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What Patrick Crozier called the First World War War continues. Although the trenches have long been dug, the conflict can revert to being a war of manoeuvre with surprising speed, and sometimes evidence leaks out of mutiny among the troops of even the most committed belligerents.

From the BBC of all people: Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked

Here are the ten myths debunked by the article:

1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point
2. Most soldiers died
3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end
4. The upper class got off lightly
5. ‘Lions led by donkeys’
6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders
7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
8. No-one won
9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh
10. Everyone hated it

I am surprised and heartened to see this article from this source, particularly because it is by Dan Snow, a popular programme maker. I am also glad to see these points made because they are true.

ADDED LATER: The outcome of the First World War War matters to the cause of liberty now. Discuss.

60 comments to Mutiny!

  • Mr Ed

    This chap reputedly enjoyed the War, despit being a ‘bullet magnet’.


  • Paul Marks

    True as far as it goes.

    But I still hold that the tactics that the tended to be followed on the Western Front were often fundamentally mistaken, and this is not “hide sight”.

    The standard ideas of siege warfare were often not followed – because General Haig (and many others) refused to accept they were engaged in siege warfare, although siege warfare on a truly vast stage.

    General Haig (and others) were far from the absurd upper-class-twits of Communist propaganda – but I do not rate Haig as a Great Commander.

    Haig would have done well at Sulva Bay (where 20 thousand British troops landed facing a few hundred Turks who had no prepared defences – and then did nothing, till it was too late, because General Stopford was hopeless), but Haig was not at S. Bay – he was commander of the British Army on the Western Front, and this was not an ideal role for a cavalry commander.

    I suspect that even General Allenby (who did so well in the Middle East) would not have done well on the Western Front.

    The Western Front was an area for an infantry general and siege warfare specialist – such as General Plumer.

  • jdgalt

    I don’t buy #9. The hyperinflation and depression of 1923 were certainly results of the treaty (and without them I don’t see the Nazis winning election). The best that can be said for it is that the Germans asked for it by requiring the same kind of reparations from France after 1871.

    #8 is also very debatable. The Germans certainly lost, but so did just about everyone else. If there was a winner it was Poland and the Baltic states, which got their independence back, but only for 20 years (and Finland for an even shorter time).

    And the bloodiest war in history is very much a matter of opinion, with the answer depending on whether you count percentage of soldiers killed, percentage of national populations, or total bodies, but WW1 certainly wasn’t any of those. The 30 Years War (1618-48) was much worse by all three measures, killing about 30% of Germany’s population (mostly by famine and disease).

  • Mr Ed

    If there was a winner it was Poland and the Baltic states, which got their independence back, but only for 20 years (and Finland for an even shorter time).

    Finland retained independence from the chaos of late 1917 to the present day, albeit a long time under harsh Soviet terms dictated in 1944 (and in 1940) and after with a Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission post WW2 and it was obliged to assist the USSR militarilyin time of war until 1991, and maintain the frontier and return defectors. The USA never declared war on Finland, unlike aggressive, unprovoked New Zealand.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Mr Ed January 20, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    … unlike aggressive, unprovoked New Zealand.

    Counter-Karelian killer Kiwis? Wow.

  • So the winners write the history books — except that all-persuasive one written by Hitler about Versailles? Sorry, no. See also, “Keynes.”

  • Jacob

    About: “The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh” – I agree – it was not harsh at all, and, above all – it was never enforced. The BBC says that the myth of the treatise’s harshness was portrayed as such by Hitler, as a propaganda tool. This is correct – but he was not the only one, and even not the first one. John Maynard Keynes, who was involved in the Versailles negotiations, wrote a book, in 1919: The Economic Consequences of Peace, in which he argued the treaty was too harsh, and counterproductive.
    That the treaty was a failure goes without saying, but, in my opinion, the reason it failed was because it was too lenient (besides the lack of enforcement). Germany should have been broken up into it’s smaller constituent states, and not allowed to stay united.

  • Jacob

    KipEsquire, Thanks for making my point before me. (I didn’t see you identical comment before I wrote mine)

  • What Churchill said in 1940 could also have been justly said in 1914. ‘There are thoughtless, dilettante or purblind worldlings who sometimes ask us: “What is it that Britain and France are fighting for?” To this I make the answer: “If we left off fighting, you would soon find out.”‘

  • Jacob

    Thanks Mr Ed for the fascinating link about Carton de Wiart. What a story!

