Myths of the Great War

In the wake of Armistice Day I thought I would make a brief divergence from pure wargaming and give an insight into some of the conclusions that I have come to regarding the first great conflagration of the Twentieth Century.

I have mentioned on earlier blogposts that the First World War is the conflict that drew me towards military history and indeed my defining image of war.  I have spent more time thinking and reading about this war than any other, canvassing the pro and anti war literature, the defenders and attackers of the generals, the perspectives of the British Empire, France and Germany, the influence of the media machines – even the influence of the war on art.  So I have not come to any conclusions lightly, changing my opinion on certain matters several times, and indeed there is no guarantee that I won’t recant my current positions as well one day. I’ve called this myths of the Great War because I believe that we have mythologised this war to overcome the absolute horror of the conflict.  It is becoming more noticeable in New Zealand that the image of ANZAC has distorted and indeed subverted the historical record in rather concerning ways.  At any rate, outlined are my main trains of thought which will be disagreed with vehemently by some, cause others to rethink their own ideas, and may even confirm some views  that others have held.

The Wrong Alliance

In this section I will look at the decision of the British Empire to enter the war against Germany and argue that it would actually have been in their best interests to align themselves against France and Russia.

  • Germany was under a ‘siege’ mentality, allied solely to a deteriorating power in Austria-Hungary.  In a sense it had been isolated – not just by its own mismanagement of foreign affairs but also by skillful French diplomacy.
  • Britain joining France and Russia did not create a balance of power – it destroyed it.
  • Britain’s fears of Germany were based on its growing economy and navy. Yet by 1914 Britain has clearly won the naval race and Russia’s economy was the nascent ‘tiger’ of Europe.  it would have made sense for Britain to ally with a strong naval power as it had done with Japan in the east, neutralising any threat of conflict with Germany and effectively warning off any other potential rivals, notably France, Russia and the United States. The two strongest economies in Europe could have created free trade agreements that further stimulated their economic growth, again focused on staying ahead of Russia and competing more effectively with the United States.  The acquistion of the Portuguese colonies by Germany would have placated much of the German colonial jealousy with no threat to the British Empire.  For those that say this was impossible, the thaw in Anglo-German relations after 1911 needs to be re-examined.
  • Even had Germany attacked and defeated France in 1914, this had happened 43 years before and France had survived. European civilisation had not ended.  In fact, as Niall Ferguson argues in his book The Pity of War this would have been the perfect opportunity to create a customs union along the lines of the EEC, but at a much earlier period in history. But this is Niall’s arguments, and if you want to know more I suggest reading his book.  I don’t agree with everything he writes, but we do converge on this point.
  • Russia posed a far more serious threat to Britain than Germany did.  Russia was an unrepentant autocracy and a massive nation of incredible potential power. If allowed access to the Mediterranean by way of Constantinople it threatened the British Empire’s communications through the Suez canal.  It bordered Afghanistan and threatened British interests in India and the Middle East.  An Allied victory would see any future Anglo-Russian confrontation with Britain at a serious disadvantage.  Yet having poured cold water on notions of an obvious German menace to the British Empire, at what point do I believe that Russia would be any more dangerous?
  • Russia was pursuing a reckless and aggressive foreign policy by proxy in the Balkans.  Unlike the Kaiser’s posturing that was often lamented by the German public and was more to sooth his bruised and fragile ego than anything else, Russia had real issues at home that needed to be refocused by expansion.  Just ask George Kennan, the architect of containment. His central thesis was that if Russia does not expand it collapses internally. This worked in regards to the Cold War, and was evident in 1905 where the defeat by Japan rocked the Russian establishment.  Denied the chance to expand eastwards, blocked by the British Empire to the south, Russia could only look west. And here was a situation that was perfect for them. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were in trouble from the growth of nationalism. Russia could pose as the leader of the Pan-Slavic movement, the Big Brother of the little Balkan states, and use the situation to its territorial advantage.  With the Triple Entente Russia knew that the odds were moving in its favour.  had Britain clearly aligned itself with Germany, France would never have allowed Russia to go to war over Serbia – peace would have been preserved.  An Austrian victory over Serbia (by no means a guaranteed outcome given the record in 1914) would not have been detrimental to any power except Russia – and even then only because Russian prestige would have been dented again.  A better outcome than millions of dead.

The next blogpost on this topic will look at Modern warfare and the devastating effect of mass-media and propaganda.

Incidentally, I went to Cambridge yesterday for the annual commemoration event there which includes militaria and reenactments. It was great to see a working T-34/85 close up, and I appreciated the reenactors’ efforts – especially for the Second World War.  So here’s a couple of pictures:

Me and a T-34/85. A real treat, and it even had a bottle of vodka by the driver’s seat!

The Kiwi’s camp – I missed the demonstration by the 5.5″ the day before.

The Germans killing all of the American reenactors (pretend) only to be defeated by the NZers.  Who said that we’re parochial?!

The Germans had a real sense of ‘cool’ about them and their uniforms and equipment.  They go to lengths to emphasise that they are not Nazis, and I guess someone has to be the ‘baddies’.  Certainly I’m considering reenacting, and would quite like to do something WWI – either German or New Zealander (I’d be a lonely soul being French I think).  But I don’t think I could ever bring myself to go anywhere near dressing up as anything associated with Nazi Germany in any way.  The only reason I have German wargames troops is because it is really unsatisfying playing WWII in Europe games without them…


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