Was World War I the error of modern history?


By Mustela nivalis

Niall Fergusson in an interview originally aired in 2000 explains what went wrong (see video). Amongst other things he says: Belgian neutrality was a pretext of the British government. Nobody in Europe in any decision making capacity was under any illusions what a war would mean. Lord Grey, the British foreign minister, even warned the Russian government beforehand that a war would lead to a “new 1848″ in Europe, i.e. social upheaval endangering the existing order. An economist called Jean de Bloch had warned in 1898 that future wars would be utterly destructive. Millions would have to be mobilized and the defensive position was far superior to the offensive. In Europe this would lead to a stalemate and any war would be decided by economic attrition.

Fergusson here repeats his assertion that had Germany won (i.e. had Britain kept out of it), we would have had a continental free trade area under German leadership 80 years before it actually happened (minus Russian Revolution, Nazism, WW2 and the Cold War).

Fergusson is probably right when he says that it was the soldiers’ personal revenge motive that kept WW1 going despite all the mass killings and horrors. But that’s only part of it. Unfortunately, he does not mention another decisive factor: the decoupling of money from gold in all the participating countries (except, I think, for the US, which came late to the party), allowing governments to ramp up war debts like never before. Previously, wars stopped when one or both sides ran out of money (because it was backed by some real value). This time, it stopped only when people in the Axis countries were dying in the streets of starvation.

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19 responses to “Was World War I the error of modern history?

  1. I tend to want to subscribe to this analysis, with one or two reservations. On the whole of course I now agree with Sean Gabb that for us to go in was the single most disastrous political decision every taken in the Anglosphere – certainly for that Anglosphere itself.

    However, if one put oneself in the place of decision-makers in those times, it becomes impossible to see what else they might have thought they could have done. In fact these were almost the words of George V himself, at some moment or other after WW1 had ended.

    My problem I think rests on the somewhat qwerky instability of the Kaiser, who I have always suspected of wanting to play with lots of expensive and lethal big-boys’-toys in the form of Blue-Water Navy – the equivalent of thermonuclear weapons of the time. I remain to be convinced that he’d have been satisfied with Europe (and by implication and inevitability, Russia, and then in the fullness of time also China and Japan owing to the much vaster military and economic resources that sort of Imperial German polity could have deployed.)

    That is not to say that a globe effecively dominated by the successor to the Prussian Kingdom would have been entirely unpleasant all the time – just very different from what I would have imagined, of at this stage in my historical education find possible to imagine yet. I’ll try to imagine it and reeport back.

  2. One of the reasons why land powers are usually unwilling to expand beyond their natural frontiers is the inconvenience of ruling alien peoples. Taking out Russia would have led Germany into a series of wars to hold what are now called the border republics. We could have propped these up with quiet subsidies via Persia. France would have remained dangerous. Germany’s internal politics didn’t favour expansion; and any costs that couldn’t be justified as national defence would have caused uproar.

    Imperial Germany would have become the greatest power in Europe, and who could object to that? Not I. We could have gone into alliance with it, and helped keep the Americans in their box. Letting them loose on the world was as big a mistake as letting the Hapsburg Empire go down.

  3. The more I learn about WWI, the less I understand why Britain got involved in it.

    It’s almost impossible to imagine how history would have been without it. But Fergusson’s observation that it initiated the century’s theme of mass political slaughter seems apt.

  4. It also ought to be recorded that in early August 1914, Parliament was then informed that the British General Staffs had been “having discussions” with their French counterparts for years, and had “arrived at a friendly understanding”. One can only guess at how many French “escort girls” had been “involved” in “securing” this “understanding”, but I expect it was a lot.

    Having said that, if I was First Lord of the Admiralty in August 1914 (I was born on the 4th) I’d not have loved the possible prospect of seeing the entire coast of North West Europe falling into the hands of the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet. I would have found the political implications of that a little difficult at “home”.

    One is going to have to be Sean’s War Secretary, so as to prevent this sort of tragedy hapeening again, if one possibly can.

  5. Edward Spalton

    A little anecdotage here. My great uncle Edward ( after whom I am named) had an unusual pre 1st World War career. He was a self-taught linguist ( with assistance from Berlitz) and European salesman who mastered Spanish, Portuguese, French and German. He was learning Russian in 1914. He was very much a Germanophile, looking back fondly on his time in ” good old Germany” where he made long-lasting friendships.