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I read a fascinating book, called ‘War and the rise of the state’, with the central idea being that wars empower governments and state structures. Before WW1, nobody needed passports; afterwards, they were compulsory. Whilst wars can emancipate some (women doing men’s jobs in WW2), the added taxes and directives limit all. The rise of democracy seems to give birth to a swelling bureaucracy. These would be the major effects of all major wars

  • Barry Sheridan

    History is a continuum, a reality that most assessments of these events are inclined to ignore. Therefore I would suggest that WW1 had no real victors, instead its outcome only led to breathing space before a much bigger conflict laid waste to much more of central Europe. Although this second war did produce a clear victory for one side in the immediate military sense, its legacy simply opened the way for yet another fight, that prolonged ideological conflict between former allies (of convenience) whose product was twofold, the death of countless more people and the disgraceful attitudes of many lucky enough to have found themselves on the better side of the fence. What this illustrates more than anything else is that wars, even when a clear cut choice exists on whether to fight, only end up laying before a species seemingly incapable of learning anything much from what has gone before some hard facts, lessons that will surely be ignored within a handful of years by those who should know better.

  • Jacob

    “instead its outcome only led to breathing space before a much bigger conflict laid waste to much more of central Europe.” … and the Far east.
    WW1 didn’t end well because the victors were too devastated and demoralized to finish the job, and see to it that the war won’t continue after the breathing spell.

  • Laird Minor

    If anyone’s interested, “Defying Hitler” provides a fascinating eyewitness account of the post-WW1 years in Germany and the rise of Hitler. Short book; worth the read.

  • llamas

    In all wars, it’s perfectly possible for many, many of the notional participants actually ‘under arms’ to have a very good war indeed, with low risk of loss or injury. Up to and during WW1, before the advent of aerial bombing of civilian targets, most civilians would be at essentially zero risk of loss or injury, with only relatively-minor privations like rationing and other civil limitations. WW1 famously brought licensing hours to the pubs of the UK, on the theory that 24*7 drinking might reduce the productivity of munitions workers.

    When the battle of the Somme was at its height, the French railways were running normal schedules just 60-80 miles behind the lines and English holidaymakers could express their way to the Cote D’Azur or a quick flutter at the tables in Monte, barely aware that there was a war going on. For every man in uniform holding the line in a foul slop of mud and blood in some ghastly slit-trench, there were 8 or 10 others in relatively-safe rear-echelon billets – which might be only 10 or 20 miles behind the lines.

    The Navy was a notoriously-safe place to be, except if you were in the Silent Service or in a North Atlantic convoy escort. Most Navy ships spent most of their time steaming from place to place, being refitted, or applying their power strategically rather than by actually trading lyddite with the enemy. Actual naval engagements tended to be very bloody affairs, but they were also few and far between.

    It’s good to keep a sense of proportion. Yes, over a million Commonwealth soldiers died in WW1. But at the exact-same time, almost 18 million people were killed in British India alone by the 1918 flu pandemic.



  • PersonFromPorlock

    Jacob January 20, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    Germany should have been broken up into it’s smaller constituent states, and not allowed to stay united.

    That in fact was the Morgenthau Plan, proposed towards the end of WW2. It wasn’t adopted and the four-sector, then two-sector, then peaceable unified Germany of today is evidence it wasn’t necessary.

  • Alsadius

    It wasn’t necessary for the same reason that nobody cared about a “War Guilt Clause” after WW2. The Germans didn’t really believe WW1 was their fault, but once they saw what Hitler had done and what the results were, they knew to the bone that WW2 was their fault. Still do, really. That’s what killed German militarism and why they didn’t much complain about the partition. 1945 was a much more brutal peace than 1918, but because it was felt to be justified, there wasn’t much lingering hatred over it. Being subsumed into the Cold War for 44 years after also meant that by the time the merger happened, nobody gave a damn anymore.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Please add my name to the list of those skeptical about the Versailles Treaty being soft. In the BBC article, i see no mention of the occupation of the Ruhr; and while the occupation of Germany after ww2 is said to be harsher, i see no mention of the Marshall Plan.
    Another factor: the German people could be blamed for electing Hitler and fighting to the end for him, but not for electing Kaiser Wilhelm, nor for fighting to the end for him.

