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What caused the First World War? (Part I)

[This is the text of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago to the 6/20 Club in London. As you will see this introductory part is mainly about 1915. Part II is here]

By March 1915 the people of the United Kingdom were beginning to realise that the war was going to be much longer, involve many more men and be more expensive than they had previously imagined.

The military correspondent of the Times was a man called Charles à Court Repington. He was normally pretty astute. In a recent article he had argued that the war on the Western Front had become an attritional struggle. As there was a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel, there were no flanks to turn and no prospect of a war of manoeuvre. The two sides were of roughly equal quality. It had become a war where progress could only be made by material means: by being able to put more guns, shells, bullets and men on the battlefield than the enemy.

This massively favoured the Allies: France, Britain, Russia and Belgium. Combined they had more people and more industry than the Central Powers. They were also less good at “cleverness” in warfare – so a material struggle also played into their hands. Their victory was inevitable. But that didn’t mean it was going to come soon.

But at the time, the British in particular, were short of everything. This would come to a head soon afterwards when Repington, again, claimed that the Battle of Neuve Chapelle could have gone much better had the British had enough shells. This would lead almost immediately to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions under Lloyd George.

By this time food prices were beginning to rise. Some foods were already up by 50%. Given that a large proportion of the average person’s income went on food this was inevitably causing hardship. Worse still, this rise took place before the Germans declared the waters around the UK a warzone. I must confess I don’t entirely understand the ins and outs of this but essentially this means that submarines could sink shipping without warning. The upshot was that rationing would be introduced later in the war.

Government control also came to pubs with restricted opening hours. It would even become illegal to buy a round.

So far the Royal Navy had not had a good war. It had let the German battle cruiser Goeben slip through its fingers in the Mediterranean and into Constantinople where it became part of the Ottoman navy which attacked Russia. An entire squadron was destroyed off the coast of Chile and even the victories were hollow. At the Battle of Dogger Bank the chance to destroy a squadron of German battle cruisers was lost due to a signalling error.

But the man at the top, one Winston Churchill, was undeterred. He thought the Navy could take the Dardanelles, take Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war alone. Repington thought – or at least, I think he thought – that this was nonsense.

The Navy had, at least, for the time being deterred the German Navy from shelling any more coastal towns. Now the threat came from the Zeppelins high above.

The Army, traditionally the junior service, was having a much better war. But The Times still records about a hundred deaths a day and this at a quiet time when the Army in the field was still small. This was not going to last long. About 2 million men had volunteered and the job of turning them into useful soldiers had started.

Mind you, every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps, given events earlier, that should be every eclipse has a corona. In July 1914 Ireland was on the verge of civil war. The First World War came along in the nick of time and for the duration of the war the main participants had agreed to bury the hatchet. Similarly, the suffragettes called off their campaign of destruction and there are far fewer strikes – Britain having been plagued by them in the years leading up to the war.

But as we know things were only going to get worse. In all the war lasted four years, killed 10 million people and saw the birth of a totalitarian communist regime. Something like 5 million Britons served on the Western Front. There they experienced trenches, mud, barbed wire and shelling at a minimum. Others would have experienced gas, machine-gun fire and going “over the top”. A million never came back. And for what? Twenty years of political instability followed by the experience of having to do it all over again in the Second World War.

In Britain we tend to think of the First World War as being worse than the Second. This is because, almost uniquely amongst the participants, British losses in the First World War were worse. It is also worth bearing in mind that Britain’s losses in the First World War were much lower than everyone else’s. France lost a million and a half, Germany 2 million. Russia’s losses are anyone’s guess. For all the talk of tragedy and futility, the truth is that Britain got off lightly.

For many libertarians the First World War is particularly tragic. They tend to think (not entirely correctly) of the period before it as a libertarian golden age. While there was plenty of state violence to go around, there were much lower taxes, far fewer planning regulations, few nationalised industries, truly private railways and individuals were allowed to own firearms. If you were in the mood for smoking some opium you needed only to wander down to the nearest chemist.

The Times 8 March 1915 p8

The Times 8 March 1915 p8

29 comments to What caused the First World War? (Part I)

  • Tarrou

    All depends on what you mean by “what”? Any number of countries and individuals could have exercised their prerogatives to stop or limit the war.

    Of course Gavrilo Princip is the natural starting point, though no doubt the Austro-Hungarians would point at the fomentation of terrorism by the Serbs as the true start.