    He was however quite resigned to the inevitability of the war when it came and enlisted in th York & Lancaster Regiment. He said that the officially encouraged mood in Germany was hysterically anti British. People were taught to see Britain as denying Germany its rightful place in the world. There was also a sense that fate/destiny was bringing affairs to a head – when this matter would be settled. Bookshops were full of titles like ” Weltmacht Oder Niedergang”
    ( world power or downfall).

    The German High Seas Fleet was wholly and solely designed to play its part in this. Fergusson says that this arms race stopped in 1912. That’s interesting but did not dismantle the fleet!

    Of course, the pretext of aiding “gallant little Belgium” was in itself insufficient reason for British involvement and his insight into the cabinet discussions is eye opening. Neither, of course, was the murder of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand sufficient pretext for the bone headed, bellicose Austrians to go to war. They had been wanting to deal with upstart Serbia for over a decade and their chums in Berlin were happy for the pretext. So Britain went to war to save the Liberal government! But surely that could not have happened without the accumulated pressure of the naval arms race and build-up of animosity on both sides. Germany had rejected British overtures for an understanding at the turn of the century.

    Fergusson says a German victory would have created a “European Union” 80 years earlier. The Nazis returned to this project and I have translated the lead papers of their 1942 conference on “European Economic Community”. If contemporarary references are removed, there was nothing in the policy of Reichsminister Funk which has not come out of Brussels in the last 50 years – including the hatred of “the Anglo Saxons”

  6. It has been the policy of the London government that no one power should dominate continental Europe (especially that part of it facing this island) since at least the time of the first Elizabeth.

    As for the aggressive and unlimited intentions of the German political and academic elite (closer in Germany than in another land) it is better to read the opinion of people such as Ludwig Von Mises who knew them – than it is to read the opinions of Murray Rothbard and others who did not know them (the late Rothbard also appears to have suffered from Anglophobia – a tendency to blame Britain for everything).

    The Germans had rejected the de facto alliance with Britain that had been offered to them and had done everything possible to show aggressive intent towards Britain (for example the building of the High Seas fleet – which had no other purpose).

    The German elite had also thrown away the alliance with Russia (much to Bismark’s horror) out of the view that Germans and Slavs were “natural” enemies (the fact that the aristocracies had been intermarrying for centuries was ignored by the academics and those who they taught).

    As for France – when it appeared that France was unwilling to go to war in 1914 (in spite of the German declaration of war against Russia – by then an ally of France, having been rejected by Germany after the fall of Bismark) the Germans simply declared that the French had attacked them.

    The German claims (of an air raid outside Munich and so on) were a pack of lies (as false as Mr Hitler’s claim that Poland had attacked Germany in 1939) – but the German government was desperate for war on both fronts (yes they actually WANTED this), because German war plans had been drawn up with this in mind (knock out France first, occupy northern France, then turn on Russia and destroy Russia).

    Mere details (such as the fact that the French air raids and so on did not happen) could not be allowed to stand in the way of the paperwork – the paperwork (the Plan) was sacred.

    None of the above should be taken to excuse the tactics followed in the First World War.

    Battle style (rather than siege style) infantry attacks (often in lines – at walking pace) against prepared defences violate basic tactical doctrine.

    Prepared defences (such as trenches – even in the age before machine guns) require siege warfare methods. They are no place for walking pace attacks in line – still less for cavalry.

    General Haig (and those like him) were unfit for such a conflict.

    Even those British Generals who were fit for their positions (such as General Plummer of the 2nd Army) erred (erred to an extreme degree) by refusing to denounce their superiors as unfit for the situation they faced.

    A sense of gentlemanly conduct (not speaking badly of fellow officers) is trumped by one’s duty to one’s soldiers – the duty not to throw away hundreds of thousands of lives with fundamentally mistaken tactics.

    Even more extreme folly was seen in 1915 campaign to break through to Constantinople (and thus knock Turkey out of the war – link up with Russia, and encircle the remaining Central powers).

