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Thursday, 05 June 2008


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Well done in recovering your lost masterpiece from typepad - or was it your Carlyle moment, contriving to write an improved version after disaster struck.

Just a brief comment. I agree with your conclusion although, seeing the deleterious effects British intervention had on my family and my wife's family (and a million other families in the UK), I am glad we have the luxury of being able to view the events from a distance of almost 100 years.

I don't recall (if I ever knew!) whether the British knew the details of the Schlieffen Plan. However "brilliant" the plan was, an inescapable feature of it was the violation of Belgian neutrality. I've always thought it likely that had Grey made it crystal clear in July/August 1914 that were Belgian neutrality to be violated (even with the connivance of the Belgians) Britain would intervene, then the Germans would possibly had second thoughts.

Nevertheless this would have postponed "Der Tag", not cancelled it. For instance, according to Norman Stone, among others, in 1914 the Germans were panicking about the growth - and the growing effectiveness - of the Russian army. Accordingly a day of reckoning (with Russia if nobody else) before 1917 was a target of the German General Staff. This is no place to discuss the blame for WW1 but it does seem to me that Germany effectively giving Austria-Hungary a free hand vis-a-vis Serbia (and thus Russia) after the assassination was not the policy required if Germany sincerely wanted to preserve continental peace.

Coming to your point about a possible modus vivendi. We only have the Treaty of Brest Litovsk as an example of what Germany would have negotiated had it been in a position of strength. This doesn't give me much optimism that a reasonable modus vivendi could have been agreed let alone lasted unless it comprised an effective surrender of British interests in Europe and elsewhere. At that time Britain was not in the business of surrendering what it saw as vital interests and I suspect finessing a more subtle modus vivendi with the then German government would not have been possible.

Thank you, 'Umbongo', for your praise of my regurgitation! Actually, as so often, I think it was slightly less rambling than my first effort - hard though that might be to believe!

No, I'm certain the British did not know of the German plan of attack in any detail, although a swing through Belgium was suspected long before and is pretty obvious given that the French army was massed opposite Alsace Lorraine waiting for their 'Der Tag'! Originally, as I suspect you know, Schlieffen wanted to go through Holland as well, and then pass *west* of Paris before coming down and behind the French army.

This question of whether or not to violate Belgium is at the heart of deciding the nature of the German leadership. They knew that such a violation would almost certainly bring Britain into the war, but the General Staff also knew that any attempt to butt their way, head to head, directly through the massed French army would be painful, expensive and above all - *slow*! I stress that because they knew that they would be facing a war on two fronts and they had to destroy the French quickly in order to train their armies back across to the east to deal with the slower moving Russian army. In a way, you can see that it was the militarily correct solution to the problem, the sort of thing that would earn high marks in a staff college exam, but the international military, political and economic ramifications were immense and virtually ignored by the Generals. A Bismarck would not have made that mistake!

From the dizzy strategic heights of my former rank in the army, er, corporal, since you ask, I wonder whether they would have done better to hold off the French on the relatively short common frontier in Alsace Lorraine, an exceedingly hilly, not to say mountainous, area ideal for defence; then pulverise the Russians who, whilst they had improved their army, were still woefully short of the sort of expertise available to the Germans. That achieved, the Germans could have turned their attentions to the French. Britain would almost certainly have stayed neutral. Sorry, another 'what if'.

As I said before, the danger of big, powerful states making treaty alliances with smaller powers is that of the tail wagging the dog. Grey carefully avoided it vis-a-vis us and the French.

Wasn't German military thinking obsessed with the avoidance of war on two fronts? The Schlieffen Plan was the mirror-image of your suggestion (ie stay put in A-L and pulverise the Russians) and was stay put in East Prussia and pulverise the French. This is exactly what the Germans tried to do.

Also, I wonder how seriously the Germans took the possible British reaction to the violation of Belgium. Since the Germans thought the 1839 treaty creating Belgium and encapsulating its neutrality was a scrap of paper the notorious lack of empathy endemic in German diplomacy might have resulted in Germany thinking that Britain (in a display of realpolitik more typical of Germany) thought the same way. Accordingly, an "official" warning from Grey early on in the crisis might have had some effect. As it was the question of Belgian neutrality was as good an excuse as any (and better than most) for Britain to counter militarily the threat that Germany was (or certainly would become) to Britain's interests.

Yes, they were obsessed with the threat of a war on two fronts which is why Bismarck made such efforts to keep Russia sweet and out of the arms her potential French suiter. By 1914, of course, that was as dead as Bismarck and France and Russia were, so to speak, 'engaged'.

