July 30, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part three of a series)

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Over the last couple of days, I’ve posted some entries on the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two). We’re just now getting to the point where the plots start twisting around one another like amorous snakes … this gets somewhat confusing from this point onwards (assuming you’re not already confused, that is).

Bismarck provides a masterclass in realpolitik

Otto von Bismarck looms large in the story of the origins of the First World War, although he died several years before it broke out: he was the pre-eminent architect of the German Reich, and a brilliant (and ruthless) diplomatic engineer. Despite a common belief that Bismarck as a warmonger, Eric Hobsbawm wrote that Bismarck “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, devot[ing] himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers” (The Age of Empire: 1875–1914).

While Bismarck became Chancellor of the new Reich in 1871, he had already held a series of important and powerful posts in the Prussian government, including Minister President of Prussia and Foreign Minister from 1861. In 1862, he made his long-range intentions quite plain in a speech to the Budget Committee:

Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia’s boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions — that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.

In his long and impressive political career, he guided the creation of the unified German state while fending off the political demands of the liberals and socialists by conceding just enough to socialist pet causes to keep them working within the system (state pensions, for example, were a Bismarckian innovation calculated to just barely satisfy the left, but not to cost the state much if any actual revenue due to the high retirement age it set). He was emphatically not a fan of democracy: at one point, he finagled a “legal” way for the Prussian government’s revenues to continue for four years without a hint of democratic interference from the squabbling politicians in the Reichstag.

The editors of Bismarck’s Wikipedia entry seem to think he was first and foremost a benefactor to the working class, but I think they’re projecting — Reichskanzler Prince Otto von Bismarck was never particularly concerned with the welfare of the poor, except where that welfare contributed to the construction of a greater German empire. If that meant pandering to the Socialists, he’d pander with the best of them:

Bismarck implemented the world’s first welfare state in the 1880s. He worked closely with large industry and aimed to stimulate German economic growth by giving workers greater security. A secondary concern was trumping the Socialists, who had no welfare proposals of their own and opposed Bismarck’s. Bismarck especially listened to Hermann Wagener and Theodor Lohmann, advisers who persuaded him to give workers a corporate status in the legal and political structures of the new German state.

The wars he did fight were each calculated to advance the cause of German unification … under Prussian guidance and control, of course. Denmark lost the provinces of Schleswig (to Prussia) and Holstein (to Austria) in 1864, then Austria in turn lost Holstein (to Prussia) and Lombardy-Venetia (to Italy) two years later. His public moment of triumph was the proclamation of Wilhelm I as Emperor of Germany:

The proclamation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles, by Anton von Werner. The first two versions were destroyed in the Second World War. This version was commissioned by the Prussian royal family for chancellor Bismarck's 70th birthday.

The proclamation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (Bismarck is at centre-right in the white uniform), by Anton von Werner. This version was commissioned by the Prussian royal family for chancellor Bismarck’s 70th birthday. (via Wikipedia)

Bismarck was not a fan of colonial adventures — he believed they were a distraction from more important issues in Europe and that the cost to obtain and run them was greater than the benefits derived from having them. Despite that, he allowed some colonies to be accumulated as game pieces to further his own priorities domestically. One of the European policies Bismarck implemented to great effect was the diplomatic isolation of France — on the quite reasonable basis that the French would take revenge on Germany for the humiliation of 1870 if they felt powerful enough to try it. The French Third Republic, which succeeded the Second Empire, was left without allies (and more galling: without the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine), due to Bismarck’s diligent efforts to bind the other great powers in alliances with one another and Bismarck managed to keep the French in that vulnerable position for the rest of his time in office.

Bismarck’s attempted solution to the Austro-Russian tensions in the Balkans was the Dreikaiserbund (The League of the Three Emperors) in 1873. This “meeting of the minds” was intended to dampen the risk of conflict by giving the Austrians a free hand in the Western area of the Balkans and the Russians a free hand in the East. The plan didn’t work as well as Bismarck had hoped, and the league was dissolved in 1887, as both of the other signatories felt too hampered by the terms of the agreement for too little benefit in return.

Bismarck’s next move was to create the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria. The alliance was ostensibly defensive in nature, calling for each party to aid the other in the case of an attack by a third country (if the attacker was Russia, the alliance called for both parties to declare war, if it was another country — France — the non-attacked party was to remain neutral). In 1882, the Italians were added to the arrangement, but the terms of the Triple Alliance were not as defensive: requiring the other parties to actively assist an allied nation that was attacked, not just to remain neutral. Italy negotiated one clause in the agreement to ensure that they didn’t have to fight against Britain (which they activated in 1914).

The Turkish Straits (Bosporus Strait in red, Dardanelles Strait in yellow) (via Wikipedia)

The Turkish Straits (Bosporus Strait highlighted in red, and the Dardanelles Strait in yellow) (via Wikipedia)

One of Bismarck’s last diplomatic initiatives was to negotiate the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887, fully in line with the continued emphasis of ensuring that Russia would not ally with France. The terms obligated the two nations to remain neutral in any conflict if the other party was attacked (except if Russia attacked Austria or if Germany attacked France). It also guaranteed German neutrality if Russia took action against the Ottomans, specifically in the Bosporus and the Dardanelles Straits — the two waterways connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. It’s clear why the Russians were interested … this was one of their generations-long geopolitical goals, but from the German point of view it ran the risk of provoking a struggle with Britain should it come to light (the treaty did come to public attention in 1896, as the Hamburger Nachrichten published the secret-but-now-expired details, triggering some degree of public alarm (and probably some tightened sphincters in London)).

