Sunday, August 10, 2014

An Incomprehensible War

A fabulous article by Peter Hitchens:
Germany in 1914 hardly cared about Britain at all, and quite reasonably could not understand why London entered the war. It was more or less incomprehensible. To this day it is hard to see any British interest that was served, and dozens that were damaged. The British Cabinet had never been consulted about the secret military and naval pacts that were the true reason for London’s declaration of war. Had it been asked, it would have forbidden them. The violation of Belgian neutrality, the populist pretext, was of no real importance. Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s most warlike and cocksure national leaders in modern times, slithered out of a much more specific commitment to Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of 1864. Britain worried over Alfred von Tirpitz’s powerful new navy, which as it turned out played hardly any part in the conflict, because the empire Germany sought was reached by land, not by sea—and as the Kaiser himself was fond of joking, “Dreadnoughts have no wheels.” In one of the great paradoxes of our age, it would be the U.S. Navy that eventually supplanted British sea power, and America that wound up the British Empire and dethroned the Pound Sterling, while the two countries were fighting on the same side.  

What in fact caused the whole problem was France, still refusing to recognize the unpalatable truth that she did not have the men or the industrial strength to prevent Germany’s dominating Europe. 

After 1870, this was what needed to be resolved. France, in her pride, would not do the sensible thing and accede to reality. Only by pulling Russia into combat, or later by dragging the U.S. into the war, could Germany be prevented from asserting its natural dominance. It was a hopeless and dangerous delusion of Napoleonic grandeur, well-symbolized by the absurd scarlet and blue uniforms, perfect targets for German guns, in which legions of French soldiers rushed to their deaths in mad, suicidal attacks in August 1914. Max Hastings rightly reminds us of these forgotten battles, at least as wasteful of life as the more famous butchery on the Somme. They achieved absolutely nothing important against Germany’s modern, camouflaged army. Nor did the gallantry of the Belgians who held on to their forts at Liege under the most terrifying bombardment yet inflicted on human beings. Nor did Britain’s tiny, colonial field force, whose supreme commander was one of the most pitiful incompetents in military history. What saved France in 1914 was the simple fact that it is virtually impossible to win a quick war on two fronts. The diversion of important units to the east, to fight a Russian advance, prevented a German triumph.

The question we must ask, over and over again, is whether this was a pity. Max Hastings argues that a German-dominated Europe in 1914 would have been grim and oppressive, and would have threatened Britain (and so the rest of the world). (Read more.)

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