If I were to propose that the politicians and generals in command during the Great War were inadequate, incompetent, and far too willing to accept enormous casualties, I do not imagine many would disagree. During the American Civil War generals like Grant and Lee were capable and civilised men, but the battles in which they fought, whether notionally victories for the Union or for the Confederacy, seem to many non-American observers to be a series of increasingly bloody stalemates. Abraham Lincoln was surely the most gifted US President, and perhaps the greatest leader of a democratic state. But with all his talents he could not find a solution to the crisis over slavery other than the violent destruction of the South.
When a historian, even an amateur historian, studies such events it is important not to interpret them in the light of knowledge subsequent to the time at which crucial decisions were made. The correct question from 1914 can never be ‘would Britain have gone to war with Germany if there had been foreknowledge of 3 million UK & Commonwealth casualties’. Evidently there could never have been such knowledge. The correct question must surely be ‘with treaty obligations to an ally in France, and following the violation of Belgian neutrality, would there ever have been a realistic possibility of Britain not becoming a combatant’. It may be an unfashionable position to take but, imagining living in the world in which the politicians and generals actually did live, the tragedy of the Great War is that once the dominoes started to fall, one after another, the leaders were largely powerless to stop them. Alliances, treaties, the military plans of long-dead generals, and even railway timetables, lent inevitability to their actions.
I should like to pose a hypothetical, and much less serious, evolving conflict situation. I would like to think there could be a fair and non-violent outcome to my hypothetical scenario, although I cannot find one myself. I hope someone will derive a better solution and contact me to explain it. In what follows we have Utopia which is a rich country whose citizens are subject to the rule of law. Ruritania, which is poorer, is a place where citizens still have considerable personal independence. The police and solicitors in Utopia have much the same role and powers as they do in the UK today. The Utopian religious sect of the Peacemakers have a tradition of absolute non-violence rather like the Quakers.
So, imagine. You have a large house and lovely garden in Utopia bought from Mr White a year earlier, and you have subsequently lived in it while working as a teacher. One day you come home from a short holiday to find the house unexpectedly occupied by a Ruritanian family who claim to be the owners. They refuse you access and indeed have changed the door locks. You, as a law-abiding citizen, contact the police who examine your house-deeds at a solicitor’s office and confirm that you are recorded as the house owner at the Utopian land registry. Rather unwillingly the Ruritanians allow a single police officer to enter the property.
The police officer establishes what the situation is from the new occupants point of view. The extended Ruritanian family claim to have purchased the house, for £250K, from a Mr Black whom they met in a pub. At first you are optimistic and feel that the situation should be resolved quickly since this pub transaction was clearly fraudulent. Unfortunately, from your position, this soon turns out not to be the case. The police report that the Ruritanians have been provided with house deeds that ‘look genuine enough’. They further state that in a bill of sale the purchase price has included all the household equipment, goods and even the clothing present in the house. The Ruritanians admit that they were aware that Mr Black was not the registered owner of the property but he promised them that he had only recently purchased it himself and that ‘the paperwork had not had time to go through’. The pub transaction may seem strange to Utopians but this is a common way to do business in Ruritania. Once a drink is taken together a deal is legally binding. In short the police say that both claimants to the house consider that they have bought it from persons stating that they were its rightful owner, and who indeed provided documentary evidence of ownership. Clearly only one claimant’s view can be well-founded, and that it is probably yours, but as it is a civil matter the police will not intervene to enable you to regain immediate access to your property.
You are very disturbed by this news but reluctantly set up camp in your garden to wait it out. You instruct a solicitor and eventually your civil claim comes to court. The arguments of both parties are rehearsed at length. The Ruritanian position is that they are now the occupiers of the house which they paid for with all their savings. If a wrong has been committed, they say, it is by Mr Black who did not pass the £250K that they themselves paid, to you. They insist that they consider themselves the legitimate owners of the house and under no circumstances will they vacate it. A solicitor, expert in property law, explains that in Ruritania the family would have quite a good case, but that here in Utopia house ownership has to be registered at the Land Registry before the house can be re-sold. For this reason the judge finds in your favour. The court is charitable and gives the Ruritanian family three months grace to vacate your property; you are disappointed by the delay but wait patiently in your tent. After three months nothing whatever has changed. The Ruritanians are still there, the police still won’t interfere in a civil matter, and when you go back to court you are disturbed to learn that the court has no mechanism to enforce its decisions. Finally it does give you legal permission to instruct bailiffs to enter and reclaim your property yourself.