In a speech to the Reichstag in 1888, Bismarck predicted the bloody outcome if a localized Balkan War were to trigger a continental one (from Emil Ludwig’s 1927 work, Wilhelm Hohenzollern: The last of the Kaisers):

He warned of the imminent possibility that Germany will have to fight on two fronts; he spoke of the desire for peace; then he set forth the Balkan case for war and demonstrates its futility: “Bulgaria, that little country between the Danube and the Balkans, is far from being an object of adequate importance … for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.”

Dropping the Pilot. Caricature by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), first published in the British magazine Punch, March 1890. Showing German Emperor Wilhelm II and the leaving Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Dropping the Pilot, a caricature by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), first published in the British magazine Punch, March 1890. (via Wikipedia)

It is perhaps fortunate for our current world that Bismarck and Wilhelm II could not co-exist, and Wilhelm “dropped the pilot” in 1890. Even in his later years, Bismarck was the best at the diplomatic trade: certainly better than any of the men who followed him. In Bismarck’s absence, the balance of power he had so carefully maintained disintegrated bit by bit.

One of the first critical pieces of diplomatic plumbing to go was the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia: the Russian government asked to renew the agreement, but Chancellor Caprivi (Bismarck’s successor) and Kaiser Wilhelm II thought they could do better by working the personal relationship between Wilhelm and Tsar Alexander III (and later, his “dear cousin Nicky” — Tsar Nicholas II). This worked so well that the French and Russian governments were already extending tentative diplomatic feelers toward one another by 1891.

Willliam L. Langer wrote of the end of Bismarck’s career:

Whatever else may be said of the intricate alliance system evolved by the German Chancellor, it must be admitted that it worked and that it tided Europe over a period of several critical years without a rupture. … there was, as Bismarck himself said, a premium upon the maintenance of peace.


His had been a great career, beginning with three wars in eight years and ending with a period of 20 years during which he worked for the peace of Europe, despite countless opportunities to embark on further enterprises with more than even chance of success. … No other statesman of his standing had ever before shown the same great moderation and sound political sense of the possible and desirable. … Bismarck at least deserves full credit for having steered European politics through this dangerous transitional period without serious conflict between the great powers.”

The third post in the series and we still haven’t left the nineteenth century! More to follow in the next few days.

July 28, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One?

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:47

It’s an easy question to ask, but a very hard one to answer. Traditionally, most people would answer “Germany”, with greater or lesser intensity as the years have passed (for example, here’s Boris Johnson making this particular case). More realistically, you might say Germany, Serbia, Austria, and Russia. Or just Serbia. Or just Russia. Or Britain (according to Niall Ferguson). Or France. Or the inflexible railway timetables for mobilization (Barbara Tuchman and others). Lots of candidates, none of whom can be clearly identified as the prime villain, because you can’t look at the situation in Europe in 1914 as anything other than complexity compounded.

Two recent works (both highly recommended) discuss the origins of the war in great detail and I’ve drawn on them for much of these posts:

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

There have been so many books written about the origins of the First World War because the origins are many, diverse, interconnected, and hard to weigh against one another in any rational fashion. The assassinations in Sarajevo turned out to be the triggering event, but the war could easily have broken out at any of several other potential flash points in the preceding decade — and even then, war could still have been prevented from breaking out in the summer of 1914. In some ways, it’s surprising that the alternative history folks haven’t been more active in exploring that era: the possibilities are quite fascinating (on second thought, having put this post together, the degree of confusion may account for the novelists wisely avoiding the topic after all).

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Europe, 1914 (base map by d-maps.com)

Although many authors refer to the various monarchs as active participants in the diplomatic and political spheres, this is not always an accurate way to consider their roles. The Tsar enjoyed the equivalent of a presidential veto and could start or stop government activity with a word … but most matters, even high-level military and diplomatic issues, would only come to his attention quite late in the process. This meant the Tsar might want to change his government’s course but because the situation was already well advanced, the costs to do so might well be insurmountable. Tsar Nicholas II was perhaps the worst-equipped of all the leaders of Europe for the task facing him, emotionally and intellectually (and he was aware of his weaknesses). Even Kaiser Wilhelm, who was well-known for his quixotic interference in military and diplomatic matters, was not the sole autocrat of German policy. The chancellor and the foreign secretary could (and did) overrule the Kaiser’s whims on many occasions. On the other hand, King George V was the least directly involved of all the rulers in the actions of his empire, but his public stance may have been somewhat at variance with his private communications with crown ministers (for example, this recent article in the Telegraph claims that the King pushed Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to “find a reason” to declare war on Germany).

A common misconception of the state of Europe in early 1914 was that the preceding century had been a golden age, peaceful and calm (think of all the discussions of the idyllic Edwardian era when contrasted with the chaos and disorder of 1914-1945 and beyond). Europe was only peaceful between 1815 and 1914 by contrast with previous centuries … there were many wars and the map of Europe was redrawn several times in that century. As Christopher Clark wrote:

Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.

