And so we start the celebrations, commemorations, what have you, for the 100th anniversary of the First World War. We have already had a host of books and television programmes, even though we still have a few months to go before the exact anniversary of the point at which Gavrilo Princip fired at Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, and after that we have four more years of this. And we’ve already had the first controversies.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary who has proved even more adept than most of his incompetent Cabinet colleagues at alienating people, has criticised a view of the war based on Blackadder, even though that particular view is one shared by most historians of the period. According to Gove the Germans were out and out baddies, and the British were heroes, and let us not forget that; a view that seems to owe more than a little to the now generally discredited Fischer doctrine, and tends to ignore the fact that the Germany of Wilhelm II was not the Germany of Adolf Hitler, and the cause of the war can be laid at the feet of Russia, France, Austria and Britain with at least as much justification as blaming Germany.
Meanwhile TV ‘historian’ Dan Snow has argued that the war wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we remember it. I don’t have the patience to go through all of the points he raises, but one argument was that the British General Staff were not the donkeys that they were portrayed as, but in fact worked effectively and well to learn from experience in an unprecedented situation and develop the tactics that would eventually prove victorious. Okay, the line that the British army was led by donkeys was coined by the Germans, but it was a sentiment that few on the allied side would have disagreed with at the time. So let us consider a few points. In the first place, the situation was not entirely unprecedented. The trench warfare that began within weeks of the start of the war when the initial German advance ground to a halt actually bore many resemblances to the final year of the American Civil War as the Union advance ground to a halt around Petersburg. All European armies had military observers in place on both sides during the Civil War, and what they witnessed would have been fed into European military planning over the next fifty years. The German army certainly seemed to have learned from the experience. Witness the opening of the Battle of the Somme, when a massive allied bombardment intended to leave no coherent force in the German trenches actually had virtually no effect on German defences, so that when the British advance began they were cut down. Nevertheless, the British High Command kept up the same assault for week after week without varying their tactics and at massive cost. The Germans had learned from the Civil War, the British had not. It was, moreover, the Daily Mail that pointed out that the British General Staff was ordering ammunition that simply did not fit British guns. The government, specifically Lloyd George, had to step in to make sure that the army was supplied with the ammunition it needed. As for the General Staff learning during the course of the war and adapting their tactics accordingly; the German assault in Spring 1918 was the most successful of the war until the army ran out of supplies. The British response, after they had stopped retreating, was tactically identical to battles like the Somme and Paschendaele, and was successful only because the naval blockade of Germany had been so successful that the German army was almost completely out of supplies and morale was rock bottom. Donkeys? I think that is being rather too polite.
The problem is that both of these petty debates, and indeed most of the bigger and better discussions that surround what H.G. Wells so memorably termed ‘the war that will end war’, work on the assumption that the First World War was a neat event that began tidily with a shooting in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 and ended precisely on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, or more prosaically with a Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919. I’m not so sure that is the case.
I tend to the view that the First and Second World Wars were not distinct entities but rather two wellings-up of violence in a long war that began sometime before 1914 and ended perhaps as late of the 1980s.