    20 thousand British soldiers were landed as Suvla Bay – they faced a couple of hundred Turkish defenders without prepared defences.

    Any normal commander (including Haig) would have ordered an immediate attack (in order to destroy the enemy – and link up with other allied forces, thus allowing the Royal Navy to sail to Constaninople without threat of attack from both sides of the Dardanelles). However the British commander General Stopford did nothing – complaining that his leg was hurting him. Thus giving the Turks time to rush in reinforcements and build defences.

    In many armies such conduct would have resulted in General Stopford’s execution, And in at least one military I know of such conduct would have demanded that General Stopford (regardless of his advanced age) to personally attack the enemy – with the express design of getting himself killed (in order to redeem himself).

    There would have been no need to execute General Stopford (after such folly) as he would have seen to it that he was dead. As would General Haig after the 2nd day of the 1915 Battle of Loons (where he sacrificed two divisions in an attack that had no chance what-so-ever) and the first day of the 1916 Somme offensive (the Black Day of the British army). General Haig certainly (if he was the warrior gentleman he pretended to be) should certainly had an “accident cleaning his revolver” after this day – instead he just carried on (as he did when, in his folly, replaced Plummer in the Passchendaele offensive of 1917).

    There is no need for a General to personally lead an operation – as long as they make sure they are dead if it leads to utter ruin.

    However, in the British army of this period General Stopford was just left to carry on

    Sir Ian Hamilton (his superior) did not even order an attack himself – as he did not wish to be “rude” in relation to General Stopford.

    Such a mentality is very hard to understand. It seems to regard war as some sort of game – rather than about survival.

    • Paul, Paul…..
      I have to deal with that problem.

      1st July 1916 was the only “walking pace infantry attack” over open ground, __exactly because_, due to very very very proper planning and artillery preparation, it was _not supposed to be an attack!_

      It was supposed to be the infantry “advancing in open order, carrying kit, to occupy devastated enemy positions.” No “enemy” were to have been presumed to have been left alive by the bombardment and mining.

      Unfortunately, you, as an historian too, must be able to not underestimate the ingenuity of a powerful, rich and technical civilisation like Germany to be able to use lots of concrete and steel and digging-crews, in time, knowing and predicting that an attack to take pressure of the French at Verdun _MUST_ come in the Somme or Ypres (and you can’t do concrete far enough west in the Ypres marshes), and it _MUST_ come in the summer of 1916, and it _MUST_ be mounted by the British Corps of Armies, which had the resources at the time….spies would have been reporting it from Engand for months, man! What would you expect? That they wouldn’t?

      It’s not rocket science. Even I could do it.

      Unfortunately, at that stage of WW1, no industrialised army, adequately supplied, could prevail in attack against a similar industrialised army prepared for defence. This was the “stalemate” that everybody except the politicians (who – remember! – ordered the strategic assaults for political objectives!) understood.

      Haid _did not want to waste men_. Read my lips. But he was _told to_ “support the French somehow, somewhere, we don’t give a fuck where”.

      Go figure, Paul. I have spent years with students trying to unblacken the name of Douglas Haig, against their teachers and against the “syllabus” and against my credentials as an “examiner”.

  7. I often wonder if General Haig would have been better suited to the Middle East in the First World War – more of a war of movement (rather than siege warfare) and where his beloved cavalry were of some use.

    However, General Allenby did a fine job – and his skill and genuine love of killing (not a vice in a professional soldier – as long as it is the enemy one kills) is still greatly respected in the area.

  8. A couple of points on when Generals should die.

    General Samsonov almost certainly committed suicide during the Tannenburg disaster.

    The key would in that sentence is “during” – that was self indulgent of General Samsonov. Before any suicide he should have got as many of his men out of the German trap as he could – not left his army in chaos.

    A commander must not succumb to the temptation of suicide till he has done his duty and got as many of his men out as possible.

    Also a strong argument could be made that it is General Jilinsky who should have died – after all it was he who gave General Samsonov the order to continue the advance after Samsonov’s Cossack scouts reported that the army was marching into a German trap “General Samsonov will not be allowed to play the coward. I insist on him continuing the advance” (in an effort to relieve pressure on the French and British on the other front).

    As for General Rennenkampf (the commander of the other Russian army in the area).

