English Literature

A Short History of the Great War by A. F. Pollard

A Short History of the Great War by A. F. Pollard

CHAPTER I

THE BREACH OF THE PEACE

On 28 June 1914 the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the Hapsburg throne, was shot in the streets of Serajevo, the capital of the Austrian province of Bosnia. Redeemed by the Russo-Turkish war of 1876-7 from Ottoman rule, Bosnia had by the Congress of Berlin in 1878 been entrusted to Austrian administration; but in 1908, fearing lest a Turkey rejuvenated by the Young Turk revolution should seek to revive its claims on Bosnia, the Austrian Government annexed on its own authority a province confided to its care by a European mandate. This arbitrary act was only challenged on paper at the time; but the striking success of Serbia in the Balkan wars of 1912-13 brought out the dangers and defects of Austrian policy. For the Serbs were kin to the great majority of the Bosnian people and to millions of other South Slavs who were subject to the Austrian crown and discontented with its repressive government; and the growing prestige of Serbia bred hopes and feelings of Slav nationality on both sides of the Hapsburg frontier. The would-be and the real assassins of the Archduke, while technically Austrian subjects, were Slavs by birth, and the murder brought to a head the antagonism between a race becoming conscious of its possibilities and a government determined to repress them. The crime gave a moral advantage to the oppressor, but the guilt has yet to be apportioned, and instigation may have come from secret sources within the Hapsburg empire; for the Archduke was hated by dominant cliques on account of his alleged pro-Slav sympathies and his suspected intention of admitting his future Slav subjects to a share in political power.

For some weeks after the murder it bade fair to pass without a European crisis, for the public was unaware of what happened at a secret conclave held at Potsdam on 5 July. It was there decided that Germany should support to the uttermost whatever claims Austria might think fit to make on Serbia for redress, and she was encouraged to put them so high as either to ensure the domination of the Balkans by the Central Empires through Serbian submission, or to provoke a war by which alone the German militarists thought that German aims could be achieved. That was the purport of the demands presented to Serbia on 23 July: acceptance would have reduced her to a dependence less formal but little less real than that of Bosnia, while the delay in presenting the demands was used to complete the preparations for war which rejection would provoke. It was not, however, against Serbia that the German moves were planned. She could be left to Austria, while Germany dealt with the Powers which would certainly be involved by the attack on Serbian independence.

The great Power immediately concerned was Russia, which had long aspired to an outlet into European waters not blocked by winter ice or controlled by Baltic States. For that and for the less interested reasons of religion and racial sympathy she had fought scores of campaigns against the Turks which culminated in the liberation of most of the Balkans in 1878; and she could not stand idle while the fruits of her age-long efforts were gathered by the Central Empires and she herself was cut off from the Mediterranean by an obstacle more fatal than Turkish dominion in the form of a Teutonic corridor from Berlin to Baghdad. Serbia, too, Orthodox in religion and Slav in race, was more closely bound to Russia than was any other Balkan State; and an attack on Serbia was a deadly affront to the Russian Empire. It was not intended as anything else. Russia was slowly recovering from her defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 and from the revolutionary outbreaks which had followed; and there was little doubt that sooner or later she would seek compensation for the rebuffs she had suffered from the mailed fist during her impotence. Conscience made Germany sensitive to the Slav peril, and her militarist philosophy taught her that the best defence was to get her blow in first. Her diplomacy in July was directed towards combining this advantage with the appearance, needed to bemuse her people and the world at large, of acting in self-defence.

