The Neutral Ally

Norway is at times referred to as "The Neutral Ally". During World War I, while theoretically a neutral country, British pressure and anti-German sentiment in the population enabled the government to highly favour Britain in matters concerning the large Norwegian shipping fleet and vast fish supplies. The term was coined by Norwegian historian Olav Riste in the 1960s.

In 1905, when Norway gained independence, the nation's politicians agreed that in matters of international conflict, Norway should remain neutral. Since the Great Powers had no desire for unrest in Scandinavia, they signed an agreement respecting Norway's neutrality. Still, the political direction was clear: fearing Russian ambition in the north, the sentiment was that Norway should be neutral if war broke out, and rely on help from Great Britain if attacked.

This affinity westwards was substantiated by international trade. In the early 1900s, Norway's merchant fleet was one of the largest in the world, and the country required vast supplies of oil, coal and steel to build and operate it. When war broke out in 1914, Norway was exporting great amounts of fish to Germans and British alike, much to the dismay of the British Government. The Allies started preventing the Germans from purchasing these fish stocks by overbidding them, but trade in other areas continued. Imports of Norwegian copper ore, nickel and pyrite were vital to the German war industry, and by the end of 1916, Norway's Government was put under heavy pressure. Several agreements were made, none completely satisfying to the British.

On Christmas Eve 1916, the British issued an ultimatum, informing the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Nils Claus Ihlen, that British exports of coal to Norway would cease unless trade with Germany stopped. The Norwegian Government felt they had no option but to comply with the demand. This coincided with Germany's expansion of unrestricted submarine warfare in the beginning of 1917. In total, 436[1] Norwegian ships were sunk in the period 1914–1917, out of 847 in the course of the whole war. More than 1150 sailors died during this period,[2] creating an increasingly anti-German sentiment throughout the shipping nation of Norway.

Thus, both commerce and political sympathies tied Norway and Britain together during World War I – even though Norway would officially remain neutral.


Further reading

  • Frey, Marc. "The neutrals and World War One," Forsvarsstudier no. 3 (2000) pp 4–39 online
  • Haug, Karl Erik. "Norway", in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, et al. (Freie Universität Berlin, 2016). online
  • Riste, Olav. The Neutral Ally: Norway's relations with belligerent powers in the First World War (1995)

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