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The Great and Unavoidable War

Brian Wolfe

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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.

Regards
Brian






16 Comments


Brian, another great blog entry. Of course, we've kicked this topic around quite in bit in the forum. I'm in the "nothing is inevitable; we always have choices" camp. But rather than re-debating if WWI was avoidable or not, I prefer to redirect the conclusions to how can we avoid the bad choices. That's the value of the inevitable/avoidable debate. As with military tactics, we often hear "lessons learned." I mentioned previously in another space in a discussion with Bernhard that, in reality, we have few tactical "lessons learned," but plenty of "lessons identified." They are only lessons learned when they are analyzed, adapted, and changes in the way things are done are implemented. The same is true at the operational and strategic levels of warfare, as well as diplomacy. We identify from the past many things that could have been done differently, but unfortunately, we don't "learn" those lessons and history repeats itself. I was particularly struck by this paragraph you wrote...

"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."

You didn't carry the time-line analogy far enough. Fear and distrust are still the watch words of the day. I'd say your description of the pre-WWI era is strikingly similar to today.

France is still stinging from the loss of influence in the world and control of the EU to Germany. Of course, Eastern Europe (Poland et al) are in distrust of Germany/France due to their "alliance" with Russia. The US has been embroiled in an unpopular war (Iraq/Afghanistan) and is criticized by everyone by just about everyone outside their own Empire. The Russians are a pain in everyone's backside...oh, because they are back in Crimea (interesting coincidence).

Oh, and we can add some of the scariest parts of pre-WWII era to the soup. War weariness and Appeasement come to mind. Many would call Princip a terrorist (oh, they had that scourge back then too). Others would hail him as a freedom fighter (oh, many consider jihads in a similar way). So, add those to the pot.

Was WWI inevitable or avoidable? (And I say WWII was a continuation of the first with a strategic pause in between) ((I also say that the Cold War was a continuation of the second with an operational pause in between)) It doesn't matter if WWI was inevitable or unavoidable. It is inevitable to be continued if we don't consider the way it might have been avoided - LEARN the lessons. Change our thinking. Adapt. Otherwise, we risk moving into the Dénouement of this drama, which saw WWI as the First Act.

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Hi Rick,

Thanks for your comments and you'll get no arguments from me on your additional points. While this has truly been a topic covered many times I wanted to reintroduce it due to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the War. In addition I was hoping that it might start some dialogue on the subject, which thankfully, it has. ;)

Regards

Brian

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I am getting to the point of thinking wars never really end they just 'morph' into another one. If WW1 wasn't avoidable at least WW2 should have been off the back of what we should have learned? Man has become like a locust consumming everything, the next wars and the recent wars have been and will be about scarce resourses. Oil, gas and now the new move to Ukraine for the 'bread basket'? I loved the retorhic about only wanting to protect 'ethnic Russian speaking' folk, you couldn't make it up. I wonder if we have another 100 years as a species?

Jock :)

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Hi Jock,

Thanks for your comments.

Perhaps the only blessing for our generation is that we won't last long enough to find out.

From what I've read WWII had its roots in the decisions after the end of WWI. The world slipped back into a state where most people wanted peace at any cost so really WWII may not have been avaoidable either considering the atmosphere of the times. Certainly we have proven that war is not preventable by our actions as a species even as late as yesterday. This blog is getting depressing. ;)

Regards

Brian

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Great post Brian!! Really makes you question if a thing was avoidable. I always wonder what kind of information was available to people in the 1905-1914 time frame. We are so used to instant news, either on the television or newspaper (anyone else still read these? ) If anything happens in the world, we all know about it, fairly accurately, the same day. How did the people in 1910 get their news of current events. Were they even able to get news accurately. I am assuming that small hamlets in France, Germany, Britain, and Russia (let alone the Ottoman Empire) had no way of getting news about what was happening in the world, and were therefore were unable to make an informed opinion. That's were the propaganda came in, which bred distrust. I honestly don't think the world could have avoided WWI, unless the leaders would have pulled back (which in 1914 was impossible). There are a lot of parallels with Europe in 1914 and the US Civil War and the first Battle of Bull Run. People were expecting a "splendid little war" and had no idea what was coming.

