Maybe World War One Generals Weren’t Idiots

I was interested to read this British opinion piece, making the case that British military leadership during the Great War was not the clutch of bumbling fools which has become the stereotype of the war.

In 1928, following the sudden death of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, more people took to streets to mourn his passing that had ever been seen previously or indeed since. The very public mourning as a result of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was dwarfed in comparison to those that came out to pay respects to Earl Haig.

It took literature and some key individuals to change history. As one of my university lecturers once said to me, history does not happen, it is written, and that principle could not be applied more strongly to the case of First World War history.

With the publication of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and the production of Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), a wave of popular history provided the foundation through which all subsequent knowledge of the First World War is filtered – precisely the problem with which we are now faced. Historians and thespians took the critical words of those men that had a grudge and an agenda to push, namely Lloyd George and Churchill, thus generating the idea that generals were both inept and callous.

But beyond the Blackadder episodes there is a raft of history that is desperate to break into the mainstream. No one doubts that there were a handful of poor officers at various stages of the command structure who made bad decisions that ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of men.

But as a country, we seem to forget as a matter of course that 1918 brought us victory. Could this have been possible against the might of Germany’s Imperial Army with such incompetent leadership? Clearly there is another history to expose.

Trench warfare existed as the marksmanship of the British alongside technology and weaponry caused each adversary to dig in and seek protection. By 1916, almost all the trained and elite men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had paid the ultimate sacrifice. Despite its intricate planning and preparation, the first day of the Battle of the Somme was to be the bloodiest day in the British army’s history, with close to 20,000 men killed. This day, as revisionist historians have strived to show, was to be a turning point: the moment in which the BEF transformed itself, from high command to man on the spot, from inexperienced city army to effective fighting machine capable of challenging and defeating the German army. A combination of factors proved pivotal in the BEF’s transformation.

With every day’s fighting that passed, officers were encouraged to note the aspects of battle that had been successful, and those aspects that had not worked. These experiences were shared between units, throughout the ranks and with high command. Indeed, in mid-July, official war diaries noted that “everyone however junior in rank to be permitted to express his opinion if he has any suggestions to offer as to possible means of improving our methods”.

These experiences were to be collected and translated into three official manuals. In December 1916, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (SS 135), the Instructions for the Training Platoons for Offensive Action (SS 143), issued on 14 February 1917 and the Instructions for the Training of the British Army in France (SS 144), issued in April 1917. These became essential reading for officers, who shared this knowledge with their men. Quite clearly, High Command and every level of command in the British Army were keen to learn and improve for future action.

One of the interesting things about World War One history is the fashion in which the understanding of the war has been shaped in cultural memory.

In the English-speaking world, most memoirs during and shortly after the war treated it as a horrific but necessary sacrifice. In the late 1920s, however, an increasing number of highly critical works began to be written and achieve widespread popularity.

Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That was published in 1929.

Siegried Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels were being published at the same time: Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston’s Progress (1936)

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth was published in 1933.

All of these were written by authors who had been fairly young when the war broke out, making them contemporaries of the “lions” of the front line, not the “donkeys” back at headquarters. The fact that their writings were published, and became famous, ten years after the war probably has a bit to do with the fact that the war itself was such a deeply traumatic experience that processing it into a finishing book length work took time.

Because the Great War was a war of national mobilization, and those from the educated class in particular saw it as their duty to “do their bit” by signing up for frontline duty, an inordinate number of very good authors ended up spending significant time in the trenches. (Not just “war writers” like Graves and Sassoon, either. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, among others, fought in the trenches of World War One.) Many of these men went to war with fairly romanticized notions of what going to war would mean. The actual experience of the front was, thus, much more of a shock to their expectations than was the war experience of the World War II generation. In addition to this shock versus expectation, the famous Great War writers were all enlisted men or junior officers. As such, they knew the bravery and the suffering of the trenches first hand. Doubtless is seemed impossible that such efforts could fail to achieve their objective if they were led well, and so it seemed clear that if battles failed to achieve their objectives, it was because the generals did not know their job and did not care. At the risk of making a flippant analogy, it is as if one tried to derive one’s whole understanding of modern business from Dilbert.

