The term “Entente Cordiale” is often used – loosely but accurately – to define the friendship that saw Britain and France stand side-by-side in two world wars. However, in my view, its precise value is both over-estimated and under-estimated.
Accusations of over-estimation are easy to make: the actual terms of the Entente, signed on 8 April 1904, are horrendously dated. Two colonial powers are dividing up huge swathes of the planet: France won’t interfere in Egypt if the British stay out of Morocco, etc, etc.
In fact, the text is very much a verbal version of one of the statues that are currently being toppled by political activists. And frankly, it is time for a new, more modern declaration of Entente to redeem its reputation.
Nevertheless, as a wider symbol, the flawed Entente of 1904 cannot be over-estimated. My own feeling (which is much too subjective to be classified as “history”) is that if Edward VII had smoked and eaten a lot less, he and the Entente might actually have prevented World War One, instead of just postponing it.
To clarify: at the turn of the 20th century, Britain and France were on chilly terms. In 1898, war had almost broken out after two small forces of French and British troops faced off at a fort called Fashoda, in the Sudan.
The French backed down, but only because they were nervous of Germany’s intentions, and did not need another enemy on their borders. Kaiser Wilhelm II was lobbying for an Anglo-Russo-German pact that could (and presumably would) crush France. Both Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were nephews of Queen Victoria, so annihilating the ancient enemy France would be a family affair.
This is where Edward stepped in – to my mind, a vastly underestimated diplomat. He seems to be remembered these days as the naïf who, for a few years, oversaw garden parties and Elgar concerts while the express train of world war was charging towards him, serenely ignored.
On the contrary, though, Edward was one of the men who, through his personal efforts, postponed that war for at least a decade. Hansard on 8 April 1954 supports this view. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Simonds, announced to the House of Lords that the French President, René Coty, had sent a telegram to mark the 50th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale. Lord Simonds translated it for the House: Coty wished to re-affirm the spirit, if not the word, of the Entente, saying that, “Beyond any divergences of interest, the ideal of our two nations remains – respect for individual human life and constant struggle for the achievement of prosperity and peace in the world.”
The Earl of Bessborough, a former Governor of Canada, then rose to inform the House that a French delegation was coming to Britain and that the visitors “have, I understand, very much in their minds a tribute to King Edward VII’s memory. (…) It was in fact King Edward’s understanding of the French people and the great sympathy that he felt for them which enabled him to prepare the way when statesmen proposed the reversal of British foreign policy involved in making a Pact with France.” It sounds as though Bessborough needed to remind his British colleagues that Edward VII deserved credit.
The French, on the other hand, had never neglected Edward’s memory because, from their point of view, the key moment in the Entente Cordiale negotiations happened in the foyer of a Parisian theatre.
In 1903, Britain was not wholly opposed to an Anglo-German alliance against France. Edward VII, however, who had (mis)spent long periods in France while waiting for his mother to vacate the throne, was horrified by the idea. He had created personal ties not only with can-can dancers and comtesses, but also with French politicians right across the spectrum, from royal pretenders such as Philippe d’Orléans to left-winger Léon Gambetta. Edward was a well-informed Francophile.
In April 1903, in collusion with President Emile Loubet, King Edward therefore organized an astonishing piece of personal espionage.
First, the duo arranged a “chance” meeting in the Mediterranean, at which the Frenchman issued an invitation to Paris that Edward could not diplomatically refuse.
On May Day, Edward VII duly arrived in Paris and was whisked away from the railway station through crowds calling out “vive Fashoda!”. The fear of assassination was real.
That same evening, he went to the theatre. In the past, Edward had often been applauded by Parisians when taking his seat, especially if he was accompanied by a well-known mistress. Now, though, his arrival was met by virtual silence.
In the interval, he wandered into the foyer and bumped into (quelle coincidence!) one of his former mistresses, an actress called Jeanne Granier. Knowing that ears were pricked up all around him, Edward told Mademoiselle Granier, in French, “I remember how I applauded you in London, where you represented all the grace and wit of France.”
Next day, this piece of theatrical dialogue was quoted in the press, and suddenly the Parisian crowds were cheering “vive Edouard!”
President Loubet, who needed the approval of his electorate to sign any treaty with “l’ennemi”, now felt confident enough to go to London in July 1903 – the first-ever visit by a French republican head of state. After that, the negotiators were able to start drafting the (less-than-idealistic) text that would make a war between Britain and France unthinkable.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that in one weekend of public appearances in Paris, it was Edward who opened the way for the signing of the Entente Cordiale and changed the course of European history. Fifty years later, the French clearly thought so.
Edward’s peace-making did not stop there. After 1904, he expended much of his remaining energy travelling all over Europe, not just to take the waters in a vain attempt to clear his lungs of tar, but also to calm his belligerent nephews Wilhelm and Nicholas. A desperately ill man, in March 1909 Edward undertook a state visit to Berlin where he suffered a blackout. He never really recovered, and his lungs stopped working in May 1910.
At a memorial ceremony in Cannes in 1912, future President of France Raymond Poincaré gave a moving speech in homage to Edward VII, saying he had made “the balance of European powers less unstable, and peace less precarious.” Poincaré went on: “France has conducted this policy of Entente since the death of Edward VII … France does not plan to attack or provoke any of its neighbours, but we are aware that, to avoid being attacked or provoked, we must maintain, both on land and sea, armed forces capable of protecting our honour and our interests.” In other words, with peacemaker Edward gone, the Entente Cordiale lived on but war was a real possibility.
When that war did come, it was thanks to the Entente Cordiale that the opposing sides were more or less on equal terms.