Britain could have lived with a German victory in the first world war, and should have stayed out of the conflict in 1914, according to the historian Niall Ferguson, who described the intervention as "the biggest error in modern history".
In an interview with BBC History Magazine, Ferguson said there had been no immediate threat to Britain, which could have faced a Germany-dominated Europe at a later date on its own terms, instead of rushing in unprepared, which led to catastrophic costs.
"Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory. What's more, it would have been in Britain's interests to stay out in 1914," he said before a documentary based on his book The Pity of War, which will be screened by BBC2 as part of the broadcaster's centenary season.
The Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard University rejected the idea that Britain was forced to act in 1914 to secure its borders and the Channel ports. "This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe. It wasn't until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time."
It was remarkable, he said, that Britain intervened on land so early in 1914, when quite unprepared.
"Creating an army more or less from scratch and then sending it into combat against the Germans was a recipe for disastrous losses. And if one asks whether this was the best way for Britain to deal with the challenge posed by imperial Germany, my answer is no.
"Even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British empire in naval and financial terms. Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later when Britain could respond on its own terms, taking advantage of its much greater naval and financial capability."
The comments are certain to fan the flames of the debate sparked by the education secretary, Michael Gove, about whether Britain's role in the war should be seen as heroic courage or monumental error.
Gove, in an article in the Daily Mail, attacked "leftwing academics all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain's role in the conflict", and decried the Blackadder portrayal of the war as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite".
Ferguson is unequivocal: "We should not think of this as some great victory or dreadful crime, but more as the biggest error in modern history."
He continued: "The cost, let me emphasise, of the first world war to Britain was catastrophic, and it left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state … It had accumulated a vast debt, the cost of which really limited Britain's military capability throughout the interwar period. Then there was the manpower loss – not just all those aristocratic officers, but the many, many, many skilled workers who died or were permanently incapacitated in the war.
"We need of course to feel sympathy for the men like my grandfather who fought in the first world war, because their sufferings were scarcely imaginable. The death toll, which was greater than the second world war, was the most painful thing that Britain has ever experienced in war."
But, he added, we should also feel dismay that the leaders, not just of Britain but of the European states, could have taken decisions that led to such an appalling slaughter.
"Arguments about honour of course resonate today as they resonated in 1914, but you can pay too high a price for upholding the notion of honour, and I think in the end Britain did."
He concedes that if Britain had stood back in 1914, it would have reneged on commitments to uphold Belgian neutrality. "But guess what? Realism in foreign policy has a long and distinguished tradition, not least in Britain – otherwise the French would never complain about 'perfidious Albion'. For Britain it would ultimately have been far better to have thought in terms of the national interest rather than in terms of a dated treaty."
Ferguson, no stranger to controversy, is unlikely to worry about coming under fire for his views. Last year he managed to stir up a massive row over a long-dead economist when he suggested that John Maynard Keynes had no stake in the future because he was gay and childless – although he did later apologise, calling his remarks "stupid and tactless".
About World War I
"Total War I: The Great War"
by John Bourne
The First World War was truly the Great War. Its origins were complex. Its scale was vast. Its conduct was intense. Its impact on military operations was revolutionary. Its human and material costs were enormous. And its results were profound.
The war was a global conflict. Thirty-two nations were eventually involved. Twenty-eight of these constituted the Allied and Associated Powers, whose principal belligerents were the British Empire, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia, and the United States of America. They were opposed by the Central Powers: Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire.
The war began in the Balkan cockpit of competing nationalisms and ancient ethnic rivalries. Hopes that it could be contained there proved vain. Expansion of the war was swift. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914; Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August. Germany declared war on France on 3 August and invaded Belgium. France was invaded on 4 August. German violation of Belgian neutrality provided the British with a convenient excuse to enter the war on the side of France and Russia the same evening. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on 6 August. France and Great Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary six days later.
The underlying causes of these events have been intensively researched and debated. Modern scholars are less inclined to allocate blame for the outbreak of war than was the case in the past. They have sought instead to understand the fears and ambitions of the governing �lites of Europe who took the fateful decisions for war, particularly that of imperial Germany.
Fears were more important than ambitions. Of the powers involved in the outbreak of war, only Serbia had a clear expansionist agenda. The French hoped to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany as a result of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, but this was regarded as an attempt at restitution rather than acquisition. Otherwise, defensive considerations were paramount. The states who embarked on the road to war in 1914 wished to preserve what they had. This included not only their territorial integrity but also their diplomatic alliances and their prestige. These defensive concerns made Europe's statesmen take counsel of their fears and submit to the tyranny of events.
