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Tuesday January 09 2007

I have just had supper with Patrick Crozier and we fixed to do a podcast, in about a month’s time, concerning the First World War.

Towards the end of our evening together, I read out to Patrick the following remarkable passage from one of my favourite books about the causes of war, called, not unsurprisingly, The Causes of War (1973), by the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey.  Here is what Blainey says (on pp. 209-211 of my 1977 Macmillan paperback edition), about the remarkable Ivan Bloch:

imageThe belief that future wars would be short became a dogma, but it was not completely ascendant. The most withering attack on the dogma was made by, of all people, a banker who lived in the Russian-ruled city of Warsaw.  When Ivan S. Bloch issued in 1897 and 1898 a six-volumed work on war, his voice at first seemed like a frog in a backwater, croaking at the hoot of a passing steamer.  Here was a businessman, telling strategists what to expect.  He suggested that the next major war in Europe would be a long and murderous siege. He envisaged huge unwieldy armies spread along an enormous front and firing with such speed and accuracy that the survivors had to find shelter in trenches.  ‘It will be a great war of entrenchments,’ he said.  ‘The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle.  The first thing every man will have to do, if he cares for his life at all, will be to dig a hole in the ground.’ The gap between the two entrenched armies would be so pierced by bullets that no army could hope to storm the enemy’s trenches.  In the words of a French captain he quoted, the front line would be a ‘belt of a thousand paces swept by a crossfire of shells which no living being can pass.’ Neither side would win that monstrous battle.  While the stalemate continued in the trenches, the civilian population would suffer.  Food would become scarce, prices would rise, morale in the cities would quake.  Peace would eventually come, Bloch predicted, through famine and socialist or anarchist upheavals, leaving no nation with victory.

As a scholar of warfare, Ivan Bloch was a genius.  His must have been one of the most remarkable predictions ever made in the field of human behaviour.  So many events of the Great War – the muddy trenches of Flanders and Galicia, the millions of casualties, the socialist revolutions in Russia, the overthrow of the Russian and Austrian and German monarchies, the scarce victories on the battlefield - were consistent with his predictions.  Above all he predicted a calamitous and long war: that he should have designated a war lasting at least two years as ‘a long war’ was a sign of the prevailing faith that future wars would last only a few months.

In making these predictions Bloch culled his evidence from the same recent wars which had persuaded others to see the short war as inevitable. Whereas others had plucked from the Franco-Prussian war the simple lesson that modern wars were decisive and short, Bloch observed more the revolution which broke out during the indecisive siege of Paris in 1870-1.  Whereas others simply marvelled at the swiftness of the Russian victory over the Turks in 1877, Bloch observed how the hasty Turkish entrenchment at Plevna, near the Danube, had thwarted the Russian invaders for several months.  But there were sharper differences between Bloch and most other analysts of war.  He did not believe that past wars were a reliable guide to a future war between major European powers.  A major war in Europe, he believed, would probably involve Russia and France on the one side and Germany, Austria and Italy on the other.  As each alliance had about five million fighting men and as their armaments were similar and as their frontiers were heavily fortified and as military techniques now favoured the defenders, neither alliance would have sufficient strength to break through the opposing defences.  ‘The war of the future, whatever may be said, will be a struggle for fortified positions, and for that reason it must be prolonged.’ Bloch also believed that another set of influences would ultimately intervene and terminate the war.  Those influences were economic.  Famine and inflation would set in more quickly and devastatingly than in previous wars, for the economy of Europe had changed. The economic changes would be most effective, he argued, in a general war, for nations would be unable to borrow gold and food because of the lack of lenders.  In the Europe of mass armies, he argued, ‘you cannot feed your people and wage a great war’.

The other example that was there for all to see was the 1864-5 Virginia campaign, where Lee was able to drag out a completely hopeless losing position for an extra year by digging holes in the ground. Casualty rates at Spotsylvania (look up “Bloody Angle") were not unlike single day losses at the Somme.

I defy any half-informed modern reader to read about it and not think “oh my god, this is the Western Front come fifty years early”. European generals completely ignored it, I assume because whatever colonial amateurs like Lee and Grant did couldn’t possibly have any relevance to them in their professional brilliance.

