Lead book review

What caused the first world war?

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

12 October 2013

9:00 AM

The centenary of August 1914 is still almost a year away, but the tsunami of first-world-war books has already begun. The government tells us that 1914 must be commemorated, not celebrated, and ministers worry about British triumphalism upsetting the Germans. But the debate about Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914 won’t go away. Historians are divided into those who blame Germany — John Rohl, Max Hastings — and those who point the finger at someone else, such as Serbia (Christopher Clarke) or Russia (Sean McMeekin) or even Britain (Niall Ferguson). The blame game is of course conceptually flawed. The international system in 1914 was seriously dysfunctional. The alternative to searching for scapegoats is to examine the system. Why was it that political solutions no longer worked, so that conflicts could only be resolved by war? That is the question at the heart of Margaret MacMillan’s important new study.

Beginning in 1900, MacMillan shows that it was the German navy more than anything that poisoned Britain’s friendship with Germany. Tirpitz, the minister responsible, intended his navy to force Britain into friendship, but it had the opposite effect — it drove the British to compete, and compelled them to find new allies. Here, as MacMillan suggests, the decisions of individuals — Tirpitz and the Kaiser, who backed him — really did change history. When first France made the entente with Britain in 1904, and then Russia chose Britain over Germany in 1907, Europe was divided into two camps.

This is a well-known story, and MacMillan tells it well, enlivening her narrative with character sketches. Schlieffen, the man who drafted the German war plan, was a grim, work-obsessed Junker who was always at his desk by 6 a.m. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph rose even earlier, hitting the paperwork at 4 a.m. Both of these workaholics left their jobs in a dreadful mess — the world might have been a better place if they had stayed in bed in the mornings. Winston Churchill too was an overzealous worker: his reforms as First Lord of the Admiralty had the unintended consequence of overcommitting the British navy to France.

The creation of the alliance system did not in itself mean that war was inevitable — after all, defensive alliances during the Cold War were a deterrent to aggression. What emerges strikingly from MacMillan’s account is the frightening shift which took place in the mindset of Europe’s leaders. Increasingly, the politicians and the diplomats came to think in terms of military solutions. At the same time, the military leaders gained greater influence.


Railway timetables and military plans did not cause the first world war, as A. J. P. Taylor once suggested. But the fact that troops could be mobilised and countries invaded within days put pressure on rulers to make decisions far more urgently than ever before. The politicians and the military lived in separate silos, and the civilian leaders failed to control or make the effort to understand what the military was doing. German ministers erred in failing to ensure that Germany had more than one war plan in 1914. This was a modified version of the Schlieffen plan, which gambled on a rapid victory against France, and it was based on a disastrous under-estimation of the British army. In Britain, ministers turned a blind eye to the military discussions going on with France, allowing the soldiers to turn the entente cordiale into a military alliance.

MacMillan is excellent on the diplomatic crises which shook the system after 1905. The Kaiser’s clumsy attempt to break the Anglo-French agreement by landing in the French colony of Morocco in 1905 only strengthened the entente, leading the British to begin military conversations with France. ‘What is frightening,’ comments MacMillan, ‘is how readily the countries involved in the Morocco crisis anticipated war.’ In each successive crisis — the Bosnian crisis of 1908, the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 and the Balkan conflicts of 1912–13 — war was only narrowly averted. Each time the powers became more jittery and the diplomatic groupings were tightened, until by 1912 they had become full-blown alliances.

Not all the civilian leaders wanted war, but the soldiers were gagging for it. In Austria-Hungary neither the 83-year- old Emperor Franz Joseph nor his heir, Franz Ferdinand, were warmongers. Neither of them saw war as the solution to the empire’s running sore — the problem of a resurgent Serbia. But the hawkish Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, urged military action. The awful irony was that Franz Ferdinand, who was murdered at Sarajevo, was probably the one man in the empire who could have prevented Austria going to war against Serbia.

When it comes to the killer question of Germany’s support for Austria in the crisis of July 1914, MacMillan takes a measured view. Germany’s ‘blank cheque’ promise to stand by Austria in the event of war with Serbia and also Russia was not, in her account, a deliberate attempt to start a war. Germany stands accused, however, of allowing war to happen. The distinction is perhaps a fine one, but MacMillan demonstrates that by 1914 the German elites saw war as inevitable and better sooner rather than later. Peace was no longer an option.

