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The Outbreak of the First World War War

They thought it would start this way. Rogue government official, Michael Gove writing in the rogue newspaper, the Daily Mail, was responsible for the first blast – a carefully planned and executed assassination of the very symbol of Donkeydom: Blackadder. Arguing that a sitcom was perhaps not the best way to understand the First World War he struck a blow to the heart of all those who thought that the War could be summed up in a few lines of poetry.

The Donkeys realising that they could not allow such an outrage to stand launched a furious counterblast with Richard Evans, Tristram Hunt and Tony Robinson in the vanguard. Sadly, Tony ’s cunning plan turned out to be no more cunning than his alter ego’s Baldrick’s and just like the Austro-Hungarian Army’s initial attack on Belgrade was easily rebuffed.

Unfortunately, the Donkey attack on the apparently isolated and defenceless Gove touched off a series of ideological alliances as Revisionists such as Beevor, Johnson, Farage and Sheffield rushed to Gove’s defence. Like a thunderstorm on a clear day it had come out of nothing and within days had embroiled the whole of the political and historical world. For the leftie Sheffield it must have be particularly galling to find himself – as Russia did in 1914 – on the “wrong” side. He is not alone. Although yet to declare himself, Niall Ferguson is likely to side with the Donkeys. Only Dan Hannan stands aloof.

As we stand here facing intellectual armageddon it worth pausing to consider the opposing forces. For many years the Donkeys have been considered invincible following the spectacular victories of The Donkeys i.e Alan Clark’s original, Oh, what a lovely war and that crowning achievement: Blackadder itself. But Blackadder was a quarter of a century ago and in the meantime their opponents have been marshalling their forces. Building on the pioneering work of John Terraine, Revisionists such as Sheffield, the late Richard Holmes and the late Paddy Griffiths aided by the many amateur historians of the Western Front Association, have built up a credible case for the idea that Britain’s war was both necessary and fought about as well as it could have been.

Still they are up against formidable odds. And the formidablist is the mighty British Broadcasting Corporation. It seems that the BBC has been planning for the eventuality for many years. It is likely that they will attempt to score a knockout blow using paintings, poetry and appeals of emotion. So what if they have to trample over the rights of neutral facts in the process? They are likely to fail and when they do the chances are that we will be in for a protracted period of intellectual trench warfare.

Whatever happens it won’t be over by Christmas.

96 comments to The Outbreak of the First World War War

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Brilliant.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    People seem to struggle with any concept that doesn’t fit in a slogan. “Germany started it” is one I’ve heard a lot recently for example, (in the Telegraph?). Strictly speaking, Serb nationalists started it. Germany merely capitalized on the situation other people created by attacking France. If Germany and Austria had simply attacked Serbia (arguments about the Serb government’s complicity aside) I wouldn’t have had a big problem with it. But since Germany attacked France the situation is rather more complex.

    Likewise with “The war was unnecessary for Britain”. Britain probably could have stayed out of the war altogether. As to whether we’d have liked the look of Europe afterwards is another question.

    As in so many things, 20/20 vision in hindsight is easy. We weren’t there, and didn’t have to make the decisions the rulers at the time had to make. Personally, I believe WW1 could have been avoided altogether – but only if certain critical things happened. And the people alive at the time didn’t know what those things were, so it really would have been blind luck avoiding it.

    I wouldn’t judge them too harshly.

  • Paul Marks

    JV – Gray would have agreed with you, had Germany not attacked Belgium (thus threatening to dominate the northern coast of Europe facing this island – something no British government could tolerate) Britain would NOT have declared war.

    There are two fundamentally different questions here.

    “Was the war justified?”

    And.

    “Was the way the war was fought sensible?”

    I upset both sides – as people tend to answer either both questions “yes” or both questions “no” to both questions.

    I answer “yes” to the first question – but “no” to the second question.

    To those who answer “no” to the first question …….

    What were the German war objectives?

    After all they already controlled wide lands inhabited by Slavs in the east and they controlled A-L in the West.

    So what would a German victory been? If not the domination of the coast of northern Europe – and the future crushing of Britain.

    So lads and lasses – it is not “war or peace”, it is “fight them now – or be destroyed by them later”.

    On the second question.

    No Haig and co were not good generals.

    They just were not – even making allowances for the very difficult situation they found themselves in.

    They were not bad people (“Oh What A Lovely War” and so on are a pile of manure), but they were not good at their jobs.

    They were fundamentally mistaken in their basic tactical conception – and they did not learn from their mistakes.

    This is all damning for professional military commanders.

  • Paul Marks

    For an example of a British General (on the Western front) who did know his job – see the man who ended up in command of the Second Army.

  • @Paul

    OK, Napoleon, tell us how you would have fought the war.

  • Regional

    The situation you see in the Blackadder series set in the trenches of WW1 has nothing to do with reality. The Brits had a system of three trenches and your average Tommy spent four days in the forward trench then withdrawn to the next trench for four days and then to the third trench and then back to the front trench.
    In battle the platoon was divided into four sections of ten men:
    Lewis gun for counter fire, rifle grenade for fire suppression, grenade to throw grenades into the wings of the herring bone pattern of the German trenches and bayoneteers to go into the wings and clean them out.
    Communications was by telephone with a mesh pattern and switch boards every 100 yards and the cables buried deep in the ground.
    Considering the horrific conditions under which the men lived executions were minimal considering the total numbers involved.
    Radio communications were not available as voice encryption had not been developed,
    All those new concepts of tanks, air support, track mounted artillery etc. were developed during WW1.
    Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see and then only just.
    This is a very brief summary and if you want to believe Ben Elton you deserve to be butt fucked.

  • Rob

    What is interesting is what if Germany had NOT invaded neutral Belgium but had attacked France through the ‘traditional’ route. The initial stages would have been similar – mass insane attacks by the French beaten back and the Germans making large gains. With the French buckling and the prospect of Germany dominating the continent – would GB have fought then?

    As for the generals, there weren’t many geniuses on any side. The combination of modern weapons (machine guns and heavy artillery) without modern movement (tanks) meant that it was always going to be an horrific bloodbath. The casualties in the period before trench warfare (Aug – Oct) were colossal. Also look at photos of the BEF in 1914 – they are wearing caps, not helmets.

    One other point – the war is often portrayed as one plotted and started by the elites. In fact there were massive demonstrations in favour of war in many of the eventual cambatant countries.

  • Puncheon

    Why is the role of the press ignored so much. They set about inflaming public opinion (“We want eight, we won’t wait” and so on) for years leading up to the war, pressurising the (admittedly weak-minded) politicians, and all to sell a few more papers. Perhaps they were egged on by a power crazy FCO and a bloodthirsty military establishement, but they seem to have been willing dupes. Of course, we’ve seen it on countless occasions since, and I suppose it all started during the Boar War. But they still get off relatively lightly as far as 1914-18 is concerned.