Posted by Alan Little on 09 January 2007

The Boer War took a little longer than the British intended at the start, too.

But yes, I agree with Alan. I think the American Civil War was the real first war of the new era.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 09 January 2007

Lee was amazing. He was the last brilliant “Napoleonic” style general, winning lots of battles in the early years of the war by out-manoeuvring his enemy. That stopped working at Gettysburg, where it became apparent that, given modern rifles, trying to charge a well-prepared enemy across open ground just got you massacred.

Learning from that, Lee then invented trench warfare and used it to hold off an overwhelmingly superior enemy for almost another two years.

On the wrong side, but a genius.

Posted by Alan Little on 09 January 2007

Amen to all that.  I just thought that it was particularly interesting to note that there was at least one European who, apparently, foresaw WW1 on the basis, apparently, of purely European events.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 09 January 2007

The other huge American thing that too many Europeans didn’t seem to get was that if Europe fought too fiercely against itself, it would forfeit its position of global supremacy, far more quickly than would have happened otherwise.  Both sides in WW1 seemed to take it for granted that the prize for winning was world leadership.  (In the British case continued world leadership.) Wrong.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 09 January 2007

Trench warfare was independently invented (and overlooked elsewhere) multiple times in the mid- and late- 19th Century.
It’s interesting that New Zealand based it’s requirements for war planning in the 1910s on the experience of loss rates in the Russo-Jap war - and got it about right.

Posted by Errol on 10 January 2007

Hey Bri ,

This is Simon Lau ex Libertarian UK , friend of Dave Carr & Tom Burroughs . Maybe you remember me ?

Why not a forum ? instead of this blog BS ?

Posted by Simon Lau on 14 January 2007

This is just “Survivor bias” unless Mr Bloch can be shown to have made other successful unconventional predictions. If enough people write books about future War (and that was a big literary subject then), at least a few will get it right by pure chance.

On top of that, it was not the American Civil War which inaugurated “Modern” warfare, but WWI. It is clearly explained in “Supplying War” by Martin van Cleveld, that it was not until WWI that the nature of the logistic needs of armies changed.

Posted by Frederick Davies on 26 February 2009

Frederick Davies (thanks for the comment!)

Yes, but he did get it right, didn’t he?  And he didn’t do this by “pure chance”.  He did it by observing those Turks and their trenches.

As for “modern”, this just an argument about what the word means.  If you mean trenches, wire and very high casualties over a long period, then the US Civil War was modern.  If you mean something more modern than the US Civil War, e.g. involving logistics, then it wasn’t.  Although I would say the the Civil War was also logistically pretty modern.  Certain it was very industrial.

Also, why, if you make one successful prediction, does that not count, unless you make others also?

If you are arguing that Bloch said lots of stuff, most of it tosh, that would be an argument for retrospective selection, but you lumped in everyone else.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 26 February 2009

Warburg was a German banker and industrialist, head of M.M. Warburg & Co. To the Kaiser he said, “Germany will become stronger with every year of peace. Waiting can bring us only advantage.” Warburg was forced out of the next business he built. Had he remained on its board, according to new Nazi laws, it would be a Jewish business, and destroyed.

Rathenau was a German industrialist and electrical-engineer, head of the General Electricity Co. He could see, he said, “no reason for an international war.” Rathenau was assassinated in 1922, shot five times by the Freikorps with a submachine gun.

Ballin was a German shipping magnate and inventor of the cruise liner, head of the Hamburg-America Line. To the Chancellor he said, “I have spent my entire life building up something which has been of immense value to the German Reich, and then you come along with a couple of others and destroy it all.” Ballin’s employees numbered 25,554. He lost almost half to the war. Killed himself at its end.

And Stinnes, German banker and industrialist, established the Union Mining Company in 1914 in Doncaster, to bring German technology to British coalfields, and bring the two countries together.

Businessmen, in other words, knew how bad it would be. Rothschild predicted a “hideous struggle” and “European conflagration,” that “the calamity would be greater than anything ever seen or known before.”

It was the poets and playwrights who got the First World War wrong.

Posted by Charles on 28 February 2009
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