Today is the anniversary, in 1904, of the signature in London of the series of agreements known as the Entente Cordiale ("cordial understanding") between the French Republic and Great Britain which formally ended the European rivalry between the two countries that largely defined 18th and 19th Century Europe.
Although neither the entente cordiale nor the later Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 were, on paper anyway, military alliances, they turned out to be so in fact. These agreements, particularly the entente cordiale, had immense geopolitical implications. The real target of all this treaty making and good feeling was, of course, Imperial Germany. As long as Bismarck remained German chancellor, the guiding principle of German foreign policy was to keep the new German Empire's number one enemy -- France -- diplomatically isolated. The Germans kept the French on ice by bending over backwards to keep on good terms with the Russian Empire (despite disputes in the Balkans) and by avoiding antagonism of Britain.
The new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, fired Bismarck in 1890. For a lot of reasons, it was time to fire Bismarck, but the Kaiser really blundered when he let the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapse -- and gave the French their diplomatic opening. In 1892, the French concluded an alliance with Russia (actually a military convention) -- hemming-in the Germans on two sides.
Still, the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian ally were more than a match for France and Imperial Russia. But Kaiser Wilhelm moved on from losing the Russians to alienating the British: he was entirely too chummy with Britain's enemies in the Second Boer War; and he backed Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz's mad scheme to build a really big German Navy. It was not so much that the German Emperor really sought a serious quarrel with Britain, he simply confused bumptious nationalism with foreign policy.
Quite naturally, the British got interested in better relations with Germany's enemy France and France's new Russian friend. The Entente Cordiale constituted the first fruits of better relations with France, and in 1907, Britain tidied-up its often acrimonious relations with Russia through the Anglo-Russian Convention of that year. None of this amounted to any kind of formal military alliance as far as the British were concerned, but staff-talks with the French and closer and closer cooperation between all three powers followed. . .
When Gavrilo Princip supplied the match on that terrible day in Sarajevo, all the old powers, tied into blocs by treaties, collectively riven by old and new hatreds -- exploded and went down together. Tirpitz's big fleet did the Germans no good: the British choked Germany's imports anyway. Russia's loyalty to its treaty with France did them no good: the Tsars and the Russian Empire went down too. France's Entente Cordiale and later alliance with Britain probably saved it in 1914 and 1917 -- at the cost of a whole generation of young men. Find their monument at Verdun.
As for the British, they got to see the Germans go down, at the cost of a million dead and the bankruptcy of their Empire. The signer of the Entente Cordiale for Britain, the Marquess of Lansdowne, destroyed himself politically in 1917 by publishing a letter correctly arguing that continuing the war would destroy civilization, and calling for a negotiated peace. The British and French alliance, at the end, was bailed-out by the United States, brought forward to take a world role the country neither wanted nor was suited for. The real winners of the First World War were the radicals and crazies: Nazis, other loons of various stripes, Communists.
But this day in 1904, all that was in the future. In London, Lord Lansdowne, and the French Ambassador, M. Paul Cambon, signed their papers, and no doubt adjourned for some good champagne. Just a month later, in Bohemia, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand's wife, Sophie, gave birth to their third child. Both mother and father had a date with murderers in Sarajevo. Meanwhile, all unknowing, millions of others (busy in the streets, fields and schools of Europe and America) while Lansdowne and Cambon did their business, had horrible dates of their own.