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The world in 1912 (according to the Times)

One of my hobbies is to browse the pages of the (London) Times from a hundred years ago. As I intend (though I promise nothing) to write the odd post around articles from the time I thought it might be a good idea to describe (as best I can) the world in 1912. Or, at least, the world as seen through the pages of the Times which is a potentially dangerous thing to do. Imagine, for instance, describing the world of 2012 with the BBC News as your only source.

I cannot read articles from 1912 without being aware that there’s a big war coming up. A huge war. A Great War. A war that will change just about everything. Mostly for the worse. But can I see it coming? Not really. There clearly are tensions between Britain and Germany. Last year two British officers (Brandon and Trench) were jailed for spying. Seeing as one of them went on to become a leading light in MI6 it looks like the Germans got their man. More to the point it demonstrates that there is a lot of distrust.

More recently, the German press has been up in arms over a visit by British parliamentarians to Russia. They feel they’re being surrounded.

Mind you the road to war is not an entirely straight one. It’s recently emerged that a French Prime Minister tried to give French Congo to Germany in an attempt to smooth feathers ruffled in the Morocco Crisis. (No, I don’t understand what it was about either). The Prime Minister, Caillaux, had to resign. He will pop up again in July 1914 when his wife is goes on trial accused of the murder of a newspaper editor. Despite being as guilty as sin she gets off.

In Germany, the socialists have done very well in the recent elections to the Reichstag and become the biggest party. While I am a bit shaky on what influence the Reichstag has (not a lot, I think) I suspect this has deeply worried the Prussian military.

This is a global trend. Buy democracy and socialism. Sell God and monarchy.

In Britain, there was a national rail strike in August, and a major coal strike is about to start. This comes after last year’s major coal strike which ended in riots and the use of troops. The army was also called out to a few months later to put down riots in Liverpool.

When it comes to radicalism (i.e. making things worse), Britain’s Liberal-led government knocks modern British governments into a cocked hat. It has massively expanded the state pension, neutered the House of Lords, nationalised the telephone network, is in the process of nationalising general practitioners and introducing devolution to Ireland. Ulster objects and Winston Churchill recently had to call off a planned meeting in Belfast due to concerns over security.

Opium is about to be banned. Mostly, it seems, to help the Chinese emperor. Although, given the recent revolution there it would appear he is beyond help. It is far from obvious that opium is much of a problem domestically.

Crime. There are certainly plenty of murders. If there is a difference in reporting between now and then it is the reporting of the minor crimes. Last week the Times reported a case of GBH only just down the road from where I currently live. I don’t think it would do that these days.

Suffragettes (or suffragists, as they seem to be called). They appear to have won the argument. I have yet to see a serious argument against votes for women expressed in the Times. And yet, there is no plan, timetable or bill for its introduction. My understanding is that at the time many men couldn’t vote. In its New Year editorial the Times warns of the dangers of “extreme democracy”. Yes, but what’s your alternative Lord Northcliffe?

Italy is in the process of taking Libya off the Turks.

America is mostly harmless.

Times editorial, 1 January 1912:


31 comments to The world in 1912 (according to the Times)

  • RRS

    Are you quite sure the editorial was 1912, since it refers to the Great War?

  • Yes, I was a bit surprised about that too. I can only guess they were referring to the Napoleonic Wars.

  • veryretired

    I think he was referring to what he knew was going to happen, not the people writing in the paper.

    Read “The Proud Tower” by Tuchman. She wrote it as a prequel to the Guns of August, I assume because she had to do the research anyway for Guns.

    It traces the winding path that Europe took to WW1.

    I’ve read other accounts, but she is a novelist in her writing style, and very enjoyable for an old history buff like me.

    It’s a fascinating period, and, as I’ve said before, we are still experiencing the “timewaves” from that war. Much of the 20th century developed in reaction to that great tragedy, and a worldwide civilization committed the first cut of its agonizingly slow and deadly suicide.

  • The alternative to introducing democracy (as we understand the word today, i.e. Mass Suffrage) might be, um, not introducing democracy.

