The British Army might be involved in a desperate struggle in northern France but that doesn’t mean that life should come to a standstill at home:
The Times, 14 September 1914 p2
I jest, the Football Association has asked for guidance. This is what the Army Council had to say:
The question whether the playing of matches should be entirely stopped is more a matter for the discretion of the Association, but the Council quite realise the difficulties involved in taking such an extreme step, and they would deprecate anything being done which does not appear to be called for by the present situation.
One of the problems – a problem that will haunt the British Army until 1917 – is that it is a small army with a small supply industry. There simply is no great stockpile of uniforms, weapons and ammunition and no easy way of producing more. Sure, the Army may have recrutied 100,000 men (or is it 500,000?) by this stage of the war but there’s precious little they can do with them. So football might as well continue, as indeed it did until the end of the season in 1915.
The Times from 12 September 1914. A vicar passes on a letter from his son, an officer in the British Expeditionary Force:
Another poor girl has just come in, having had both her breasts cut off. Luckily, I caught the Uhlan [German cavalryman] in the act, and with rifle at 300 yards killed him. And now whe is with us, but, poor girl, I am afraid she will die. She is very pretty, and only about 19, and only has her skirt on.
The article continues in a similar vein with this and other letters from the front telling tales of rape, the use of civilians as human shields and other forms of German treachery.
But what is one to think? I suppose the first question is, is it true? And then, was it intentional (on the part of the Uhlan)? Are there any mitigating factors? And are the British any better?
On that last one I am inclined to think yes, simply because they are amongst friends.
And on the first one, I see little reason why an officer or a vicar would make it up. But someone else might. And The Times which backs the war effort might not be that keen on checking up. Or maybe the officer was suffering hallucinations through lack of sleep.
But on the other hand, the Kaiser’s men did raze Louvain to the ground, and massacre civilians at Dinant and use the ones they hadn’t massacred as human shields.
Ultimately, I am inclined to believe this. And I am shocked. And if I am shocked a hundred years later it is not difficult to imagine what people must have been thinking at the time.
The “July Crisis” of 1914 may have come as a shock to the British but that does mean they were not able to weigh their options. I was surprised by the excellence of a couple of articles I came across in The Times. One of them appeared on the editorial pages, did not have a byline but didn’t appear to be an editorial either. It was still good though. This is the key passage:
France does not threaten our security. A German victory over France would threaten it irremediably. Even should the German Navy remain inactive, the occupation of Belgium and Northern France by German troops would strike a crushing blow at British security. We should then be obliged, alone and without allies, to bear the burden of keeping up a Fleet superior to that of Germany and of an Army proportionately strong. This burden would be ruinous.
That is the best explanation from Britain’s decision to go to war I ever heard. Peace is perilous.
The other was a letter from Norman Angell, author of The Great Illusion:
We are told that if we allow Germany to become victorious she would be so powerful as to threaten our existence by the occupation of Belgium, Holland, and possibly the North of France. But, as your article of to-day’s date so well points out, it was the difficulty which Germany found in Alsace-Lorraine which prevented her from acting against us in the South African War. If one province, so largely German in its origin and history, could create this embarrassment, what trouble will not Germany pile up for herself is she should attempt the absorption of a Belgium, a Holland, and a Normandy?
Rather depends on how civilised she plans on being. He goes on:
The object and effect of our entering into this war would be to ensure the victory of Russia and her Slavonic allies. Will a dominant Slavonic federation of, say, 200,000,000 autocratically governed people, with a very rudimentary civilisation, but heavily equipped for military aggression, be a less dangerous factor in Europe than a dominant Germany of 65,000,000 highly civilised and mainly given to the arts of trade and commerce?
A prediction, of course, that manages to be both very wrong and, ultimately, very right.
Last night Germany won the World Cup beating Argentina 1-0 in the final. They deserved to. They had consistently played the best football and done so in the right spirit.
It also marked the twelfth tournament in a row that Germany had outperformed England. That is right, Germany has done better than England in every single World Cup since 1966 (and they still argue about that one.)
