Friday 10 January 2014

Suppressing Fire

Lions Led By Donkeys: In the classical image of World War I, Allied soldiers go "over the top". The Right are desperate to rehabilitate the elites whose decisions led to the deaths of 21 million human-beings. A close examination of the "Why?" of World War I, however, suggests that, contrary to 100 years of historical self-justification, those primarily responsible for the greatest disaster of the past century were France, Russia and, yes, Great Britain.
THE BRAYING of Tory asses in Britain inevitably elicits an answering cacophony of hee-hawing from New Zealand’s own conservative community. It is, therefore, only a matter of time before one or more of our right-wing commentators picks up on the historical inanities of British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and repeats them here.
On 2 January The Daily Mail published an article by Mr Gove entitled “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” Billed as a series of “damning questions” to his socialist opponents, Mr Gove’s piece was actually a crude attempt to characterise all criticism of his Government’s plans to paint the First World War as a just, honourable and ultimately successful conflict as evidence of “at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion […] to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”
Mr Gove’s is but the first shot in the “History Wars” of 2014 and beyond. Like the First Word War, whose centenary we will commemorate in August, the struggle to define the truth about the most important event of the past 100 years promises to be prolonged, bitter and exceptionally costly to all concerned.
New histories of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War are constantly appearing in the nation’s book shops – and many more will follow. This is only fitting, because New Zealand paid an extraordinarily high price in blood and shattered lives for its privileged status as Britain’s far-flung farm.
The number of New Zealanders killed in the war was 18,052, with a further 41,317 wounded. The war dead represented 1.64 percent of the New Zealand’s 1.1 million population. Of the English-speaking countries participating in the war, only the United Kingdom paid a higher price.
Most of the new histories will be devoted to re-examining the campaigns in which New Zealanders were engaged (Gallipoli being the most traversed). Some will focus upon the battlefield contributions of New Zealand’s military commanders; while others will study the diaries and letters of ordinary soldiers to present a participant’s-eye-view of the conflict.
Very few New Zealand historians, however, will venture beyond the Who? What? When? and Where? of First World War history and into the dangerous territory of Why? It is across the field of the conflict’s causes; of its participants’ motives and conduct; and of their ultimate objectives; that Mr Gove and his ilk will direct their most deadly suppressing fire.
On “our” side, the First World War became the occasion for the most extraordinary propaganda campaign ever undertaken by the English-speaking peoples. Germans were transformed: from the civilised citizens of a modern state (enjoying more democratic rights than the British) they became the pitiless “Huns” – ravishers of women, bayoneters of babies.
So virulent was the propaganda of the First World War that when, in the 1930s and 40s, news of genuine German atrocities and the genocide of European Jewry leaked out to the West, the authorities – remembering the lies of 1914-1918 – dismissed it as crude misinformation.
There was, of course, a very good reason why the United Kingdom worked so hard to demonise the Germans during the war, and, when it ended, were so insistent that Germany accept the “War Guilt Clause” of the Versailles Treaty.
It was done so that the people of Britain and of her loyal Dominions would never be willing to accept the fact that it was France and Russia who masterminded the outbreak of war in 1914: or that the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, knew what was happening, but, in order to shatter the military and economic power of Germany and safeguard the British Empire from future Russian encroachment, he did nothing to prevent it.
There can be little doubt that, had Grey intervened, the war could have been prevented. The stark and unspeakable truth, however, was that Grey and the British Prime Minister, Asquith, didn’t want to prevent it. Germany was regarded as a threat and Britain was only too willing to let France (a vengeful army masquerading as a country) and Russia (a feudal autocracy masquerading as a modern state) tear her to pieces.
Once Russia ordered a general mobilisation, only France could call it back; and the only power capable of persuading France to call it back was Britain.
The First World War was “our” fault.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 January 2014.


Victor said...

An excellent piece, Chris.

I'm in substantial agreement with you although I think you might be underplaying the degree of muddle in all the chancelleries of Europe as the point of no return approached.

