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Was World War I worth fighting and was it actually quite well fought?

Patrick Crozier and I have taken to meeting up on Monday evenings to have recorded conversations. How long we’ll do this is anyone’s bet, and how many people listen to these conversations apart from us I have no idea… though perhaps Patrick knows? But a good time is had by us, and the mere possibility that others may be listening tightens up our conversation and makes it a lot more satisfying than if we merely chatted in complete privacy.

This coming Monday, we will be talking about World War I: how it was fought, and why it was fought. This has long been an interest of Patrick’s, particularly the how bit. He thinks, or so I expect him to be saying, that Britain’s military commanders have been criticised too much.

As for me, it is my (unclear) understanding that for all its exaggerations, the Blackadder version of WW1 is basically correct. The end did not justify the means. The prize was not worth the price. Germany was temporarily subdued, but at a cost in blood and subsequent political mayhem that was out of all proportion to any good that was achieved. But is that true?

In particular (Patrick and me both being Brits) what might been the outcome of this war if it had still proceeded, but if Britain had sat it out, either by not forming a special relationship between Britain and France, or by not sticking to that deal in August 1914? What if Britain had left Germany to do its worst? Presumably the argument of Britain’s WW1 warriors was that sooner or later there would have been some kind of military reckoning between Germany and Britain, involving interests that all Brits (including me) would have regarded as vital, and that the longer such a confrontation was delayed the worse it would be for Britain. But is that right?

Comments about all these and related questions would be greatly appreciated.

Last week, Patrick and I talked about Northern Ireland, and the comments on this Samizdata posting proved very useful in suggesting various reasons why peace has broken out there, if peace it proves to be. Maybe something similar may happen again.

77 comments to Was World War I worth fighting and was it actually quite well fought?

  • Elijah

    that Britain’s military commanders have been criticised too much.

    If by that you mean all the idiots in walrus moustaches should be criticised then I think you’re on the bounce there.

  • Vinegar Joe

    It was a disaster for the US. They should never have entered the war. Forgetting the dead, America’s loans to its “allies” were never repaid and were instrumental in bringing on the Depression.

  • If you can get you hands on it, I highly recommend the article “The New History of World War 1 and what it means to International Relations Theory” by Keir Lieber in the latest issue of InternationaL Security.

    The old “Sliding blindly into war” story that was told by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August” no longer holds. German leaders both military and civilian wanted war and the realized it would be long and bloody.

    Under the circumstances it would have been foolish for Britain to let France and Russia be overwhelmed by Germany. It would have been a tough war with all of German controlled Europe against the British Empire by itself. The US would have probably stayed out on the basis that the Brits refused to rescue their friends when they had they chance why should the US save their bacon ?

  • Nick M

    Nah, the US would have stayed out because there would’ve been no Lusitania sinking and no Zinneman telegraph.

    Britain could have kept the colonies and assorted other trade deals and the Germans would have allowed a potential invasion of Britain to slide due to fear of the RN (which undoubtedly would have been dramatically augmented). Just look how the German High Seas fleet reacted after Jutland which was a tactical victory for the Hun.

    Regardless of that the free-wheeling capitalism of the Edwardian age would at least as far as the continent was concerned have been severely curtailed. Perhaps there would’ve been a 1920s cold war between the continent and the Anglosphere. Who knows? Russia would still have been beaten by Germany and there would still have been a sealed train so I suspect things there would have (at least in the short term) panned out pretty similarly.

    Anyhow, that’s merely my counterfactual.

  • I don’t think people living today can grasp the scale of destruction that was the Great War. An absolute disaster for all involved. How can anyone claim Britain won, when a whole generation was killed? Talk about pyhrric victories.

    Rather than just remembering the dead, I’d like us to name names, of who the f*** got us into it and, as they’re all no doubt dead, we should punish their descendents!

  • BPE

    I think that a lot of people don’t realise that military technology had gone through a major revolution around the turn of the 20th century, with (I think) WW1 being the first major engagement between two military powers with the new technology. No-one really knew what the (military) implications were.

    The devastating power of the machine gun and artillery to infantry was known, and a tactic (the trench) had been developed as a counter. It was very quickly realised that the same really did apply to cavalry – which rendered the major offensive arm of both armies obsolete (as the old saying goes, armour/cavalry advances, infantry occupies).

    So how to win a war when both sides have really good defences, but nothing much in the way of offensive arms? You can’t – you need another technological breakthrough – the tank. So what to do in the mean time? In hindsight we can say just sit back and wait – but in 1914 when you are under pressure to win the war and the tank in a top secret twinkle in an engineer’s eye that may not come of anything? I don’t think so.

    On both sides, armies did what they were told by the politicians. Haig and the rest had been told to fight – they didn’t have much choice. So did they fight wisely? To be honest, I don’t really know enough about that part of the war to say.

    I do think that the image of bloodthirsty generals carelessly sending men over the top again and again is wrong. Within the limitations of getting men from trench A to trench B and taking it, tactics certainly didn’t sit still over that period. The infantry advance behind a rolling artillery barrage of the latter part of the war would probably not have even been possible at the start.

    And, had the armies just sit there for 3 years waiting for the tank, these tactics (and the technologies that permit them) would still have had to have been developed and tested when the tank did arrive in order that the infantry could live on the same battlefield. Soldiers would still have died by the thousand while this was going on.

    Would anyone else have done a better job? Should Haig and the rest have gone back to the politicians and said “hang on a minute…”? Could they have done this given the military and political culture of the time?

  • Nicholas

    Yes it was worth fighting from Britain’s point of view once it became clear that Germany was out to conquer and dominate Europe. Britain was right in pursuing the old Whig balance of power policy which had preserved British independence. The achievements of the Great War were thrown away when the British failed to support the French in partitioning Bismarckian Germany into smaller, manageable states and instead compromised with Woodrow Wilson who had the luxury of appeasing Germany due to not living on her doorstep. Versailles did not curtail German national power but strengthened it through making the states surrounding her weaker than they were in 1914. And Germany did not pay any net reparations either. By the mid 1920s and 1930s Germany had the most powerful and efficient industrial economy in Europe.

    The old “lions led by donkeys” school of thought it totally and utterly false. A “whole generation” wasn’t killed; this just shows how emotion has obscured reality. If you want rational enquiry into the Great War try reading John Terraine, Correlli Barnett and Gary Sheffield instead of Blackadder and war poets (both fiction, btw).

  • Cynic

    Ah WW1. The triumph of stupidity in Europe. So sad that so many fools fell for the rubbish their governments told them. Whether it was about imperial glory or just to make the world safe for democracy, or all the hooey about it being over by Christmas, or the joys of war bonds and conscription. Crazy how patriotism can get men so eager to throw their brains in the bin.

    The real winner of the war was state power. It is hard to see how any of the peoples of the combatant nations were really any more free after the war than they were before it. America got prohibition thanks to the influence the anti-saloon lunatics and other vermin had during the time the US was at war. The state shrunk after the war in Britain and France, but never to pre-war levels. Swinish though the German and Austrian Empires (Mises and Schumpeter it should be recalled were rather fond of the old Austrian Empire though) were, it is hard to see how the republics that replaced them were much of an improvement – and would a pathetic underclass cretin like Hitler ever got close to power under the monarchical regimes? As for the Russians, well we all know what price they paid for WW1.

  • Alice

    Was WWI worth fighting? The question itself shows how insidiously today’s PC “culture” has wormed its ways into even decent minds.

    Both sides don’t get to decide if a war is worth fighting. When Germany attacked, the allies were given only two choices: (a) surrender, or (b) fight back. France & Britain chose to fight — and that was probably a better choice than deciding to surrender. Yes, we could have had a German-speaking European Union 50 years ahead of schedule if the Brits & Frogs had knuckled under — but it would probably have been a very different kind of EU, and would probably have led to internal European conflicts which would have made the US Civil War seem like a mild skirmish.

    So why did the Germans attack? Interesting theory is that it was pre-emptive. The Germans had whipped the French in the previous round, and some German historians had concluded that France would attack Germany in revenge just as soon as they felt able.

    Should the US have entered WWI? Absolutely not! That bad decision (engineered by perfidious Albion) was the source of most of the troubles that have afflicted the US since. Without the US to tip the scales late in the war, there would have been no Versailles treaty, status-quo stalemate in the west, and the Germans would have been left in possession of as much of Russia as they wanted. No Soviet Union. No WWII. No Korea. No Vietnam. And no overweening Federal gov’t.

  • countingcats

    Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that Britain entered, not because France was attacked, but as a direct result of other treaties.

    Germany sought to attack France via Belgium, which was the casus belli for the UK coming in. The UK being the treaty guarantor of Belgian sovereignty.

    What choice did the UK have?

  • guy herbert

    Vinegar Joe,

    …America’s loans to its “allies” … were instrumental in bringing on the Depression.

    Where do you get that strange idea? The Depression was collective madness: a vast game of prisoner’s dilemma in which every state delated, cutting off its own trade to spite its face. That might have some origin in the fear sown by the war (you can see signs of similar strains now), and the collectivist philosophies on the rise as alternatives to the disaster of liberal empires destroying each other, but loans?

    If you look to the competition of nations, which seems to be the terms in which the question is posed, America was (with Japan, in the medium term), a massive winner. It was left as by far the most powerful great power, with the British and French empires exposed as over-extended and tottering; its only serious rival, Russia, suffered a permanent setback, after being the fastest growing economy in the first decade of the century. WWI put the US in the dominant position that lead to its present world-empire.

    On the more general question, I am of the conventional opinion that the war was evitable and ought to have been avoided. Quite apart from my own preference for avoiding state violence on any scale, and therefore a fortiori on the largest scale of all, it didn’t do any of the original participants any good, in their own terms, as nation-states or empires.

    Consequentially, it was an utter distaster for humanity, in that it (1) brought down the liberal and the archaic multinational empires and gave rise to lots of nation-states – a pernicious modern tribal organisation; and (2) gave the world the Wilsonian conception of international law, unlearning the lessons of the wars of religion, and creating a whole new species of bullying cant.

  • spence

    The obvious cause of WW1 was the perceived threat to the Austro Hungarian empire by radical nationalist elements (and was principally treated as a domestic issue, not foreign policy). Hostilities and outright fighting had occurred in the Balkans prior to 1914 and tensions were high within and around the Austro Hungarian borders. This has little to do with Britain. Most continental nations and groupings were tied one way or another by treaties promising military assistance (negotiated and renegotiated since 1815), Britain was the only major European nation not tightly bound in this way and therefore did have an option to stay out of a continental conflict. Ferdinand was probably the chief exponent of restraint, and he was obviously the first casualty, those who took over from him were determined to punish Serbia and confident they could do so – despite their Army being in a very poor state and the empire having limited resources for war, this is critical as they knew they couldn’t fight on two fronts at once and therefore Russia became a huge factor, if Russia took advantage of a deployment to the Balkans then the Empire would probably collapse. Therefore Austria Hungary had to petition Germany to act as a deterrent to Russia, Germany agreed to that in Jul 1914. Russia and France were allied in 1892 and Britain had an understanding with both, forming the triple entente (1904, 1907) – but this understanding was not a treaty. Britain was also a keen guarantor of Belgian neutrality as both Britain and France recognised any German attack would come wholly or partly through Belgium – but again, this was not a binding obligation. Almost certainly Britain was more concerned about limiting the German naval threat, and safeguarding its trade routes, than anything that happened to Serbia or Belgium.

