The Great War Symposium: I - The Origins Of The Great War


Professor Keith Robbins, former Vice-Chancellor, University of Wales at Lampeter

17 October 2014


This is an expanded version by Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor for Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, of Professor Robbins’ talk. It contains all his detailed points and arguments, but includes some supplementary factual material.

By 1991, some 25,000 books and articles on the Great War had been written, covering innumerable aspects, and in many languages. The centenary of the war’s outbreak, celebrated (if that is the word) on 4 August 2014, has inevitably resulted in a further flood. Among the titles in English of the first importance have been big studies of the pre-war background by Christopher Clark, Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings and Sean McMeekin, and still more recently by Dominic Lieven and TG Otte.

The blame for starting the war was traditionally laid on Germany, and was enshrined in Article 231 of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919. Germany was deemed to be ‘morally responsible’ for the outbreak of war and what followed. This view was supported during the 1950s by the Germans historian Fritz Fischer and his close colleagues, and was re-stated recently by Max Hastings in his book Catastrophe. However, with the passage of time, without in any way exculpating Germany altogether, historians have moved towards a sort of consensus that the participants after 4 August 1914 had collectively brought about a situation of international tension and conflict, through obtuseness, lack of thought, and lack of imagination. The brutality of the war as it happened was not something they could have realised or anticipated fully, some leading figures perhaps imagining that any war would be short and decisive.

The Sarajevo assassination on 28 June of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek was the immediate trigger for what came later to be called the ‘July Crisis’, but the complex causes of the war go back much further. Some have blamed the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908/1909, some the Agadir Crisis of 1911, and some even the Italian invasion of Libya in the same year. Rather more have seen in the rashness of Austria-Hungary during July as the match which set alight the fire. Yet others have come to the conclusion that Russian aggression and over-readiness to mobilise was the chief initial cause. If there is a geopolitical consensus, it is that Balkans, away to the south west of Europe, next to the terminally declining Ottoman Empire, was the principal source of tension, effectively raising the temperature of international diplomacy, between the great powers to the point of all-out war. The view today is that war came about by a whole series of mistakes and misjudgements about possible consequences, by a large number of men in positions of executive power in several countries, not just one or two. The lack of common sense and long-term goodwill among these men led directly to the catastrophe. It is also realised now that some leaders in 1914 actually expected ‘a long, tedious and bloody struggle’, possibly even ‘a war of extermination’.

Naturally all the belligerent countries found reasons at the time to defend their actions. ‘Our side is right’, or ‘the other side brought this about, not us,’ were common assertions in 1914 and later. In the 1919 settlement, it was inevitable that the Allied victors’ demands would be firmly stated, and that the ‘defeated’ Central Powers, especially Germany, would be required to pay a heavy price.  That ‘victors’ verdict’ was never accepted in Germany. It led in due course to the failure of the Weimar Republic’s attempt at democracy - Germany’s first since unification in 187 - and to the rise of Fascism, alongside the establishment of Communism in post-1917 Soviet Russia. In due course came the outbreak of war again in September 1939, this time with Germany as the unambiguous aggressor. But whereas in 1914 Germany’s entry into the war was greeted with tremendous popular acclaim by German citizens, in September 1939 there was no such public response. Understandably, people feared the worst: the cry was ‘Oh, no, not again!’ In the light of the huge suffering and loss of life in 1914-18, he German public in the late summer and autumn of 1939 had every reason to be sorrowful about the course of events.

Since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 by British and Prussian armies, the balance of power in Europe had somehow held. Whenever war did break out, international conflict was over on a few weeks or months. Only the Crimean War of 1853-6 was an exception to this, and strictly speaking, this was not really a completely European war. Essentially it was a war of the western powers to keep Russia in the Black Sea region, and thus protect the territories of the Ottoman Empire.  The carnage of the American Civil War (1862-5) had been observed from afar by Europe, but no great lessons had been drawn from the savagery and large-scale loss of life there. Yet the American struggle had been the first war in history to be extensively photographed.

When the Triple Entente was established in August 1907 between Britain, France and Russia, there was a change in the overall balance of European power. Germany, a fast-rising nation of advancing industrial power, but on traditionally excellent terms with Britain, though obviously not with France, was increasingly a cause for worry in British diplomatic circles. Unified around Prussia since 1871, Germany was seen by the British press as ‘knocking Britain off its perch’, especially in naval expansion from the late 1890s or even earlier. Yet in the years up to 1914, Russia - that is, the mighty Russian Empire - was seen as much a threat to European stability as Germany, not least because of Russia’s continuing interest in access to the Mediterranean, via the Bosphorus, and thus its support for Slavic countries to the south, especially those in the Balkans. Russia’s complete defeat in the short Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5 was decisive in turning the interests of the St Petersburg government westwards. Of the Balkan countries, Serbia, with its capital in Belgrade, close to the Austrian border, was the most volatile. Serbia had a long-standing toxic relationship with the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, established in 1867, with Vienna as its capital. Both Bulgaria and Serbia wanted part or all of Macedonia, each laying claim to it via St Petersburg.

