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  • The Great War and its Aftermath

    Posted by David Foster on November 11th, 2018 (All posts by )

    Did you really believe that this war would end wars
    Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
    The killing and dying it was all done in vain
    Oh willy mcbride it all happened again
    And again, and again, and again, and again

    The Green Fields of France

    This haunting passage certainly expresses well what has become the common view of the First World War–that it was a war for no really valid reason, conducted with unforgivable incompetence. And there is little question that the War had a shattering effect on the societies of the major belligerents.  I’ve written about this in my post The Great War and Western Civilization (linking a thoughtful post by Sarah Hoyt) and also reviewed Erich Maria Remarque’s important and neglected novel The Road Back, which deals with the War’s impact on a group of young German veterans.

    Taking a contrarian viewpoint, historian Benjamin Schwartz suggests that maybe the British decision to enter the war wasn’t really so unreasonable:

    The notion, advanced by the German historian Fritz Fischer and some of his protégés, that there wasn’t much difference between the war aims of Wilhelmine and of Nazi Germany remains controversial. It’s clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for (along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia) the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a “vassal state,” and the German navy’s taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases—actions that would certainly threaten Britain’s naval security…

    Gary Sheffield’s book Forgotten Victory makes a similar argument about the necessity of the war, at least from a British standpoint.  The author argues that militarism was very strong in the German ruling circles and that there was no effective check on the Kaiser and the generals; he also describes the treatment of civilians in the German-occupied countries as having been in some cases pretty brutal:

    William Alexander Percy, an American volunteer with Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium, remembered seeing batches of Belgian workers returning from forced labor in Germany.  “They were creatures imagined by El Greco — skeletons, with blue flesh clinging to their bones, too weak to stand alone, too ill to be hungry any longer.”

    He also mentions, though, that one major difference between German policy in the two world wars was that the deportations during the First World War were halted in the face of international condemnation.  (It also seems unlikely that this kind of forced labor would have continued after the end of the war, had German won.  The Kaiser was unstable, a narcissist, and a militarist, but he was not a Hitler, at least at that point in his life.)

    Sheffield also challenges the claim of British military incompetence throughout the war…indeed, he argues that the British Army became a “learning organization,” and points to technological innovations (such as sound ranging…”the Manhattan Project of the 1914-1918 war”…and the instantaneous fuse) in addition to tactical improvements.  Finally, he suggests that the perception of universal disillusionment and cynicism in the aftermath of the War has been exaggerated by the writings of well-connected, highly-educated and highly-verbal people, and such feelings were less-common among the population as a whole.

    Sheffield has clearly done a lot of research, and makes his arguments well.  Still, it is hard to imagine that given the countries, technologies, and leaders of the time, any likely alternative could have been much worse than what did in fact happen.

    See also Sgt Mom’s Veterans Day post and the new post by Sarah Hoyt.

     

     

    15 Responses to “The Great War and its Aftermath”

    1. Mike K Says:

      I have expressed reservations about both the US and Britain entering the war. Certainly, once the war began, the Germans acted like, well, Germans toward the Belgians.

      A great might-have-been, perhaps the greatest, is Churchill’s attempt to open a second front and support the Russians with the Dardanelles campaign. Had the British Navy been willing to risk the mines of the Turkish channel, they might have kept Russia in the war and restored a war of maneuver to the circumstances. Churchill did envision the solution to the machine gun, which had made trench warfare the slaughter it was. That and artillery were “The Queens of the Battlefield.” His tanks were primitive and the tactics had not been developed but they panicked German troops when they appeared.

      An interesting comment on the differences between American and German armies in both wars is that the Americans in WWII and, probably, in WWI did not withdraw units from battle and reorganize them. Instead, we used individual replacements whereas the Germans had units made up of men from the same villages and communities. Their unit cohesion was better. Individual replacements, from what I have read, had very high casualty rates. The same policy was used in Vietnam and “the FNG” was a feature of Vietnam units.

      I do know that some US National Guard units, which were made up of local men, were badly mauled in battles and resulted in a lot of local casualties from one town.

    2. Brian Says:

      “Finally, he suggests that the perception of universal disillusionment and cynicism in the aftermath of the War has been exaggerated by the writings of well-connected, highly-educated and highly-verbal people, and such feelings were less-common among the population as a whole.”
      Yes, this is a huge problem for the history of the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t live through the 1960s finds it very difficult to reconcile the picture that is painted of massive opposition to Vietnam with the sweeping scale of Nixon’s victory in 1968. As is the case today, a small fraction of college students does not make a national majority, but unfortunately they can profoundly shape the story told to the next generation.

    3. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      Europeans got to European! They are a belligerent lot, and have been fighting each other (and anyone else their ships could reach) for over 2,000 years.

      The question for outsiders is — why did the US get involved in the Great War? There really was not any major difference between the Germans and the Brits or the French at that time. Events like the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram have at least the suspicion of being false flag operations to justify US intervention. But without that late US intervention in WWI, it is highly probable that the exhausted Europeans, having bled themselves dry on all sides, would have had an armistice which would have avoided the excesses of the Treaty of Versailles — and thus there would have been German rule over much of Russia, probable victory of the Whites over the Reds in the rest of Russia, and very probably no World War II.

