonstrated the dangers of diplomatic isolation and revealed the inefficiency of its army. Even more serious for an empire whose survival depended on command of the sea was the building of strong navies by the United States, Japan and Germany.”
Roy Arnold Prete, historian

Despite Britain’s industrial and naval strength, its politicians generally avoided war for most of the 1800s, adopting a foreign policy of ‘splendid isolation’. Its main imperial rival during the 19th century was Russia. London and St Petersburg competed for territory and influence in a number of regions, particularly China and Central Asia. In 1853 the two went to war in the Crimea, southern Russia, as London attempted to prevent the expansion of Russian naval power into the Mediterranean. Britain emerged victorious: the Crimean War would be her only major conflict of the 19th century. Relations between England and Russia remained sour for the rest of the century, the pair reaching the brink of war several times. Only the emergence of a new rivalry eased Anglo-Russian tensions.

great britain before world war 1
The Triple Entente

The unification of Germany in 1871 re-focused British suspicion and paranoia. London’s foreign policy analysts soon realised that Germany, driven by its strong nationalism, rapidly growing industrial economy and powerful military, might come to dominate continental Europe. The 1888 coronation of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a hot-headed young man with imperialist ambitions, strengthened this paranoia. The rise of Germany and its imperial ambitions coincided with internal problems in Britain’s own empire. Dutch-speaking South African farmers challenged British authority, leading to the Boer War (1899-1902); Britain was victorious in this conflict, though at great cost. The turn of the century also saw the federation and independence of Britain’s Australian colonies, plus growing Irish demands for home rule. By the start of the 1900s, Britain had abandoned its policy of European neutrality and began to play a hand in the ‘great game of alliance’. British diplomats forged the Entente Cordiale with France, another continental power with whom Britain was previously on hostile terms. In 1907 Britain and Russia reached a successful agreement on territorial disputes. That same year produced the Triple Entente, a three-way alliance between France, Britain and Russia.

germany before world war i

1. Great Britain was at the centre of the world’s largest empire, a beneficiary of colonial resources and trade.

2. Britain occupied territory on four different continents and was at the centre of a vast trading and commercial empire.

3. Domestically, 19th century Britain was often unsettled by demands for improved conditions and political reform.

4. British rulers engaged in imperial expansion but sought to avoid war, a policy dubbed ‘splendid isolation’.

5. This policy approached waned in the early 1900s, as British interest was sparked by events in Europe, particularly the unification of Germany and the expansionist policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Great Britain before World War I” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

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