  • Andy Hatton

    Errr.. hang on a sec… you mean to tell me Blackadder wasn’t a documentary compiled from salvaged and lovingly restored archive footage?

    But it was on the BBC.. AND in colour so it must be true…

    You’ll try telling me next that Eastenders isn’t a fly-on-the-wall, genuine reflection of life in inner-city, cosmopolitan London…

  • Regional

    Andy,
    Drop ‘em and take it like a man.

  • bloke in spain

    I must say Baldrick was on his usual amusing form discussing the topic on SkyNews. He was criticising the WW1 British military for not developing U-boats like the Germans. To what with, exactly? A cunning plan to sail submerged up the Rhine & blockade Cologne?

  • bloke in spain

    @Rob
    The German plan was to avoid that battle in NE France by hooking west of the allies, taking the Channel Ports & cutting their lines of communication. Damn near made it. The “Race to Sea” along the frontier was a close call. We got one of the major battles in my old home town of Bailleul, about 30 km east of Dunkerque.

  • Mr Ed

    Very tangentially On Topic (I claim a prize for obliqueness) if anyone out there enjoys vintage aircraft, then 2014 would surely be the year to visit the Shuttleworth Collection in Biggleswade, near Bedford. A wondrous and awe-inspiring collection of aircraft from the WWI era and later, plus replicas. A grass airfield in a country park with plenty of nostalgia and on a flying day (listed on the website, if it is not too windy) you will see some awesome aircraft.

  • Mr Ed

    And while I’m at it, the deflation of the ‘value’ of state-awarded honours. Sir Barnes Wallis designed airships, the Wellington Bomber, the Bouncing Bombs, Tallboy and Grand Slam and made numerous other inventions and proposals, he was knighted in 1968 in his early 80s. He gave away a £10,000 prize (when that was decent money) he was awarded for the bouncing bombs to fund a scholarship for orphans of RAF personnel. He made grim war more winnable.

    Sir Tony Robinson played the same character in various stages of a sitcom and dug up some old sites under an artificial self-imposed deadline for television, and went to a lot of Labour Party conferences, he was knighted in his late 60s. Mind you, we have no proper idea how dire a life of going to Labour conferences is.

  • What Brian said.

    “I don’t know what is to be done. This isn’t war.” ~Lord Kitchener

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Personally, I fault the troops for not, after the first month of the Battle of Verdun, shooting their generals, hanging their politicians and going home.

  • Mr Ed

    PfP and had the British done so unilaterally, they might have gone home to see the same fate befall Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Canterbury as befell Louvain (Leuven), right at the very start of the war, August 1914, at the hands of the Germans.

    The German form of retaliation was savage. For five consecutive days the city was burnt and looted. Its library of ancient manuscripts was burnt and destroyed, as was Louvain’s university (along with many other public buildings). The church of St. Pierre was similarly badly damaged by fire. Citizenry of Louvain were subject to mass shootings, regardless of age or gender.

    As demonstrated earlier at other Belgian towns, including Dinant, the destruction of up to a fifth of Louvain’s buildings merely comprised a standard German strategy of intimidating occupied Belgian territories as a means of securing maximum civilian co-operation.

  • bloke in spain

    “OK, Napoleon, tell us how you would have fought the war.”
    Providing he does so working with the knowledge generals had at the time, let battle commence.
    For instance the German thrust through Belgium was supposed to be a war of movement. Very much a cavalry campaign. Pitting cavalry against machine guns sounds unequal, but the machine guns of the time were cumbersome. A cavalry advance should be able to keep the initiative, giving no time for the weapons to be emplaced. Lines of communication vulnerably strung out over large distances. Cut the tail & the head withers. From the Allied perspective, blunt he thrust & there’s a vulnerable German Army strung across Belgium. It didn’t come off for either. Once the lines are established & fortified there’s no alternatives to frontal attacks.
    The costly mass attacks later in the war were due to generals having little alternative. Radio was in its infancy & communications traveling little faster than a message can be carried restricts battle management. Fixed telegraph lines don’t survive battlefields. It’s very hard to coordinate forces over a wide area, seize opportunities when the information coming back from the fighting may be unreliable & hours old. The only option is to put as much weight behind a previously choreographed battle plan as possible, sit back & hope.
    The “good generals will be the generals who guess right. The bad ones guess wrong

  • Andy Hatton

    hmmm… well Reg’after serving in the Army but wearing a blue uniform and working alongside Johnny Matlow for many years we were never quite sure if ‘taking it like a man’ meant taking it on the chin ‘Dick Barton’ style or up the hoop… those Jolly Jack Tar’s have some funny old traditions ;)

    Referring back to the original post however I followed the link to the “”I don’t think teachers should be showing Blackadder in history lessons” piece on bbc.co.uk and was drawn to a news piece at the side which, quite honestly given the gravity and seriousness of the piece completely overshadows this rather puerile, media-hyped argument regarding how we educate our young that currently rages across the pages of the daily press…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01p8292

    You can always rely on the BBC to keep things in perspective. Thank you Aunty Beeb for keeping us in the loop on information that we just simply could not live without.

    I wonder if Mr. Gove or Messrs Robinson et al would like to comment…

  • There is a terrible truth about war and generalship that I’ve only recently realized. Any good general learns his trade not in staff colleges and but at the cost of the blood of his men.

    At the beginning of a war its inevitable that both sides will blunder about in the most idiotic of fashions.

    In World War Two for example Mark Clark was not a good general in the winter of 1943/1944 by late 1944 he knew his business.

    By 1918 the British army had actually learned how to fight effectively, the price it had to pay for that education was amazingly high.

    This does not apply to the kinds of wars where the professionals are all on one side and the other side is lead by uniformed politicians. The Falklands war of 1982 is a perfect example.

  • lucklucky

    Things only started to change with General Monash*, a curious character that had a completely different attitude to causalities.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hamel and in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Amiens_(1918) a very rare case of a General being Knighted in battlefield (by King George V)

    * which incidentally makes even more dumb the politically correct UK Government recent attempts to play down Anzac in WW1.

  • As for who started WWI, it should be oted that alone among ALL the combatant nations, Germany’s mobilization plans incorporated not only preparations, but offensive invasion plans. In other words, once Germany declared full mobilization, war was inevitable.

    Let’s not forget (nor forgive) the Germans’ aiding and abetting the tottering Austro-Hungarians (okay, really the Austrians) in their Balkan expansionism.

    And finally, let’s remember the appalling Kaiser Wilhelm II, who is a poster boy for why hereditary absolute rule inevitably turns out to be a Very Bad Thing.

