As the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I approaches, I think it’s time we reviewed some popular myths associated with “the war to end all wars”. Some of these myths we learnt from Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh, What a Lovely War! Others we learnt from idle chatter and assumption. Most shamefully, we learnt some of them in our classrooms.
I will address a number of myths in the lead up to the anniversary of the start of the war, and the first I wish to discuss is the idea that Britain was somehow spoiling for a fight with Germany. This was the impression we could not help but get from the Year 9 history lessons that introduced us to World War I. We were left with the impression that decades of British worries over the rising economic power of Germany had left its political classes believing that a war was the only way to secure Britain’s supremacy. Hence the dreadnought arms race and Britain leaping into the conflict in that fateful August of 1914. Hundreds of thousands died, we were left believing, in the name of Britain’s prestige and money, nothing more. And, of course, because of this desperation to secure British power, the war was therefore all Britain’s fault.
I will come on to Britain’s reasons for entering the war later when I consider whether the war was justified or not. As for the impression that Whitehall was determined to have a war, nothing could be further from the truth: in the years before 1914, Britain’s leaders were far from desperate for a war with Germany. The situation can be compared to the current relationship between America and China. Germany was a rival, but not an enemy. Their monarchs, George V and Wilhelm II, were related by blood as grandsons of Queen Victoria. True, Germany’s growing economic and industrial power threatened to encroach on Britain’s trade, but which nation has ever not worried about another state growing larger and reducing its cash flows? No one in Britain seriously suggested that this should be resolved by war. Germany might have the economy, but through the Royal Navy and its merchant fleet, Britain had the trade routes. Britain’s overseas trade with its colonies ran to almost 37% whilst Germany’s ran to about 0.5%. Britain had a merchant fleet of 12 million tons whilst Germany lagged with 5.2 million tons.
Britain did build up its dreadnought fleet to match Germany’s (even though the dreadnought arms race was an obscenely stupid strategic move by Germany, but one that I will consider later), just as today America deploys more and more of its warships to the Pacific, but does anyone seriously suggest that this is a sign that America wants a war with China? Only the most demented on the furthest political fringes (read: Republicans) insist that America should use military means against the Chinese. Then as now, naval expansion was to ensure freedom of the seas, protect trade, and reassure allies.
Even though in 1914 the "Invasion Literature" genre was still going strong and churning out endlessly lurid tales of Britain being taken over by a foreign power, Britain’s policy-makers were disdainful: In 1910, Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman denounced William Le Queux’s sensationalist, Germanophobic epic The Invasion of 1910 as “calculated to inflame public opinion abroad and alarm the more ignorant public at home.” If I were to profess today that Tom Clancy’s technothriller epic The Bear and the Dragon is a sign that America is determined to destroy China, I would be laughed off the blogosphere.
As the first decade of the Twentieth Century went on it became increasingly clear that a war between Germany and France was becoming a matter of when not if: Kaiser Wilhelm was making increasingly provocative and erratic moves. The defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War had exposed the fatal weaknesses of Nicholas II’s empire, and brought with it the possibility that if war began, France might have to fight without a continental ally. Seeing a potential crack in the Franco-Russian Alliance, which for so long they had sought to overcome (which I will discuss later when seeking to determine the question of war guilt), the Germans threw a sensational challenge at France’s feet with the Moroccan Crisis. Wilhelm himself made a bombastic appearance in Tangier and declared his support for Moroccan independence. This was an unforgivable assault on the integrity of France as a great power, which had colonial interests in the area, and war seemed likely as the French foreign minister took a hawkish line against his German counterpart. Tensions were only defused when the French Prime Minister refused to support the foreign minister, who was forced to resign over the issue.
France’s isolation was clear to Britain’s military chiefs, and with Germany’s aggressiveness in mind, the Committee of Imperial Defence conducted a wargaming exercise that posited a German invasion of France. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War had left France without an easily defensible natural frontier, so they had compensated by building a line of massive fortresses along the border with Germany. Thus Germany’s invasion corridor was clear: it would sweep through Belgium to encircle the French armies massing on the German frontier. The wargame concluded that there was little chance of the Belgians stopping the Germans unless British forces “arrived on the scene quickly and in strength.”