    If the charges against Rennenkampf are true (which is still contested) – that he did not help Samsonov’s army out of personal spite (the two men having been terrible terms since the war with Japan in 1905 – where they had ended up in a brawl with each other) then he should not have been allowed to commit suicide.

    The Germans certainly believed that Rennenkampf would not help Samsonov – indeed Colonel Hoffman and Major General Grunert (the real authors of the German plan for which Ludendorf and Hindenberg took the credit – even though they did not draw up the plans and General Francois was in operational command) thought so – indeed the German plan depended on Rennenkampf not helping Samsonov (as well Samsonov’s army marching into a trap – which Samsonov’s scouts actually spotted).

    If true – careful measures should have been taken to prevent Rennenkapf killing himself (not that he seems to have made any effort to do so) – so that he could be publically degraded and executed (ditto General Jilinsky) .

    There is something strange about the performance of the Imperial Russian Army in the First World War.

    Many British Generals (Haig and co) were unfit for the situation they found themselves in. And some British Generals (such as Stopford) were unfit for any position at all.

    However, there is something else about the Russian army.

    For example the old question “why did the Imperial Guard not save the Tsar?” during either of the two Revolutions of 1917 (which led to so many tens of millions of murders – all round the world).

    The Imperial Guard did not save the Russian Emperor – because most of the Guard were dead.

    They had been sent up a narrow bridge of land in marsh country(where the Germans could shoot them all day – from three sides.

    And then the Guard were repeatedly ordered to attack – which they did, trying to climb over heaps of their own dead.

    Like so many Russian operations in the First World War there is something special (in a very dark way) about this.

    I suspect (but I can not prove) – treason.

  9. As for Sean’s Gabb’s claims about Germany – sadly they are incorrect.

    Even Bismark (who did not want to – as he viewed Germany as a power of mainland Europe) was forced into a policy of colonies and Navy building.

    After Bismark was forced out the policy became unlimited.

    Had Germany been allowed to take over Europe all European resources would have been devoted to building by German Naval power – for the “Geopolitics” objective – the termination of Britain.

    “But the Keiser was an Anglophile” – it did not matter, any more than the German Emperor’s belief that France unwillingness to go to war (as France, like Russia, was not yet ready for war in 1914) meant there would be war on one front.

    The academic elite (and the political and military elite they trained) had decreed that there would be war on two fronts – the plan demanded it (and the plan was sacred).

    Just as the plan for domination was sacred – unlimited domination.

    Already in German academic circles the idea of objective right and wrong was mocked.

    Not just religion (which had been turned into empty philosophy) but objective right and wrong (such as natural law – as opposed to Legal Positivism) without religion.

    And academia dominated Germany more than any other land.

    • Edward Spalton

      My German friend, Horst Teubert, is equally worried today about the unlimited nature of German expansionism, now carried out mostly through ‘ Soft Power’ and EU structures but with increasingly sophisticated methods – as in the Ukraine and, as previously with accompanying force , in Yugoslavia. His website http://www.german-foreign-policy.com is worth looking at. He also has two good papers in the “European Voices” section of
      http://www.freenations.freeuk.com .
      The translation of the 1942 papers on “European Economic Community” can be found on this site under the title “The EU’s Evil Pedigree”.
      The Nazis, of course, invented nothing new and were building on the ideas of Friedrich List whose German Customs Union predated the political unification of Germany and was the first modern – and highly successful – “Common Market” with its own concept of expansion into its “natural economic hinterland”. The “liberal” delegates of the failed revolutionary Frankfurt parliament of 1848 declared the Balkans to be in this category. In 1999 the ambition was achieved.
      So the one consistent train of European geopolitical thought ( Weltanschauung) , that of the German political/academic class, is as dominant today as it hoped to become by the attacks of 1914.

  10. List and Fichte and so on – yes indeed. However, German academia today is a lot less obsessed with ideas of power-as-scared (what they started to worship once they had abused philosophy to reduce God to an abstraction) than they used to be. No more blood-and-soil.

    I would rather deal with German “soft power” than German Legions of War.

    The “bottom line” is that if any British government actually found the courage to say “no” to the European Union the Germans would not actually do anything.