It’s also not coincidental that the wave of highly critical writing about the conduct of the war coincided with the gathering tide of between-the-wars pacifism and disillusionment. 1929 saw the collapse of the 1920s economic boom, and 1933 saw the victory of the Nazi party in Germany. The mood of the generation-after-the-war (or at least of elite opinion within it) was captured in 1933 by a debate at the Oxford Union in which the motion “[T]hat this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” was carried by 275 votes to 153.

Although pacifism held on until the very outbreak of World War II, it virtually disappeared with the beginning of the war and the generation of 1933 did indeed fight for King and Country from 1939 to 1945. However, the anti-war works of the late ’20s and early ’30s were given new life in the 1960s as a new generation of scholars built a consensus around the image of the Great War as being the perfect example of the insanity of war. World War II was in some sense hallowed by its association with defeating the Nazis and ending the Holocaust, but World War I provided the perfect platform for attaching class divisions, militarism and imperialism.

Over the last twenty years or so, a new wave of military historians have increasingly gone back to the sources from the war itself and concluded that while there are certainly some examples of very bad leadership during the Great War (as in most) that the armies on both sides in fact rapidly developed their strategic and tactical doctrines during the war. The carnage of the war is horrifying and undeniable, but it was not the result of generals blithely hurling men into the muzzles of machine guns, but rather of two very evenly matched sides who were rapidly adapting their weapons and tactics, yet repeatedly failing to achieve the hoped-for breakthrough because of certain basic technological problems (mostly relating to transportation) and to the other side’s matching innovations. William Philpott’s Three Armies on the Somme is an outstanding example of this school of military history.

However, although this reassessment of Great War history has been going on among military historians for some time, the stereotyped view which derives from the inter-war period and the ’60s has been very persistent in general survey courses, popular history, and in movies and books. It remains the case that “everyone knows” the Great War was about men charging through mud into machine guns for four and a half years. As such, it’s interesting and encouraging to see the above article written and published.

More to explorer


  1. Mud, Blood and Poppycock is an excellent revisionist history by Gordon Corrigan, who was a serving officer in the British Army:

    In World War I the British managed the considerable feat of raising a mass army for the first time in their history, bringing rapidly on line new technology of which tanks and fighter planes and bombers were only three examples, and slugging it out with the finest army on Earth. Mistakes were not uncommon in this process, sometimes grave ones, but they learned all the time and by the end of the War had a military force that was able to be the spearhead of the Hundred Days Offensive that broke the German Army in 1918.

    I think Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief on the Western Front from 1915-1918, has been especially badly maligned. Portrayed as a blundering cavalry officer, he was actually an enthusiast for new technology, especially tanks. Considered a completely callous butcher he was anything but. Early in the War his staff had to stop him from visiting hospitals because the sight of wounded and dying British soldiers was too much for him emotionally. When a painter came to his headquarters to do an official portrait of him, he told him to paint the common soldiers instead, saying that they were the ones saving the world and they were dying every day while doing it. He refused to take a viscountcy from the British government after the War, resisting even lobbying from the King, until financial assistance was approved for demobilized soldiers. Without his stand it is quite possible that the former soldiers would have been left to private charity. He spent the rest of his life helping the men who had served under him and forming the veteran’s organization, the British Legion, of which he was President until his death. When he died at 66 in 1928 endless lines of his veterans filed by his coffin to pay their last respects. British Legion halls almost always had a picture of Haig on the wall.

