POLITICIANS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR
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.