    But the most important point in my view is that the Versailles Treaty was harsh enough for Hitler to be able to extract better terms. In other words, France and Britain rewarded the Germans for electing Hitler, with predictable results.

  • Mr Ed

    It might be said that WW1 ended for what agitators in Germany said was no evident reason, giving rise to the ‘stab-in-the-back’ lie. The war had no evident impact on inner Germany away from the fronts, ersatz economy, dead and wounded apart.

    Whereas, I read somewhere recently, at the end of WW2, that the Allied air forces ranged far and wide bombing all over Germany, even small towns and villages, the motive being to show the entire country that war had consequences, evident in the Ruhr, Berlin, Hamburg usw. but which it was felt, needed to be rammed home (literally) across the land.

  • Tim Starr

    Versailles didn’t cause Weimar’s 1923 hyperinflation, that was caused by Germany’s deliberate choice to debase their currency as a propaganda attack on the Versailles treaty. Keynes was seduced by a German treasury official at the Versailles conference who indoctrinated him w/ the German view of the treaty’s consequences. Germany set up an “independent” think tank to sanitize the Second Reich’s diplomatic archives, publish them, invite foreign scholars to “study” in them, then pay for their subsequent works to be translated into German, published in Germany, and made official textbooks in the German school system. That’s what they did w/ Harry Elmer Barnes, one of the main WWI Revisionists, who went on to become a Holocaust Denier after WWII.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Another consequence of WW1 is the current state called Israel. Lord Balfour’s statement re-energised the whole debate, and jews started moving there in anticipation. After WW2, the establishment of a free-enterprize democracy in the middle east has certainly galvanised the area.

  • K

    “The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh” – I agree – it was not harsh at all,

    So where did the Weimar inflation materialize from? The common wisdom is inflating the currancy to devalue reparation payments.


  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    A lot of problems stem from the French nation. The French were the one’s insisting on high repatriations from Germany. The french were also the ones who twisted up our language, with their silent ‘-e’ rule. And the french have a lot of philosophers of the statist mentality! Instead of invoking the nazies, we should say BTF! (Blame The French!)

  • Alan Little

    Re: Llamas. Interesting observations.

    > Yes, over a million Commonwealth soldiers died in WW1. But at the exact-same time, almost 18 million people were killed in British India alone by the 1918 flu pandemic.

    True, but how many fewer people would have killed by it in central Europe had they not already been half starved by …

    > The Navy … applying their power strategically

    … ?

    But your general point about the relative safety of civilians is important. Somebody further up pointed out that the Thirty Years war is perhaps a stronger contender for “bloodiest and most traumatic European war”. And it led to the Treaty of Westphalia and the concept of warfare being an affair between the regular armed forces of sovereign states without (too much) systematic targeting of civilian populations. WWI, for all its horrors for those actually at the front line, was in a sense the Last Westphalian War.

    (In Europe at any rate. I’m currently reading Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, which makes it pretty clear that Anatolia and Syria were not nice places to be for non-Turkish civilians at this time.)

  • Rich Rostrom

    For anyone who still thinks the Versailles Treaty was harsh:

    The German state remained intact.

    The only German official punished for starting the war or for the atrocities committed by German forces was the Kaiser, who was merely exiled.

    The German armed forces were reduced, but not disbanded.

    The territory lost by Germany was nearly all territory previously seized by Germany or Prussia from other countries.

  • James L

    The Royal Gloucestershire regiment was involved in the battle of Gallipoli, also a British regiment, which disproves that “Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders”. But there are no facts in History, everything is an opinion based on evidence.

  • Mr Ed

    The outcome of the First World War does matter to the cause of liberty, veering back on topic. It led to the Soviet Union, Red China, Vietnam, N Korea, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam. It led to the disintegration of Empires and freedom for some of the Slavic peoples within their own states (more or less), and the Baltic States and Finland. It had a horrendous sequel that spread Stalin’s power deep into Germany and the Balkans, and the USSR was the primary enemy of human liberty for the 20th Century. It inspired many who plague us in the West today.