    Haig never deigned to reply to his critics, but his victory dispatch I think is an eloquent defense of what he and his “contemptible little army”, as the Kaiser referred to the British Army at the beginning of the War, accomplished with their French allies:

  2. Darwin

    Actually the military staff’s British, French, and German were highly competent. If they weren’t they could not have put those mass armies in the field and kept them fed, equipped and attacking for four years. But – Breaking the stalemate with technology at hand would have required a level of genius that can’t be guaranteed to happen in any generation or profession.

    I saw a review a modern biography of Gen Haig (I forget the title.) The author, was critical of Haig, felt it necessary to first debunk the criticism of him from the 1920’s as worthless, so he could build an honest picture and point out his real failings. Much of that criticism came from political leaders deflecting attention from their own bad decisions, often made against Haig’s advice.

    Modern research is showing that the political leadership was highly involved in the decision process, agreeing and sometimes directing with most every major strategic decision, sometimes considering domestic political issues to over come adction that would have saved the lives of some of their soldiers.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  3. Hank,

    Agreed. In case it wasn’t clear from the post itself: I am very much of the revisionist camp, not the “lions led by donkeys” camp.


    From the author description: “The author was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in 1962 and retired from the Brigade of Gurkhas in 1998. A member of the British Commission for Military History and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, he speaks fluent Nepali and is a keen horseman.” What else does one need to know! I’ll have to look it up. Philpott had a lot of great stuff attacking the census view, but in a restrained, scholarly kind of way. Corrigan simply sounds fun.

  4. I agree with Jerry. The generals make an easy scapegoat. It’s the politicians who screw everything up. The so-called “Great War” was a war that should never have been fought in the first place.

    And the punitive “peace” that was imposed on Germany, as John Maynard Keynes foresaw in his work The Economic Consequences of the Peace (the subject of one of my Economics term papers in college), and as Churchill argued in the first volume of his 6-part history of WWII, created the conditions that led to another war that might have been avoided altogether had idiotic politicians not bungled the whole affair. Far be it for me to praise Keynes for anything, but he was correct in arguing, along with farsighted politicians like Churchill, that the reparations imposed on Germany following the Great War were a disaster in the making.

    When wars don’t go the way they should, and when the consequences thereof lead to undesired repercussions (see, e.g., the wiping out of long-established Christian communities in the Middle East following “democratization” efforts), it’s generally wise to look to the politicians for the blame, not the generals.

  5. I think that the Great War is similar the US Civil War in that the generals were operating under principles and tactics that did not match the technological advances in arms and logistics.

    Plus, see Einstein’s defintion of insanity: doing over and over the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

  6. Part of the reason WW1 generals have a bad reputation is the abject failure of WW1 strategies in WW2. France was well prepared to re-fight WW1, with their own corresponding WW1 heroes leading the preparation. As a result, it took Germany just over a month to completely defeat France.

  7. It’s interesting how popular myth is virtually impervious to demonstrable truth. A lot of Americans still believe that the major cause of the Revolution was economic exploitation and oppression, which is utter nonsense. The (mostly expat) Irish still bang on about 800 years of English oppression whereas in fact Anglo-Norman influence didn’t extend beyond the Pale until the 16th century. The plantation of Ulster had exactly the same rationale as the plantation of Massachusetts, and with a similar disregard for the native inhabitants. One of the things that the Pilgrims gave thanks for at the end of 1621 was that 90 per cent of the indigenous peoples of New England had died of disease in the decade before their arrival, having – very considerately – tilled the land and buried stores of corn for the winter. As a result of massacre and introduced disease, the number of American Indians declined from an estimated 2 million in 1500 to a mere 325,000 in 1820. It doesn’t stop Irish-Americans from celebrating Thanksgiving.

    Another widespread American myth is that they were somehow victims of colonialism rather than colonialists par excellence. They colonized an entire continent, and whereas the Brits had the honesty to describe their efforts as imperialism, the Americans called it ‘manifest destiny’.

  8. “It’s interesting how popular myth is virtually impervious to demonstrable truth. A lot of Americans still believe that the major cause of the Revolution was economic exploitation and oppression, which is utter nonsense.”