      Was it just a bad case of Europhilia that caused US leadership to push US involvement unnecessarily? Even today, are substantial parts of the US Political Class still suffering from Europhilia?

    4. raven Says:

      “Finally, he suggests that the perception of universal disillusionment and cynicism in the aftermath of the War has been exaggerated by the writings of well-connected, highly-educated and highly-verbal people, and such feelings were less-common among the population as a whole.”

      How would he know? If they were less likely to write about the war and the aftermath, where does the “less cynical” info come from?

      One could easily make the case they (the “folk”) were more inclined to be cynical. Given the astounding casualty rates among the upper class and the common man alike, it is is hard to imagine they had much different emotional views regarding the war. Look at the monuments in any English village and tell me straight the survivors had some opinion other than disillusionment. Men who lost all their friends, brothers, sons, fathers, legs and eyes, and a whole generation of women who lost husbands and any chance of ever having a husband. On the ones I have personally seen, the lists of Great War dead dwarfs the WW2 numbers. Quite frankly, I am surprised they did not revolt.

    5. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      Chesterton, who had considered the Boer War immoral, was much in favor of war with Germany. He believed the rising mythology of German superiority would not be easily contained, and further believed that Germany was not defeated enough in WWI and would rise again. He thought occupation rather than trying to gouge them for money was what was needed.

      He also noted that the war propaganda of German atrocities was not disproven after the war, but confirmed, though the pacifist crowd was already claiming otherwise. He predicted – accurately – that people would not believe such stories leading up to the inevitable next war, delaying the response against them.

    6. Bill Brandt Says:

      I have believed that the first world war was the cataclysmic event of the 20th century. Without it, would their have been communism? Nazism? Hitler? Without it, I wonder if the Hapsburg Empire would have survived through today.

      During my Army time 45 years ago I went to Vienna – and it fascinated me. Here was the capital of 100 million, and not the capital of a few million. It felt like a museum.

      Would the Tsars have remained or would Russia have taken a democratic course?

      The world changed dramatically between 1914 and 1918.

      I was surprised that given the momentous anniversary yesterday, it went virtually unnoticed. And yet the world changed and evolved so much in its own way because of that war.

    7. Bill Brandt Says:

      The question for outsiders is — why did the US get involved in the Great War? There really was not any major difference between the Germans and the Brits or the French at that time. Events like the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram have at least the suspicion of being false flag operations to justify US intervention. But without that late US intervention in WWI, it is highly probable that the exhausted Europeans, having bled themselves dry on all sides, would have had an armistice which would have avoided the excesses of the Treaty of Versailles — and thus there would have been German rule over much of Russia, probable victory of the Whites over the Reds in the rest of Russia, and very probably no World War II.

      I read a good book on the Lusitania by Eric Larson. I used to think that the sinking was the major cause for our entry but remember that was 2 years before we had entered. And there is evidence that the Germans were correct; that it was ferrying arms. The speed at which she sank is one indication.

      IIRC it was repeated U-Boat sinkings that got us in.

      IIRC.

      To me though the whole start of the War is so murky. I can see that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the fuse but the keg was ready.

      What a waste.

      Playing historical “what if” is fun but of course fruitless. But I have no doubt that Europe would have been in far worse shape had the Kaiser won.

      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/25/if-germans-won-first-world-war

      Obviously, it would have been dominated and shaped by Germany. But what kind of Germany? The militaristic, conservative, repressive Prussian power created by Bismarck? Or the Germany with the largest labour movement in early 20th-century Europe? German history after 1918 would have been a contest between the two – and no one can say which would have won in the end.

      But one can say that a victorious Germany, imposing peace on the defeated allies at the treaty of Potsdam, would not have had the reparations and grievances that were actually inflicted upon it by France at Versailles. As a consequence, the rise of Hitler would have been much less likely. In that case, neither the Holocaust nor the second world war would necessarily have followed. If Germany’s Jews had survived, Zionism might not have had the international moral force that it rightly claimed after Hitler’s defeat. The modern history of the Middle East would therefore be very different – partly also because Turkey would have been among the victors in 1918.

      In the kaiser’s Europe, defeated France would be the more likely seedbed for fascism, not Germany. But with its steel and coal still in German-controlled Alsace-Lorraine, France’s military and naval potential would have been contained. Meanwhile, defeated Britain would have seen its navy sunk in the Heligoland Bight, have been forced to cede its oil interests in the Middle East and the Gulf to Germany, and have been unable to contain Indian nationalism. In practice, the British empire would have been unsustainable. Today’s Britain might have ended up as a modest north European social democratic republic – like Denmark without a prince.

      Meanwhile America, whose entry into the war would have been successfully pre-empted by Germany’s victory, would have become a firmly isolationist power and not the enforcer of international order. Franklin Roosevelt would solve America’s postwar economic problems in the 1930s, but he would never fight a war in Europe – though he might have to fight one against Japan. The Soviet Union, with a wary but powerful neighbour in victorious Germany, would have been the great destabilising factor but it might not have been invaded as it was in 1941. And with no second world war there might never have been a cold war either.

