Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Century of Change ...

This year we will mark the start of an event that changed the world in ways we are still coming to terms with. The question being raised by many taking a fresh look at the events of 1914, is could it have been avoided? If it had not happened, what sort of world would we now inhabit?

Growing up in an English speaking environment, the son of an ex-serviceman, and grandson of other ex-servicemen, I grew up with the 'British' version that it was all caused by the Kaiser. That it was his ambitions, his desire to rule the world, and his desire for conquest that caused it all. As ever, the truth is a lot more complex, and a whole lot more convoluted than that. Sure this is what the British and Empire press pushed in a frenzy of patriotic fervour, but we must also remember that certain strong elements of that same Press had been whipping up anti-German sentiments since around 1890 when the Kaisers first began building an oceanic navy to defend their interests in Africa and the Far East. It spurred a naval building arms race that more or less made a war against Germany inevitable.

Recently published letters and memoirs of the British Prime Minister reveal that the Cabinet was split, and that the small government majority in Parliament meant that he couldn't afford to lose a single seat. So the 'War Party' within the Cabinet were able to hold him to ransom. What is seldom taught in the lesson I have encountered on this period, is the fact that the Kaiser, perhaps seeing the danger more clearly than those who thought a war would be quick, dashing and commercially advantageous, desperately telegraphed all the potential protagonists urging restraint. He undertook to refrain from military support of Austria if everyone else stayed out of the squabble - which Austria unwisely tried to settle by attacking Serbia. Unfortunately, the Tsar ignored the offer and mobilised his army.

I have often wondered why the Germans, with a war on the Eastern border, attacked France in the West, invading through Belgium and Luxembourg (the latter was actually an independent Grand Duchy of the Kaiser's Empire) which gave the British 'War Party' the excuse they needed. I have now learned that the attack was triggered by the French mobilising and threatening an invasion of Germany's southern states. As the Germans knew the French cherished ambitions of 'avenging' the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, they couldn't afford to leave that unchallenged. Interestingly, and despite latter Britsih and French historians putting it about that the Germans had been amassing weaponry and preparing for the war for ages, Germany was actually very unprepared. There was sufficient ammunition available for only a six week conflict, and it took an almost superhuman effort on the part of their industries to meet the demand once that was expended. Even their navy had so little ammunition available at the outset that a single engagement could have depleted their stopcks disastrously.

As ever, when you take a look at the history from both sides there is a lot of information revealed that makes obvious that there were a number of 'eminence grise' in the background on all sides. Britain did not need to get involved, but there were powerful voices within government, and in commerce and industry that wanted a war. Why? Some for altruistic reasons, believing it would strengthen the Empire to stamp firmly on the 'upstarts' in Europe who dared to challenge the British hegemony, others who were losing trade to German industries and hoped a war would give them an advantage, and there was the anger at the fact that, in Africa, Germany had prevented the creation of a continuous British presence "from the Cape to Cairo" with their colonies in South West Africa and Tanganika.

There were those in France who wanted to bring down the power of Germany, and restore French dominance on the Continent, and others, who, like their British counterparts, wanted German industry  and trade restricted. And then there was Russia. The last despot in Europe, the last real Emperor responsible to no one. Unfortunately, also a man given to whims of the moment who failed to see the danger of the beast he unleashed.

We have always been taught, by the history written by the 'winners' that the whole conflict was caused by 'German ambitions' and 'German aggression', but, as I said in opening, this isn't the whole truth. The 'War Parties' on all sides expected a quick and mobile war, the slogan 'all over by Christmas' was popular, but sadly ill-informed and based more on propaganmda than reality. And like most propaganda, it led to tragedy on a massive scale. In June we will mark the assassination that triggered the whole sorry mess - and launched a century of war that has all but destroyed the world and the society the men who marched across Europe in 1914 thought they were fighting to preserve.

