After 1890, Germany’s lifeline to St. Petersburg ruptured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russian Ambassador Shuvalov showed up in Berlin to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another three years but encountered disinterest bordering on hostility. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained sceptical of Paris, the former for its republicanism, the latter because they relied on Germany to keep Austria in check on the Balkans. Yet French perseverance began to pay off. Paris offered to float numerous Russian loans at advantageous conditions, sold weapons cheaply and endeared the Tsar by arresting a few of the more obnoxious Russian anarchist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the General Staff Boisdeffre was invited to the Russian summer manoeuvres and there was introduced to his Russian colleague Obruchev and the Minister of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutual suspicions between Paris and St. Petersburg, when her new Prime Minister Rudini notified parliament of the 1891 renewal of the Triple Alliance “in a form which created the impression that it had been in some measure joined by England.”
This was an ominous mistake, for if it were true, Russia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a counterweight, and in this age of secret treaties one could not check whether it was a lie. Thus, Russia initiated tender diplomatic overtures to France which ended, in summer 1891, in the unheard-of invitation of the French fleet to a visit at Kronstadt, Russia’s principal naval base in the Baltic, on the doorsteps of St. Petersburg, at the occasion of which the French Ambassador Laboulaye proposed that the two nations enter an agreement to further the continental peace. A memorandum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French government approved a letter delivered by the Russian Ambassador in Paris, which stated that the Tsar had approved the following outlines:
“1. With the aim of defining and consecrating the ENTENTE CORDIALE which unites them, and in the desire to contribute by common accord to the maintenance of peace, which forms the object of their most sincere desires, the two Governments declare that they will concert on all questions of a nature to endanger general peace.
2. In the case that this peace were actually in peril, particularly in the case that one of the two parties were menaced by aggression, the two parties undertake to concert in advance measures to be taken immediately and simultaneously if the eventuality contemplated should actually arise.”
Elementary scrutiny, however, tells us that the interests of the prospective endorsers of the agreement were far from overlapping, and the declarations of peaceful intent cannot obscure their different motivations: France hoped to enlist the sort of Russian aid without which she could not hope to overcome Germany; yet Russia’s problem was not Germany but Great Britain, which blocked her designs on the Straits and expansion toward the Caucasus and Persia. Thus, it took an additional twenty months of haggling and bickering until the Entente Cordiale was finally signed in January 1894, and the Franco- Russian pact that Bismarck had feared was reality. Even then, the foreign policy aims of the two signatories were far from identical, and it was less the incoherent political invocations than the military agreement that became important. In the first two paragraphs, the arrangement laid out the following scenarios for outright defence or mobilization in a crisis:
“1. If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all forces at her disposal to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all the forces at her disposal to combat Germany.
2. In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of the Powers forming part of it were mobilized, France and Russia at the first announcement of the event and without need of preliminary agreement will immediately and simultaneously mobilize the whole of their forces and move them as near as possible to their frontiers.”
The operative memorandum that followed the protocol laid down the number of troops that were to be committed against Germany; France would dispatch 1.3 million men and Russia between 700,000 and 800,000. In addition, the general staffs of the nations were to meet at specified intervals to harmonize operational planning and prepare troop coordination, there would be no separate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alliance existed.
Again, the treaty was technically defensive, but, as in the Triple Alliance, some possible scenarios made little sense or tended to provoke ill-advised complications. If, for example, Austria were to mobilize against Russia in a Balkan conflict, France would also be obliged to mobilize. Since France and Austria had no common border, this move would not only make any military sense but would lead to German mobilization, which in turn might well provoke the war that the alliance was supposed to avoid. As Luigi Albertini observed, “the French endeavoured to remedy this incongruity, but ended by resigning themselves to the consideration that, in an Austro-Russian conflict, France and Germany could not stand aside.”
This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approval of the likely scenario that makes one doubt very much the honesty of the French government’s assertions that she was driven into the war of 1914 involuntary, solely because of her treaty obligations to Russia. Essentially, the Franco-Russian alliance guaranteed that revanche would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suitable pretext and to determine a suitable date.9 What was true in 1894 was even truer twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the American President Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Colonel House, wrote his master that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.”
Whether outright war or mobilization, neither side had illusions about the decisiveness of the prospective military measures, nor were they unaware that the defensive character of the treaty might change in time.
The chauvinists of both countries expected much more from the alliance than did the Governments which concluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Austro-German alliance, it lost its strictly defensive character to adapt itself to other ends; and the generals who negotiated the military agreement perfectly understood the consequences of the mobilizations contemplated in the agreement.
General Obruchev in the course of negotiations remarked that “to his idea, the beginning of French and Russian mobilization cannot now be regarded as a peaceful act; on the contrary, it is the most decisive act of war; i.e., would be inseparable from aggression”. Boisdeffre, likewise, said to the Tsar: “Mobilization is a declaration of war. To mobilize is to oblige one’s neighbour to do the same. Mobilization causes the carrying out of strategic transport and concentration. Otherwise, to allow a million men to mobilize on one’s frontiers without at once doing the same oneself is to forfeit all possibility of following suit; is to put oneself in the position of an individual with a pistol in his pocket who allows his neighbour to point a weapon at his head without reaching for his own.” To which Alexander III replied: “That is how I too understand it”. The importance and the consequences of this judgement were to come to the fore in July 1914 when Russia was to be the first Power to order general mobilization.
While the Entente Cordiale between France and Russia was based on a hard military obligation, this was not the case underlying the relations between France and Great Britain – the “Triple Alliance” was never formulated on paper – in the words of Samuel Williamson, the two government were not committed to act in concert, solely “committed to consult”, or, in the words of Sir Eyre Crowe:
“The 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. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.”
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)