There is a general consensus amongst historians, even the German ones, that Germany began the first world war and must take responsibility for it. They did so because they were utterly confident in a victorious outcome. This confidence stemmed from two sources. First, the German General Staff, a system of command and control of modern armies that had been developed after the Napoleonic wars made clear that one commander, no matter how great, could no longer exert his grip over huge armies numbered in millions. Entry to this august body was strictly by merit proven in examinations. Their approach to warfare was dedicated, highly skilled, even intellectual. This was command by experts. The irony and the tragedy of their total failure should act as a warning to all of us – beware the experts!
The second reason for German confidence was that, like Baldrick, they had “a cunning plan”. This had been developed by their CGS, von Schlieffen, a brilliant but flawed genius with an obsession to go down in history as the executor of a second Cannae. He knew that Germany would face a war on two fronts but shrewdly assessed that the Russians would take an inordinate amount of time to mobilise. Thus, he planned to concentrate almost 90% of the German army in the west, and moreover, with the bulk of that western army deployed in the north in order to carry out a huge right hook, a ‘blitzkrieg’ (lightening war), that would sweep round the French defences, and then turn south to crush them against the Swiss frontier. That done, he would then use the superb German railway system to re-deploy against the Russians.
Right up to the last day of peace Britain was not committed to war unless and until parliament approved. It was, to quote the good, old ‘duke of Boot’ in another context, “A damned fine thing, the finest thing you ever saw.” A large section of the Liberal party were against it, and I suspect they would have won the day except for one thing; Schlieffen’s plan was predicated on his right hook swinging through neutral Belgium. These Liberals, being as soppy then as they are now, were horrified at this flagrant and treacherous breach of neutrality. The more realistic among them knew that Britain could not tolerate an enemy controlling the entire North Sea shoreline, and occupying France as well. It was enough to tip the balance, and the vote went in favour of war. There is an argument to be made that Britain would have done better to stay out of it. However, the international moralists amongst you would have to square the “rape of Belgium” with your consciences, and the realists would have to consider the tremendous dangers of a crushed France under the German heel.
But would France have fallen? To be frank, the jury is out. The tiny British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deployed on the extreme left flank, that is, the crucial flank for the success or failure of the German right hook. Although badly led, they fought well but were forced backwards in order to comply with the French retreat. However, the ‘grit’ was building up in the machine-like advance of the German army, and instead of sweeping round to the west of Paris; they cut the corner and came down the eastern side in an attempt to roll up the entire allied line from north to south. As they did so, an ad hoc force hastily formed in Paris, sallied forth and, in turn, threatened the German flank. The army on the extreme German right wing was forced to turn and deal with it. The next German army down the line continued south and a crucial gap opened. The irascible commander of the BEF, already fed up with what he considered to be French incompetence (if not worse) was minded to pull the BEF out altogether before it was destroyed along with his erstwhile ‘allies’. However, he was prevailed upon to return, and by a sheer fluke, he marched the BEF right into the gap in the German line. Suddenly the Germans realised that they were in danger of losing their entire right flank army, and so their magnificent military machine ground to a halt, went into reverse, and then pulled back. Everyone took up static positions and the trench-digging race to the channel began.
One can say, with the benefit of hindsight that the Germans lost the war in the first two months, but took another four years to admit the fact. The technology of the day would not allow either side to win a conclusive battle. The insuperable problem that all commanders faced was how to get an infantryman, formed of soft flesh and sinew, across 200 yards of open ground against machine guns firing 60 bullets a second? There was no solution until the armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) was invented, but that came too late and was too mechanically unreliable.
The great unanswered question still remains. Just how vital was the contribution of the tiny BEF? Had it not been there would the Germans have advanced even quicker? Without its almost accidental insertion into the gap, would the German commanders have dealt with the eruption from Paris and continued rolling up the French line? No-one, least of all me, can answer that question, but, even admitting that the BEF was miniscule, I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s lines: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for the want of a horse the rider was lost.” Anyway, one is compelled to ask if a responsible government, whose first duty is to protect the country, could afford to stand back and gamble that the French would do what they signally failed to do in 1870/1, and halt the Germans. And those who are convinced that Britain could have stood aloof and alone, must answer the question: How could the Royal navy, that only just outnumbered the German navy, have protected our trade routes and indeed, our shores, if all the French Atlantic ports were in German hands?
WWI was a terrible price to pay, and indeed, seems at first glance to be too high a price – until one considers the alternative; defeat and vassalage to a triumphal German hegemony.