The decision to go to war is one of the toughest a policymaker can face. We can see as much from the First World War, as statesmen found themselves drawn into the growing conflagration. Kaiser Wilhelm II pleaded with his cousin, the Tsar of Russia and fondly called Nicky, to stop his mobilisation before it was too late. King Albert I enlisted his German-born wife to choose the weightiest words in the Belgian king’s final plea for peace. Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, noted ruefully on the outbreak of war that ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ Such was the fate of the First World War’s main belligerents.
However, when considering these humanising anecdotes of Western leaders, it is easy to forget that the First World War was truly a global war. Japanese forces helped to suppress an Indian uprising in the British colony of Singapore. T.E. Lawrence (and the lesser-known Gertrude Bell) fermented revolt in Arabia and the US led a punitive expedition into Mexico to secure its southern border. At some point, every cabinet, cabal, or king had to consider how they would react to the war. At first glance, some decided to involve themselves very late in the day. The cavalry had already arrived, these nations were seemingly following the great charge with oats and hay. However, closer inspection of motives and efforts, explains the careful political movements of these ‘secondary’ powers.
Whilst the Pacific theatre of the Second World War is well-discussed, little attention has focused on the role of Asian countries in the First World War. During this Great War, India joined immediately, sending one million soldiers to serve the Allied cause. Japan joined on the side of the Entente in 1914, aiming to solidify its position as a regional power. Arguably one of the greatest photos demonstrating the truly global aspect of the First World War is that of the Nisshin, a cruiser from the Imperial Japanese navy docked in the then-British Mediterranean port of Malta.
Japan was not the only party intend to increase its international prestige. China declared war on the Central Powers in August 1917, but its contribution to the Entente war effort already started the year before. In the hope of regaining the lost territory of Shandong from Germany, and then later from Japan, China offered Britain 50,000 troops to assist in capturing Qingdao. Although Britain refused this proposal, it did accept a later offer of Chinese labourers to help dig trenches, repair tanks and transport ammunition.
Over 100,000 Chinese labourers were employed by France and Britain during the war, some serving as far away as Basra, Iraq. China’s ‘neutrality’ ended on August 14, 1917. In what would become a recurring theme, the impetus for this declaration was the German pursuit of unrestricted submarine warfare; five-hundred Chinese labourers had been killed earlier that year when the French ship Athos was torpedoed. China continued to send labourers but was not authorised to send its own forces to help roll up the enemy. As a consequence, China was offered fewer seats at the Paris Peace Conference than her more militant Japanese neighbour, who prevailed in convincing the other victors they should keep Shandong. Despite their many offers and a far more measured approach to the alliance of the Entente, China was left feeling deeply betrayed by the post-war peace process.
Two months after the Chinese declaration of war, Republican Brazil followed suit. The coffee and rubber-rich nation had attempted to sell to both sides at the beginning of the war but the British blockade of German ports soon meant they had to become more reliant on trade with the Allied camp. This affected foreign policy; Brazil and the United States grew closer. It is no coincidence that Washington’s only Brazilian institute is based at the Woodrow Wilson Centre. Increased trade with the Allies made Brazilian ships a target to German U-boats. Pro-Entente public opinion was confirmed in April 1917, when anti-German riots across Brazilian cities followed the sinking of a Brazilian freighter.
However, a declaration of war was slow to follow because the Brazilian Republic was a relatively new state; it had to spend several months amending their constitution to give the government the legal right to declare war. Little changed militarily after the declaration was presented to Germany. Brazil sent a small naval division to assist the British in late 1918. It arrived in Gibraltar one day before the Armistice. Brazil was given three delegates at the Paris Peace Conference, one more than China and Portugal, the latter having sent 60,000 troops to fight on the Western Front. The war had increased the prestige of Brazil; it became one of the founding members of the League of Nations and continued its lucrative and close relationship with the United States.
Accordingly, a declaration of war on the Central Powers was seen as the best way to gain an invite to the post-war peace conference. But some states found themselves in circumstances that forced them to join (what appeared to be) the losing side. Azerbaijan is a fascinating example. Following the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, diasporas of Russians and Armenians (who had suffered greatly under the Ottoman Empire) seized power in Baku and declared a Marxist republic.
In response, Muslim nationalists declared their own state in May 1918, enlisting the help of the crumbling Ottoman empire to drive out the Bolsheviks. The ‘Army of Islam’ marched into Baku two months before the signing of the November Armistice. This force never formally cemented its reign; between May 1918 and April 1920 the country went through five governments in rapid succession. A changing of the guard took place at the end of the war, from Ottoman troops to British, but this was not enough to save this new state from a Soviet invasion in April 1920. Azerbaijan’s complicated relationship with a member of the Entente, a former member of the Entente and a member of the Central Powers shows how joining the war was not as cut and dry as predicating the winning side.
What conclusions can be drawn from these three very different countries, unified by one very loose concept of ‘being late’? Despite the arbitrary lines I have drawn in this article, there is something to be gleaned from a study of great alliances at a localised level. The war started by the larger European powers permeated the borders of neutral states. It created opportunities for countries disgraced by the previous impositions of imperial powers.
Equally, it offered the chance to improve relations with other powerful actors, a proposal bolstered by great financial incentives. But perhaps most interesting is how the war created competition between states who were, in theory, on the same side. China saw an opportunity to side-line the influence of Japan, Brazil became a regional power in South America (and created a minor diplomatic incident by one-upping their former rulers), and Azerbaijan attempted to wield the clashing interests of neighbours and rival great powers to safeguard the world’s first Islamic parliamentary democracy.
It is all too easy to view the First World War as a clash of two almost indefatigable alliances, with final victory only accomplished with the complete surrender of the enemy. But many smaller nations did not see this endgame as their overarching goal. Perhaps an hourglass is a better analogy: as the Armistice grew ever closer, each falling grain of sand became a lost opportunity to upend their misfortunes.
James Holtby is a part-time Masters student at the War Studies Department at King’s College London. He is interested in exploring the long-term organisation of national and international intelligence gathering institutions, especially concerning future efforts to combat global pandemics and climate change. As part of such a long-term strategy, James also has a keen interest in assessing how intelligence organisations should interact with and educate the public on issues relating to security, whilst still remaining effective at covertly gathering and collating information when necessary.