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What caused the First World War: Part III – The mystery

[This is the text of a talk I gave on 20 March to the 6/20 Club in London. See also Part II and Part IV.]

I have heard that story with a few variations many times. And I find it deeply unsatisfying. The reason is because it doesn’t answer the fundamental question. Whose fault was it? Who was to blame?

Knowing more about the July Crisis doesn’t seem to help. What I have just outlined is a pretty short version. Christopher Clark’s version in his book Sleepwalkers stretches to over 600 pages with 100 pages of footnotes. University libraries groan with books on the subject. 25 years ago someone counted them all up and came up with a number of 25,000 books and pamphlets on the subject of the origins of the First World War. Seeing as this entire talk is based on books published since then one dreads to think what that number must be like now. There are even books on the history of the history. There is a lot of interesting detail. For instance, in the years leading up to the First World War something like 20 world leaders were assassinated. In most cases the perpetrator was an anarchist whom the authorities subsequently declared insane. You learn that Britain had a secret deal with France to protect the Channel in case of war; that in its declaration of war Germany made the entirely fictitious claim that France had bombed German cities; that the head of the Austrian counter-intelligence service was himself a Russian spy and that the French ambassador to London believed that French was the only language capable of “articulating rational thought”.

Perhaps more pertinently you learn that there is good evidence that the German government was planning for a war in 1914.

With most of the world colonised by Europeans who weren’t Germans, Germany hoped to be able to exercise influence over the declining Ottoman Empire. For instance a German general, Liman von Sanders had been sent out to take charge of the Turkish Army and there were plans to build a Berlin to Baghdad railway. They weren’t the only foreign advisers to Turkey. While a German was in charge of Turkey’s army, a Briton was in charge of its navy. Tellingly, the Hague Convention of 1912 called for a worldwide ban on opium. This eventually made its way into the Treaty of Versailles but in 1912 its opponents included Germany, Austria and Turkey.

Obviously, if Germany was to be able to exercise influence over Turkey it had to be able to get there. With hostility between Britain and Germany over Germany’s naval programme the only effective route lay through the Balkans. So, when Serbia massively increased its territory in the First Balkan War of 1912 Germany naturally grew disturbed.

On December 8 1912 a meeting was held with some of the major figures in the German government presided over by the Kaiser, Willhelm II. This has been dubbed a “War Council”. Whether it was or not who knows but it is interesting what followed next. First, Germany more or less accepted that the naval arms race with Britain was over and that Britain had won. Second, Germany massively increased the size of its army. Third, a succession of articles appeared in the press claiming that Russian military expansion was proceeding so quickly that by 1917 Germany could not hope to win a war. It is worth pointing out that the General Staff sincerely believed this. Fourth, the expansion of the Kiel Canal to allow battleships to sail between the North Sea and the Baltic was completed in 1914.

At about the same time General Bernhardi published his book Germany and the Next War. In it he essentially argued that might was right and that Germany should have not qualms about observing, for instance, international treaties. The book did especially well in Britain.

So, all this seems fairly clear cut until you learn that France and Russia were also pretty keen on war at the same time and made no efforts to diffuse the crisis that arose after Sarajevo. Indeed, Britain found itself in the uncomfortable position of not being able to deter Germany without simultaneously encouraging France and Russia.

The fact remains that after a hundred years there is still no consensus on who or what was to blame.

There are other mysteries. Explaining the Second World War is easy. You have a bad guy with bad ideas who started a war of conquest. But you look in vain for such a character in 1914.

Sure, the German government of the time has to bear a lot of the responsibility for the war but Kaiser Wilhelm is no Adolf Hitler. He was not a man espousing a foam-flecked, hate-filled, land-grabbing ideology. Sure, he had his moments but he quickly backed down and had a reputation for so doing. Similarly, the Tsar was no Stalin. He may have done stupid things like banning vodka and banning Jews from the boards of public companies but he wasn’t in the business of killing hundreds of thousands of people. Having said that it should be borne in mind that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, eagerly taken up by anti-semites around the world, was a Tsarist fabrication.

The truth is that the statesmen of Europe were acting rationally in the pursuit of limited objectives. Most of them were well aware of the likely consequences of a war. We can tell this in the hemming and hawing displayed by both the Russians and the Germans. Both Asquith, the British Prime Minister, and Churchill described the prospect of war as “Armageddon”. And yet despite this the disaster still managed to unfold. I tend to refer to this as the Michael Jennings question. How could such a disaster have happened when none of the leaders appear to have been particularly bellicose?