But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

Margaret MacMillan shows how easily the calculations could go so wrong, so easily:

As we try to make sense of the events of the summer of 1914, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived a century ago before we rush to lay blame. We cannot now ask the decision-makers what they were thinking about as they took those steps along that path to destruction, but we can get a pretty good idea from the records of that time and the memoirs written later. One thing that becomes clear is that those who made the choices had very much in mind previous crises and earlier moments when decisions were made or avoided.

Russia’s leaders, for example, had never forgotten or forgiven Austria-Hungary’s annexations of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Moreover, Russia had failed to back its protégé Serbia when it confronted Austria-Hungary then and again in the Balkan wars in 1912-13. Now Austria-Hungary was threatening to destroy Serbia. What would it mean for Russia and its prestige if it stood by yet again and did nothing? Germany had not fully backed its ally Austria-Hungary in those earlier confrontations; if it did nothing this time, would it lose its only sure ally? The fact that earlier and quite serious crises among the powers, over colonies or in the Balkans, had been settled peacefully added another factor to the calculations of 1914. The threat of war had been used but in the end pressures had been brought to bear by third parties, concessions had been made, and conferences had been summoned, with success, to sort out dangerous issues. Brinksmanship had paid off.

Part one of a series of posts (I’m still digging deeper, so I’m not sure how many parts there will be…)

June 23, 2014

Censoring WW1 art

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:29

In BBC News Magazine, Alan Little looks at some early WW1 art that fell afoul of the censors for being too accurate:

Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson

What you notice first about the two figures in Christopher Nevinson’s painting Paths of Glory is the banality of their deaths. Their commonplace, mundane fate. They lie face down in the blasted earth, two men in British military fatigues, their helmets and rifles lying in the mud beside them.

They are indistinguishable from each other, stripped of individual identity. Nothing marks them out as the unique human beings they must once have been with names, and families, and remembered childhoods, and desire and love and hope and ambition.

From the bottom left of the composition, where the corpse in the foreground lies with the soles of his boots facing you, your eye moves diagonally upwards and to the right, to the second dead man, who has fallen forwards towards you, and you see the top of his dark head but Nevinson denies you a glimpse of his face. He has no face, no personality, no story of his own. In colour, texture and even contour, the lifeless bodies are almost indistinguishable from the land on which they lie, and which will now swallow them.

In my time as a war reporter for the BBC I have come across scenes like this. You cannot mistake the recently dead for the sleeping, for there is something bloodless, something shockingly, arrestingly lifeless about them. I have found myself transfixed by odd detail — a bootlace tied just a few hours ago, by fingers that will now never move again. What talents lie locked into the muscle memory of those fingers? Could they, as recently as this morning, have picked out a melody on a piano? With the death of each individual, an entire universe vanishes.


I think of those two young men whose names I never learned when I look at Nevinson’s Paths of Glory. Its title is taken from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard. “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, / And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave / Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Government censors did not like Paths of Glory. They judged it bad for morale and refused to pay Nevinson for it. But he included it anyway in the first exhibition of his war paintings in London early in 1918, with a brown paper strip across the canvas carrying the word “censored”. He was reprimanded both for exhibiting a censored painting and, bizarrely, for unauthorised use of the word “censored” in a public place. But the painting was bought, during that exhibition, by the Imperial War Museum, where it remains.

May 28, 2014

The oddly neglected Battle of Amiens, 1918

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:28

In History Today, Nick Lloyd wonders why the allied victory at the Battle of Amiens does not have the same degree of recognition that the British disaster at the Battle of the Somme does:

For the historian John Terraine, who fought a long and lonely battle to rescue the reputation of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig – commonly caricatured as a ‘butcher and bungler’ – the Battle of Amiens was his vindication. In his article for History Today, written in 1958, Terraine revisited the scene of the infamous ‘black day’ of the German army on August 8th, 1918. As Terraine reminds us, this battle was a far cry from the barren, bloody results of the first day on the Somme, July 1st, 1916, when the British army suffered its worst day. According to Terraine, Amiens was a triumph of ‘planning and method … of co-ordination and cunning; of the valour and efficiency of the British artillery and tanks; and of the courage, initiative and dash of the infantry’.

Much of what Terraine wrote still stands. Amiens was a decisive moment, kicking off Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s ‘series of movements’ that would end with the German government appealing for peace negotiations on October 3rd (an essential prelude to the Armistice on November 11th). Amiens was a perfect demonstration of not only how effective British and Commonwealth forces had become by 1918 – developing an embryonic blitzkrieg – but also how the German army had no answer to this kind of combined, all-arms approach to warfare.

Purists will be offended by Terraine’s failure to explain the role of the French army at Amiens (which extended the attack to the south), but more intriguing is the sidelining of Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps. Indeed, Terraine’s focus on generals Rawlinson and Monash (although not incorrect in itself) seems to miss how important the Canadians were to the battle; it would be true to say that they made the Battle of Amiens. Their four divisions in line, deployed in the centre along the Amiens-Roye Road, formed the spearhead of the assault. At the end of the day they had driven eight miles into the position of the German Second Army.

May 26, 2014

QotD: The “inevitability” of Austro-Hungarian collapse

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:48

These spectacular symptoms of dysfunctionality might appear to support the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a moribund polity whose disappearance from the political map was merely a matter of time: an argument deployed by hostile contemporaries to suggest that the empire’s efforts to defend its integrity during the last years before the outbreak of war were in some sense illegitimate. In reality, the roots of Austria-Hungary’s political turbulence went less deep than appearances suggested. [...]