    The Revolution was all about the right of the Americans to rule themselves John, and that is always worth fighting for. Edmund Burke understood this:

    “Again, and again, revert to your own principles—Seek Peace, and ensue it—leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, not attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they antiently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. They and we, and their and our ancestors, have been happy under that system. Let the memory of all actions, in contradiction to that good old mode, on both sides, be extinguished for ever. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Let this be your reason for binding their trade. Do not burthen them by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are the arguments of states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety. But, if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government, by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question. When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No-body will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side call forth all their ability; let the best of them get up, and tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry, by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too? The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery—that it is legal slavery.”

    “The (mostly expat) Irish still bang on about 800 years of English oppression whereas in fact Anglo-Norman influence didn’t extend beyond the Pale until the 16th century.”

    The worst of the oppression occurred after the English Reformation, but I doubt if the English would have liked to put up with the type of invasions that the Irish had from the English from the time of Strongbow.

    “The plantation of Ulster had exactly the same rationale as the plantation of Massachusetts, and with a similar disregard for the native inhabitants.”

    Actually one of the main purposes was to introduce a large Catholic hating minority into Ireland. Mission accomplished.

    “One of the things that the Pilgrims gave thanks for at the end of 1621 was that 90 per cent of the indigenous peoples of New England had died of disease in the decade before their arrival, having – very considerately – tilled the land and buried stores of corn for the winter.”

    I would be careful John with accepting current demographic estimates of Indian populations based on no more than bad guess work. If the Indian population had declined so rapidly it had a wonderful rebound by the time of King Philip’s War

    “As a result of massacre and introduced disease, the number of American Indians declined from an estimated 2 million in 1500 to a mere 325,000 in 1820. It doesn’t stop Irish-Americans from celebrating Thanksgiving.”

    Same point as above John. Additionally, many Indians simply became part of the settler culture, including some of my Cherokee ancestors. There were probably around 600,000 unassimilated Indians in the continental US by 1820 around 250,000 by 1890. My Cherokee ancestors would not have been counted in 1890 since they were living in Illinois by that time, completely assimilated.

    “Another widespread American myth is that they were somehow victims of colonialism rather than colonialists par excellence. They colonized an entire continent, and whereas the Brits had the honesty to describe their efforts as imperialism, the Americans called it ‘manifest destiny’.”

    We live here John, instead of say the Brits claiming to own India back in the days of the Raj. A key difference.

  9. General Haig isn’t remembered with much sympathy or kindness in this part of the world.
    Under his command, 5 NZ soldiers in WW1 were executed by firing squad for desertion when the poor buggers were so shell shocked, they didn’t know where they were. or even cognisant of the charges against them. One of the sad realities of NZ troops being still under the command of British officers.
    The Aussies were a bit better off. When the Australian troops were ordered to advance in the face of ridiculous overwhelming enemy forces and refused to, Haig wanted to line them up and shoot them for mutiny. Fortunately, the Aussies, after the debacle of being under the command of British officers in the Gallipoli campaign, had put their own command in place, their own officers denied Haig his wish, because they refused to allow volunteer troops to be executed. Fortunately, the NZ army adopted the same position after WW1, but too late to save the five volunteers executed by Haig.
    Its common knowledge down here, that Haig used the colonial troops as cannon fodder. To his amazement, the ANZACs achieved what his own forces could not, with only a fraction of the numbers.

  10. I can understand why hard feelings still exist Don, but executions and Haig is another area where the reputation and the reality are at odds. British courtmartials handed down 3000 death sentences on the Western Front in World War I. They all had to be confirmed by Haig. He commuted all but 12% of the death sentences.