But Russia was the object of Germany’s diplomatic activity rather than of her military preparations. It was thought that Russia could not mobilize in less than six weeks or strike effectively in less than two or three months, and that that interval would suffice for the crushing of France, who was bound by treaty to intervene if Russia were attacked. The German mobilization was therefore directed first against France, defence against Russia being left to second-line German troops and to an Austrian offensive. The defeat of France was not, however, regarded by Germans as a mere incident in a war against Russia; for it was a cardinal point in the programme of the militarists, whose mind was indiscreetly revealed by Bernhardi, that France must be so completely crushed that she could never again cross Germany’s path. To Frenchmen the war appeared to be mainly a continuation of the national duel which had been waged since the sixteenth century. To Great Britain it appeared, on the other hand, as the forcible culmination of a new rivalry for colonial empire and the dominion of the seas. But these were in truth but local aspects of a comprehensive German ambition expressed in the antithesis Weltmacht oder Niedergang. Bismarck had made the German Empire and raised it to the first place as a European Power. Europe, it was discovered, was a small portion of the globe; and Bismarck’s successful methods were now to be used on a wider scale to raise Germany to a similar predominance in the world. The Serbian plot was merely the lever to set the whole machinery working, and German activities all the world over from Belgrade and Petrograd to Constantinople, Ulster, and Mexico were parts in a comprehensive piece.

But while the German sword was pointed everywhere, its hilt was in Berlin. Prussia supplied the mind which conceived the policy and controlled its execution; and in the circumstances of the Prussian Government must be sought the mainspring of the war. The cause of the war was not the Serbian imbroglio nor even German rivalry with Russia, France, or Britain. These were the occasions of its outbreak and extension; but national rivalries always exist and occasions for war are never wanting. They only result in war when one of the parties to the dispute wants to break the peace; and the Prussian will-to-war was due to the domestic situation of a Prussian government which had been made by the sword and had realized before 1914 that it could not be maintained without a further use of the sword. That government was the work of Bismarck, who had been called to power in 1863 to save the Hohenzollerns from subjection to Parliament and had found in the Danish and Austrian wars of 1864 and 1866 the means of solving the constitutional issue at Berlin. The cannon of Kniggratz proved more convincing than Liberal arguments; and the methods of blood and iron, by which Bismarck, Moltke, and Roon conquered Denmark, Austria, and France and annexed to Prussia the greater part of German soil, impressed upon Germany a constitution in which the rule of the sword was merely concealed behind a skilfully emasculated parliamentary system. The Reichstag with its universal suffrage was the scabbard of the Prussian sword, and it was because the sword could not do the work required of it while it lay in the scabbard that it was drawn in 1914.

Since 1871 the object of every Prussian Government had been to reconcile the German people to the veiled rule of the sword by exhibiting results which, it was contended, could not otherwise have been secured. Historians dwelt on the failure of the German Parliament at Frankfurt to promote a national unity which was left for Prussian arms to achieve, and philosophers deduced from that example a comprehensive creed of might. More material arguments were provided for the man in business and in the street by the skilful activities of the Government in promoting trade, industry, and social welfare; and the wealth, which would in any case have accrued from the removal of the tariff-walls and other barriers between the thirty-nine independent States of Germany, was credited to the particular method of war by which the unification had been accomplished. No State had hitherto made such economic progress as did the German Empire in the generation after Metz and Sedan, and the success of their rulers led most of the German people to place implicit reliance on the testimony those rulers bore to the virtue of their means. The means did not, however, commend themselves to the rest of the world with equal conviction; and an increasing aversion to the mailed fist on the part of other countries led to what Germans called the hostile encirclement of their Fatherland. Gradually it became clearer that Prussian autocracy could not reproduce in the sphere of world-ambitions the success which had attended it in Germany unless it could reduce the world to the same submission by the use of similar arguments.

But still the Prussian Government was driven towards imperialistic expansion by the ever-increasing force of public opinion and popular discontent. It could only purchase renewed leases of autocratic power at home, with its perquisites for those who wielded and supported autocracy, by feeding the minds of the people with diplomatic triumphs and their bodies with new markets for commercial and industrial expansion; and the incidents of military domination grew ever more irksome to the populace. The middle classes were fairly content, and the parties which represented them in the Reichstag offered no real opposition to Prussian ideas of government. But the Social Democrats were more radical in their principles and were regarded by Prussian statesmen as open enemies of the Prussian State. Rather than submit to social democracy Prussians avowed their intention of making war, and war abroad would serve their turn a great deal better than civil strife. The hour was rapidly advancing two years before the war broke out. The German rebuff over Agadir in 1911 was followed by a general election in 1912 at which the Social Democrats polled nearly a third of the votes and secured by far the largest representation of any party in the Reichstag. In 1913, after a particularly violent expression of militarism called “the Zabern incident,” the Reichstag summoned up courage for the first time in its history to pass a vote of censure on the Government. The ground was slipping from under the feet of Prussian militarism; it must either fortify its position by fresh victories or take the risk of revolution. It preferred the chances of European war, and found in the Serbian incident a means of provoking a war the blame for which could be laid at others’ doors.