The Habsburg lands passed during the last pre-war decade through a phase of strong economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity — an important point of contrast with the contemporary Ottoman Empire, but also with another classic collapsing polity, the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Free markets and competition across the empire’s vast customs union stimulated technical progress and the introduction of new products. The sheer size and diversity of the double monarchy meant that new industrial plants benefited from sophisticated networks of cooperating industries underpinned by an effective transport infrastructure and a high-quality service and support sector. The salutary economic effects were particularly evident in the Kingdom of Hungary. In the 1840s. Hungary really had been the larder of the Austrian Empire — 90 per cent of its exports to Austria consisted of agricultural products. But by the years 1909-13, Hungarian industrial exports had risen to 44 per cent, while the constantly growing demand for cheap foodstuffs of the Austro-Bohemian industrial region ensured the Hungarian agricultural sector survived in the best of health, protected by the Habsburg common market from Romanian, Russian and American competition. For the monarchy as a whole, most economic historians agree that the period 1887-1913 saw an ‘industrial revolution’, or a take-off into self-sustaining growth, with the usual indices of expansion: pig-iron consumption increased fourfold between 1881 and 1911, railroad coverage did the same between 1870 and 1900 and infant mortality decreased, while elementary schooling figures surpassed those in Germany, France, Italy and Russia. In the last years before the war, Austria-Hungary and Hungary in particular (with an average annual growth of 4.8 per cent) was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

May 17, 2014

QotD: Modern echoes of 1914

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.

But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.

And yet what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization. Indeed, one could even say that July 1914 is less remove from us — less illegible — now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe. Accepting this challenge does not mean embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present but rather acknowledging those features of the past of which our changed vantage point can afford us a clearer view.

Among these is the Balkan context of the war’s inception. Serbia is one of the blind spots in the historiography of the July Crisis. The assassination at Sarajevo is treated in many accounts as a mere pretext, an event with little bearing on the real forces whose interaction brought about the conflict. In an excellent recent account of the outbreak of war in 1914, the authors declare that ‘the killings [at Sarajevo] by themselves caused nothing. It was the use made of this event that brought the nations to war.’ The marginalization of the Serbian and thereby of the larger Balkan dimension of the story began during the July Crisis itself, which opened as a response to the murders at Sarajevo, but later changed gear, entering a geopolitical phase in which Serbia and its actions occupied a subordinate place.

Our moral compass has shifted, too. The fact that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia emerged as one of the victor states of the war seemed implicitly to vindicate the act of the man who pulled the trigger on 28 June — certainly that was the view of the Yugoslav authorities, who marked the spot where he did so with bronze footprints and a plaque celebrating the assassin’s ‘first steps into Yugoslav freedom’. In an era when the national idea was still full of promise, there was an intuitive sympathy with South Slav nationalism and little affection for the ponderous multinational commonwealth of the Habsburg Empire. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us of the lethality of Balkan nationalism. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right. From the perspective of today’s European Union we are inclined to look more sympathetically — or at least less contemptuously — than we used to on the vanished imperial patchwork of Habsburg Austria-Hungary.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

April 11, 2014

QotD: Romantic views of death in battle

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:48

And we ourselves? Let us not have too much hope. The chances are that, if we go to war, eager to leap superbly at the cannon’s mouth, we’ll be finished on the way by an ingrowing toenail or by being run over by an army truck driven by a former Greek bus-boy and loaded with imitation Swiss cheeses made in Oneida, N. Y. And that if we die in our beds, it will be of measles or albuminuria.

The aforesaid Crile, in one of his smaller books, A Mechanistic View of War and Peace, has a good deal to say about death in war, and in particular, about the disparity between the glorious and inspiring passing imagined by the young soldier and the messy finish that is normally in store for him. He shows two pictures of war, the one ideal and the other real. The former is the familiar print, “The Spirit of ’76,” with the three patriots springing grandly to the attack, one of them with a neat and romantic bandage around his head apparently, to judge by his liveliness, to cover a wound no worse than an average bee-sting. The latter picture is what the movie folks call a close-up of a French soldier who was struck just below the mouth by a German one-pounder shell a soldier suddenly converted into the hideous simulacrum of a cruller. What one notices especially is the curious expression upon what remains of his face an expression of the utmost surprise and indignation. No doubt he marched off to the front firmly convinced that, if he died at all, it would be at the climax of some heroic charge, up to his knees in blood and with his bayonet run clear through a Bavarian at least four feet in diameter. He imagined the clean bullet through the heart, the stately last gesture, the final words: “Therese! Sophie! Olympe! Marie! Suzette! Odette! Denise! Julie! … France!” Go to the book and see what he got … Dr. Crile, whose experience of war has soured him against it, argues that the best way to abolish it would be to prohibit such romantic prints as “The Spirit of ’76″ and substitute therefore a series of actual photographs of dead and wounded men. The plan is plainly of merit. But it would be expensive. Imagine a war getting on its legs before the conversion of the populace had become complete. Think of the huge herds of spy-chasers, letter-openers, pacifist-hounds, burlesons and other such operators that it would take to track down and confiscate all those pictures!