For all the tragedy of the events under discussion, I was mildly amused by the ridiculous Gove's rhetorical assault on the lefties he claims are responsible for occluding the justice of the allied cause. Since when was Niall Ferguson a leftie?

By the way, my mother was born in Antwerp in July 1914. She was very premature and had to be rushed to Brussels for incubation. And, by the time, she came out of the incubator, the hospital was being bombarded by the guns of Krupp.

She and a number of other babies were rescued by the personal intervention of King Albert of the Belgians, who sent his car over for that purpose. A version prevalent in my family is that the monarch personally accompanied them.

My father had been born six months earlier in Lodz in what was then Russian Poland. The city was an important industrial center and (just like Brussels) very close to Germany's frontiers. And so it was occupied at a very early point in the conflict.

Of course, the city was occupied again by German forces in 1939, with infinitely greater savagery. As far as I've been able to find out, none of my father's family who remained there survived the ensuing years.

In a couple of weeks time, I'll be marking the centenary of my Dad's birth. And, obviously, I'll be doing the same for my Mum in July.

They were both born at the very start of a horrendous age of war, tyranny and atrocity that reverberated around the world.
Let us hope that no subsequent generation has to face anything remotely comparable.

Chris Trotter said...

Amen to that, Victor.

Your story has a haunting quality that sends shivers up my history-loving spine.

Europe truly is a very old and a very dark place.

Davo Stevens said...

Europe was built on wars. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles, Italians hate Yugoslavs and the Sth Africans hate the Dutch. And I don't like anybody very much! At least that's what the quirky song says anyway!

The French are Romanised Germans (the Franks came from the old Roman province of Germania).

If you follow the lingistics, most of the people in north/central Europe are of Germanic origin including the Russians. The common Germanic cognates are all the way through the languages there.

Effectively the two wars last century were civil ones and civil wars are particularly nasty.

The first casualty of any war is the truth and when politics gets involved, it gets very dirty!

Victor said...

I think we would be fooling ourselves if we were to conclude that Europe is unique in being built on wars or in being filled with internecine hatreds. It's the human condition.

World War Two, by my reckoning, started in 1937, when Japan invaded China, imposing huge suffering on millions of Chinese.

And, by the way, the heritage of those terrible years is still with us, in the form of two mighty nations that behave towards each other, much as France and Germany did before 1914.

Anonymous said...

What a load of revisionist nonsense.
This is nothing more than the standard socialist theme that everything is "the West's fault".

It is easy enough to follow the timeline of events from before the war through to its beginning. There was conflict in the Balkans (between Austia-Hungary and Serbia) long before the war. There was then the assassination in Sarajevo, and from there the timeline goes as follows -

* Austria-Hungary delivered the "July ultimatum" to Serbia. They then declared war on Serbia on 28th July.

* Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August. They then attacked Luxembourg on the 2nd, and on the 3rd they declared war on France.

* 4th August - Germany declares war on Belgium. *Britain* declares war on Germany the same day.

How does *that* fit with your nonsensical statement that the war was "our" (the Wests') fault?

You have a terrible grasp of history, Chris. D-minus.

Davo Stevens said...

Victor, some say that WW II was a continuation of WW I. That WW I was never finished.

Part of the cause of WW II was the horrific reparations imposed on Germany after WW I. It made the Germans into effective slaves. They were forced to borrow money, mostly from the US to pay France and the UK. The result was the German Govt. effectively collapsed and Hitler was able to gain power. He told the people that he would restore the pride of the German people in their country.

Hitler also said he would restore the lands that the Germans had settled in Europe and that were confiscated at the end of WW I (Liebestraum). Had it not been for those reparations the war may never have started.

Incidentally, the Japanese were on our side in WW I. Their destroyers accompanied the invasion of Galipoli as protection.

They had invaded Korea and Indo-china before China.

The adage is still true: Politicians start wars and ordinary people die in them.

thor42 said...

"Germany was regarded as a threat..."

A *genuine* threat, shown by what they did in the weeks before the UK declared war.

Why would (or should) the UK have "called Russia back" when Germany did what it did?

