#13. Oh what a lovely row!


As a keen student of history (and of military history in particular), I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the way in which politicians and historians have weighed in to the row over the First World War.

This isn’t because I don’t think it matters, because clearly it does – the better we understand the causes of a conflagration that killed millions, the greater the chance that we’ll avoid repeating such a disaster.

Rather, what has frustrated me is the seemingly universal misunderstanding about how the war was “won”. Nowhere in Blackadder, nowhere in Oh What A Lovely War, and nowhere in the pronouncements of Michael Gove and others will you find the reality about the Allied “victory” and the German “defeat” of 1918.

The simple fact is – and, if you find this surprising, please do some research on it – that nobody won or lost on the battlefields of France or Belgium. In that sense, the suffering in the trenches was as pointless as it was tragic.

Quite simply, Germany collapsed from within. She was literally starved into submission.  

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As any schoolboy knows (or should!), the naval arms race was one of the principal reasons why Britain ended up fighting Germany. The commissioning of HMS Dreadnought – the first all-big-gun battleship – in 1906 was a huge achievement for the British, though others were not that far behind.

But there was one consequence of this of which First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, at least, was uncomfortably aware. By rendering every other battleship obsolete overnight, Britain’s naval supremacy, which hitherto rested on having a larger fleet than those of the next two biggest navies combined (the “two-power standard”) was reduced to a single ship. Before Dreadnought, Germany had had no realistic prospect of bridging the gap. As of 1906, however, just two ships would have given Germany naval supremacy over Britain.

The Admiralty may have continued issuing boarding cutlasses into the twentieth century, but the high command was not stupid, and fully appreciated that Britain’s naval supremacy had been reduced to a single ship. Well before war broke out, Fisher was even to contemplate emulating Nelson at Copenhagen by destroying the German fleet at its moorings before war was even declared. Meanwhile, the imperative was to build more and better Dreadnoughts, in obvious competition with the Kaiser.

The irony was that the battleship fleets assembled at such huge expense in the pre-war years were to clash only once, at Jutland. The Germans had made a very serious strategic blunder. They had assumed that the British fleet would loiter offshore German ports in a close blockade, and that their ships could isolate and destroy individual units, gradually reducing Britain’s slender numerical supremacy. This thesis, which was at the very heart of German strategy, proved to be founded on a misconception. Instead of close blockade, the British enforced a distant blockade, stringing a ring of steel from Scotland to Norway whilst using minefields and smaller vessels to close off the English Channel. Germany’s trade was strangled.  

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Since historians, as a point of principle, seldom agree on anything, there is no scholarly consensus on whether Germany really was starved into defeat, and some have argued that the starvation which followed the war was the result of disruption, not blockade.

But the facts seem pretty clear. Both Britain and Germany relied on imported food as well as on imported war materiel. Britain’s blockade was successful in cutting off Germany’s access to these supplies, whilst Germany’s retaliatory move – the U-Boat war – not only failed to achieve the same objective but also contributed significantly to the American entry into the war in 1917.

By 1915, Germany’s imports had been reduced by more than half. German civilian deaths caused directly by the blockade have been estimated at between 424,000 and 673,000. More importantly, in overall terms, Germans seem to have been existing on a daily nutritional intake of barely 1,000 calories, less than half the level required for effective functioning. Starvation clearly played a major part in the social unrest which erupted in Germany before the ink was even dry on the Armistice.

This being so, it is hardly surprising that the German high command gambled on the Spring Offensive, whose defeat marked the military end of the war. That offensive was born of desperation, not calculation. Although intended, in part, to defeat the British and the French before large numbers of American soldiers could arrive, this gamble was imposed on the Germans by the desperate situation at home.   