The Austrians feared for the survival of their multi-racial Empire if they did not confront the threat of Serb nationalism and Panslavism. The Germans feared the consequences to themselves of allowing Austria, their closest and only reliable ally, to be weakened and humiliated. The Russians feared the threat to their prestige and authority as protector of the Slavs if they allowed Austria to defeat and humiliate Serbia. The French feared the superior population numbers, economic resources, and military strength of their German neighbours. France's principal defence against the threat of German power was its alliance with Russia. This it was imperative to defend. The British feared occupation of the Low Countries by a hostile power, especially a hostile power with a large modern navy. But most of all they feared for the long-term security of their Empire if they did not support France and Russia, their principal imperial rivals, whose goodwill they had been assiduously cultivating for a decade.
All governments feared their peoples. Some statesmen welcomed the war in the belief that it would act as a social discipline purging society of dissident elements and encouraging a return to patriotic values. Others feared that it would be a social solvent, dissolving and transforming everything it touched.
The process of expansion did not end in August 1914. Other major belligerents took their time and waited upon events. Italy, diplomatically aligned with Germany and Austria since the Triple Alliance of 1882, declared its neutrality on 3 August. In the following months it was ardently courted by France and Britain. On 23 May 1915 the Italian government succumbed to Allied temptations and declared war on Austria-Hungary in pursuit of territorial aggrandizement in the Trentino. Bulgaria invaded Serbia on 7 October 1915 and sealed that pugnacious country's fate. Serbia was overrun. The road to Constantinople was opened to the Central Powers. Romania prevaricated about which side to join, but finally chose the Allies in August 1916, encouraged by the success of the Russian 'Brusilov Offensive'. It was a fatal miscalculation. The German response was swift and decisive. Romania was rapidly overwhelmed by two invading German armies and its rich supplies of wheat and oil did much to keep Germany in the war for another two years. Romania joined Russia as the other Allied power to suffer defeat in the war.
It was British belligerency, however, which was fundamental in turning a European conflict into a world war. Britain was the world's greatest imperial power. The British had world-wide interests and world-wide dilemmas. They also had world-wide friends. Germany found itself at war not only with Great Britain but also with the dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa and with the greatest British imperial possession, India. Concern for the defence of India helped bring the British into conflict with the Ottoman Empire in November 1914 and resulted in a major war in the Middle East. Most important of all, perhaps, Britain's close political, economic, and cultural ties with the United States of America, if they did not ensure that nation's eventual entry into the war, certainly made it possible. The American declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917 was a landmark not only in the history of the United States but also in that of Europe and the world, bringing to an end half a millennium of European domination and ushering in 'the American century'.
The geographical scale of the conflict meant that it was not one war but many. On the Western Front in France and Belgium the French and their British allies, reinforced from 1917 onwards by the Americans, were locked in a savage battle of attrition against the German army. Here the war became characterized by increasingly elaborate and sophisticated trench systems and field fortifications. Dense belts of barbed wire, concrete pillboxes, intersecting arcs of machine-gun fire, and accumulating masses of quick-firing field and heavy artillery rendered manuvre virtually impossible. Casualties were enormous.
The first phase of the war in the west lasted until November 1914. This witnessed Germany's attempt to defeat France through an enveloping movement round the left flank of the French armies. The plan met with initial success. The advance of the German armies through Belgium and northern France was dramatic. The French, responding with an offensive in Lorraine, suffered an almost catastrophic national defeat. France was saved by the iron nerve of its commander-in-chief, General J. J. C. Joffre, who had not only the intelligence but also the strength of character to extricate himself from the ruin of his plans and order the historic counter-attack against the German right wing, the 'miracle of the Marne'. The German armies were forced to retreat and to entrench. Their last attempt at a breakthrough was stopped by French and British forces near the small Flemish market town of Ypres in November. By Christmas 1914 trench lines stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier.
Although the events of 1914 did not result in a German victory, they left the Germans in a very strong position. The German army held the strategic initiative. It was free to retreat to positions of tactical advantage and to reinforce them with all the skill and ingenuity of German military engineering. Enormous losses had been inflicted on France. Two-fifths of France's military casualties were incurred in 1914. These included a tenth of the officer corps. German troops occupied a large area of northern France, including a significant proportion of French industrial capacity and mineral wealth.
These realities dominated the second phase of the war in the west. This lasted from November 1914 until March 1918. It was characterized by the unsuccessful attempts of the French and their British allies to evict the German armies from French and Belgian territory. During this period the Germans stood mainly on the defensive, but they showed during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915), and more especially during the Battle of Verdun (21 February-18 December 1916), a dangerous capacity to disrupt their enemies' plans.
The French made three major assaults on the German line: in the spring of 1915 in Artois; in the autumn of 1915 in Champagne; and in the spring of 1917 on the Aisne (the 'Nivelle Offensive'). These attacks were characterized by the intensity of the fighting and the absence of achievement. Little ground was gained. No positions of strategic significance were captured. Casualties were severe. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive led to a serious breakdown of morale in the French army. For much of the rest of 1917 it was incapable of major offensive action.