    Given the centuries of warfare between England (then Britain) and France and the Anglo-Russian enmity over central Asian and India, Germany believed the triple entente would fall apart under pressure and Britain would look after its own interests – but Russia viewed the entente as a binding offer of support. Skipping a lot of history, when Austria Hungary eventually moved against Serbia, the entente viewed it as a stalking horse for Germany, Serbia appealed to Russia, Russia partly mobilized and then generally mobilized as Germany mobilized. Importantly, one thing led naturally to another as treaties, national defence and foreign policy plans and other obligations dictated certain actions. All of the main players were aware of the potential for (and mostly wanted to avoid) a major war. If the confrontation had been initially between Germany and Britain or France it would likely have been negotiated away, but it was a local reprisal against Serbia by a failing empire that initiated actions by major actors that could not in the end be stopped. It was the complex inter-relationship of seemingly logical and cautious plans and actions that led to a general conflict.

    US involvement has been mentioned in the comments, the US got involved citing its own national desires and interests. The US was not somehow hoodwinked into either ww1 or ww2 by Britain – this is wrong and not supported by any evidence. The US entered ww1 with its eyes open and its national interest firmly in sight.

    Not do I think loans to the UK by the US in WW1 contributed to the US depression, I’ve never heard that one before. As I understand it (maybe someone has more info) the US significantly profited in economic terms from ww1. In any event, I think there is a dispute about the figures and whether the loans were actually paid off in other, non-monetary ways (access to empire markets etc.).

    Was the war well fought? Probably yes, in the context of its time. Mistakes were made as they are in every war, large conflicts tend to magnify mistakes and there is nearly always a period where peace-time staff and field officers are replaced (because of incompetence) or learn the required lessons of the conflict. The regular British Army performed very well in the early stages of the conflict but was obviously not large enough to cope in a world of huge mass-conscripted forces. Conscripted armies are more difficult to control than regulars (lack of training and experience etc.) especially when there is very little to aid in mobile force communication at anything but very short distances. By the end of the war the British Army was the leading exponent of what would be recognised as modern all-arms fighting (an advantage Britain abandoned between the wars). It isn’t even true to say that defence negated offence, effective small scale infantry assaults were conducted on both sides of the Western front throughout the war. The difficulty was translating this to a large scale attack capable of a break through, primarily a problem of organising and resourcing a large force and preparing the battle field whilst maintaining an element of surprise. This was probably beyond the technical and organisational abilities of any field army until 1917, the key was probably the improving accuracy of artillery together with better methods of using it. As an aside, although often derided as a feature of inadequate and outdated military thinking, it should also be noted that cavalry was a tactical advantage on ww1 battle fields away from the western front – motor transport and motor based fighting vehicles being quite rare in all theatres.

    Perhaps the greater mistakes were made by politicians, not the military, at the end of the war. They threw away the advantage that the allied armies had purchased at a huge cost. The mistakes weren’t necessarily in the Versailles treaty terms, but in the failure to ensure (by force if necessary) that the treaty terms were honoured by Germany. In any event, fighting continued in many parts of Europe, Asia and elsewhere continually between the end of ww1 and the beginning of ww2, it is possible to view 1914 to 1945 as a single wide ranging war.

  • not the Alex above

    Niall Ferguson in his book War of the World tries to show that the war certainly didn’t seem as inevitable at the time as it does now – through a method all here could agree with – by looking at how the various different stock exchanges and debt markets were behaving in the run up to war. Very interesting.

    I personally don’t see why the war wouldn’t have been that much different from the previous 1870 war if we’d have stayed out of it, with a similar out come Germans win, extract some territorial concessions (possibly to our disadvantage) and go home.

    British Pals battalions were a disaster not only for local communities but also for British Industries with vast amounts of skills and knowledge lost on the fields of France.

    I think it’s the single biggest mistake in British History

  • not the Alex above

    Entering the war not Pals battalions (although that was a bloody stupid idea too) being the single biggest mistake – sorry not too clear in the above post

  • Alice

    I find your comment to the effect that merely asking if WW1 was worth all the grief and might perhaps have been avoided is an example of how insidious PC has become, and I’m trying hard to be polite here, very odd.

  • The Last Toryboy

    I’ve been reading about World War 1 for years, as it is a fascinating subject, and I think the Blackadder view of things is a little harsh, though there is certainly a kernel of truth to it.

    Also if you look at the military thinking as it went on over the years, you can see constant progress and innovation. WW1 was the first modern war. In 1914 the tactics wouldn’t have been all that unfamiliar to Napoleon, by the end of 1918, the tactics wouldn’t have been all that out of place on the Eastern Front of WW2. You also have to bear in mind that in 1918 the BEF was the most effective army in the world, bar none. Clearly there was a revolution in military thinking during WW1, which belies the Blackadder view that British generals were a bunch of complete idiots. (in addition, there were plenty of donkey generals on the German side too, which the Blackadder view of history seems to forget)

    As for the political side of things – the German Empire may not have been the Third Reich but it was still no regime I would care to live under. The occupation of Belgium, propaganda aside, was in fact quite brutal. Due to the ineffectiveness of the Kaiser, it was essentially a military dictatorship run by Ludendorff – who later publicly supported the Nazis, so I think its safe to assume he wasn’t exactly a nice chap to have in charge.

    The Central Powers were certainly the aggressors in World War 1 (more Austria-Hungary than Germany, really, if you read what Conrad von Hotzendorf was on about) so as has been said the Entente powers had a choice, surrender, or fight. They fought, for better or worse. You have to bear in mind that nobody, neither politicians nor military men, or the general public, really understood what the fighting was going to be like in 1914, so the politicians did not really know the consequences of their actions.

  • Plus, when Elijah in comment one says “on the bounce”, does he mean right, or wrong?

  • Julian Taylor

    Consider the events of 31st July 1914 and one wonders what might have happened had Germany been inclined to show a bit more finesse in their dealings with France.

    Briefly, Germany demanded of Russia that she immediately demobilise, while requiring from France – with an answer expected within 12 hours – a declaration of neutrality in the event of war with Russia. Germany’s justification – that of self-defence – was regarded dimly by the French government, who replied that France would act in accordance with her own interests. The ultimatum being rejected by the French and the Russians, both nations mobilised for war the next day and Germany declared war on Russia.

    Now this would still not have been quite enough for the British government to convince its people to go to war. What changed things was Belgium’s rejection of 2nd August ultimatum, requiring her neutrality even though Germany demanded the right to occupy the country en route to attack France – a rather bizarre concept of neutrality the Germans had. Suffice to say Belgium rejected the ultimatum, Germany marched into Belgium the next day, Britain demanded Germany’s withdrawal which was rejected and WW1 kicked off.

    So did we actually need to go to war then? One might view it in the same way for WW2, in that we had no direct threat from Hitler at the start of WW2 but we stood up for our alliance with Poland in the same way that we stood up for our alliance with Belgium.

    Was it worth fighting? Personally I doubt that any war is ‘worth fighting’, unless the politicians would like to take up arms and fight the conflict themselves – something that I have yet to see.

    Was it well fought? By military standards of August 1914 yes it was well fought. The Battle of Liege was very well fought by the Belgians (70,000 troops against von Bulow’s 2nd Army of 320,000 men and they inflicted colossal losses upon the Germans). It was the use of the ‘new technology’ (Zeppelins and the Big Bertha siege howitzers) that gave the Germans the edge and allowed them to literally pulverize the Belgian army into submission. Later at the Battle of Ypres the British fought with such ferocity that the Germans mistakenly believed that they were facing massed machinegun positions.

    The problem I was always educated to understand was that since the First Battle for Ypres was such an effective success (the Germans never succeeded in taking it) it was held by Sir John French, and later by Haig, who also commanded at Ypres, as the model for how to fight a modern war. In fact Ypres foreshadowed how the Western Front would play out as the war progressed – i.e. atrociously high casualty figures combined with fighting and living in trenches. Unfortunately that appears to have been the only way they could fight. If Haig, French et al had considered alternative methods then perhaps we might not have seen such totally senseless slaughter.

    Was the war well fought after 1914? Not in my opinion.

  • Nick M

    Perhaps I should’ve expanded my previous comment. I believe the fundamental error was signing a treaty to protect Belgian neutrality and signing the entente with France. I agree entirely with “not the Alex above” – getting into WWI was the single biggest mistake in British History.

    A large part of our current extreme dislike of war is a direct result of WWI, not contemporary PC attitudes. I think you may’ve put the cart before the horse. Half a million dead, the Irish civil war, the country virtually bankrupted for the neutrality of Belgium? seems a tad of a high price.

  • About how the War started: it was clearly a mad, militaristic aggresion by the German Army. They didn’t have to attack and invade France. There was nothing necessary or inevitable about it, and the activation of the von Schlieffen plan. The German Army just decided they wanted war. The Kaiser tired, a little late, to backpedal, but the Army would have none of it. They wanted their war, they wanted to attack France.

    Germany wasn’t in danger of being overrun by the French, and, as the war itself proved, a defensive stance on the western front would have served the Germans best, whatever the dovelopements on the Eastern front. The attack on France was shere madness, even from the german point of view.

    Once Germany attacked, Britain didn’t have the option of staying out. Not from a moral point of view, neither from a practical one. Sooner or later Germany would have turned against Britain, in their delirium of power.

    If anyone wants to ask whether the war was evitable – this question can be addressed only to the Germans. The national madness, so evident during WW2, started long before, maybe at least since Bismark. It was manifest in the outbreak of WW1. The German brutality was also evident in WW1, in the attrocities commited in Belgium.

  • As to the military side:

    By military standards of August 1914 yes it was well fought


    We must distinguish between the willingness and courage of the troops and the Generalship. The troops fought well. The Generals were all idiots of the highest degree. No outstanding General made his reputation in WW1 – and that is remarkable, given the shere size of the battles. Well, except, maybe Ludendorff, which did some nice maneuvers on the eatern front. (And Kemal Pasha – Ataturk… thanks to British incompetence).

    The power of the machine gun and the artillery, and the futility of conventional cavalry or infantry offensives should have been clear to anyone who had bothered to study war, starting with the American Civil War. Nevertheless, the Generals repeated the same futile and idiotic offensives, year in and year out, learning nothing. The enormous number of casualties, the reckless butchering, is, by itself, conclusive proof of the Generals’ idiocy. Unbelievable idiocy. In the end, the war was won by attrition. The Germans crumbled politically and economically, not militarily. The colosal casualties of the allies were utterly futile.
    WW1 was the most colosal and incredible instance of military incompetence and idiocy imaginable.

  • spence

    Britain did not have an alliance with Belgium prior to ww1. Belgium was neutral, the literature shows that Belgium considered Britain and France to be just as much of a potential invasion threat as Germany, consequently the Belgium Army was massed in the centre of Belgium just in front of Antwerp rather than on the border closest Germany. Britain was party to a commitment by all the European great powers (including Germany which inherited this obligation from Prussia upon German unification) to uphold Belgium’s integrity but this was not a binding legal commitment. The entente was also not a binding agreement for Britain, and in Britain’s view was a method of easing the costs of security for parts of its empire – it wasn’t an obligation by Britain to support either France or Russia in a general European war. Therefore Britain was not obliged to enter a war, it did so for its own reasons which may well have coalesced when Belgium was invaded, but that doesn’t mean Belgium was the only reason.