    Several people have tried to ameliorate the German guilt by spreading the blame to, among others, the Russians, the Serbs and the entire system of nations of the time. It’s never just one thing, and certainly all the above were contributory factors, but the plain fact of the matter is that without Germany, WWI (and its followup) whould never have happened.

  • Andy Hatton

    As for why the war started… apparently it was because some bloke called Archie Duke got shot by an ostrich…

  • “Any good general learns his trade not in staff colleges and but at the cost of the blood of his men.”

    Taylor, that’s only true of the truly bad generals who are mired in outdated technologies and strategy and don’t adapt to new realities. Manstein, Rommel, Patton, Schwartzkopf and Guderian (to quote but some) had very few such problems — in fact, in the WWII Germans’ case, the appalling casualties generally occurred not because of their generalship, but because of Hitler’s stupid “no retreat” orders. And Mark Clark was never more than mediocre, even when he improved beyond appalling.

  • Regional

    Taylor,
    Bullshit,
    Marcus Clark and Patton should both have been put up against a wall shot.
    Firstly the dash for Rome allowed 200,000 veteran German soldiers to escape into Austria prolonging the war.
    Secondly the dash for Paris allowed 400,000 veteran German soldiers to escape back into Germany prolonging the war, and
    Patton’ dash for the German boarder disrupted lines of communications and consumed valuable resources of fuel and ammunition without achieving anything.
    Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see, and then only just, movie makers and actors deliberately lie to you, they’re cunts like that.

  • JohnW

    WW1 is a mere skirmish in a far broader campaign.

  • Shirley Knott

    I heartily concur with the recommendation to visit the Shuttleworth collection.
    I’ll also note that with the exception of radar and jet-propelled aircraft, WW1 introduced every bit of technology used in the air in WW2. Heated flying suits, radio communication to the ground, air-to-air missiles, oxygen assist for breathing, in-flight serviceable engines, all-metal aircraft, etc. The largest aircraft ever to bomb London were the German R-planes of WW1.

  • bloke in spain

    “WW1 introduced every bit of technology used in the air in WW2.”
    Except parachutes.
    (Yes, they did use them from observation balloons. But not airplanes.)

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Mr Ed
    January 10, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    PfP and had the British done so unilaterally, they might have gone home to see the same fate befall Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Canterbury as befell Louvain (Leuven), right at the very start of the war, August 1914, at the hands of the Germans.

    Which is why I said if everyone had done it. That includes the German troops. I’m sure the Oxford police could have dealt with a small detachment of cavalry led by the Kaiser.

  • Rob

    Why on earth should Britain have built a large submarine fleet? They couldn’t attack German submarines. If he believes that he’s a bigger idiot than Baldrick.

    The UK reacted with surprising speed to the u-boat threat, developing asdic, sonar and depth charges during the war and a fleet of corvettes and destroyers to use them, and air power.

    But Stephen Fry played Melchett and that ‘s all that matters.

  • Jacob

    Of course, the Germans started it. Nobody seems to doubt the total insanity of Germany in WW2. That insanity wasn’t some instantaneous calamity. The same thing is already evident in WW1, in the German psyche or character.

    And the Generals, on both sides were dumb idiots. They didn’t learn a simple and obvious lesson from the American civil war of 1861-65: that frontal attacks against entrenched machine guns is futile idiocy. They din’t learn this lesson even when it was so obvious at the beginning of the War. They persisted in suicidal attacks.

    My advice to the British and French Generals is simple: defend, don’t attack. Let the enemy attack and take losses. Let the blockade and attrition do the job. Be patient.

  • george

    stephen fry and tony robinson epitomise everything i loathe about the bbc

  • Regional

    Jacob,
    During the war of 1812-14 in Seppoland Andrew Jackson in New Orleans had his men lie in a ditch and fire from there, they suffered about 38 casualties, the Brits about 2,000. You’d think the generals of future armies would have noted this, but true to the officer corps ethos they reverted to sodomy, polo and port. The American Civil War is a prime example and with rifled muskets the casualty count should have been much higher. After the Civil War the figures were analysed and the conclusion reached that only 15% of the raised manpower was needed.

  • Regional

    Jacob,
    Machine guns are used to provide grazing enfilade fire from a defilade position and war is fought in three phases: Attack, Defence and Withdrawal.

  • RAB

    This one will run and run… And as it turns out Fry and Elton’s forebears were fighting on the OTHER side.

  • Rich Rostrom

    The problem with the WW I generals is how long it took them to learn. The American Civil War indicated some of what happened, but in the ACW frontal assaults could and often did succeed. Muzzle-loading rifles and cannon could be overcome.

    By WW I, the rifles were breech-loaded bolt-action repeaters, interspersed with machine guns. During the Russo-Japanese War, at the siege of Port Arthur, Russian defenders with machine guns repulsed Japanese assaults for months. European observers failed to recognize what was happening; they insisted that the Japanese attacks failed becaused the Japanese were mere scrawny Asiatics.

    There were other failures. The French suffered huge unnecessary casualties because they wore bright red trousers on the battlefield. The army command refused to change out of emotional attachment. That sort of attitude was commonplace: a large part of the army leaderships were more invested in military role-play than in combat effectiveness.

    There was also a fair number of inompetent or worn-out generals who were kept on from old-boy connections.

    Regional: Jackson’s troops at New Orleans fought behind breastworks with a ditch in front. If they had been lying in a ditch or trench they would have been slaughtered. One can’t fire a muzzle-loaded musket or rifle in a ditch.

  • Regional

    Rich Rostrom,
    Fair enough, I was trying to be brief, but ditches provide protection from counter fire, and who says you can’t fire from a ditch, what drugs are you on?

  • Mr Ed

    The British Lee Enfield bolt action .303 rifle, whose awesome recoil bruised my younger shoulder, was sometimes deployed in WW1 in teams capable of sufficiently rapid fire that it was reputed that the Germans thought that they were facing machine guns. It was also so accurate that the Royal Marines used it for sniping into the 1980s.

    It was all unbelievably horrific. And if anyone doubts the prevailing mindset in Germany up to WW1, consider the arguments in von Mises’ book Omnipotent Government. I read it and thought that an alternative title might have been ‘Germans are Bastards’, or rather ‘Germany is full of Bastards’.

  • bloke in spain

    “There was also a fair number of inompetent or worn-out generals who were kept on from old-boy connections.”
    Unfortunately that seems to part of every army. No doubt there’s a few current generals (& admirals) who aren’t worth their sizable pay packets. The officer corps of any army is likely to be a great deal of politics. It’s a closed pyramidal structure.* Anyone wishing to reach the top will get more benefit from creating the influence gets them there than they will wasting time on learning to do the job properly. The actual generalship qualities are only required when a rare shooting war comes along, by which time they’re already securely on the top of the heap.
    There’s been a measure of this in the last few years, hasn’t there? A General Staff say’s “Yes Prime Minister. No problem.” Load of poor sods running round in unarmoured vehicles with inadequate helicopter support & no body armour.