The only victors, as ever, seem to have been those 'dark figures' in the background who saw profit in a conflict, and who are still present, at least in spirit, in our world today. It is something we should reflect on deeply.


  1. Slim Jim says: I must take the Monk to task when he states that the Germans were 'very unprepared' for war. In fact, by 1914, she had around one million men who had served as reservists, most unlike our 'contemptible little army'. Of course, the causes are more complex than some may think, but if we had not gone to war, what would the outcome have been? Yes, it was always about defending our Empire, but at least we didn't bow down to external forces like we do nowadays!

  2. As you say, complex, many faceted and almost universally reported with more attention to jingoism than truthful analysis. None was needed, of course, in 1919 as the “War to end all wars” was over and the victors were clearly better off than the losers.

    Some of the factors you mention; The German Grand Fleet, well if we hadn't built the Dreadnought, the fleets might have been less expensive. Jutland was a draw, but the Grand Fleet only sailed once more and that was to Scapa Flow. Yes, it was the Tzar's twitchy finger that wavered, but Austria was still stuck firmly in the 19th century way of thinking and the Balkans have been a hotbed of tensions for hundreds of years. Francis Barnard and I came to the conclusion, after much deep reading and discussion that it was the Ottoman Empire removing itself from Europe that allowed those tension to touch a crumbling and ancient Empire.

    As for Belgium; Germany was perfectly entitled, in my opinion, to move defensive forces into one of its protectorates once France had shown her hand. The Kaiser apparently asked Britain to be aware that he was going to do so and Britain responded with an ultimatum. Who did the sabre rattling there? Russia was certainly the enemy to fear, the Bear was expected to steamroller through East Prussia in a mobile cavalry war that is well recorded in Solzhenitsyn's “August 1914”, however, inept generalship, poor supply organisation, and an isolation from the western allies, which the Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was an attempt to solve, coupled with the attack being launched by two independent armies rather than one army with two flanks, allowed Hindenburg to stall the advance with massive casualties.

    Britain most certainly could have stayed well out of it. I believe that Britain could have stayed out in 1939 too, however, France had to pay the penalty for the brutality of the Versailles Treaty, so it was more difficult, but Hitler always wanted what is now Poland and Belorussia and the Ukraine. However, there were, as you say, commercial, industrial and financial drivers, often ignored by historians. For example, William G Armstrong founded the Elswick works in Newcastle in 1847, firstly to launch his revolutionary hydraulic crane and other hydraulic devices, however, the Armstrong breech-loading gun followed soon after and supplied the British forces in the Crimea. In 1859, the Elswick Ordnance Company was created to keep the (government sponsored) armaments business at arms length from his other businesses to avoid conflicts of interest as Armstrong (Now Sir WG.) was, at that time Engineer of Rifled Ordnance for the War Office. Ordnance for the Great War was still stamped “EOC”, but there had been some lean years since the South African War, for which Newcastle had erected a most magnificent war memorial which still stands today at Barras Bridge, and there was a lot of poverty and unemployment in the mean streets of Elswick and Scotswood. (upon the northern borders of which I was actually born.) Shipbuilding, however, slightly further down the river, had kept Armstrong in business, HMS Monarch (1911), HMS Canada (1913), HMS Agincourt and Erin, both ordered by the Ottoman Navy but confiscated by the Royal Navy in 1914 had helped and HMS Malaya and Eagle followed during the war in 1915 and 1918.

  3. The building that I was delivered in had, in Edwardian times, been one of the largest Workhouses in the North of England, the poverty in the west end Elswick and the east end, Byker, where my Mother's family found work after walking from Northern Scotland to seek it, of Newcastle was extreme and the powerful North Eastern Members of Parliament looked forward to a “good war” with £ signs in their benevolent eyes. I am sure that others could tell similar tales for Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and so on.