    Hostilities started with the shelling of the Serb capital by Austro Hungarian monitors and other assets at the end of the July crisis, well before any other major power had commited and before the invasion of Belgium. At the end of July Grey warned the Germans that unless the Austro-Hungary/Serbia conflict was localised then Britain would not stand aside. There was rapid communication between Berlin and Vienna in an effort to avoid a widening conflict but the Austrians wanted Serbia to be dealt a crippling blow and would not accede to an immediate diplomatic solution, hence probably ensuring Russian action and therefore German pre-emptive attacks. France and Russia did have a binding obligation to each other, if Russia helped Serbia against Austria Hungary then Germany would have to assist Austria Hungary against Russia, France would therefore be at war with Germany – all of these facts were well known at the time. Only Britain’s likely actions were opaque until Grey informed Germany of Britain’s view at the end of July.

  • I think a quick cost/benefit analysis of WWI would be helpful at this point.

    On the debit side we have: the cost in blood (10m dead), the cost in treasure (incalculable), the welfare state, the UN, the Soviet Union, the Cold War and, of course, WWII (55m dead).

    On the credit side: we beat the Hun.

    If that doesn’t qualify for a Complete Fucking Disaster Award, then I am at a loss to conceive of what would.

  • Julian Taylor

    Half a million dead, the Irish civil war, the country virtually bankrupted for the neutrality of Belgium? seems a tad of a high price.

    Try more like 700,000 dead, 1.6m seriously injured – respresenting some 45% of the British mobilised army in WW1. Now compare that with 75% dead and injured of France’s armed forces (1.385m dead and over 4.266m injured) and you start to see what Stalin was on about with ‘one man’s death is a tragedy, one million men dead is just a statistic’.

  • Nicholas

    I personally don’t see why the war wouldn’t have been that much different from the previous 1870 war if we’d have stayed out of it, with a similar out come Germans win, extract some territorial concessions (possibly to our disadvantage) and go home.

    Actually the war aims drawn up by Bethmann Hollweg show that Germany planned for an extensive domination of France, Belgium, Eastern Europe:

    The general aim of the war is security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time. For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.

    Also, the French would pay heavy reparations, a commercial treaty would make “France economically dependent on Germany, secure the French market for our exports and make it possible to exclude British commerce from France”. The military occupation of Belgium by Germany would prove disastrous for British independence as the British had always sought to ensure the independence of the Low Countries because of their proximity to England and English trading ports.

    They also sought economic domination of Europe:

    We must create a central European economic association through common customs treaties, to include France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, Poland “sic”, and perhaps Italy, Sweden and Norway. This association will not have any common constitutional supreme authority and all its members will be normally equal, but in practice will be under German leadership and must stabilise Germany’s economic dominance over Mitteleuropa.


    Just look at what terms Germany did force on a defeated Russia in 1918: Germany took a third of Russia’s population, half of her industry and nine-tenths of her coal mines.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I agree with every word that Cynic said (which given my disagreements with him on other issues, is quite something). I think WW1 was a catastrophe, both in human terms, and what it spawned. But…the German empire and its aggressiveness were not figments of jingoist imagination. I just think we could have avoided war, it was not worth what was lost.

    We may still have had a conflict on our hands in a few decades hence, though, but that is idle speculation.

  • Nick M

    Add this to the debit side-

    Before WWI Europe lead the world in the arts, sciences, music, literature etc.

    After WWI the lead in these transfered rapidly to the USA.

    Could this have been due the millions of bright young European men killed and maimed? Remember of course the highest casualty rates were sustained by the junior officers – many of whom should have been undergraduates at the time.

    I won’t even mention that the manner of the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires is something we are still dealing with 90 years later…

    I think that qualifies as a Complete, Unmitigated, Fucking Disaster.

    On the credit side we got Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

    How many lives per syllable does that work out at?

  • Gabriel

    If anyone wants to ask whether the war was evitable – this question can be addressed only to the Germans. The national madness, so evident during WW2, started long before, maybe at least since Bismark. It was manifest in the outbreak of WW1. The German brutality was also evident in WW1, in the attrocities commited in Belgium.

    This seems accurate to me and I would just like to add that the did war left Germany in state of absolute subjection from where it could never again throw it’s weight around grotesquely among civilized nations. The Treaty of Versailles was both just and practical.* The fact that we subsequently blew it and, paralysed by the sort of misplaced guilt and moral idiocy that is the defining characteristic of the post-christian west, allowed Germany to come back again doesn’t change this.
    Likewise, though the war produced Bolshevism, it was perfectly within our power to smash it in 1920. We chose not to, just like we chose not to take the opportunity to build a better world order in general. That is the cross we have to bear, not our decision to stop Germany from conquering Europe.

    *Though I do agree with the poster who suggested a partition of Germany would have been better, it is not the case that, had its conditions been stuck to, Germany would have been strengthened.

  • Chris Durnell

    To answer this question, one must not only look at the state of the world after the war, but what would have happened had the Allies not gone to war. There are several scenarios.

    1) None of the Entente enters the war, and Serbia is conquered by Austria-Hungary.

    2) Only Russia enters the war, and is promptly devoured by the Central Powers.

    3) Russia and France enters the war. Without the British, Germany defeats France, and devours Russia.

    Let’s consider the consequences of each.

    1) While avoiding a greater European war in August 1914, I wonder if this prevents such a conflict. The dynamics are still the same, but there is “humiliation” sufferred by the Entente in not fighting, and now Germany is stronger amd emboldened. I think most likely another crisis will happen, the Entente decide they must avenge their humilation and a greater war still breaks out, but this time Germany wins. See below for the consequences.

    2) With Eastern Europe lost, Britain and France are no longer able to balance Germany. Future war is avoided only if Britain and France acquiesce to a world order dominated by Germany. Political liberalism is discredited, and authoritarianism reigns in Europe. The Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe are particularly bad. Britain might be able to maintain some degree of independence with an alliance with the US – especially if it is anti-Japanese.

    3) Germany victory is even more complete as France has no pretensions of being a great power. Many French colonies are transferred to Germany and perhaps part of the French Navy. Britain’s position in the world is severely distabilized. Alliance with the US is no longer enough to insure security of the Empire. Britain must cede its role as a world leader to Germany.

    The major differences between those worlds and ours is 1) colonial empires probably still exist, 2) the communist interlude never happens, and 3) Prussian depotism is the order of the day. Another strong possibility is that Japan eventually leads a greater Asian struggle against European Empires that is basically a race war. That world seems a lot less preferable to what we have now although the cost in lives to prevent that was huge. How many lives lost was worth preventing that dreariness?

    However, if we are thinking of counterfactuals, we must also think of scenarios where the Allies did not perform as badly. Leadership was appallingly bad. Reading apologists for Haig and the rest of the butchers makes me wonder what world the apologists were living on. However, much of the tactics would still have needed to been worked out. The most we can hope for is avoidance of truly insane battles, and that the Gallipoli invasion was successful allowing the Russians to receive supplies and become a credible threat. The Russian Brusilov was the only Allied general who showed any sign of genius, and with a decently equipped army might have put enough of a crimper on the Central Powers that everyone decides for a negotiated peace.

    In any scenario, I continue to see Germany likely to start a second war to become the pre-dominant power in Europe and extend its reach to the Middle East. Unless Britain is prepared to accept German supremacy, I do not see you having an option to not fight at some time, but this scenario is the only one you don’t lose.

  • Frederick Davies

    Such a great subject, so little time…

    Was The Great War avoidable?

    The war that started on 1914 due to a royal assassination was avoidable. Not ten years earlier, France and Germany clashed about the fate of Morocco, something that could have led to war. But there was a political will to stop any slide into armed conflict and it was avoided without much trouble (it also led to the Algeciras Conference of 1906). Diplomacy had proven it was able to stop local flashpoints becoming European wars. In that sense, the 1914 war was avoidable: if Britain had made clear to Germany they would support the French if they attacked them, Germany would not have given ‘carte blanche’ to Austria-Hungary to deal with the Serbs.
    BUT, a great European war some time at the beginning of the XX century was practically unavoidable; the alliances and treaties, together with the general mistrust between the parties, made sure all flashpoints could start a slide to war. Diplomacy could solve some conflicts, but it only took one misstep for war to start; once there there was no way back. In that sense, The Great War was going to happen sooner or later; that it happened in 1914 was just chance, that it was going to happen soon was certain.

    Did Britain have to intervene in The Great War?

    All British rulers worth their salt since 1600s (there were exceptions: those were the idiots) have known Europe is far away enough from Britain for them to be able to do things differently; the only danger was in one hegemonic power managing to achieve ascendancy over all of Western Europe, at which point an invasion became possible. As long as someone was fighting the hegemon on land, Britain could afford to live without a great army and all its costs. Britain could then concentrate on trade, which would bring in enough wealth to pay for any alliances that were necessary to wear down the opposition. This maritime strategy takes time to work, but as long as the hegemonic power is kept busy by someone else in Europe, Britain would win in the end.
    This led to the British strategy of the ‘European Balance of Power’. This strategy called for Britain to be the catalyst (and paymaster if necessary) of alliances aimed at countering the foremost power in Europe. Britain never wanted to be one of the sides of the balance, but to have a balance she could manipulate to her advantage. This is what was called ‘Splendid Isolation’ in the XIX century: Britain would keep an eye on Europe but would never commit herself to an European land war. This is important to understand: Britain has been traditionally a trading/maritime power, not a military one.
    The problem was that for more than a century (from Louis XIV to Napoleon) the European power Britain had to contend with was France. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain was so fed up with fighting France that they arranged the entire European power map to balance her against Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia. What Britain failed to recognise was that France was in no state to be a threat to anyone, let alone Britain (they could organise colonial adventures and be a nuisance here and there, but in a straight fight with Britain, they were dead meat); as a result the default foreign policy of Britain remained ‘stick it to France’ long past the time it was necessary. So when Prussia beat the crap out of Napoleon III in 1870 and proclaimed the German Empire, the British were only too pleased to see their old adversary humbled by a power that had been their ally.
    What they did not realise then was that Prussia-Germany had the potential to be the next hegemonic power; a power neither France, nor Russia, nor Austria-Hungary, together or separately, could balance. In the 1890s and 1900s, reality dawned on the British (almost too late) and they hurriedly patched things up with the French and Russians; but in trying to maintain some of the old ‘Splendid Isolation’ policy, they did it in a way that left others unclear as to their commitment to the alliance. A doubt that made the Germans believe Britain would not really go all the way for France (read “Dreadnought” by Robert Massie for all the shenanigans that went in those years).
    But the fact was that, if Germany defeated France, Britain would be confronted by a single power in control of all the European Channel coast, something Britain could not accept, even if the cost was a European land war against the greatest land power in the World. Under the conditions of 1914, Britain had no choice at all: it was European war or an ever deteriorating strategic situation.
    On top of that, the entire mess the European alliance system had become at the turn of the century was the fault of Britain’s earlier support of German unification (probably the greatest strategic mistake committed by anyone over the last two centuries); so in hindsight we could say that Britain was morally obliged to intervene because it was all their mess to begin with!

