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Sunday January 21 2007

Last night I attended the talk given by Patrick Crozier about the First World War, that I flagged up here.  Very good.  And very well received by a quite large gathering.

Key dates:

1890 Kaiser rips up, for no good reason, the treaty Germany has with Russia.  The treaty said, if Russia attacks Austria, Germany sides with Austria.  If Austria attacks Russia, Germany sides with Russia.  But after 1890 Germany doesn’t ever side with Russia.  This not unnaturally stirs it up with the Russians.

1905 Germany starts to build a fleet.  This stirs it up with the Brits.  Some Brits said build six dreadnoughts.  Others say build two dreadnoughts.  They compromise by building eight dreadnoughts.  (That was apparently a Winston Churchill quip.)

None of Germany, France or Britain behaved very sensibly.  Anyone wanting to stop the madness would have had a hard job knowing who to talk to, at the top of any of the three governments.  In discussion, Christian moaned about the French obsession with Alsace and Lorraine, and Philip Chaston moaned about how Lord Grey dragged us Brits into it, in secret.

As I said in my earlier posting re World War One, too many thought it would be a quick replay of the Franco-Prussian War.  Not enough realised that the American Civil war, longer and more destructive, was a better guide.

But, Haig, Kitchener and Von Moltke did see a long and destructive war as likely.  But they went ahead anyway.

Plus the public got a good kicking, for celebrating when war was declared, stirred up by national newspapers.

By the way, Von Moltke said that once mobilisation started it couldn’t be stopped, because of the train timetables.  But, this was a lie.

Christian said he now understood why Patrick was so keen on (a) WW1 and (b) railways.  Obvious, when you think about it.

Re this line “But, Haig, Kitchener and Von Moltke did see a long and destructive war as likely.  But they went ahead anyway.” is a non-sequiter. In 1914, Haig was the commander of 1 Corps at Aldershot, the professional head of the army was the CIGS, and French was chosen as the leader of the expeditionary force. In what way does Haig “go ahead anyway” ? Are you suggesting he should have resigned his commission ?

Haig becomes the commander of the expeditionary force after Loos in 1915, by which time the war is well underway. Certainly Haig was not one of the “home by Christmas” brigade, and he acknowledged the probability that the war would be attritional, as did Kitchener in so much as we really have any idea what K of K was thinking.

There seems little doubt that Germany wanted war, and started it quite deliberately with the aim of dominating Europe and surpassing Great Britain as a world power.  Although probably biased, I think it is a bit harsh to blame GB too much, Germany’s intentions were reasonably clear, european domination and a significant colonial empire that could only come from one country’s existing holdings. France was the target, and was it in GB’s interests to abandon her strategy of centuries in maintaining a balance of power in Europe ?

Complicating matters is of course the publically pacifistic face of the British administrations from 1905-6 on. This resulted in the unsatisfactory nature of the Entente, no one was certain that Britain would support France. Would Germany have embarked on war in the same way if they knew they would be defintely facing GB as well as France and Russia ? My thought is probably yes, but we don’t know. This too led to the awkward position of the British expeditionary force in 1914 especially. Because of the refusal to engage officially in any joint arrangements (it was left to Henry Wilson to, almost privately, set up arrangements that suited his views) Britain knew nothing of France’s plans and strategies, and could play no part in setting or modifying them. The disasterous, almost suicidally foolish strategy that France under the influence of generals like Foch arrived at might have been modified, but who can tell.

My summary, WW1 was primarily the responsibility of Germany, and both the Kaiser and his military advisors were the main protagonists. Although France and Great Britain did not act entirely as cleverly as they might, essentially the war was forced upon them. To have stood back from the war would have been ultimately worse for Great Britain, facing as it would have a Europe united under German hegemony with a strong desire to expand further. Britain could not have long withstood such an arrangement unless it was fully backed by the USA, which seems unlikely although possible. Once started, the course of the war ran almost as it had to, attrition was always going to be the way of the war, and the British high command were initially short on experience, but ultimately put together the best army which, in the end, won in 1918.

Posted by Ed Snack on 06 November 2007

Ed

Many thanks for that.

Presumably you got to this via Samizdata, and have seen all the commenting there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 06 November 2007
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