    As far as Africa was concerned, there were some interesting actions, but largely the results followed one spectacularly successful German officer. However, the stage was set by the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty (Helgoland-Sansibar-Vertrag) of 1 July 1890, often forgotten, but vital in setting the stage. However, your comments on the prevention of “Cape to Cairo” domination of the continent by Britain is valid. Possibly you omitted one of the most interesting campaigns, one that is recorded on “deeds of derring-do” but rarely in political terms, namely that which saw General Allenby march into Jerusalem, between that and the French partition of Syria, well though out but poorly executed, the scene was set for much of the twentieth century's conflicts to come.

    I, like you, do not believe that German ambitions played any part in the true history of the causes of the War, I believe that Britain was aggressive for socio-economic reasons, that France was aggressive because the bloody nose of 1871 was still dripping, that Austria flung down the gauntlet to preserve its archaic honour and that the Tzar responded by supporting his allies in the Balkans so newly freed from the influence of the Ottoman Empire. All in all a fascinating study, whichever angle one approaches it from.

    Tl;dr, The Turks done it, cue Islamic revival

  4. I salute Josephus, he has answered Slim Jim's question in detail!

    A million Reserves does not indicate a 'military intent' in a nation with hostile neighbours. As Josephus points out, Belgium was really a German Protectorate, the invasion was an excuse, from a British perspective, to declare war for socio-economic reasons. It is no accident that the Irish could field to fully equipped Divisions by early 1915, up to full strength and better equipped than the regulars in some respects. Our "Contemptible Little Army" was only the Regular troops, the so-called British Expeditionary Force, and didn't include the main body of Garrisons scattered round Britain and Ireland. What is more, Ypres, Passchendaele and the fighting along the Flanders border was a skin of the teeth affair we were extremely lucky to be able to hold - at no small cost it must be said.

    1. 'A million Reserves does not indicate a 'military intent' in a nation with hostile neighbours.'

      The Monk is being a tad defensive here - I merely stated that they were not 'very unprepared', and they also had conscription for 100 years previously. As for troops in Ireland, well, there was a wee problem there, and there was an Empire to defend. It wasn't until late 1915/16 that we had sufficient troops to cope with demand - your country needs YOU! You mention some of the most horrific battles and campaigns, but perhaps one of the most significant moments was Haig's 'backs to the wall' address in spring 1918 when Germany almost broke the deadlock thanks to the Russian revolution, and the release of troops from the eastern front. Of course, we were fortunate to have the Yanks onside, and we were to be grateful to them again just over 20 years later. But you are correct that we should reflect deeply on this most horrendous conflict. We cannot rewrite history, but if we forget it, we are in danger of repeating it.

      Slim Jim

    2. As you say, Slim Jim, we must not forget, but I sometimes think our leaders would like to. My grandfather certainly had nothing good to say about the High Command and their insistence that the troops must march toward the enemy trenches 'keeping together, and moving steadily forward, the sergeants to ensure that no man stopped to help a fallen comrade, or take shelter'. Reading a book I acquired recently which contains the actual war diaries of the regiments engaged on the first day of the Somme, I'm frankly appalled at some of the stupidity, such as denying a request for support on the grounds their 'observers' reported no machine guns in that sector. And all the while the 'Commanders' sat back in their chateaus and moved markers on their maps.

      The Menin Gate memorial is appalling, what shocked me was the fact there are 17,000 South Africans on it, and I have yet to find any mention of them serving there in any history published since 1945. I knew, of course, of the massacre of the South African Division at Delville Wood, I forget how many went into the wood, but only a hundred or so came out again five days later and the rest 'have no known grave' though they held the position unsupported for five days. Again, they (as those nasty apartheid fellows) have been airbrushed out of the histories. Our political classes are very good at manipulating history.

      The slaughter was horrendous, and I can't escape the feeling that it was all for nothing - the descendents of the men who threw away lives in the trenches have now thrown away everything they supposedly fought for.