    Was World War I fought efficiently?

    Given the facts that
    a) Britain had not had to intervene in a major European war for almost a century before 1914, and that
    b) she had to expand her army several-fold in a short period of time,
    if her generals and troops had been able to ‘get it right’ immediately (or in less than 3-4 years) it would have been a bloody miracle. That it was the British Army the one who finally defeated the best army Germany has ever put in the field, says a lot in their favour, not against.
    If you want statistics and examples about the reasons for the above, you can get them from Gordon Corrigan’s “Mud, Blood and Poppycock”; it is not as historically-minded as some of the other books on the subject, but it is a better read.

    Did The Great War herald an age of increased government spending (and hence intervention)?

    It is a fact that government spending in Britain and other nations (notably America) did not return to its prewar levels after the war; so it is easy to blame government expansion on the experience governments got from managing the war (when you discover that voters will put up with a lot more taxes than you previously thought possible, there is an obvious pressure to find uses for that extra revenue rather than giving it back). But two facts are often overlooked:
    a) government spending had been increasing in some American states before the war even started; and
    b) Britain had been in very expensive wars before and they did not lead to massive government increases.
    In his recent book, “Freedomnomics”, John Lott proves (in my opinion; you buy the book and reach your own conclusions) the most likely reason is women’s suffrage (which happened around or just after the time of WWI in many places), not the war itself. So WWI can only be blamed for increased government expenditure in so far as it may have contributed to women’s suffrage.

  • The Treaty of Versailles was both just and practical.

    It turns out, the big, big, cardinal mistake was the weakness of the Versailles treaty, the inability of France and Britain to enforce it. Occupying Germany in 1918 and dismembering it into smaller nations would have been feasible, and in hindsight – a lot better than what happened. WW1 was left unfinished, and thus bred WW2.

  • Last year I have a few things on the WWI and I think this is a piece of history that should be much better understood in the future expansion of the European Union. My guideline is David Stevenson’s great monograph of the war. Stevenson’s reading on the start of the war is that a highly globalised world did not have any meaningful resources for resolving international conflicts. The two major alliance had a long history of arms race, and the Germans were loosing in this, and fearing encirclement and a loss of the arms race needed a casus belli to start the war. In Stevenson’s reading, through a series of bad diplomacy and alliances a minor Central European conflict lead to a complete breakdown in the pre-war order, in which none of the major countries had a clear aim in the war.

    In Central Europe there is a reading that I think is correct. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had such internal conflicts that it was not able to solve, and this has lead to a regional conflict in which the whole empire has sunk. This Empire had two major countries, Austria and Hungary. Hungary fought a war of independence in the 19th century which ended with a great compromise and a dual monarchy. According to this reading this compromise gave too much gains to Hungary in the long run, and for this reason the Austrians wanted to make the dual monarchy a three sided monarchy, which needed an expansion of territories. This lead to the annexation of Bosnia, a former Ottoman territory for which Serbia also had a claim. In the summer of 1914 in the dual monarchy the Austrian prime minister was for the war against Serbia, the Hungarian against, given that Hungary was not interested in the reconfiguration of this strange polity. Eventually Austria-Hungary gave an ultimatum to Serbia that triggered the war.

    The Western Front was the most important front of the war, but that is where after four years almost nothing changed. If you look at the map of Europe before and after the war, taking aside the fact that Europe destroyed at least a third of its wealth, almost nothing changed in the West, and the whole Central and Eastern Europe was remapped.

    The WWI started in Serbia, and this country was involved in two other wars in the early 20th century and started four other ones recently. It took down the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires, and gave rise to a new Russia in the form of the Soviet Union, the modern Turkey and a number of new nation states (and may start a smaller scale conflict for Kosovo soon).

    From an Eastern viewpoint I think the efforts on the Western Front on both sides were futile. Europe killed a lot of people and lost a big part of its west, did not end up in a secure international system, gave rise to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but neither Western countries had a clear war aim and they did not reach too much. Considering this, what was the worth of the British fight?

  • Paul Marks

    The bust of 1929 was caused by the credit money bubble of the late 1920’s – although Guy Herbert is correct that such things as the increase in import taxes in 1931 helped turn the bust into the Great Depression.

    “But the late 1920’s credit-money bubble was an effort by Mr Strong of the New York Federal Reserve to prop up the exchange rate of the British Pound – and that was a mess because of the greater inflation of Britain way back in the First World War so …….”

    As for the First World War:

    If we are talking about the Western Front, then Plummer of 2nd Army was as good as one could be in the circumstances.

    However, Haig (for all the work of revisionist historians) was not good.

  • Alice

    I find your comment to the effect that merely asking if WW1 was worth all the grief and might perhaps have been avoided is an example of how insidious PC has become, and I’m trying hard to be polite here, very odd


    Brian — the title line is “Was World War I worth fighting?”. Like it was a choice once hostilities began?

    Now a lot of what is written on blogs is short-hand, or severely truncated. But just think about that statement as written.

    It is pure political correctness — (Pause for round of Kumbaya) — the triangulated modern liberal view that we special liberal people are above such dirty things as having to fight for God & Country, or even fight for our own survival. We are morally superior liberals; we always have a choice; and our choices have no negative consequences for us.

    If anyone attacks the artificial administrative construct in which we happen to live, it is simply a misunderstanding — probably caused by those vile neocons. And if it is necessary for someone else to fight back to protect our liberal asses against the necons misunderstanding, then we will put our fingers in our ears & chant the praises of the UN while some awful working class chaps take care of it.

    Once it is all over, we special liberal folks will try hard to get as many as possible of those working class fighters sent to jail for “over-reacting”; if we can’t do that, at least we will demean them. That serves as further proof of our special liberal superiority.

    You think I am exaggerating? Of course I am, but not by as much as I would like! Look at the disgraceful comments in the “quality” press which greeted the recent death of Col. Tibbets — an officer & gentleman who simply did the duty his countrymen assigned to him, dropped a bomb on target, and helped end a war.

    So, yes, the implied choice in “Was World War I worth fighting?” is of a piece with modern political correctness as practised by today’s spineless liberals. I do not believe the authors intended it that way, but that is how sentences get put together in this best of all possible liberal worlds — and that shows just how insidious PC is.

  • Chris

    The theory that Germany wanted a war against France and Russia and actively precipitated it in 1914 is not a new one. It was, after all, Entente propaganda throughout the entire war, and picked back up in the 1960s by Franz Fischer as part of the whole Sonderweg debate. The September Program of Bethmann-Hollweg, and debates among the General Staff about the need to pre-empt the growing power of Russia feature most strongly as “proof”.

    The Schlieffen Plan, in German eyes, was absolutely necessary. The Germans (correctly) assumed that if Russia ever committed to fighting them, the French would follow. Any examination of the relevant diplomatic communication between Paris and St. Petersburg pretty much confirms this. It was always Russia putting the brakes on France’s desire for revanche, as the French knew they were no match for Germany alone and absolutely needed Russian support to have a hope for victory. The Germans were already worried about the weight of men and industrial power that Russia could, when mobilized, bring to bear against them. It appeared absolutely necessary to exploit the German advantage in mobilization to crush the French in the first month of the war, so as to able to redeploy the entire German Army to confront the Russian steamroller. As it was, the French were much more tenacious and the Russians much less powerful than the Germans assumed. But they didn’t know that in 1914, and with national survival at stake, the German gamble appeared to be the only option that could avoid a disastrous two front war. And make no mistake, the French and Russians had their own plans for victory, and included the annexation of large parts of German territory; Alsace-Lorraine to France, East Prussia and Poznan to Russia, possibly even Silesia as part of “Poland”.

    By the time Bethmann-Hollweg drew up the September Program, Britain was already credibly in the war so the German strategic situation was in one way dire. The victories over the French offered the hope of ending the war before the British could halt the German attack. But the Germans were dealing with a new and drastically less favorable strategic situation. Only rendering France a non-threat and organizing the resources of the continent could allow Germany to defeat Britain if it decided to sustain a Napoleonic strategy of blockades, coalition building, and peripheral campaigns. Of course, the Germans had always had extremist voices declaring for vast annexations and reordering of Europe, and their goals and influence are well documented. Less well documented are the same voices shouting in French or Russian; let us remember Boulangerism, and the mania of the pan-Slavists for a confederation stretching from the Pacific to the Danube and Constantinople , as a reminder of what politics on the continent as a whole were like.

    That’s not to say that Germany was either perfect or innocent in the matter. Its diplomatic bungling had significantly increased chances of war throughout the two decades leading up to it. It did have a culture of militarism and an impatient, posturing national demeanor. The decision to invade France through Belgium was indefensible as a matter of international law, and the Germans knew it. But the evil warmongering Huns stereotype did not have a basis in reality. The roots of the Third Reich are not to be found specifically in the “special route of development” from Bismarck through the Second Reich straight to Hitler. The French and (especially) the Russians played major roles in bringing the war about, and were not just innocent victims of German militarism. They had their own agendas and neither was afraid or unwilling to use military force to reorder the territorial arrangements of Europe. And if Germany and Austria-Hungary were not truly liberal constitutional orders, they were magnitudes better than the absolutist rule of the Tsars.

    And of extremists in general, the pan-Slavists had the most prominent role in bringing the war about, starting with Sarajevo. The assassination carried out by the “Black Hand” (actually another Serbian terrorist cell inside the Black Hand) was an egregious act of terrorism that followed decades of political agitation for nationalist expansion by Serbians. The assassination was planned by Colonel Dragutin Dmitrejivic, the head of Serbian military intelligence. The arms came from the Krajugevic Arsenal, and the assassins were helped into Bosnia by Serbian border guards. The Serbian government was aware of a plot, but the Serbian ambassador to Vienna informed the Finance Minister of the common government in only the vaguest of terms. Despite suspecting that the Minister had not understood his warning correctly, the ambassador did not bother to clarify the matter. King Peter and his Prime Minister Nikola Pasic did not directly intervene to crush the terrorist conspiracy out of fear; Dmitrijevic had been the mastermind behind the brutal assassination of his predecessor, King Alexander and his common-born wife. The Serbian Karageorge dynasty owed their throne to “Apis”, as he was code-named within the Black Hand, and had a very recent demonstration of what he could do if displeased.

    Of course, Dmitrijevic was eventually shot after being convicted by a military tribunal, along with most of the Black Hand leadership, in 1917. By that time the Serbian military was off of Serbian soil in Greece, and the King was safely surrounded by French and British troops.

    So, frankly, the Austrians had a great many reasons to want to insure a role in Serbia’s investigation of the assassination. The Serbian response to their ultimatum was much less conciliatory than is generally reported, and rather than simply request modification of a point, they rejected one outright and attached reservations to most of those they “agreed” to. Of course, it is true that Vienna had intended the ultimatum to be rejected, but reject it the Serbs in fact did. It is not however true that Austria-Hungary had any territorial designs on Serbia; the Hungarian part of the monarchy wanted nothing to do with any more Slavs added to the state and held the decisive voice on most matters. Nor, as can clearly be seen, was the Austrian military advance unprovoked aggression.