H.L. Mencken, “Exeunt Omnes”, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920.

March 23, 2014

QotD: Woodrow Wilson

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

The fraudulence of Wilson is now admitted by all save a few survivors of the old corps of official press-agents, most of them devoid of both honesty and intelligence. No unbiased man, in the presence of the revelations of Bullitt, Keynes and a hundred other witnesses, and of the Russian and Shantung performances, and of innumerable salient domestic phenomena, can now believe that the Doctor dulcifluus was ever actually in favor of any of the brummagem ideals he once wept for, to the edification of a moral universe. They were, at best, no more than ingenious ruses de guerre, and even in the day of their widest credit it was the Espionage Act and the Solicitor-General to the Post Office, rather than any plausibility in their substance, that got them that credit. In [Theodore] Roosevelt’s case the imposture is less patent; he died before it was fully unmasked. What is more, his death put an end to whatever investigation of it was under way, for American sentimentality holds that it is indecent to inquire into the weaknesses of the dead, at least until all the flowers have withered on their tombs. When, a year ago, I ventured in a magazine article to call attention to Roosevelt’s philosophical kinship to the Kaiser I received letters of denunciation from all parts of the United States, and not a few forthright demands that I recant on penalty of lynch law. Prudence demanded that I heed these demands. We live in a curious and often unsafe country.

H.L. Mencken, “Roosevelt: An Autopsy”, Prejudices, part 2, 1920.

March 13, 2014

The Pity of War was a strange programme; flashy, lopsided, inconsequentially contrarian”

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:00

In a post at the History Today site, Paul Lay describes a rebroadcast of the BBC production based on Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War:

It featured Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, reviving the arguments of his 1998 book of the same name: that Britain and its Empire should have stayed out of the war to leave Europe to be dominated by the economic giant that was the Kaiser’s imperium, much as the EU is now led by the wealthy, democratic Germany of Angela Merkel. After having spent almost an hour outlining his argument, Ferguson’s thesis was then quickly shot down by a phalanx of historians of the First World War, including Gary Sheffield, Heather Jones and Hew Strachan.

The Pity of War was a strange programme; flashy, lopsided, inconsequentially contrarian. At one point it ran a brief clip of A.J.P. Taylor, doyen of television historians, in his 1977 series How Wars Begin. The BBC don’t tend to produce programmes like that anymore — a single academic historian, addressing the audience with complex arguments in real time to camera — except that they do. The best, the most instructive and original television offering so far on the outbreak of the war is that of the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: his lecture entitled Diplomacy: Sir Edward Grey and the Crisis of 1914, originally broadcast last year on the BBC Parliament channel and therefore, sadly, seen by few.


March 10, 2014

Remarkably modern headlines from 100 years ago

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:18

At Samizdata, Patrick Crozier talks about the situation in Europe exactly a century back, and the headlines might almost be run today:

Click to see full page

Click to see full page

Over the last few days (this is 1914 we’re talking about just in case anyone was in any doubt) a large number of articles have appeared in the German press on the threat posed by Russia. And still they come:

    There is, if anything, an increase to-day in the Press discussion of present and future and possible and probable Russo-German relations. The Berlin Bourse, which was troubled last week by the beginning of the campaign in the Cologne Gazette, was disturbed again to-day – chiefly by the spreading of the infection to the Radical and “pacific” Berliner Tageblatt. This journal published this morning an anonymous article by somebody who is described as distinguished and experienced in all branches of international politics, which, without indeed advocating war, advocates the adoption of a very firm policy towards Russia.

This is co-ordinated and there’s only one body that would be doing the co-ordination: the German government. They are preparing the population for war. The argument being used is precisely the argument being used in the corridors of power: the Russians are building up their forces and in a few years they will be too strong and it will be too late. In other words: it’s now or never.

It is not just the Russians the Germans are worried about. The Russians on their own would be fairly harmless (as indeed they proved to be) but they are in alliance with France. This leads to Germany’s worst nightmare: the prospect of a war on two fronts. This in turn leads to the development of the Schlieffen Plan with its aim to eliminate one of those fronts before the other one got going.

There is an alternative. Germany could return Alsace-Lorraine to France. At a stroke they would eliminate the one and only bone of contention in the Franco-German relationship and as a consequence break up the Franco-Russian alliance. But no.

There are good reasons why the German government isn’t so keen on such a move. By accepting self-determination in Alsace-Lorraine they would be accepting the principle of democracy. This is hardly the sort of thing that a monarchy can do. There would also be the element of losing face that weak regimes are very reluctant to do.

