The Great and Unavoidable War
On the eve of the beginning of the First World War we are blessed, or cursed depending on your point of view, with many new and old documentaries dealing with the Great War. Of course originally it was referred to as the “Great War” because we had not yet realized that we enjoyed the carnage so much that we started to number them. Finally after years of waiting and countless boring and pointless Olympics, FIFA, NFL, NHL, baseball, basket ball games etc. wasting good research time filling up the television we will have our moment of glory as these documentaries and discussions about the First World War are presented. Before someone inevitably does a spit take spraying their favourite beer all over their computer screens I shall offer an apology regarding my comment about sports games being pointless. Of course there is a point. As far back as the days of ancient Rome it was recognized that presenting sports games not only entertained but distracted the unwashed masses, the plebeians as it were, from seeing what was actually taking place around them. So for those who may have the attention span of a squirrel, that is to say easily distracted, I have apologized for my rudeness in pointing it out.
Oh, look, something shiny!
Now that I’ve had my fun, I’ll move on to the topic for discussion which is, as the title suggests, whether the Great War was indeed avoidable, as many contest, or an unavoidable consequence resulting from a complex and perhaps naive culture of the times.
Often, over the years, I’ve either read or heard it said that the First World War was totally avoidable. The only war that is avoidable is the one we have yet to have. You can’t avoid something that has already happened; it’s like saying that a vehicle accident could have been avoided. How we often have heard that one; though it does seems to make sense unless you take into account everything that occurred from the start of the day up to and including the point of impact. Position of the sun, time of the day, speed and...was that a squirrel? We can take precautions to avoid an accident or steps not to repeat another mishap and with a little luck prevent the accident that we haven’t had but the one we have experienced, as they say, is history.
If we could travel back in time to the turn of the twentieth century what would we find? What was the political and social atmosphere of the day?
France was still stinging over the loss of territory to Germany as a result of the Franco Prussian War and still in distrust of Britain, Germany and Russia due to their alliance against Napoleon. The British were embroiled in a very unpopular war in South Africa and was being criticised for their involvement by just about everyone outside of their own Empire. The Russians had been a pain in the behind of the British and the French in the Crimea and through their involvement in adding to the hatred of the British Raj in India through Afghanistan resulting in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (First War of Indian Independence?). Fear and distrust were the watch words of the day. It would be quite accurate to suggest that this period in history was not unlike the Cold War of post WW II times, which was experienced by many of the older members here at GMIC.
Add to this atmosphere of international paranoia an arms race and we have what modern man would recognize as the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. The biggest difference being that no one had the common sense to back down. Not to get too side tracked, but I often wonder who the real hero of the Cuban Missile Crises really was. While President Kennedy rightfully prevented the installation of missiles by potentially hostile parties in the very back yard of the U.S.A. it was the Soviet withdrawal that actually prevented an all out war. It really hurts to have to say that and it flies in the face of everything we have learned through decades of James Bond movies.
Back to the topic at hand...darn squirrels. The British had the greatest navy which bothered the Germans considerably and especially the Kaiser, who was the head of the German navy. It would seem that the German government controlled many things in the country but it was the Kaiser who held sway over things military and in particular the German navy. To be fair, the British naturally had the largest navy, after all when you have an empire upon which the sun never sets it only stands to reason that you need a large navy to hold it. The Kaiser feared that the British would use their large navy to control German commerce on the high seas and could threaten the German Naval ports in Europe as well. So the best way to prevent this from happening was to not only match the British but do them one better or even two or three better. Naturally the British couldn’t let the Germans maintain a large navy right in their back yard (see Cuban Missile Crisis) so it was a situation of naval one-ups- man-ship.
While the boys were busy building bigger and better boats, not to mention a lot of them, the diplomats were doing what they do best, diplomacy. Early in the new century (1905) Japan had defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, destroying most of Russia’s Pacific fleet and wiping out the Baltic fleet as they steamed to the aid of the Pacific fleet. The Japanese had made an unannounced pre-emptive strike on Port Arthur destroying the Russian Navy stationed there (can anyone say Pearl Harbour). This left Russia looking for an ally and since Britain had allied herself with Japan Russia turned to France for an alliance. France needed the large military might of Russia in order to offer two fronts to Germany in the chance Germany was to attack France. France also distrusted the British who had been their mortal enemies far back in time to the day when the British had captured Joan of Arc and some cleaver lad decided to burn her at the stake as a witch, rather than imprisoning her as the solidifying or rallying point of the French army. Smart move, now you’ve created a martyr! Then there was the little matter of the Seven Years War and the loss to Britain of Canada and that little matter of the Battle of Waterloo.
German diplomats couldn’t just let things alone either and attempted, as did the British to ally themselves to anyone who would consider it. Even a British/German alliance had been tossed about for a while. In the end Germany allied with Austria Hungary, France with Russia and Russia with Serbia. The British made up with France and formed an alliance and in the end the public must have been quite confused. Just when the comedians in the British music halls had developed ripping racist jokes about the French, their cheese and wine and they had to change their material to include poor imitations of German accents and making jokes about bratwurst sausages und beer.
Europe was poised on the brink of disaster and not unlike a row of dominos was just waiting for the first domino to be tipped over. Who at that time would have thought that the whole thing would be set in motion by a single pistol shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian youth on 28 July 1914?
Was the whole war avoidable? When looking back and knowing what we know now one would be tempted to answer in the affirmative. However, as we today are blind about what is just about to happen and the effects of our actions on the future so were those people at the turn of the twentieth century. I submit that the First World War was, due to the times, unavoidable. It’s much like this. What are you going to do right after that giant meteor that’s heading towards earth strikes us early next month?
Oh, sorry I wasn’t supposed to tell you that...look, over there...a squirrel.