    Serbia would not have defied Austria without Russian diplomatic encouragement and military support. The Russians were the first major power to issue a general mobilization, the prelude to outright war. They had decided that they were willing to accept war with Germany and Austria to prevent Serbian humiliation. Once that was decided, the support of the French followed all but automatically given the decades-long preparation for just such a day to avenge 1870. And the French, likewise, beat the Germans to a general mobilization, though that merely a matter of hours rather than days as with the Russians. Germany was aware of the rising power of Russia and very much afraid of a potential two-front war after 1916, but that does not mean the Germans deliberately provoked the war in 1914. It did mean that Germany was willing to accept a war then, rather than force Austria-Hungary to back down. But the crucial decision in the entire chain of events was the Russian decision to stand by Serbia, despite the terroristic and regicidal currents in Serbian politics and the extreme territorial ambitions of the Serbian nationalists. In doing so the Romanovs were only listening to their own crazy pan-Slavic interest groups, and sealed their fate. Unfortunately they also sealed the fate of Central Europe…

    And was the war worth it? Well, it’s impossible to know what would have happened had Britain not intervened. Wilhelmine Germany was not even remotely in the same league as Nazi Germany, and in many respects was a civilized and progressive power. But the restlessness that many outsiders perceived was certainly real. In any case if the war had ended before 1918 it couldn’t possibly have had worse results, and it’s hard to imagine even a Wilhelmine Mitteleuropa being as bad as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The catastrophic results of World War I certainly speak eloquently, and one cannot avoid the impression that the world would be a remarkably better place if it had never happened.

  • Alice,
    Great comment. It expresses exactly my feelings about those “liberals” that are so ubiquitous.
    I think that if anyone would have questioned “was it worth figthting WW1” a few years ago he would have been sent to an asylum.

    Next question: was WW2 worth fighting ?

  • …a minor Central European conflict lead to a complete breakdown in the pre-war order, in which none of the major countries had a clear aim in the war.

    A weasly remark, wich is half true.

    Germany had no “clear aim” in the war. Not an aim that is rational. Only madness explains it’s aggresion. I think, few would doubt that only sheer madness explains WW2, I think it explains also WW1.

    As to the Western powers, France and Britain, these major powers did have a clear and rational aim in the war: to prevent Germany from conquering France, and ultimately also Britain.

  • Cynic

    Another awful side effect of WW1 was the introduction of universal suffrage.

  • Cynic: I am listening?

  • Chris,

    Of course, the Germans had always had extremist voices declaring for vast annexations and reordering of Europe,

    At least you concede that, in your apologetic post about Germany.

    Germany was under no threat, neither from Russia, nor from France. Neither of the two had plans to attack Germany, and their territorial claims were kind of vague, general, not an imminent threat.

    Germany didn’t have to give assurances to Austria, against Russia, that was foolish on their part. Russia, also acted irrationally and foolishly when it mobilized in favor of the Serbs, but they didn’t threaten Germany directly.
    Neither France, nor Russia were going to invade Germany. Germany’s fears were unjustified.

    Next – the inevitability of the Schlieffen plan. Nonesense. There was nothing inevitable about it. On the contrary: the rational military strategy, in case of war, would have been: digging in defensively on both fronts. Given the enormous advantage that artillery and machine guns gave the defenders – a defensive strategy would have been successful, beyond doubt. The subsequent operations proved unequivocally that the attackers usually banged their heads against hard walls of defence. If the Germans didn’t have territorial ambitions they didn’t have to attack.
    The trouble is, they did have ambitions; they fondly remembered their 1870 march to Paris, and wished to repeat it. They also wanted to expand Eastward.

    In any case: it is clear beyond doubt that what started WW1 was the German invasion of France, through Belgium. Until then it was a Balkan incident, from that instant it became WW1.

    Those “extremist [German] voices declaring for vast annexations and reordering of Europe” – had the upper hand in 1914, and brought the WW1 on, same as WW2.

  • Chris

    Tsar Nicholas originally ordered a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary. He was talked down from it by his own army in favor of a general mobilization directed against Germany as well as Austria. They mobilized first and they mobilized against Germany and Austria, clearly signaling to France their willingness to fight both. And France had been chomping at the bit to fight Germany with a Russian alliance since the 1890s. The Germans had good reason to feel threatened by the implacable hostility of France and the growing power of a Russia increasingly influenced by pan-Slavist ideologies.

    The idea that the German strategy is somehow linked to territorial aims is sheer nonsense. Of all the powers, only Serbia adopted a defensive strategy. France invaded Germany at the outbreak of the war, and Russia invaded both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Why didn’t they adopt the “more rational” strategy of a defensive? Because it wasn’t “more rational” in 1914, with the trenches in the future. The offensive meant you were fighting on the other powers’ soil and not your own, and the events of 1914 certainly justify that attitude. The German occupation of Northern France was a major strategic advantage; while the Russians pushed Austria-Hungary back into the Carpathians and threatened the Hungarian passes, leading to a series of catastrophic winter offensives by the Austrians. The Germans gambled on the Schlieffen Plan to prevent a sustained war of attrition by knocking out France first. They lost that gamble, but they had reasons for it other than being beastly Hun savages out to conquer Europe.

  • John K

    I believe the German General Staff were convinced that they had to have a war with Russia before 1920. After then, they feared that Russia’s economic and military growth would make such a war unwinnable. The crisis over Serbia provided a useful pretext.

    With hindsight the Schlieffen Plan was a dreadful mistake. There was no need to invade France through Belgium, thus bringing Britain into the war. The Germans could have quite easily defended their border with France, as the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914 showed. The French in their infamous red trousers were slaughtered as they attacked.

    But for World War One only a few political historians would have heard of Lenin. In 1914 he was a failed revolutionary living in Switzerland. The chances of him seizing power in Russia by 1917 would have seemed infinitesimal. Citizen Smith and his Tooting Popular Front would have had more chance of seizing power in Britain in the 1970’s

  • Chris

    The German General Staff was convinced that Russia’s railway expansion and ongoing armaments buildup would render it beyond Germany’s ability to defeat by 1916, not 1920. The General Staff did not, however, dictate politics or even do much of a job of defining German strategy. What the German fear of Russia did is made them willing to accept a war with them in 1914 as the least worst option. And there is certainly some major culpability in that willingness to accept war as the outcome of a political and diplomatic crisis. But the Germans were not alone there; Serbia, Austria, Russia and France all made the same decision before the first German soldier crossed into Belgium.

    Nor frankly were the British disinterested bystanders upholding fair play. If the French had violated Belgian neutrality instead, there was no question of British intervention against France. If Serbia was the pretext for a German war to pre-empt Russia, then Belgium was merely the pretext for a British war to pre-empt Germany. If the Germans hadn’t invaded Belgium then Grey and Asquith would probably have found some reason to bring Britain in on the side of France later on.

    Of course, in hindsight the Germans probably should have stuck with Moltke the Elder’s strategy for a defense against France and an offensive against Russia. As von Schlieffen saw the problem though, the French would be able to field an army nearly as large as Germany’s once they completed mobilization, while the Germans would essentially be unable to cripple Russian mobilization due to the vast distances involved. The Germans could, exploiting their advantage in mobilization, strike quickly and be in Paris before the French were fully mobilized and prepared to carry out a sustained war. The resulting decisive victory would leave the entire German army ready to hold back the Russian steamroller after the two or so months required to mobilize it. The German calculations were simply wrong, but they were not irrational or based on some need for conquest. And as previously noted, all the Great Powers adopted an offensive strategy at the start of the war for the same reasons.

  • Paul Marks

    On the “well faught” point, one should remember that walking towards prepared defences normally fails (and is very often a blood saturated farce – and NO battles are not always this).

    It failed long before the invention of barbed wire and machine guns – for example the Battle of New Orleans 1815.

    So the problem with Haig and others on the Western Front was not technology (the excuse of their defenders) – it was bad tactics.

    One should seek to destroy defences (for example by undermining them or planting mines underneath them – shelling is not going to do the job), and one must attack at HIGH SPEED.

    Ordering a walking frontal attack against intact defences should get a General Court Marshalled – if he does it more than once.

    And Haig did it many times.

    Starting at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

    For example Haig told General Haking that he required two divisions to pursue a defeated enemy.

    As so often Haig was telling lies.

    He sent the two divisions (inexperienced men straight from England) at prepared German defences.

    The British soldiers advanced – ten lines, one thousand men a line.

    The officers died first – they were in front on horses.

    The men continued going towards the Germans – who were behind barbed wire that was 19 feet think and four feet high.

    Still the wire and the machine guns just compounded the poor tactics (slow frontal attack, on mass, against prepared defences).

    385 officers and 7,861 other ranks were killed or wounded (out of ten thousand remember).

    The Germans had no casualties AT ALL.

    Oh – and Haig was soon PROMOTED.

    “Well faught”.


  • Chris,

    France invaded Germany at the outbreak of the war, and Russia invaded both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Why didn’t they adopt the “more rational” strategy of a defensive?

    I don’t know what you’re talking about.

    The actual war (not the mobilization) started when Germany marched through Belgium and attacked France. France did not attack Germany first. Neither did Russia. Russia sent it’s unprepared divisions against Germany only after the German onslaught on France, in response to France’s desperate demands of help and as per the treaty with France.
    Russia mobilized first, fine, but was it against Germany? If so it was in order to deter Austria and Germany from invading Serbia – they didn’t threaten Germany as such, they had no plans to invade Germany unless the Germans started something. The German claim of a Russian threat is a pretext.
    Same with France. Though they never renounced Alsace and Lorain, they did not plan to attack Germany in 1914, unless required by their treaty with Russia, that is: in response to a German attack on Russia.
    If Germany hadn’t attacked, neither France nor Russia would have attacked Germany.
    The German claim about a mortal danger of being annihilated by Russian hordes is insincere, a pretext for their aggressiveness, a rationalization.

    As to the power of defense, as proven in the war itself – as I said – this was easily deduced by anyone who studied the American Civil War, and other battles since. The German General Staff were not only expansionist aggressors, they were also incredibly dumb. They were just in love with the von Schlieffen Grand Maneuver.


    Ordering a walking frontal attack against intact defences should get a General Court Marshalled – if he does it more than once.

    That’s it. No, the war wasn’t well fought, it was terribly fought, by all parties. And all countries were led by very incompetent politicians. A terrible mess, from all points of view.

  • The German’s true nature and intentions becomes also clear from their rejection of all of Wilson’s attempts to mediate and end the war. They rejected the demand that they retreat from France and Belgium to their borders. The war could have been ended in 1914, 1915 or 1916 if the Germans had given up their conquests – which they refused to do.

  • Alice

    Since a number of very well informed people have contributed to this thread, may I ask a question born out of my honest-to-goodness ignorance — Once the stalemate on the Western Front became clear, why did the Brits not attempt a sea-borne invasion of German held-territory beyond the trench line?

    There must have been options. Maybe even temporarily seizing some Danish territory as a staging area, etc? After all, Britannia claimed to rule the waves. Even serious raids (short of a massive invasion) could have drawn sufficient German forces away from the Western Front to help with a breakthrough there. Why were there no significant marine landings in the European theater?