The British fared little better. Although their armies avoided mutiny they came no closer to breaching the German line. During the battles of the Somme (1 July19 November 1916) and the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-12 November 1917) they inflicted great losses on the German army at great cost to themselves, but the German line held and no end to the war appeared in sight.
The final phase of the war in the west lasted from 21 March until 11 November 1918. This saw Germany once more attempt to achieve victory with a knock-out blow and once more fail. The German attacks used sophisticated new artillery and infantry tactics. They enjoyed spectacular success. The British 5th Army on the Somme suffered a major defeat. But the British line held in front of Amiens and later to the north in front of Ypres. No real strategic damage was done. By midsummer the German attacks had petered out. The German offensive broke the trench deadlock and returned movement and manuvre to the strategic agenda. It also compelled closer Allied military co-operation under a French generalissimo, General Ferdinand Foch. The Allied counter-offensive began in July. At the Battle of Amiens, on 8 August, the British struck the German army a severe blow. For the rest of the war in the west the Germans were in retreat.
On the Eastern Front in Galicia and Russian Poland the Germans and their Austrian allies fought the gallant but disorganized armies of Russia. Here the distances involved were very great. Artillery densities were correspondingly less. Manuvre was always possible and cavalry could operate effectively. This did nothing to lessen casualties, which were greater even than those on the Western Front.
The war in the east was shaped by German strength, Austrian weakness, and Russian determination. German military superiority was apparent from the start of the war. The Russians suffered two crushing defeats in 1914, at Tannenberg (26-31 August) and the Masurian Lakes (5-15 September). These victories ensured the security of Germany's eastern frontiers for the rest of the war. They also established the military legend of Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, who emerged as principal directors of the German war effort in the autumn of 1916. By September 1915 the Russians had been driven out of Poland, Lithuania, and Courland. Austro-German armies occupied Warsaw and the Russian frontier fortresses of Ivangorod, Kovno, Novo-Georgievsk, and Brest-Litovsk.
These defeats proved costly to Russia. They also proved costly to Austria. Austria had a disastrous war. Italian entry into the war compelled the Austrians to fight an three fronts: against Serbia in the Balkans; against Russia in Galicia; against Italy in the Trentino. This proved too much for Austrian strength. Their war effort was characterized by dependency on Germany. Germans complained that they were shackled to the 'Austrian corpse'. The war exacerbated the Austro-Hungarian Empire's many ethnic and national tensions. By 1918 Austria was weary of the war and desperate for peace. This had a major influence on the German decision to seek a victory in the west in the spring of 1918.
Perceptions of the Russian war effort have been overshadowed by the October Revolution of 1917 and by Bolshevik 'revolutionary defeatism' which acquiesced in the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (14 March 1918) and took Russia out of the war. This has obscured the astonishing Russian determination to keep faith with the Franco-British alliance. Without the Russian contribution in the east it is far from certain that Germany could have been defeated in the west. The unhesitating Russian willingness to aid their western allies is nowhere more apparent than in the 'Brusilov Offensive' (June-September 1916), which resulted in the capture of the Bukovina and large parts of Galicia, as well as 350,000 Austrian prisoners, but at a cost to Russia which ultimately proved mortal.
In southern Europe the Italian army fought eleven indecisive battles in an attempt to dislodge the Austrians from their mountain strongholds beyond the Isonzo river. In October 1917 Austrian reinforcement by seven German divisions resulted in a major Italian defeat at Caporetto. The Italians were pushed back beyond the Piave. This defeat produced changes in the Italian high command. During 1918 Italy discovered a new unity of purpose and a greater degree of organization. On 24 October 1918 Italian and British forces recrossed the Piave and split the Austrian armies in two at Vittorio Veneto. Austrian retreat turned into rout and then into surrender.
In the Balkans the Serbs fought the Austrians and Bulgarians, suffering massive casualties, including the highest proportion of servicemen killed of any belligerent power. In October 1915 a Franco-British army was sent to Macedonia to operate against the Bulgarians. It struggled to have any influence on the war. The Germans mocked it and declared Salonika to be the biggest internment camp in Europe, but the French and British eventually broke out of the malarial plains into the mountainous valleys of the Vardar and Struma rivers before inflicting defeat on Bulgaria in the autumn of 1918.