The German Kaiser played but a secondary part in these transactions. It is true that the German constitution placed in his hands the command of the German Army and Navy and the control of foreign policy; but no paper or parchment could give him the intellect to direct the course of human affairs. He had indeed dismissed Bismarck in 1890, but dropping the pilot did not qualify him to guide the ship of state, and he was himself in 1906 compelled to submit to the guidance of his ministers. The shallow waters of his mind spread over too vast a sphere of activity to attain any depth, and he had the foibles of Frederick the Great without his courage or his capacity. His barbaric love of pomp betrayed the poverty of his spirit and exhibited a monarchy reduced from power to a pageant. He was not without his generous impulses or exalted sentiments, and there was no section of the British public, from Mr. Ramsay Macdonald to Mr. Rudyard Kipling and the “Daily Mail,” to which one or other of his guises had not commended itself; it pleased him to pose as the guardian of the peace of Europe, the champion of civilization against the Boxers, and of society against red revolution. But vanity lay at the root of all these manifestations, and he took himself not less seriously as an arbiter of letters, art, and religion than as a divinely appointed ruler of the State. The many parts he played were signs of versatile emotion rather than of power; and his significance in history is that he was the crest of a wave, its superficial froth and foam without its massive strength. A little man in a great position, he was powerless to ride the whirlwind or direct the storm, and he figured largely in the public eye because he vented through an imperial megaphone the fleeting catchwords of the vulgar mind.

After Agadir he had often been called a coward behind his back, and it was whispered that his throne would be in danger if that surrender were repeated. He had merited these reproaches because no one had done more than he to inflate the arrogance of his people, and his eldest son took the lead in exasperating public opinion behind the scenes. The militarists, with considerable backing from financial and commercial groups, were bent on war, and war appeals to the men in the streets of all but the weakest countries. The mass of the people had not made up their mind for a war that was not defensive; but modern governments have ample means for tuning public opinion, and with a people so accustomed as the Germans to accept the truth from above, their rulers would have little difficulty, when once they had agreed upon war, in representing it as one of defence. It is, however, impossible to say when, if ever, the rulers of Germany agreed to attack; and to the last the Imperial Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, struggled to delay if not to avert the breach. But he gradually lost his grip on the Kaiser. The decisive factor in the Emperor’s mind may have been the rout in 1912-13 of the Turks, on whom Germany had staked her credit in return for control of the Berlin-Baghdad route; for the free Balkan confederation, which loomed on the horizon, would bar for ever German expansion towards the East. The Balkan States themselves provided the German opportunity; the Treaty of Bukarest in 1913 entrenched discord in their hearts and reopened a path for German ambition and intrigue. Austria, not without the usual instigation, proposed to Italy a joint attack upon Serbia; the offer was not accepted, but by the winter of 1913-14 the Kaiser had gone over to the party which had resolved upon war and was seeking an occasion to palliate the cause.

The immeasurable distance between the cause and the occasion was shown by the fact that Belgium was the first to suffer in an Austro-Serbian dispute; and the universal character of the issue was foreshadowed by the breach of its neutrality. Germany would not have planned for two years past an offensive through that inoffensive, unconcerned, and distant country, had the cause of the war been a murder at Serajevo. The cause was a comprehensive determination on the German part to settle international issues by the sword, and it involved the destinies of civilization. The blow was aimed directly or indirectly at the whole world, and Germany’s only prospect of success lay in the chance that most of the world would fail to perceive its implications or delay too long its effective intervention. It was the defect of her self-idolatry and concentration that she could not develop an international mind or fathom the mentality of other peoples. She could not conceive how England would act on a “scrap of paper,” and never dreamt of American participation. But she saw that Russia and France would inevitably and immediately be involved in war by the attempt at armed dictation in the Balkans, and that the issue would decide the fate of Europe. The war would therefore be European and could only be won by the defeat of France and Russia. Serbia would be merely the scene of local and unimportant operations, and, Russia being the slower to move, the bulk of the German forces were concentrated on the Rhine for the purpose of overwhelming France.