    And coming shamelessly off topic, this chap Captain Eric Brown RN is one of those heroes from the next generation after General Carton de Wiart, and he is still alive at 94.

  • Chris

    Versailles was not unduly harsh. The problem with Versailles is that when the Germans agreed to an armistice in November 1918, they thought they would be getting a very different peace treaty than what they got. The expected a much more lenient peace that still met Wilson’s 14 Points which they would be able to negotiate. From the German perspective, they had booted out the Kaiser and established a Republic while withdrawing troops still on French – not German – soil. Instead, what they got was a relatively (not absolute) harsh peace which the Allies demanded full acceptance. This created an immense sense of outrage and betrayal. It was not what they expected in November 1918.

    If the Allies had made clear what the peace would entail, Germany would likely have fought on. It would have been defeated, and the people would have reconciled themselves to such a peace. Instead, they got a cognitive dissociation. Much blame can be put on Allied diplomacy and how they handled the Treaty. But it is important to make the distinction between how the Allies conducted diplomacy versus the actual terms of the treaty itself.

    As for hyperinflation, it was not caused by the treaty. Weimar did experience high inflation after the Treaty, but not hyperinflation until the Ruhr strike. The hypherinflation was a direct result of German economic policy during and after the war. Nothing in the Treaty needed to do that. Germany borrowed massively during the war instead of raising taxes because they expected to win and simply pay off the debts by reparations paid by the Allies. Since the Allied reparations were priced in gold, the German policy of printing lots of bank notes was self-defeating. Germany eventually recognized that herself which is why hyperinflation completely disappeared after 1924.

    It is very dubious that hyperinflation had anything to do with the Nazis seizing power. The Nazis were a small, unpopular group in 1923. They remained small after 1923 after the currency stabilized. They only increased in popularity during the Great Depression when it was unemployment and deflation that bedeviled the German economy. At most, it can be said that the dual experience of two economic crises – the 1923 hyperinflation and the Great Depression – that convinced Germans that the Weimar government could not be trusted.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Paul Marks.

    Allenby did serve on the Western Front and was in charge at Areas. In other words he was no more successful than anyone else. Rather less in fact.

    There are similarities between siege warfare and trench warfare but also big differences. The similarity is in the advantage of defence over attack. The difference is in what happens when you breach the enemy’s defences. In siege warfare you win. In trench warfare you don’t. If Haig is to be critised it is because he failed to appreciate this distinction.

    Versailles. A little while ago I attempted to compare the reparations that the Germans were supposed to pay with those imposed on the French in 1871. Try as I might I could not find a way to make the 1871 reparations anything like as severe as the 1919 ones. Perhaps that ought to make a blog posting but I promise nothing.

    And anyway, I am not sure anything at Versailles would have made a difference. When monarchies collapse political chaos is the result.

  • Mr Ed

    Much blame can be put on Allied diplomacy and how they handled the Treaty.

    I would distinguish causation from blame, the causation being the diplomacy, the blame lying with the arrogance of the upset individuals themselves.

  • Mr Ed

    @ Patrick C.

    When monarchies collapse political chaos is the result

    Indeed. We should remember that in the chaos of post-WWI Central Powers, Soviets were established in Hungary and Munich. Had these persisted, then the whole turn of events in Europe could have been very nasty indeed with a Soviet government reaching right into southern Germany in the early 1920s.

    Although the collapse of monarchy in the Irish Free State was extremely civilised, the chaos preceded it, as in Italy and Greece.

  • Mr Ed

    And coming back to liberties and WW1, files have been released (hat tip Daily Express) relating to conscientious objectors’ appeals to Tribunals against conscription. The following quote stands out:

    Journalist Harry Ward, a socialist conscientious objector, lost his appeal after the chairman said “a socialist cannot possibly have a conscience”.

  • Snorri Godhi

    The first paragraph of Chris’ comment nails it … that is, it expresses my opinion better than i did myself. The Germans had booted out Kaiser Wilhelm, and what they got for it was relatively (NOT absolutely) harsh peace terms. From the ethical point of view, why should the German people be punished for the mistakes of a ruling class they overthrew? (I disagree with Mr Ed @6:25 that the resentment of the German people is to be blamed on “arrogance”.)