In fact, if anything, this rather disguises how bad England’s performance has been. In the 48 years since England won the World Cup – in 1966 in case you didn’t know – they have not made a single final and only one semi-final. In the meantime Germany have appeared in five finals, and Brazil, Holland, Italy and Argentina four apiece. When it comes to semi-finals such giants as Uruguay, Portugal, Bulgaria, Belgium, Croatia, Sweden and South Korea have all made an appearance more recently than England.
This apparent underperformance is mirrored in the European Championship. In that tournament’s 54-year history England has managed a grand total of two semi-finals. They lost both times. In the same time Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the USSR and Greece have all been winners; Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia have all been finalists.
Is it the players? Emphatically, no. England has always been able to produce a reasonable crop. Between 2002 and 2010 that crop was exceptional and included the likes of Beckham, Gerrard, Rooney, Owen, Cole, Terry and Ferdinand. And the results were still risible. To see how risible one needs only to look at the England-Germany game in 2010. England had by far the better team – to the extent that not one German player would have got into the England team. The result (should you need any reminding) was 4-1 to Germany. And, no, England were not unlucky losers.
Why do England lose? In their book entitled, er, Why England Lose, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski attempted to answer this question. Their answer was that based on England’s population, actually, England do more or less as they are supposed to. I have always found this rather hard to take. You would expect that if it were true at some point England would have an over-performance to go with all the under-performances. But no. We have to look elsewhere.
The best explanation I have seen came from the unlikely source of the very same Michael Owen I mentioned earlier. His argument is that England play as individuals and English players are simply unwilling (and possibly unable) to play as a team.
The superiority of German football culture over ours can be summed up as an obligation to always put the greater good over any individual needs, a philosophy that applies not only within the 11 players on the pitch but across every level of their game.
This may well also explain why English managers are so bad. English managers are brought up in England’s individualistic culture and subconsciously apply its rules. Result: rubbish on the pitch.
And that’s a good thing. Our sporting ineptitude is a symbol of our love of freedom and is something to be cherished. In future we should take pride in every stray pass, long ball, defensive mix-up and lack-lustre performance. It shows that we alone amongst the footballing nations honouring freedom, liberty and the individual above all other things, are prepared to let the single, solitary individual have his say, do his own thing and show the world what he can do: to try, to fail, to try again, to dare to be different.
Except that it doesn’t. It does not explain why America (also highly individualistic by all accounts) has the better international side (ditto, arguably, Australia) or why English club teams have such a good record in European competitions.
Oh well, back to the drawing board. Silly game anyway.
The Times 20 June 1914 p8
Now you might think that a headline like that (from 20 June 1914) would be prescient. But no. They are not referring to the prospect of a world war but to the prospect of civil war in Ireland.
It is an issue that has been dominating the pages of The Times for the last two years. In that time the debate had not moved on an inch. It can’t because the aims of nationalists and unionists are fundamentally incompatible.
For our ancestors the prospect of a world war exists but there are no obvious crises at the moment and anyway all those that have threatened to blow up have been diffused pretty quickly.
The centenary of the Curragh Incident (or Curragh Mutiny as it sometimes known) took place a couple of months ago. I had been expecting to see a fair amount of comment on what was a fairly dramatic event but so far not a dicky bird. That is not to say that there hasn’t been any comment, just that I haven’t seen it. Assuming there hasn’t been any, perhaps, belatedly, it is about time I got the ball rolling.
Since 1910 the British Government had been attempting to grant devolution, or Home Rule as it was then known, to Ireland. Ulster and the Conservative Party (or Unionists as they were then known) objected. Some 500,000 of Ulster’s British population signed a covenant stating that they would resist it. When this failed to impress the government the Ulstermen established their own army, the Ulster Volunteer Force – not to be confused with more modern creations bearing the same name – and even set up a provisional government, just in case.
The government, at first thought the Ulstermen were bluffing. But by early 1914 they had realised they weren’t and that they were going to have to call in the military. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty sailed a cruiser into Belfast Lough. At the same time orders were issued to the British garrison at the Curragh in Southern Ireland at which point the officers resigned their commissions, or to put it another way, walked out. This, incidentally, was something they were perfectly entitled to do.
