The Great British Trench Off

Title courtesy of this post. A collection of  noteworthy articles connected to the emerging Gove-Evans (or Gove-Evans-Hunt-Sheffield-Johnson-etc) First World War tussle in the British press.

Michael Gove in the Daily Mail, in an article titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’:

The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war … The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.

Other historians have gone even further in challenging some prevailing myths. Generals who were excoriated for their bloody folly have now, after proper study, been re-assessed.  Douglas Haig, held up as a crude butcher, has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, who depicts him as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare. Even the battle of the Somme, once considered the epitome of military futility, has now been analysed in depth by the military historian William Philpott and recast as a precursor of allied victory.

Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph:

If you find it hard to understand why Britain fought so unhesitatingly for a “scrap of paper” – the 1839 guarantee of Belgian neutrality – think back to our last war. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, none of our essential interests was threatened. The war was fought over sparse and distant islands, whose 1800 inhabitants added nothing to our economy and occupied possibly the least strategically valuable speck of dry land on the face of the earth. It’s true, of course, that the islanders, unlike the Belgians, were British, and this was a huge consideration. Still, almost all Britons were prepared to support a war which would see a massive outlay of blood and treasure for no return. Why? Essentially for the reason given by Admiral Sir Henry Leach to Margaret Thatcher immediately after the invasion: “Because if we do not achieve complete success, in another few months we shall be living in a different country whose word counts for little.”

Boris Johnson in the Telegraph:

Why was it necessary to follow up some rumpus in Sarajevo by invading France, for heaven’s sake? It wasn’t. The driving force behind the carnage was the desire of the German regime to express Germany’s destiny as a great European power, and to acquire the prestige and international clout that went with having an empire. That is why Tirpitz kept increasing the size of the German fleet – in spite of British efforts to end the arms race. That’s why they tried to bully the French by sending a gunboat to Agadir in 1911 … If [shadow education secretary] Tristram Hunt seriously denies that German militarism was at the root of the First World War, then he is not fit to do his job, either in opposition or in government, and should resign. If he does not deny that fact, he should issue a clarification now. 

Richard Evans hitting back at Gove in the Guardian:

[Gove] seems to forget that one of Britain’s two main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, a despotism of no mean order, far more authoritarian than the Kaiser’s Germany. Until Russia left the war early in 1918, any talk of fighting to defend “western” values was misplaced. Britain wasn’t a democracy at the time either: until the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, 40% of adult males didn’t have the vote, in contrast to Germany, where every adult man had the right to go to the ballot box in national elections.

Gove suggests that “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.” He’s right about the elites, but misses the point that they weren’t able to carry the majority of the German people with them; the largest political party, the Social Democrats, was opposed to annexations and had long been critical of the militarism of the elites. By the middle of the war, the Social Democrats had forged the alliance with other democratic parties that was to come to power at the war’s end. German atrocities in the first phase of the war, in France, and the last phase, in the east, were real enough, but you can’t generalise from these to say this is how the Germans would have treated the whole of the rest of Europe had they won. Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany; the Kaiser was not Hitler.

And who are these people who are peddling “leftwing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”? Step forward, please,Professor Niall Ferguson … Sir Max Hastings [and] the late Conservative MP Alan Clark …

Gary Sheffield writing in the Guardian in June 2013:

In announcing details of the official programme of commemorations for the centenary of the first world war, Maria Miller, the culture secretary, was careful to say the government would simply “set out the facts” about the origins of the conflict without any interpretation. I am not the only historian to be uneasy about this. The government, through its silence, is tacitly endorsing the popular view of the war as a futile one, a belief that is sharply at odds with most modern scholarship, and with how it was perceived at the time.

Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the second world war: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security. Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing). Whoever started it, the fact is that in 1914-18, Germany waged a war of aggression that conquered large tracts of its neighbours’ territory. As has often been pointed out, there were distinct continuities between the policy and strategy of imperial Germany and its Nazi successor. In the first world war, German refusal to seriously contemplate handing back the fruits of its aggression rendered null any attempt to bring about a negotiated peace. Not until Germany was clearly losing on the battlefield in 1918 did Berlin show any flexibility over this issue, and by then it was too late …

And Sheffield in November 2008:

The first world war began for two fundamental reasons. First, decision-makers in Berlin and Vienna chose to pursue a course that they hoped would bring about significant political advantages even if it brought about general war. Second, the governments in the entente states rose to the challenge. At best, Germany and Austria-Hungary launched a reckless gamble that went badly wrong. At worst, 1914 saw a premeditated war of aggression and conquest, a conflict that proved to be far removed from the swift and decisive venture that some had envisaged.