    Of course, the damage had really been done in the nineteenth century: once the process of expanding the franchise begins, it is always in the interest of one party or the other to add in the next batch of voters. But decades seem longer when you’re in them, and it’s not surprising that writers of the time believed the restricted franchise could be retained.

    The most important point is that the Britain of a hundred years ago was a country so undemocratic that the Britain of 2012 would bomb it. Almost within living memory, respectable people were warning that democracy would lead to disaster. Were they wrong?

  • @Patrick:
    I think the problem is that a lot of the tensions which eventually instigated the war in 1914 had been building up since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, so that the events of the summer of 1914 were just the straw that broke the camels back as it were.

    Equally, during this period, Britain was still an imperial power with an overwealming superiority in naval power, so the arrogance of the British establishment at the time was absolutely overwealming.

    While “The Times of London” as it was back then was THE journal of record for the British Empire, it also sufferred from the prejudices of the establishment in that wars among the natives were generally a matter of disinterest except where it affected British intests such as the Suez Canal.

    Indeed the period between the fall of Napoleon and the First World War was a very quiet period for British military involvment on the European mainland. Mostly the British military was fighting wars elsewhere (Sudan, Crimea, Afghanistan, Southern Africa, etc.)

    I honestly believe that while the British were aware of German military buildup, they believed that any full scale war would be limited and that British involvement would be primarily diplomatic.

    Equally, they believed that the explicit support for the neutrality of Beligium and Luxembourg enshirened within the Treaty of London (1839 and 1867 respectively) would act as a barrier to German invasion.

    As Blackadder famously said

    “…there was a tiny flaw in the plan….It was bollocks.”

  • Steve Doerr

    According to the OED, ‘Great War’ formerly referred to ‘the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793–1815’.

  • Phil Ossiferz Stone

    /raises hand

    If *I* want to read issues of The Times from a hundred years ago, where do I go? Do you actually buy old issues at garage sales, or is there an online resource?

  • Gale Group have done all the scanning and labelling. I am lucky enough that they have made these pages available to my local library so, effectively, I get them for free.

    I have seen their commercial rates. They are not cheap.

  • Many public libraries have lengthy archives of old newspapers on microfilm, as do many university libraries. Find the largest nearby library that will give you reading rights, and go in and ask.

  • Alisa

    Love the web – god bless Al!

  • Wonky Moral Compass

    “The alternative to introducing democracy (as we understand the word today, i.e. Mass Suffrage) might be, um, not introducing democracy.”
    So, what’s your preferred alternative? An Athenian model of democracy, perhaps?

  • RRS

    As has been apparent before, the thesis of Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations (1961-Liberty Fund Reprint 1979) seems to me to be consistently reinforced by such research and refreshment of views read in the contexts of their time.

    The “core” of Western Civilization had passed from France to England and to the U S by 1910. The last period of expansion was coming to an end by 1929, the period of conflict (destined to consume the 20th century) was underway (with weigh-on just 2 years after 1912); there is as yet no sign of further expansion.

    So, what does the reading of the “old” tell us of what remains?

  • Paul Marks

    Now you know why I like hiding in the 18th century Patrick – or (at the latest) the 1820s.

    Even in 1912 (when government was vastly smaller than it is today) the ideological assumptions were statist – reform was defined as more statism.

    More government welfare schemes, more state ownership, more regulations banning things…..

    And on and on.

    The government reached its low point (as a percentage of the economy) in the early 1870s – but as early as the 1830s “reform ” was comming to mean statism.

    As for the political system.

    The old view of “liberty” was (as you know) limiting the power of government – in the 19th century liberty came to mean having a say in government (via the vote).

    This was not a good change in the conception of liberty.

  • Paul Marks

    Even in the United States the last Democrat President who thought of liberty as meaning a smaller government was pushed out (by his own party) in 1896 – just as Gladstone had been pushed out (again by his own party) a couple of years before.