The conundrum gets worse. By November 1914, Germany had to all intents and purposes lost the war. The Schlieffen Plan had failed and they had been held at the Marne. Austria had suffered even worse disasters in Serbia and Galicia. So, why did it take them another 4 years to make peace?

43 comments to What caused the First World War: Part III – The mystery

  • Kiwi Dave

    T G Otte’s July Crisis, published last year I think, is especially illuminating in regard to the decision-making between the assassination and the declarations of war.

  • Paul Marks

    Neither France or Russia were ready for war in 1914.

    The Russian military modernisation would have been completed by about 1917-1918.

    The French were also in the middle of a military reorganisation – although their reorganisation would have been finished by 1916 (a bit quicker than the Russian one).

    It seemed like a good time for a German attack.

    After all peace was not a long term option – France wanted its lost lands back, and Germany wanted to dominate Europe (and, in the long term, dominate-the-world).

    Russian economic growth was actually much faster than German – if Germany was to dominate Europe Russia would have to be destroyed while it was still weak.

    And Britain would have to be crushed also – otherwise how would Germany dominate the world?

    Unintentionally Patrick explains the Second (yes the Second) World War with his last line.

    “make peace”.

    The British elite (although they were not all as blatant as Lord Landsdown) were obsessed with “making peace”.

    That Germany had to be crushed (destroyed as a major power) was something they might say in public speeches – but they did not really understand.

    Even in 1918, after losing a million men, the British settled for “making peace”.

    No march on Berlin, no independence for Bavaria and so on.

    No reversal of the terrible mistake of “German unification” (not that “Italian unification” was a good idea either – it led to higher taxes, conscription in Sicily, language persecution, stupid wars….. and on and on).

    The attitude of the British establishment elite……

    Refusing to see that the First World War was an IDEOLOGICAL conflict and that the real enemy were the IDEAS of the German elite.

    The British elite seemed to think they could just make a deal with some new government in Germany and then all would be fine.

    The American President (Woodrow Wilson) was even worse than the British – he actually shared many of the collectivist assumptions of the German elite, and he was also deeply stupid.

    “How can you say that Paul – Woodrow Wilson was a leading academic”.

    Yes he was a leading academic – and by the period we are talking about this meant that his thought was a twisted mess.

    See such book as “The State” by Woodrow Wilson – or some recent examinations of his thought and his role in spreading modern (collectivist) “liberalism”, as well as his demented notions about toilets and so on.

    No wonder Marshall Foch despaired – this was not peace, this was a “20 year truce” he declared in 1919.

    “Black Jack” Pershing also understand to win the war (not to “make peace” – a very different thing) there had to be a march on Berlin.

    Germany had to be broken – so that the state (and its IDEAS) would be discredited. Replaced by an independent Bavaria and so on.

    But the British (and the American) establishment elite did not understand.

    Their political strategic grasp was as poor as the tactical grasp of infantry tactics of commanders on the Western Front.

    Actually “the rabble” had a sounder grasp of these matters.

    They (the “rabble”) understood that Germany had to be destroyed – and the politicians made speeches pretending that they agreed (but they not really agree – they were too “clever” for that).

    The elite wanted to “make peace” not DESTROY THE ENEMY.

    This attitude made the Second World War inevitable.

    The British establishment (including Keynes – who actually though the “settlement” of 1919 was too tough on Germany) are hopeless, just hopeless.

    They do not kill themselves (or even resign) when they get tens of thousands of British soldiers killed (as they did on, for example, on July 1st 1916 – perhaps “lack of shells” was to blame, or perhaps a bad fairy waved her wand and cast a magic spell).

    And they have no clear idea of what they want to achieve – VICTORY (destroying-the-enemy – making sure they can not rise again) does not occur to them. President Johnson and Vietnam.

    They do not understand basic tactics, and they do not understand that real war is IDEOLOGICAL.

    War is not a game.

    War is not a sport.

    War is about differences that are so profound that they can only be solved by the utter defeat of one side or the other.

    No “making peace”, no “lets talk”.

    Do that and the sacrifices of the soldiers are a waste of lives.

    Because there will just be another war (with the same enemy) a few years later.

  • Paul Marks

    People may be thinking that I would apply the above to the Obama Administration today – with its talks with the Iranian regime and deal with the Castro brothers (and other Latin American Marxists – for example the Obama Administration has spent hundred of millions of Dollars supporting the Marxist regime in El Salvador and backing Marxists in Guatemala, Honduras……).

    However, it is not the same thing.

    The Anglo-American elite of the First World War were ignorant and stupid – they simply did not understand the basic situation.

    Thus with vast world wide empires they still could not even destroy a medium sized country in Europe – because they did not understand that they had to destroy it, they thought they could just beat it up a bit and then shake hands (a bit like a boxing match or a rugby game).