    Oh yes they would lecture us about being on “the wrong side of history” (and on and on), but lectures do not kill people. There would be no panzers rolling down Whitehall and no German U. Boats in the mouth of the Thames.

    By the way it was not the “revenge motive” that kept the war going till 1918 – nor was it a special break with gold (that had happened in the French wars also – a century before).

    Had some magic spell been cast preventing government borrowing – taxation would have gone up even more.

    What kept the war going for four years was that NO ONE HAD WON.

    Germany had to win quickly – and had (just) failed to do so in 1914 (the failure to take Paris).

    And the allies (who greatly outnumbered the Central Powers – but were unready for war in 1914) kept messing things up.

    The way to end a war like this – is to WIN IT.

    Something that still was not fully understood in 1918 – Pershing and Foch were correct, the Allied armies should have marched into Berlin (restored an independent Bavaria and so on). Only then would the Germans understand that they had been defeated – as they did indeed understand in 1945.

    In an alternative history the Empress Elizabeth of Russia would have lived a few months longer back in the 1700s – long enough to ride into Berlin.

    No more Frederick the Great – no more cult of Prussia.

    And no more “statism works – Frederick shows this” in English (as well as German) language thought.

    Of course N. Ferguson is an admirer of Frederick the Great (thinks of him as liberal) – which shows poor judgement.

  11. Haig did not want an “armistice” on 11th Nov 1918, as the German armies were in rapid motion back to Germany with substantially all their weapons. Thus, Hitler and others later would be able to justify their claim that the German Armies had not been “absolutely defeated in the field”, and were “stabbed in the back” by their politicians who agreed the armistice. One has some sympathy with their claim.

    Sorry, but it’s true.

    And of course such a position, given the very very very badly designed Versailles Treaty, became popular in Germany, as you would expect, and in 1939 we were all back into the poo where we left it in 1918.

  12. Good point David – I should have added Haig (the commander of the British forces) when I mentioned the commanders of the French and American forces.

    I am not an admirer of Haig as a General (although he was certainly not in the same depths as hopeless people such as General Stopford), but I agree with David says his position was.

    No commander (other than a madman) gives a defeated enemy a chance to save themselves from total defeat – without political pressure being placed upon him.

    It is not enough to defeat an enemy – they (the ordinary population) must KNOW they have been defeated.

    And that can only be really achieved by such things as the victory parade through the enemy capital.

    Otherwise the legend “we were not really defeated” may grow – making another war very likely.

    As for the treaty of Versailles – it violates a basic rule (know for thousands of years before the author of “The Prince” wrote it down.

    Either treat a defeated enemy with friendship – or crush them utterly.

    The Treaty of Versailles was a compromise – and (like so many compromises) was worse than either alternative.

    My own view?

    I agree with Foch – restore the ancient independent states of the German lands (such as Bavaria) and make sure it is real independence – with different taxation systems and each with their own foreign policy.

    But.. full disclosure, I am a conservative (as well as a libertarian) I regard both German and Italian unifications as “great mistakes of the 19th century”.

    The Supreme mistake of the 19th century being the spread of state education (although Frederick the Great had really started systems of mass state education, the old Scots system being local voluntary and church based, in the late 1700s).

    • Edward Spalton

      For a balanced debunking of the vilification of Douglas Haig and a refreshing retort to the essentially Marxist analysis, brilliantly presented by Joan Littlewood in “O What a Lovely War!” I recommend Gordon Corrigan’s “Mud, Blood and Poppycock”.

      The Littlewood impression of history is now the widely accepted, popular narrative – even in generally conservative publications. She was very successful and it was a jolly good show, making use of the tunes of the time.

  13. On the defence of Haig as a General.

    David is indeed correct that Haig was indeed told to attack.

    But he was not to where to attack or (far more importantly) HOW to attack.

    A experienced infantry General never expects artillery to destroy an enemy. True Haig was a cavalry man – but seemed unable to learn the basics of infantry warfare (just as the “Educated Soldier” had been unable to learn mathematics and so on – and thus had to get his early positions in the army via wire pulling from friends, I must stress that this was NOT considered a corrupt practice at the time).