The case that Macmillan makes against the blame game for 1914 seems hard to answer. ‘The most we can hope for,’ she says, ‘is to understand as best we can those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace.’ On the cosmopolitan world of pre-1914 diplomacy, where not only the monarchs but also the London ambassadors — Benckendorf (Russia), Lichnowsky (Germany) and Mensdorff (Austria) — were all cousins, the bookis superb.

At over 650 pages, this is a very long book, and it is written entirely from secondary sources. MacMillan spends rather too long setting the scene, and she is slow to reveal her arguments. The early chapters seem to rehearse over-familiar material. It might have helped if she had positioned herself in relation to the historiography — the historical literature on this topic is rich and vast, but she makes no attempt to review it.

When MacMillan picks up speed, however, she writes prose like an Audi — purring smoothly along the diplomatic highway, accelerating effortlessly as she goes the distance. This is a ground-breaking book, decisively shifting the debate away from the hoary old question of Germany’s war guilt. MacMillan’s history is magisterial — dense, balanced and humane. The story of Europe’s diplomatic meltdown has never been better told.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • willshome

    No mention of oil then?

    • paulthorgan

      If you want. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty had converted the Grand Fleet from coal to oil. Thus the supply-lines of oil became strategically vital where previously coal could have been mined in Britain with no strategic threat.

  • The voice

    To the Germans, WWI was a victory. The stopped a war on 2 sides as the killed off Imperial Russia and the Western Front was fought in Belgium and France, not on German soil. The Germans thought that they were signing an armistice, not a surrender as they had become a republic and the old order was being replaced. Thus the Dolchstoßlegende grew and I dare say WWII resulted.

    • justejudexultionis

      Love your profile pic, BTW.

      SAOR ALBA AGUS SAOR SASAINN CUIDEACHD.

      • The voice

        tapadh leibh

    • Guest

      No the German army was defeated on the western front. The Spring offensive failed to win the war, and the Allied Hundred Days offensive defeated the German army. Had the war continued the Allies would have invaded Germany, they were developing plans to do so: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plan_1919

      • The voice

        If you read my opening sentence, I said from the German perspective, not the British. I suggest you speak with some Germans or read Simon’s book ‘Germania’.

        To Germans it was a matter of honour to support Austria-Hungary and going through Belgium to walk around French defenses was necessary. The British had bombarded Copenhagen to stop the Danish fleet from possibly maybe captured and used by the Napoleonic troops did they not? When the Danish surrendered the British then stole or burned the entire fleet.

        • paulthorgan

          I am afraid you are wrong. The diplomatic notes from Wilson to Prince Max of Baden made the Chancellor well aware that Germany was being beaten in the field. Wilson demanded the overthrow of the Kaiser or unconditional surrender. The autobiography of Crown Prince Wilhelm illustrates that the German Army, although retreating in an orderly fashion, was in rags and lacked food. The Austro-Hungarian army had collapsed against Italy when it ran out of supplies and the same was going to happen to the imperial army. The German Armistice commission was ordered to secure an armistice as quickly as possible before wholesale national collapse and to agree to whatever terms were presented. Foch’s had devised terms he believed the Germans would not accept and was surprised when the acquiesced. Ebert had to get Groener’s army back to Germany to restore order. And that is what happened. The alternative would have been national collapse and Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxemburg running a socialist republic. As it was, they were both arrested and killed in the fighting in Berlin.

          • The voice

            Madam, as suggested I suggest you read Simon Winders Germania.

          • paulthorgan

            Ordering someone to read a book to somehow reinforce your argument is almost completely pathetic.

          • The voice

            I am not interested in GB/American/ the Pope in Romes view of WWI. If you are too vulgar to understand others view, then you should kill yourself.

          • JSP42

            Telling someone to kill themselves over a argument is completley asinine. Please turn your computer off and stop communicating with humans until you grow up a little.

          • paulthorgan

            Thank you. At least now we know the level at which you debate. And thus how seriously to take your comments.

    • magdelinarose

      the voice: as you obviously were not in germany @ the time i and everyone else can tell you dont have a clue!