    The Republican party was more a party of businessmen (although often of strongly religious busoinessmen – that element was there from the first, indeed it was the source of the antislavery position) than a party of smaller government (these things are not the same – as some, but not all, businessmen may think that a bigger government is in the interests of prosperity).

    Although being a party of business is NOT a bad thing – there are vastly worse things to be. The much mocked “Bible in one hand, pistol in the other hand – but financial ledger in the back pocket” is not so bad if the local representative of it is (say) W. Earp and his brothers facing down the Clantons and so on (and many of the people on the Clanton side had previously faught for the Murphy-Dolan monopoly in the Lincoln County War over in New Mexico – they were bad to the core, backshooters and rapists).

    It was not till 1920 that a modern Republican faught and won a Presidential election on a real smaller government platform (although as late as 1912 the Federal government was only about 2% of the American economy – even by British standards the United States was a very small government place).

    Warren Harding – and he actually kept his word (cutting government spending by 25%, from a peacetime 1920 total, and in the face of the 1921 credit bubble bust).

    That Warren Harding kept his word and really was a small government President (and showed that cutting government spending in the face of a bust HELPS RECOVERY – contrary to the ideology taught in the universities and so on), is the real reason that establishment historians (and so on) hate him. His Administration was not really more corrupt than most Administrations – certainly less corrupt than the Roosevelt Administration (which the same establishment historians slobber over).

    I can not think of a British equivelent for Warren Harding (or Calivn Coolidge), or the “do nothing” Congress elected in 1946.

    The Republican party does have some good bits in its history – if only it would seek to recapture them.

  • RRS

    This time the multi-faceted Paul Marks Organization baffles me.

    Grover Cleveland was not only not “pushed out” by his own party (though his second term did end in 1897), he was renominated in 1982 (and won) despite having lost to Harrison in 1988 after his first term.

    But, he does seem to have been the last bulwark in his party against the rising tide of the “Progressives,” whom T.R. co-opted.

  • RRS

    My transposition 1892 not 1982

  • RRS

    Also 1878 not 88, sheeez

  • Chris Cooper

    Terrific post, Patrick. I love the rolling bombast of the Times editorial. It makes Sean Gabb look positively tabloid.

  • llamas

    TCM played ‘Gaslight’ this weekend. It is set perhaps 10-15 years before 1912, but no matter.

    Inspector Cameron – Does your husband keep weapons in the house?

    Paula Anton – Yes, he has a revolver. Why shouldn’t he?

    How times have changed, to be sure.



  • terence patrick hewett

    Quite a number of people saw the Great War coming: try Jerome K Jerome’s 1908 book Three Men on the Bummel chapter 14: his analysis chills your blood.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I never saw that usage of “the Great War” before. But Google Ngrams says it was around starting from the 1840s. By 1880 it was as common, and by 1900 twice as as common, as the nautical term “sheet anchor” (which was in occasional use as a metaphor).

    IOW, while it was not a common usage, it was something most literate adults had seen and would understand.

  • TDK

    The Moroccan Crisis was a dispute between France and Germany over their interests in Morocco. It was one of the last bits of Africa to be grabbed in the Scramble and was notionally independent of the Ottomans, France, Germany and Spain.

    Germany wanted access to its markets and the French take over in 1911 ended that. Germany wanted the French Congo in compensation. There was an aspect of Germany attempting to divide the Entente as the French action both broke previous agreements and was provocative – ie Britain was expected to back off from war if it was seen to be caused by French aggression. Of course that didn’t happen.

  • TDK

    Since people are recommending books about the lead up to war. Here is Europe’s Last Summer: Why the World Went to War in 1914 by David Fromkin

    This book argues that Germany started the war because it feared being overtaken by rivals and sought the right time and conditions before the actual war. So the assassination of the Archduke was a suitable pretext rather than an actual cause – if it hadn’t been that then other events would probably have caused it.

  • I liked Fromkin too. A bit bombastic and I suspect vulnerable to a well-researched critique but fun all the same.

