Great Britain

Great Britain/The United Kingdom

Historical Information
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Great Britain, also known as Britain, is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, off the north-western coast of continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world and the largest island in Europe. It is the third most populous island in the world, after Java (Indonesia) and Honshū (Japan). It is surrounded by over 1,000 smaller islands and islets. The island of Ireland lies to its west. Politically, Great Britain refers to the island together with a number of surrounding islands, which constitute the territory of England, Scotland and Wales.

The island is part of the sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, constituting most of its territory: most of England, Scotland and Wales are on the island of Great Britain, with their respective capital cities, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

The Kingdom of Great Britain resulted from the union of the kingdoms of England (comprising modern-day England and Wales) and Scotland in 1707. In 1801, the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland merged to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922 the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) seceded from the United Kingdom, leading to the British state being renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Great Britain lies on the European continental shelf to the northwest of Continental Europe and east of Ireland. It is separated from the continent by the North Sea and by the English Channel, which narrows to 34 kilometres (21 mi) at the Straits of Dover. It stretches over about ten degrees of latitude on its longer, north-south axis and occupies an area of 209,331 km2 (80,823 sq mi), excluding the smaller surrounding islands. The North Channel, Irish Sea, St George’s Channel and Celtic Sea separate the island from the island of Ireland to its west.

The second half of the 19th century saw a huge expansion of Britain’s colonial empire in Asia and Africa. In the latter continent, there was talk of the Union Jack flying from Cairo to Cape Town, which only became a reality at the end of World War I. Having possessions on six continents, Britain had to defend all of its empire with a volunteer army, for it was the only power in Europe to have no conscription. Some questioned whether the country was overstretched.

The rise of the German Empire since 1871 posed a new challenge, for it (along with the United States) threatened to take Britain’s place as the world’s foremost industrial power. Germany acquired a number of colonies in Africa and the Pacific, but Chancellor Otto von Bismarck succeeded in achieving general peace through his balance of power strategy. When William II became emperor in 1888, he discarded Bismarck, began using bellicose language, and planned to build a navy to rival Britain’s.

Ever since Britain had taken control of South Africa and the Bechuanaland Protectorate from the Netherlands in the Napoleonic Wars, it had run afoul of the Dutch settlers who further away and created two republics of their own. The British imperial vision called for control over the new countries and the Dutch-speaking “Boers” (or “Afrikaners”) fought back in the War in 1899–1902. Outgunned by a mighty empire, the Boers waged a guerilla war, which gave the British regulars a difficult fight, but weight of numbers, superior equipment, and often brutal tactics eventually brought about a British victory. The war had been costly in human rights and was widely criticised by Liberals in Britain and worldwide. However, the United States gave its support. The Boer republics were merged into Union of South Africa in 1910; it had internal self-government but its foreign policy was controlled by London and was an integral part of the British Empire.

The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfounded. The harsh peace settlement imposed on Germany would leave it embittered and seeking revenge.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson and French premier Georges Clemenceau made all the major decisions. The formed the League of Nations as a mechanism to prevent future wars. They sliced up the losers to form new nations in Europe, and divided up the German colonies and Ottoman holdings outside Turkey. They imposed what appeared to be heavy financial reparations (but with in the event were of modest size). They humiliated Germany by forcing it to declare its guilt for starting the war, a policy that caused deep resentment in Germany and helped fuel reactions such as Naziism. Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa, while its dominions added other colonies. Britain gained League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which had been partly promised as a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq. Iraq became fully independent in 1932. Egypt, which had been a British protectorate since 1882, became independent in 1922

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