      The history books in north america might say such, but the riots of 1917-1920, the open rebellion by navy personnel, and the price of a loaf of bread gong from a single mark, to a single wheel barrow full of deutschmark!

      • magdelinarose

        say othr wise!

      • terence patrick hewett

        I have always assumed that the Germans inflated their own currency in order to pay reparations in the same manner in which the UK does.

      • The voice

        Hyperinflation was in 1923…WWI finished in 1918 dear. I am also talking about German perspective, not what some cheap ‘american’ history writer has written and you have vomited up.

        WWI was a success to German minds. They stopped a war on 2 sides as the killed off Imperial Russia and the Western Front was fought in Belgium and France, not on Germany. I am not sure why you find that so difficult to understand (perhaps being a women?).

        Concordantly, you clearly do not have a clue. May I suggest that you go back to simple household chores and making your menfolk happy and leave intelligent comments to those with informed knowledge.

        • JSP42

          If WWI was a success in the Geman people’s mind why were Hitler and so many other Germans so angry and bloodthirsty for revenge?

          If it was a success why was Germany so gleeful over defeating France in WWII to the point where they got the exact same traincar to get France to sign the surrender treaty in which they forced them in the conclusion of WWI?

        • JSP42

          “They stopped a war on 2 sides”

          Yeah they stopped it by LOSING.

          “as the killed off Imperial Russia”

          Imperial Russia was not a mortal enemy of Imperial Germany. Wilhelm was quite friendly with Nicholas up to a point.

          Compared to Imperial Germany, Bolshevik Russia was a existential threat to Germany since unlike Imperial Russia they wouldn’t want just a chunk of Germany land but completley change the society of Germany from the bottom up. So your theory makes zero sense. And they didn’t even get to keep the spoils from Brest-Litovsk. So all they did was gain a more dangerous enemy for no gain.

          “Concordantly, you clearly do not have a clue. May I suggest that you go back to simple household chores and making your menfolk happy and leave intelligent comments to those with informed knowledge.”

          The Voice is as superficial and stupid as the variety show of the same name. He spits out all these false assertions then insults other commenters who disagree by telling them to kill themselves or make sexist insults. You are truely the plaque in the gumline of the internet.

          • The voice

            Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere.

    • JSP42

      You don’t even know what you’re talking about.

      They killed off Imperial Russia to have a vastly more dangerous enemy: Bolshevik Russia, whose message was dangerously seductive to German workers.

      Most of the fighting was done in France and Belgium. So what? The German populace was starved by the British blockade, internal divisions between the socialists and the right was in full throttle, the Treaty of Versailles crushed them with a huge indemity and banned their army and they lost all their colonial possessions.

      Either you know something the dozens of WWI experts don’t in which case why don’t you share your getting your info, or you don’t know what you’re talking about.

      • The voice

        FFS, I am showing you Germans view of WWI, not my own. FFS kill yourself if you do not understand that. Cut downwards and not across, use 2 stanley blades between a 50p coin as medics cannot stitch such small diameters.

        • JSP42

          Hitler wasn’t German? Why was he so mad if Germans were so content with how the war ended moron?

          Your pathetic “kill yourself” rants only shows the hollowness of your argument. It’s quite funny.

          • The voice

            Am I surrounded by spastic morons who only spew out shite that they learned at A level history? There are other interpretations of major world events. The vulgarians are way past the gates…google stab in the back theory – we all have access to the interweb FFS. How spastics like you can access comments sections is beyond me as I am surprised that you can walk upright.

          • JSP42

            Oh so you’re so smart, you know so damn much but you can’t even answer one simple question Mr. German man.

            Why were Germans so angry after the war if as you say they saw it as a victory? Why did Hitler cry after hearing Germany surrendered? Why did Hitler rally against the Versaille treaty so much? Why was the Weimar Republic so hated?

            Please actually answer the damn question, instead a bunch of frivolous insults or referring me to a entire book.

            “google stab in the back theory”

            Stab in the back theory supports my claim and completley destroys yours.