  • Paul Marks


    I wish I could take you back to the Democrat Convention of 1896 – these were not Cleveland people.

    The party had been taken over by the anti “Cross of Gold” crowd.

    What you say reminds me of what Sir William Harcourt said about the departure of Gladstone.

    How they did not want him to leave – how it was his choice, how everyone parted on good terms (and so on).

    In reality we now know that Harcourt (like the Demcrats in the United States) was lying.

    Gladstone expressed his utter contempt for the people who pushed him out (a “few cold words” – not the tears and cuddles that Harcourt described).

    The man who wanted to get rid of the income tax (and would have done so had he won in 1874) lived to see a “Progressive” (graduated) income tax and “death duties” (inheritance tax) thanks to his “beloved friend” Harcourt (“beloved friend” being not how Gladstone viewed the relationship).

    And NO – W. J.B. ws not great pal or ally of G. Cleveland either.

    He is rather unlikely to be the man G. Cleveland would have picked as the nominee in 1896.

    People like Cleveland (who was the only Democrat Wyatt Earp voted for before Al Smith in 1928) were not in charge of the Democratic party any more.

  • Paul Marks

    World War One may have been “inevitable” – but the longer it could be delayed the better.

    For Russia and France were getting stronger (miltarily) in relation to Germany.

    Nicky II made a fatal error when he moblized in 1914 (in response to the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia). Actually he understood this himself and did not want to issue the mobilzation order, but the Minister of War shouted at him and he gave in (that weakness tells people all we need to know about Nicky).

    Germany would NOT have declared war had Russia not mobilzed – and Russia was not ready for war.

    Let the Germanic peoples lord it in the Balkans.

    Even the 1903 coup (which moved Serbia from being pro Austro-Hungary to being pro Russia) was a dreadful mistake.

    Do NOTHING to provoke the Germanic powers – till the military is ready.

    “They would have found some other excuse”.

    Then carry on with the treaty that existed in Bismark’s time – a treaty of ALLIANCE with Germany (and by extention Austro-Hungary).

    The new German Emperor let that treaty lapse – but had the Russians asked (very nicely) his vanity would not have allowed him not to continue with the treaty – “oh so they are ASKING to be my friends….”

    Again do NOTHING aggressive (whatever the bleeping “PanSlavs” say) till the military is strong enough to back an aggressive policy successfully.

    The same could be said of policy towards Japan.

    Whilst Russia did not have the infrastructure in place (which it did not in 1905 – not really) one says “oh you wish to be the leader power in Korea, and Manchuria and China itself…. well my dear Japanese friends – you have my total support”.

    Of course when the infrastructure and forces are in place it is a different matter – as it was for the Soviets in August (yes AUGUST – there was a Soviet raid on Japanese forces before World War II, which showed the Japanese that their armour and so on could not stand against the Red Army) 1939 and August 1945 (when they fell upon the Japanese without warning).

    As for tactics in the war itself.

    Obviously linking up with Russia is key – for Britain and France (on the one hand) and Russia (on the other hand) to basically fight to different wars against the Central Powers makes no sense.

    But linking up with Russia can not be done – unless one has access from the Med to the Black Sea.

    In short Churchill was strategically correct – but utterly messed up the tactical side of the 1915 operations.

    Largely because he allowed tactical command to not be in his own hands.

    If you come up with a scheme – then BE IN CONTROL OF IT.

    Otherwise it will be handed to people who have no faith in the idea whatever – who will (almost inevitablly) mess it up.

    For example at the Suvla Bay landings some 22,000 British forces faced one thousand five hundred (1500 – not 15000) Turkish forces – and without any real prepared defences.

    Yet, somehow, Stopford, Hammersley (and Sir Ian Hamilton – by refusing to get involved) managed to bleep it up.

    General Hammersley had recently “recoved” from a nervious breakdown – and after landing he retreated to a tent with his head in his hands making blubbing noises.

    And General Stopford did not even go ashore – clameing his leg was hurting him.