Where I *think* the Germans went wrong is in their determination to be the attacker. This is part of their historical heritage. The ancient lands that now constitute Prussia are as flat as the proverbial witch's tit and wide open to any any aggressor, so from their earliest history it became engrained into their military psyche to attack first and not wait for an enemy to attack. Clausewitze spelled out the advantages of attacking first - you can choose your time, your place and you have time to build up huge forces in the right place. He also pointed out the disadvantages, that is, the attacker is never again as strong as the first minute of his attack because there-after he becomes progressively weaker and the defender, assuming he has not been anihilated, grows stronger - precisely what happened from 1914 to 1918, and also the reason why I give my talk on the subject the title of: "How the Germans Lost WWI in the First 8 Weeks".

My understanding is that the neutrality of Belgium was as useful, or useless, to both parties. The Germans certainly paid it no heed and even the British contemplated breeching it if the need arose, for example, if the Germans had attacked in the south and driven the French back, a BEF might well have been launched through Belgium in order to outflank the Germans.

I think the Germans knew that violation of Belgium would bring Britain in, but they didn't care. They thought the imput would be puny (remember Bismarck's threat to send the local police to arrest the British army!) or late or both, but in any event the French would be defeated in 8 weeks and then the British would have to decide whether to carry on or cut a deal.

"the French would be defeated in 8 weeks"

Good point: if von Moltke had gone to the West of Paris (again, wasn't his failure to do this connected with him assigning more troops to the Eastern Front than envisaged in the original plan?) it's possible the plan wiould have worked and the French routed a la 1870. Mind you the German army was totally exhausted by then - most of them had walked to the Marne - so victory even then was not inevitable. But coming back to your comment: there would have been little point in Britain continuing the war if France had been beaten in August/September 1914: this wasn't a pre-play of 1940. An armistice followed by a penal settlement on France would have been a possible outcome - but now we're back to "what-ifs".

Yes, I think given what we now know of the state of the 1st and 2nd German armies on the outside of the wheel, any effort to go west of Paris would have tested their stamina and their logistics to breaking point. On the other hand, the gallant sally from Paris led by Gallieni would not have been possible with an enemy army either side.

As to whether or not Britain would have carried on or cut a deal in the event of France being crushed. I think they certainly would have carried on not least because of their absolute need to keep the German fleet bottled up in Willemshaven. Thus, the outcome of another, different 'Jutland' would have been even more critical than the first.

Additional: One crucial factor I have forgotten to mention - mea culpa! The French fleet was all important to British considerations. If we had gone to the aid of France but failed honourably, perhaps (and bearing in mind what happened in WWII it's a big 'perhaps') the French fleet might have come over to the British or sailed to neutral ports. However, if we had refused to help, then the French fleet might well have fallen into German hands - and that would have been disasterous. Another reason why it was right for us to go in.

Mea culpa too: I've never ever considered the French navy which, according to>this was hardly insignificant. That does shed a different light on matters. In that light your point that Britain would have been seriously concerned at the possibility that the French fleet could have fallen into German hands following a French military debacle and Britain walking is sound. Even given the size of the Royal Navy, it had a global role to play - and keep playing - a major defection by the French fleet to Britain's major naval competitor would have had serious consequences.

However - another what-if - it might have been that (since the guy in charge of the Royal Navy in 1914 and 1940 was the same!), had a substantial French naval defection to Germany been a real danger (as in 1940), the French ships not coming over to the British (or not effectively neutralised) would have been sunk at anchor at its bases. That could have happened whether or not the British continued the war with Germany after a French defeat.

Excellent link - many thanks.

The possibility of sinking the French fleet in 1914 was, I suspect, infinitely more difficult than what occurred at Oran in 1940. For a start our main battlefleet was stationed in Scapa Flow (about as far as away as you could get!) ensuring the Germans could not escape from the North sea. Even worse, we had more or less, departed from the Med, by agreement with France, whilst in return we had promised to protect their nothern Atlantic ports, thus we had very little with which to take on a fairly massive French fleet - as your link indicates.

If the decision had been taken much earlier that on no account would the British land an army in Europe but, instead, would fight a purely naval war then the pre-war naval estimates, already eye-wateringly enormous, would have been larger still - large enough, in fact, to out-armour, out-gun and out-number the combined fleets of Germany and France. That sort of expenditure would have destroyed a Liberal government intent on introducing old-age pensions, unemployment benefits and so forth.

Looks like we were caught between those infamously uncomfortable surfaces - a rock and a hard place!

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