    From a consequentialist point of view: anyone who understands the concept of incentives, could have predicted that prospects for peace were not good. But apparently the French and British ruling classes did not understand the concept of incentives.

    Apart from that, the BBC article, this discussion, and the link provided by Mr Ed @7:09, changed to some extent my opinions on other issues related to ww2; in particular, the need for Britain to go to war and the absolute (NOT relative) harshness of the Versailles Treaty.
    As usual in history, though, i feel that i cannot take a firm stand because there are unknown unknowns: i don’t know what i don’t know.

  • Snorri Godhi

    PS: perhaps i better specify what i meant by “relatively harsh”: not relatively to the Franco-Prussian war, and not relatively to ww2.
    Rather, relatively to what the Germans felt entitled to, given that they did not elect the Kaiser: in fact, they overthrew him.

  • Tim Starr

    They didn’t overthrow the German Army or the military-industrial complex (Germany really had one, which put the so-called American one to shame). The Kaiser was just a figurehead. It wasn’t until the full democratization of West Germany after WWII that Germany ceased to be a threat to peace.

  • Jacob

    Maybe the Germans didn’t elect the kaiser, but they enthusiastically started a war and fought for him and for Germany. They also committed atrocities.

    “Germany ceased to be a threat to peace” after the allies carpet-bombed their cities as a punitive measure, in the spring of 1945, and the Russians raped Berlin. Which shows that judicious application of force can teach lessons. It was this that killed Germany’s taste for starting wars. A pity this method was not applied after WW1.

  • Jacob

    And… they also started WW2 without having a kaiser to blame for it.

  • Tim Starr

    Hitler cast himself as a new Kaiser, above the messiness of parliamentary politics.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Some of these legends apply more generally than just the British (or “BCE”) forces.

    1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point

    It was certainly the bloodiest war in European history to that point.

    2. Most soldiers died

    There were major battles where large proportions of soldiers died. During some attacks, entire battalions were sometimes wiped out. However, only the Romanian army actually had most of its soldiers die.

    3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end

    Well, they served in the trenches for years, even if it was part time.

    4. The upper class got off lightly

    That’s more of a a generalization about war in general, and there’s plenty of legend about the dreadful losses of “gentry” families.

    5. ‘Lions led by donkeys’

    The bravery and fighting ability of the troops was frequently squandered by strategic and operational incompetence and bad tactics of the army commands.

    This was certainly true for Russia and Italy, and on some notable occasions for France and Britain.

    6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders

    Gallipoli was more important to them than to anyone else. Except the Turks, and they don’t count in the anglosphere.

    7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure

    Tactics changed gradually, grudgingly, clumsily. Results that should have caused radical rethinking were explained away, and modest tweaks were applied together with insistence on trying harder. Vide Italy and the eight “battles of the Isonzo”.

    The article does make a good point in noting the immense amount of new technical and material conditions that had to be assimilated.

    8. No-one won

    “Nothing is more melancholy than a battle won – except a battle lost.”

    Japan, France, Italy, Serbia, Romania, and Greece all gained territory. France and Italy gained small amounts at huge costs. Serbia and Romania gained a lot – at gigantic costs. They probably felt they won. Greece tried to gain more and ended in the wreck of a follow-on war. Japan grabbed some cheap cookies.

    Britain gained only the defeat of Germany. The same for the U.S. This was valuable, but a negative achievement.

    9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh

    For this we can blame German propaganda abetted by Keynes.

    10. Everyone hated it

    Very few winds blow no one any good. War can be exhilarating and liberating – for those who aren’t killed, mutilated, starved, frozen, or driven mad.

  • Mr Ed

    To put the extent of the losses in perspective, I often drive from my village in the Midlands 200 miles up the A1 to the Tyne, a journey of three-and-a-half hours. As I set out, I am perhaps a Lee Enfield 0.303 long shot away from the village of East Carlton in Northamptonshire. After an hour, I cross the Trent and I pass the village of Cromwell in Nottinghamshire. I will have passed with a shot of Teigh, a village in Rutland and East Norton, a village in Leicestershire. These four villages are among the 53 Thankful Villages of England and Wales, the parishes of which no one was killed in World War One. It then takes about another hour to reach 3 of Yorkshire’s 5 villages. There are, reportedly, no villages in Scotland or Ireland (the latter not having had conscription) from which no one was killed.