The government backed down while denying that they had done any such thing. The officers returned to their posts but the Secretary of State for War did not. One assumes that this meant the end of government plans to “coerce” Ulster but seeing as the First World War broke out at the precise moment things were coming to a head, we shall never know.
The Times 14 March 1914, p9
My guess is that the mutineers were right. Indeed I suspect that had their successors taken a similar stance in 1969 we would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble. But that’s another story.
The Times 11 April 1914 p4
It would appear that the busy-bodies of a hundred years ago have it in for child labour (or “half-time” working, as it was then known). Luckily, there are some willing to defend the practice:
I worked for nearly 20 years in the same factory. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some people, my health never suffered as a result of the half-time system, and I was never at home for more than a few days during the whole of my factory life. Again, I never had any trouble to pass the required “standard” at school, and I certainly cannot remember to have fallen asleep over my lessons, or even to have felt inclined to do so.
Love the scare quotes.
So, why do we have child labour?
To speak generally, the half-time children belong to parents of the unskilled labour class, where every shilling earned makes a difference at the week-end…
Unfortunately, our correspondent then makes a serious error:
In my estimation the half-timers employed in the factories are far better off than the unfortunate children who work in barbers’ shops, hawk newspapers in the streets, run about mornings and evenings on milk rounds, card hooks and eyes or make match-boxes.
Don’t give them ideas!
I had to laugh at this:
In these progressive days parents almost invariably allow their children to sit up until their own bed hour: the children have just what they fancy for supper, not what is most suitable…
Plus ça change…
Over the last few days (this is 1914 we’re talking about just in case anyone was in any doubt) a large number of articles have appeared in the German press on the threat posed by Russia. And still they come:
There is, if anything, an increase to-day in the Press discussion of present and future and possible and probable Russo-German relations. The Berlin Bourse, which was troubled last week by the beginning of the campaign in the Cologne Gazette, was disturbed again to-day – chiefly by the spreading of the infection to the Radical and “pacific” Berliner Tageblatt. This journal published this morning an anonymous article by somebody who is described as distinguished and experienced in all branches of international politics, which, without indeed advocating war, advocates the adoption of a very firm policy towards Russia.
This is co-ordinated and there’s only one body that would be doing the co-ordination: the German government. They are preparing the population for war. The argument being used is precisely the argument being used in the corridors of power: the Russians are building up their forces and in a few years they will be too strong and it will be too late. In other words: it’s now or never.
The Times 10 March 1914 p5
It is not just the Russians the Germans are worried about. The Russians on their own would be fairly harmless (as indeed they proved to be) but they are in alliance with France. This leads to Germany’s worst nightmare: the prospect of a war on two fronts. This in turn leads to the development of the Schlieffen Plan with its aim to eliminate one of those fronts before the other one got going.
There is an alternative. Germany could return Alsace-Lorraine to France. At a stroke they would eliminate the one and only bone of contention in the Franco-German relationship and as a consequence break up the Franco-Russian alliance. But no.
There are good reasons why the German government isn’t so keen on such a move. By accepting self-determination in Alsace-Lorraine they would be accepting the principle of democracy. This is hardly the sort of thing that a monarchy can do. There would also be the element of losing face that weak regimes are very reluctant to do.
As I mentioned earlier the claim is that Germany must go to war soon or else it will be too late. The odd thing is that they were even wrong about this. The Russians were utterly incompetent in the First World War and there is no reason to think they would have fought much better even after their arms build up.
What is interesting is that even the Socialists appear to be unnerved by the Russian threat. This might explain why after the war broke out and despite the fact they had been left out of the loop, they were so willing to vote the government the funds to carry on the war.
To-day the Pan-German Press is advocating German claims of all sorts, especially in Asia Minor, “which is still to be had, but only if Germany does not shrink from the extreme test and is ready to risk war against Russia and France as well as England.”
This is fascinating. They have clearly made up their minds that if war means war with England then so be it. It is suicidal but that’s the point the German High Command has reached in 1914.
