World War I was a complete disaster for Europe, with over 8 million soldiers dead by the end of it. I knew little about that war, but had the impression that the participants just got entangled into it, and that it was started by an assassination by an anarchist. My impression was also that the French thought they would be safe behind the “Maginot Line” of defenses, and did not foresee that Germany would invade them via the neutral country of Belgium.
To check this out, I bought the Kindle copy of Winston Churchill’s history of that World War. It shows that I was wrong about all of the above.
It is true that the British did not want war. Churchill says this:
All around flowed the busy life of peaceful, unsuspecting, easy-going Britain. The streets were thronged with men and women utterly devoid of any sense of danger from abroad. For nearly a thousand years no foreign army had landed on British soil. For a hundred years the safety of the homeland had never been threatened. They went about their business, their sport, their class and party fights year after year, generation after generation, in perfect confidence and considerable ignorance. All their ideas were derived from conditions of peace. All their arrangements were the result of long peace. Most of them would have been incredulous, many would have been very angry if they had been told that we might be near a tremendous war, and that perhaps within this City of London, which harboured confidingly visitors from every land, resolute foreigners might be aiming a deadly blow at the strength of the one great weapon and shield in which we trusted.
There was the actual visible world with its peaceful activities and cosmopolitan aims; and there was a hypothetical world, a world ‘beneath the threshold,’ as it were, a world at one moment utterly fantastic, at the next seeming about to leap into reality—a world of monstrous shadows moving in convulsive combinations through vistas of fathomless catastrophe.
A few people were aware of the coming danger. Churchill was one. Another was:
General Wilson (afterwards Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson)…For years he had been labouring with one object, that if war came we should act immediately on the side of France. He was sure that war would come sooner or later. All the threads of military information were in his hands. The whole wall of his small room was covered by a gigantic map of Belgium, across which every practicable road by which the German armies could march for the invasion of France, was painted clearly. All his holidays he spent [wandering around Belgium] examining these roads and the surrounding country. He could not do much in Germany: the Germans knew him too well.
Standing by his enormous map, specially transported for the purpose, he unfolded, with what proved afterwards to be extreme accuracy, the German plan for attacking France in the event of a war between Germany and Austria on the one hand and France and Russia on the other. It was briefly as follows:— In the first place, the Germans would turn nearly four-fifths of their strength against France and leave only one-fifth to contain Russia. The German armies would draw up on a line from the Swiss frontier to Aix-la-Chapelle. They would then swing their right wing through Belgium, thus turning the line of fortresses by which the eastern frontiers of France were protected. This enormous swinging movement of the German right arm would require every road which led through Belgium from Luxembourg to the Belgian Meuse.
Wilson was not clairvoyant. There was:
Overwhelming detailed evidence was adduced to show that the Germans had made every preparation for marching through Belgium. The great military camps in close proximity to the frontier, the enormous depots, the reticulation of railways, the endless sidings, revealed with the utmost clearness and beyond all doubt their design.
Churchill had a revealing talk with the German ambassador:
One night the German ambassador, still Count Metternich, whom I had known for ten years, asked me to dine with him. We were alone, and a famous hock from the Emperor’s cellars was produced. We had a long talk about Germany and how she had grown great; about Napoleon and the part he had played in uniting her…He said people were trying to ring Germany round and put her in a net, and that she was a strong animal to put in a net….
Count Metternich was a very honourable man, serving his master faithfully but labouring to preserve peace, especially peace between England and Germany. I have heard that on one occasion at Berlin in a throng of generals and princes, someone had said that the British Fleet would one day make a surprise and unprovoked attack upon Germany. Whereupon the Ambassador had replied that he had lived in England for nearly ten years, and he knew that such a thing was absolutely impossible. On this remark being received with obvious incredulity, he had drawn himself up and observed that he made it on the honour of a German officer and that he would answer for its truth with his honour. This for a moment had quelled the company.
The last paragraph is interesting – it shows that the Germans had a misperception of British motives. Perhaps it was also a misperception of Russian motives that gave them an idea of “we will be attacked eventually, therefore we must attack first” (they didn’t say this, I’m guessing) and that is somewhat backed by another conversation of Churchill with a German:
I had met Herr Ballin. He had just arrived from Germany. We sat next to each other, and I asked him what he thought about the situation. With the first few words he spoke, it became clear that he had not come here on any mission of pleasure. He said the situation was grave. ‘I remember,’ he said, ‘old Bismarck telling me the year before he died that one day the great European War would come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.’ These words, he said, might come true. It all depended on the Tsar. What would he do if Austria chastised Serbia? A few years before there would have been no danger, as the Tsar was too frightened for his throne, but now again he was feeling himself more secure upon his throne, and the Russian people besides would feel very hardly anything done against Serbia. Then he said, ‘If Russia marches against Austria, we must march; and if we march, France must march, and what would England do?’ Churchill gave an answer that it would be a mistake for Germany to be sure England would stay out but then Ballin continued: speaking with very great earnestness. ‘Suppose we had to go to war with Russia and France, and suppose we defeated France and yet took nothing from her in Europe, not an inch of her territory, only some colonies to indemnify us. Would that make a difference to England’s attitude? Suppose we gave a guarantee beforehand.’
To me this seems to indicate that the Germans were really worried about a growing Russia, not so much about France.
So could World War I have been avoided?
Churchill does say that Germany’s neighbors were strengthening their militaries, but he says it was in response to fear of Germany. Perhaps from Germany’s point of view its neighbors were preparing that net that Metternich referred to.
Churchill does not seem to think that the first World War could have been avoided:
A will to peace at Berlin and Vienna would have found no difficulties in escaping from the terrible net which was drawing in upon us all hour by hour. But underneath the diplomatic communications and manœuvres, the baffling proposals and counter-proposals, the agitated interventions of Tsar and Kaiser, flowed a deep tide of calculated military purpose.
Russia did try to alleviate the situation:
Austria had accepted the conference, and intimate personal appeals were passing between the Tsar and the Kaiser. It seemed to me, from the order in which I read the series of telegrams, that at the very last moment Sir Edward Grey might succeed in saving the situation. So far no shot had been fired between the Great Powers. I wondered whether armies and fleets could remain mobilized for a space without fighting and then demobilize. I had hardly achieved this thought when another Foreign Office box came in. I opened it and read ‘Germany has declared war on Russia.’ There was no more to be said.
Churchill, Winston S.. The World Crisis, 1911–1914 . RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.