The Price Of Victory

Think of it as the world’s worst industrial accident

It’s a little weird if you tune into a British TV show around this time. Everyone is wearing red paper poppies in commemoration of soldiers killed by wars in general, and what is still sometimes called the Great War in particular. Strange, not just because they happen to be fighting one even as they mourn the tragedy of it all, but because debate rages over this conflict even today. Was it, as some argue, a stupid and pointless waste of human lives? Or as others say, an utterly mindless massacre of innocent people? We may never know for sure.

There really have been attempts recently to rehabilitate this war. It was once common to explain it as a tragic chain of circumstances. Surely such a terrible tragedy could only have been unintentional.

But it is becoming more common now to hear that, far from being accidental or tragic, it was a necessary and even heroic action to curtail the ambition of a warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Is that true? It certainly is a more positive way to see it.

The only problem is, it differs from the British propaganda of the time in almost no respect.

Yes, Germany had been getting more belligerent. Wilhelm was indeed a war-happy idiot, childishly envious of his cousin’s ships. His empire had been growing in wealth and strength rapidly since its formation nearly half a century before, and was eager for opportunities to flex its muscles. That opportunity came with what might otherwise have been a local Balkan conflict, as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires scrambled for the territory of the (even more) moribund Ottoman one. Turning it into a Europe-wide conflict gave Germany a chance to elbow aside France and dominate the continent.

True enough. The only problem with this narrative is that the British in their turn were only too happy to escalate a European conflict into the first ever global war.

Having pioneered industrial manufacturing Britain was still the greatest power on Earth. It had however watched the rise of German industry, technology, and military might with trepidation. The imitator looked like it would one day outstrip the master. An arms race had being going on for over a decade and some believed that war with Germany was inevitable – and that therefore the sensible (if Machiavellian) choice would be to have one sooner rather than later. This is really the only way to explain why the largest empire in the world went to war over the invasion of Belgium. I mean think about it. They couldn’t have liked chocolate that much. Britain was eager for war. We often hear that they kept saying it would “all be over by Christmas”. What we forget is that they said this because they liked to think of the Germans as a bunch of primitives they could crush without much effort.

Without the entrance of history’s largest empire into the conflict, what would have happened? We can never know of course – hell, we can barely know things in the past that did happen, never mind ones that didn’t – but it seems more likely at least that France would’ve fallen and Germany would have been able to concentrate on a war with Russia that might have continued for years. I’m not sure if it’s even technically possible to defeat Russia. How would you know you had?

But eventually Germany probably would have gained hegemony in continental Europe. Big deal. And without its population devastated, Britain would have continued as a global power for much longer. The Russian revolution wouldn’t have happened, the US wouldn’t have had its first taste of global military intervention – or experienced the boom that turned into the Great Depression either. The conditions that gave rise to the Second World War would never have been in place. And of course, millions fewer would have died.

I think there are a couple or lessons here. One is that war is always inevitable if you want it to be. The other is that, it tending to have vast and profoundly unpredictable consequences, it might be better to hold off on war until you really do have no other choice. But that wouldn’t be a welcome message just now.

 

11/11/11/11 – A Monument To Worthlessness

Serbian retreat through Albania in 1915.
Peace

The British seem to be going particularly overboard for poppies this year, presumably inspired by the calendrical happenstance of all those ones lining up in a row. But unthinkingly, they only emphasize the tragic aspect of this occasion.

Why eleven? The agreement to end hostilities had been signed more than five hours earlier. The war officially ceased only at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month because that seemed a suitably grand and historic way to end a ‘Great War’. So they kept on fighting, and they kept on killing, until that eleventh hour came.

How can one feel anything but contempt for that?

But this act of inhumanity was just the start. The victorious powers chose to accept no portion of blame for the hostilities. On the contrary, and despite the fact that a great deal of the credit for the war’s end belonged to the German people for rising up against their leaders, despite the fact that the Kaiser had abdicated and the empire been abolished, they chose to heap all blame – and punishment – onto the people of the new German democracy. The terms of this ‘armistice’ would lead directly to disaster on a previously unimagined scale.

This hour marks not the end of war, but the beginning of revenge.

The Lusitania Mystery

A warning issued by the Imperial German Embass...
Don't say we didn't warn you

The Lusitania – remembered throughout the Western World as “you know, that other ship that sank”, but actually a disaster of virtually the same scale as the Titanic. And perhaps, far greater consequence.

Far greater, because its sinking in 1915 just off the Irish coast arguably brought the United States into the First World War, turning its tide and changing the course of history. Arguably, because if you say this historians will argue with you. And this is not the only aspect of the disaster that remains controversial. Hit by a single German torpedo, the ship was shocked by not one but two explosions. Was it secretly carrying munitions to Britain? If so, then sinking it wasn’t the mindless act of German aggression against civilians that the British made out in their propaganda, but a legitimate act of war. Right?

This rumour was exacerbated by the apparent fact that the British dropped depth charges on the wreck in the 1950s – presumably to destroy the evidence that the Germans were perfectly justified in sinking it. Because the Americans would be so pissed if they found out that they were tricked into joining a war they won by… by secretly smuggling weapons to the British unbeknownst to themselves.

Unfortunately for the theory it had been known since precisely all along that the Lusitania was carrying weapons. They’re in the cargo manifest. It’s just that it was rifle ammunition and the non-explosive parts of shell fuses, which wouldn’t explain the second explosion. There must therefore have been some other sort of weapon that they were keeping secret, but which would have justified the Germans sinking the ship if they did know about it – which they didn’t because otherwise they would have mentioned by now I think – if they needed any more justification, which they didn’t.

What I’m broadly saying here is that this is not a very good theory.

Besides, the Germans were trying to blockade Britain for Christ sake, they were going to make an exception for luxury liners? Just wave them on through? “Don’t mind us, we’re having a war.” They had even warned potential passengers that they considered the liners targets [See Illustration]. The Cunard shipping line just took a gamble, and it didn’t pay off. Not even a little.

It seems likely that the second explosion was merely the ship’s high-pressure steam turbine system rupturing. In all probability the US would have joined the war eventually. Even if they hadn’t the French and British should have won anyway, having access through their vast maritime empires to far greater resources than Germany and Austria-Hungary. So the sinking of the Lusitania is probably the greatest non-mystery in the history of disaster at sea. And it may soon be solved!