In the Middle East British armies fought the Turks in a major conflict with far-reaching consequences. Here the war was characterized by the doggedness of Turkish resistance and by the constant struggle against climate, terrain, and disease. The British attempted to knock Turkey out of the war with an attack on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915, but were compelled to withdraw at the end of the year, having failed to break out from their narrow beach-heads in the face of stubborn Turkish resistance, coordinated by a German general, Liman von Sanders. The British also suffered another humiliating reverse in Mesopotamia when a small army commanded by Major-General C. V. F. Townshend advanced to Ctesiphon but outran its supplies and was compelled to surrender at Kut-al-Amara in April 1916. Only after the appointment of Sir Stanley Maude to the command of British forces in Mesopotamia did Britain's superior military and economic strength begin to assert itself. Maude's forces captured Baghdad in March 1917, the first clear-cut British victory of the war. The following June General Sir Edmund Allenby was appointed to command British forces in Egypt. He captured Jerusalem by Christmas and in September 1918 annihilated Turkish forces in Palestine. Turkey surrendered on 31 October 1918.
The war also found its way to tropical Africa. Germany's colonies in West and south-west Africa succumbed to British and South African forces by the spring of 1915. In East Africa, however, a German army of locally raised black African soldiers commanded by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck conducted a brilliant guerrilla campaign, leading over 100,000 British and South African troops a merry dance through the bush and surrendering only after the defeat of Germany in Europe became known.
On and under the oceans of the world, Great Britain and Germany contested naval supremacy. Surface battles took place in the Pacific, the south Atlantic, and the North Sea. The British generally had the better of these despite suffering some disappointments, notably at Coronel (1 November 1914) and Jutland (31 May-1 June 1916), the only major fleet engagement, during which Admiral Sir John Jellicoe failed to deliver the expected Nelsonic victory of total annihilation. Submarine warfare took place in the North Sea, the Black Sea, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic. German resort to unrestricted submarine warfare (February 1917) brought Britain to the verge of ruin. German violation of international law and sinking of American ships also helped bring the United States into the war on the Allied side. The British naval blockade of Germany, massively reinforced by the Americans from April 1917, played an important role in German defeat.
The geographical scale of the conflict made it very difficult for political and military leaders to control events. The obligations of coalition inhibited strategic independence. Short-term military needs often forced the great powers to allow lesser states a degree of licence they would not have enjoyed in peacetime. Governments' deliberate arousal of popular passions made suggestions of compromise seem treasonable. The ever-rising cost of the military means inflated the political ends. Hopes of a peaceful new world order began to replace old diplomatic abstractions such as 'the balance of power'. Rationality went out of season. War aims were obscured. Strategies were distorted. Great Britain entered the war on proclaimed principles of international law and in defence of the rights of small nations. By 1918 the British government was pursuing a Middle Eastern policy of naked imperialism (in collaboration with the French), while simultaneously encouraging the aspirations of Arab nationalism and promising support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was truly a war of illusions.
Europe's political and military leaders have been subjected to much retrospective criticism for their belief that the war would be over by Christmas'. This belief was not based on complacency. Even those who predicted with chilling accuracy the murderous nature of First World War battlefields, such as the Polish banker Jan Bloch, expected the war to be short. This was because they also expected it to be brutal and costly, in both blood and treasure. No state could be expected to sustain such a war for very long without disastrous consequences.
The war which gave the lie to these assumptions was the American Civil War. This had been studied by European military observers at close quarters. Most, however, dismissed it. This was particularly true of the Prussians. Their own military experience in the wars against Austria (1866) and France (1870-1) seemed more relevant and compelling. These wars were both short. They were also instrumental. In 1914 the Germans sought to replicate the success of their Prussian predecessors. They aimed to fight a 'cabinet war' on the Bismarckian model. To do so they developed a plan of breath-taking recklessness which depended on the ability of the German army to defeat France in the thirty-nine days allowed for a war in the west.
Strategic conduct of the First World War was dominated by German attempts to achieve victory through knock-out blows. Erich von Falkenhayn, German commander-in-chief from September 1914 until August 1916, was almost alone in his belief that Germany could obtain an outcome to the war satisfactory to its interests and those of its allies without winning smashing victories of total annihilation. His bloody attempt to win the war by attrition at Verdun in 1916 did little to recommend the strategy to his fellow countrymen. The preference for knock-out blows remained. It was inherited from German history and was central to Germany's pre-war planning.
Pre-war German strategy was haunted by the fear of a war on two fronts, against France in the west and Russia in the east. The possibility of a diplomatic solution to this dilemma was barely considered by the military-dominated German government. A military solution was sought instead. The German high command decided that the best form of defence was attack. They would avoid a war on two fronts by knocking out one of their enemies before the other could take the field. The enemy with the slowest military mobilization was Russia. The French army would be in the field first. France was therefore chosen to receive the first blow. Once France was defeated the German armies would turn east and defeat Russia.
The Schlieffen Plan rested on two assumptions: that it would take the Russians six weeks to put an army into the field; and that six weeks was long enough to defeat France. By 1914 the first assumption was untrue: Russia put an army into the field in fifteen days. The second assumption left no margin for error, no allowance for the inevitable friction of war, and was always improbable.