The condition of French politics was one of the temptations which led the Prussian militarists to embark upon the hazard. France had had her troubles with militarism, and its excesses over the Dreyfus case had produced a reaction from which both the army command and its political ally the Church had suffered. A wave of national secularism carried a law against ecclesiastical associations which drove religious orders from France, and international Socialism found vent in a pacifist agitation against the terms of military service. A rapid succession of unstable ministries, which the group system in French parliamentary politics encouraged, militated against sound and continuous administration; and in April 1914 a series of revelations in the Senate had thrown an unpleasant light upon the efficiency of the army organization. On military grounds alone there was much to be said for the German calculation that in six weeks the French armies could be crushed and Paris reached. But the Germans paid the French the compliment of believing that this success could not be achieved before Russia made her weight felt, unless the Germans broke the international guarantees on which the French relied, and sought in Belgium an easier and less protected line of advance than through the Vosges.

For that crime public opinion was not prepared either in France or England, but it had for two years at least been the settled policy of the German military staff, and it had even been foretold in England a year before that the German attack would proceed by way of Lige and Namur. There had also been military “conversations” between Belgian and British officers with regard to possible British assistance in the event of Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality. But the Belgian Ministry was naturally reluctant to proceed far on that assumption, which might have been treated as an insult by an honest or dishonest German Government; and it was impossible for England to press its assistance upon a neutralized State which could not even discuss it without casting a slur upon the honour of its most powerful neighbour. Nor was England bound by treaty to defend the neutrality of Belgium. She had been so bound by a treaty concluded during the Franco-Prussian War; but that treaty expired in the following year, and the treaty of 1839, which regulated the international situation of Belgium, merely bound the five great signatory Powers not to violate Belgian neutrality without obliging them individually or collectively to resist its violation. It was not in fact regarded in 1839 as conceivable that any of the Great Powers would ever violate so solemn a pledge, and there was some complacent satisfaction that by thus neutralizing a land which had for centuries been the cockpit of Europe, the Powers had laid the foundations of permanent peace. But the bond of international morality was loosened during the next half-century, and in the eighties even English newspapers argued in favour of a German right-of-way through Belgium for the purposes of war with France. It does not appear that the treaty was ever regarded as a serious obstacle by the German military staff; for neither treaties nor morality belong to the curricula of military science which had concluded that encirclement was the only way to defeat a modern army, and that through Belgium alone could the French defence be encircled. The Chancellor admitted that technically Germany was wrong, and promised full reparation after the war. But he was never forgiven the admission, even by German jurists, who argued that treaties were only binding rebus sic stantibus, while the conditions in which they were signed remained substantially the same; and Germans had long cast covetous eyes on the Congo State, the possession of which, they contended, was inconsistent with Belgium’s legal immunity from attack in Europe.