    After that, it would have been politically hard for the AHE to avoid slapping the serbs around militarily, but theoretically they could have refrained.

    Russia was under no treaty obligation to help the Serbs, but they took the whole “pan-Slav” thing seriously. If they stay out, it’s a local matter, Germany isn’t involved, the French aren’t involved, and the whole thing plays itself out.

    It’s a perfect storm, but what people forget is just how badly most of these countries wanted a war. France was just dying to avenge the Franco-Prussian humiliation, Russia was trying to refocus from internal rot, the Kaiser was charitably an imbecile. Most of all, none of them had any idea how bad the war would be. It was all romance to them, “Charge of the Light Brigade” stuff, at the beginning. FFS, the French cavalry were still wearing breastplates. Europe hadn’t seen a major war in forty years and everyone had forgotten the realities and couldn’t imagine the effects of all the new tech.

  • Romance of war indeed.

    The French infantry were still wearing red trousers when everyone else had gone to some form of drab uniform.

  • Veryretired

    It is difficult for many people to comprehend a world as different as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of the world was incorporated into aristocratic, imperial structures that enshrined an hereditary nobility above the common citizenry, and denied most of what we would consider fundamental human rights.

    WW1 was the dying spasm of this centuries old system, and the perturbations from that death agony still resonate through our world political interactions today. Indeed, the calamities of the 20th century were mostly reactions to the earlier earthquake, including the birth of sovietism, fascism, WW2, and the Cold War.

    The continuing disaster that is the Mideast is an ongoing reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. So many of the problems that WW1 caused or intensified have proved to be intractable.

    The mill of history grinds slowly, but exceedingly fine.

  • Mr Ed

    That War was part of the revolt against Reason, not the ‘Reason’ of the French Revolution, but the revolt against reason and logic of many, from the Marxists to the Prussian élite’s rejection of economics, to the Anti-Art movement that flourished before WW1 had started. A noteworthy figure is Marx’s old sparring partner Ferdinand Lassalle.

    As von Mises put his ideas in Omnipotent Government.

    Lassalle’s brief demagogical career is noteworthy because for the first time in Germany the ideas of socialism and etatism appeared on the political scene as opposed to liberalism and freedom. Lassalle was not himself a Nazi; but he was the most eminent forerunner of Nazism, and the first German who aimed at the Führer position. He rejected all the values of the Enlightenment and of liberal philosophy, but not as the romantic eulogists of the Middle Ages and of royal legitimism did. He negated them; but he promised at the same time to realize them in a fuller and broader sense. Liberalism, he asserted, aims at spurious freedom, but I will bring you true freedom. And true freedom means the omnipotence of government. It is not the police who are the foes of liberty but the bourgeoisie.
    And it was Lassalle who spoke the words which characterize best the spirit of the age to come: “The state is God.”

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    “A million never came back”.

    I know too little to debate in detail the exact number, but surely UK deaths are usually reckoned as more like three quarters of a million. The reason I bring this up is that the lower total reinforces your point about how France, in particular, suffered more deeply than the UK. It lost twice as many men, from a lower population. It was said that “every family lost a son”, and that was not so far from the truth. If it was hard for the UK to go back into the breach in World War II, it was twice as hard for France.

  • Paul Marks

    The title of the post (what caused the First World War) has no connection with the content of the post (which is about conditions in 1915 and so on).

    Still I will deal with the content of the post.

    Basic military knowledge should not be considered “clever” stuff that is beneath a British person to know.

    Indeed if a General does not understand a “clever” stuff they should not be a general.

    Although, yes, “clever” is sometimes used in Britain (especially England) as an insult.

    Lack of shells was not the problem – as events a year later (1916) on the Somme were to show.

    The problem was lack of basic military knowledge (tactical knowledge) among high military commanders – most obviously Haig, but not just him.

    Only a bad workman blames his tools – and these military commanders were indeed bad workmen.


    It is indeed true that the First World War (by 1915) can be seen as a vast siege of the Central Powers.

    And the first principle of any siege is that the besiegers must link up.

    If a besieged city is not facing a coordinated siege (if there are gaps through which supplies can come and independent actions be launched) then it is not properly besieged.

    Knocking out the Ottoman Empire was a logical step to actually link up with the Russians and create a proper siege.