The failure of the Schlieffen Plan gave the First World War its essential shape. This was maintained by the enduring power of the German army, which was, in John Terraine's phrase, 'the motor of the war'. The German army was a potent instrument. It had played a historic role in the emergence of the German state. It enjoyed enormous prestige. It was able to recruit men of talent and dedication as officers and NCOs. As a result it was well trained and well led. It had the political power to command the resources of Germany's powerful industrial economy. Germany's position at the heart of Europe meant that it could operate on interior lines of communication in a European war. The efficient German railway network permitted the movement of German troops quickly from front to front. The superior speed of the locomotive over the ship frustrated Allied attempts to use their command of the sea to operate effectively against the periphery of the Central Powers. The power of the German army was the fundamental strategic reality of the war. 'We cannot hope to win this war until we have defeated the German army,' wrote the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. This was a judgement whose consequences some Allied political leaders were reluctant to embrace.
The German army suffered from two important strategic difficulties. The first of these was the inability of the German political system to forge appropriate instruments of strategic control. The second was Great Britain. German government rested on the tortured personality of the Kaiser. It was riven by intrigue and indecision. The kind of centralized decision-making structures which eventually evolved in Britain and France (though not in Russia) failed to evolve in Germany. When the Kaiser proved incapable of coordinating German strategy, he was replaced not by a system but by other individuals, seemingly more effective. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg radiated calm and inspired confidence. This gave him the appearance of a great man but without the substance. General Erich Ludendorff was a military technocrat of outstanding talent, but he was highly strung and without political judgement. In 1918 his offensive strategy brought Germany to ruin.
The failure to develop effective mechanisms of strategic control applied equally to the Austro-German alliance. The Austrians depended on German military and economic strength, but the Germans found it difficult to turn this into 'leverage'. Austria was willing to take German help but not German advice. Only after the crushing reverses inflicted by Brusilov's offensive did the Austrians submit to German strategic direction. By then it was almost certainly too late.
Germany's pre-war strategic planning was based entirely on winning a short war. British belligerency made this unlikely. The British were a naval rather than a military power. They could not be defeated by the German army, at least not quickly. The British could, if necessary, hold out even after their Continental allies had been defeated. They might even have chosen to do this. They had in the past and they would again in the not-too-distant future. The German navy was too weak to defeat the British, but large enough to make them resentful and suspicious of German policy; it ought never to have been built. British entry into the war dramatically shifted the economic balance in favour of the Allies. Britain was one of the world's great industrial powers. Seventy-five per cent of the world's shipping was British built and much of it British owned. London was the world's greatest money and commodities market. British access to world supplies of food and credit and to imperial resources of manpower made them a formidable enemy, despite the 'contemptible little army' which was all they could put into the field on the outbreak of war. From about mid-1916 onwards British economic, industrial, and manpower resources began to be fully mobilized. Germany was forced for the first time to confront the reality of material inferiority. Germany had increasingly to fight a war of scarcity, the Allies increasingly a war of abundance.
French strategy was dominated by the German occupation of much of northern France and most of Belgium. At its closest point the German line was less than 40 miles from Paris. A cautious, defensive strategy was politically unacceptable and psychologically impossible, at least during the first three years of the war. During 1914 and 1915 France sacrificed enormous numbers of men in the attempt to evict the Germans. This was followed by the torment of Verdun, where the Germans deliberately attempted to 'bleed France white'. French fears of military inferiority were confirmed. If France was to prevail its allies would have to contribute in kind. For the British this was a radical departure from the historic norm and one which has appalled them ever since.
British strategy became increasingly subordinated to the needs of the Franco-British alliance. The British fought the war as they had to, not as they wanted to. The British way in warfare envisaged a largely naval war. A naval blockade would weaken Germany economically. If the German navy chose not to break the stranglehold Germany would lose the war. If it did choose to fight it would be annihilated. British maritime superiority would be confirmed. Neutral opinion would be cowed. Fresh allies would be encouraged into the fight. The blockade would be waged with greater ruthlessness. Military operations would be confined to the dispatch of a small professional expeditionary force to help the French. Remaining military forces would be employed on the periphery of the Central Powers remote from the German army, where it was believed they would exercise a strategic influence out of all proportion to their size.
The British never really fought the war they envisaged. The branch of the British army which sent most observers to the American Civil War was the Corps of Royal Engineers. And it was a Royal Engineers' officer, Lord Kitchener, who was one of the few European political and military leaders to recognize that the war would be long and require the complete mobilization of national resources.
Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War on 5 August 1914. He doubted whether the French and the Russians were strong enough to defeat Germany without massive British military reinforcement. He immediately sought to raise a mass citizen army. There was an overwhelming popular response to his call to arms. Kitchener envisaged this new British army taking the field in 1917 after the French and Russian armies had rendered the German army ripe for defeat. They would be 'the last million men'. They would win the war and decide the peace. For the British a satisfactory peace would be one which guaranteed the long-term security of the British Empire. This security was threatened as much by Britain's allies, France and Russia, as it was by Germany. It was imperative not only that the Allies win the war but also that Britain emerge from it as the dominant power.