    * Be interesting to see what’d happen if you opened it. International league tables of generals. Headhunting. Get that dynamic Russian, did so well in the Caucasus, to shake things up. The screams from Public School Old Boys Associations would be heard right across the home counties.

  • Jacob

    “There was also a fair number of incompetent or worn-out generals”
    There always are, but when the shooting war starts, some good generals stand out, win battles and make a name for themselves. Curiously, this didn’t happen in WW1. No Napoleon, Wellington, Robert Lee, Patton or Rommel emerged from WW1, from both sides.

    regional: “war is fought in three phases: Attack, Defence and Withdrawal.” Sure, and generalship is measured in the wise choice of which of these to do when.

  • bloke in spain

    “No Napoleon, Wellington, Robert Lee, Patton or Rommel emerged from WW1″
    I can think of a string of WW11 German generals who did. It was largely Brit ones who didn’t. Alas, the fate of the victor.

  • @Jacob. There were plenty of outstanding generals in the First World War. Plumer, Monash and Rawlinson stand out on the British side. Although I am less well acquainted with German generalship Brüchmüller always tends to get a good write up. The reason we think they were no good is because none of the managed to achieve a spectacular victory. There is a simple reason for this. Until 1918 the defence held the advantage over the attack and at no point was it possible to communicate by voice. Indeed for most of the war once the men had gone over the top it was more or less impossible to communicate at all.

  • bloke in spain

    What you’re saying, Patrick, is it wasn’t a “generals” war in the sense there wasn’t much room for cunning plans & audacious sallies. It was a war both of good bookkeepers & individual actions way down the chain of command. Biggest “generalship” initiative was Churchill’s Dardanelles campaign through the ‘soft underbelly, Never got much past the beaches.

  • Sort of. You could plan up to zero hour and there were plenty of good such plans e.g. Messines. The problem was what happened next. At that point generals lost all control and authority was devolved down to platoon level at which point coordination became more or less impossible.

  • I read somewhere that FDR sacked a lot of generals and admirals immediately upon the start of World War II, precisely because it was necessary to get rid of the time servers and politicians once there was an actual war on. I can’t find a reference to this now, though. Is this true? Can someone kindly point me to details if it is? Has anything like this happened in other situations?

  • bloke in spain

    Incidentally, on that ‘learning’ thing. The Germans started the war with an army trained & equipped for a European war. They had the Franco-Prussian experience to draw on. There wasn’t a single person in the British Army, knew anything about it. Those who once did’s names were carved on tombstones. British army’s role was police actions against fuzzy-wuzzies & Dutch farmers wherever the sun doesn’t set. It was a very steep learning curve.

  • Andy Hatton

    ahh yes.. but those ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’ were armed with particularly sharp slices of mango…

  • Mr Ed

    In this documentary clip about the Blenheim bomber, the commentator refers to the ‘local fuzzies’ at 3’ 50” looking at the campaign in East Africa.

  • Regional

    Wrong Wrong Wrong at least on Clark and Patton.

    The alternative to the dash for Rome would have done nothing to stop the Germans from retreating by a road net that was further inland. The idea that Clark could have trapped the Germans in late May/Early June 1944 is wrong.

    The dash came after the Falaise Gap had been closed, the birds were already gone. Also it had nothing to do with Patton, it was the French 2nd Armored Division that took off for Paris without waiting for orders from Bradley, who later confirmed it. At the time Patton was to the south driving for Lorraine.

  • Andy Hatton

    You know I could have sworn this thread was originally about Gove and Robinson going all ‘handbags-at-dawn’ over how history is taught in schools… but all this fighting talk about… errr… well… fighting basically… makes me want to get out my lead soldiers and with a roll of the die prove to you all that Dwarves can defeat Eleven archers every time regardless of whether there’s an orc for a general or not…

    … oh hang on… wrong toy soldiers… still they are beautifully painted…

  • Alsadius

    Love the post. Re the war, I’d say it was just, but fought poorly. I sort of get why the Allies kept trying to use ever-increasing mass to win battles, because they didn’t see anything else that could do the job, but they should have known it wasn’t going to work. They needed to figure out a clever approach, not just a big one, and it took them about two years longer than it ought to have. By the time of the Somme, big battles should have been fought in the 1917-18 style, which actually worked, instead of just beating their heads against the wall. And both sides were criminally lax in actually using their navies instead of just sitting on them.

  • Barry Sheridan

    As always some interesting comments, although I would like to add a little more to the argument by adding greater weight to some other factors as to why war broke out, who was responsible and how it was conducted.

    Firstly and most importantly it must be recognised that by 1914 Germany possessed the single most powerful land army on the continent. Forces who core was confidently strengthened by a history of successes over France and others in recent decades. This army was led by an elite with clear martial inclinations, aspirations that sought more than just continental superiority, in effect German eyes in this post Bismarck era were looking beyond Europe. The motivation present in this sentiment translating into the design and construction of the High Seas fleet. A goal whose aim could not help but challenge the supremacy of the Royal Navy in the waters surrounding the British Isles and eventually beyond with all this meant to the Empire.

    What is especially remarkable was how Britain’s position had evolved with little history in substantial standing armies, the navy yes, but in other ways its worldwide interests were the product of trade not force. The small British army (about 100,000 strong in 1914) was in most ways matched to a navy whose ships were built to cruise the world, fine ships but capable of being banged about as Jutland was to reveal.

    This situation with all of its dangers was appreciated by the many in the British government of the time, the obvious disparity of strength on land and worries surrounding the growth of the German navy drove many to try to find solutions. Integral to these collective efforts was the dedicated efforts of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to broker deals between the more fractiousness elements within the continent. Diplomacy that bore fruit until the pressures of nationalist sentiment, internal decay and matching alliances yielded to open war. It is to Britain’s enduring credit that it stood by its humane obligations and fought alongside France, initially in defence of the unprovoked attack by Germany on Belgium. Those who denigrate this are foolish.

    As the history of this conflict illustrates the small British army brought sufficient time for events on the western front to stabilise into the bloody defensive stalemate that was to consume so many lives. Saving France from early defeat is now largely forgotten, instead we have to put up with much criticism aimed at Haig and others, yes there is some justification, but the same could be said of the German side who also embraced the stationary nature of the trench, barbed wire, artillery and machine guns. Reading about the bloodletting at Verdun as successive German attacks were fought off by the men of France should disassociate any Briton from the notion that it just us who embarked on pointless massacres.

    As the late Airey Neave mentioned in his book about Nuremburg, the British do have a stupid streak. However too many of our people died for the life we enjoy today. To and man and woman, they are entitled to our respect and regard for a very great sacrifice.

