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WORLD WAR ONE - in the beginning 


British army arriving in Boulogne

THERE HAD been no war between European Great Powers since 1871, though there had been many alarms. Peace had been maintained by accident or by the working of some unseen natural law. There was little machinery for settling international disputes or preventing war, other than the usual diplomatic relations between sovereign states. Peace rested, in fact, on the assumption that, in any dispute, one power or group of powers would give way rather than run the risk of war. Armaments were fondly regarded as a 'deterrent', and men said confidently: 'If you want peace, prepare for war.' Was there some change of spirit in I9I4 which made this confidence less justified. Some historians say so. They assert that tension between the Great Powers was mounting and that each conflict was more difficult to settle by compromise. There is a good deal to be said on the other side, and maybe the tensions of I9I4 seem greater only because they ended in war. Some of the Great Powers were on rather better terms than they had been a few years before. In particular, the three most advanced powers - France, Germany, and Great Britain - showed signs of drawing together at the expense of the two east European empires, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Both France and Great Britain had agreed to co-operate with Germany over the Baghdad railway. Great Britain and Germany contemplated a partition of the Portuguese colonies. Some highly placed Germans wanted to jettison their alliance with Austria-Hungary, while French politicians of the Left were equally cool towards Russia.

Perhaps war was becoming more likely in a vaguer, emotional way. Violence was penetrating political life. Rebellion threatened in Ulster. Suffragettes practised direct action throughout Great Britain. Industrial disputes provoked armed conflict in Russia and Italy. The Austrian parliament had been suspended as unmanageable. Most curiously, the traditional standards of art and culture were being broken down, as if artists unconsciously anticipated the destruction of the Great War. A new art gallery in Vienna, named Sezession, symbolised this spirit of revolt. The Futurists were knocking the sense out of poetry. The Cubists were creating abstract, geometrical forms, thus ending a tradition of representational art which had dominated Europe for five hundred years. The Cubist movement drew on nearly all European countries and counted Russians, Poles, Germans, Spaniards among its principal exponents. In music, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern sounded a discordant note against the diatonic scale. In I9I3, Stravinsky's Rife of Spring provoked days of rioting in Paris. Previously artists had been Bohemians; now they were rebels, proudly displaying their hostility to society. Men's nerves were on edge - or so we surmise in retrospect.

However, war did not come in 1914 from the welling up of deep, uncontrollable forces. It occurred as the result of premeditated and, in a sense, rational acts. The statesmen decided, and the peoples applauded. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo by South Slav nationalists on 28 June was an occasion, not a cause, and it would have been recognised at once as an operation in Serb politics if it had not become entangled with the European war. Nor was there anything outrageously exceptional in the Austro Hungarian demands on Serbia. It was an accepted convention of the time that great powers bullied small ones. The new factor was the resolve of Germany's rulers to bully great powers also. Kaiser William II and Bethmann Hollweg, his Chancellor, seem at first to have made this resolve without a clear idea of what they were doing. Later they stuck to it in helpless obstinacy.

Did Germany's rulers deliberately launch a European war, either from apprehension or to establish their domination over the Continent ? The answers by historians have gone up and down with the years. Immediately after the outbreak of war, Entente historians usually declared that Germany had followed a course of planned aggression, while German historians claimed that she had acted in self-defence. Between the wars, most historians came to agree that the war had started by mistake. Now we seem back at the view that German militarism was mainly responsible. Germany was the greatest power in Europe - the strongest economically, and apparently the one with the greatest future. Her outward equality with the other Continental powers did not correspond with her real preponderance compared to them. Moreover, the German military carried greater weight in society and in politics than they did elsewhere. It was easy for Germany's rulers to slip into believing that they both could and should lay down the law to others. Besides, they had to do so. All the Great Powers had elaborate plans for mobilising their vast armies. Only the Germans merged these into plans for actual war. The others could mobilise and stand still; Germany could not. The German generals and statesmen were prisoners of the railway-timetables which they had worked out in the previous years. Technically the war started because the Germans wanted to get their blow in first. Men had, of course, debated everywhere what their country could gain if war came, and perhaps the Germans had debated a bit more than others. But in August I9I4 the aim of the Germans and of everyone else was victory for its own sake. The war aims were worked out only after fighting had started

The war was an affair of the Great Powers. All of them except Italy were in it from the start. Serbia and Belgium were the only small countries involved, and neither represented a prize of war in itself, though perhaps some Austrians thought otherwise about Serbia. All the generals fought for victory. All the peoples fought for defence, or so they imagined. There was universal enthusiasm for war to the astonishment, or disappointment, of those who had expected war to be answered by social revolution. The Germans, including even the Social Democrats, were defending the Fatherland against barbarous and autocratic Russia. The Russians were defending Mother Russia against the Germans. The French were defending their national territory. The British, not directly menaced themselves, were fighting in defence of gallant little Belgium. Yet all believed that future security could be found only by defeating the enemy and crippling him permanently. Total victory was regarded as the only sure means of defence.

Most of the combatants believed also that they were fighting for some noble cause. The Allied Powers, opposed to Germany, had the easier task in infusing idealism into their war. Germany was technically the aggressor, and her attack on Belgium was, moreover, aggression of a peculiarly flagrant kind. Her conduct of war was also soon characterised as peculiarly brutal. War is never a pleasant operation, and the alleged German atrocities in Belgium were perhaps no worse than those in previous wars - certainly no worse than those committed by Europeans when conquering non- European peoples. But after forty years of European peace, they rang round the world, and the Germans were denounced as 'Huns', a name which their emperor, William II, had himself conveniently provided for them. On the whole, however, the rules of war were observed. The Red Cross was almost universally respected. No belligerent used dumdum bullets. The worst breach of restrictions was poison gas, a practice which the Germans started and which all the others then adopted to the best of their ability. The British were the only ones deliberately to ill- treat prisoners of war, when they shackled captured U-boat crews, and they soon dropped this practice when the Germans threatened to retaliate. The British, too, did not adhere to their principle against the Boers of conducting an all-white war. They brought Indian troops to France, as the French brought coloured Africans, and would have brought more if the climate had not proved unfavourable.

-Still, by and large, the war between the fighting men was conducted according to what were regarded, strangely or not, as civilised principles. Greater bitterness came into the war when it affected civilians - partly because it affected them more than previous wars had done, more because civilians were now citizens who could voice their feelings and whose feelings mattered. The Germans alone had conquered populations on their hands - Belgium and north-east France in the west, Russian Poland in the east, and, though they behaved no worse than the French had done under similar circumstances in Napoleon's time, they also behaved no better. Direct attacks on civilians were new. The German naval bombardments of Scarborough and West Hartlepool and the dropping of bombs on English towns from Zeppelins and aircraft, trivial though both were, caused more hysteria in England than the military massacres on the western front.

Worst of all was the mutual blockade. The British enforced a blockade of Germany by the distant unseen pressure of sea power and pleaded that, though they were indeed cutting off civilian supplies, they were doing it without actually killing civilian crews. The Germans had to rely on submarines or U-boats, and these could only operate successfully by sinking ships at sight - a practice which they finally adopted, with disastrous effect, in January I9I7. Both accusations were justified. Both offences sprang from the fact that war was no longer confined to actual fighting, but was the act of whole nations. The change was condemned as uncivilised, a return to barbarism. Rather, it bore witness that in the new civilisation all citizens were full members of the community - in this case a community at war.

From: From Sarajevo to Potsdam. AJP Taylor.



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