  11. Don the Kiwi is in danger of perpetuating another myth, all too prevalent in Australia, and even to a certain extent in Canada. Incidentally “common knowledge” is almost invariably fallacious. The ANZACs were quite happy to serve under Sir William Birdwood until 31 May 1918 when he was promoted to command 5th Army and an Australian, Sir John Monash took his place. Birdwood toured Australia in 1920 to great acclaim, and would have been made Governor-General in 1930 had not the Australian PM, James Scullin, insisted on the post going to one of his political cronies.

    Similarly the Canadians greatly admired their Corps Commander, Sir Julian Byng, who led them to their great victory at Vimy ridge in April 1917. In June of that year Byng took over command of 3rd Army and the Canadian Sir Arthur Currie took command of the Canadian Corps. After the war Byng was a very popular Governor-General of Canada.

    The idea that Dominion troops were used as cannon fodder is not just myth but pernicious nonsense. Haig had great respect for their fighting qualities, and for the ability of Monash and Currie, despite the fact that neither had been a regular soldier before the war (so much for DH being hide-bound). They certainly punched above their weight, but they did not win the war on their own, and ordinary British divisions which made up the bulk of the BEF were capable of performing equally well.

    Most of the 300-odd executions carried out after general courts-martial were for desertion, and If you examine them on a case-by-case basis, you do find some examples of a miscarriage of justice. In most cases, however, those shot did not have the sympathy of their comrades. Shell-shock was a diagnosed medical condition (wrongly attributed to concussion caused by bursting shells) and was treated by hospitalization. Military justice is different from civilian justice in that wider considerations apply. Before confirming a sentence Haig would not only have to look at the individual case, but also consider the state of morale in the offender’s unit. If it was considered shaky, then it was more likely that the sentence would be carried out.

  12. There is a wider sense in which mythological history is corrosive and damaging. If people in Australia and NZ really believe the nonsense that Don the Kiwi claims to be “common knowledge” (and those who actually fought in the war thought otherwise) then it can poison relations between countries. By the 1930s the pacifist argument that the Allies had not won the Great War was grist to Hitler’s mill. Recently an article on the British Empire posted on the BBC’s education website peddled a left-liberal Marxist line made worse in that it was grossly oversimplified. This re-writing of history (worse than anything that Soviet Russia could come up with) is hardly likely to improve race relations.

    A further aspect of mythical history is its Manichean character – one side good, the other bad. Real history rarely allows this dichotomy. This applies as much to the American revolution (where the mythical version is still taught to schoolchildren and tourists, to the despair of serious historians) as to everything else. Irish historians have criticized a national identity based on “blame everything on the English; we may act like savages but it’s not our fault” and thankfully they have made some progress. Ironically the present Irish hierarchy has succeeded in virtually eradicating Catholicism in Ireland, something the English failed to achieve in four-and-a-half centuries.

    Regarding Strongbow, memo to 12th century Irish kings; enlisting the help of Norman robber-barons to sort out your domestic problems is probably a bad idea. Too late now.

  13. It’s not confined to the Commonwealth.

    During the Civil War, certain NYC newspapers editorized that the Republicans used the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, etc. to kill Democrat Irishmen.

    Anyhow, if Good Quee Bess and her parliament decided to invade Upper Slobovia, will Autralia, Canada and New Zealand be required to send grunts?

  14. John and Don.

    Those writing history in the cold light of past battles and records may indeed give a more accurate account of events. What I have repeated – that happened nearly 100 years ago – were related to me by my maternal grandfather Don Piper, and his brother-in-law, my Uncle Eustace Nicholson; who were on Gallipoli and in the trenches in France; also my father’s oldest brother (who was gassed in France) George Beckett.
    What they recounted may have been partly untrue, and part rumour. However, these were the men on the ground in battle, and to them, the perception was reality. Rightly or wrongly, what they recounted has gone into folk- lore for the period and is unlikely to change. As the generations pass, so will the story – fact mixed with myth.
    However, to say that these things never happened is to indulge in revisionist history, which is equally corrosive and damaging.

