In the build-up to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August, there have been many books, television and radio programmes and newspaper articles debating the inevitability of the conflict. Was a worldwide clash of the great European powers bound to happen, or was it a diplomatic cock-up resulting from slow communications and linguistic misunderstandings which set the world on a course to war which would cost millions of lives and determine the course of the rest of the twentieth century?
Because our books were mostly published before 1914, we have almost no books about the war itself. An exception is the touching War Record of the Cambridge University Press 1914–1919, published in 1920, which gives the military service details of the 252 Cambridge University Press employees who joined the armed forces during the First World War.
The records are of variable length, with the most comprehensive giving the employee’s full name, the regiments in which he served, the areas where he was based, positions held, promotions received and injuries sustained. Out of the 41 employees who lost their lives, photographs of 40 are included: as so often, the fixed stares of the sitters (who were not supposed to smile, and had to hold their pose for a long time) are horribly poignant.
What we do of course have is a very large number of books which describe the political and diplomatic situation in Europe from the French revolutionary wars onwards. To what extent should hindsight be used to argue that Napoleon’s incursion into the German states and his dismantling of the Holy Roman Empire (at first welcomed by progressive Germans) would make even greater the historic enmity and rivalry between France and Germany which resulted in the Franco-Prussian War and the creation of the expansionist German Empire?
Meanwhile, the decline of the Ottoman Empire meant the rise of new nationalist movements and power centres. The Greek struggle for independence became a cause for ‘philhellenes’ across Europe, most famously Lord Byron, and in spite of the internal squabblings of the London Greek Committee, the support of both individuals, and eventually governments, influenced the outcome. At the decisive sea battle of Navarino (now Pylos) in 1827, the French, British and Russians were allies against the Turks.
But by the time of the Crimean War, which began in a quarrel about the protection of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France became involved in bolstering the Turks because neither wanted to see Russian power and influence extended in the Middle East. (An equal concern about Russian expansion in central Asia of course led to the Anglo-Afghan conflicts.) The Crimean War, arguably the first ‘modern’ war, lost lives on an appalling scale, and famously led to reforms such as the abolition of serfdom in Russia (serfs made less good soldiers than free men), the modernisation of the British army, and improvements in conditions of service and in medical care of the injured.
But increasingly the Balkans became the centre of potential strife. The Serbs had managed to break free of the Ottoman empire in two uprisings from 1804 to 1815 (though the last Turkish soldiers did not leave the country until 1867). Attempts to unite with Bosnia were frustrated by the Great Powers (Congress of Berlin, 1878, and all that), who effectively gave Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Then there were the Bulgarian atrocities and the Balkan wars, feudalism versus modernisation, Orthodox Slavs with Russia as their protector versus Catholics (and the odd enclave of Protestants) who looked to the west.
One thing that the media coverage of the build-up to war has brought home is that it appears that even days before the mobilisation of the armies, nobody really believed that Germany and Britain would ever go to war. In spite of ‘Prussian’ expansionism, France – a traditional enemy and a volatile republic – was still seen as the greater menace by a large part of the British population, while the Germans, sober, hard-working, beer-drinking and ruled by Queen Victoria’s grandson, seemed more like our natural allies.
In the background of course was an arms race, especially at sea, and influenced by the theories of naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan. Frederick Jane (founder of the Jane’s Fighting Ships series) and R.P. Hearne discussed both sea power and the new possibilities of aerial warfare, and from this point of view a conflict might be viewed as inevitable – how do you win an arms race without testing the products (that is, of course, in the days before Mutually Assured Destruction)?
But on the other hand, personalities must have played a part. One of the great what-ifs of history must be whether its course would have been different if the German Emperor Frederick, liberal, pacifist in outlook, and married to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, had not died of throat cancer only 99 days into his reign, to be succeeded by his ambitious, militaristic and frankly rather odd son, ‘Kaiser Bill’?
Queen Mary famously wrote to her (German) aunt on 28 July 1914: ‘God grant that we may not have a European war thrust upon us, and for such a stupid reason too, no I don’t mean stupid, but to have to go to war on account of tiresome Serbia beggars belief.’ One suspects that a similar sense of disbelief was the predominant reaction around the world at the end of July 1914.