  • Alan Little

    > By the time of the Somme, big battles should have been fought in the 1917-18 style, which actually worked

    The experienced, hardened, tactically competent British army of 1918 didn’t exist in 1916. What the British high command had in 1916 was a hastily raised, barely trained mass army – and a dire political/strategic need to do *something* to take the pressure off an ally whose own army was in the process of being destroyed at Verdun.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Alan, I’d never had you down as someone who would be interested in this sort of thing. You seem much too sensible.

  • Alsadius

    Barry: Verdun was the only major German offensive until their last-ditch attack of 1918, though. The Allies launched several at similar scale with no positive results. And Verdun actually went better than any of the other major offensives for the attacker, because the French refused to cede any ground and got hammered flatter than any other defenders in the war.

    Alan: Effective attacks were launched in 1916 – all the early uses of tanks were smashing successes, for example. This may be my Canadian bias showing, but Vimy Ridge in April 1917 was also a wonderful example of how to fight a good offensive battle. I won’t fault the Allies for launching an offensive in 1915 – who knows, it might have worked, and you need some data to build real plans with. But 1916 was doomed, and they should have known it. They should have basically sat on the defensive(with occasional attacks, but nothing Somme-sized), built up a force of tanks that could actually make a difference, and launched a combined-arms offensive in early 1917.

    I get the political argument, but the French were their own worst enemies at Verdun, and could have taken half the pressure off themselves with a more competent approach. Stripping the armaments off your strongest fort because it was “obsolete”, letting Douaumont be taken without firing a shot, then deciding every inch is sacred and fighting idiotic battles for pride, and losing hundreds of thousands of men to recapture territory that you could have held if you’d even pretended to be trying to defend it. It’s not just the British high command I’m making fun of here – the French were even worse. I’d have mutinied too.

  • Ed Snack

    So many comments… But I recommend reading (as some obviously have) both Terraine and Sheffield as well as other serious historians, and in that I would exclude almost all of the “donkey” school.

    A few points, the reason that (in the British army anyway) there were so many aged and often barely competent senior officers is that the enormous expansion of the army in WW1 required so many such officers that the only source available at least for a start was to use retired and otherwise superannuated ex-army officers. Sadly the suggestion at the very start that at least 10% of the professional expeditionary force be left behind as a nucleus and training cadre for the forces to follow (according to Terraine, at Haig’s suggestion) was ignored, so once the original force was effectively destroyed at first Ypres the replacements were not of the same calibre, especially with regard to experience. The original force had a significant amount of practical experience in actual warfare, from the Boer war, the frontier in India, etc; this covered such simple ideas as fire and movement drills etc. almost all of this was lost and had to be re learnt at great cost.

    At the Somme, not only were the troops under trained in most cases, their commanders were also very inexperienced and often of poor quality. The worst casualties occurred in units where the plans were particularly unimaginative and poorly executed. The artillery preparation was also not up to later standards.

    Interesting to note though, the last 9 months of WW2, when there was hard fighting on the continent, the infantry casualties were not that different from WW1 rates, not withstanding the improvements in movement and communications. The PBI always copped it.

    Bruchmuller, BTW, was only a Colonel, he was responsible for artillery preparation and was very good at that. The best German General possibly was the Bavarian Crown Prince (name escapes me for now).

    Hang, I’d go with Sheffield, he certainly made mistakes, which General didn’t, but he was almost certainly the best available and did about as well as anyone not a stark raving genius could have done. Interestingly in early 1918, Lloyd George who loathed Haig tried to replace him, and sent around a little committee (Smuts, Henry Wilson and I think others) to basically interview and review possible replacements. Their conclusion was that there was no one who offered any advantages and in general all were inferior to Haig as the army leader. LG was not happy with that !

  • Laird

    “International league tables of generals. Headhunting.”

    Brilliant idea, Bloke. Unfortunately it would never be tried, because after all your generals have to be “patriots”, right? Must be loyal to our side, whatever their competence. I think this could only work with mercenaries, and no country wants to rely on them.

  • […] are re-fighting the First World War over at Samizdata. I’m going to post a few paragraphs to give you the flavor. You should go […]

  • OK, Napoleon, tell us how you would have fought the war.

    Frontal attacks are stupid. Patton learned the lesson. “Hold them by the nose and kick them in the pants.” Gallipoli was well conceived and poorly executed. Finally redeemed by Laurence and Allenby.

    Gave Samizdata some link love here: http://classicalvalues.com/2014/01/samizdata-on-the-first-world-war/

  • May I suggest watching for free http://viooz.co/movies/188-lawrence-of-arabia-1962.html – fairly historically accurate and very well acted. The Middle East is now reverting to form. Petty warring tribes – some of them with nukes. It will be interesting – if we can keep our distance.

    Another good drama that seems to capture the period is Reilly Ace of Spies. You can watch it for free here: http://watchseries.lt/serie/reilly:_ace_of_spies I used the movpod.in sublink. No viruses detected.

  • One also needs to take a look at the opium trade which was the slush fund of Empire. Just as it currently is the slush fund of the American Empire. The war in Afghanistan is being fought over control of that resource. Which depend on Prohibition for its profitability.

    http://www.ctrl.org/boodleboys/boddlesboys2.html

    BTW “addiction” is caused by PTSD. The most severe of which requires opiates for medication. And the main cause of PTSD? Child abuse. Dr. Lonnie Shavelson found that 70% of female heroin addicts were sexually abused in childhood. There is also a genetic component. Only about 20% are susceptible to long term PTSD.

    “People in chronic pain chronically take pain relievers.”

    The drug war is coming to an end (slowly) and that will end this nearly 300 year long episode of abusing abused children.

    Some discussion of the history here: http://classicalvalues.com/2014/01/binging/

  • “One also needs to take a look at the opium trade which was the slush fund of Empire. Just as it currently is the slush fund of the American Empire. The war in Afghanistan is being fought over control of that resource. Which depend on Prohibition for its profitability.”

    Okay, I’m calling bullshit on this one. Firstly, I’m sick of hearing about the so-called “American Empire”, which only exists in the po-mo imaginations of the Left and the Perpetual Victom class (some overlap). America has no colonies, no satrapies, no governors, and we get out of garrisons as soon as we possibly can (ecept for Germany, where, when we offered to move our bases to Eastern Europe, we were met with a storm of protests from the Germans who lived around our bases. Some empire.

    Sdcondly, the war in Afghaniostan is being fought against radical Islam. That’s it. There’s no hidden “opium” agenda and the “slush fund” is pure agitprop, and total crap withal. I know how this works: Afghanistan’s poppy fields are the primary source of opium/heroin/whatever; America is fighting a war in Afghanistan, ergo the war is about opium. (The Scots drink a lot of whisky. I drink a lot of whisky. Therefore I’m a victim of the Great Aberlour Conspiracy.) What nonsense. The presence of dots doesn’t always indicate a hidden pattern. Sometimes they’re just fucking dots, you know?