    What is happening now is not ignorance or stupidity.

    It is treason.

    And I use the word “treason” quite deliberately.

  • Russian economic growth was actually much faster than German

    True, but mainly because Russia was starting from such a low base. The industrial growth in Russia between 1900 and the Revolution was astonishingly fast, but the place remained deeply, deeply backward. I read one book which reported genuine witch trials still going on in Russia during this period.

  • R Richard Schweitzer

    You might go back and review von Schlieffen’s “Plan” and the force required compared to the force committed.

    A more plausible comment would be that the “Plan” was not properly executed (von Schlieffen then being dead).

    Also, like so many, there seems to be a preference to use the term “Tsarist” indiscriminately.

    But then, much study and recital of “History” is done to confirm established or current convictions.

  • Pardone

    The settlement with Germany was too tough; humiliating your enemy after a war is bound to lay seeds for another war.

    Parading around like Deion Saunders and pointing at the scoreboard hardly breeds civility.
    Lloyd George and Clemenceau shamelessly put political pandering before long-term peace.

  • Midwesterner

    David P. Goldman, AKA “Spengler” has a different take on the causes of the war that he touches on in this discussion of Iran in the present Middle East.

    An excerpt:

    Anglo-Saxon historiography long has blamed Germany for the First World War, an easy conviction before the bar of history given its culpability for the Second. Christopher Clark has now shown in his bestselling book The Sleepwalkers that Russia’s mobilization forced Germany’s hand. If one believes the memoirs of the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Maurice Paleologue, France urged the Czar towards war. Four-fifths of France’s military age men were already mobilized in the eight months before the outbreak of war, against half of Germany’s. A war of attrition of sorts had already begun; France needed an early resolution because, unlike Germany, it could not sustain the costs continued mobilization.

  • Jacob

    “Explaining the Second World War is easy. You have a bad guy with bad ideas who started a war of conquest. ”

    Well, this bad guy, and especially the bad ideas didn’t start in 1919. What explains the Second WW explains also the first – the same bad ideas and crazy people of Germany.

    The Schlieffen Plan is nonsense. It makes sense only in the context of a plan to dominate the world.
    WW1 proved conclusively that defense was a trump strategy, Germany could have easily defended herself against France and Russia. Activating the Schlieffen plan was no defense strategy. It proves beyond doubt who is to blame for the war.

  • Regional

    The First rule of war is ‘Kill the enemy and take his land’ and,
    There are three phases of war: Advance, Defence and Withdrawl.

  • Mr Ed

    There are other mysteries. Explaining the Second World War is easy. You have a bad guy with bad ideas who started a war of conquest. But you look in vain for such a character in 1914.

    There is no mystery whatsoever. Who declared war on France? Who invaded Belgium?

    Do you pretend that you do not know the answers, or are you really, really, stupid?

  • Mr Ed

    The settlement with Germany was too tough; humiliating your enemy after a war is bound to lay seeds for another war.

    Did you ever get the chance to tell Bomber Harris that?

  • Regional

    On this day in 1746 the Scots came second on a playing field just outside Inverness and the Englanders had no futher problems with raiding parties. The Scots were able to satisfy their blood lust by being psychopaths for England, sorry Britain.

  • jdm

    It struck me while reading that list of treaties, agreements, understandings, familial squabbles, and cultural linkages, that the one thing that made WWI so catastrophic is that none or very few of the parties involved fathomed just how lethal the weapons they and the “other side” possessed had become.

    In and before Napoleonic times, the picking of sides and thrashing of the enemy would’ve resulted in wars with very great death counts but nothing like that seen in WWI…

    …or The American Civil War. This war, a precursor in destruction to WWI, was attended by all sorts of Euros who refused to learn from what they saw. And so, having no idea or denying just how lethal modern day weaponry had become they continued the treaty-kabuki acknowledging the coming war but refusing to believe what would come of it all.

    And then, even in the midst of it, pig-headed knuckleheads like Haig, Foch, and Ludendorf tried to defeat reality with OPB (Other People’s Blood).

  • Rich Rostrom

    So, why did it take them another 4 years to make peace?

    Because nobody was losing.

    The terrible thing about WW I is that in effect the score was close until the final minutes.

    Any of the participants would have been better off quitting than fighting on for several years – but that was not apparent to any of them. Nobody saw that it was going to stay tied for years.

  • Nick (Pro-Sovereignty) Gray

    Indeed, if the Russians had collapsed sooner, the Huns might have been able to re-assign their troops and break through to Paris before the Americans could help the French. Or the U-boat campaign could have been increased- Britain was close to running out of food. If there is another war in Europe, you’d think that this time they’ll know to starve Britain!

