Following on from my central thesis that the Great War was the direct result of Russian expansionism and that the British Empire effectively fought on the wrong side, are several other observations which are not quite so contentious but are nonetheless removed from accepted ideas.
The Modern Age of Warfare
This section is not as inflammatory as it may once have been, due to the rise in the academic community of a more balanced assessment of military capabilities in 1914.
- The first point to make is that industrialised warfare is expensive in terms of human life when both sides have the same levels of technology and a will to win. John Terraine made this very clear in his book ‘The Smoke and the Fire’ where he compared British losses on the Western Front in 1914-18 each year with the per annum averages in 1944-45. The results actually favoured the First World War generals.
- The technology simply did not exist to effect breakthroughs followed by sweeping advances. The Generals cannot be castigated for failing to do the impossible.
- The generals on all sides were asked to win the war. That requires attacks. By and large they did this competently, and where they did not new learning and techniques were incorporated into doctrine, or experience in general improved command. The worst commanders were removed. Again, the generals cannot be held accountable for things they di not know in advance,or experiences that no-one had ever encountered to the same degree. Even in Virginia in the American Civil War and Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, there were open flanks and numerical imbalances to exploit.
- The generals ( particularly Allied) jumped at new technology and tactics when they were developed. There was nothing moribund about the commanders in their quest to achieve victory.
- By the end of the war the German army was exhausted and defeated – Germany had expended too many resources fighting on too many fronts.
Propaganda prevents peace
Probably my next most contentious point, and one that seems to escape those so ready to condemn the generals as butchers, is the degree to which they couldn’t stop attacking. This was the result of the greatest propaganda campaign ever waged up to that point in history.
- The mobilistaion of media to justify the war and vilify the enemy made it harder to call an armistice and hold a peace conference. The longer the war went the more difficult it was for politicians to propose peace talks. ‘People’s War’ had prevented rational discretion when it came to the cost of modern war.
- The first two and a half years of the war were not in any sense futile. They represented a collection of struggles that as far as people at the time could see, might have brought victory – e.g. Germany’s semi-successful Eastern strategy or the Dardanelles option. 1916 was the year of Western confrontation and the failure at huge cost in terms of lives and treasure of all the offensive options. Verdun for the Germans and the Chantilly strategy for the Allies were total failures. At this point it would have been rational and acceptable for armistice overtures from both sides and for peace talks to have taken place. The belligerents were faced with massive debts and huge casualty tolls. A continuation of war would likely see social breakdown and political anarchy. Yet, the sensible was impossible. Politicians had painted themselves into a corner – the patriotism used to weld together differing political viewpoints had taken the power to make peace away from the politicians. It is art this point that the war became futile – the benefits of victory by any side would never be able to outweigh the costs.
The enduring myths to justify the war
- That the war stopped a global German hegemony that would have been brutal. The evidence given for this is the treatment of Belgian civilians by occupying forces in 1914. Yet these were actions taken in fear of the rising incidences of guerrilla warfare (francs-tireurs) in the Early Twentieth century and were not in any way comparable to later Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing. They seem nowhere near as outrageous when compared with the British actions in South Africa during the Boer War, or for that matter, (in a more parochial example) New Zealand activities in Palestine. Germany was neither evil, nor uncommonly brutal.
- The war was against militarism. Germany was in the process of cultural and institutional development. It already possessed a more advanced level of suffrage and highly developed social welfare state than the UK in 1914. The army was certainly prominent in society, and was made even more so by the Kaiser himself. Yet the Navy was forming a focus for German (as opposed to Prussian) national pride, and the Reichstag was on the road to constitutional change in an evolutionary process. The importance of the army in Russia, France and Austria-Hungary and the Navy in Britain were just as ingrained even if not as politically pronounced. Even the ultra-nationalist and racist groups that historians (with far more concern over events 20 year in the future) like to point too had mirrors in Russia, Austria, France and even Britain.
- The war was to make the world safe for democracy. If democracy was the aim of the war then Britain and France has a strange bedfellow in Russia. If by democracy we mean national self-determination (and there is no way that Britain and France did), then Sykes-Picot is hypocritical at best.
- Germany was to blame for the war. It was easy to justify this given the Kaiser’s aggressive attitude towards diplomacy in the Moroccan crises and Germany’s invasion of Belgium. But it belied the role of Russia and its French ally in antagonising the situation in the Balkans. The war guilt cause simply justified a victor’s peace.
- The war was a moral crusade. It was fought, like most wars, for reasons of power politics. This is a valid reason for war. But the stakes were not as high as the belligerents – particularly the politicians and media – made out. A compromise peace WAS a rational alternative – there were no great evils on either side that could not be tolerated. The war actually became immoral when the costs outweighed any political benefits.
- Finally, from a more insular perspective, the common currency that New Zealand was born as a nation in a baptism of blood at Gallipoli. The truth is that NZ continued to identify as part of the British Empire, refusing to accept the Convention of Westminster which effectively granted independence. New Zealand’s sacrifice was as part of the British Empire, not as a new nation. Unlike Australia, which only federated in 1901, New Zealand had participated in the Boer War as a recognisable entity, and had already noted the differences between their own outlook and that of the Britons and various Australians. It is possible that this is the first moment in the development of our national identity – it may even have had a bearing on our refusal to accept federation with Australia. Nevertheless, New Zealanders did not really stop seeing themselves as little Britons until the entry of the UK into the EEC in the 1970s.
One more section to come on the outcomes of the war and then I will be back to regular updates of small painted bits of anthropomorphic lead.