The opposition of Bethmann-Hollweg and the German foreign office was accordingly brushed aside, and the army made all preparations for an invasion of France through Belgium. The diplomatists would have made a stouter resistance had they anticipated the attitude England was to adopt. But the German ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky, failed to convince his Government that there was anything to fear from the British Empire. Mr. Lloyd George has claimed it as one of the advantages we derive from the British press that it misleads public opinion abroad, and a study of “The Times,” the only British newspaper that carries much weight in foreign countries, may well have persuaded the German Government in 1914 that eight years of Liberal administration were not likely to have provided England with the means, or left it the spirit, to challenge the might of Germany. She was known to have entered into no binding alliance with France or Russia; the peace had never in all their history been broken between the two great Protestant Powers; and, while there had been serious naval and colonial rivalry and some diplomatic friction, relations in 1913-14 seemed to have entered calmer waters. Germany had been well satisfied with the efforts and sacrifices England had made to prevent the Balkan crisis from developing into a European war; and Lichnowsky was successfully negotiating treaties which gave Germany unexpected advantages with regard to the Baghdad railway and African colonization. On the eve of war the English were hailed as cousins in Berlin, and the earliest draft of the German official apology, intended for American consumption, spoke of Great Britain and Germany labouring shoulder to shoulder to preserve the peace against Russian aggression. The anger of the Kaiser, the agitation of the Chancellor, and the fury of the populace when England declared war showed that Germany had no present intention of adding the British Empire to her list of enemies and little fear that it would intervene unless it were attacked. Any anxiety she may have felt was soothed by the studied assumption that England’s desire, if any, to intervene would be effectively checked by her domestic situation. Agents from Ulster were buying munitions to fight Home Rule with official connivance in Germany, and it was confidently expected that war would shake a ramshackle British Empire to its foundations; there would be rebellions in Ireland, India, and South Africa, and the self-governing Dominions would at least refuse to participate in Great Britain’s European adventures. In such circumstances “the flannelled fool at the wicket and the muddied oaf at the goal” might be trusted to hug his island security and stick to his idle sports; and the most windy and patriotic of popular British weeklies was at the end of July placarding the streets of London with the imprecation “To hell with Servia.”

The object of German diplomacy was to avoid offence to British susceptibilities, and the first requisite was to keep behind the scenes. The Kaiser went off on a yachting cruise to Norway, where, however, he was kept in constant touch with affairs, while Austria on 23 July presented her ultimatum to the Serbian Government. The terms amounted to a demand for the virtual surrender of Serbian independence, and were in fact intended to be rejected. Serbia, however, acting on Russian and other advice, accepted them all except two, which she asked should be referred to the Hague Tribunal. Austria refused on the ground that the dispute was not of a justiciable nature; and the meagre five days’ grace having expired on the 28th, Austrian troops crossed the Save and occupied Belgrade, the Serbians withdrawing without resistance. Meanwhile feverish activity agitated the chancelleries of Europe. The terms of the ultimatum had been discussed by the British Cabinet on Friday the 24th, and the British Fleet, which had been reviewed at Spithead on the previous Saturday, was, instead of dispersing at Portland, kept together, and then, on the 29th, dispatched to its war stations in the North Sea. Simultaneously the German High Seas Fleet withdrew on the 26th to Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Russia replied to the Austrian invasion of Serbia by mobilizing her southern command and extending the mobilization, as the hand of Germany became more apparent, to her northern armies. Sir Edward Grey made unceasing efforts to avert the clash of arms by peaceable negotiation, and proposed a conference of the four Great Powers not immediately concerned in the dispute–Germany, France, Italy, and Great Britain. Germany, knowing that she would stand alone in the conference, declined. The dispute, she pretended, was merely a local affair between Austria and Serbia, in which no other Power had the right to intervene. But she refused to localize the dispute to the extent of regarding it as a Balkan conflict between the interests of Austria and Russia. Austria was less unyielding when it became evident that Russia would draw the sword rather than acquiesce in Serbia’s subjection, and on the 30th it seemed that the way had been opened for a settlement by direct negotiation between Vienna and Petrograd. At that moment Germany threw off the diplomatic disguise of being a pacific second to her Austrian friend, and cut the web of argument by an ultimatum to Russia on the 31st. Fear lest the diplomatists should baulk them of their war had already led the German militarists to publish in their press the unauthorized news of a complete German mobilization, and on 1-2 August German armies crossed the frontiers. It was not till some days later that war was declared between Austria and any of the Allies; the war from first to last was made in Germany.

Throughout that week-end the British Cabinet remained in anxious conclave. The Unionist leaders early assured it of their support in any measures they might think fit to take to vindicate Great Britain’s honour and obligations; but they could not relieve it of its own responsibility, and the question did not seem as easy to answer as it has done since the conduct of Germany and the nature of her ambitions have been revealed. A purely Balkan conflict did not appear to be an issue on which to stake the fortunes of the British Empire. We were not even bound to intervene in a trial of strength between the Central Empires and Russia and France, for on 1 August Italy decided that the action of the Central Empires was aggressive and that therefore she was not required by the Triple Alliance to participate. There had in the past been a tendency on the part of France to use both the Russian alliance and English friendship for purposes in Morocco and elsewhere which had not been quite relished in England; and intervention in continental wars between two balanced alliances would have found few friends but for recent German chauvinism. It might well seem that in the absence of definite obligations and after having exhausted all means of averting war, Great Britain was entitled to maintain an attitude of benevolent neutrality, reserving her efforts for a later period when better prepared she might intervene with greater effect between the exhausted belligerents.