  • Mr Ed

    I just chanced across this blogpost reportedly providing Admiral of the Fleet David Beatty’s view in 1909 (he was then a Captain) of how what became WW1 might start.

    My opinion is that Austria and Servia are as near blows as makes no matter, and I can’t see how it can be avoided, unless Austria entirely changes her attitude. Furthermore, if it does come, Russia can’t sit idle and watch Austria absorb Servia, so in she comes. Then arises the question of the Triple Alliance, and in how far Germany is involved to support Austria. It is a nice point, and I cannot see Germany doing nothing. Then where is our friend France and the Russo-Franco Alliance, backed up by the spirit which they like to make out pervades the whole of France, but in reality does not, namely, the one desire of a War of Revenge for 1870. Alors, where are we? The whole of Europe will blaze if it once starts, and the outlook at present is of the worst.

  • staghounds

    One needn’t go back to the ACW, the South African and Russo-Japanese wars both provided clear and recent examples of industrial slaughter efficiency.

    The Generals weren’t stupid. They did as they were told, which is what soldiers are selected for first.

    Should they have refused? Said in 1915, “The defensive is strong enough, we should just settle down and wait a few years (while the Germans occupy big chunks of our homeland/the British navy throttles us)?

    Even if they had, the governments would have considered them traitors and replaced them with men who would fight.

  • Jacob

    “The Generals weren’t stupid. They did as they were told, which is what soldiers are selected for first.”
    First, in Germany, the Generals did all the decisions, the civilians were ignored, including the clown-Kaiser W2 who always wore military uniforms.
    In France also – the generals were much more powerful than the civilian government, and they managed the war. In Britain, the civilian government was more involved, but still, it was the Generals who decided about military campaigns.
    All Generals were incredibly stupid and incompetent.
    WW1 was a major, long war, and no General or military commander stood out and made a reputation for himself.

  • JohnK

    On this day in 1746 the Scots came second on a playing field just outside Inverness and the Englanders had no futher problems with raiding parties. The Scots were able to satisfy their blood lust by being psychopaths for England, sorry Britain.

    I think you will find there were more Scots fighting for the Crown than the Pretender at Culloden. What won in 1746 was a pragmatic constitutional settlement over Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brand of romantic Catholic absolutism. Getting rid of the Stuart dynasty was probably one of the best things that ever happened for Scotland and England. Just how many civil wars can one family start?

  • Patrick Crozier

    If anyone is going to criticise generalship in the First World War they should at least state what they would have done differently. The problems of destroying defences, suppressing enemy fire, supplying the troops, maintaining secrecy and maintaining communications with men who had gone over the top were enormous.

    Were the generals in charge in the UK? Well, Haig certainly didn’t think so, Kitchener was sidelined and Robertson was sacked.

    What about France? Again both Joffre and Nivelle were sacked. Clemenceau was the dominant figure.

    David Beatty. That quote is almost too good to be true. If he did say it I am impressed, especially given who it came from.

    Lethality. I think the various participants had a very good understanding of what they were getting into. As I said earlier, harrumph, both Asquith and Churchill described a prospective European war as “Armageddon”. It is clear that both Russia and Germany engaged in an extraordinary amount of hemming and hawing. They knew they were playing with fire.

  • Jacob

    “both Asquith and Churchill described a prospective European war as “Armageddon”.”

    But they didn’t start it…

    Generals were sacked? Sure, and other clowns were put in charge.

    What could have been done differently? That is easy: stay put, do defense. Let the enemy break his neck in attack.

    Sending hundreds of thousands soldiers on attack as cannon fodder against machine guns – time and again – this is the height of idiocy.

  • Schlieffen himself, and the elder Moltke, would have had enough sense not to attack.

  • “At the time, conflict unceasing grew year by year to a more dangerous intensity at home, while abroad there gathered sullenly the hurricane that was to wreck our generation. Our days were spent in the furious party battles…, while always upon the horizon deadly shapes grew or faded, and even while the sun shone there was a curious whisper in the air.”
    ~ Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries, 1937

  • Nick (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Here in Australia, General John Monash is given great praise for leading a co-ordinated breakthrough, in the last stage of the War.
    And let us not blame the Generals too much- it had been years since a war between near-equals had happened in Europe. they had no personal experience to guide them.

  • Regional

    What is ignored in Astraya is that the Canadians and Astrayans were two corps that formed an Army group. The Canadians were led by a competent General whom Monash respected and they were just as fierce fighters as the Astrayans.
    The press in Astraya ignore the Brits and Frogs were also at Gallipoli and suffered horrific losses.