  • Chris

    Mobilization meant war. Every statesman, general, and diplomat in Europe understood that. One could not upset the entire economy of the country by taking out millions of young reservists from civilian jobs and putting the railroads at the complete disposal of the army for anything less than war. The process was elaborately planned for years ahead, and intimately linked with the already chosen strategies for fighting a particular enemy. The French Plan XVII, put into action the moment the French declared war on Germany, was to throw the bulk of the French Army right into Alsace-Lorraine and ideally drive on the Rhine. The Russians, as clumsy as their mobilization was, could not have invaded East Prussia as quickly as they did without massive amounts of prewar planning. The same applies to the Schlieffen plan. Only the Austro-Hungarians tried anything like improvisation at the start of the war, by invading Serbia and then transferring half the invasion force to Galicia, and it turned into a complete disaster for them.

    The Germans struck first because they were more efficient at mobilization, not because the French and Russians were waiting on them to make the first move. One might very well say that Russian support for Serbia was merely a “pretext” for Russia to wage its pan-Slavist crusade against the Teutonic menace and for France to launch a war of revenge for 1870, with as much evidence and reason as to say Germany was only using the Serbian crisis as a “pretext” for aggression. The reality of course is more nuanced, in that none of the parties planned the crisis or the war but were all for various reasons willing to accept war as an outcome. The German have to shoulder the largest part of the blame, but there’s still plenty to go around for the rest of the Great Powers.

    As for peace negotiations, neither side was being reasonable in 1915 or later. The Entente was insisting on conditions such as they imposed in 1919 at Versailles in response to Bethmann-Hollweg’s effort to negotiate a peace in late 1916. The Germans in turn abandoned any efforts at a negotiated peace in 1917 and of course imposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on Russia. Though there is a certain symmetry of German war aims, and the Treaty of Versailles: The Central Powers wanted to strip Russia of her Empire and create a buffer zone of anti-Russian states, the Entente dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire and created a buffer zone of anti-German states; the Germans wanted to annex the rest of Lorraine, the French annexed Alsace-Lorraine and tried to annex the Saar; the Germans wanted to insure that France would not threaten them again by imposing a ruinous indemnity and occupying crucial parts of the nation, so the Entente imposed an enormous indemnity on Germany and France occupied the Ruhr in the early 1920s as part of an effort to establish an independent Rhineland. The French accomplished less than the Germans could have in the aftermath of victory, but they were also inherently weaker and politically dependent on Britain and United States.

  • Frederick Davies

    Oh, Alice, but there was one…

    Britain had ‘officially’ gone to war because of the violation of Belgian neutrality (as I stated earlier, they would have gone to war anyway, Belgium was just the casus belli), it would have been diplomatically very damaging if they started invading neutrals for their own purposes after having accused the Germans of that. This makes an invasion of the North European coast very difficult, since with Holland and Denmark out of the question (neutrals), you are only left with Belgium (too close to the front line to be of any use) and Germany itself. The German coast was protected by the High Seas fleet, which would have to be destroyed before anyone would seriously contemplate an invasion, and since the Germans were at pains to avoid any full on engagement with the Grand Fleet, their fleet-in-being strategy actually worked in keeping the British from attempting anything in the North Sea.
    After all the overseas German colonies were invested (you do not hear much about that because it happened early in the war and was fairly swift, but this was really a World War, and lots of German colonies were attacked up by Britain and her allies), the alternative to a North Sea operation was in the Mediterranean, where the only enemy coast available was that of Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Several members of the British government (especially Winston Churchill) were very keen to have an ‘oriental strategy’ as an alternative to the ‘western strategy’ of the trenches. Their plan was for a British and French fleet to force the Dardanelles straits, sail up to Istanbul and force the Ottomans out of the war, but the straits were mined and defended by forts; they decided an invasion would help clear the deadlock, and that was Gallipolli. That did not go according to plan; need I say anything else?
    There were attempts at bypassing the trenches, but the problem was that unless you got complete strategic surprise, communications were good enough to ensure the Germans or their allies would move to block any advances and then trench warfare would ensue again. There were only three cases (to my knowledge) in which the allies (the British, really) avoided or broke trench warfare in WWI: Mesopotamia (it started very badly, but in the end the Ottomans were thrown out), Palestine (if you are ever told the Germans invented Blitzkrieg, mention Megiddo 1918), and the last months of the Western Front (as I said in an earlier post, once the British Army went through the unavoidable learning cycle, they put the Germans on the run).

  • spence

    As I’ve said in the thread before, the ‘actual war’ started in Serbia in July, not in Belgium. The war was probably well fought, not at all times and in all places – but you can’t say that about any side in any war. There were generals who were poor, but also generals who distinguished themselves in ww1, producing innovative tactics and employing emerging technology and new practice as field conditions allowed. The conflict was a product of its time, and should be viewed as such, not via the clouds of cliché and group-think which have arisen in the last 70 years or so. Anyone could pick out some particular incident from any major war where incompetence was a feature, but that doesn’t mean that incident is indicative of everyone’s actions at all times and in all theatres of war. The western front represented one set of conditions in the war, that had to be overcome in order for one side or the other to prevail there, on other fronts the battle was often more mobile and fluid. The tactics and weapons that we would recognise today were in their infancy, or simply didn’t exist in 1914 – who amongst us could have thought up more innovative solutions for achieving success on the western front than the generals in charge at the time? We have advantages of historical, tactical and technical knowledge that simply didn’t exist in 1914, and the reason we have that knowledge now is that they had to uncover it the hard way.

    As I’ve also said in the thread, conscript armies are more difficult to control, in both tactical and strategic terms. Simply marshalling relatively untrained soldiers and moving them towards an objective under fire is a task with a difficulty level that few of us here can understand – attempting to deliver your soldiers onto an objective at the right time required immense efforts of co-ordination which militated against tactical flexibility.

    In any event, the problems of ww1 infantry advance were in themselves not particularly different than the issues present in ww2. On the ww1 western front, after the initial fluid phase, the infantry couldn’t use flank manoeuvre to pivot enemy forces out of prepared defensive positions. In similar circumstances since ww1 exposed infantry advance would be covered by a creeping barrage, or accurate direct artillery suppression, or an armour screen – or all of the above. These innovations were introduced or perfected in ww1. Although air-power and armour later came to dominate the battle field, it was the improvement in artillery accuracy, and effective methods of using it to tactical advantage, that gradually turned the tide on the western front – it made built-up fixed defensive positions less tenable as time went on, and reduced the advantage that these fixed-fire positions gave the defenders. By 1918, many of the features of a modern battlefield were emerging, and with that emergence came the obvious consequence, the breaking down of the stability of the front. The delegation of command authority towards the battle edge, technological improvements, updated doctrine, air/land force co-ordination, organisational changes at the small unit level (especially in the German Army, but the allies too, reducing the size of formations whilst increasing their firepower), fire/movement integration and control, the treatment of the battlefield in depth rather than linearly, effective counter-battery work – all of these factors shaped offensives by both Germany and the western powers in 1918 (probably the only missing modern factor was mass motorised transport). Frontal assault became rarer as 1917 progressed, casualties reduced (and when looking at casualty figures posted on the internet remember that they rarely screen out light injuries and sometimes include captured personnel as part of the casualty count). At the Somme, a British battalion was 1000 men, 4 machine guns and 2 mortars. At Amiens, a battalion was 500 men, 30 machine guns and 8 mortars + 6 tanks (assault formations, no tanks but otherwise same figures for secondary formations).

    Alice, I don’t think sea-borne assault would have been considered in ww1 for the western front. You can see the obvious difficulties at Gallipoli of an opposed landing and there would be little point in landing an assault force somewhere where the enemy wouldn’t bother to oppose it. No dedicated landing equipment existed and troops would need to be landed in barges and boats, there was also a substantial u-boat threat to both the landing and re-supply. It would have exposed the fleet, a strategic asset, to attrition over time and most likely would have led to the loss of the assault force as well (and that’s ignoring the considerable threat of the German fleet which would be close at hand).

  • “The war was probably well fought”

    I beg to differ.

    The repeated frontal assaults on the trenches were a catastrophe. And the generals never learned, and commited the same idiocy again and again. Do it once and it’s an understandable mistake. Repeat it and it turns into an idiocy.

    Take for example the big German offensive of March 1918. After 4 years of war they learned nothing and broke their neck in a new, futile, frontal assault. It was this that determined the defeat of Germany, not the allied counteroffensive later that year.

    Politically, the Germans were also incredibly dumb. After the Russian capitulation, they should have negociated peace on whatever terms the Western powers were willing to accept. And the generals should have realistically advised their government that that was the only option.

    There were, indeed, no offensive options, given the state of arms and technology in 1914. The allied Generals should have understood this fact, and stayed put in defesive positions until the blockade, the tank, or some German folishness (like the 1918 offensive), or the entry of the US, would have brought somehow to the end of the war, even maybe a negociated end. Sometimes, long term attrition is the best tactic, as in this case. This (attrition) was what ended the war not the military victories.

  • spence

    You differ Jacob, fair enough. However the facts and contemporaneous testimony show that Germany’s assault in early 1918 was not a “frontal assault” however much you assert that it was. If Germany learned nothing, then how were they able to achieve a breakthrough of over 40 miles?

    Also, if 1914 shows anything then it shows that offensive options were very effective, else the German Army wouldn’t have been occupying a fair amount of France at its end. And of course Germany had considerable success against Russia using the offensive options you seem to believe didn’t then exist, contributing to the eventual Russian elimination from the war.

    I’m not sure I follow the logic of your last paragraph, I may have misunderstood your argument. You seem to be implying that the allied leadership should have been able to predict the future somehow from 1914? That they should know about the development of the tank, US entry into the war and the effect of existing weapons technologies on a large-scale European battlefield prior to the war starting or in its very early stages? This knowledge didn’t exist in the early war years, I don’t think it is credible or sensible to blame politicians and generals for not acting upon information that cannot then have existed for them. Nor do I follow your point that the allies should have been defensive for years on end, there are political considerations for the French (it is their country partly occupied) that would make such a stance wholly unlikely, and the British as junior partners up to 1916 could not sensibly have left the French to suffer the entire costs of each attack alone.

  • “then how were they able to achieve a breakthrough of over 40 miles?”

    And what good did it do to them ? It was this offensive (and it’s ultimate total failure) that finished them definitively.

    Even the first great offensive of 1914, apparently so successful, failed to acheive a decision, and, ultimately, resulted in Germany’s total defeat. Therefore it was a strategic failure. Had they been less successful, and ocupied less French territory, maybe they would have sobered up sooner, and accepted some compromise peace.

    As to the meaning of my last paragraph: yes, after failing miserably in the first offensives, the allied generals should have stopped, and avaited developements (unknown at the time), and not risked new futile attacks. They should have so advised the politicians, which, anyhow, weren’t forceful leaders, in a position to dictate war startegy. Those dreadful losses did have consequences, even long after the war was over. Good generals don’t sacrifice masses of their soldiers in vain.
    True, the French had strong sentimental reasons to attack, but that does not make their conduct sensible. Giving in to one’s urges is human, but not a good basis for military operations.

  • John K

    The German General Staff was convinced that Russia’s railway expansion and ongoing armaments buildup would render it beyond Germany’s ability to defeat by 1916, not 1920. The General Staff did not, however, dictate politics or even do much of a job of defining German strategy.

    I am happy to accept the date of 1916 rather than 1920. It certainly explains why the German General Staff were happy to accept the opportunity for war in 1914.

    I would question the downplaying of the influence of the General Staff in Germany. Prior to 1914 it was still a very militaristic society, and the army had a prestige unkown in Britain.