Belgium, so agreeably flat and split by only a handful of major rivers, makes for such an ideal manoeuvring ground for armies that decisive battles in nearly every major European war for five hundred years have been fought there. Many of Marlborough’s greatest victories were won there when it was held by the Habsburgs. The French Revolutionary Wars began there at Jemappes and the Napoleonic Wars ended there at Waterloo. So many battles had been fought there that it had become known as “the cockpit of Europe”. One of the greatest achievements of one of Britain’s greatest Foreign Secretaries, Lord Palmerston, was to engineer the neutrality of Belgium in the 1839 Treaty of London, and through this Europe was kept mostly peaceful. No power would risk bringing all the signatories of the treaty down on it by violating Belgium neutrality. Even during the Franco-Prussian War, Moltke the Elder and Bismarck had eagerly assured William Gladstone that not a single German soldier would march across Belgian soil.
It was thus a matter of Britain’s honour that it act to defend Belgian neutrality against a German invasion. This was far from its only reason, however. I have seen it proclaimed by certain left-wing commentators that this determination to fulfil treaty obligations was nothing more than a face-saving exercise for the elites. These people apparently see nothing wrong with not fulfilling solemn covenants; I wonder if they think the same thing about political party manifestos, but I digress. Beyond the question of honour, however, there were compelling strategic and economic reasons for Britain to act to ensure an independent Belgium and a territorially-secure France, but I will come onto these in my next blog, when I consider whether Britain’s intervention in the war was just or not.
High-level talks thus began between the heads of Britain and France’s respective staff colleges: Brigadier General Henry Wilson and General Ferdinand Foch. Wilson’s room in the War Office was reportedly dominated by a huge map of Belgium detailing likely German routes of march. By the spring of 1914, the British and French General Staffs had made their plans for a British deployment to the continent so thoroughly that individual seats in railcars had been assigned for officers. The six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force would guard the Entente’s flank as French forces stormed into Alsace and Lorraine.
Such detailed, high-level planning seems fairly damning. From this, surely we should judge that Britain and France had joint plans to attack Germany as early as 1910? Actually, no, we should not. Such contingency planning is the job of general staffs. We would find it odd if staffs did not make plans for potential war scenarios, both realistic and unrealistic. As the Moroccan Crisis had proved, a war begun by Germany with a violation of Belgian territory was a distinctly realistic prospect. Furthermore, Britain’s involvement in these war plans was contingent on there being no violation of Belgian neutrality before a potential aggressor did so: Britain would tolerate no first strike. “Never, no matter what pretext,” Lord Esher, chairman of Britain’s War Committee, warned Major Huguet, the French military attaché in 1911, “let the French commanders be led into being the first to cross the Belgian frontier!” If they did, the British people would never accept an alliance with them. In fact, in the August of 1914, the French Army actually made a ten-kilometre withdrawal from the frontiers so as not to be the aggressor.
Furthermore, the Cabinet of Herbert Asquith was deeply split over the possibility of being dragged into a war by France. The British Army was in fact expressly forbidden to base field exercises around a German enemy. Asquith so feared his government shattering over an alliance with France that the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was forced to seek a written agreement of “no commitment” with the French in 1912. The agreement stated that the joint planning left both Britain and France free to decide “whether or not to assist each other by armed force”, and to “take into consideration” the plans and then “decide what effect should be given them.” This placated the anti-War Liberals in the Cabinet as Britain was not “committed”, and ironically enough, also pleased the French, as Britain had acknowledged the existence of the joint plans.
As late as August 1914, however, when troop trains in Germany, Russia, Austria and France were already moving, there was a real fear that a declaration of war on Germany would shatter the Liberal government. The Cabinet vacillated endlessly over the first weekend of August, unable to answer either the German ambassador’s demand for a guarantee of British neutrality, or the French ambassador’s demand for aid. Though Asquith, Winston Churchill, and David Lloyd George were prepared to fight with France, there was no possibility of them carrying the Cabinet: Until Belgian neutrality was violated, it utterly refused to countenance war. Even after the British government knew that Belgian soil had been violated by Germany, its final ultimatum on August 4th asked only for German troops to vacate Belgium, and Britain would stay neutral. In the event, the Germans refused, and at midnight on August 4th, Britain was at war with Germany. Even then, anti-war feeling made itself felt: two radical ministers, Sir John Simon and Lord Beauchamp, resigned over the decision.
To summarise, there was little desire for a war with Germany in Britain in the 1900s and early 1910s. If the British Army had contingency plans, then it is only because making such plans is the job of general staffs. Even as they stared into the abyss in August 1914, the British government did all it could to ensure Britain’s neutrality.
Across the Channel, however, in the palaces of the Kaiser and the planning rooms of the German General Staff, things were very different, which will bring us on to my next blog, which will ask the question; who really was responsible for the war?
Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock
Saul David, 100 Days to Victory
Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914
John Keegan, The First World War
Simkins, Jukes and Hickey, The First World War: The War to End all Wars
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August