It is so easy to pass judgments from on high, in hindsight.
Bottom line - Germany themselves started to create chaos in Europe - other countries responded. Yet out of all that - after all that *Germany* did - you decide that "we" (the UK et al) were responsible.

This is exactly the same logic that socialists use with a family of six children on a benefit. "The government is responsible".
No words about the wisdom of the woman having six children in the first place.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think we should abandon the lions led by donkeys trope. Largely because modern scholarship shown its not necessarily true, and partly because once the trenches had gone in, what were they to do? There had been pretty much nothing else like it, except perhaps for the trench systems in the Crimea the American Civil War and maybe a touch of the Anglo / Maori wars, all fought with completely different weapons. It took the Germans until their last great offensive to figure it out, but the British and Commonwealth forces eventually did, and when they did they succeeded in driving the Germans back. And they would have occupied Germany if they hadn't surrendered fairly quickly. If the British were lions led by donkeys, then so was everyone else.

Jigsaw said...

The more I read the more apparent it becomes to me that WW1 and WW2 were just continuations of the same conflict. I am looking forward to reading Max Hasting's new book on the causes of WW1. I think in many ways it's of little use to seek to seek to apportion blame at this distance-its history and it happened. We have seen in the last few years the lengths to which some people will go to alter history especially when they can claim a monetary reward for the alterations they make. I do hope that little more emphasis will fall on New Zealanders on the western front-not to detract from Gallipoli but to clarify the story.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@15:00

Your rudimentary grasp of the forces at play in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of World War I - essentially repeating the standard British line which has been drummed into all of us for 100 years - makes a lengthy response pointless.

Read Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers", and then re-enter the discussion.

peterpeasant said...

We, actually, behave in exactly ways that are demonstrated in untamed primates ( No, I do not mean ecclesiastical ones).

Like many mammals we are clannish and tribal.

We are all very territorial, and cultural. This makes us very, very susceptible to propaganda.

This is very well displayed by the article in the Dompost attributed to Wang Lutong, China's ambassador to NZ.

Apparently the huge omnipotent Japanese are being beastly to the small wee timorous cowering Chinese as well as the bipolar Koreans.

The Japanese started this ?

I do not think so.

Do no t get me started on Africa, Arabia, Middle eastern europe OFCS the whole bloody (litwerally) planet.

Davo Stevens said...

@igsaw: That's my understanding too.

A very good series broadcast by the BBC Panorama programme on the Rise of Hitler and the Nazis is excellent to watch. I recorded it when it was broadcast a few years ago. It clarifies the issues that surround WW II. It also clarifies the reason why the Nazis were so anti-Jew.

The assassination in Sarajevo was just the trigger that set it off. The storm had been brewing for some years before then.

The dominant point is why and how Hitler and the Nazis got into power, what the cause of that was, then one can begin to understand history a little better.

Unknown said...

Great summary of our involvement in the war to stop all wars. You will hurt the Aussies feelings because they have for nearly a hundred years claiming their's was the greatest sacrifice.

J Bloggs said...

TO say that Britain could have prevented world war one happening, so therefore its our fault the war occurred is a bit simplistic. The reality was that by 1914 EVERY big power in Europe, and a few smaller ones as well were spoiling for a fight. Nationalism was riding high all throughout Europe. Germany was expansionisic, as was Serbia and Italy. Britian was feeling protectionistic of its empire and engaged in a naval arms race with Germany. The Ottoman and A-H empires were internally riven with nationalistic factions and desperate to maintain what they had. The French were hungry for revenge against Germany for 1870, and Russia was a social and political basketcase. Add to that decades, even centuries of violent history between some of those countries, as well as the web of alliances between all the parties involved, and all it was ever going to take is one incident where both sides affected were not going to back down, and the whole chain reaction of events was going to cascade into a general European war at some stage.

Maybe Britian could have stopped it in 1914, maybe not. But even if they had stopped it then, it was going to happen sooner or later. The whole European situation from about 1910 onwards was untenable in the long term, and something would have triggered World War one eventually.

