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Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Final Dominoes Fall ...

Today, one hundred years ago, Britain and France declared war on the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, the French striking into Alsace, and the British moving the BEF to France. Reading the newspaper accounts of the time, the expectation was that the Fleet would steam across the North Sea, destroy the German High Seas Fleet in a 'second Trafalgar' at sea, or in their anchorage at Wilhelmshaven. The BEF was going to put the Germans in their place in Europe and the whole thing would be all over in a matter of months.

There would be no 'second Trafalgar', nor a 'Glorious First of June' at sea. In fact the Royal Navy suffered several disastrous losses in the early days of the war. The old cruisers, HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue were torpedoed by U-9 in an almost comical series of blunders by the commanding officers, taking with them hundreds of Reservists. At the Battle of Coronel, Admiral Cradock's squadron was destroyed by Admiral von Spee's East Asiatic Squadron, and the raiders, SMS Königsberg, operating out of the Rufiji River in East Africa, and the SMS Emden in the East Indies, played havoic with Empire shipping. Jutland is best described as a 'draw', and the idea that the High Seas Fleet never again played a decisive part in the war is a myth. Their actions in the Baltic continued unhindered and would eventually play a large part in creating the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian collapse.

That is always the danger of propaganda replacing reality. Far from being 'all over by Christmas' and a nice tidy demonstration of the superiority of British forces, it turned into a rout within days in France and it was only the professionalism of the British 'Tommies' that checked the French retreat once the German onslaught was unleashed. That check condemned the Germans to a slow and agonising war of attrition, and everyone else to a slow bleeding away of their young men, and a serious drain on economies that the pro-war parties cannot have foreseen.

The 'Great War' swept away the 'old' European systems and borders, re-alligning territories and moving vast numbers of people - or marooning them in 'new' host countries where they were treated as 'foreigners'. It would, in the draconian 'reparations' demanded by the French among others, sow the seeds for a second global conflict and the rise of Nazism and Fascisim - and, ironically, in attempting to destroy the German economy - it brought on the Great Depression.

We can only speculate on what the world would be like today had Britain refrained from rushing into war and cooler heads prevailed elsewhere.

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