  • Jacob

    Rich Rostrom – very good comment.
    “Britain gained only the defeat of Germany. The same for the U.S. This was valuable, but a negative achievement.”

    Britain gained the removal of a significant threat from Germany. Only it wasn’t removed, it took another war to achieve that. So Britain gained nothing, at enormous cost…

    About: ‘Lions led by donkeys’ – the best General on the western front (as noted by Montgomery) was John Monash, and Australian militia man, that is – no regular army officer, no military academy graduate. He was a civil engineer, who joined the army full time only in 1914, at the age of 49. So, the best general was a civilian.

  • Jacob

    Britain gained nothing, at enormous cost…
    Britain gained Germany’s colonies in east Africa … no big deal…

  • Snorri Godhi

    “Germany ceased to be a threat to peace” after the allies carpet-bombed their cities as a punitive measure, in the spring of 1945, and the Russians raped Berlin. […] A pity this method was not applied after WW1.

    (My highlight on “after”.)
    There you go! Failing to realize that Mongol methods applied after surrender, provide exactly the opposite incentives to Mongol methods applied during war.
    The Mongols themselves were smarter than that.

    So were the Victorians, eg General Sir Charles Napier:
    “The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed.”

    That’s why the Mongol and British Empires were the greatest that the world has ever seen.

    And… they also started WW2 without having a kaiser to blame for it.

    The blame is on the idiots who provided the wrong incentives, from Versailles to Munich, and on to the Phoney War.

  • Mr Ed

    The Allied approach to post WW2 Germany was, in the circumstances, extremely indulgent, not least because of the need for an ally against the Soviets. The area bombing had almost ceased by March 1945, Bomber Command were deployed on other operations such as Manna to provide food to the Dutch and Exodus to repatriate POWs, and (relative) precision Grand Slam bombs were just beginning to be used to destroy viaducts etc. building on the Tallboys, to strangle the German war machine. But the Allied Area Bombing was not so much punitive as ‘Sod you, we can do that too, and it’s all we can do with our bombers to stop you.” rather than being purely punitive, Area Bombing had a military purpose, whether it was a good approach or a moral one is another question.

    As I said, I have read of Allied bombing being used at War’s end perhaps as an ‘educational’ measure with bombing ranging across the almost open German skies, so there could be no doubt that (i) the Allies had prevailed and (ii) bombing is not very nice and war has consequences. The German fear of the Soviets was well-founded (and well-earned). The Western allies were not genocidal rapist hordes like the Soviets, they were for the Germans a relative deliverance. And they all lived happily ever after.

  • Jacob

    “The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing followed by great kindness afterwards.”
    The “good trashing”, the first, and essential, part of the formula was not applied in WW1.

    The full formula was applied only after WW2, and also a third element – partitioning.

  • Paul Marks

    I do not believe that a great work examining the different tactical visions (and they were different – for example Gough is very different to Plumer, and even Gough thought Haig’s approach sometimes misguided – thinking in terms of impossible breakouts and so on) of the British commanders on the Western Front has yet been written.

    I also do not believe that a great work examining the flawed strategic thinking of the war (the failure to properly coordinate with the Russians by taking Constantinople and completing the encirclement of the Central Powers) has yet been written.

    There are many works on the First World War – but I do not think they pass either the tactical or the strategic visions laid out above. Many works touch on these matters – but they do not fully explore them.

    Sadly I know enough to know that such a work needs to be written (that we need to get away both from the idea that the war was somehow optional “a mistake”, AND the idea that it was fought properly – it was not). But I do not know enough to write such a work myself.

  • Jacob

    WW1 is inexplicable. You can’t explain WW1, not it’s outbreak, neither its conduct – as long as you seek rational explanations, or suppose people are, more or less, rational.

    “tactical visions” ? maybe there weren’t any.

  • Snorri Godhi

    “But I do not know enough to write such a work myself.”

    That hasn’t stopped others.
    Still, i have looked up “Paul Marks” on Amazon and i see no books by that author. I suggest that a major revisionist work on ww1 is not a good way to start. Maybe an essay, or a monograph on a specialist subject…

  • Paul Marks

    Jacob – there were tactical visions, both incorrect and correct.