Let’s start with the beginning of these waves of violence that marred the century. In a way, we might begin in the 1860s. When Otto von Bismark became Wilhelm I’s Prime Minister in 1862 he was determined to increase the influence of Prussia among the German States, and a series of wars followed, first against Denmark, then against Austria and finally against France, by the end of which Bismark had effectively unified Germany under the Prussian king. The wars of the twentieth century can be seen as a direct continuation of these three wars of German unification, not least because a major European war involving Germany now became part of the diplomatic mindset throughout Europe. German unification abruptly brought a new major power into the uneasy system of power balances that had ruled Europe since Napoleon, and, moreover, a power with the greatest military strength and preparedness in Europe. There followed an intense arms race that continued right up until the outbreak of the First World War, typified by the British concentration on its navy with the introduction of steel-clad, steam-driven dreadnoughts; and the German build-up of its army. And throughout this arms race, every European power was convinced it was losing out, was becoming more vulnerable, and hence must intensify its weapons programme. There was, therefore, a constant state of military preparedness and unease. And this was not confined to diplomatic and military circles. In 1870, even before the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Alfred Bate Richards wrote The Invasion of England, which was followed, a year later, by General George T. Chesney’s much more influential ‘The Battle of Dorking’. Stories of German invasion then proliferated. Popular papers like the Daily Mail would run them regularly, with the invasion route going through towns where they wanted to increase circulation. Nor was the invasion story limited to Britain, similar stories appeared with similar frequency in France, Germany, Austria, the United States and Canada. As a literary phenomenon, such stories gave rise to science fiction such as The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and also gave birth to the modern spy story in the form of The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. More interesting was the fact that, though the identity of the invader varied, all of them hammered home the notion that the nation was vulnerable to attack. By 1914, the arms race and the invasion story together meant that everyone, from the head of government to the average newspaper reader, was convinced that war was inevitable. And once that idea is lodged in people’s minds, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another potential starting point was 1904, the year when Russia went to war against Japan, and lost. There were two consequences to this. In the frenzied arms race atmosphere of Europe at the time, the idea that a modern power like Russia could be defeated by a little-regarded state like Japan was an immense shock. Suddenly every comfortable assumption about one’s military power was thrown into doubt. Alongside such military consequences, there were equally significant diplomatic effects. Throughout the 19th century, Russia’s imperial ambitions in Afghanistan and central Asia had been stymied by the Great Game, effectively a stand-off with Imperial Britain from Persia to the Himalayas. Russia had, consequently, started to look further east, but the defeat by Japan put a stop to that. Which meant that Russia now felt it had no alternative but to turn back towards the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and to Europe. As a result of both the military and the diplomatic consequences of Russia’s defeat, the network of ententes and alliances that linked the various European powers became of ever greater significance, and their requirements and consequences became increasingly set in stone.
Throughout the years of the arms race, a series of incidents such as the Fashoda Incident of 1898 or the Agadir Crisis of 1911, found the different European powers testing their military resolve against each other in different parts of the world. It was known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’ and embodied the notion that use of the military was the way to settle any dispute. There was a sense that Britain and France might go to war in East Africa or France and Germany go to war in West Africa, which meant that the idea of a truly World War was already on the cards. But more than that, this constant succession of events kept military preparations at a fever pitch. The question was not whether they would trigger a war, but when. And then, in 1912, it came; and this is when I would date the start of the First World War.
This wasn’t a war that involved the great powers of Europe, they stood detached from the conflict, looking on with little more than mild disdain. At the most, the two fading empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were peripherally involved, but that wasn’t important. So nobody paid much attention to the First Balkan War of 1912, or the Second Balkan War of 1913. Nearly a century after Greece had won its independence, Ottoman influence across the Balkans had almost completely dissipated. A number of new states had appeared, Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, though the boundaries of each failed to include many of the people who self-identified as Rumanian, Bulgarian and so on. Moreover, each of these states had people who still lived under the nominal control of the Ottomans. So in 1912 Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro joined in an uneasy alliance and went to war against the Turks. They were pushing at an open door, the Ottomans had no resources left and within months were swept out of their remaining territories in Europe, back to the Maritsa River which is still the border of Turkey today. The subsequent peace negotiations were an exercise in stunning duplicity from which Bulgaria emerged as the loser, so in the summer of 1913 Bulgaria went to war against its neighbours, a war that drew in the Ottomans again and also Rumania, which had managed to stay out of the first Balkan War. It was only a matter of weeks before Bulgaria was defeated and lost territory to the states that surrounded it. But the long term effects were far reaching.
It wasn’t just the fact that this whole unstable region, made up of states that were angry with each other and discontent with their current borders, was armed, volatile, suspicious and ready to burst into another war at any moment. The ragtag movement of which Princip was a member, and the whole assassination conspiracy against Franz Ferdinand, was a direct consequence of the nationalistic tensions that precipitated and were exacerbated by these wars. But there were other consequences. In Turkey, the humiliation of defeat in 1912 was a direct cause of the Young Turks rebellion of 1913, another destabilising effect upon the old balance of power. In Austria, the Balkans were seen as part of their sphere of influence, but nationalist tensions were already damaging the old Habsburg Empire. The idea of the dual monarchy, the division of power between Austria and Hungary, had been a cackhanded attempt to buy off some of that nationalist opposition, but all it did was weaken the empire further. The ineffectiveness of Austrian rule in the twilight of its power might be illustrated by the fact that ten official languages were spoken in the Vienna Parliament yet there were no translation facilities. It was an empire living on its past glories and totally unable to change, ruled by an emperor, Franz Joseph, who was over 80 and so set in his ways that he now refused to look out of one of the windows of his palace because it overlooked a modernist building that he thought ugly. Any increase of tension on the southern borders was inevitably going to exacerbate tensions within the Habsburg Empire, and the empire was now, frankly, not robust enough to survive such tensions, nor flexible enough to deal with them effectively. Russia was also caught up in the fallout from the Balkan Wars. Russia had already faced a revolution in 1905, which forced Tsar Nicholas II to concede some democratic reforms, but discontent was rife throughout the country. It didn’t help that Nicholas was a hopeless ruler, and his only response was to try and distract attention with foreign glory; but having been stymied in Asia and defeated by Japan (one of the triggers for the 1905 revolution), everything was now focussed on the carcase of the Ottoman Empire. But the Balkan Wars didn’t go Russia’s way, particularly since their main ally in the region was Bulgaria.