February 16, 2014

QotD: Theodore Roosevelt’s admiration for Imperial Germany

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:02

There was in the man a certain instinctive antipathy to the concrete aristocrat and in particular to the aristocrat’s private code — the product, no doubt, of his essentially bourgeois origin and training. But if he could not go with the Junkers all the way, he could at least go the whole length of their distrust of the third order — the undifferentiated masses of men below. Here, I daresay, he owed a lot to Nietzsche. He was always reading German books, and among them, no doubt, were Also sprach Zarathustra and Jenseits von Gut und Bose. In fact, the echoes were constantly sounding in his own harangues. Years ago, as an intellectual exercise while confined to hospital, I devised and printed a give-away of the Rooseveltian philosophy in parallel columns — in one column, extracts from The Strenuous Life; in the other, extracts from Nietzsche. The borrowings were numerous and unescapable. Theodore had swallowed Friedrich as a peasant swallows Peruna — bottle, cork, label and testimonials. Worse, the draft whetted his appetite, and soon he was swallowing the Kaiser of the Garde-Kavallerie-mess and battleship-launching speeches — another somewhat defective Junker. In his palmy days it was often impossible to distinguish his politico-theological bulls from those of Wilhelm; during the war, indeed, I suspect that some of them were boldly lifted by the British press bureau, and palmed off as felonious imprudences out of Potsdam. Wilhelm was his model in Weltpolitik, and in sociology, exegetics, administration, law, sport and connubial polity no less. Both roared for doughty armies, eternally prepared — for the theory that the way to prevent war is to make all conceivable enemies think twice, thrice, ten times. Both dreamed of gigantic navies, with battleships as long as Brooklyn Bridge. Both preached incessantly the duty of the citizen to the state, with the soft pedal upon the duty of the state to the citizen. Both praised the habitually gravid wife. Both delighted in the armed pursuit of the lower fauna. Both heavily patronized the fine arts. Both were intimates of God, and announced His desires with authority. Both believed that all men who stood opposed to them were prompted by the devil and would suffer for it in hell.

If, in fact, there was any difference between them, it was all in favor of Wilhelm. For one thing, he made very much fewer speeches; it took some colossal event, such as the launching of a dreadnaught or the birthday of a colonel-general, to get him upon his legs; the Reichstag was not constantly deluged with his advice and upbraiding. For another thing, he was a milder and more modest man — one more accustomed, let us say, to circumstance and authority, and hence less intoxicated by the greatness of his state. Finally, he had been trained to think, not only of his own immediate fortunes, but also of the remote interests of a family that, in his most expansive days, promised to hold the throne for many years, and so he cultivated a certain prudence, and even a certain ingratiating suavity. He could, on occasion, be extremely polite to an opponent. But Roosevelt was never polite to an opponent; perhaps a gentleman, by American standards, he was surely never a gentle man. In a political career of nearly forty years he was never even fair to an opponent. All of his gabble about the square deal was merely so much protective coloration, easily explicable on elementary Freudian grounds. No man, facing Roosevelt in the heat of controversy, ever actually got a square deal. He took extravagant advantages; he played to the worst idiocies of the mob; he hit below the belt almost habitually. One never thinks of him as a duelist, say of the school of Disraeli, Palmerston and, to drop a bit, Blaine. One always thinks of him as a glorified longshoreman engaged eternally in cleaning out bar-rooms — and not too proud to gouge when the inspiration came to him, or to bite in the clinches, or to oppose the relatively fragile brass knuckles of the code with chair-legs, bung-starters, cuspidors, demijohns, and ice-picks.

Abbott and Thayer, in their books, make elaborate efforts to depict their hero as one born with a deep loathing of the whole Prussian scheme of things, and particularly of the Prussian technique in combat. Abbott even goes so far as to hint that the attentions of the Kaiser, during Roosevelt’s historic tour of Europe on his return from Africa, were subtly revolting to him. Nothing could be more absurd. Prof. Dr. Sherman, in the article I have mentioned, blows up that nonsense by quoting from a speech made by the tourist in Berlin — a speech arguing for the most extreme sort of militarism in a manner that must have made even some of the Junkers blow their noses dubiously. The disproof need not be piled up; the America that Roosevelt dreamed of was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented within. There was always a clank of the saber in his discourse; he could not discuss the tamest matter without swaggering in the best dragoon fashion.

H.L. Mencken, “Roosevelt: An Autopsy”, Prejudices, part 2, 1920.

February 5, 2014

Drawing the rhetorical battle lines for the war over the war

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:13

Tim Stanley on the ongoing war of words over the “celebrations” planned to mark the First World War in Britain:

The reality is that WWI had nothing to do with modern ideology, yet (ironically) we constantly seek to understand it through modern ideology. It started because the 19th-century diplomatic system broke down, undermining assumptions that various powers had no interest in fighting and would not do so when tested. Its bloodiness was due to technology: industrial warfare trumped the war of fast movement that everybody expected. And it ended because the Germans ran out of food. So it was non-ideological in spirit, but it did become the catalyst for various new ideologies. Britain convinced itself it was fighting for democracy. The Russians turned into Soviets and came to see WWI as the acme of capitalist aggression. A small band of German idiots decided defeat was down to a massive conspiracy of Jews so brilliant that it was impossible to actually explain how they pulled it off. And so the Second World War — a profoundly ideological war — was spawned by a conflict that lacked philosophical justification. No wonder memories are so confused.

We continue the mistake of seeing the past as if it was today. The neoconservatives, for example, are wrong to see “Prussian militarism” as embryonic Nazism — indeed the comparison is so slight as to be offensive. And if the plucky Brits were fighting imperialism, that raises the question of why we didn’t divest ourselves of our own possessions in Africa, Asia, Australisia etc. But the Left is equally wrong to see the First World War as a class conflict, as a case of lions led by donkeys. The aristocratic class happily signed up and were almost entirely exterminated as a result, thanks in part to the fact that they tended to be taller than the average soldier and so easier to aim at in the trenches.