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Given the critical role played by the blockade, could Britain have kept her armies at home? We shall probably never know. But there can be little doubt that the trench warfare of 1914-18 was an exercise in mutual futility. The British soldiers may well have been “lions led by donkeys”, but perhaps – just perhaps – neither the lions nor the donkeys needed to be there at all. Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that the despatch of the troops to France was inevitable in the militaristic climate of the day.

At the very least, the relative effectiveness of the blockade on the one hand, and trench warfare on the other, counsel a need to think strategically.          

6 thoughts on “#13. Oh what a lovely row!

  1. most interesting insight ; but was the war really about the need to grow the steel industry ?

    • Possibly – I hadn’t heard of that idea.

      There is a story about French soldiers who, every night, watched the glow of a captured blast-furnace churning out steel for the Germans just behind the German lines. The French commanders wanted to shell it, but were forbidden to do so – it belonged to a French cabinet minister who wanted it back in one piece after t.he war!

  2. The great irony of course is firstly that my maternal grandfather was commended for his service in…. Basra

    Secondly that the current government has achieved what the U-Bootewaffe failed to do and reduce many of our fellow citizens to starvation

  3. Indeed so. Personally, I’m convinced that “lions led by donkeys” is right. No one could rise above sergeant if he hadn’t been to public school. The mistakes of the “officer class” were legendary. Even in WWII, much of this idiocy continued – public schoolboys walked straight into commissioned ranks, irrrespective of ability, whilst others had to remain as NCOs.

  4. The stated effectiveness of the food blockade emerged from a comment made after the war by Paul Hindenburg. It is not clear whether he was dozing when he made the comment or not. The assumption is that Germany could simply buy food on a market somewhere without the blockade. This is highly questionable.

    Who would sell food to Germany and how would Germany pay for it? Would any exporter accept German promises?

    – America was selling food to the Allies and shipping relief supplies to the Russians who were themselves producing very little. India, Southern Africa (including Rhodesia), Canada and Australia obviously would not provide food for the enemy. Ukraine was under nominal German control but could not in any timely way produce the needed bumper crops. Argentina’s modest agriculture surplus could not have fed Germany, much less the other nations within the German Reich. Indochina was producing a large rice surplus … French Indochina, plus the Germans would likely have not eaten the rice, it being unfamiliar to them.

    – America held Europe’s gold (see William Gibbs McAdoo) and was therefor comfortable lending to the Allies and being repaid. (As it turned out, the Allies were unable to repay, the confused consequences led to the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler.)

    – Because America did not enter the war until 1917, there was no labor shortage in rural areas as there was across Europe. No labor shortage + price supports for cereals + first-adapter advantage in agricultural mechanization = very large US agricultural surplus.

    – The agricultural labor shortage in Germany was cause of food crisis not the blockade: the ever-increasing requirement for manpower in the front-lines left German agriculture with a labor force of women, old men and children. In this sense, the attrition strategy on the part of the Allies led to Germany’s defeat.

    – Also, the military demand for horses, which stripped the Reich as the war wore on, stripped productivity from German farms at the same time (as also with Entente combatants).

    – At the end of the war, agriculture faced a desperate shortage of draft animals: it is far easier to kill a horse than grow a replacement. Countries raced to replace absent horses with motor vehicles which was a ‘stimulus’ for that particular industry. Its expansion into dominance in the 1920s was another cause of the Great Depression: auto industry = great bubble machine

    The Germans indeed made the mistake of building battleships — blame incompetent Wilhelm II — and not building trucks and tractors, instead.

  5. Fascinating, especially your point about there being no food supplies for Germany to purchase even if had not been for the blockade. Perhaps, knowing that Britain had access to her Empire and would be supported by trade with the US, the Kaiser was crazy to go to war at all?

    The point that always fascinates me – and perhaps you have a view? – is that there may have been no need for Britain to send armies to France at all. My grandfather survived through 14-18, though subjected to several gas attacks, but many members of my family died in France in WWI. My father always wondered whether Britain could instead have kept her armies at home and let food shortages and the Navy win the war.

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