  15. T Shaw
    The Dominions (which then included South Africa) were not ‘required’ to enter either of the World Wars; they did so of their own volition, although Imperial solidarity was more important then than now. Commonwealth troops who fought in Korea did so in support of the United Nations, and Canadian troops are in Afghanistan because Canada is a member of NATO. In 1982 NZ offered naval support (a frigate) in the Falklands War, although the important behind-the-scenes support was from the US and Chile.

    Australia and NZ sent troops to Vietnam, whereas Britain refused LBJ’s request for even a token force (he asked for the Black Watch, and the Jocks would have jumped at the chance, better than smashing up bars in Minden) but Harold Wilson knew that the Labour Party wouldn’t countenance it.

  16. Jay Anderson wrote, “The so-called “Great War” was a war that should never have been fought in the first place.”

    I am old enough to have talked to veterans of WWI. They all thought it was a national necessity and they all spoke of the same things – the Saverne incident, the march of the Strasburg students past Kléber’s statue, the Alsatians who gathered, year by year, to watch the great 14 July review at Belfort and the thousands of young men in the lost provinces, who, at the age of twenty, left home and family behind, knowing they would not be allowed to return and crossed the frontier to perform their military service in France.

    Some of them recalled how, after the first impetuous advance after Charleroi, soldiers returning on leave brought back the hated red, white and black frontier markers and piled them before the tomb of Déroulède, whose funeral in February of that year had been the largest and most imposing since Victor Hugo’s.

  17. In my earlier reply to Don the Kiwi, I fell into the common error of conflating the Australian experience with the New Zealand one, for which I apologize. The commander of II ANZAC Corps, who was also the commander of the NZ Expeditionary Force, Sir Alexander Godley, did not have the same rapport with his soldiers as Birdwood did. A good administrator and trainer (he arrived in NZ in 1910 and prepared the army for war) he had an aloof manner and tended to favour British over NZ officers when making appointments. He performed creditably as a divisional commander at Gallipoli, but some of his actions on the Western Front were criticized, in particular the failed attack, in bad weather, on 12 October 1917 during 3rd Ypres. Plumer’s Second Army, of which his Corps was part, had had a run of successful actions, culminating with the battle of Broodseinde, which led Godley to underestimate German morale.

    There was a feeling in NZ government circles, and probably among the general population, that their troops were shouldering an excessive burden and that the Australians and Canadians were not pulling their weight. This wasn’t the case, but led to increasing criticism of Godley and British command in general. In April 1917 the Australians were badly mauled at 1st Bullecourt, as a result of an over-ambitious plan, using tanks for support, authorized by Sir Hubert Gough, the youngest of the five Army commanders. The Australians’ enthusiasm for the commander of I ANZAC Corps, Birdwood, was not shaken and a month later a follow-up attack, using artillery support and a creeping barrage (itself a technological innovation) was successful.

    More than anything else, it was the scientific use of artillery which unlocked the Western Front, including the use from 1917 onwards of an instantaneous fuze which was capable of cutting wire. A few years ago I attended a talk given by Gordon Corrigan in which he compared the careers of Haig and Montgomery, greatly to the disadvantage of the latter. He does tend to overstate his case, but the case is a sound one and has been argued by military historians since John Terraine fifty years ago.

  18. Michael PS:

    Jay Anderson’s comment, “The so-called ‘Great War’ was a war that should never have been fought in the first place,” most likely refers to the common perception of how it was started. As we commonly read it, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would probably have been a footnote in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had not the various European powers locked themselves into specific reactions by several decades’ worth of treaties and alliances. This too is a revisionist interpretation that needs to be torn down.

  19. Or, you could’ve just asked me what I meant. I would’ve told you that, in my opinion, “the war to end all wars” was a war that cost too many lives and accomplished too little other than to create or exacerbate the conditions for future conflicts, from the Bolshevik Revolution to World War II right down to the Bosnian Conflict of the 1990s.