    However, the commanders sent to do a (fairly straightforward) military job, utterly failed in their task.

    And, as was the practice among British commanders of this period, blamed everything and everyone – bar THEMSELVES.

    “The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves”. That thought did not seem to occur to General Stopford and the rest of the shower of shit (I mean the high officers) sent to Sulva Bay in 1915.

  • Ben

    WWI was not the dying spasm of the old system, the spasms continue.

    The old system is based on the notion of the legitimacy – and respectability – of conquest as a goal, a notion which is no longer accepted, officially at least. (That idea after all is what made aristocracy legitimate.) I’m interested in how that change came about – here’s my theory.

    In the Malthusian era, denying the legitimacy of conquest was mere foolishness. All know that at some point the land will run out, and then conflict is inevitable. We must conquer our neighbours or our own children or grandchildren will starve or be conquered in turn. That’s the necessity which enabled conquest to be considered noble.

    With the agricultural revolution, the Malthusian limits no longer applied and – provided we believe that progress will continue indefinitely – there is no longer any justification for a war of conquest for its own sake. German grandchildren are no longer realistically in existential competition with French or Slavic grandchildren. This change was what made it possible to see German aggression as something barbaric rather than just another turn of the wheel.

  • Mr Ed

    “A million never came back”

    Trying to put the losses into perspective, in England and Wales, there are some 53 villages, known as the Thankful Villages, that lost no one in WW1, some 13 of them lost no one in WW2 either. Tomorrow I shall drive 200 miles up England from the Midlands on the A1, and I shall set off within 4 miles either way of 2 villages, pass within 5 miles of another such village, then go 30 miles before passing within rifle shot of another, Carlton in Nottinghamshire, then passing 3 more after 100 miles into North Yorkshire, and that will be it. Every other village or settlement I pass lost someone.

    There are, apparently, no villages in Scotland or Ireland that did not lose someone in WW1.

  • TDK

    There was a shell shortage. That may not have been as important as thought at the time, but it happened.

    In 1914 we had seen a large part of the BEF destroyed and 1915 started with a volunteer army trained and deployed in a rush. That rushed training applied as much to junior officers as to privates. To acknowledge that is not to blame the tools.

  • TDK

    The shell shortage link I intended was lost

  • bloke in spain

    @Natalie’s “A million never came back” ? comment.

    This one reason I get greatly exercised when the “French tanks have one forward & four reverse gears” and “it can’t be a proper war, the French haven’t surrendered yet” jokes come out.
    My village in Flandres has a war memorial with 47 names from WW1 on it. 26 military & 21 civilian. The entire commune probably only ran to about 75 houses in 1914. Not saying there were any standing by 1918. Nor the church or anything else. It got “The Race to the Sea” in ’14 & the offensives in ’18. Between the two it just got shelled.
    The other reason was it was where the French perimeter held in ’40, let Dunkirk have the suffix “Spirit”, for the British who ran away.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @natalie I get mixed up between British and British Empire figures. I should make it clear that I mean Empire deaths and the very page you refer to gives the number 1,116,371 for Empire deaths. Whatever the number it’s a lot but less than the French and Germans.

    @veryretired. I think you’re going to like my conclusions.

    @Simon There are some differences in the most recent talk which reflect my current thinking. Indeed, I have this haunting feeling that in modifying what I said last July I have in fact contradicted myself.

    @TDK. Quite. There is a lot of charlatanism when it comes to the role of the British army in the First World War. A good test is to see if the critic in question mentions the situation the BEF faced in both August 1914 and January 1915. If they do and they account for it then their criticisms are worth listening to.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @blokeinSpain FWIW I don’t do the “French are cowards” schtick. Although I am far from an expert in this the Fall of France seems to me to involve a huge amount of bad luck. As I understand it, there were plenty of example of French fighting spirit often in the case of insuperable odds. I read somewhere that French WW2 casualties were higher than British WW2 casualties. It kind of makes the point. Having said that, and I have to be careful here, there do seem to have been some appalling errors made by the French in WW1. Plan XVII is one. Not spotting that the main bulk of the German army was advancing through Belgium was another. Indeed, a hundred years ago they were busily covering it up. Having said that, my suspicion is that the French contribution to victory in 1918 is much greater than is generally acknowledged.