Such arguments, if they were used, were swept aside by indignation at Germany’s conduct. Doubts might exist of the purely defensive intentions of France and Russia; each State had its ultra-patriots who had done their best to give away their country’s case; and if Russia was suspect of Panslavist ambition, France was accused of building up a colonial empire in North Africa in order to throw millions of coloured troops into the scale for the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine. But no such charge could be brought against Belgium. She had no interest and no intention but to live in peace with her neighbours, and that peace had been guaranteed her by international contract. If such a title to peace was insecure there could be no security for the world and nothing but subservience for little nations. The public sense which for a century had been accustomed to welcome national independence wherever it raised its head–in Greece, the Balkans, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the South American Republics–revolted at its denial to Belgium in the interest of German military aggression; and censure of the breach of international contract was converted to passion by the wrong wantonly done to a weak and peaceful by a mighty and ambitious Power. Great Britain was not literally bound to intervene; but if ever there was a moral obligation on a country, it lay upon her now, and the instant meeting of that obligation implied an instinctive recognition of the character of the war that was to be fought. Mixed and confused though the national issues might be in various quarters, the war, so far as concerned the two Powers who were to be mainly instrumental in its winning, was a civil war of mankind to determine the principle upon which international relations should repose.

That issue was not for every one to see, and there were many to whom the struggle was merely national rivalry in which the interests of England happened to coincide with those of France and in which we should have intervened just the same without any question of Belgium’s neutrality. Whether it might have been so can never be determined. But it is certain that no such struggle would have enlisted the united sympathies and whole-hearted devotion of the British realms, still less those of the United States, and in it we might well have been defeated. From that division and possible defeat we and the world were saved by Germany’s decision that military advantage outweighed moral considerations. The invasion of Belgium and Luxemburg united the British Empire on the question of intervention. Three ministers alone out of more than forty–Lord Morley, Mr. John Burns, and Mr. C. P. Trevelyan–dissented from the Cabinet’s decision, and the minority in the nation was of still more slender proportions. Parliament supported the Ministry without a division when on 4 August England declared war.

Had we counted the cost? the German Chancellor asked our ambassador in Berlin on the eve of the declaration. The cost would not have affected our decision, but it was certainly not anticipated, and the Entente was ill-prepared to cope with the strength displayed by Germany. The British Navy was, indeed, as ready as the German Army, and the command of the sea passed automatically into our hands when the German Fleet withdrew from the North Sea on 26 July. But for that circumstance not a single division could have been sent across the sea, and the war would have been over in a few months. Nor was the British Army unprepared for the task that had been allotted to it in anticipation. It was the judgment not only of our own but of Allied Staffs that an expeditionary force of six divisions would suffice to balance German superiority in the West; and that force, consisting of better material better trained than any other army in the field, was in its place in the line of battle hundreds of miles from its base within three weeks of the declaration of war. The real miscalculation was of the respective strength of France and Germany, and no one had foreseen that it would ultimately require three times the force that France could put in the field to liberate French soil from the German invader. The National Service League would have provided us with a large army; but even its proposals were vitiated by their assumption that these forces were needed to do the navy’s work of home-defence, and by the absence of provision for munitions, without which sending masses of men into battle was sending them to useless slaughter. Time was needed to remedy these miscalculations, but time was provided by our command of the sea, about which there had been no misjudgment and no lack of pre-vision. We made our mistakes before, and during the war, but neither Mr. Asquith’s Governments nor that of his successor need fear comparison with those of our Allies or our enemies on that account; and it is merely a modest foible of the people, which has hardly lost a war for nearly four hundred years, to ascribe its escape to fortune, and to envy the prescience and the science which have lightened the path of its enemies to destruction.

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