Even if the other great powers had no direct involvement in the Balkans, they were caught in a network of alliances with states that were involved, and everyone saw the Balkans as a powder keg that could blow up at any moment. And when it did blow, they would all be caught in the blast. They knew that, it was an integral part of their political, diplomatic and military thinking. By 1912, the whole of Europe was looking to the Balkans for the spark that would ignite the war that their arms races and military posturings and rigid systems of alliances made all too likely. When a combination of a wrong turn and a stalled car gave Gavrilo Princip the unexpected opportunity to commit the assassination he had previously given up on, there was really no reason why it should have led to anything more than a third Balkan War. But everyone was waiting for that spark, they expected it, they had planned for it, and so the two Balkan Wars became skirmishes in advance of the big battle that everyone knew was bound to happen.
It didn’t help, of course, that Europe’s leaders at the time were as inadequate a lot as it is possible to imagine. Franz Joseph of Austria wasn’t exactly gaga, but at 84 he had long since lost his grip on the reins of power. Nicholas of Russia considered himself a great leader and a brilliant military commander, but he was incompetent at both. Though he wasn’t as bad as Wilhelm II of Germany, a posturing idiot who loved big shows and dressing up in elaborate uniforms, but was incapable of making any decision that wasn’t directly about his own glory. Raymond Poincare, the French Prime Minister, was a rigid conservative who was rabidly anti-German in everything, and who let that anti-German sentiment affect every policy decision he ever made. Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister, was actually one of the better premiers the country has known, instigator of a whole string of important social reforms, such as old age pension and unemployment benefit, but he was rather inclined to drink (he bequeathed us the word ‘squiffy’) and was not that interested in foreign affairs, which he left to Edward Grey, his Foreign Secretary, a rather dull man who wasn’t exactly noted for the clarity of his communications with other states. During the July Crisis of 1914, for instance, Grey managed to leave the Germans unclear about whether Britain had any intention of standing by any of their alliances, not exactly good diplomacy at such an important moment. In other words, in those headlong days in the summer of 1914, there was nobody in a position of power with the imagination or the will to shift events onto a different track.
And so what became known as the Great War stuttered into life sometime around 1912, and really got going in the summer of 1914. But we can all agree, can we not, that it ended at precisely 11 am on the 11th of November 1918? Well, not exactly. Russia withdrew from the Great War in 1917 after the Revolution, only to begin a Civil War that lasted into the 1920s and drew in troops from many of the countries that had participated in the Great War. Meanwhile the defeat of Turkey had led to the Turkish War of Independence which also stretched into the 1920s and saw the eventual success of Kemal Ataturk. Mixed in with all of this, of course, was the forced expulsion of the Greeks during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, and the near-enough genocidal attacks upon Armenians. In the following years, Greece experienced constant and often violent changes of government, from monarchy to republic and back to monarchy, culminating in the coup that brought the Metaxas dictatorship to power in 1936, though there was constant skirmishing on the borders after that. The failed Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland was followed by the repressive actions of the black and tans, which in turn led to the proclamation of the Irish Free State in 1919, which was followed by yet another civil war that again stretched into the 1920s. Nor were these the only radical changes of government in the inter-war years. Italy acquired a fascist government in 1922 after the ‘March on Rome’, and then embarked on such military adventures as the war in Ethiopia in 1935 and the seizure of Albania in 1939. The nations of Europe, thrown into turmoil by the depredations of the Great War and the ineptly handled Versailles negotiations, suffered even more with the financial collapse of 1929 which in turn facilitated more political turmoil. The Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933 largely on a promise to put right the wrongs that Germany suffered after the Great War, and then embarked on such quasi-military adventures as the rearmament of the Rhineland, the Anschluss in Austria and the take-over of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. In Spain, General Franco initiated a civil war against the Republican government, though it was a civil war that involved fighters from across Europe and in particular gave the German air force an opportunity to practice its blitzkrieg tactics. And in 1939, Russia invaded Finland, which had declared itself independent from Russia during the Revolution and Civil War. The two decades between 1919 and 1939, therefore, were not exactly years of peace in Europe, and every one of these conflicts had its roots in the Great War and fed in turn into the Second World War. And I’ve not even mentioned the turmoil in the Middle East brought about by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the territorial divisions sketched out so ineptly at Versailles; nor have I mentioned the Mukden Incident, the Japanese seizure of Manchukuo and the subsequent invasion of China which was itself undergoing the turmoil of revolution. These various conflicts, often associated with crude colonial enterprises and the after effects of the Great War, also had their origins in the one conflict and fed into the next.