  • Mr Ed

    The ammunition shortage was evident at the start of the war. Churchill refused Kitchener the ammo he requested, saying that the Fleet had only 10,000,000 rounds.

    It should also be noted that WWI was not a British war of choice, the Germans were hell-bent on dominating Europe and effectively the World back then, and the Rape of Louvain on 25th August 1914 gave a taste of German brutality, which would have been meted out on Cambridge, Oxford, Canterbury and London in all likelihood had they crossed the Channel in force.

  • bloke in spain

    “Not spotting that the main bulk of the German army was advancing through Belgium was another. ”

    There seems to be a bit of a blind spot about that section of the eastern borders, doesn’t there? What with 1940 & the winter of ’44 ‘an that. Always comes as a complete surprise to military intelligence. Whoops! Forgot the “…”s. Stick them in wherever you fancy.

    On the Fall of France, there’s no doubt the French were dreadfully generalled. But, then, so generally are the British.

  • bloke in spain

    Contempoaneously, I’ve just been going through some old family history & came across my grandfather’s NZ Army paybook & photos of what seems to be a military hospital at Hornchurch, Essex. S’pose that’s why he married an Ilford girl & never went back. Galipoli & Y̶p̶r̶e̶s̶ Ieper. I go to the market there. Quieter now, of course.

  • Laird

    @ bloke in Spain: How do you have a “village in Flandres” if you’re in Spain? Anyhow, this. (Hey, you brought it up.)

  • bloke in spain

    I commute. Currently & temporarily I’m Bloke in England, though. (Bloody dump! Full of foreigners.)

  • I loved this bit Laird:

    WWI: Tied and on the way to losing, France is saved by the United States.

    Which is at least not quite on a par with attributing the Norman successes in 1066 to the USMC, but not far off 😉

  • Alsadius

    Perry: After the fall of Russia, the US entry was a big, big factor in keeping the Allies in control of the situation. Even without the Americans the Allies were still superior, but Allied morale may well have started cracking up pretty badly come the Ludendorff offensive if the Americans hadn’t been coming into the theatre. A 1940-like collapse wasn’t impossible.

  • Laird

    Perry, this one is more au courant:

    War on Terrorism: France, keeping in mind its recent history, surrenders to Germans and Muslims just to be safe.

  • Mr Ed

    @ bloke in Spain: How do you have a “village in Flandres” if you’re in Spain?

    Perhaps Bloke-in-Spain inhabits, in his own time period, the Spanish Netherlands?

  • bloke in spain

    The map you linked to, Mr Ed, shows why you end up getting places like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclave_and_exclave#/media/File:Baarle-Nassau_-_Baarle-Hertog-en.svg

  • Mr Ed

    BiS I went to Baarle-Hertog/Nassau in the 1980s, I even saw a Dutch Army APC invade Belgium several times in 5 minutes as it wandered around town. Back then, every shop had dual price tickets for Guilders or Belgian Francs, and it really showed how a dual State system can work. Ibelieve it was one part of Belgium left unmolested by the Germans in WW1, as to have attacked it would have meant violating Dutch neutrality, which even the Kaiser could not stomach (or perhaps he had his eye on his bolthole).

  • bloke in spain

    It can be quite amusing being in towns with frontiers in them. There’s a place I park, as far as I can work out, one side of the car’s in France & the other side’s in Belgium. So me & the passenger get out in different countries. Although, legally, I suppose the car’s two motorbikes at this point.

  • Rich Rostrom

    In Britain we tend to think of the First World War as being worse than the Second. This is because, almost uniquely amongst the participants, British losses in the First World War were worse.

    Not very unique. France (1.4M/200K), Italy (550K/301K), Bulgaria (88K/22K), and Belgium (48K/12K) all had far more military deaths in WW I than WW II. WW I military deaths for post-WW I Hungary have been estimated at 385K, compared to 300K for WW II. If one separates the Commonwealth countries, Canada (60K/45K), New Zealand (17K/12K), and Australia (60K/40K) all had more dead in WW I (out of populations about 1/3 smaller).

    However, in WW II France was conquered and occupied, and Italy and Hungary were fought over from one end to the other. Belgium was conquered in both wars. (Bulgaria surrendered before it was occupied in both wars.)

    And I’d guess that most Britons see the Commonwealth experiences as parts of shared traumas.

    So it is fair to say that Britain’s experience of WW I relative to WW II was perhaps worse than anyone else’s.