I think the next big question should be, once it started---could it have been stopped? Could true American neutrality or cool heads in London/Berlin have stopped the war? (I leave out Paris as France had foreign armies on its land and would have had no choice to keep fighting after the Marne. )

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Hi Chris,

Very good points.

I too am constantly surprised at the number of parrells between then and the events right up to today.

Thanks for adding to this post.

Regards

Brian

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"The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history"

G.W.F. Hegel

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I honestly don't think the world could have avoided WWI, unless the leaders would have pulled back (which in 1914 was impossible).

Chris, I agree with your statement above. But perhaps for a slightly different reason. The "power" to avoid war was indeed in the hands of each nation's leadership. It was "impossible" for them to pull back in 1914 because they didn't want to pull back. They wanted war and had been preparing for some time. It was only a question of when. Sarajevo only provided a spark to light the fuse.

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Brian excellent subject matter - well reasoned out. However, I have to say

that I am entirely on the side of the squirrels !

Throughout history empires have collided - well meaning people have tried

to keep peace - but rarely with any success.

WW1 and WW2 are already distant history to most people - particularly the

younger generation. Who remembers Korea - or, Vietnam ? Perhaps

families of victims but, few could remember individual battles.

We are now well on our way to the next rounds of unnecesary warfare -

the unpleasant Russians under Putin - trying to regain the lost Empire.

The Middle East - the vast majority of Arabs not even knowing who their

enemy is - but driven by leaders who have neither sense or dignity -

just a strong belief that their religion is stronger then any other. The North

Koreans with atomic bombs.......... It just goes on and on - just like the

period that led to WW1.

The Khyber Pass could be bombed permanently closed by the US - but, they fear public opinion more then military reality.

I can only say that I fear for the safety of the World we know - and grew up

in. I don't think it will have the same boundaries and links in 5 years time.

Perhaps the squirrels are the best off - but even they are nasty little critters.

They eat young birds in their nests - I shot 50 in 2 months in my garden in the Uk to protect them. Perhaps a desert island would be best......

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Hi Mervyn,

Thanks for your comments. The world you and I grew up in has gone and the one that took its place might as well have been a century apart from ours as it is so unfamiliar. Not that today isn't as good as the days when we grew up, just different and that is enough to make it seem like a different plannet entirely. As to the First World War I would agree that there were a lot of very good people trying to keep the world from entering into war. Unfortunetly there were more selfish, greedy war mongers that couldn't have cared less about the suffering a European-wide war, which would drag the reast of humanity with it, would cause.

I'll climb down off my "soap box" now.

Regards

Brian

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Perhaps the squirrels are the best off - but even they are nasty little critters.

They eat young birds in their nests - I shot 50 in 2 months in my garden in the Uk to protect them. Perhaps a desert island would be best......

Mervyn, I know you meant this statement in a light hearted manner; however, I think it really gets to the crux of the world's obsession with conflict. No one has ever "grown up" in a "safe world." There have always been and will always be "nasty little critters" and we will always choose sides. In the battle for survival (squirrels have just as much right to survive as birds), you chose a side and became an Iron Dome for the birds. This is not a criticism of your statement, rather more a statement of cynicism on my part.

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Hi Rick and Mervyn,

The cure for squirrels here is hawks, enough of the tree rats are dinner for the raptors that nature seems to balance out quite nicely, at least in my tiny forest behind our home.

I think what made the world of sixty or seventy years ago seem a lot safer to Mervyn and I (I don't mean to speak for you Mervyn) was that we were children and viewed the world through the eyes of a child. War was a glorious adventure and as it has been said the only persuit worthy of a gentleman; or at least that was how we say it. Me with my little wooden sword running up and down the alley beside our home, with my friends, chasing imaginary foes and always victorious with only the occasional skinned knee or sliver from the narrow pieces of lumber we used as our swords to show for any misadventures. While the world did indeed change and with it those we seen as the enemy; but the greatest change may indeed have been within ourselves.