  • Paul Marks

    Patrick – without going into old arguments too much.

    Walking in lines towards enemy defences did not work in 1815 against the American muskets and cannons at the Battle of New Orleans.

    So there was no reason (none) for Haig and the others to suppose it would work any better in the age of rapid firing rifles, machine guns and modern artillery (as well as barbed wire and concrete – also things Andrew Jackson did not have in 1815).

    General Haig had seen what happens when one tries this tactic – for example when he sent two reserve divisions to attack prepared German defences on the second day of the battle of Loos (being Haig he lied through his teeth – pretending that the reserve divisions were going to chase a defeated enemy).

    Of the ten thousand men that Haig sent in, eight thousand were either killed or wounded. As far as we know – there were no German casualties (Haig achieved the most lop sided result in British military history)

    Yet this had no effect on the thinking of the “Educated Solider” (the chap who did not actually take his degree, and failed his army maths exam – only to get a commission by wire pulling anyway, and held the fact Plumer gave him low marks in an army test against the man for many years).

    How many British soldiers died on the first of July 1916? About 20 thousand was it not? And how many were wounded.

    Do not blame “lack of shells to suppress enemy fire” or evil elves casting nasty spells.

    Haig tried a frontal attack (at walking pace – and in line) against prepared enemy defences – and the result was no different that it was at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 – or the so many other times this has been done.

    I can not introduce you to the men I knew who served on the Western Front – because they are all dead (they were old men even when I was a boy – when I used to chat to them at the Lancing British Legion).

    However, the real history of the Western Front is kept alive in places such as Kells in County Antrim.

    People there know (for example) how the Ulster Division was betrayed by Haig and co – as the truth has been passed down from father to son.

    And no amount of university bullshit (and Western Front Association propaganda) is going to change that.

    So let us now put this to bed.

    As you yourself said in the past Haig as “not particularly interested” in infantry tactics.

    In short (a conclusion that you did not draw – but should have) he was unfit for this command.

    Although Haig might have done well someone else (I do not deny that) – he, and commanders like him, should have been kept well away from the Western front.

  • Paul Marks

    Padone states that the Allied terms were “too harsh” – well J.M. Keynes lives at everything I wrote failed to sink in (fair enough – at my age I am use to that).

    Midwesterner – no the person you quote is just wrong (actually not “just” wrong – he is not being straight either).

    That is revealed by the first line where he says Anglo American historiography has long blamed Germany for the war.

    Quite the contrary – actually history books have been making excuses for the German government for many decades – the we-all-slipped-into-together idea.

    Beard and other American “historians” (disguised Marxists) were pushing an “economic interpretation” of the war (big business is to blame) as far as the 1920s.

    And the British hate anything that is an ideological struggle – the British elite, want to reduce everything to a level of a game, where nothing is really anyone’s fault (it was all forces beyond their control…….).

    Most British history books about the First World War do not even contain the text of the German Declaration of War upon Germany – which tells the attentive all they need to know about the usefulness of these works.

    Mr Ed – people like Bomber Harris in positions of influence in the First World War – I wonder how that would have turned out…..

    “If the Germans insist on war – how would they like a few hundred poison gas shells fired by the Royal Navy into Hamburg?”

    I am not saying that should have been done – but it does show that the British were not the ruthless beasts of Rothbardian fantasies.

    Remember Britain and France had world wide empires (and if they had managed to link up with the Russians they would have found it had vast resources also – Russia was the fourth largest economic power in 1914, but was constantly let down by its government, and by having would-be revolutionaries in key positions).

    If the Allies had wanted to be – they could have been very “beastly to the Germans”, they had a vast material advantage over the Germans, but the allies (Russia and France as well as Britain) lacked competence and ruthlessness.

    Other than ruthlessness towards their own men – they treated their own soldiers like expendable toys (or toilet paper).

    Lastly on the Russians – their primitive state is largely a myth, but one they firmly believed in themselves (Revolutionary propaganda had been at work for years).

    For example the Russian Air Force was the largest in the world in 1914 – but Russian soldiers opened fire (regularly) on Russian aircraft.

    Such clever things as flying machines “must” be German you see – there own country (Russia) could not possibly have produced such things.

    Revolutionary propaganda about how backward and pathetic was – it was not just private soldiers who believed it, some Generals did to.

    They went into battle with the belief that everything was hopeless – and so they made it hopeless.

  • Paul Marks

    I can think of all sorts of horrible things that could have been done to the Germans in the First World War – but I better not write any more about gas shells into Hamburg (and all my other ideas) as someone might think I would have really done it.