    In the end, I just don’t see the point of the Great War, from either a European or American perspective. From a strictly American perspective, Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 partly by promising not to get the country involved in the war, and then promptly did so less than 6 months after the election. And I am by no means a pacifist but, again, just don’t see the point of it all. But let us not forget that there was a great deal of opposition, pacifism, conscientious objection, and outright civil disobedience associated with the Great War. I’m certainly not the first person to express the opinion that the Great War was unnecessary, and, given that such opposition to the war existed contemporaneously, nor can such opposition be dismissed as being based strictly on revisionist interpretations.

  20. Jay, I apologize for misconstruing your statement.

    From a strictly American perspective, we might have avoided direct involvement had we stopped trade with the belligerents, especially France and Britain; this might have kept American ships safe when the Germans decided to pursue unrestricted warfare against shipping. As it was, our “non-intervention” was pretty superficial, and Wilson’s re-election was by the narrowest of margins — not everyone viewed his having “kept us out of war” to be a good thing.

    While WWI did exact a horrendous cost and springboard future conflicts, I’m not convinced that it was evitable and unnecessary, except in the theoretical, optimistic way that war is always avoidable and never necessary. Nor am I ready to grant the opponents of war/intervention any kind of prescience. The growth of nationalism amid the Balkan and Central European cultures, the imperialism of the major powers, the effects of colonialism on Africa and the Middle East, religious and cultural tensions spread throughout half the globe — the First World War may have sparked by any number of incidents and taken on any number of shapes, but I don’t think it could have been put off forever.

  21. I think there were pretty clearly a lot of points after Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and before it became a general war when the Great War could have been avoided — it certainly was not inevitable. Sure there’d been a huge arms build up and tensions were high in Europe, but we had that in the Cold War and there was never a general war between the US and USSR.

    – Austria-Hungary could have not attacked Serbia.
    – Russia could have let Austria-Hungary knock Serbia around for a bit without threatening to intervene.
    – Germany arguably bears the greatest blame, since it declared war against Belgium, France and Russia solely on the basis of Russia having mobilized (but not actually fired a shot.)

    – Belgium and France both arguably had virtually no choice in the war and had the clearest moral case for war. They were both given ultimatums that amounted to “allow Germany to invade peacefully or we’ll do so by force” and were simply trying to fight off occupation.

    – Great Britain was not itself attacked, so theoretically it could have sat things out on the sidelines. Arguably, Germany might then have ended up successfully beating France and Russia by 1916.

    Personally, given how bad German occupation of Belgium, France and Poland was, I think there was a very good case for opposing Germany rather than letting it become the permanent occupier in those areas. If we think that Versailles treaty was bad, it was downright gentle compared to the peaces imposed by Germany on Russia and Romania when they sought separate peaces.

  22. “Personally, given how bad German occupation of Belgium, France and Poland was, I think there was a very good case for opposing Germany rather than letting it become the permanent occupier in those areas. If we think that Versailles treaty was bad, it was downright gentle compared to the peaces imposed by Germany on Russia and Romania when they sought separate peaces.”

    Completely agree. The Imperial Germans weren’t Nazis but life under the Prussian Eagle during World War I for those luckless enough to live in occupied territories was truly miserable.

  23. Since the publication of Fritz Fischer’s ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht’ in 1961 the historical consensus is that Germany, and the German General Staff in particular, were mostly to blame. There was a perception that the window of opportunity for Germany to achieve her strategic aims (which could not be attained peacefully) would have closed by 1916. It was not so much a question of giving Austria a ‘blank cheque’ as keeping up the pressure on the ‘hawks’ in Vienna to declare war on Serbia after Serbia had accepted nearly all of the Austrian demands. Russian mobilization was intended as a warning to Austria, but the exigencies of the Schlieffen plan meant that as soon as Russia mobilized Germany had to declare war not just on Russia but on France as well.