    These were not ideal commanders. Indeed had they been privates (rather than Generals) – both men (under British Army rules) would have been executed.

    And Hamilton? He believed it would have been “rude” to take command (i.e. kick our Stopford).

    As for the Western front in tatical (as opposed to strategic) terms.

    Patrick and myself have discussed this before.

    My view is that if a General can come up with no better plan than a mass of infantry walking towards prepared enemy defences (which is basically mass sucide – rather than a real battle plan), then offensives should not be launched (till commanding Generals come up with better tactical concepts than this). One should settle down to the grim horrors of SIEGE warfare instread (slowly strangling Germany to death by blockade) – although, of course, this depends on Germany not gaining the food and raw materials of the Russian Empire.

    Another reason why linking up with Russia is essential – there must not be two different (divided) wars.

    To return to the tactical concept of masses of infantry walking towards prepared enemy defences.

    This concept did not work when (for example) it was used at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. And there are many other examples.

    It was hardly likely to work against rapid fire rifles, machine guns and modern artillery.

    Again to attack PREPARED DEFENCES with a mass of infantry (walking slowly in lines) is more like mass suicide than a sound tactical concept.

    If Generals can come up with nothing better then they must be ordered to stay on the defensive till they think of better plans (such as blowing up enemy strong points from below – and then rushing in to kill or capture the survivers, that will not win the war in the short term, but at least it helps wears the enemy down) – or till TECHNOLOGY offers them new alternatives.

    Although, it should been pointed out, that Haig style tactics would have worked at Suvla Bay.

    Due to the lack of strong prepared defences.

    And a British advantage in numbers of about 15 to 1. When the landing actually happened (of course some days later a lot more Turks had arrived).

  • RRS


    Perhaps I misunderstood.

    My understanding of that period from my father who was then a very young man, apprentice merchant in a small Illinois town, at the time, free silver and all, was that Cleveland “dropped out,” which may be much the same thing. My father was a friend of Ruth Bryan, from “way back” and hence a WJB guy and later supported her in politics in Florida where he had extensive interests, and where I stayed in the 20s as a child.

    Sadly, as I look back, given his general temperament, I have wondered about that populist streak, but it was of that age for which I am an inadequate bridge.

  • RRS

    Further to PM

    What is your source about Nicholas II’s decision to mobilize? Of course, both he and Sazonov (Foreign Minister?) knew the exposures.

    Is this found in Richard Pipes’ works?

    I know I bang on about it, but the scholarship of Carroll Quigley on the changes in warfare technologies, and its effects on the progress of western civilization really merit more consideration.

  • Paul Marks

    It was the Minister of War (not the Minister of Foreign Minister) who shouted at Nicky.

    I do not have a source to hand – but I have read it many times (of course I was not there – so I do not know for sure).

    As for Cleveland “dropping out” – so he did.

    Just like Gladstone “retired”.

    Formally – that is exactly what they did.

    They went out spitting blood – but formally speaking they were not voted out.

    As for Bryan – I agree with him about the First World War.

    There was no good reason for America to get involved – and I say that even knowing that Britain might well have lost without the United States.

    Imperial Germany (for all its faults) was not Nazi Germany.

    I would also defend Bryan even on the “Monkey Trial” (it was a lot more complicated than Hollywood presents – see Jack Cashill’s “Hoodwinked” about the various nasty stuff, real vicious racism, in that school textbook, something that would shock the old South about race had to be rather hardcore).

    W.J.B. believed that the new ideology of “scientific racism” (with its teachign of forced stirilizations and the extermination of “inferior races” and so on) was evil – and he was correct.

    Sadly he flung out all of modern biology because of this.

    Also W.J.B. was a man of the left in his view of government – and I am not (no more than Cleveland was).

    So WJB and me would not see eye to eye.

  • The traveling public was beset by rising prices, worsening service, long ticket lines, baggage handling hassles and aggravating ticketing restrictions, all blamed on the war. I say “was”, because that was < the state of the railroads in 1918, and we’ve come ever so far since then, surely.