By the summer of 1914, the British Liberal government had been in power for over eight years, but crises and controversies and worn down their popularity. British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith was painfully aware of his party had become dependent upon a bloc of thirty Irish Catholic nationalists (in the House of Commons) for its ability to exercise majority rule. These nationalists had a price for their support: Home Rule. Asquith knew that he had to deliver or he would be replaced.
While the Prime Minister began to move a bill through Parliament which would grant home rule to Ireland, the Conservative Unionists acted as well. They realized that compromise was impossible, and began to organize a militia in Protestant Northern Ireland, smuggling in weapons as well. They threatened “that they would rise in armed rebellion rather than become an impotent minority in an autonomous Ireland.”
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 126.
In reaction to this development, the British war office declared that no British officers whose family homes were in Ireland would be required to participate in putting down a Protestant rebellion. All others, however, would be expected to follow any and all orders. Anyone who found this policy unacceptable had to state their objections and then expect to be discharged.
This marked the beginning of the Curragh Mutiny. Many of the army’s officers, including some of its most senior members, openly declared their support for the Unionists. They argued strongly that the Unionists’ only crime was their loyalty to the United Kingdom . . . how outrageous, they said, to portray them as a disloyal enemy!? Fifty-seven of seventy officers of a cavalry brigade based in Curragh, Ireland (including their commanding officer) announced that they preferred dismissal to fighting against Ulster.
The king diffused the situation somewhat when he brought the parties around to the idea of partitioning Ireland. And yet a conference in July attempting to decide the manner of partition ended in failure. On July 26, British troops fired upon demonstrators in Dublin. Civil War seemed close at hand. Ultimately, though the Home Rule Bill passed Parliament with an understanding that Ireland would have to be partitioned, the Bill’s implementation had to be suspended until a conflict in mainland Europe had been settled. Britain now understood that it was being drawn into war.
Though Britain’s leaders had remained divided over the issue of intervention, a German blunder ultimately brought them in on the side of intervention: through diplomatic channels, Germany promised a restoration of French and Belgian borders in return for a British promise of neutrality in the coming war. (See also the post on July 31) None of the British leaders, nor even the populace, would have any trouble understanding the need to intervene when Germany was trampling the rights of neutral countries.
Though the British Expeditionary Force had already been dispatched to France, support for the war became even more obvious on August 12, 1914 when the British Parliament pass the Defense of the Realm Act, giving British government the power to seize resources (including buildings and land) for the war effort). Also included were guidelines for censorship and controlling the labor force.
This last measure proved the most important: at the start of WWI, Britain was the only major European power without a policy of military conscription, and would not even pass such a bill until January 1916. As a result, the British army was puny in comparison to those of Russia, Germany, France and Austria Hungary. Indeed, famous German chancellor Otto von Bismark had once remarked that if the British army landed in Germany, he would have it arrested.
Britain could be a help in a land war, but, at least initially, not a major force.