Regards (and just a slight bit depressed now) ;)

Brian

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Certainly the world seemed "safer" when we all were outside playing soldier as kids. Even growing up in the 60s, I had little knowledge of Vietnam - until my neighbor's son didn't come home and my brother went to Southeast Asia. Even then, I knew nothing of what was going on in African wars.

There always were nasty little wars going on somewhere. We just didn't know about them. Now with advancements in media, we know minute by minute what's going on...

The world never was safe. We were just unaware. Now that we are aware. We still can't make it safe. We are just animals caught up in the battle for survival. Only we are more efficient, brutal, and don't eat our kills.

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Hello Brian, Rick and Mervyn and all other commentators.

Growing up on the other side of the fence, so to speak, I must say how much my childhood resembled the recollections given above. Realities however set in once the war ( WWII ) was on its way what with air-raids, separation from family, losses experienced but not close to family until later.

After the war I elected to actively participate in one conflict which I deemed justified and a following one not so much. Managed to stay out of a continuation conflict by arranging early discharge never regretted since.

All the above made me an observer and somewhat of a pacifist. Someone once said that the greatest of those are to be found in foxholes?

As stated in this forum : Wars are easily started but not ended.

In the 1950's a French colonel, Col. Trinquier I believe it was, wrote a book : Modern War about revolutionary warfare. We have heard other terminology such as counter revolutionary warfare, war on terror ( please ), and so on.

In the 1990's when the Great Socialist Camp came undone my hope was up for a beneficial change in the world. Did not last long, that hope.

Too much rambling of my part should just follow this thread.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Gents, in an earlier topic, ignited by Gunner, I expressed what event lead up to the conflict.

Sometimes people ask me: "Why would any one write another book about any war, because it has all been investigated, said and told... As a writer of historical articles with a military relation I read the products of others, and it is interesting to note that the perspective on war in general is ever changing (like looking through a kaleidoscope). That is also why hostorians and writers will ever have reasons to write articles and books; in particular books about the cause, the reasoning, the effects, the "what if...", and other themes.

Also, about uniforms and equipment there has been a host of books... I also grew up in the 60s, and books about the nitty gritty details of uniforms were like hen's teeth, but today there are many good and even better books...

All this raises the question with me: "What will future generations write and read" and "How much more information can be added to what we already have"? Sometimes it is new wine in old sacks (not to be taken personaly), just a repeat or summary of earlier texts, but also there are new scopes of looking at a war from a different angle. By now, I think, we have venued all angles, but the subject is like the nucleus of a sphere or atom, and there are countless points of view.

Naturaly, modern viewers relate the phenomenon from a modern perspective, and that is all right, but we cannot untie the war from it's own context. The matter raised earlier (what did simple people, without a scala of opinions - like we do - feel and do?) is of great importance.... They were not ignorent, but had limited sources of information. Also, The modern Europe (as we know it) was rather young, only a century had passed since Napoleon. Only little more than half a century (for some nations) since some kind of democracy developed. Communications were slow, and from a modern perspective it is all very hard to understand.

The world, as most people knew it, was exploding (in may ways), the perspectives blew up to make one feel like taking part in "Alice in Wonderland", and also the rather young Nations drummed up for protection and continuation of the national dreams. It was (in modern words) surrealistic and even artists with a keen eye for absurdism lost track.

Even with our little skull contents it is hard to understand the riducule chess match which was played on many boards, however, we know the result (which is not refreshing, and far from an American feel-good western).

After a life long study, I have come to the conclusion that there are no good guys and bad guys, there are only loosers. For every winner lost and the world did not end up to be a better place, except for those who financed the whole bloody business.

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