It was Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1950s who claimed that the outbreak of war in 1914 was no accident. He traced it back to what has become known as the War Council of December 1912. From there, Germany abandoned the naval arms race with Britain so that it could build up its army. Shortly afterwards it launched this campaign. Everything is ready. Now all they need is a pretext.
There is also the claim that the Russians are running riot in the Balkans:
The writer insists that “pretences” shall be dropped and that both Berlin and Vienna shall recognize that they have step by step been retreating before Russian pretensions with lamentable results.
This is absolute nonsense. The people who are winning are the Austrians. They have annexed Bosnia, created the state of Albania to deny the Serbs a port, faced the Russians down in the mobilisations of 1912 and made an ally of the Bulgarians – a country hitherto in the Russian sphere. Meanwhile, a German, Liman von Sanders, has more or less been put in charge of the Turkish army, completely putting the kibosh on (the admittedly somewhat far-fetched) Russian ambitions to control the Bosphorus.
Incidentally, it is one of the claims of Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers (p330) that the German government did not embark on a campaign to ready its people for war. This, he felt, showed that the so-called War Council was not quite as decisive as others have claimed. What this article (and others) show is that this claim is nonsense.
In all the years I have been reading old editions of the The Times I have never come across anyone advocating a European Union. Until the other day, that is.
The Times 31 January 1914 p6
Annoyingly they are not entirely wrong:
If armaments could be greatly reduced, the savings effected would provide an abundance of liquid money to the great advantage of the people. Funds for industrial and commercial purposes would become plentiful.
Unless you piss it up the wall on a welfare state, that is. And on some things they are really on the money:
The nations of Europe and European civilisation itself threaten to break down under the military burdens. The people are groaning and muttering. Dissatisfaction is spreading apace. The tension is rapidly approaching breaking point.
The solution is a familiar one:
It is obvious that, if we wish to abolish war and the ruinously expensive preparations for war, we must deal with the fundamental cause of war. We must, therefore, above all, endeavour to abolish the disunion existing among the Great Powers and replace it by harmony and by a firm and lasting union.
I couldn’t help notice that then as today they seem to be extremely well-funded. I wonder how much a page in the The Times of 1914 compares with four pages in The Independent of today?
If you want to know what the British – the educated British – thought of the Germans in 1914 here’s your answer:
The chief importance of the Zabern incidents, of the Strassburg trials, and of the exhibition of reactionary and particularist passion which has followed them in Prussia, is not in themselves. It lies in their significance as symptoms of the obstacles which still impede the moral unity of Germany. They reveal the persistence of not only of a profound division between the conquered provinces and Prussia, but of such a division between the whole legal and constitutional conceptions of South Germany and those that prevail amongst the Prussian aristocracy. These divisions are not new. They go back to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and to the establishment of modern States and the introduction of modern ideas by NAPOLEON in the south…
But the feudal nobility, and especially the nobility beyond the Elbe, have always set their faces against it and striven to shut their eyes to the change… Their devotion to the Throne and to the country, their lofty sense of public duty, their zeal, and their professional attainments are undoubted. But many of them inherit also the narrowness and the arrogance of a military caste.
Is it accurate? I think so, primarily because it explains the Zabern Incident so well.
Was it the cause of the war? It was certainly a cause. It wouldn’t be the first time that an unpopular regime that found itself cornered attempted to prop itself by starting a war. Milosevic’s Yugoslavia springs to mind as another example.
What it doesn’t explain is how such a divided nation was able to keep going for so long.
The Times 29 January 1914 p9
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.
We all love those daft things that school children put on exam papers – How long is the menstrual cycle? Three feet; that sort of thing. So, here are some from a hundred years ago (when they didn’t have such things as menstrual cycles):
After twice committing suicide, Cowper lived till 1800 when he died a natural death.
Much butter is imported from Denmark, because Danish cows have greater enterprise and superior technical education to ours.
In the British Empire the sun always sets.
The courage of the Turks is explained by the fact that a man with more than one wife is more willing to face death than if he had only one.
Under what conditions will a body float in water? After it has been in the water three days.
Some of the others might turn out to be even funnier if I understood them.