    I apologize for the tangent; but after my experiences at university I made a vow to confront bullshit whenever I encounter it. We may now return to our original (and highly entertaining) programme.

  • At the beginning of a war its inevitable that both sides will blunder about in the most idiotic of fashions.

    I think it’s more the case that a lot of peacetime generals who find themselves in charge at the beginning of a war are not very good at being wartime generals, and it takes a while for the right men to come to the fore.

  • regional: “war is fought in three phases: Attack, Defence and Withdrawal.” Sure, and generalship is measured in the wise choice of which of these to do when.

    And where.

  • I’ll also note that with the exception of radar and jet-propelled aircraft, WW1 introduced every bit of technology used in the air in WW2.

    I have heard all least one historian say that the development of the aeroplane during WW1 was probably the most rapid advance of technology in history. But one of the most important airborne technologies of WWII – the Norden bombsight – was not around in WWI AFAIK.

  • Okay, I’m calling bullshit on this one.

    Good call.

  • Patton’ dash for the German boarder disrupted lines of communications and consumed valuable resources of fuel and ammunition without achieving anything.

    I dunno. Had the allies kept feeding Patton instead of Monty, Patton would have kept moving (he was no fan of regrouping) and may have very well accomplished something. Instead Monty got the supplies and what the allies got after regrouping (letting German resistance regroup and harden) was “A Bridge Too Far” less well known as “Market Garden”. But there was politics involved. And logistics. So at this date who knows what was possible? As usual arm chair generals are the BEST. Myself included of course.

  • Alan Little

    > The PBI always copped it.

    Quite. Stephen Bungay in his book on El Alamein (not as good as his excellent book on the Battle of Britain, but ok) points out that casualty rates in front line infantry units in battle were similar in WWII to in WWI. The perception of less bloodiness – for the Brits in the desert at any rate – came about because in mobile warfare in difficulty territory, a far higher proportion of the troops were in the logistical tail, and the actual front line PBI were a far smaller proportion of the army.

  • squawkbox

    I’ll also note that with the exception of radar and jet-propelled aircraft, WW1 introduced every bit of technology used in the air in WW2.

    Ummm.Retractable undercarriages? Fuel injected engines? Variable-tilt propellers? Auxiliary fuel tanks? Not an expert in the field, but I have not heard of any of these in WW1.

  • squawkbox

    I dunno. Had the allies kept feeding Patton instead of Monty, Patton would have kept moving (he was no fan of regrouping) and may have very well accomplished something. Instead Monty got the supplies and what the allies got after regrouping (letting German resistance regroup and harden) was “A Bridge Too Far” less well known as “Market Garden”. But there was politics involved. And logistics. So at this date who knows what was possible? As usual arm chair generals are the BEST. Myself included of course.

    The Patton v Monty debate will run and run til the end of time, but Patton did get his full share of supplies. Not as much as he wanted or needed, but his claims that the British were getting more than their fair share were unfounded. If any WW2 general should have been replaced, it was the US General JCH Lees in charge of allied logistics, who was simply not up to the job.

    Sorry, thread deviation.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Barry Sheridan @January 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm:
    by 1914 Germany possessed the single most powerful land army on the continent. Forces who core was confidently strengthened by a history of successes over France and others in recent decades.

    In 1914, the last German victory over anyone was 40 years in the past. (Aside from colonial actions against Hottentots and such.) The Germans then spent that 40 years telling each other how tough they were and how might literally made right. (“The outcome of a war is always biologically correct, because the stronger party prevails.” – von Bernhardi)

    When the German army marched off to war in 1914, its total combat experience was probably less than that of Serbia, which had actually fought two recent wars.

    Which leads me to a possibly interesting question. The controversy hilariously recounted by Mr. Crozier is focused on the anglophone experience of the Great War, and in particular on the “lions led by asses” paradigm which has become “canonical” (vicariously for Americans). The horrors of Gallipoli and the Somme are part of the common culture.

    But Germany went to war with an army that was hyper-confident, but actually green from top to bottom, and which suffered proportionally more casualties than the British and Commonwealth forces.

    Anglophone commentary tends to accept at face value German claims about the genius of their General Staff and the prowess of their troops. But are those claims realistic? The German army of 1914 had spent 40 years marching around parade grounds in fancy uniforms, and its officer corps was drawn from a class-ridden society swarming with aristocratic twits.

    How much does “lions led by asses” apply to them? What emblematic horrors and debacles do they remember? If none, why not?

  • Barry Sheridan

    Alsadius, Verdun was only marginally effective for Germany. Casualties on the German side having approximated 430,000 while France lost about 110,000 more. Losses on this scale amount to little more than mutual bloodletting. It is worth noting that only the intercession of the British offensive on the Somme prevented Germany from gaining its objectives.
    Rich Rostrom, you understate the effectiveness of the German army. Quite why I am not sure. They fought on two fronts, handing Russia hefty defeats while nearly overcoming France and Britain on the western front. Over confident they might be, but it was a close run thing.

  • hennesli

    Harry Patch, the last man alive who fought for the British in the war, said it best: “Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”

    the no good unpatriotic left wing academic!

  • Eddy

    ‘“WW1 introduced every bit of technology used in the air in WW2.”
    Except parachutes.
    (Yes, they did use them from observation balloons. But not airplanes.)’
    Actually they were introduced by the Germans in late 1918. I think Goring was saved by a parachute.
    So it wasn’t all good news.

  • george

    the American empire is the empire of the petrodollar,

    if you try and sell your oil for anything other than dollars you get bombed, invaded or revolutioned.

    other countries need oil which can only be bought with dollars so they must exchange goods of real value which they have produced from toil and scarce natural resources for dollars which are produced with the press of a button.

    nice!

  • bloke in spain

    Thanx George. I really never knew all deals were done in cash. Presumably the US$100′s, 54% of which show cocaine traces. Must need a lot of suitcases. You live & learn every day.

  • “if you try and sell your oil for anything other than dollars you get bombed, invaded or revolutioned”

    Really. The reason why people buy oil, or anything of value with dollars is because teh dollar has been, up till now, the only currency with any long-term reliability (although markedly less so in recent times) because it’s backed by America’s economic might (not our armed forces, as Mr. George and his ilk would have you believe). The other reason is that the U.S. market is so huge, that the dollar dwarfs all other currencies simply by volume. (Examples: the “GDP” of Dallas/Fort Worth is the same size as that of the nation of Switzerland, and that of Philadelphia is close to that of South Africa, including all their gold.) Add to that the global reach of U.S. corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds, not to mention Dell, Apple and Exxon/Mobil, all of whom trade in dollars, and it’s a simple equation.