    The international situation in 1914 was better than it had been in recent years. Britain and France had settled their colonial differences, and Britain had even reached a rapprochement with Russia. The Anglo-German naval race had been decided in England’s favour. The alliance systems, later much maligned, were essentially defensive.

    AS Layne has a point though – Ruth Henig in her 1989 book on the origins of the war identifies a feeling among most European governments by 1912 that war was probably inevitable, and perhaps even desirable. Whatever the cause, it was a disaster for European civilization.

  24. It’s interesting to look at the kind of “peace without victory” terms that started being floated in 1915 and after by various parties (including Pope Benedict XV.)

    Peace advocates among the French and English were willing to accept a peace that didn’t involve beating Germany, but they insisted that it would only be fair that Germany fully vacate all conquered territory (and in some cases give back Alsace and Lorraine as well.)

    In other words, the peace terms proposed looked a lot like what the victory ended up looking like. Virtually no one on the allied side countenanced the idea of a peace in which Germany kept all its winnings.

    Similarly, German ideas for peace without total defeat of its enemies still involved Germany keeping many of its gains in both East and West.

    The Brits were the ones who had room for a pacifist stance of “let’s just go home”, but that partly just serves to underscore that it was very much a continental war.

  25. In other words, the peace terms proposed looked a lot like what the victory ended up looking like. Virtually no one on the allied side countenanced the idea of a peace in which Germany kept all its winnings.

    Just to point out that by the Spring of 1916, Germany’s winnings included the loss of all overseas dependencies other than German East Africa.

    If we think that Versailles treaty was bad, it was downright gentle compared to the peaces imposed by Germany on Russia and Romania when they sought separate peaces.”

    Russia was compelled to convey a large bloc of territory inhabited by minority nationalities. However, I am not seeing anything about any indemnity, any contrived disarmament, or any insults like the war guilt clause.


    Although not a function of the treaty provisions itself, one might note that the Hapsburg dynasty lost its entire empire when all the subject nationalities departed (taking local German populations with them), not just their western march.

  26. In the end, the Allies did not really have an option. A German army, undefeated in the field, (“unbesiegt im Felde” is the inscription on thousands of war memorials) was betrayed by cosmopolitan (and traditionally anti-Christian) elements at home, in an incident that historians call the “Dolchstoss im Rücken,” or “Stab in the back.” A compromise was inevitable.

  27. The stab in the back myth is just that, a myth. The German army was thoroughly defeated.

    Wikipedia has a good run down on the myth:

    The Nazis made use of the myth later. They blamed Jews and socialists for the defeat of Germany. Jewish veteran groups noted that over 12,000 German Jews died fighting for Germany in World War I, a number in excess of what one would expect given the Jewish percentage of the population. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been in effective control of the German state since 1916. They were the ones who laid the groundwork for German surrender when they became convinced that Germany was beaten in August 1918. After Ludendorff’s nervous breakdown, Hindenburg helped engineer the abdication of the Kaiser on November 9 and the coming to power of a civilian government to sign the armistice and to take the blame for the defeat of Germany. (Ludendorff and Hindenburg both seized eagerly on the stab in the back myth to avoid their responsibility for Germany losing the war.) Of course the truth and the Nazis were ever strangers.

  28. Much as commentators like Liddell Hart in later years might have criticized the “continental commitment”, once that commitment had been made the British could not have unilaterally packed it in and gone home. Those who rush to criticize the British commanders tend to forget that for most of the war they were ordered by the politicians to comply with the demands of their French allies, who not surprisingly were unconcerned with British casualties. The Battle of Loos (September 1915) in which there were over 2,000 officer casualties, including three out of the six divisional commanders being killed, was fought over unsuitable ground, with inexperienced troops, a shortage of guns and shells, and against the advice of the C-in-C Sir John French and the Army commander, Sir Douglas Haig.

    In 1940 the British did indeed “go home”, but only after the collapse of their allies. Four years later they had to fight their way back in, fortunately alongside a more reliable partner.

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