Matters now take an ugly turn. After some weeks the bailiffs visit your property accompanied by a police officer. The doors and ground floor windows are barricaded. The occupants state vehemently that they will oppose any attempted entry with violence. Your solicitor explains that the situation is quite difficult. The bailiffs are understandably unwilling to put their lives at risk. The police are present to prevent ‘a breach of the peace’ but point out that no actual crime has been committed as yet and that they will not force entry themselves. The fact that the Ruritanians can be heard inside the house shouting ‘we reject the judgement, we appeal the judgement, we will have our voice heard in the highest court in the land’ could be taken as evidence that they are willing to engage further in the legal process. Personally you doubt this.
A further three months now pass and no formal appeals to the courts have been made by the Ruritanians. It is probably now clear to even the most optimistic that they will never voluntarily leave your house. They have stated to the press that even if their money was returned they would never vacate since ‘the house is theirs by right’. In point of fact Mr Black has quite understandably vanished off the face of the earth and there is no obvious source for £250K to pay off the occupiers, even if they would accept compansation. With no Ruritanian assets available to seize it is difficult for the court to enforce its judgements. Perhaps they really don’t try very hard since, after all, it is ‘only a house’ and no lives are at risk.
You are finally contacted by a right-wing Utopian anti-Ruritanian organisation who offer to ‘get them out’ for you. Against your better judgement your agree to accept their help, strongly influenced by the fact that there are no other offers of assistance being made. You, accompanied by a gang of armed AR supporters, turn up at the house one night. Seemingly the word has spread since surrounding the house is a large crowd of Freedom For Ruritanian Residents activists, also armed. Things get very nasty indeed. There are shouts and threats from both sides. FFRR people throw stones; AR men throw them back. An AR activist hits an opponent with a iron bar, following which two AR supporters are injured by FFRR clubs. The situation has spiralled quite beyond the capacity of two unarmed policemen to control it. They call for assistance. Finally a shot rings out from the FFRR side but misses any target. Two AR activists return fire and an FFRR supporter falls to the ground injured but fortunately not killed. People on both sides take concealed firearms out of their pockets; any minute now there will be deaths, perhaps many deaths.
Into this highly volatile and dangerous situation a Peacemaker very bravely intrudes. ‘This is a house’, she shouts, ‘simply bricks and mortar; it is not worth dozens of lives and all the blood that will be shed tonight’. There is a confused mutter from the two crowds. ‘I beg those of you, on both sides, who have guns to leave now’. Impelled by her personality those with guns do actually start to leave slowly. ‘I now beg those of you with sticks and knives to leave’. People so armed do actually start to vacate the garden and follow those with guns. ‘Now everyone else please go quietly back to your homes’. Amazingly everyone does leave and within ten minutes the whole place is deserted. You are now standing in the area which once had been your flower garden. A few yards away the Peacemaker is being profusely thanked by the police for preventing what might have easily become a blood bath and an ambulance is taking away the injured. You are obviously happy that deaths and injury have been prevented but, as you start to hear the sounds of corks popping and bursts of inconsequential singing coming from inside the house where you once lived happily, you cannot help but have some unhappy thoughts.
You feel you are a reasonable man. You accept that probably the Ruritanians do honestly believe that they own the house, or if they have any lingering doubts about the transaction they are so deeply suppressed as to be never admitted. The Ruritanians, you feel, perhaps never really admitted the jurisdiction of the Utopian court and almost certainly there was never any realistic possibility of their obeying any judgement that went against them. That being the case enforcing the court’s decision would never be easy particularly against people prepared to use every delaying tactic available, and then to ‘die in the last ditch’ rather than give in. Entering the house forcibly was an action the liberal and civilised Utopian authorities were reluctant to take. Such a step might have got you your house back, but after injury and possibly death. In despair you accepted help from some of the nastiest elements in Utopian society. Due the courage of a Peacemaker this failed on the one occasion it was tried. Might it succeed in the future, and if so at what cost? The Peacemaker tells you that abandoning your claim to your house would prevent violence and will lead to ‘treasure in heaven’. This might be a popular solution in the community but no one has suggested offering you compensation in this world. What is certain is that you bought the house fairly with your own money that you had earned. You have told no lies and you cheated nobody. When deprived of the house you followed the correct Utopian legal process and the court, after hearing all the evidence, decided in your favour. Yet here you are outside the house, in the ruin of your garden, in the rain. You reflect bitterly on what George Orwell once said: ‘the quickest way to stop a war is to lose it’.