Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

William Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister, predicts a European War caused by naval rivalry.

(from War or Peace, WOP)


The Ousting of Gladstone.

When Gladstone was challenged in the House of Commons on the 19th December, 1893 that British naval supremacy was threatened, he was dismissive, even withering. “To maintain that the situation in which we stand to-day is a situation of emergency and danger is to pronounce an opinion that is irrational and even absurd. It is beyond contention, first of all, that the first-class battleships of Great Britain are at this moment 19 in number; and, secondly, that the first-class battleships of France and Russia are not 19 when added together, but are 14 in number…Finally, if I look at the tonnage in the rough, and speak of the present Navy, I believe the House will be correct in accepting this statement, that we have in battleships at the moment 527,000 tons of fighting material, and that France and Russia together have at this moment but 383,000 tons.” It is a withering response. What Gladstone said was conclusive, and usually he carried the day, but the naval lobby did not give up.

Fisher and the naval manufacturers were out for more ships; they organized a political coalition including Austen Chamberlain, Lord Spencer, Sir William Harcourt and others to get them ordered. Soon Gladstone was confronted by a group of senior colleagues asking for another great tranche of naval funds, effectively a pressure group of the naval yards. He dug his heels in and said, “No”. The group became powerful enough within the Cabinet to force the issue through and did so. Gladstone could have given way and carried on as Prime Minister, but the Grand Old Man was adamant on the issue and resigned. He saw the future with a clarity which was prophetic. Sir Edward Hamilton recounts his words to Cabinet thus:

“He again and again said it was not a matter of amount... No. It was a question of policy. Russia and France had gone ahead with their ship-building, solely owing to our Naval programme of 1889 for which we had to thank the late Government; and now we were to ‘go one better’, thus directly challenging Europe in the race of armaments. It was his conviction that this competitive action of ours would accelerate some great European catastrophe – these vast armaments must lead to some flare up...”[i]

As Roy Jenkins reports, he later added to Hamilton, “If I stood alone in the world on this question, I could not so be moved; so strongly am I convinced that this large increase to the Navy will lead to disaster in Europe – Europe is my watchword.”[ii] Of course, Gladstone was right; the Russian and French navies were relatively weak and the threat non-existent and more ships would be seen as aggressive. The issue sent Gladstone into a depression, probably not because of his own demise, which followed in due course, but because he could see the direction that Europe would take, led by Britain. We had set up the competitive international armaments scene through navy scares, and the pressures of the arms’ manufacturers carried the day. This pressure group was powerful enough in the British Government to get rid of perhaps the most dominant Prime Minister the country has ever had. The programme of new naval building amounted to a further £31 million of orders and the Armstrong yard at Elswick complained because it only got an order for five battleships.. Britain was awash with warships and Gladstone was gone.[iii] We had opened up the route to the First World War.

This removal of Gladstone should bring us up short. To get rid of such a Prime Minister was extraordinary, yet the military-industrial complex was powerful enough to do it. We will see later that it was able in the States to get rid of Presidents and put its own kind into power. The ability of the military-industrial complex to control the politicians in the areas crucial to its own position is astonishing. Gladstone’s ejection is the first warning.


[i] Dudley Bahlman (ed.) the Diary of Sir Edward Hamilton 1885-1906 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) 236 quoted in Roy Jenkins Gladstone (London: Macmillan, 1995) 610

[ii] Ibid. 247 also quoted by Jenkins

[iii] Richard Hough ibid. 99