    How does one take prepared defences – if one is ordered to do so?

    It is a bloody business – one that should be avoided if at all possible (starve the buggers out).

    However, if one receives a direct order…..

    Sappers (with mines) to dig under the defences (known for many centuries), and special assault squads (also know for centuries) to take strong points – or, rather, to try to.

    And the forces moving at as high speed as possible – in battle “slow is dead”.

    And one continues to fire (with all weapons) even as one’s own men go in for the assault – it is the only way to keep down the heads of some of the enemy firers.

    One does this in the full knowledge that one’s own fire will kill some one one’s soldiers – it is the only way to keep the defenders from killing all of them.

    Even the Romans suffered from “friendly fire” when assaulting fortresses (it can not be helped) and some Romans dropped dead from being forced to charge (in full armour) in terrible conditions of heat and so on (that can not be helped either).

    The life of an infantryman is awful.

    He lives in a hole in the ground – and often can barely move for ages.

    Then he has to charge like a maniac – with the enemy shooting at him (and also being killed by the fire of his own side), and kill the enemy defenders in savage hand-to-hand fighting.

    At least with a fortress there are then women to rape and stuff to steal (although a commander like Wellington will then hang a few infantry for doing that – as a P.R. gesture to the civilian population).

    With a fortified position in the field there are no women and no loot – just another fortified position behind the first one.

    And the inevitable enemy counter attack.

    Which is why the offensive has to push on (if one manages to capture the first defences) – so that the enemy do not have time to organise a counter attack.

    “So if you do not die from shot or shell you are going to die from heart failure from all the insane physical effort?”

    Of course.

    Have fun now.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course the Germans often did not put many men in the first line of fortified positions.

    So even magical weapons would not kill the Germans – because they were not there.

    But after one has killed the Germans in the first positions – one will find the main body, they will be in positions behind.

    Either press on and kill them – or wait for them to kill you.

    Or “starve the buggers out” – not just food but materials (cut them off from the world and let them rot till they weaken).

    But even when they weaken they will still be very dangerous.

    It will take great effort to kill them.

    And kill them you must – war is about destroying the enemy.

  • JohnK


    The tactics you describe are quite close to those eventually arrived at, including such innovations as creeping barrages, tanks, close air support etc. The British Army really did learn between 1915 and 1918, far more than some of its friends and enemies.

    As to the Hun, the irony of the Schlieffen Plan was that it was not needed at all. As the French demonstrated in the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914, their plan to regain Alsace-Lorraine consisted of throwing as many red-trousered infantrymen at the German machine guns as possible. By the end of 1914 they had lost over a quarter of a million men for nothing. The Germans had no need to sweep through Belgium, giving Britain a casus belli, they could instead have stood on the defensive in the west, and concentrated on Russia, and by 1915 have annexed as much of Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine as seemed appropriate. Job done. Of course, if your warped ambition is to destroy Britain, France and Russia and dominate the world, then such a simple outcome is of no use to you, and you end up fighting World War One.

  • In 2000 I wrote about the Nobel Peace Prize:
    Austen Chamberlain, British foreign secretary and half-brother of Neville, received the Prize in 1925 for having negotiated the Locarno Treaty, which established Germany’s borders with France and Belgium. These “inviolable” borders later meant nothing to Hitler.

    Chamberlain shared that Prize with Charles Dawes, vice president of the U.S. and chairman of the Allied Reparation Commission, who drew up a schedule for defeated Germany to pay for its aggression during World War One. It was a curious arrangement, with the Allies loaning Germany the means to make the payments, the U.S. chipping in $110,000,000. The Dawes Plan and its successor, the Young Plan, which reduced the German debt, were cancelled in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor. One of his political platforms was very popular with the German electorate: the alleged injustice of reparations and the Treaty of Versailles.

    See my columns, “Nobel Prizes in Nullity,” at http://ruleofreason.blogspot.com/2006/10/nobel-prizes-in-nullity.htm and “The Ignoble Nobel Peace Prize” here http://ruleofreason.blogspot.com/2009/10/ignoble-nobel-peace-prize.htm

  • Julie near Chicago

    Patrick, is there a video of your talk posted somewhere? Or even an audio?

    If not, will one be forthcoming?

  • JohnW

    I am not saying that should have been done – but it does show that the British were not the ruthless beasts of Rothbardian fantasies.

