A dead soldier in a trench at the Battle of the Somme
By Simon Heffer
Today is the 99th anniversary of the decision by the British Government to declare war on Germany. A conflict between France and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria on the other at once, because of the British Empire, went global. The Great War had begun.
The countdown to its centenary is under way, with an announcement due tomorrow from Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, about how Britain will mark the event. Squadrons of historians, of varying degrees of rigour, have been enlisted to advise her.
Even though the war has virtually passed out of living memory, the scale of the human losses it caused continues to shock each generation that learns of them – which partly explains why the acts of remembrance each November remain so well observed, and so moving.
Bravery: British soldiers carry a stretcher in the mud of Passchendaele
An estimated 1.15 million men from the British Empire died, 887,000 from the United Kingdom alone.
About two million Russians and almost 1.4 million French were killed too. On the other side, over two million Germans lost their lives, as did 1.1 million from Austria-Hungary and 770,000 from the Ottoman Empire.
That human devastation alone is ample reason to commemorate the centenary. But there is no cause for celebration.
We should, instead, consider the terrible consequences of Britain’s decision to defend Belgian neutrality in August 1914 and to offer support to France against a German assault.
The result of our intervention was not just all those dead; indeed, not just all those hundreds of thousands of bereaved parents, widows and orphaned children. Nor was it just whole communities with the heart torn out, and the flower of British youth largely destroyed.
Britain’s decision to fight also helped create a massive, four-year conflict that wrecked the old order in Europe, fomented revolution and destroyed much of the prosperity that had been the great achievement of the preceding half-century. And it created the conditions for Nazism and Stalinism, with all they entailed.
The Second World War was an even more savage extension of the First. And the Cold War that followed it was an inevitable consequence of a clash of ideologies that stemmed from decisions taken in 1914. It is no exaggeration that almost all the rest of the 20th Century was blighted by the effects of the Great War. And, worst of all, it need not have happened.
Troops: First World War party of Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench on the first day of the Battle of the Somme
France had goaded Prussia into a war in 1870 that Gladstone, then the British Prime Minister, had taken every precaution to keep Britain out of.
That war cemented German power – the King of Prussia was crowned Emperor of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the historic palace of French monarchy, upon his country’s victory in January 1871 – but life soon returned to normal, with a minor loss of French territory.
We had the option of neutrality in 1914, too. Indeed, the Liberal cabinet of H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister since 1908, was initially opposed to intervention in the European crisis of July 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Serb terrorists.
'It is no exaggeration that almost all the rest of the 20th Century was blighted by the effects of the Great War. And, worst of all, it need not have happened'
Britain in 1914 was already in decline as a manufacturing nation, the activity that had been the basis of its economic power since the late 18th Century. It remained, however, the predominant commercial nation and the City of London, then as now, was the old world’s financial hub. But the Germans – then, as now, a manufacturing powerhouse – had been agitated by Britain’s conclusion of the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and by the Triple Entente of 1908 between Britain, France and Russia. The Kaiser inspired the anger and mistrust of the British by complaining about ‘encirclement’ – but he had a point.
Some bellicose Germans wanted war against Britain, believing the Second Reich would be secure only once the Kaiser’s army and navy had confirmed their supremacy in Europe.
However, German documents – quoted in detail by Cambridge’s Professor Christopher Clark in his magisterial work on the war, The Sleepwalkers – show just how desperate the Germans were in July 1914 to localise conflict.
The Kaiser and his Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, believed Austria would overpower Serbia quickly. They also believed there was no appetite in France or Russia to intervene to support Serbia – and they were relieved to think this.
British infantrymen occupying a shallow trench in a ruined landscape before an advance during the Battle of the Somme
This conflicts with the view that Germany was desperately looking for an excuse to start a fight and that we had to stop them controlling Europe.
As far as the Germans were concerned, their hegemony over Europe was a matter of fact, not of aspiration. They had no territorial ambitions, but wanted to consolidate their wealth and industrial dominance.
Too many who interpret the First World War are affected by what they know of the Second. Kaiser Wilhelm II was not Hitler and he lacked Hitler’s megalomania.
As late as July 27, 1914, the Kaiser believed the response by the Serbs to an Austrian ultimatum ‘does away with any need for war’. He was ‘astonished’ to hear that the Austrians had ordered a partial mobilisation.
What panicked the Germans was a Russian mobilisation done in response to Austria’s and, because of primitive communications, unstoppable. But many in Britain still did not want war.
The Kaiser’s cousin, King George V, told Prince Henry of Prussia: ‘We have no quarrel with anyone, and I hope we shall remain neutral.’
King George, often mocked for his supposed stupidity, was wiser then than he realised. The King knew that if Germany declared war on Russia, and France sided with Russia, Britain could be ‘dragged into it’. The City of London, fearing catastrophic economic consequences, begged Asquith to keep Britain out. But the Conservative Party pressured the Liberal Government, because they hoped a war would stop Irish home rule from being implemented.
The Easter Rising, decades of Anglo-Irish enmity and the cancer of IRA terrorism were but minor consequences of a war Britain didn’t need to fight.
As well as having to fight or manage Nazism and Stalinism, Britain also eventually lost her Empire, was driven to the verge of bankruptcy and surrendered power in the English-speaking world to America.
Had we stayed out, Germany would have been in Paris by Christmas. Russia would not have stayed in the fight alone.
Britain’s strong commercial interests in Germany would have ensured a reasonable partnership between the two nations. Much of the rest of the 20th Century might not have happened as it did.
So there is little to celebrate next year. But there is much to commemorate.
The nobility of sacrifice, with such futility, is foremost among those things. And we should note that, 99 years on, the most powerful nation in Europe, with wide economic hegemony, is Germany.
And another lesson resonates today as in 1918: of ‘war, and the pity of war’, and the tragic fallibility of politicians who play God with the lives of brave men.