Discourse on the alliance systems of World War I focuses on the disputes between countries of the Triple Alliance and of the Triple Entente, and in particular how such pacts shaped continental politics. According to scholar Paul Hayes, both the Austro-German and Franco-Russian alliances “formed solid, opposing elements in the European political system.” Furthermore, these alliances became so ingrained in diplomacy between the Great Powers of Europe, that any aggression against one subsequently brought in others as well. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill remarked on how the Triple Entente had militarily outgrown the Triple Alliance. Such concerns were important to foreign policy, as the British cabinet sought to have no part in any continental war. But what were the differences between these two coalitions?
The agreements which bound the countries of the Triple Entente (1907) together were inherently distinct and included stipulations that varied from those of the Triple Alliance (1882). While the latter was a military alliance, the former acted as more of a defensive treaty. Members of the Entente developed a mutual understanding of peace, agreeing to support one another. Notably, however, they did not have to go war with one another. World War I was ultimately shaped, not by two distinct groups with members bound together militarily, but rather through the intrinsic differences between the Triple Alliance and the series of agreements that happened to create the Triple Entente.
First, only one of the three agreements of the Triple Entente, firstly, was a military alliance. The Franco-Russian Alliance, or the Dual Alliance, when it was ratified in 1893/1894, stipulated the following: “If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia shall employ all her available forces to attack Germany” and vice-versa. This Convention Militaire even outlined the number of forces Russia and France would have enlisted given Prussian aggression: “Ces forces s’engageront à fond et en toute diligence, de manière que l’Allemagne ait à lutter à la fois à l’Est et à l’Ouest,” Yet, for the remaining two documents tied with Britain, a tone of peace and of retaining status quo relations became guiding principles.
Entente can be translated as “friendship” or “understanding”. It was evident that, especially in the Entente Cordiale, Britain would not be tied militarily to France. In 1904, the document was signed at a convention in London. There, British Foreign Secretary, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice met with the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, to confirm the territories held by the British and French empires. The declaration agreed that the world powers would respect one another’s territories in West and Central Africa, in addition to the protectorates of Egypt and Morocco. The Anglo-Russian Entente also had a similar arrangement in Central Asia.
Second, the documents were effectively linked by default; that is, if Britain and France were Britain and France signed an entente (1904); if France and Russia renewed treaty arrangements in 1894; and if Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, then all three would be linked together by these agreements. However, there was no single document that aligned all three countries, as there was with the Triple Alliance. The Triple Entente instead had been compromised of agreements signed over the course of several decades. As a result, the Entente was much less unifying than its Central European-counterpart, in that the rules had not truly been made into one definitive three-country alliance. Plainly it was not an alliance, and only an entente.
Lastly, while the Triple Alliance was meant to unify foreign policies among three countries, the Triple Entente often discussed matters of extra-European affairs. While the Alliance had been steadfastly negotiated at a meeting between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, the Entente manifested itself as an end to colonial rivalries, and not the beginning of unquestionable allegiances. Indeed, both of the agreements that Britain signed included clauses limiting imperial expansion in Central Asia (with Russia) and in Africa (with France). Supplemental agreements with Japan and Portugal fixed the boundaries of the British Empire’s colonial possessions. In this manner, the Triple Entente was formed not from any military alliance or defense contract, but rather from a mutual respect for colonial borders and a pact of non-aggression.
On January 31, 1911, Eyre Crowe, a British diplomat, commented that “[t]he fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all.” Indeed, the noted characteristics of the agreements among the Triple Entente differed from its counterpart, the Triple Alliance, as the former ones were meant to resolve long-standing disputes between the British, French, and Russian empires. Territorial conflicts, and not the prospect of a European war, was the focus of the Entente Cordiale. In effect, the British government was slower to respond to the July Crisis and only entered the war because of the German violation of Belgian neutrality. The countries of the Triple Entente signed agreements with one another in an attempt to maintain peace and respect colonial borders.
Image Credit: Department of History, United States Military Academy