Victor said...

Davo Stevens

I have a reason for dating the start of World War Two from the Japanese invasions of China proper in 1937.

My reason is that, at no time from then until 1945, was there ever peace between all of the members of the Axis and all of the great powers (China being one of them)that were subsequently allied against the Axis.

To the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Poles and (inter alia) ourselves, it seems obvious that the War started in 1939. For the Russians and the Americans it started in 1941. But, in China at least, there was continuous large-scale fighting from 1937 onwards.

Yes, you're correct that Japan had many years earlier invaded Korea. And it had also invaded Chinese Manchuria in 1931.

There's an argument for citing this latter invasion as the start of the lead-up to World War Two, as it was the first occasion on which an aggressor state openly defied the will of the League of Nations. There were, of course, to be many other such occasions over the following eight years.

However, the lead up to a war is not the same thing as the war itself and the invasion of Manchuria wasn't the start of continuous military conflict between any of the powers subsequently involved in the global struggle.

Meanwhile, I'm sorry to be pedantic but I think you'll find that the Japanese invasion of Indo-China didn't take place till 1940.

And yes, of course, Germany's defeat in World War One was a necessary precondition for World War Two. But I think it's stretching it to regard the one as just a continuation of the other.

Apart from anything else, the continuation thesis tends to occlude the huge differences between Wilhelmine Germany and the Third Reich, differences that, to my mind, completely recast the moral calculus involved in the decision to resist Hitler.

Moreover, once you start regarding one war as just the continuation of another, you can easily end up by saying that 1914-18 was just a continuation of 1870-71 or that 1870-71 was a continuation of 1812-1815. Where, then, does it end?

And, finally, with renewed apologies for pedantry, it was "Lebensraum" ("Living Space") and not "Liebestraum" ("Love's Dream") that the Nazis were seeking in the east.

Davo Stevens said...

No problem Victor, my grasp of some of history is tenuous sometimes. I tend to only look at things that affect me directly or in-directly.

You're right, it was Manchuria not Indo-china .

If you look back at the history of Financial Resessions/Depressions a peculiar phenomenon appears: every time there is one a major war breaks out within 10 years! Relationship or co-incidence? Your guess is as good as mine. There was a deep financial depression in 1909 and WW I started just a few years later. Again in 1939 and WW II started (the shooting bit) in 1939. There was much sabre-rattling before then though.

Another thing that had a bearing on the end of WW I was the "Spanish Flu", sick soldiers can't fight.

Again you're right about "Lebenstraum" my knowledge of German is non-existant except where there is direct corelationship with English. I speak Czeshki (my wife is Czech) and Russian.

Davo Stevens said...

Correction: It should read 1929 not 1939 as the big Depression. Sorry, typo.

Victor said...

A few further thoughts (my apologies for their lengthiness):

I don’t think that there was ever much chance of Britain restraining France over hostilities with Germany.

The French were bound by their Entente with Russia and, moreover, tended to have a wholly misplaced confidence in the “Russian Steamroller”.

Moreover, the French political class would already have been aware of how deeply divided Asquith’s government was over continental commitments.

Certainly, on his frequent trips to Paris, Lloyd George would have made no secret of his pacific leanings. Yet France went to war all the same!

But there’s another slightly different counter-factual which might be a wee bit more plausible: “What if Britain had not intervened over the violation of Belgian neutrality?”.

Niall Ferguson has suggested that this scenario would have resulted in a swift German victory and the emergence of what he’s called “The Kaiser’s Common Market”, an integrated European economy, dominated by Germany.

He envisages a scenario not much different to the post 1989 German-dominated EU, but achieved without millions of deaths in the trenches or the intervening decades of tyranny and slaughter. And, he suggests that Germany would have avoided too punitive an armistice with France because it wouldn’t have wanted to antagonise London.

Ferguson’s is quite an attractive vision, particularly, if you assume that Germany would have continued on its pre 1914 trajectory towards parliamentary government, with the Social Democrats increasingly in the ascendant and the Kaiser playing a less active political role.