Well, that perhaps, but rather more that the junior officers and company commanders actually led from the front, and were visibly distinct from the mass of their troops (making themselves more attractive targets). The allies were in the position of having to attack German positions for most of the war after the front lines solidified, which meant more opportunities for officers to be come casualties. The life expectancy of a junior officer on the Western front was said to be only six weeks.

This comment rather puzzles me, though:

Second, I’m still not entirely sure what we’re commemorating about the First World War and why. Obviously, we should always remember and honour our nation’s war dead — as we do every November. But why — as a nation — pick through every battle, every fact, every detail, every controversy and turn it into a parade? What relevance does it all have to us now? And why is it so often rated as more important than the American War of Independence, the English Civil War or the Scramble for Africa? Will it overshadow the anniversary of Waterloo next year, when, incidentally, the Brits were rather pleased to have Prussian militarism on their side? As European conflicts go, the Thirty Years War also screams out for a little more attention. The population in Germany fell by between 25 and 40 per cent; the Swedish armies destroyed one third of all German towns. That was Hell, too.

The First World War was different from what came before because it literally touched everyone: there were dead and wounded from every city, town, village, and hamlet. Everyone lost family members, friends, acquaintances, business partners, church members, and so on. Unlike the Crimean War, or the Zulu War, or the Boer War, this was the first mass conflict where the entire society had to be re-oriented to support the struggle. Privation was not just a word, as civilians faced food shortages, coal shortages, unrelenting propaganda through the newspapers, and misery all around. This was the end of Britain’s view of war as being something unpleasant at a distance, to be handled by a few good men in red coats.

February 4, 2014

“Chateau” generals

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:41

Nigel Davies has written a long post about the British and American standard of generalship in the two world wars, which won’t win him very many American (or Canadian) fans. That being said, he’s certainly right about the Canadian generals of WW2:

Contention: American senior generals in World War II were as bad, and for the same reason, as British senior generals in World War I.

[...] the politicians (and I will include Kitchener here, as he was by this time a politician with a military background rather than a real general), had based their recruiting campaign on a trendy ‘new model’ citizens army, rather than use the well developed existing territorial reserve system that would have done a far better job. They new enthusiastic troops were considered incapable of the traditional fire and movement approach of professional troops (the type that the Germans reintroduced in 1918 with their ‘commando units’, and the British army was able to copy soon after with properly trained and combat experienced personnel). Instead the enthusiastic amateurs were considered too badly trained to do more than advance in long straight lines… straight into the meat grinder.

Having said that the generals blame for the results should be at the very least shared with their political masters, I am still willing to express dissatisfaction with the approach of Haig and many of his senior commanders. They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.


It was noticeable later in the war that the more successful armies were commanded by competent and imaginative officers who insisted on detailed planning; intensive and specific tactical planning and operational training (down to practicing assaults on purpose built life size models); and very close control of operations to ensure success. They had usually learned the hard way, and had matured as experienced and pro-active leaders.

Of course some of this improvement was simply advances in technology. Tanks to breakthrough; better artillery fire plans to support and reduce casualties; air observation to enhance control and assess responses; better communications (including radio’s) to facilitate flexibility on the ground; and a generally better trained and more experienced soldier; with much more skilled officers. It all helped. But a lot came down to the attitude of the generals who believed that you got up front, found out the truth, stayed in close contact, and reacted to changed circumstances as immediately as possible.

However, as the American army was late to the battlefront, Davies contends that the leaders merely recapitulated the first stages of the bloody learning experience as their British counterparts, but didn’t produce the innovative leadership to match the Germans:

The Americans arrived on the Western Front when the war was already won. Only a few thousand were there for the last big German push, and by the time the Allies were moving to their final offensives with real American numbers involved, the German army was a broken reed. Which means that most American officers had only a few weeks of combat experience, and almost all of it against a failing army which had little resilience left to offer the type of resistance that might have caused the inexperienced American officers to have to reconsider their theories from their quicky officer training courses. Even the professional military officers received, at best, only a couple of hints that their ideas might not be inevitably effective against a stronger opponent. Certainly not enough time to learn how to analyse and adapt to circumstances in serious combat.

Which is why the majority of highly recognised American higher commanders in World War II appear to be chateau generals.


Eisenhower’s mistakes in theatre commands in Italy and France were possibly no worse in results than Wilson’s ongoing problems with Greece (he led the ‘forlorn hopes’ of both 1941 and 1944 there), but Eisenhower failed far more spectacularly with the Italian surrender, the Broad Front strategy, and the Bulge, than Wilson ever did with far inferior resources. MacArthur’s failures are more readily compared with Percival than the successes of a man like Leese, and Nimitz is often referred to as one of the great captains of history, for defeating a navy that repeatedly sabotaged its own efforts in the Pacific theatre. (Often by people who haven’t seemed to have ever heard of Max Horton’s much harder victory against the ruthlessly efficient U-boat campaign in the Atlantic theatre).

Similarly it is fair to say that the American front line commanders most people have never heard of were hardly inferior to their famous British contemporaries. Eichelberger was as good a commander, and as good a co-operator in Allied operations, as Alexander ever was. Truscott was probably at least the equal of Montgomery, given the opportunity. (I suspect possibly even better actually, but who can say?) Simpson, in his brief few months at the front, impressed many British officers who had served for years under men as good as Slim. And Ridgway showed in his few months of active operations a level of skill and competence (not necessarily the same thing) that far more experienced men like O’Connor did not surpass.