          • Thomas Hall

            I will admit to not being well read in post WWI German and would welcome any sources “The Voice” would care to recommend.
            That said, I find it hard to believe most German people saw WWI as a success. The nation was impoverished, and saddled with huge reparations. A generation of young men was lost. The Kaiser was deposed. The Austro/Hungarian Empire was gone. In sum, Germany was worse off after the war than before. That does not seem a victory to me.
            But I can imagine some military thinkers seeing small successes in the war. Imperial Russia was destroyed, and the perceived threat of its modernization program was derailed. The German field armies did perform magnificently and were not defeated on the field, although they came close to annihilation.

          • paulthorgan

            “There are other interpretations of major world events.”

            True. But they are mostly ridiculous.

          • The voice

            ” But they are mostly ridiculous.” your qualifications?

  • justejudexultionis

    It was the French, of course.

  • Guest

    Who is responsible for the war? unquestionably Germany, indeed it was a war they desired. They wanted to dominate central europe and needed to defeat Russia to do this. They gave the blank check to Austria, which they knew would lead to war with Russia, and in turn France, they then invaded Belgium in violation of the treaty of London, which forced Britain into a war we had no desire to be part of.

    • Mark Thomason

      Activists in many nations wanted war and strove to get one. The French and Russians too had strong war parties. They all cheered war when they got it. Like our neocons today, they tried to shift blame after it turned into the disaster.

    • JSP42

      See this is the common view of WWI that annoys me because it’s so wrong. There are two flaws to this argument.

      1. “Germany wanted the war”. No they didn’t. Even then they know that fighting a two front war with France and Russia was suicidal, nevermind going against Britian as well. They were absolutley tormented by the idea, many WWI books confirm this, in particular “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchmann.

      2. Even if Germany was responsible for the war, this misses a key part of what made WWI stand out from all the past wars. Machine guns, artillery, barbed wire. The defensive technology had advanced way beyond the offense and the stupid generals were unable to adapt resulting in the “meatgrinder” where millions of soldiers died for literally nothing. Basically like being ordered to run off a cliff.

      The real villians of WWI were the generals who were too stupid to adapt to modern tactics, and that includes English, French, and Germany generals. They had ample warning from the US Civil War as well as the Russo-Japan war to see the folly of direct assaults in the era of modern weapons but they were too stupid to learn from it and their men paid the price.

      • Mark Hamilton

        It’s common because it is true. The Germans were playing catch up to the other major powers. They unified late and missed out on much of the colonial era, were landlocked, etc. The Germans did try to provoke war several times and weren’t going to miss their chance in 1914 because the window was closing on their own perceived military advantages, particularly with regard to Russia’s slow but sure industrialization. It was now or never get their “place in the sun.”
        No country is blameless, but the Kaiser and his cohorts wanted a war most of all. And they got it.

        • T Lee

          Absurd. The German Reich was not landlocked. Look at a map.

          People will simply write anything they want.

          • Mark Hamilton

            Fair enough. The rest of my post still stands. When you’re done gloating, read up on German foreign policy from about 1900-1914. It’s surprising they didn’t get the war they so clearly wanted a lot sooner.

    • Bob339

      Check out Henry Ford on this one, bubba.

  • Ysser Zekmi

    except morocco was never a colony mr the author it was a protectorate since 1912 and until 1954 and the french and spanish didnt have any politicl power they were just tolerated in the local business

    • Ysser Zekmi

      the autor need to coorect that morocco was never a colony + some other errors

      • Daniel Maris

        Yes, it is rather inaccurate, although Mark is right about how protectorates were seen at the time. However, there was clear a difference between Morocco as protectorate and Algeria as a colony.

    • Mark Thomason

      At the time protectorate status was a step on the road to formal colony, and was seen as such. The same was true of the French/British rivalry over protection of Egypt, which very nearly caused war, for example the Fashoda Incident. It remained true after WW1, when the former Ottoman Empire was divided by Britain and France using the same device.

  • rtj1211

    Wars are always caused by the egos of politicians, rich people and/or monarchs.

  • Mark Thomason

    “Tirpitz, the minister responsible, intended his navy to force Britain into friendship, but it had the opposite effect . . . Tirpitz and the Kaiser, who backed him — really did change history.”

    The Kaiser wanted a Navy before he met Tirpitz. The Kaiser was attracted to Tirpitz because Tirpitz wrote a piece which justified what the Kaiser already wanted. Tirpitz knew that want of the Kaiser when he wrote, and that was the reason he wrote. The “reason” offered by Tirpitz came after the “want” of the Kaiser, and did not cause it nor explain it.

