In the years before the First World War, Britain was one of the greatest powers on earth

You're listening to Imperial War Museum's First World War Galleries Podcast, presented by James Taylor, head of the First World War Galleries team.

James Taylor: “In the years before the First World War Britain was one of the greatest powers on Earth. This small island nation ruled over a vast empire. British shipping, guarded by the mighty Royal Navy, dominated world trade. Britain seemed a beacon of confidence, hope and glory. Laura Clouting is a member of the First World War Galleries team.”

Laura Clouting: “In the new First World War Galleries, one of the first things that you will see is an enormous ship model of a dreadnought, HMS Hercules, and it is a symbol of Britain's maritime naval power. Now this model has gone through a restoration to give you some impression of what this incredible ship would have looked like. HMS Hercules was launched in 1910 and so this ship in model form, ours is 1 to 48 scale, so, if you can imagine it 48 times over. I mean this is enormous. We also have merchant ships across the world, about half of which fly the British flag, and you also have passengers moving across the oceans. One of the ships that will also be on display is on loan from the National Maritime Museum. And that was a ship that was used to transport passengers from Southampton all the way down to South Africa.”

James Taylor: “Although Britain was a hugely wealthy country, many of its people lived in real poverty. Millions of men, women and children emigrated, most of them to the countries of the empire, and particularly Canada and Australia. There they hoped to find an escape from hardship and hunger. Even so, many of these immigrants continued to feel a deep attachment to Britain, their mother country.”

Laura Clouting: “The British Empire gives opportunity to ordinary British people, arguably, in that it's possible to emigrate. You have huge swathes of people who decide to up sticks and leave and go in search of a better life, and the government is fully in favour of trying to encourage people to go off to Australia, to off to Canada and start a new life where there's plentiful land to set up farms and to grasp this as an opportunity. So, for example, when the war does break out, you get a lot of people who have moved with their families or moved by themselves out to Canada coming back then to join because they feel British. These people do not feel Canadian or Australian, they feel British.”

James Taylor: “The Empire Fed Britain. Every day, Britain's ports unloaded all manner of goods shipped from its territories overseas. The greatest port was London, which was not just the capital of Britain but of the empire too.”

Laura Clouting: “The City of London is the heart of Britain's empire. It's where it is financially backed from, it's where all the trade from across the world much of it ends up here, obviously, with all of our Docklands. And so there are signs everywhere around us, with trade, with immigration. These are the tangible things that the empire is built upon and where you can see that it actually has a practical output if you like. Some of the imports from the empire include staples to our everyday lives like tea. We also have meat coming from the empire because we now have refrigerated ships, which means that you can move meat vast distances across the sea. You've got wool coming in, you've got wheat chocolate as well, well cocoa. So, these are just some of the products that this empire allows us to profit from. And in return, we send our produce out into this kind of marketplace. However, it's important to note that the British Empire is not this kind of self-sustaining entity. We rely heavily on trade with the USA, for example, and with Germany.”

James Taylor: “As the 20th century dawned, Britain had been at peace with its European neighbours for decades, even with its traditional enemy, France. But rival alliances were forming and a new nation, Germany, was looking to compete on the world stage.”

Laura Clouting: “In Europe, we have got rival empires and this is what starts to cause problems and has caused problems for a long time because we get alliances that start to form. For example, in 1894 Russia and France with Germany sat right between them, they form an alliance. Many people would actually argue at the dawn of the 20th century it's Britain and France that might end up at war together, but there's a new kid on the block and the new threat to the balance of power. Many people in Britain look to Germany as a kind of civilised place where they can learn many lessons from and where they can look to as a kind of beacon of progress.”

James Taylor: “One of the items on display in the First World War Galleries is a beautiful Russian cavalry officer's coat. It was a gift to German emperor Kaiser Vilhelm from his cousin, Czar Nicholas 2nd. It tells us something not only about the Kaiser and his ambitions, but about military buildups in Europe in the years leading up to war.”

Laura Clouting: “It is quite an ornate looking thing. It's very dramatic and long grey coat with this amazing kind of flash of orange lining inside with the military breasted buttons. It's also got a modification for the Kaiser’s withered arm as one of the arms a little bit shorter in the sleeve than the other. And through this coat to look at the military side of things, the Kaiser really wanted Germany to bolster its army, you know, create a powerful Navy to rival Britain’s. The Kaiser was a great admirer of Britain's Royal Navy and really wanted to push ahead with creating one for Germany as well. I think what you can see through this coat is a very, very different kind of Europe to that which we know now. This is a Europe of big armies, of big navies and it sums up this militarism that's running rampant across the continent in the years leading up to the First World War. You've got a very ambitious Germany looking to bolster its army, you've got the Russian army growing at a prodigious rate, you've got the same going on in France and so through this coat, we also see the ambitions of the leaders like the Kaiser, like his military staff, they want strong armies as a statement of power. Having a major military force is essential to you as a great power.”

James Taylor: “Britain looked to the immense power of the Royal Navy for its defence rather than its small professional army. Yet despite international tensions, there seemed no prospect of war. In the years before the First World War, the real divisions and tensions seemed to be between the people of Britain themselves.”

Laura Clouting: “Britain during the Edwardian period has this façade if you like, of genteel Edwardian England, whereby everybody goes off to Ascot to the races and enjoy kind of afternoons out in country manors. But of course, the reality for many, many millions of people, there's nothing like that at all. For example, in cities you have millions of people living in abject poverty. You have continuing threat of industrial strikes and you've also got discontent brewing with regards the right to vote. We have the suffragettes who are grabbing the headlines. These are just some of the issues along with the issue of poverty. So, we have a liberal government that has come into power in 1906 and is trying to tackle some of the issues with regards to people’s quality of life.”

James Taylor: “On the 28th of June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was murdered by a Serbian backed terrorist, Gavrilo Princip. Austria-Hungary, encouraged by Germany, attacked Serbia. For the people of Britain this seemed a distant crisis. But just over five weeks later, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made a speech which made it only too clear that Britain was on the verge of war. And I'd now like to read some excerpts from Sir Edward Grey's speech. “Today, events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved.” Here's the second excerpt. “In the present crisis, it has not been possible to secure the peace of Europe because there has been little time.” And here's the third excerpt: “If we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer, even if we stand aside. We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside.”

Laura Clouting: “Sir Edward Grey was Britain's foreign secretary, and in this speech, he really outlines or tries to outline what has happened. And in it he references the confusion that many people will feel. What has a war with Austria, Hungary and Serbia got to do with us? How has it come to this moment? What are the reasons involved that have led us now to be standing here, wondering, are we going to join this war? He then looks at some of the reasons which are critical in Britain now thinking it, too, may have to go to war, depending on what Germany ends up doing in western Europe. And this speech for me is just full of this drama. It's a moment in time where Britain has a choice and the next day, on the 4th of August at 11:00 pm this ultimatum which has given to Germany to leave Belgium, when there's no answer to that, Britain's mind is made up and it commits, so the speech is just on the cusp of that great moment of drama for us joining this war.”

The First World War Galleries at IWM London are open now. Find out more at

As the twentieth century dawned, Britain was one of the greatest powers on Earth. This small island nation ruled over a vast global empire. Yet, despite its wealth, power and global influence, the British Empire was less secure than it appeared.

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© IWM (Q 39496)
Fitting out at Portsmouth Dockyard, 1896.

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