But there are a few things wrong with it:

Firstly, France might have kept on fighting. Forget the “Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys” drivel. 1.4 million poilous died fighting for La Patrie between 1914 and 1918. Moreover, the French played an infinitely more significant role than the British in stemming the German drive towards Paris in the Autumn of 1914 . Even without the Brits, the war may not have been over by Christmas.

Secondly, however mild Germany’s peace terms might have been, they would probably have involved the annexation of Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France’s north-eastern coal field, whilst Austria-Hungary would have taken over a sullenly vanquished Serbia. Those are hardly the foundations for an equable or long-lasting peace.

Thirdly, Russia had been industrialising at breakneck speed in the two decades prior to 1914, as it was to do so again after 1929. Its ramshackle administration might not have survived the shock of German arms in 1914-17. But the sleeping giant was waking fast and would have had scores to settle with its western neighbour.

Fourthly, a quick German victory might well have tilted the balance of power in Berlin back in favour of the Kaiser and the military aristocracy. Continued progress towards a stable, democratic and peaceful polity might therefore have proved unattainable.

And yet, there’s still something haunting and compelling about any scenario that doesn’t involve millions of deaths of often absurdly young men in Khaki, Field Grey and Horizon Blue, not to mention the subsequent collapse of European civilization.

Victor said...

Ahoj Davo

Good point about the way wars follow major recessions.


Russell Finnemore said...

Thanks for enlightening me on Asquith's an Grey's roles in creating WW1. It's a while since I read history on this pointless and unjust war. But with the centenary we'll hear plenty of crap about noble sacrifices for our 'freedom'. Also i don't know why our government is spending so much on a new WW1 memorial in Wellington when there are hundreds of decaying memorials all over the country. More circuses instead of bread?

Wayne Mapp said...


I assume by "our side" you primarily mean the French and Russians. Since Britain, and by extension New Zealand, was the last major player to be involved.

Now I realise one should not get to fixated by the precise dates when each nation declared war, but they do point to a wider truth.

The war essentially starts by Austria Hungary invading Serbia, a continuation of the events of 1912. This then triggers Russia. That brings in Germany. Only then do France, Belgium and Britain get involved.

Of course there are interlocking alliances which impell the war.

Of course all the major parties have some responsibility for the war. None took a step back, or decided simply not to get involved. But that is a far stretch from saying "our side" bears the primary responsibility.

Because I am on the WW1 Commemoration Panel,I have been reading a number of books on the origins of the war. Your view, lets us charitably say, is a distinct minority view. And in this instance almost seems to be borne from a view that "The West is Bad", therefore must have caused the war.

At least Hitler was so bad that you cannot try that approach on WW2. Even though WW2 became a world war only after Britain declared war on Germany when it did not withdraw from Poland. In an alternative history of WW2 could Britain and France let Germany take over all of Eastern Europe and Russia, and remained aloof. And if so would there still be a 1000 year riech.

Yet I am sure you would agree that would have been a terrible path to take. That despite the suffering of WW2, Europe and the world is a better place because of the allied victory.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Wayne, here are some questions you should attempt to answer.

Whose troops menaced the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First Balkan War of 1912?

What lessons did the French draw from this?

Why did Sir Edward Grey not discipline (or dissolve) the anti-German faction in the Foreign Office?

Why did the Serbian secret service organise the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne?

What was the French President, Raymond Poincare, doing in Russia in the days leading up to the outbreak of hostilities?

What were Germany's strategic options once it became clear to German Military Intelligence that Russian mobilisation was underway?

Answer those questions, Wayne, and your view of the causes of World War I will, almost certainly, change.

Robert said...