1918, therefore, brought one massive phase of conflict to an end, but it didn’t end all fighting. Conflicts whose origins were the same as the origins of the Great War spluttered on intermittently, flaring up first in one place then in another, before congealing once more into the so-called Second World War. If we have to give a date for the Second World War, or rather, the second major phase of the Great War, I suppose it should be 1937, when Japan invaded China from its base in Manchukuo.
We should never confuse the causes of a war with the aims of that war, they are always different, not least because war aims will invariably change during the course of conflict. Moreover, the more parties there are to any conflict, the more their aims will differ. What caused the Great War had nothing whatever to do with the settlement agreed at Versailles. But one of the major problems with Versailles was that it tried to satisfy all the contradictory desires and expectations of the different parties that had been involved in the war. In the end, most of the victors were no more satisfied than the losers, setting up so many of the discontents that plagued the inter-war years. Those discontents, of course, became a whole new set of causes, which in turn generated new war aims, which of course mutated as the war progressed. All of which is a way of saying that the Second World War did not have the same causes or war aims as the First World War, but that does not necessarily mean that they were not part of the same ongoing conflict. Germany’s war aims in 1914 were not the same as Austria’s war aims in 1914, nor were they the same as Germany’s war aims at the beginning of 1918, so we can have no reason to imagine that German war aims in 1918 would in any way resemble German war aims in 1939.
Be that as it may, the conflict that had simmered throughout the previous two decades burst out once more in the late 1930s. Things mutated rapidly during the course of the conflict, and the character of the war being fought in the mid-1940s was very different from the war being fought in the late 1930s. And again, when this phase of fighting spluttered out in 1945 it didn’t actually mean an end to fighting. First battles in the Greek Civil War, for instance, broke out at the end of 1944, less than two months after the Germans left Athens, and burst into full-blown war in 1946. The Greek Civil War was still going on when the Berlin Blockade began, an eruption of tension between the two major players in what became known as the Cold War, though that war would normally be contested through surrogates. The European portion of the Cold War had many of the same origins as the Great War: Russian ambitions in the Balkans, German reunification, the waxing and waning of the various Great Powers, though it took much of its colouration from events of the Second World War. The various Middle Eastern wars, beginning in 1948, that accompanied the formation of the state of Israel had their immediate cause in the influx of Jewish survivors from the Holocaust and the upsurge in nationalist ambitions that came with it, but deeper roots can be traced back directly to the division of the spoils when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The war in Vietnam along with several wars in Africa had underlying them the European land grab that was associated with the arms race leading up to the First World War.
Again, as in the aftermath of the First World War, peace was at best partial. Sporadic fighting would be almost continuous, breaking out first in one place then another, but always with roots that could be traced back through the century. If there is a notional end to this long war, it is probably the moment when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. That, at least, seems to spell the end of the series of conflicts linked to the territorial ambitions and general dis-ease of the European powers. The conflicts that have continued and developed since then, although often linked to European colonialism, seem to have a different character, to come from a different set of disputes. Though that isn’t necessarily the case. The conflicts we see today in the various states that have emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, bear an uncanny and quite disturbing resemblance to the post-Ottoman Balkans in the years leading up to the Great War.