    I would accept that in 1914 there seemed to have been no great desire by any of the powers to actually avoid a war. If there had been, it might have been averted, but of course no-one knew how bad the war was going to be. The only power with a genuine cassus belli seems to have been Austria-Hungary. The heir to their throne had been killed by terrorists armed and supported by Serbia, and by any standard of international law they had every right to go to war with Serbia. In retrospect the Russians should have left them to their fate, but hindsight is always 20/20.

  • John K

    The repeated frontal assaults on the trenches were a catastrophe. And the generals never learned, and commited the same idiocy again and again. Do it once and it’s an understandable mistake. Repeat it and it turns into an idiocy.

    That’s not really accurate. There is no comparison between British tactics at Loos in 1915 and the victorious battles of 1918.

    By 1918, the British Army had, in effect, invented blitzkrieg. They no longer sent out lines of troops walking towards barbed wire. They used well trained and heavily armed assault units, well equipped with automatic weapons and hand grenades, supported by creeping artillery barrages, tanks and aircraft. The British Army changed more in three years than in the previous hundred. It was a magnificent achievement, and one which is now largely forgotten. For some reason, we prefer to dwell upon our failures rather than our successes.

  • By 1918, the British Army had, in effect, invented blitzkrieg.

    After failing miserably, with the same absurd tactics, in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917…

    It took the German offensive of spring 1918 to bring upon themselves the final ruin, they were finished before the British “blitzkrieg” started.

  • John K

    After failing miserably, with the same absurd tactics, in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917…

    Of course not, the army learned in those years. At the Battle of the Somme, on the first day they did not just send men out to the barbed wire, they preceded it with the largest bombardment ever to date. It did not work, because the artillery at that point was too inflexible to work with the infantry, but at least they tried. Within a couple of months, the first tanks had been used. Of course they were not decisive at first, because there was no doctrine as to how to use them.

    In 1917 the British Army had to shoulder most of the burden against Germany, as the French Army had mutinied, the Russian front collapsed, and the Americans were not yet in the war. Despite this awful prospect, by 1918 the British Army was able to beat the Germans on the battlefield. I only wish there had been no armistice to stop them occupying Germany. That way, there would not have been a Second World War. But that’s hindsight once again.

  • Alice

    Thanks for the comments on why the Brits avoided a sea-borne invasion in the European theater. I am not sure that we have got to the bottom of that matter yet.

    A Britain that played dirty to get the US into WWI could certainly have tried harder to get Holland or Denmark involved as well. Yes, there were strong arguments against sea-borne invasion — but the only alternative they seemed to consider was the ruinous “just one more push” approach on the Western front.

    It is certainly valid that none of the participants could foresee the future — technological advances & other developments. They had to play the cards they were dealt at the time as best they knew how. It is astonishing that, with this historical experience to guide us, so many of today’s Beautiful People would rather have left Saddam Hussein in place.

  • Paul Marks

    John K. and Jacob.

    There was at least one British General on the Western Front who understood his job long before 1918.

    Plummer – 2nd Army.

    Oddly enough he looked the most “reactionary” of all the Britsh Generals – vast tash and so on.

    And he certainly was not an “educated soldier” like Haig.

    It is possible to attack and kill more than one looses. Even in the conditions of near siege warfare which is what the Western Front was like.

    The Haig approach was to lie – claiming that enemy casualties were greater than our own.

    The Plummer approach was actually to do it.

    Of course this is more difficult than Haig’s approach.

  • Frederick Davies

    The British Army changed more in three years than in the previous hundred. It was a magnificent achievement, and one which is now largely forgotten. For some reason, we prefer to dwell upon our failures rather than our successes.

    I cannot agree more! That is essentially the whole thesis of Gordon Corrigan’s “Mud, Blood and Poppycock”; since the British Army was not involved in any large land European war between 1815 and 1914, it is hardly surprising it took them a while to get ‘in gear’. Also, in all wars, someone has to take on the enemy’s main force in the main theatre of war for victory to be achieved; if one of your main ally’s armies (France) is in the middle of a revolt and the other’s (Russia) is having its arse seriously kicked about, you either take it as it comes or you loose. That the British undertook some pretty dreadful operations (which they might have done at different times or in different circumstances if it was up to them alone) is not in doubt, but when it comes to the end of it, you either support your allies in their time of need or you watch the alliance collapse.
    As for the quality of British generalship, though most of them were not Hannibals or Napoleons, calling them bloodthristy incompetents like some post-war politicians and writers did is way off the mark. And as I said, once the armies and officers got their legs, they came up with pretty incredible operations: Allenby in the Battle of Megiddo did the kind of stuff any general in History would like to have on his name.

  • It is possible to attack and kill more than one looses.

    That is not the point of war. The point is: to win decisive victories, to administer severe blows.
    I don’t mean to say that all generals were fools, or cowards or “bloodthristy incompetents”. Most were probably decent, courageous and patriotic, and fought the best they could. What was lacking was original ideas, that touch of genius that turns the tide. What was lacking in the high command, was common sense – to recognize the futility of the frontal assaults, to change the routine, to think out of the box.

  • John K

    What was lacking in the high command, was common sense – to recognize the futility of the frontal assaults, to change the routine, to think out of the box.

    The point I am making is that that is exactly what happened. It took until 1918 for techniques such as rolling artillery barrages to be perfected, but eventually they were. If the British Army had still been using the techniques of 1915 in 1918, they would never have broken the German Army, but they did, which was why the Germans had to sue for peace. The game was up for them, they had been beaten.

  • Ed Snack

    Paul, I thoroughly disagree with your whole approach. Plumer was a good tactician within the limitations that existed. His successes at 3rd Ypres were however very definitely an attritional strategy. He deliberately limited his advances to around 1500 metres so that where the attacking troops finished up they would still be covered by their artillery to defend against the inevitable German counter attacks. Bite and hold was the name coined. With such an attack, one cannot ever break through, but you can successfully take ground, albeit very slowly.

    It is also true that Plumer was a particularly good “man manager”, and along with his CoS Harrington, created an excellent attitude amongst the commanders in his army.

    But back to Loos, Loos was a considerable success early on, Haig’s troops cretaed a hole in the german line. However the reserves were not under his direct command but French’s, and it was French who positioned them too far back so they could not reach the line in time to continue the attack when it was needed. And the two divisions selected as reserves were new and almost untrained, highly unsuitable, when better trained troops, the Guards division for example, were prtesent and available. It was this battle and the aftermath that led to French’s dismissal, and Haig’s elevation.

    It is worth remembering too, that while they occupied a good part of Northern France and almost all of Belgium, Germany held the strategic initiative. France and GB could either negotiate from a position of weakness or attempt to do something about it. Politically it would have been extremely difficult to acquiesce in the occupation, and recall too, the German’s did not sit still, the attack on Verdun came well before the Somme, which was fought at least to a significant degree, to relieve the pressure on the French.

  • steve

    Morning All, Just thought I would recommend “The Great War – Myth and Memory” by Dan Todman, not so much a book about WW1 as a book about how our perceptions of it have changed.
    The WW1 as pointless bloodbath didn’t really get a grip until the 60’s, prior to that it was viewed with a certain grim respect – it was tough, bloody, but had to be done, sort of viewpoint. My suspicion is that after the high water mark of pointless bloodbath represented by Blackadder IV the pendulum is swinging back again (to mix metaphors) Some things I ponder are 1, If our Generals where hopeless, what does that say about the Germans? 2, Maybe the doctrine of attrition really was the only game in town, at least until the invention of blitzkreig tactics by the British Army. Both sides spoke of “bleeding the enemy white” and I am sure I have read somewhere, that the Allied High Command had done it’s sums and realised that Germany would run out of able bodied men long before the British and French – If you have that sort of thinking in the back of your mind, then massed assaults, largely with aim of mutual slaughter have a certain gruesome (and dare I say morally bankrupt) logic. 3. I can’t help but wonder if other things might have worked – my pet one being fighting purely defensively on the western front, whilst launching a sustained attack on the Austro-hungarian Empire.

    Finally I knew a survivor of the Somme who died about 15 years ago, his take on it was quite interesting, he was proud to have done his bit, and thought it was a war worth fighting. But he also said that Blackadder was funny, because it was true!

  • Jacob

    It took until 1918 for techniques such as rolling artillery barrages to be perfected, but eventually they were.

    That’s the point. It took too long.
    And it took too many useless and costly offensives in the meantime. Far too many. Too many losses in vain.
    As I said before, I think that reasonable Generals (not necessarily brilliant ones) shoud have stopped the attacks and remained on the defensive, until those techniques were perfected.
    Politically it was “extremely difficult to acquiesce in the occupation” – but sacrificing soldiers in vain for those political reasons isn’t a sign of good Generalship.

  • Paul Marks

    Ed Snack – I apologize for misspelling General Plumer’s name.

    World War One was a vast SIEGE.

    The idea that there could have been an allied “break through” in the early years of the war is false – at least is one means on the Western Front.

    So either one should not attack at all (Haig and co would not allow this option), or one should attack in such a way as to keep down one’s own casualties and increase the casualities of the enemy.

    Going for the great “break through” (in the early years of the war – whilst the Germans had not been worn down by hunger and shortages of supplies and when large numbers of tanks and aircraft were not available) is just signing the death warrent of one’s own troops. As for attrition – Haig also talked about attrition (he just told lies about relative casuality stats).

    I am irritated (to put it mildly) that people are still comming out with Big Push stuff even after so many decades.

    You mention the first day of the Battle of Loos.

    You were quite correct – my comments were about the second day (although I thought I made that clear by citing Haig’s lies about following up a defeated enemy).

    On the first day there were indeed some limited gains – however Haig also managed to gas his own men.

    Blaming Sir John French.

    Like Haig, Sir John French was a cavalry soldier and, therefore, should not have been in any position of command on the Western Front at all (although Allenby, another cavalry soldier, was an ideal commander for the Middle East).

    But trying to blame Sir John French for Loos simply shows that spin is still being used to defend “Haig the Educated Soldier”. This is logical – after all spin is what Haig was best at.

    By the way, if you are interested in a Big Push I will give you a place where one would have worked:

    Suvla Bay 1915.

    22,000 British soldiers were to be landed, faced by 1500 Turks (many of them milita) under the German Major Willmar.

    Had the British attacked at once (which I freely accept Haig would have done) the Turks would have been defeated, the British would have linked up with other Imperial forces – the Dardanelles campaign would have been a success and the Royal Navy would have no real opposition in going to Constaninople and knocking Turkey out of the war. Thus linking up with the Russians and completing the encirclement of the Central Powers.

    In short the SIEGE (which is what World War One really was) would have been on with deadly effect and the war would have been over much quicker than it was.

    Of course both Sir John French and Haig were against the Dardanelles campaign – and almost seem to have welcomed the choice of a bunch of unsuitable people to command it.

    Stopford, Hammersley and Mahon were unfit (in more ways than one) for military command – and Sir Ian Hamilton was a weakling.

    I repeat that I accept that had Haig been in charge at Suvla Bay he would have attacked at once and won a great victory.

    Perhaps Haig would have done well in the Middle East as well (although I prefer the commander actually put in charge).

    But Haig should not have been in a position of command on the Western Front.

    At least Pakenham led his frontal walking attack on prepared defences in person (battle of New Orleans 1815) and therefore was not about to be irritant at other times.