In my days as a schoolboy historian in the 1970s at least at a conservative school like TBHS the view seemed to be that causation of WW1 was very much the German,Junker, Kaiser intent rather than the generally assumed post WW2 Taylor lite view that a series of mistakes, railway timetables and interlocking alliances had destroyed the Golden Summer.
In it is possibly more illuminating to concentrate on the German war aims in the East both in 1914-17 and in the Jaeger division operations in the Baltic and Russia in the early phases of the Russian civil war. The real aims of the German right wing political class and the military leadership seemed to differ only in level of ferocity and targeting from those of National Socialist Germany,
From 1919 the German military class and the right wing was plotting the resumption of the campaign from day one, with the gradual and progressive rebuilding and selection of an even more elite military. It sort of a gradual unveiling of Russian dolls sort of thing.
Much the same thing has been happening in Russia in 1994-2014 as gradually the KGB, GRU, International, the nuclear and conventional subs and the surface carriers and cruisers and battlecruisers are reactivated with much more advanced missiles. Much of the firepower is nominally now in Iranian, Indian, and Chinese hands and manned but in fact in allmost all cases the significant the maintenance, armament and even the SU 33s are totally controlled by Russian Naval staff, The Indian Kilo that had two torpedoes blow up in Mumbi had been rearmed and serviced up in the Russian arctic.
The crucial point is that Hitler declared war on the US immediately following Pearl Harbour, because Hitler knew he had lost and dug in to give him max time to eliminate those he disliked. In the previous three days , the greatest German armies including Guderains strike force had been smashed by the most powerful armies in the History of the world. Having smashed the Japanese and turning the Jap target towards us, Stalin listening to Sorge and his other agents had moved 30 divisions over the trans siberian including some say 6 divisions of North Korean shock troops. Led by reactivated Tsarist Red Generals somewhat intact after the Turvanovsk elimination. Pavels Red Guard awesomely equipped for all out fighting in cold, snow and even nerve gas war, simply smashed Guderain and the crack SS units.
Essential reading is Silvia Nasser on the Vienna school economists and those old classmates of Adolf, Hayek and Ludwig Wiggenstein. After service in the Austrian Jaeger divisions they spent a year in the NY public library reorientating to reality or possibly trying to figure another way.

Victor said...


It’s certainly the case that, once World War One got underway, Germany’s territorial war aims became extreme, though not as extreme as those of the Third Reich. But, to my mind, it’s reading history backwards to see these aims as a direct cause of the outbreak of hostilities.

On the other hand, there was a strange discordance between Wilhelmine Germany’s largely modern, progressive, technologically-advanced society and the semi-feudal structure of its administration. And this discordance certainly played a part in the unfolding of events.

Chris is correct in pointing out that the Reichstag was elected on a much broader franchise than the then UK Parliament. But the Chancellor was chosen by the Kaiser and was ultimately responsible to him alone, even if legislation needed the approval of Reichstag deputies.

Moreover, Wilhelm II ( a vainglorious blow-hard) shared the views of the military high command that the armed forces weren’t really subject to civilian authority. This led to considerable confusion both within Germany and, crucially , in Austria-Hungary.

There’s no doubt that, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, “Moltke the Younger” pressed a hard line on Vienna in late July 1914, even though the Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, was having second thoughts. The Austro-Hungarians seem to have been genuinely confused as to who was running the show in Berlin.

But the decision-making processes of all the immediate belligerent states were mangled to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, militarism and intransigence were rife in all the continental belligerent states, more or less ensuring that confusion was likely to default to warfare.

The situation in Britain was somewhat different (and here I take a less condemnatory view than Chris). It’s true that Edward Grey was engaged in a complex and duplicitous tango with the French. But he was often acting behind the backs not just of the majority of his cabinet colleagues but (apparently) of his fellow “Liberal Imperialists”, including Asquith.

For example, as late as July 24, Asquith wrote to George V, saying that “happily there seems no reason why we should be anything other than a spectator”. Five days later, he was authorising Grey to tell the French and German ambassadors something similar

The situation changed totally as a result of the German invasion of Belgium. Not only had the neutrality of a sovereign state been violated, but a sea coast traditionally seen as crucial to British security was about to pass into the hands of an emerging continental hegemon.

Moreover, the balance of power was being dangerously upset and a hole was being torn in the web of international legality that was vital to Britain’s prosperity as a trading and rentier nation.

