To be honest, I’ve been waiting for this video to become available, because I knew the debate was taking place. Here we have some serious big guns of the British history world taking dead aim at each other on the case of whether Britain should have gone to war in 1914. It is of course, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War (and I’m more and more convinced that this older term, is the correct description) so we will likely be talking about it a fair amount this year. So first do watch the video, it’s really outstanding, and then we’ll talk about it.
So, do I hear you ask, “What do I think?” I think the ‘cons’ win this one but, it’s very narrow and on points, rather , in fact, like the British cabinet itself in 1914.
The main reason for that is that the real causes of Britain going to war were specifically excluded from the debate. I say that because, while the British had won the naval race with the Kriegsmarine, it had ended a few years before, that race had all but forced the British to find allies in Europe, leading to the more or less secret alliances with France and Russia, who were, in fact, every bit as inimical to the British Empire as the Kaiserreich was. One thing it might be easier for us to realize, as Americans, than the British do today, is just how much they were in the catbird seat, and how much resentment that causes. I say that because the position of Edwardian Britain was not that different from post 1945 America’s.
And that’s the thing, in reality, while I’m not the historian that any one of these folks are (and I’ve read books by all of them and been impressed) what the yeas are proposing here is what we in America call isolationism, and we all know better, and I think they do as well. The problem is, those secret agreements were in place, and say what you will about those men, they were honorable men who did their best to keep their word. Should they have been abrogated , in say 1912 or 13? Yes, I think they should have been but inertia is a powerful force. Why else in 2014 does NATO exist, 25 years after the goal it was established to deal with was achieved, the end of the Soviet Union? Without those agreements, there would only have been the agreement with Belgium, and as they said Germany was also a signatory to that, and without the other agreements, that’s a weak cause for war.
As everybody kept saying here, Wilhelmine Germany wasn’t Nazi Germany, although some of the nascent seeds were there. Germany had a very strange dichotomy inherent in it. It was the most socialist state in Europe. (They weren’t kidding about our progressives either, ever wonder why our traditional pre-school, Kindergarten, has a German name?) Bismarck did this, as far as I know, to keep the population under control, and reasonably content. Layered on top of that though was a hereditary military caste the Jünkers, supposedly descended from the Teutonic knights. Combine that with the Groβgeneralstab (Great General Staff) controlling the military with little coordination with the civilian government, and you get an ugly mix.
And that brings us to one the problems here, the Germans were afraid of a two front war against France and Russia, and their calculations were that it would be better to hold on the eastern front against the Russians and knock France out and then turn and deal with the Russians, who were stronger in numbers, but much slower moving, and it was considered better to lose (temporarily) some farmground in East Prussia, than the Ruhr. It’s a valid calculation, the French in this period were wildly offensive minded, seeming to think that they lost in 1871 because of being on the defensive, and their plans were, in fact, to attack, recapture Alsace-Lorraine and continue on into the Ruhr.
And that was the reason for the famous Schlieffen Plan. The general staff working in a vacuum of its own creation knew that attacking through the Ardennes, and/or the Vosges Mountains was going to be slow and it was going to help the defenders a lot, and so their plan was to drive through the North German plain, where it was nice and flat, with hardly any terrain to impede their movement, that there were other, neutral countries there, well that was their problem wasn’t it?
And so the Schwerpunkt (the main concentration of force would be through Belgium into France to knock the French out of the war before the Russians could get mobilized and moving. It was hoped the British wouldn’t intervene. But as von Moltke the Elder had said, the plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy.
Part of that was that the Russians mobilized faster than expected and attacked into East Prussia, von Schlieffen had reduced strength there as far as he dared to strengthen the west, and the attack disconcerted von Moltke the Younger, Chief of the General Staff who had already diverted troops from the Schwerpunkt to counterattack in the Palatinate, he now diverted three infantry corps and a cavalry division to the eastern front, when he telephoned Ludendorff commanding there, Ludendorff was astonished and told him he didn’t have any use for them.
That is the background to the miracle of the Marne, where in truth the BEF did fight an outstanding battle to save France, but if the Germans had had those three corps, I doubt it would have mattered. It would have turned into Dunkirk in 1914, and the war would have been lost. In the last analysis, timidity in the Groβgeneralstab was the ultimate cause of Germany losing the war, and it was in 1914.
But, what then? Kaiser Wilhelm and his government, military and civilian, were no civil libertarians but, neither were they Hitler and his henchmen. France did, as Doctor Charmley states recover fairly quickly from the 1870 war, is there any real cause to think it would be different in 1914? The Ottoman Empire would have continued, and perhaps at least some of the problems which ensued from its demise in the middle east might have been avoided. A short war (even lost) might have enabled the Czar to continue ruling, Nicholas was slowly modernizing Russia.
But the original question was Britain, so what would have happened to her? Well, losing wars is expensive, but this one was even more expensive to win. In 1914 Britain was even more in charge of international banking than the United States is today, I don’t think that shock would have materially changed that, particularly since Britain was pretty much immune from anything Germany could do, if a peace was patched up. Bethmann-Hollweg may have had his shopping list, that doesn’t mean he was going to get all, or even most of it, at least as long as the Royal Navy said no. It was still true, as it had been in the Earl St. Vincent’s day when he said, “I don’t say they can’t come, I merely say they can’t come by sea“.Even without a peace, Britain had defeated Napoleon mostly by seapower and the blockade of Europe, I see no reason it wouldn’t have worked again. In fact, it did, in both world wars, Germany nearly starved. It might have led to the Empire turning into the Commonwealth earlier, and also the earlier loss of India, but I wouldn’t bet too much on that, it might have brought them together as well. Britain has always been at its best when it was not so involved in Europe.
And finally, the United States. I think we would have gone on being our presumptuous, provincial selves, not understanding our own strengths, until one fine day, we still would have had to save the day. When? I have no idea. Because without the Great War, the second world war is highly unlikely in the form we know it.
The British did the right, honorable thing in 1914. But that was because they had screwed up their policies before that, and they paid dearly, and still are for those pre-war mistakes.