Nigel Biggar in Standpoint magazine, in September 2013:

[C]elebration is possible without tub-thumping, and triumphalism needn’t spoil the sober recognition of triumph. It is possible to honour the military success of our national forebears in defeating an unjust invader without deeming ourselves universally superior. It is possible to judge one nation state’s aggressive action morally wrong and another’s defensive reaction morally right, while recognising that the victim bears some responsibility for the sins of the aggressor … Germany had suffered no injury, nor was it under any immediate or emergent threat of suffering one. Unprovoked, it launched a European war to assert and establish its own military and diplomatic dominance. In response, Britain went to war primarily to maintain international order … and to fend off a serious threat to its own national security …

In addition, we can assume that the brutal relentlessness of the German military toward civilians in 1914 would have also characterised postwar German domination, especially in those regions subjected to military occupation. As John Horne and Alan Kramer have recently shown, it was German military policy to use civilians as human shields in combat, to burn villages in collective reprisal for resistance, and to shoot local irregulars who were caught bearing arms. Between August and October 1914 well over 6,000 civilians were deliberately killed by German troops in Belgium and France, and a further 23,000 were forcibly deported to German prison camps …

Wearing down the enemy is a reasonable aim of military endeavour in situations where a decisive breakthrough cannot be achieved, and this need not be done carelessly. It can be done efficiently, in a manner least expensive to one’s own side … those who damn British generals for waging attritional war and tolerating high casualty rates for months on end, must reckon with the fact that the undisputed turning-point in the later war against Hitler — the Battle of Stalingrad — was horrifically attritional.

John Blake in the Times Educational Supplement:

In fact, if the centenary is to be truly historical, the First World War needs to be considered in far greater depth, and the myths that have grown up around it challenged. I would like to take aim at three here: first, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war; second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and third, that the generals of the First World War were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture.

Addressing the first misconception is what started me thinking about all this to begin with. I realised recently that I was teaching the causes of the First World War in almost exactly the same way as they were taught to me 15 years ago, and using almost exactly the same resources and textbooks. The lack of references in exam syllabuses to assessing historians’ interpretations has tended to mean that this area has gone unchanged, with little engagement with new historiography as it emerges. This is despite significant shifts in the view of academics, most recently represented by Christopher Clark’s magisterial The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914.

Thomas Laquer reviewing Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers in the LRB:

On 6 July it seemed that the German state was speaking with a single voice; in response to Austrian entreaties, the kaiser and his chancellor promised to support Austria, assuring it that the German army was ready for whatever happened: this is the famous ‘blank cheque’ that is said to have hastened the coming of the war and revealed how eager Germany was for it. But there is strong evidence to suggest that Germany intended nothing of the sort. Or, to put it differently, that few believed the German cheque would be cashed, seeing it as an effort to limit to a local war any conflict that might follow from Austria’s quarrel with Serbia. The army made no plans for a general war; the kaiser believed the war would be localised. And in any case, no one believed that Russia would actually go to war over Serbia. It had capitulated to Austria in 1913 and it was assumed that the tsar wouldn’t appreciate the anti-monarchical inclinations of the Serbian terrorists any more than the kaiser did. The Germans had also failed to grasp the significance of the pro-peace Kokovtsov’s removal from the chairmanship of the council of ministers; like the British, they believed the pro-German party was in the ascendant …

The second example is the Austrian ultimatum that was finally delivered to Serbia on 25 July after a great deal of diplomatic dithering and a long drafting process that might have ended in a very different document. The supposed outrageousness of points 5 and 6 is often said to have made compromise impossible and to have assured a wider Balkan, if not a world war. The first of these demanded that Serbia agree to allow organs of the imperial government to play a part in the suppression of anti-Austrian subversion within its boundaries; the second demanded that Austria have a direct role in investigating the criminal network behind the assassination. France, Russia and of course Belgrade took this as an outrageous attack on Serbia’s inviolable sovereignty and to be tantamount to a declaration of war.

The Austrian demand was, as Clark points out, a whole lot less of an infringement of Serbian sovereignty than the 1999 Rambouillet Agreement, which Henry Kissinger described as ‘a provocation, an excuse to start bombing’. It was less of a provocation, to say nothing of a direct assault on Serbian sovereignty, because the core problem – irredentism – didn’t respect national boundaries and it was unclear what direct role Serbia had in the 28 June plan, even if it was committed to the ideology that motivated it. Furthermore, once Pašić and his colleagues focused on the ultimatum they were inclined to avoid a war by acquiescing. It was Russia that urged resistance; it was only on receipt of a telegram revealing that Russia had ordered mobilisation that the tone changed, and even then the response was evasive rather than dismissive. Meanwhile, Poincaré, the French president, had been in St Petersburg, making sure that his allies there kept the German danger clearly in mind. And even after all this, there were further moments of indecision before the gates really closed.

Tony Barber reviewing multiple books, including Clark’s and Margaret MacMillan’s, in the FT:

As Hastings, MacMillan and McMeekin point out, most historians nowadays regard the Fischer thesis about a pre-1914 German plan for world domination as too extreme. Instead it is more usual to blame the war’s outbreak, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France and Britain. Germany stands accused of practising an abrasive diplomacy in the prewar years, and of offering rash, wholehearted support for Austria-Hungary’s insistence on punishing Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s death on June 28 1914 at the hands of a Bosnian Serb terrorist. Austria-Hungary’s leaders are deemed guilty of reckless behaviour from the start of the July crisis. Russia was willing to risk war and ordered early mobilisation in the knowledge that this would expand the conflict beyond the Balkans. All in all, MacMillan speaks for many historians today when she writes that the greatest responsibility lies with “Austria-Hungary’s mad determination to destroy Serbia in 1914, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt [and] Russia’s impatience to mobilise”.


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