Why do we hear about the American chateau generals in preference to their front line leaders? And why do we hear about the British front line leaders in preference to their back office superiors. I would say it is because the British had been through a learning process in WWI that the Americans had not.

And the Canadian angle? As I’ve noted before, the First Canadian Army (scroll down to the item on John A. English’s book) was not as combat-effective in WW2 as the Canadian Corps had been in the First World War. One of the most obvious failings was in the advance to Antwerp:

Note that the equivalent British debacle during that campaign was when the Canadian Army took Antwerp undamaged, but then stopped for a rest before cutting off the retreating Germans. The Germans quickly fortified the riverbanks leading to the port, keeping it out of use for months. This was a clear example of the Canadian generals inexperience, and Montgomery is at fault here for being too involved in the last attempt to break the Germans before Christmas — Market Garden — and not paying close enough attention to one of his Army commanders, who was not supervising his Corps commander, who was not chasing his divisional commander adequately. (No one is imune from such glitches in a fast moving campaign. Inexperience any where down the chain can cause big problems. But it is noticeable that Crerar’s failure did not get him the public acclaim Patton has enjoyed?) Crerar was a ‘political appointment’ by the Canadians (an ‘able administrator’, but militarily ‘mediocre’ according to most) who Montgomery considered to be as inferior in experience and attitude as many of the American ‘chateau leaders’ he would have put in the same basket. By contrast Monty was delighted when the more competent front line leaders – the Canadian Simonds and the American Simpson – were assigned to him instead. As in the cases of the Australian General Morshead or the Polish General Anders, Montgomery only cared about ability, not nationality. But as was the case with the Americans, all too many generals in most armies, including the British and German armies, lacked experience or ability.

Update, 13 February: Mark Collins linked to an earlier post that helpfully describes some of the problems with Canadian generalship in Europe:

The Canadian command style in WW II was even more stuck in the mud than the American. With a few exceptions (McNaughton, Burns, Crerar) most Canadian generals had little or no General Staff experience, and those that did were practitioners of a successful, for the earlier WW I time and place, doctrine based on set piece battles founded on the systematic and intensive use of artillery.

One virtue of the German system is that it allowed officers to make mistakes: it did not allow them to sit on their butts waiting for orders; it encouraged risk taking which often worked but sometimes ended in bloody disaster (indeed it’s amazing it didn’t in France in 1940).

Indeed comparing the Canadian Army in WWII with the German is very difficult. Both had to expand from a tiny base to their war-time peak, but the Germans began in 1933 (actually even before then); we didn’t really begin until 1940. The Germans lost the Great War and the Reichswehr gave serious thought to how to do better next time.

One thing underlying the British set piece battle approach and limited freedom for commanders – the one the Canadian Army followed – seems to have been their realization in the late 1930s that the British Army was simply not as good as its 1914 ancestor. That was partly because of the losses of promising junior officers who never made general [though that affected the Germans too], partly because of indifference to defence at the governmental level, and partly because the military lapsed all too happily back into “real soldiering” in the 20’s.

January 27, 2014

The not-so-humble torpedo and the genesis of the military-industrial complex

Filed under: History, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:18

In the Boston Globe, Katherine C. Epstein makes a strong case for the origin of the military-industrial complex not being the era that President Eisenhower warned about, but actually in the run-up to the First World War:

The phrase [Eisenhower] popularized to describe the emerging system — the “military-industrial complex” — has since become a watchword, and Eisenhower’s account of its rise has struck most observers as accurate: It was a product of an immense war effort and the new attitudes spawned in the aftermath.

But what if Eisenhower — and others — had the origin story wrong? Although the military-industrial complex unquestionably became far larger and more deeply entrenched as a result of World War II and the Cold War, a closer reading of the history suggests that its essential dynamics were actually decades older. An armaments industry in close collaboration with the military — coping with global and national arms markets, sophisticated technology, intense geopolitical rivalries, and a government prone to expand its power in the name of national security — had its roots in the way geopolitics, industrialization, and globalization collided at the turn of the 20th century. And one key innovation that helped to tip the United States over into the national security regime that we recognize today was, of all things, the torpedo.

The torpedo didn’t just threaten to change naval warfare. It was a sophisticated new weapon so important to the US Navy that it forced the government to form a novel relationship with industry — and to introduce the trump card of national security as a rationale for demanding secrecy from private companies. The policy that developed along with the torpedo set the terms for the efforts to control information in the name of national security that we’re seeing now. To appreciate just how far back that policy runs — back to a time not of war, but of peace — gives us a new lens on our current struggles over the military-industrial complex, and perhaps a different reason to worry.

January 20, 2014

Addressing commonly held beliefs about the First World War

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

BBC News Magazine has an article by Dan Snow discussing some commonly held beliefs about the First World War:

3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end

Front-line trenches could be a terribly hostile place to live. Often wet, cold and exposed to the enemy, units would quickly lose their morale if they spent too much time in them.

As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.

During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

4. The upper class got off lightly

Although the great majority of casualties in WW1 were from the working class, the social and political elite was hit disproportionately hard by WW1. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded and an uncle was captured.


7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure

Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. It was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells.

They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, that in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance.

Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy — using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years, also changing war forever.

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