Kitchener's expectations were disappointed. By 1916 it was the French army which was ripe for defeat, not the German. But the obligations of the French alliance were inescapable. The British could not afford to acquiesce in a French defeat. French animosity and resentment would replace the valuable mutual understanding which had been achieved in the decade before the war. The French had a great capacity for making imperial mischief. And so did the Russians. If they were abandoned they would have every reason for doing so. There seemed no choice. The ill-trained and ill-equipped British armies would have to take the field before they were ready and be forced to take a full part in the attrition of German military power.
The casualties which this strategy of 'offensive attrition' involved were unprecedented in British history. They were also unacceptable to some British political leaders. Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George (Prime Minister from December 1916), in particular, were opposed to the British army 'chewing barbed wire' on the Western Front. They looked to use it elsewhere, against Germany's allies in the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Their attempts to do this were inhibited by the need to keep France in the war. This could only be done in France and by fighting the German army. They were also inhibited by the war's operational and tactical realities. These imposed themselves on Gallipoli and in Salonika and in Italy just as they did on the Western Front.
Attempts to implement an Allied grand strategy enjoyed some success. Allied political and military leaders met regularly. At Chantilly in December 1915 and December 1916 they determined to stretch the German army to its limits by simultaneous offensive action on the western, eastern, and Italian fronts. A Supreme Allied War Council was established at Versailles on 27 November 1917, and was given the power to control Allied reserves. Franco-British co-operation was especially close. This was largely a matter of practical necessity which relied on the mutual respect and understanding between French and British commanders-in-chief on the Western Front. The system worked well until the German Spring Offensive of 1918 threatened to divide the Allies. Only then was it replaced by a more formal structure. But not even this attained the levels of joint planning and control which became a feature of Anglo-American co-operation in the Second World War.
Allied grand strategy was conceptually sound. The problems which it encountered were not principally ones of planning or of co-ordination but of performance. Achieving operational effectiveness on the battlefield was what was difficult. This has given the war, especially the war in the west, its enduring image of boneheaded commanders wantonly sacrificing the lives of their men in fruitless pursuit of impossibly grandiose strategic designs.
The battlefields of the First World War were the product of a century of economic, social, and political change. Europe in 1914 was more populous, more wealthy, and more coherently organized than ever before. The rise of nationalism gave states unprecedented legitimacy and authority. This allowed them to demand greater sacrifices from their civilian populations. Improvements in agriculture reduced the numbers needed to work on the land and provided a surplus of males of military age. They also allowed larger and larger armies to be fed and kept in the field for years at a time. Changes in administrative practice brought about by the electric telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter, and the growth of railways allowed these armies to be assembled and deployed quickly. Industrial technology provided new weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. Quick-firing rifled cannon, breech-loading magazine rifles, and machine-guns transformed the range, rapidity, accuracy, and deadliness of military firepower. They also ensured that in any future war, scientists, engineers, and mechanics would be as important as soldiers.
These changes did much to make the First World War the first 'modern war'. But it did not begin as one. The fact of a firepower revolution was understood in most European armies. The consequences of it were not. The experience of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) appeared to offer a human solution to the problems of the technological battlefield. Victory would go to the side with the best-trained, most disciplined army, commanded by generals of iron resolution, prepared to maintain the offensive in the face of huge losses. As a result the opening battles of the war were closer in conception and execution to those of the Napoleonic era than to the battles of 1916 onwards.
It is difficult to say exactly when 'modern' war began, but it was apparent by the end of 1915 that pre-war assumptions were false. Well-trained, highly disciplined French, German, and Russian soldiers of high morale were repeatedly flung into battle by commanders of iron resolve. The results were barren of strategic achievement. The human costs were immense. The 'human solution' was not enough. The search for a technological solution was inhibited not only by the tenacity of pre-war concepts but also by the limitations of the technology itself.
The principal instrument of education was artillery. And the mode of instruction was experience. Shell-fire was merciless to troops in the open. The response was to get out of the open and into the ground. Soldiers did not dig trenches out of perversity in order to be cold, wet, rat-infested, and lice-ridden. They dug them in order to survive. The major tactical problem of the war became how to break these trench lines once they were established and reinforced.
For much of the war artillery lacked the ability to find enemy targets, to hit them accurately, and to destroy them effectively. Contemporary technology failed to provide a man-portable wireless. Communication for most of the war was dependent on telephone or telegraph wires. These were always broken by shell-fire and difficult to protect. Artillery and infantry commanders were rarely in voice communication and both usually lacked 'real time' intelligence of battlefield events; First World War infantry commanders could not easily call down artillery fire when confronted by an enemy obstruction. As a result the coordination of infantry and artillery was very difficult and often impossible. Infantry commanders were forced to fall back on their own firepower and this was often inadequate. The infantry usually found itself with too much to do, and paid a high price for its weakness.