    But hey: if the rest of the world wants to buy and sell oil with euros, knock yourselves out. Ultimately, the market will decide with which currency international commerce is best served. We won’t invade (and haven’t invaded) countries who wish to use an alternative currency. The dollar is the global currency because that’s the way the globe wants it.

    Once again, bullshit has been called, and once again I apologize for the tangent. Back to WWI and teh Kaiser’s frightfulness.

  • The best description of the dilemma the generals faced was written more than a decade before the war started:

    …everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great
    war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier
    as his rifle…
    At first there will be great slaughter – increased slaughter on so
    terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the
    battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are
    fighting under the old conditions, and they will such a lesson that
    they will abandon the attempt for ever. Then, instead of a war fought
    out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as
    a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the
    resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand
    contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral
    superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which, neither army
    being able to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in
    opposition to each other, threatening each other, but never able to
    deliver a final and decisive attack.
    – Jean de Bloch, _The Future of War_, 1898

  • Kirk Parker

    Kim,

    And finally, let’s remember the appalling Kaiser Wilhelm II,

    Word.

    I’d rather not think of him, if it’s all the same, but your point is very well taken.

    Some kind of Honorable Mention, though, is due to his relative Nickie, don’t you think? If Russia had had the slightest amount of actual practicality in their military, the contest in the East would have been much harder–or maybe the Germans would have taken caution and just sat tight.

  • Ed Snack

    One must recall the strategic situation in France from the end of 1914 to understand why the French and British were more or less forced to attack. At the end of 1914 when the front had stabilized, Germany was in possession of all but a slice of Belgium and a goodly chunk of the industrialised North of France. Strategically they could afford to take their time and hold what they had, for the Allies to claim some victory conditions they needed to recover that territory. In late 1917 the German war aims still included Belgium as a part of Germany, plus chunks of the French coast and other concessions.

    It should also be remembered that the German army was, for all its lack of combat, far better equipped than the British. They had roughly 4 x the machine guns per battalion, far more artillery especially the heavier calibres essential for trench warfare, and they had far more ammunition available. By late 1914 many british guns were reduced to something like 1-2 firings per hour through lack of ammunition. And all the accoutrements of trench warfare such as grenades & mortars, the British were nearly entirely deficient in.

    The French were better equipped, they had a plethora of their famous 75 field guns but not enough heavier weapons, especially those with a higher trajectory.

    One area though where the British were clearly superior was cavalry, as little use in general as cavalry was the british cavalry divisions were properly equipped and trained (from experience in the Boer War mostly) and always gave a very good account of themselves. These divisions were essentially destroyed along with the rest of the original expeditionary force at first Ypres, fighting on foot they were used as weak infantry divisions without adequate artillery support. But they did sterling duty all the same.

  • if you try and sell your oil for anything other than dollars you get bombed, invaded or revolutioned.

    Ah, this old bollocks again. The value of dollars traded globally on a daily basis eclipses the value of oil traded daily. In other words, the trade of oil has a negligible impact on the value of the dollar. Therefore, if somebody started selling oil in Euros then you’d just buy Euros with your dollars and then buy the oil with your Euros. You’d not be paying any more, and certainly not enough to go to war over it. Of all the conspiracy theories about oil and wars this one annoys me the most for the sheer intellectual laziness which must go into supporting it.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Or the seller would do it for you. The price is set at so many dollars. You pull out a wallet (or bank account) full of euros. The seller says “At today’s exchange rates, that is so many euros”. You hand over so many euros. The seller might charge you a slight premium for this. He also might not. (If both of you do the bulk of your business in euros, you probably both prefer it this way). Transactions like this happen all the time, when buying and selling all kinds of stuff. It’s helpful to have a single unit in which prices are set that everyone who trades the commodity uses to set prices. This is not necessarily the currency you pay in.

  • Mr Ed

    Those interested in ‘competing States’ may be interested in that part of Belgium that escaped German occupation in WW1, western extremity excluded, the patchwork village of Baarle-Hertog, which is mostly inside the Netherlands, and was saved the ravishes of the Hun by Dutch neutrality. The village sits within and around many parcels of Dutch territory, with some houses having a front room in one country and a back room in another. Before the Euro, all shops had prices in Belgian Francs and Dutch Guilders, it had 2 police forces, 2 fire brigades, 2 phone networks etc. and all worked fine. If two sovereign States can get by without problems, so might competing providers within a State.

    There was a plan to set up a Free Belgian Radio in Baarle-Hertog in WW1, but I understand that nothing came of it.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Barry Sheridan @ January 12, 2014 at 3:58 pm:
    Rich Rostrom, you understate the effectiveness of the German army.

    Not at all. There is no question that the German Imperial Army was powerful and effective. But then, ultimately, so were the French and British armies. They won, after all. But the institutional image of the British army in WW I is very negative. Its failures are the stuff of legends.

    Given the institutional and social history of the Imperial Army, one would expect it to have the same failings that became legendary for the British army; and the death toll suggests it did. The Germans had many more men killed, both proportionally and in absolute numbers (and they lost). But the image is different. There is no Schwarznatter version AFAIK.

    So… did Germany have fiascos and debacles like the Somme and Gallipoli? If not, why not? And if they did, how was the memory of them suppressed? For us, as anglophones, all this would be “off screen”. ISTM that we ought to look.

    For Britons (and the Commonwealth countries, and indirectly for the U.S.) the centennial will be occasion for a lot of national soul-searching and controversy – the wounds remain painful to this day.

    But Germany will have at least as much to consider. 1914 is viewed as the beginning of the end of Britain’s “Golden Age”. But however traumatic the World Wars were for Britain, at least Britain won, and retained its self-respect, if not its Empire.

    For Germany, 1914 was the end of its rise as a great nation, and the beginning of a plunge into disaster and disgrace.

  • bloke in spain

    “But then, ultimately, so were the French and British armies.”
    You are talking two very different armies.
    The French Army had a role in France’s overseas possessions. But it also had a role as defender of continental France’s borders.
    The British Army had a similar role in the Empire but it’s role as defender of British borders in Europe was trivial. Britain didn’t have any land borders, bar Gib. That role was held by the RN.
    And the requirements in a European theatre were totally different. An adversary capable of fielding a capability similar to one’s own is different from confronting tribesmen & weak local rulers. The former requires strength in depth. The latter favours flexibility.
    We’ve had the reverse of this in the post WW11 military environment. The armour of BAOR was inappropriate for the Falklands. So an army confidently expected to confront the Warsaw Pact was pushed to deal with a relatively weak opponent like Argentina.

  • bloke in spain

    Incidentally, derisory mention was made above about German armies doing nothing but strut around parade grounds.
    Worth thinking, to be able to field an army, you do have to have the army. Strutting parade grounds was part of what gave the German officer corps the social position, to wish to officer a German Army. Not much attraction in sweating the dust of W. Africa. The panoply of Imperial German Might (TM) was in its own purpose. British Army did tiffin in the Raj but Britain had a Raj to tiffin in.