    As for the outbreak of the First World War being “irrational” – certainly not.

    It was the logical (logical – but not inevitable) outcome of the dominant strain of German philosophy (going back to Hegel, Fichte and past them – into the 1700s and even before) that regarded the state as the central concern.

    This thinking had spread to other countries – for example in Britain “the state” starts to be used as positive term as a direct copy of Prussian practice (Prussia being admired – including by many “liberals” even in the early 1800s).

    However, its true home remains Germany. German geopolitics (as Ludwig Von Mises, who knew many of the people involved. points out in such works as “Nation, State and Economy” and “Omnipotent Government”) was based on the assumption that Germany must expand and dominate the world (not just Europe – the world).

    As for the time of outbreak…

    Again quite logical (logical not inevitable).

    Contrary to ignorant people (such as Max Hastings) the economic tides (and the military forces economic strength they finance) were turning against Germany in 1914 – the longer they waited the relatively (relatively) weaker they would become in relation to both France and Russia.

    Indeed had the war broken out in 1918 (not 1914) it really would have been “over by Christmas”.

    The German government did NOT create the crises of 1914 – but it was desperate to EXPLOIT any crises that came along (as an excuse for war).

    This is why they rejected offers of an international conference in 1914. Which the British Foreign Secretary kept offering (and hinting that he would take the Austrian side in any such conference).

    They did not want a peaceful settlement of the dispute between Austria and Serbia.

    Nor did they want just another Balkan War (there had already been two of these).

    The German government was desperate (desperate) for a general war – against both Russia and France (in order to crush them – while there was still time).

    This is why the German government even pretends (in its Declaration of War upon France) that the French were bombing German cities (in 1914 before the outbreak of war).

    There is nothing “inexplicable” in the German Declaration of War upon France in 1914 – it was a collection of lies, deliberate (rational) lies.

    Otherwise the German government would have had no excuse to declare war upon France – in order to destroy France and occupy the northern coast of France.

    Had Britain allowed Germany to destroy France (and occupy the northern coast of Europe) lies about Britain (in order to provide a justification for war) would have been forthcoming as soon as the German Naval and air forces were sufficiently developed.

    As quite rational Jacab – as long as one starts from the assumptions of the dominant strain of German philosophy and political thought. The Germans being the most educated people in the world and their leaders (not just one or two people such as Woodrow Wilson in the United States – a whole ruling elite) more closely connected with academia than the leaders of any other nations.

    Whether these assumptions of German philosophy and political thought were themselves rational is another matter……

  • Paul Marks

    As for outcomes…

    After World War II both Germany and Italy (although not Britain) were LESS statist than they were before the war.

    Compare the size and scope of government in Germany or Italy in 1939 compared to 1959.

    However, this was not the case after World War One – with all European nations being more statist after the war than they were before it.

    Whether this outcome could have been avoided by following a different line both tactically and strategically is hotly debated – but certainly a war that did not drag on four years would have caused less harm.

    For example the supreme evil of the Russian Revolution might have been avoided.

    Also a different outcome (the utter crushing of Germany) might have led to positive developments for freedom – for example the restoration of the independence of the old Kingdoms (such as Bavaria) and of the free cities.

    It is clear today that chances of reform in Europe depend not only on getting rid of the European Union – but also reversing two of the key mistakes of the 19th century.

    German and Italian “unification”.

    A majority for fundamental reform simply can not be attained (structurally) in Germany and Italy – but it might be in (for example) Bavaria.

    I also doubt whether fundamental reform is possible in the United Kingdom.

    But it might (I stress “might”) be in England.

    A similar statement can (of course) be made about the United States.

    It is hard to see how (structurally) a majority or fundamental reform could be attained in the United States.

    However, it is possible that some States could achieve this majority for fundamental reform – if they were able to do so (i.e. if they were independent).

    I hope I am mistaken about the lack of a chance for fundamental reform in the United States and the United Kingdom.

    In the United States the final test will be 2016 – if that test is failed (if yet another statist nonentity is elected President – like Obama and Bush) then “forget-about-it” (as they say in New Jersey).

    As for the United Kingdom.

    Let us assume that the Conservative party is dominated by people who sincerely want to roll back the state – a “heroic” (if not insane) assumption.