Britain may not have gone to war just because of a “scrap of paper”. But nor, I suspect, would it have gone to war in the absence of that scrap of paper, irrespective of Grey’s machinations.

And my own view is that Britain would have had a reasonably good cassus belli, as such things go, for a small, old-fashioned war, in which its red-coated infantry would have formed squares on a couple of occasions against the Kaiser’s Uhlans, before a compromise peace was quickly cobbled together.

But the new technology of death and the mass armies and passions of the age of democratic nationalism ensured it was to be otherwise.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Victor said...

An excellent summary, GS

Chris Trotter said...

A compassionate defence of the British response to Sarajevo, Victor, but the Prosecutor would have a field-day in History's Court.

After observing the American Civil War, and in light of their own experiences in the Boer War, the British generals were under no illusions concerning the consequences of a general European conflict.

Asquith may not have known the extent to which Grey had bound Britain's fortunes to those of France and Russia, but Grey's minions at the Foreign Office (like Eyre Crowe) certainly did, and they made every effort to ensure that the crisis did not end peacefully.

Grey understood that once the Russian steamroller started moving, the Germans had no choice but to take every step necessary (including the abrogation of Belgian neutrality) to defeat the French before the Russians became unstoppable.

It is this that explains Grey's procrastination and deception in the lead-up to the Russian mobilisation and Germany's defensive declaration of war. He reasoned that an invasion of Belgium by Germany would be the best way of swinging his colleagues in behind the Franco-Russian attack - and he was right.

Victor said...


I agree entirely that the whole world should have been aware that a major European war would take a catastrophic toll in human lives.

The Brits, in particular, should have understood the likely impact of the new weaponry in the light of their experiences in South Africa.

And, of course, you're right about the American Civil War. The horrors of the Franco-Prussian War also come to mind.

It's open to question whether anyone could have conceived in advance of the scale of awfulness that trench warfare degenerated into. But enough should have been known to make any responsible government recoil from hostilities, other than in extremis.

I'm not seeking to wipe the blame away for any of the parties, as I think they all behaved with tragic irresponsibility.

But your specific case against Britain is essentially just a case against Edward Grey and a small group of would-be masterminds at the FO.

Moreover, I doubt whether Russia, France, Germany or Austria-Hungary would have stayed their hand in the absence of Grey's machinations. However, I'm more than willing to change my mind on this if there's some evidence you can cite.

I could add that a German invasion of Belgium was primarily on the cards because von Schlieffen had bequeathed a strategic legacy that, ipso facto, involved violating the neutrality of a sovereign state in the event of war.

I really can't see this legacy as ethically neutral. And, unlike Grey's tango in Paris, it was common knowledge and undisputed within Germany's establishment. In fact, there were many who thought von Moltke had already watered the plan down far too much.

So I'm still of the opinion that all five powers were guilty. And I see little purpose in dividing up the percentages.

And I'm also still of the opinion that the case against Britain's intervention rested entirely on the horrors of modern weaponry. Tragically, those horrors constituted a very good case indeed.

Chris Trotter said...

Hard evidence has been the object of historical inquiry for the past 96 years, Victor.

The best I can offer is the research of Christopher Clark in his brilliant book "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914."

Have a great weekend.

Victor said...

And to you, Chris.

Davo Stevens said...

A fascinating and enlightening discussion indeed.

Another point about WW II was the American involvement with the German War Machine, especially the US financial industry.
Rene Dupont was supplying Sweden (a German ally) with huge amounts of "Fertiliser" throughout the war years even as the US was fighting the Germans.

Avril Harriman and Prescott Bush (Dubya's grand daddy)were financing Hitler, Prescott was Hitlers personal banker via Switzerland. Prescott was charged with trading with the enemy but was never convicted (never got to court) and the worst of them all was Edmund Rothschild, a Jew, who was charged and got a fast boat to Switzerland and never extradited.

The Boss of the Bank of England at the time, Hugh Montagu was a Nazi sympathiser as was Edward VIII (which was why he got forced to give up the throne, Margaret Simpson was just the public excuse).