    An artillery and rocket bombardment had not even moved American General Andrew Jackson in 1815 (and he had no concrete, barbed wire and machine guns – although he did have artillery which he used to deadly effect on the British infantry when they were exposed IN THE OPEN GROUND) it could hardly be expected to destroy the Germans in 1916.

    I do not forgive Haig for Loos in 1915 – where he gassed his own men on the first day (well anyone can mistake) and then on the second day sent two raw divisions in what was basically mass suicide.

    There was not a single German casualty in that sector on that day – other than a couple of Germans who had a mental breakdown from shooting so many people.

    Officers in the front (on horseback) leading ten thousand men in lines – the vast majority were killed or wounded.

    General French got the blame – but it was General Haig who actually gave the orders.

    As for the first day of the Somme.

    How come the ordinary solders (and officers) knew what Haig (and Generals like him) did not know?

    The Ulster Division officers obeyed their orders to take the bullets from the men – but then they GAVE THE BULLETS BACK AGAIN.

    The Ulster Division were also (against the policy of high command) ordered to CHARGE (not walk).

    At least the Ulster Division managed to capture their objectives (as what Americans call “Rednecks”[the odd “Scots Irish” who are neither from Scotland or Catholic Irish] tend to do – although, like Andrew Jackson, in their own way – the killing part of the American army have always been disproportionatly “Rednecks”), but as the soldiers from the larger island did not (not because of lack of courage – but because of their habit of obeying suicidal orders) the Ulster Division found itself isolated and had to withdraw – and were cut to pieces on their way back.

    But generally……

    Where were the skirmishers to deal with enemy firing points?

    Where were any of the normal methods of war that even Wellington (a century before) knew?

    I humbly submit that had someone like General Plummer been in charge (instead of General Haig and those who thought like him) July 1st 1916 would have been rather different.

    Even in 1918 (the year of victory) basic mistakes were being made.

    For example, who thought up the idea of “strongpoint” defence?

    A genuine question as I actually do not know.

    It violates basic rules….

    When men see the enemy BEHIND them (as well as in front of them – and both sides) they tend to surrender – having seen their fellow soldiers swept away on both sides of them.

    This is one reason why Operation Michael (the German offensive of early 1918) was so oddly successful early on (I say “oddly” because the German economy was falling apart – they were short of just about everything).

    A defence must be flexible – there must be lines to withdraw into when the first lines are taken (so that counter attacks can be organised), indeed the main bulk of the defending force must be in the rear lines – so that enemy shells fall upon largely empty positions..

    All this is basic stuff – as is not allowing forces to be CUT OFF (which is exactly what “strongpoints” did).

    This has been taught for ages – long before the First World War. Wellington knew it – even “Uncle Toby” of T.S. knew it – soldiers live in holes and use the contours of the ground to defeat artillery attack (to make their rear positions invisible).

    The British commanders were making basic mistakes in defence – just as had in attack (text book violations).

    All that being said……..

    Back when I was a boy – going with my Grandfather (a veteran of the First World War) to the Lancing British Legion, all the World War One veterans had only kind words for Haig (unlike those people the BBC used to get from somewhere).

    They did not rate him as a General – but they did consider him a “Christian Gentleman”. And this was more important to them.

    Every one of them had friends killed (before their eyes) and most had been wounded themselves.

    Yet every one of them considered being a Christian Gentleman more important than being a good General – and therefore rated Haig highly.

    They were a very different generation.

  14. Yes “Oh What A Lovely War” is pathetic.

    I think both defenders of Haig and critics (and I am very much a critic) can agree that the “Oh What A Lovely War” show (and everything like) is total and utter crap.

    As for the classic “look” of what a First World War General looked like (side whiskers and so on) and what they sounded like (country gentleman hunting slang and so on).

    Only one British General looked and sounded like that – Plummer.

    And Plummer was actually the most effective General on the Western Front. Not just the most effective British General – the most effective commander “period” as the Americans say.

    Basically forgotten today – as he did not write books or give speeches.

  15. I apologise for my nasty habit of putting in an extra “m” – I am sure the shade of Sir Hubert will forgive me.

    Or, if he does not, will give me a swift and efficient death.

  16. Herbert not Hubert.

    I need a new brain – if things go on like this I will be saying Spencer Abraham when I mean Robert Spenser (again).