    The Kaiser wanted a Navy because he had read Mahan, and because he had visited Britain, raced his yacht there, and desired the sort of Navy they had. It was an enthusiasm of the era, part of industrialization. The US did the same thing with its Steel Navy at the same time. It went with the drive for trade, merchant ships, colonies, and railroads in far away places.

    The Kaiser’s desire had an ill effect, exactly as Bismarck had foreseen. The Kaiser was bothering Bismarck about a navy before the Kaiser knew Tirpitz or that idea had been written, and Bismarck was telling him he’d support cruisers for foreign stations but not battleships that would cause diplomatic trouble in home waters.

    Explaining the German Navy gets into much larger issues. It was an effect and an accelerant, not a first cause.

    • Daniel Maris

      Which is another way of saying nationalism and imperialism.

      • Mark Thomason

        It is nationalism and imperialism specific to that time and place. At other times and places it did not involve a navy, for example. But yes, that is the underlying philosophy of the time, and so the underlying explanation for their thinking and what they did, on all sides.

    • Justin Schauwecker

      Strange thing is that Germany built two large battleships named the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, both were sunk. (Bismarck in 1942, Tirpitz in 1945)

  • Paul Summerville

    The core cause of the First World War was the widely held belief that a war would be short and decisive, when the technology ensured it would be long, inconclusive and deadly. No leader could imagine the result on the battlefield and therefore the economic, political, and social consequences.

    • paulthorgan

      The professionals knew it would be a long war and knew things were going to go to hell. It is noteworthy that banknotes were made legal tender in the first week of the war as retailers had stopped accepting them and were demanding cash. Prior to this they were literally a ‘promise to pay’ the amount in gold sovereigns. The law legalising banknotes was passed in Parliament in the course of 1 day. You can see the debate on the Parliament website. They have archived Hansard going back to the 19th century.

    • Mark Thomason

      That particular belief in a short victorious war is quite common before a long bloody fiasco, and it has happened over and over with the lesson never learned.

  • paulthorgan

    “What caused the first world war?”

    No need to read the book, it was Germany.

    Germany was the only country for whom mobilisation meant war as their logistic and planning system meant that they only mobilised for invasion. By contrast Austria-Hungary had mobilised for war against Serbia before and had not gone to war. Russian mobilisation against Germany was a prudent step, but it did not mean that offensive operations were in the offing. France deliberately ordered its armies to remain 10Km behind the frontier with Germany lest any incident ignite conflict.

    Germany declared war on France after lying blatantly about French attacks. It also decided to march against Belgium as a way of attacking France. If its hostile acts had been restricted to marching through a corner of Belgium, then Britain would not have fought. It had no treaty obligations whatsoever to France or Russia. Because Germany piled head-first into the heart of Belgium, war with Britain was inevitable. The Germany military leadership actually did not worry about a land war with Britain as they did not take the British Army seriously as it was rather small. Germany tried to keep Britain out of the fight by promising to march through Belgium but not to cause any ‘harm’. Britain refused this promise.

    Also if the German Navy had come down the channel to attack the North French coast, there would have been war. Britain guaranteed the North French coast and France guaranteed the Mediterranean. This arrangement came into being so Britain could withdraw ships to face off the growing German fleet facing it across the North Sea.

    I would still enjoy reading the book.

    • Daniel Maris

      Germany was playing catch-up. Don’t forget England and France had been invading and plundering other peoples’ land for hundreds of years.

      • paulthorgan

        Don’t actually recall that explanation at Versailles in 1919…

    • JSP42

      How come nobody asks why Russia had to get involved in a war between A-H and Serbia? And why is it that 99 years later people still never blame Serbia for supporting terrorism?

      You think if some terrorist show Prince Willam and Kate Middleton and they later found out it was sponsored by Iran that people wouldn’t back the UK giving Iran a bloody nose? And if China backs Iran and threatens the UK to back down or else who’s the villian in that?

      • paulthorgan

        “How come nobody asks why Russia had to get involved in a war between A-H and Serbia?”

        Because people were fully aware of Russian policy, and it absolutely did not involve invading and crushing other countries at that time, unlike Austria-Hungary, who wanted to destroy Serbia as a threat to the stability of its crumbling multi-ethnic empire.