Artillery was not only a major part of the problem, however. It was also a major part of the solution. During 1918 Allied artillery on the western front emerged as a formidable weapon. Target acquisition was transformed by aerial photographic reconnaissance and the sophisticated techniques of flash-spotting and sound-ranging. These allowed mathematically predicted fire, or map-shooting. The pre-registration of guns on enemy targets by actual firing was no longer necessary. The possibility of surprise returned to the battlefield. Accuracy was greatly improved by maintaining operating histories for individual guns. Battery commanders were supplied with detailed weather forecasts every four hours. Each gun could now be individually calibrated according to its own peculiarities and according to wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity. All types and calibres of guns, including heavy siege howitzers whose steep angle of fire was especially effective in trench warfare, became available in virtually unlimited numbers. Munitions were also improved. Poison gas shells became available for the first time in large numbers. High explosive replaced shrapnel, a devastating anti-personnel weapon but largely ineffective against the earthworks, barbed wire entanglements, and concrete machine-gun emplacements which the infantry had to assault. Instantaneous percussion fuses concentrated the explosive effect of shells more effectively against barbed wire and reduced the cratering of the battlefield which had often rendered the forward movement of supplies and reinforcements difficult if not impossible. Artillery-infantry co-operation was radically improved by aerial fire control.
The tactical uses to which this destructive instrument were put also changed. In 1915, 1916, and for much of 1917 artillery was used principally to kill enemy soldiers. It always did so, sometimes in large numbers. But it always spared some, even in front-line trenches. These were often enough, as during the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), to inflict disastrous casualties on attacking infantry and bring an entire offensive to a halt. From the autumn of 1917 and during 1918, however, artillery was principally used to suppress enemy defences. Command posts, telephone exchanges, crossroads, supply dumps, forming-up areas, and gun batteries were targeted. Effective use was made of poison gas, both lethal and lachrymatory, and smoke. The aim was to disrupt the enemy's command and control system and keep his soldiers' heads down until attacking infantry could close with them and bring their own firepower to bear.
The attacking infantry were also transformed. In 1914 the British soldier went to war dressed like a gamekeeper in a soft cap, armed only with rifle and bayonet. In 1918 he went into battle dressed like an industrial worker in a steel helmet, protected by a respirator against poison gas, armed with automatic weapons and mortars, supported by tanks and ground-attack aircraft, and preceded by a creeping artillery barrage of crushing intensity. Firepower replaced manpower as the instrument of victory. This represented a revolution in the conduct of war.
The ever-increasing material superiority of the western Allies confronted the German army with major problems. Its response was organizational. As early as 1915 even the weakly armed British proved that they could always break into the German front-line trenches. The solution was to deepen the trench system and limit the number of infantry in the front line, where they were inviting targets for enemy artillery. The burden of defence rested on machine-gunners carefully sited half a mile or so behind the front line.
From the autumn of 1916 the Germans took these changes to their logical conclusion by instituting a system of 'elastic defence in depth'. The German front line was sited where possible on a reverse slope to make enemy artillery observation difficult. A formal front-line trench system was abandoned. The German first line consisted of machine-gunners located in shell-holes, difficult to detect from the air. Their job was to disrupt an enemy infantry assault. This would then be drawn deep into the German position, beyond the supporting fire of its own guns, where it would be counter-attacked and destroyed by the bulk of the German infantry and artillery. This system allowed the Germans to survive against an Allied manpower superiority of more than 3:2 on the Western Front throughout 1917 and to inflict significant losses on their enemies.
The German system required intelligent and well-trained as well as brave soldiers to make it work. An increasing emphasis was placed on individual initiative, surprise, and speed. In 1918 specially trained stormtroops', supported by a hurricane bombardment designed to disrupt their enemies' lines of communication and their command and control systems, were ordered to bypass points of resistance and advance deep into the enemy's rear. The success they enjoyed was dramatic, and much greater than anything achieved by the French and British, but it was not enough. Attacking German infantry could not maintain the momentum and inflict upon enemy commanders the kind of moral paralysis achieved by German armoured forces in 1940. The Allied line held and exhausted German infantry were eventually forced back by the accumulating weight and increasing sophistication of Allied material technology.
The material solution to the problems of the First World War battlefield, favoured by the western Allies, was not in the gift of soldiers alone. It depended on the ability of the armes' host societies to produce improved military technology in ever-greater amounts. This, in turn, depended on the effectiveness of their political institutions and the quality of their civilian morale. It was a contest at which the liberal democracies of France and Great Britain (and eventually the United States of America) proved more adept than the authoritarian regimes of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia.