  • The notion the German Army in 1914 was inept is not supported by the facts. I strongly recommend Trevor Dupuy’s Genius for War if you want to see some statistical back up for the notion that the German Armies of both WW1 and WW2 were qualitatively superior to *all* their enemies.

  • bloke in spain

    I wonder, Perry, if that’s not a reflection of both German armies being offensive (not in the style-column sense) armies. If you’re the one, chooses the weapons & the ground, starts the fight, you’re starting with an advantage. Inevitably your opponents are responding.

    Maybe that’s why the US in it’s ground & air, despite Old World carping to the contrary, remarkably effective when the entered WWII. They started with little of either, neither being needed when your possible opponents are the other side of the planet, and created an entirely attacking force from scratch.

  • BiS, the conclusion Dupuy reached when he crunched a vast amount of number was… the Germans, 1914-1945, were superior by a factor of about 20% against the Western Allies and about 80% vs the Russians/Soviets when they attacked, when they defended, when they won and when they lost ;-)

    Dupuy’s books are fascinating reading if the subject interests you. I particularly recommend his book Attrition for understanding his methodology. His study of the Arab-Israeli wars is very interesting too, indicating that over time if anything the the Israeli qualitative advantage has actually been growing.

  • other countries need oil which can only be bought with dollars so they must exchange goods of real value which they have produced from toil and scarce natural resources for dollars which are produced with the press of a button.

    The Brit Empire was much better. It was based on growing plants.

    http://www.ctrl.org/boodleboys/boddlesboys2.html

  • Alsadius

    Barry: An offensive, in WW1, on the western front, with a positive casualty ratio? I don’t think the Allies ever managed that for more than 24 hours at any point in the war. Verdun ran for months.

    As for the general question of which German actions the German people ought to remember with regret, I think the biggest is the botching of the Schlieffen plan and the utter disuse of their fleet. Schlieffen’s plan would likely have worked – French defeatism was almost as strong in 1914 as it was in 1940 – had it been executed as designed. It was in 1940, and we know how that worked out. And the High Seas Fleet was history’s greatest white elephant. If they’d rolled it out into the middle of the BEF’s convoys at the start of the war, they’d have fought at passable odds for a great prize, and been able to scatter convoy raiders all over the world’s oceans in the confusion. If they’d tried for repeats of Jutland, they might have whittled down the Grand Fleet the same way they did at Jutland. Instead, they bombarded Scarborough, laid a couple minefields, and scuttled themselves.

  • Barry Sheridan

    Alsadius, thanks for commenting. It is worth mentioning that the first battle of the Somme, a campaign which ran from late June to mid November of 1916 did in fact have a positive casualty count, though by not much. The best estimates place German losses at 650,000 with French and British being slightly less.

    The Schlieffen plan was compromised by the German decision to engage on two fronts, a critical strategic mistake. This loss of advantage also affected the High Seas fleet, a fine navy whose usage was inhibited in the aftermath of Jutland. While Beatty’s battlecruisers were found wanting the heavy battleships under Jellicoe were still the decisive element as would have been proven had chances taken a different turn at Jutland. As for scuttling, do not forget this did not come until after the war, on 21st June 1919. Would recommend Dan Van Der Vat’s book ‘The Grand Scuttle’ if you have not already read it. The story of how most the fleet were eventually raised for scrap is also interesting, this is told in ‘Jutland to Junkyard’ by S C George.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    A minor weird fact about the Scapa Flow scuttling which has always fascinated me: the sunken fleet was for many years a major source of low background steel used for radiation-sensitive purposes such as Geiger counters. It’s said that some of the steel eventually found its way into space as part of the instruments used in the Apollo programme and the Voyager space probe, although this article is sceptical without absolutely denying the possibility. But if is true, what a strange and wonderful destiny those ships had.

  • Alsadius

    Barry: Wikipedia claims 623k Allied losses to 400-500k German. This was in line with what I’d heard elsewhere. And yes, I’m aware that the Germans would have had poor odds in a proper fleet fight. But if they weren’t willing to try, why did they build the navy in the first place? As for the two-fronts issue, if France had been knocked out in 1914, Russia would have fallen by 1915. The Germans managed to destroy the Russians with one hand tied behind their back historically, with the whole German Army advancing it would have been trivial. Britain could not have stood alone at that point – it’s not like 1940, where they had utter naval supremacy, the Germans could quite reasonably have challenged the British without ever needing unrestricted submarine warfare(and thus without bringing the Americans in). Just make part of the peace settlement the handing over of the French and Russian navies, and they’d have been on par or superior to the British, especially if the Italians came in on their side and the Austrian fleet was liberated.

    Natalie: If you want a really interesting bit of post-sinking High Seas Fleet trivia, look up the story of Ernest Cox, “The Man Who Bought A Navy”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Cox

  • Barry Sheridan

    Alsadius, Thanks for your reference to Wikipedia, it a reasonable source, and indeed what they state maybe so. I always refer to the ‘The Collins Encyclopedia of Military History as edited by R Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N Dupuy (in this case the 4th edition). This is considered the classic compendium of such affairs, however I will not dispute, it may depend on start and end dates and uncertain data at best. Either way a mutual bloodbath!

    Natalie, what you mention is quite correct. The vessels of the High Seas fleet that remain on the bottom of Scapa Flow, too deep for salvage, are a source of pre-atomic age high grade steel that is especially useful for very specific purposes, sensitive instrumentation and the like.

    Thanks to everyone for some interesting views. I enjoyed taking part.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, what’s wrong with using Blackadder to teach WW I? After all, surely everyone knows that Hogan’s Heroes is about as good as it gets, as a documentary on American POW’s in a German POW camp during WW II.

    Putting it another way, using sitcoms (or documentaries produced by what an acquaintance calls “the Big Left Media”) to teach history (or climatology!) is the very acme of incompetence.

    –Although, I can see using the sitcoms this way: First, make it clear to the class that this is FICTION and COMEDY, and the greatest truth in the show may be that men usually wear some form of pants.

    The assignment: Having seen the show, watch it once or twice more (it’s on reserve in the library). Then pick an interesting point that the show appears to be making about the real war, but of course in the context of fiction. Do a lot of research to find out whether the point or fact or argument is correct or incorrect, valid or invalid, and then write a paper on the point at interest in which you will state your conclusion about its correctness, and present a defense of your conclusion based on your research.

    As for the Big Left Media, I think it was the History Channel some years back that presented a “documentary” about how it was LBJ (no, you fool, not Lady Bird! –I mean, Lyndon Baines!) who had JFK assassinated.

    Sigh…never believe what you read in the papers.