      A parlour game? Obviously. But at least we can see that the outcome mattered. Europe would have been different if Germany had won in 1918. It would have been grim, repressive and unpredictable in many ways. But there is a plausible case for saying many fewer people would have died in 20th-century Europe. If nothing else, that is worth some reflection. The first world war was a catastrophe in the mud. But it was about something more than tragic sacrifice too. The outcome – what happened and what did not – made a difference. In 2014 we need to get beyond the rival national perspectives and learn to see the war more objectively and thoughtfully than has yet happened.

      It boggles the mind to think how different the world would have been…

    8. Mike K Says:

      a whole generation of women who lost husbands and any chance of ever having a husband.

      One of the worst mass murderers in history, Harold Shipman, was killing off the elderly women who had never married because of the loss of young men in WWI.

      In March 1998, Linda Reynolds of the Donneybrook Surgery in Hyde, prompted by Deborah Massey from Frank Massey and Sons funeral parlour, expressed concerns to John Pollard, the coroner for the South Manchester District, about the high death rate among Shipman’s patients. In particular, she was concerned about the large number of cremation forms for elderly women that he had needed countersigned. The matter was brought to the attention of the police, who were unable to find sufficient evidence to bring charges; the Shipman Inquiry later blamed the police for assigning inexperienced officers to the case. Between 17 April 1998, when the police abandoned the investigation, and Shipman’s eventual arrest, he killed three more people.

      The elderly women were almost all single and had never married.

    9. Mike K Says:

      Franklin Roosevelt would solve America’s postwar economic problems in the 1930s, but he would never fight a war in Europe – though he might have to fight one against Japan.

      If Germany had won, there is a reasonable possibility that the Great Depression would not have occurred, The “Roaring Twenties” was a result of the new inventions following the development of electricity and resembled the 1990s. Speculation in stocks might have resulted in a crash in 1929 since Benjamin Strong had died of TB in 1928 but there is no reason to think that the world wide crisis created by the reparations and national debts of France and Britain would have involved us.

      Japan developed a militaristic regime partly due to the awarding of German colonies to them after the war. We might have had a conflict with Japan because the British, who also should have stayed out of the war, would have been too weak to maintain Singapore. The Dutch, depending on what happened to them in WWI, might have given up Indonesia. Pretty soon we get to second order results that are just too hard to speculate about.

    10. Anonymous Says:

      ” Franklin Roosevelt would solve America’s postwar economic problems in the 1930s…”

      Bill, my impression is that, although FDR “made work” and boosted infrastructure which were meaningful things in American lives, but his efforts, economically speaking, were not effective. Surely it was WWII that brought us out of the depression and brought prosperity. Millions were put to work arming our and our allies forces during the war. After the war this country had manufacturing that supplied a devastated industrial world. Someone once metaphored the U.S. in the post war period as being (something like) a ball team ready to play at the field (the world of financial and manufacturing competition) while the other teams had yet to even be formed.

      Ty18

    11. Bill Brandt Says:

      Ty18, I agree with you – was just quoting the guardian article. There is a book called The Forgotten Man which I started, but never finished as for me it got bogged down in minutia, but many of the policies FDR started were counter-productive, according to the author.

    12. Mike K Says:

      The “Forgotten Man” is excellent and written by Amity Schlaes who also wrote the Coolidge biography.

      The best thing Roosevelt did was the CCC which trained a whole generation of young man in military discipline and put them in good shape for the Army in 1942. The draft in 1918 had found that the poor young men were in terrible condition. The CCC helped with that.

      His economics were nonsense.

    13. Anonymous Says:

      Mike K, On a personal note, I regret not interrogating my dad more fully while I could have. He went into the CCC which helped him (and his folk’s large family although I doubt the young men were paid very much…at least one less mouth to feed). From there he went into the Marines and the Pacific theater.

      Ty18

    14. Rich Rostrom Says:

      Gavin Longmuir Says: “Events like the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram have at least the suspicion of being false flag operations…”

      The Zimmerman Telegram was 100% genuine. Zimmerman himself admitted to sending it.

      Here’s a detail you almost certainly don’t know. At the start of the war, Britain severed German telegraph cables to the Americas. The U.S. government allowed Germany to maintain communication with its embassies by use of a U.S. cable to the embassy in Denmark. However, the Germans didn’t know that that U.S. cable passed through a “booster station” at Land’s End in England, and was monitored by British intelligence.

      The ZT was sent this way (enciphered). When the British presented the ZT to the U.S., they pretended they had stolen the ciphertext in Mexico, and demonstrated the decryption. Of course the U.S. had kept copies of all messages sent for Germany on its cable, including that ciphertext. So the U.S. knew that Germany had tried to incite Mexico to attack the U.S., and had done so using the U.S.’s own cable.

      Can you wonder why even Wilson was ready to go to war in 1917?

    15. Rich Rostrom Says:

      It’s true that the British Army learned a great deal during WW I and made a lot of changes.

      What’s also true is that the Army was way too slow to learn and change, and persisted in some policies and practices long after they were obviously wrong.