    There is still no chance of a Conservative majority in the House of Commons after the General Election of 2015 (the lines on the map simply do not allow one – it is not structurally credible the way Parliament is formed).

    So the United Kingdom is doomed – period.

    Unless something totally outside normal experience totally changes the picture (“events, dear boy, events”).

    For example a landing of aliens from outer space.

    But it is not rational to rely on such possibilities.

  • Paul Marks

    As for what emerges after economic (and social) breakdown……

    I just do not know.

  • Jacob

    “Whether these assumptions of German philosophy and political thought were themselves rational is another matter……”

    Well, you said it best. The WW1 seems perfectly rational if you assume the Germans were absolutely and totally crazy. So, there it is… it’s explained. And the same explanation is absolutely correct, and not in doubt at all, as far as WW2 is concerned.

    Even granted that most Germans believed that “Germany must expand and dominate the world”, one can still ask if a rational leadership isn’t supposed to examine the feasibility and cost of such a project…

  • Mr Ed


    The WW1 seems perfectly rational if you assume the Germans were absolutely and totally crazy.

    There is a distinction between ‘crazy’ and, say, ‘vicious’. The Germans were crazy to think that war would lead to prosperity or a better world, but as they were hell-bent on war on the basis of what von Mises might call with characteristic crispness ‘a failure to understand economics’, then war was in fact rational. It will kill millions and ruin and impoverish people say the economists, but it will be wonderful say the militarists, and make a better and more prosperous world for us Germans, and we can make the natives boil a few more heads in Namibia.

    if the German elite wrongly believed that war would lead to German prosperity, the craziness is not the war itself, but the belief in war as a means to the desired end.

    The rational, correct economist knows that war is disastrous and crazy, but only because the economist understands economic (and moral) laws.

    If you believe that a rain dance leads to rain, it is not irrational to seek to end a drought by doing a rain dance, it is just that your technology is inadequate for the task and the desired end. The irrational belief is to think that a rain dance leads to rain, once you swallow the belief that it does lead to rain, having a dance to end a drought is rational within your terms of reference.

    So Germany’s warmongers were probably, within their own terms of reference, rational but vicious.

  • Jacob

    Wouldn’t that be a distinction without a difference ?

  • Mr Ed

    Perhaps, but it is important that the lesson of the importance of understanding economic law is not lost, if only to show those alive today where error can and does lead.

    If the German elite had said “This war will bring death, destruction ruin and poverty and those are all good things, rather than the evils of free trade and peace” then there might have been some hope that they would have been stopped by their own people.

  • Tim Starr

    There actually has been a rather good book published about how and why Germany started WWI: “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” WWI revisionists love Fromkin’s other book, “A Peace to End All Peace,” but remain rather silent about this one…

    It really wasn’t that crazy, especially when you take into account that Germany really a preemptive war w/ Russia to stop Russia from overtaking Germany economically and dominating Europe. Before WWI, Russia was the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Germany didn’t want a war with Russia’s allies (France) and their allies, etc.

    As for the notion that the German people could’ve kept the Kaiser from starting the war, that overlooks two major facts: 1) The Kaiser was not elected or removable by civilians, and the German establishment was completely loyal to him. 2) The statist philosophy of which Paul Marks speaks was wildly popular in Germany at the time. Both the Right and Left were dominated by Hegelians, and the dominant philosophers like Sombart were praising German “heroes” and contrasting them to British “shopkeepers,” which was a term of contempt for him.

  • Jacob

    The dumb and pompous Kaiser actually came to his senses before his government and Generals, and tried, at the last minute, to stop the mobilization and attack, but his Generals, who cherished the coming war, said the army was already marching and refused to stop it.

    Mr. Ed, wars aren’t, as a rule, wrong or bad. They cause, necessarily, some death, destruction and ruin, no doubt, but may have positive outcomes, at least for the victor. There are wars of empire building, wars of liberation (from empire or foreign rule) or defensive wars. Wars are not necessarily irrational. Sometimes wars lead to prosperity. Sometimes war can be a means to a legitimately desired end.

    It is that in this case the Germans didn’t define their desired end, and the means to achieve it, in a rational, clear and realistic way. They just plunged into the abyss, without thinking, spurred by a romantic and unrealistic notion of greatness. That is a characteristic of madness.