Edward Gibbon famously described history as: ‘little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’. This is an extremely bleak appraisal; could we not balance the hatreds of Hitler or Stalin with the love and wisdom of the Buddha or George Fox? Are the cruelties of many European revolutions not mitigated by the glories of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment? I am beginning this entry on Armistice Day, 11th November 2014, slightly more that a century after the outbreak of the Great War. In view of the date I find it very hard to argue with Gibbon.
Recently some very serious historians have been publicly debating two questions: was Great Britain right to go to war in 1914, and was the outcome of the war worth the colossal sacrifice? Visit any century-old cemetery in Britain and you will find that grave after grave is inscribed with the words ‘killed in action in France’. The most superficial knowledge of the death, misery, and destruction endured by those who experienced the fighting ensures that it is difficult now even to take these two historical questions seriously. The Allies may have won the war but Wilfred Owen MC, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon MC, and the other war poets have surely won any subsequent debate. Just in case the discussion which follows leads you to suppose that I regard the Great War, in any way, as a positive experience let me say immediately that my personal historical hero is protector Richard Cromwell who once said he would: ‘not have a drop of blood shed for the preservation of my greatness’.
In fact these two questions are an extreme example of a common historical conundrum. Do we judge historical figures, and their actions, by our standards or by the standards of their time? In so judging is it appropriate for historians to employ their knowledge of the consequences of the actions that historical figures took, consequences which were unforeseen and unforeseeable at the time? Great historical events frequently appear to be uncontrolled and hugely expensive in terms of human life. If you consider the enormous power that Napoleon Bonaparte enjoyed it is perfectly arguable that he succumbed very little to its misuse. How you feel about the Napoleonic period depends to what extent you are prepared to accept the consequential deaths of, say, 100,000 men for each year of his reign. Are emperors or nation states guilty or guiltless of such deaths? Is it really true, as Shakespeare’s Henry V would have it, that: ‘they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services’?
At the outbreak of war in 1914 the British Government and military authorities made several major mistakes which have long been obvious. They greatly underestimated the likely length of the conflict. They overestimated the capacity of the highly professional, but small, British land army to resist the huge, and extremely well led, forces of the German empire. They did not appreciate the advantages that defenders, protected by mounds of earth, had against attackers. The British Expeditionary Force’s first encounters at Mons and Le Cateau were fighting retreats with, in terms of what was to come, relatively light casualties. The first major battle of Ypres at the end of the year may have been a strategic allied victory, no German breakthrough occurred, but perhaps one third of the British regular army were casualties and some regiments were effectively destroyed. Could this outcome have been predicted? I don’t think it is simply being wise after the event to say that it could.
The American Civil War, fought slightly more than fifty years earlier, had anticipated many of the themes with which Great War soldiers became familiar. Confront large armies of infantry with equally large and brave formations, arm them with similar weapons, and the result will be huge casualties. Generals took time to fully understand the destructive potential of the new weapons that military technology made available in both conflicts. Several Civil War engagements demonstrated that defenders in prepared positions could resist almost any conceivable assault, and cavalry units often had to abandon their horses and sabres and fight as dismounted infantry. Simply feeding, clothing, and treating the wounded of both armies were mammoth tasks. Well over half a million soldiers died in the Civil War with disease accounting for two thirds of the casualties. What were the positive outcomes of the conflict? At its onset President Lincoln’s main war aim was to ‘preserve the union’. What must have been his mind was the break-up of the US into two or more competing blocks of armed states on a European model. The abolition of the hideous evil of slavery was not an original aim but was certainly achieved by the war. The question which you have to ask is whether both these outcomes were really worth half a million dead, and innumerable wounded, soldiers? In making your personal decision remember that Abraham Lincoln is accounted the greatest US president.
It seems improbable that any military leader in 1914 had fully learned the lessons of recent conflicts, not even the French and German governments who, after all, had fought each other in 1870-71. The Franco-Prussian war was relatively brief and individual battles were not appalling slogging matches in the mud but had movement, definite victors and clear results. In a tactical sense this war had pitted German, or technically Prussian, training and artillery against French massed rifle fire. No one seems to have asked what the outcome would be when all combatants had fully developed the potential of both these arms. The British army in August 1914 may not have learned the lessons that the American Civil War had taught but then neither had the US generals. When American armies later entered the war their troops suffered the same number of casualties in their first four hours fighting as in the whole D-Day landings.
The hostility of the French government to the German Empire was easily explained by the consequences of the Franco-Prussian war and the resulting loss of territory in Alsace and Lorraine. Naval, colonial, and trade rivalry provoked British suspicion. France and imperial Russia were linked by treaty and the German high-command appreciation was that to fight one was inevitably to fight both. Their plan was to defeat France quickly as they had in 1871 before turning on Russia. Fatally the attack on France involved the invasion of, and passage of troops through, neutral Belgium. Such an invasion was a matter of great moment to the British Government. Both Germany and Britain were guarantors of Belgium neutrality and in any case the British government, as during the Napoleonic era, were most unwilling for the Channel coast to be occupied by the greatest military power in Europe. Once Belgium was invaded could any British government have refused to declare war?
I find the concept of a policy of British passive neutrality inconceivable in view of the spirit of the times. Asquith’s government would have had to obtain the acceptance of the house of commons for such a policy, and then survive the general election that was planned for 1915. I cannot believe either event would have happened. Could the government have fought a purely naval and colonial war? Just possibly, but if the German navy had gone ahead with its bombardment of east coast English towns in December 1914 then total war would inevitably have followed. Once war broke out could more effective use have been made of the BEF? Probably not. The only military plan prepared was to place it on the left of the French Armies and to act in collaboration with the French. As you can see my view is that in August 1914 British involvement in the war was unavoidable and all the events up to first Ypres were inevitable, although they were not correctly predicted. This domino theory of events continued into 1915. The recruitments of new armies, the trial of one British set-piece attack at Neuve Chapelle and an attempt, now seen as a disastrous failure, to find a ‘back-door’ against the Central Powers at Gallipoli. These were all considered to be perfectly appropriate measures at the time. I think you could argue that it was not until the battle of the Somme in July 1916 that more competent generalship could have influenced the war’s progress, but I won’t continue to re-tell a sadly all too familiar story.
Were the results of the Great War worth the loss of men? Absolutely not. There were very few beneficial consequences of the war. Some central European states obtained their freedom from the fading Austro-Hungarian empire. In the UK the war probably hastened the emancipation of women and certainly stimulated the development of tank and aircraft technology. It may have done something to break down class barriers in British society and make voters less trusting of their political masters but these are trivial matters to set against a huge loss. In any case the war ended only with an armistice and the combatants would be fighting each other again within twenty years. The German attack plan did finally work and in one sense the Great War truly ended in May 1940.
As a result of the US supported rebuilding of Europe after the second World War I feel quite confident that western Europe has now joined Scandinavia and North America as regions where the constituent nation states will never again attempt to solve political disagreements by recourse to arms. This indirectly is a welcome consequence of the Great War but we must never forget what this development cost to bring about, and who paid for it in death, wounds, and blighted lives. You don’t need to be told that throughout the world there are still plenty of people who are perfectly content that: ‘blood is their argument’.