    What a monster and a liar he was.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Julie This is a video of a talk I gave last year. There are some differences but most of it is the same.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Staying put and letting the enemy attack. This was not an option for the Allies because the Germans were occupying Allied territory. The Germans had to be removed. It is also not (by and large) possible to win a war without attacking at some point. Also, as I understand it, at both Verdun (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) casualties were more-or-less even.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Edward Thanks for that. I’ve long been dubious about the Nobel Peace Prize. You’ve confirmed that I was right to be.

  • JohnK


    Your point above is very important. The failure of Germany’s 1914 plan left it occupying about 10% of France, which meant that France had every incentive to continue the war to liberate its territory. Had the Germans simply held to the defensive in the west in 1914, then France would have suffered enormous losses, but large areas of France would not have been occupied by the Boche. I cannot see enthusiasm for continuing the war lasting beyond 1915 if the bottom line was that they were not actually fighting to free a large part of their country. In addition, if Germany had not criminally invaded Belgium, I find it very hard to see Britain mustering the will to enter the war. France and Russia would have had every incentive to have concluded a peace treaty with Germany in 1915, provided (and this is a problem) that Germany’s terms were reasonable.

  • Patrick, You’re welcome.


  • Niall Kilmartin

    I think this post makes a strong case (though not as strong as could be made) for Germany as the causer of the war, and a very weak case (though not as weak as it should be) for treating Russia and France as even co-culpable.

    Russia did not want war in 1914; they expected to be unready before 1916 (whether or not they would then have done anything). France did not want to risk war without Russia at any time, and its 1914 politics were clearly not at all focussed on starting a war in that year. Germany, by contrast, had for some time regarded 1914 as a good year for war; as the post notes, this is well authenticated. As the move to war progressed, the German chancellor specifically told the Kaiser not to declare war until Russia had mobilised, so he could portray Russia as the aggressor. This focus on the political usefulness of Russia’s mobilisation fed naturally into post-war excuses, but it discredits the idea that that the mobilisation could be the cause. The German government foresaw that Russia would mobilise and how they could use that.

    Readers of this site can well understand that after the war both intellectuals everywhere and most people in Germany had a great political desire to muddy its cause. “Germany started it; we either fought or submitted” does not help any narrative, nor help any intellectual feel superior to the common herd. The second world war did not come about without a great deal of wilfully absurd beliefs about the first’s cause, course and effects being preached as fact by many in the interwar years. The second killed some of this but enhanced the need for other parts: “WWII was necessary but we were right to condemn WWI” helped many feel good about their opposing fighting Hitler until dangerously late in the day. That a good deal of this stuff still pollutes the debate now is sad but unsurprising.

  • Paul Marks

    Patrick – as you know Passchendaele was a series of battles, some reasonably handled (mostly the Plumer bits – although even he had was operating in the context of an offensive that was at the wrong time and in the wrong place), and some attacks that were utterly awful (the Gough-Haig bits).

    To get all the battles of the Pass offensive and add them together and then say “the casualties were about even” is a procedure of breath taking wrongness. It is wrong because it obscures the basic difference in approach in the different engagements.

    Verdun at least made sense in theory – lure the French into an area where they could be shelled (and so on) from three sides. It all went wrong when Germany (partly in response to their own propaganda) decided to actually TAKE Verdun (which had not been part of the original plan). Perhaps the ease of taking a few forts (one supposedly great fort was taken by a single German soldier) led to the Germans making the mistake of believing their own propaganda – and actually trying to take the Verdun area.

    Originally the idea was to make the French public opinion think that the Germans were trying to take the historic area – and then bleed France dry in efforts to defend it.

    Pass (or the Third Y. offensive) never made sense – even in theory.

    Let us get an area of land that is naturally bog and shell it a lot – oh-what-a-surprise it has turned into a bog again.

    Haig was useless – no serious person can honestly defend him, and your efforts (over a long period of time) to do so, are not a good thing for you to be doing.

    Oddly enough Douglas Haig reminds me of the Managing Director of certain park (also, as it happens, a Scot).

    The man has strange notions – for example he thinks that putting up fences keeps geese out of areas of the park (he appears to be unaware of the fact that geese can fly).

    And he wastes hundred of thousands of Pounds on plans that a child of six should be able to work out will not work.

    However, he “looks the part” (well dressed and so on) and uses few words but gives the impression of being wise and competent (very Haig) – so he is allowed to just carry on, mad plan following mad plan.

    Still he has not got vast numbers of men killed – so there the comparison does not hold.

  • Paul Marks

    JohnW – yes Murray Rothbard told the truth when he thought it was for the advantage of the cause, and he lied when he thought it was for the advantage of the cause.

    I do not like liars – and say so to their faces (one reason I am in a humble position in life – and may well have to go back to security work soon, if even the security guard trade will have me).