  • At least Pakenham led his frontal walking attack on prepared defences in person (battle of New Orleans 1815) and therefore was not about to be irritant at other times.

    Good idea. Some honest generals did that when they had to do a battle they didn’t really like.

    Allenby is the name of a main street in the center of Tel Aviv. King George V – the name of another main street.

    To become a great general (Allenby) you need to select you enemy wisely.

  • John K

    That’s the point. It took too long.

    I think you are being a bit hard on commanders who were struggling with a new type of warfare, for which they had not been trained, and for which there was no doctrine. They had to make it up as they went along. How could they plan for tank warfare when tanks did not exist until 1916?

    I don’t think they did too badly in the circumstances. It seems to have taken the modern army several years to work out that it needs something better than snatch Land Rovers in Iraq, for example.

  • John K

    By the way, if you are interested in a Big Push I will give you a place where one would have worked:

    Suvla Bay 1915.

    I agree. It was a terrible missed opportunity. Sir Ian Hamilton was, by all accounts, a kind and decent man, but a very poor and ineffectual general, and Stopford was just a useless waste of space, who allowed a golden opportunity go to waste. Defeat for Turkey in 1915 might well have averted the Russian Revolution. One of the great what-ifs of history.

  • Frederick Davies

    World War One was a vast SIEGE.

    That is a conclusion that can only be reached with hindsight, which is something no one in those days had.

    The idea that there could have been an allied “break through” in the early years of the war is false – at least is one means on the Western Front.

    More hindsight for your part; trying to expect generals (or anyone for that matter) to see into the future is inherently unfair. Besides, even if we assume they had reached that conclusion, the fact is that in History most sieges have been ended by successful assaults (read ‘breakthroughs’); it is rare the siege that continues all the way to starvation. So even under your assumption, military practice would still have dictated trying to break through the enemy lines.
    Also, your idea that a siege is conducted just by surrounding the enemy and staying on the defensive (or just doing the minimum necessary) is flawed: sieges are inherently dynamic situations in which, unless you keep attacking to hold on to the initiative, you end up loosing. One of the most common signals that a siege is about to fail or is running into trouble is when the besiegers stop trying.

    On the first day there were indeed some limited gains – however Haig also managed to gas his own men.

    If you think that any general of the time could have avoided incidents like that happening (even with perfect planning and execution), you need to remember what the communications of the age were like: no radios with the front line, telephone lines severed by artillery bombardment half of the time, no way to use optical telegraph due to smoke… What does that leave you with? Runners. If you think that you can easily coordinate a battle spanning several dozen of miles of front with runners you are really very optimistic.

  • trying to expect generals (or anyone for that matter) to see into the future is inherently unfair

    False. That’s what generals do for a living. (Also enterpreneurs). They appraise a given battle situation – our forces, the enemy forces, our fire power, the enemy fire power, the ground, the obstacle, etc.. They estimate what the outcome of any possible maneuver or operation will be. They are paid to predict it right.
    They err many times, but that’s no sign of success. The one who gets it right is the winner.

    And it’s not a matter of hindsight. It’s a matter of failing to draw the correct conclusion even after many failed attempts.

  • Paul Marks

    Frederick Davies – “hidesight”.

    Not at all Sir.

    General Plumer tactics show that he understood he was engaged in siege warfare. And nor was he “static” – he just did not send his men slowly walking towards intact defences and he did not do this AGAIN AND AGAIN – it really is unpardnerable and I am rather tired of people trying to defend commanders like Haig.

    And at sea the Royal Navy knew they had two objectives – to prevent a siege of Britian yes (the U. boat threat), but from the first to do exactly that to Germany, cut off its supplies (a massive siege – the blockade).

    In some ways a similar thing was done to the Confederacy in American Civil War.

    John K. – I agree with some of your comments, but I do not agree that anyone is being too hard on the commanders.

    Walking frontal attacks on prepared defences are wrong.

    They were wrong long before anyone invented barbed wire or machine guns.

    They had repeatedly been seen to be wrong many times and in many wars (for example British military observers wrote wildly critical reports of the Russians using such tactics in certain places in the war with Turkey in 1878).

    Walking toward trenches, with heavy pack on. No skirmishers (and skirmishing was important even in conditions of the Western front – as the German Storm Troops were to show and men like General Monash also did), no flanking attacks (for example by sapping – i.e. using underground destruction as a flanking attack, soldiers live in holes and war is faught in three dimensions – indeed in four dimensions for TIME is also vital).

    Wellington would have not have been very happy with Haig style tactics – which have reminded some people of pike block thinking from the 17th century.

    And NO not all commanders on the Western Front used these tactics.

    “The Generals had to learn….”

    Again I am not talking about new weapons – the tanks and aircraft that they did indeed use to good effect in 1918.

    I am talking about basic military principles – if the Generals did not know those they should not have been Generals.

    And the fact that they made the same mistakes again and again (for years) is disgusting.

    “You would not have done better”.

    Perhaps not – but I am not a General. If these men are not be judged by the standards of their profession we might as well give up and go home.

    “Unwinerable wars” (when the balance of firepower is with the side that says it is “unwinerable”) tend to be wars where commanders are either no good, or are chained up with regulations and do not have the moral courage to resign.

    Once a commader has the men and supplies he has requested take the regulations off him and see how he does.

    But if he still fails – sack him and get someone else.

    Lloyd-George was daft, he rightly distrusted Haig – but reacted not by demanding that he be sacked (whatever the King thought), but by denying him men and supplies in 1918 (having seen how Haig had got so many of them killed in the previous years).

    This led to a bit of problem when the Germans attacked.

    If you have no confidence in the commander get a new one – do not cut off men and supplies from the existing one.

  • Paul Marks

    Out of respect to those who served (especially today) I should point out two of Haig’s many errors (both long after the battle of Loos).

    Getting rid of General Plummer in the Passchendale offensive (for the offense of opposing a “break through” fantasy of wild attack) and insisting that the offensive go on and on till November (at the expense of huge number of lives for a few miles of mud) 1917.

    But for the a single day one must go back to the Somme on July 1st 1916.

    57,470 casualties out of the 120,000 men who attacked on that day – and 21,000 of those men died (again – on a single day). And nothing of any importance was captured.

    And General Haig’s reaction?

    “The general situation was favourable”.

  • Ok, Jacob, you are getting obnoxious with all your slander against Germany.

    I can say the same for England – it was the same madness that caused all the famine holocausts in india, the calamities of so many native people under their rule, and all the miseries of their wars of empire that led them to enter world war 1.

  • …and all the miseries of their wars of empire that led them to enter world war 1.

    Meaning what exactly? Germany attacked Belgium, so Britain declared war in Germany. All Germany had to do to prevent World War One was, well, not start it (i.e.do not attack other countries), it really does boil down to that.. what has German aggression in Europe got to do with Britain’s Empire?

  • mariska

    Hmm, you must be the administrator of this site, to have replied so quickly.

    I was put off by Jacob’s personal attacks on Germany and I also disagree with him about the fairness of the Treaty of Versailles.

    I don’t understand your question towards me, since I never wrote anything in my post that suggests that German aggression in Europe had anything to do with the British Empire.

    It seems to me that Jacob is maliciously attacking Germany and singling them out for being “mad” in as he blasts them for the world wars. I was just trying to point out to him that if it were pure nationalistic madness that was the whole and sole cause for the First World War, then it wasn’t only unique to Germany. Then everyone was mad at some point.

    The world back then was still pretty much crazy in general. It was all a bunch of ruthless imperialists playing monopoly using lives of men as their paper money. I do believe that Germany bore most responsibility for the war, as it started because they weren’t satisfied with the relatively small empire they had and believed that they were a great nation entitled to the most influence in Europe, and more territory to colonize. However, it was only after Britain got involved and dragged its empire as well as many other nations into the war with it, that it really became a world war, right?

    Involvement from Britain’s side was not purely out of concern for Europe, but plain imperialism as well. They were the brokers in the European affairs, and always picked sides based on what would be most beneficial to their imperial interests. From the outset their aim was to incorporate the German colonies into their empire. I am South African, our prime minister invaded German South West and East Africa, with the intention of creating a larger Anglo-Boer African empire, even though the poor German colonists only wanted to go about their colonizing business in peace, and right from the start of the war, declared that they had no intention of causing any trouble. They were all deported, their estates sold. Today Namibia is English.

    To single them out like what Jacob does, seems unfair, even if they were completely wrong. I mean, how many wars and atrocities did it take for England to secure the land, resources and wealth that the English speaking people of today enjoy so much? So why should Germany be forever condemned so harshly even today for wanting an Empire which was a pretty normal thing to aspire to back then, in those crazy crazy times.

    Even as late as the fifties, Britain went to ruthless extremes to keep its empire in tact, in both Kenya and Egypt.

    I was just hoping to dampen the harsh emotions people sometimes express towards Germany by rationalizing what happened, and by using England’s history as an example.

    Even ww2 was not abnormal – Germany had a choice, after losing everything in ww1, they could either accept being an insignificant tiny European nation, or make war and obtain for themselves what Britain. France, Spain, Portugal have obtained for themselves: vast lands where their people, language and culture could expand into.

    To answer the question posted at the beginning, I think whether the war was worth it or not depends on the way one looks at it. From an imperialistic view, if Germany truly was such a great threat to France and Britain’s empires, as some books suggest, then it was worth it, for France and Britain, to defend their imperial interests by fighting Germany. For Germany, the war was not worth it, in retrospect, of course. They lost their entire empire, much European land and also their image was so soiled by allied propaganda sowed all over the world that it still hasn’t recovered up to this day. However, if they had won it would probably have been worth it, just as, looking at the privileged English race of today, England’s wars of Empire were worth it.

    If Germany had won, however this might have come to pass, I think ones perception of how it would have affected the world and how a German-dominated Europe would have been is largely based on one’s personal sentiment and preference. Not being English nor German, and having had a bad experience with a supremacist English boyfriend, but mostly not wanting to be duped into believing that only English culture was worthy of ruling the world, and that any other great power in control would have been atrocious and terrible, I don’t see a reason why a German victory would have been so bad.

    I am not saying that what Germany did was right in any way, that a German victory would have ratified the terrible cost of the war, I just feel sorry for my Germanic cousins regarding how sensationalized their history has become and how harshly they are condemned. I feel I must protect them by at least rationalizing their history to open minded people who might stumble upon this site. That it was merely a drop in the ocean of madness that is our history. You might find all of this completely irrelevant.

    There is the treaty of Versailles, for example, which some people here have said to be completely just. By taking everything from Germany, its empire, it’s living space, many European leaders knew that they were simply replacing the grief in German hearts over their lost sons with indignity, and a desperate and burning desire to regain the precious empire and Lebensraum that had been taken from them. If Germany were at least to keep some of its colonies, they might have cut their losses and might have been content with what they had, instead of repeating the terrible event in order to obtain more power. However, having lost everything, they basically had the choice of staying a weak empire less nation, or going to war again to obtain an empire –that what France and Britain were so much enjoying and so arrogantly rubbing in everyone’s faces, and risk ultimate defeat again.

    sorry, i am the devil’s advocate 😉

  • alice

    hi every one can you please tell me if you as soilder was worth to go risk your life int he war it is form english essay please