    3. Slim Jim replies: Yes, it seems now looking back that it was all for nothing, but I think that we must not look at history through the prism of today's world-view. WW1 was the first industrialised war, yet many commanders were intending to employ the tactics of the previous century. Cavalry mown down by machine gun fire put an end to those ideas. It's hard to imagine that it is almost 100 years ago since men fought in muddy holes in the ground. Nowadays, millions can be destroyed by the press of a button. And it's still the political classes that send men (and some women) to distant lands to fight. Afghanistan. What is all that about? What has actually been achieved? The Kingdom of God seems so far away...

  5. Of course we must remember other things. The aeroplane developed from a toy to a tool by 1918, smart women lost the cartwheel hats and trailing skirts, poor women gained work that paid reasonable, damn it all by 1920 those over 30 were to be give a vote. The top hat all but disappeared apart from Ascot and posh weddings. The motor car and more importantly, the motor truck became effective and efficient vehicle, not rich mens' playthings. The artistic movements of the 20s and 30s were a tad more radical than the art nouveau or arts and crafts of the very late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The mining industry moved from small scale companies to combined fields, although that did not please the workers in most cases, by 1923 the railways were regionalised and road transport was becoming mechanised. Horse drawn fire engines were replaced by internal combustion engines, horse buses by motor buses, hansom cabs by black cabs, although the rules said they still needed to carry hay and a nosebag.

    On the military side, it is typical of all generations that they wish to fight the last war, but on the military front huge technical leaps forward were either made or spawned, the tin hat, the kahki battle dress, already used in India became an effective camo although not as yet DPM. The parabellum 08 9mm round was in use although we stuck to the Edwardian .303 for far too long as with the soup-bowl helmet, by 1940 they should both have been modernised. The respirator had been developed, aerial bombardment tested and found to be effective. Radio was replacing the field telephone in some areas, stoker were soon to be trained in turning valves rather than shovelling coals.

    For all the horrors of large scale wars, we must take what comfort we can in the advances that they gave us. They shaped the twentieth century, they shaped our lives, but are soon to be forgotten.

    In Moreton last remembrance parade there were no fire officers except one poor soul doing the parade marshal, no Royal British Legion Standard, no College Standard, obviously, if the Scouts, guides and associated organisations plus the primary schools hadn't turned out there would not have been a parade.

    I was lucky enough to have had real friends who served in the Great War. The Almoner of lodge Royal Braemar No 1195 in the Scottish Constitution was over the top on the first day of the Somme and lived to spend his life as the village tailor in Newmachar, I can hear his voice as I sit here. When I joined the service, my watch elders had second world war ribbons on their undress. Auld Tam of course, died 20-odd years ago, my father was the youngest of the conscripts (there were younger volunteers, of course.) and he is 87 this years, soon the bulk will be gone, only the Harry Patches hanging on hoping their telegram will be from the Queen who is exactly that age herself (one month and two days older than my father.) rather than Charles, who I still think, if he does not pass on the crown directly to William, will style himself Arthur II.

    The old days are gone, we are in a new century, let us hope tat it is not marred by such major conflict and let us pray that the fifth crusade is not launched within the next few years, I fear it is a genuine threat.

  6. If there is ever a 'fifth Crusade' it will be launched by men with a very different agenda to 'spreading the faith of Christ crucified' - as one could say of all wars invoked in the name of God. Like Josephus, I served under officers wearing WW2 medal ribbons and for the most part they were good men. War does bring major technological leaps forward and we should not forget the advances in medicine and surgery that had their origins in casualty treatment in the mud and slaughter of the trenches. My own grandfather was 15 when he joined up, and 16 on the firsdt day of the Somme which was very nearly also his last day on earth.

    Sadly, the cycle of human history suggests we have not seen the last major war, but let us hope that the western governments have the sense to stay out of the next one.

    I doubt the curren t Prince of Wales will choose to be Arthur II, romantic though it might be, and I doubt he'll opt for Charles III either. I suspect he's much more likely to go for George VII and I predict he will be succeeded by William V.