        The war was triggered by Austria-Hungary’s plot to destroy Serbia. The July Crisis started when Vienna sent a series of impossible demands to Belgrade knowing that they could not be met in full. Vienna planned war and was backed by Germany. Germany wanted war to arrest its relative decline in Europe and surrounded by enemies thanks to the failed diplomacy of the Kaiser.

      • MaxU

        I completely agreee with you, however there has been at least one recent voice which has: read Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It’s a great book about the causes of the First World War (much better, I suspect, than MCmillan’s book) and puts the blame squarely on Serbia.

  • Augustus

    The assassination in Sarajevo resulted five weeks later in WW1, but it became WW1 after Austria-Hungary, which wasn’t satisfied with the investigation and conviction of the perpetrators, found an opportunity and an excuse, because of the murders, to finally be able to settle a score with Serbia, (wrongly thought in Vienna as the initiator of the attack), and because of the way both Germany and Austria-Hungary responded to the diplomatic trade offs in European capitals in July 1914.

    • Daniel Maris

      Which is another way of saying nationalism and imperialism.

  • Daniel Maris

    Nationalism and imperialism.

  • JSP42

    I suggest everyone read “To End All Wars” by Adam Hochchild. He does the best at explaining the true lesson of WWI.

    Everyone wants to play the blame game for WWI misses the point of why WWI was horrible. It wasn’t because it was a war, it wasn’t because the alliance system failed, it wasn’t because the Germans were evil. It was because a ton of men died, and worse they died for no reason, there was no tactical objective attained nor a ton of strategic territory.

    Are you going to blame Germany for trench warfare?

    If Germany had won in the first few days or France, nobody would care “who was responsible” or who was the bad guy. Europe has had wars for a long time, this one stoodout because so many men died for no strategic gain. It was the meatgrinder.

    It’s sad how this idea of “war is stupid” that gained prominence immediately following the end of WWI got wiped out by the righteous war thrill of WWII. Most of the time in war there are no good guys and bad guys, both sides are bad guys. Maybe you have one bad guy and one more slightly badder guy but it’s only by a matter of degrees.

    Britian and France weren’t bad guys even if they were a quote unquote “democratic” government compared to Germany because they were oppressing millions of nonwhites in their colonies. And they were criminally negligent in sending their soldiers in direct assaults against MACHINE GUNS over and over and over and over even though (surprise!) men couldn’t overtake well entrenched machine gun nests.

    • Daniel Maris

      This is just about the worst interpretation of the causes of WWI I have ever read. There were specific causes of WW1. Imperialism – the idea that a country has the right to go around the world grabbing bits of land and people – was clearly a major cause. It was a VERY bad idea, and one that thankfully hardly anyone in Europe now espouses.

      Germany was playing catch-up with the other imperialist powers – to that extent I think it did take a more aggressive, and reckless stance, because it had a lot more to gain from confrontation than did England, France and Russia.

      I think you are mixing up causality and technology. No machine gun ever started a war. Only human beings start wars.

      • JSP42

        I think you have a reading comprehension problem. I never said machine guns started WWI and I wasn’t talking about causation.

        My point is that the entire exercise of trying to pinpoint why WWI started is stupid because the reason WWI was horrible wasn’t because it happened, but because HOW it happened.

        If WWI had occured with weapons of a generation before it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But because the weapons were modern like machine guns and artillery with innovations like barbed wire, that is the reason it went from being just another European war to something far far worse.

        The real tragedy was WWI generals being unable to or outright refusing to adapt to these new technologies.

        I think the causes of WWI are important, but it’s frustrating when people get caught up in them, as if that’s the most important thing. It shows how people are easily seduced by the “bad guy good guy” narrative which is why Germany (especially with WWII) gets pegged as the bad guy.

        They were ALL bad guys.

  • JSP42

    “In print, Haig attacked a skeptic who dared question the usefulness of a cavalry charge in the age of the machine gun and the repeating rifle. It was as strong a tactic as ever, Haig was certain, since the “moral factor of an apparently irresistible force, coming on at highest speed … affects the nerves and aim of the … rifleman.””