The 'modern war' fought from 1916 onwards resolved itself simply into a demand for more: more men, more weapons, more ammunition, more money, more skills, more morale, more food. Some of the demands were contradictory. More men meant more men for the armies and more men for the factories. Balancing the competing demands was never easy. 'Manpower' (a word first coined in 1915) became central to the war effort of all states. The Allies were in a much stronger position than Germany. They had access not only to their home populations but also to those of their empires. 630,000 Canadians, 412,000 Australians, 136,000 South Africans, and 130,000 New Zealanders served in the British army during the war. Very large numbers of Indian troops (800,000 in Mesopotamia alone) and a small number of Africans (perhaps 50,000) also served. (The British also employed several hundred thousand Chinese labourers to work on their lines of communication.) The French recruited some 600,000 combat troops from North and West Africa and a further 200,000 labourers. And of course there were the Americans. American troops arrived in France at the rate of 150,000 a month in 1918. Truly the new world had come in to redress the balance of the old.
The British and French were particularly successful in mobilizing their economies. In Britain this had much to do with the work of David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions (May 1915-July 1916). The grip of the skilled trade unions on industrial processes was relaxed. Ancient lines of demarcation were blurred. Women replaced men in the factories. Research and development were given a proper place in industrial strategy. Prodigies of production were achieved. On 10 March 1915, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British Expeditionary Force struggled to accumulate enough shells for half an hour's bombardment. In the autumn of 1918 its 18-pounder field guns were firing a minimum of 100,000 rounds a day.
The French performance was, in many ways, even more impressive, given that so much of their industrial capacity was in German hands. Not only did the French economy supply the French army with increasing amounts of old and new weaponry, but it also supplied most of the American Expeditionary Force's artillery and aeroplanes. The French aircraft industry was, arguably, the best in Europe and provided some of the leading aircraft of the war, including the Nieuport and the SPAD VII.
Morale was also a key factor. All sides tried to explain and justify the war and used increasingly refined techniques of propaganda to maintain commitment to the cause. Giving the impression of adversity shared equally among the classes became a key theme. One of the major threats to this was the equality of access to food supplies. In Germany this proved increasingly difficult to maintain. Morale deteriorated and industrial efficiency suffered as a result. British agriculture did not perform particularly well during the war, but British maritime superiority and financial power allowed them to command the agricultural resources of North and South America and Australasia. Food was one of the Allies principal war-winning weapons. The degree of active resistance to the war was low in most countries. But war-weariness set in everywhere by 1917. There were many strikes and much industrial unrest. In Russia this was severe enough to produce a revolution and then a Bolshevik coup d�tat which took Russia out of the war in 1918.
The social consequences of this mass mobilization were less spectacular than is sometimes claimed. There were advances for the organized working class, especially its trade unions, especially in Britain, and arguably for women, but the working class of Europe paid a high price on the battlefield for social advances at home. And in the defeated states there was very little social advance anyway.
The First World War redrew the map of Europe and the Middle East. Four great empires, the Romanov, the Hohenzollern, the Habsburg, and the Ottoman, were defeated and collapsed. They were replaced by a number of weak and sometimes avaricious successor states. Russia underwent a bloody civil war before the establishment of a Communist Soviet Union which put it beyond the pale of European diplomacy for a generation. Germany became a republic branded at its birth with the stigma of defeat, increasingly weakened by the burden of Allied reparations and by inflation. France recovered the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, but continued to be haunted by fear and loathing of Germany. Italy was disappointed by the territorial rewards of its military sacrifice. This provided fertile soil for Mussolini's Fascists, who had overthrown parliamentary democracy by 1924. The British maintained the integrity and independence of Belgium. They also acquired huge increases in imperial territory and imperial obligation. But they did not achieve the security for the Empire which they sought. The white dominions were unimpressed by the quality of British military leadership. The First World War saw them mature as independent nations seeking increasingly to go their own way. The stirrings of revolt in India were apparent as soon as the war ended. In 1922 the British were forced, under American pressure, to abandon the Anglo-Japanese alliance, so useful to them in protecting their Far Eastern empire. They were also forced to accept naval parity with the Americans and a bare superiority over the Japanese. 'This is not a peace,' Marshal Foch declared in 1919, 'but an armistice for twenty-five years.'
The cost of all this in human terms was 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded out of some 65 million men mobilized. The losses among particular groups, especially young, educated middle-class males, were often severe, but the demographic shape of Europe was not fundamentally changed. The real impact was moral. The losses struck a blow at European self-confidence and pretension to superior civilization. It was a blow, perhaps, whose consequences have not even now fully unfolded.
From The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War. Ed. Charles Townshend. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Copyright � 1997 by Oxford University Press.
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