As far as the Entente was concerned, it was fear of their common enemies which kept it together, as the leading Great War historian Sir Hew Strachan has observed. They had enormous difficulties in agreeing a common strategic plan, and were burdened by deep mutual suspicions. Nevertheless, as time went on, the political bonds between France and Russia intensified. Here were two countries with strong cultural and diplomatic connections, each facing the power bloc in Central Europe of Germany and Austria-Hungary as a potential threat to their interests. When Italy joined the Entente in May 1915, her rulers (as historians have always noted)’drove a hard bargain for their support’. But between 1915 and 1917, the Italians tried and failed eleven times to break through the Austrian lines on the Isonzo River in Slovenia, suffering heavy losses. Also, when the U.S.A. entered the war in the spring of 1917, it was as an ‘associated power’, rather than as a formal member of the Entente.

Britain wanted to be a European power but there were many times when British political leaders wished that it did not have to be. In 1900-1914, Britain lived ‘in splendid isolation’, and could, in effect, stand aside as a world power. Nevertheless, very secret negotiations took place between Britain and France, aimed at mutual national security. Henry Campbell-Bannerman Prime Minister from 1905 to 1908, was party to these, but did not tell the British Cabinet. These agreements committed Britain to doing something in the event of aggression towards France from Germany and her allies, though it was never specifically clarified what this might be.

A major question was: ‘What could Britain provide in the way of armed forces?’ There was no British conscription in 1913-14; any army would need initially to be made up of volunteers. The Foreign Secretary for eleven years, from 10 December 1905 to 10 December 1916, was Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933). He was a country gentleman, a passionate ornithologist and fly-fisher, with no interest in foreign travel. European politicians were baffled by Grey: they had never encountered anyone like him, and had to travel to London if they wanted to see him about anything at all. His long tenure as Foreign Secretary was anything but normal, and has never been exceeded. Grey kept his private dealings with France secret, despite pressure to come clean, notably in 1911 and 1912.

Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) British Foreign Secretary 1905-1916

Many British people felt that there was no point in an alliance with France unless the dangers of war became real. When it did become real, Grey took the view that Britain should join France as a co-belligerent, even though there was no straight moral or political reason to go to war with Germany, and many in Britain deeply regretted the turning of Germany into ‘The Enemy.’ Grey has been accused by many historians of being a weak, dithering Foreign Secretary, who lacked imagination and insight into the consequences of his actions. His policy has been described as one of ‘constructive ambiguity.’ Herbert Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister until 1916, has been judged to be even more myopic and careless in his failures of judgement during the weeks and even the days leading up to the outbreak of war.

Grey’s position was bound up with his nature as a man who left British shore son only one occasion. That was in order to be in Paris on King George V’s State Visit in April 1914. Grey never once visited Germany. Had he done so, he might have gained a far greater insight into Germany’s commitment to Austria-Hungary, particularly over the question of Serbia.  This (to us) bizarre situation was a reflection of Britain’s inward-looking self-analysis, shown in the collective mind of the London Foreign Office. The FO was staffed largely by men of aristocratic or quasi-aristocratic background, like Grey himself. Grey showed no proper understanding of or curiosity about the German of the French mind. It is doubtful that he was ever really in control of events; the practical power was, in truth, in the hands of the civil servants.

Documents about the Entente Cordiale studied by Professor Robbins when he was writing his Oxford D.Phil. in the 1960s on the critics of Sir Edward Grey, reveal an enclosed, self-contained world. In this world, things were expected to go on largely as before, disagreements being held at bay by careful diplomatic negotiation, professional finesse and manipulation. Such a collective mind-set was unable to deal properly with the rapid power-changes and circumstances elsewhere, let alone the powerful and often contradictory mix of personalities, men making the decisions, most of which would prove irreversible.

Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934) French Prime Minister, then President of France

In France, Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934) first Foreign Minister, then President, was a crucial figure, increasingly obsessed with France’s relationship with Russia. Poincaré, an almost exact contemporary of Sir Edward Grey, was a native of Alsace-Lorraine, and had childhood memories of the German invasion and annexation of his home province in 1870.These memories were an essential part of his lasting fear and dislike of the new Germany. Poincaré twice travelled to St Petersburg to secure advantages for France and to cement the Franco-Russian alliance. The first visit was in August 1912, and the second was a formal State visit in July 1914. On the first occasion, he became more aware of the deep Russian involvement in the Balkan Peninsula, the fact that this might well involve a war against Austria, and that Russia was actively encouraging the Serbs and the Bulgarians. The second occasion was on the eve of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, which at that crucial stage was a matter of great diplomatic secrecy in Vienna.

The decision of Vienna to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 enraged Serbia, deeply worried many in Russia, and was one of the crucial pre-war events which in hindsight led to the war itself. There were two bloody Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, involving four states, Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece, all driven by nationalist aims which were, in effect, trying to capitalise on the perceived decline of the old Ottoman Empire. In the great winter standoff of 1912-1913, Russia began to mobilise against Austria-Hungary, encouraged by France, with vacillation from the Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov (1860-1927). It was calmed down by Vladimir Kokovtsov, but led to the emergence of a war party in St Petersburg, of which a key member was the agriculture minister Alexander V. Krivoshein. No one outside Russia could have foreseen the unexpected sequence of Kokovtsov, the conservative Pyotr Durnow and the weaker figure of Ivan Goremykin… a man unable to withstand the pressures from the military establishment in Russia leading to the 1914 mobilisation.