    Hochschild, Adam (2011-05-03). To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Kindle Locations 819-821). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

    Seriously I want everyone to think about this. These WWI generals thought charging cavalry would be able to overcome thousands of bullets being shot at them from a machine gun via sheer bravery. Apparently the gallantry of a man on a horse charging would make the machine gunner piss their pants and miss.

    This is what Jane Ridley and other writers should be focusing on, this type of mentality that lead to generals sending their soldiers on suicidal frontal assaults, not the tired game of “who started the war?”

  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    What caused the first world war? The First World War was a “Ready Steady Go!” war just needing ignition. Europe making a transition from monarchy to other political forms and a foreseeable looming economic collapse historically a war as cleansing solution seemed to be the only way out. The deal at ending the war laid foot for the Second World War. To-day world wars are unlikely or take different forms such cyber or economic war with small ethnic wars taking its place.

  • rtcdmc

    The tenor of the conversation on this string reveals the true cause of all wars … human nature. There appear to be powerful emotions driving some opinions — often to the point of incoherence — about a war that occurred almost a century ago. It appears that some of the nationalism that caused WWI is still alive today. Sad.

  • johnwerneken

    I wonder. I don’t believe there can be such a thing as “War Guilt”, or a “War Crime”, either. War has its benefits although such rarely come to the same people who pay its prices. It’s bad enough without trying to apply morality to it.

    Two things WWI accomplished for better or worse: American ascendency and the end of 400 years of European world domination. And now places from Japan to India to Brazil are showing that on the whole those two changes were positive. Of course we also got 75 years of the evil empire, and the war started in 1914 for most purposes went on without pause for 75 years.

    Clearly no sane person amongst the rulers leaders generals or admirals involved at the beginning wanted any of those things. So if they or their descendants feel guilt is involved, I imagine that that is why.

  • Steve / Lexington MA

    The widespread belief that conquest was easy and the offense had the advantage on the battlefield was a key cause of WWI. It fed expansionist ideas rooted in both defensive concerns (“our current borders are too hard to defend, so we must grow or die”) and predatory impulses (“we can seize an empire–so let’s do it.”)

    This false belief in the ease of conquest–sometimes called the “cult of the offensive”–reached an extreme before 1914 that was never seen before, and has not been seen since, in European history.

    This falsehood was purveyed largely by the professional militaries of Europe, e.g., by German Army propagandist Friedrich von Bernhardi.

    Tim Travers wrote on the cult of the offensive in Britain in his 1979 article on British military theory and the Boer War; BH Liddell-Hart wrote on the cult of the offensive in France; and Bernard Brodie wrote a chapter on the Europe-wide “exaltation of the offensive” in his book on Strategy in the Missile Age.

  • historyshowsus

    This is hardly an “important new study”. The naval escalation of Germany was the basis for Robert Massie’s book Dreadnaught written 12 years ago.

  • SolidBro

    It is time for a good thermonuclear world war. Take out DC, NYC, most of the pathos-filled urban blight areas of the USA. Do us a favor!

  • Core Luminous

    Wars cannot be isolated from the context in which they occur. The prevailing situation and the psychology of governance as it stands at the time are very much a part of each emergent war, as is the existence of a large population that is in a hand-to-mouth financial state, the precariat…. these become the conscripted troops, who accept this imposition largely out of economic necessity in their need to move out of the precariat, to feed or support their families…

    Britain’s involvement was also influenced by the desire of the Government party, The Liberals, who were averse to the war, to remain in Power, as a few of their own party who supported the war threatened to resign the party whip, which would have brought the Government down. None of those who were ‘pacifists’ within the larger Liberal party were prepared to confront this, and they went along with the program to go to war in order to stay in Power in the UK.

    At that time, there was much poverty, industrial strife, the suffragettes and civil rights/independence movement in Ireland. By 1916 they were unable to gain re-election because amongst other things they were unable to understand or control effectively the Generals and their ‘plans’ and were effectively silo’s apart from each other and this made matters worse, especially in the trenches.

    This is not to blame certain people, though they may indeed carry responsibility, but to try to understand the situation in ways that will help prevent future wars.

    This is the kind of basic comprehension which ought to be part of history teaching in schools, but which Michael Gove would prefer was extirpated from UK Estate Education.

  • Joseph Rohland

    “All wars are started by my sons, the bankers.”~ mama rothschild

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