    I fully accept that Rothbard had the right to say that the Soviets were not guilty of XYZ that they were guilty of, and that the IRA were in the right (and all his other lies) – just as anyone has the right to defend that disgusting piece of work, Douglas Haig.

    But I do not have to like, or associate, with such people.

    JohnK – it was not “discovered” into the First World War.

    I was careful not to mention tanks or aircraft – and to mention that the basic matters were understood as far as the Romans (indeed long before).

    For example in 1878 British military observers were scathing about the Russian performance at Plevna against the Turks.

    From that old schoolboy stand-by the “Guinness Book of Military Blunders” (certainly there are errors in it – but it gets the basic stuff right, which is more than can be said for university tosh such as the works of John T.).

    “They seems to have no advance-line of skirmisher. Serried ranks of infantry, three battalions, I believe – climbed in a solid body the bank of the last ditch and advanced in a line parallel to the redoubt. The attack was purely frontal. Hardly had they appeared when a dozen bugles sounded “Fire” and a terrific fire, coming from three sides, brought the Russians to a dead stop The survivors surged back and were swallowed by a second, which had meanwhile commenced to advance. A third followed at a short distance….. The Russians surged forward and recoiled from the slope like the waves of a tempestuous ocean”.

    The Russians lost almost twenty eight thousand men at Pleva – over a period of three weeks.

    The thing is that Haig would have seen nothing wrong with the Russian tactics – he did the same himself, sometimes losing 20 thousand men in a single day.

    It is not the time period – such tactics did not work at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

    The Japanese General Nogi lost 16 thousand men (dead and wounded) with a human wave attack on Port Arthur on August 19th 1904.

    “Ah but the Japanese won in the end of that war – so Nogi must have been doing something right”.

    Someone who gives that response about Nogi or Haig, deserves to be flogged.

    The battle of Mukden was won by Marshall Ogama (not General Nogi) and it was won by an encirclement movement.

    Nor were such tactics successful in the Boar war – and the response “the British won in the end” does not excuse bad tactics.

    Nor is there much sign that Haig. personally, learned much.

    Even leaving aside that a man with a scrap of decency would not have lived to be in command in 1916 or 1917 – as he would have killed himself after he leaned of the fate of the two reserve divisions he sent to certain death (with no chance of success whatever) on the second day of the Battle of Loos in 1915.

    Nor does the fact that some French and Russian commanders were even worse excuse Haig and men like him.

    Yes Haig never did anything like what the Russian command did to the Imperial Guard – send them to attack up a narrow causeway so that the Germans could almost wipe them out by firing on them from three sides.

    Battle of Kovel – 1916, 30 thousand of the Imperial Guard killed or crippled.

    But what is this – a contest to see which commander is the worst?

    Yes I am sure that French and Russian commanders can be found that were even worse than Haig.

    There were also British commanders who were worse than Haig.

    The group of clowns as Sulva Bay spring to mind.

    Commander I am not going ashore, my leg hurts.


    Commander go into his tent and cry and do bugger all (and NO I am not making this character up).


    Commander I am too senior to be here – so I am going to do nothing, other than order back soldiers who have actually captured key hills without waiting for orders.

    See Colonel Regan on this group of generals – if you are willing to accept the risk of nightmares.

    Compared to this bunch of utter shits, Haig looks brilliant.

    But so would a random person picked from the street.

    Haig was supposed to be a great commander – the most senior British soldier on the Western Front.

    “Well he was not as bad as this total lunatic over here” does not cut it.

    The British (or rather a certain sort of British person – I call them the “establishment tosspot”) are past masters at making a mess look good – at least afterwards. Making it look like that nothing bad that happened was their fault.

    The carefully chosen few words (spoken in the deliberate I-am-no-public-speaker-I-am-just-plain-man-who-is-not-articulate way), the solid dependable soldier LOOK, the well pressed (but not over the top uniform – the I-am-a-plain-man-but-I-am-neat look).

    None of it actually matters – not if they are not actually any good at what they are supposed to be doing.

    And they are not.

  • JohnK


    I realise that Douglas Haig is not your favourite general, and have no wish to get into a debate with you about that. My point is that the British Army as a whole developed hugely in the course of the war. Even at the Somme, there was no desire to send men against machine guns. The first attack was preceded by a seven day artillery barrage unprecedented in history. The British Tommies advancing in their neat lines were meant to occupy trenches full of dead Germans. Obviously, it didn’t work, but by September we were even using tanks, again for the first time in history.

    When I consider how long it took the modern British Army to conclude that mine protected vehicles might be a good idea in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, I begin to feel that the WWI General Staff were perhaps not as bad as they have been painted.