Sergei Sazonov (1860-1927) Russian Foreign Minister

Other factors were the naval arms race in the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey, the emergence of an independent Albanian state (on which Austria was insistent) and the move of Russian foreign policy away from Sofia (Romania) to Belgrade (Serbia).  Though Turkey did not enter the war until November 1915, as an ally of the Central Powers, its aim was always to defend Constantinople against Russian encroachment, and to halt the decline of the Ottoman Empire. An Austro-German victory would certainly have helped to bring this about. At the same time, Russia had never made any secret of its wish for access to Constantinople and the Bosphorus, as a means of reaching the Mediterranean. Trade-offs were made by St Petersburg with other countries (such as Italy over Libya in 1911) to achieve this fundamental aim.

Theodore Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921) Chancellor of Germany

In Berlin, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921), a slightly older figure than others mentioned earlier, but a man described by Margaret MacMillan as ‘melancholy and pessimistic’, played a reasonably statesmanlike role throughout, acting as a brake on the excesses and volatility of Kaiser Wilhelm. Yet Bethmann-Hollweg had to give way in the end to the increasing belligerence of the German military. A good example of the crosscurrents of diplomacy and ultimate indecision was the Haldane mission to Berlin in 1912, to persuade Germany to restrict the size of its army. Bethmann-Hollweg had some sympathy with this. But the mission failed because the Germans wanted a guarantee that Britain would not side with any continental opponent Germany might engage against. To the last minute, the unreliable and unstable Kaiser Wilhelm hoped that Britain would stay out of any struggle between the armies of Germany and France, while reflecting the fear in German diplomatic and military circles of being trapped by a hostile France and a powerful Russia, equally hostile.  Meanwhile in Vienna, the ‘hawks’ were heedless of grave international consequences of their desire to go to war with Serbia, knowing that Germany was certain to come to Austria’s aid.

Views vary widely as to when the war began. Was it in 1900, or 1910, or literally in 1914? Was it inevitable, despite the known instability of power relations in Europe, especially in the Balkans? Or could war have been avoided, through the continuing good relations between Britain and Germany, and the great undercurrent of goodwill between the two counties, symbolised in the British Royal family, and in so many cultural and economic common factors? Kaiser Wilhelm, after all, difficult and unpredictable though everyone knew him to be, was Queen Victoria’s grandson; he, King George V and Tsar Nicholas II were cousins.

The plain fact was that Serbia had changed irrevocably after the bloody assassination in June 1903 of the much hated, repressive, anti-democratic King Alexander Obranevic and Queen Draga by the Black Hand terrorist group. Throughout the years that followed, Austria-Hungary regarded Serbia as effectively a terrorist state. Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 was an assertion of Habsburg power in the face of this, and was encouraged by the former Russian ambassador to Paris, and now Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky, who secretly agreed to support it in exchange for Austria-Hungary agreeing to Russian access to the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean. This became known as the ‘Buchlau bargain’, and was signed on the Buchlau estate in Hungary of Count Leopold von Berchtold (1863-1942) and Lexa von Aerenthal, the Austrian Foreign Minister.

Count Leopold von Berchtold (1863-1942) Austrian Foreign Minister

The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Habsburg throne and Empire), was drawn up largely by Count von Berchtold. It was not answered by Serbia as fully as Austria required. There were ten points, nine of them agreed by Serbia, but the tenth, involving permission for the Austro-Hungarian authorities on to Serbian territory to investigate further the background to the Archduke ‘s assassination, was refused.  This was the only sticking point, though a vital one, and resulted in Vienna’s decision on 28 July to go to war with Serbia.  Berchtold was also part of the rebuttal of Sir Edward Grey’s mediation proposal on 29 July. The one man who could have acted as a restraining influence on Vienna in the interests of preserving peace, the Archduke himself, was now off the scene.  Prime Minister Nikola Pasic of Serbia (1845-1926) a truly remarkable man whose long political career is not nearly as well known as some of the other figures mentioned here, did not have the sense of urgency in the summer of 1914 to use his influence against the idea of all-out war.  Pasic was originally President of the Serbian People’s Radical Party, and had twice been Mayor of Belgrade. He was one of the most genuinely popular political figures of the age, Prime Minister of Serbia five times between 1892 and 1918, and three times Prime Minister of the new state of Yugoslavia from 1918 to his death in 1926.

Nikola Pasic (1845-1926) Prime Minister of Serbia, and later of Yugoslavia; Picture taken in 1919

The roles played by two key Austrian figures, Count von Berchtold and General Conrad von Hoetzendorf (1852-1925), Chief of the General Staff from 1906-11 and again from 1912-1916, deserve a little more comment. Berchtold was one of Austria’s richest men, who married the daughter of one of Hungary’s wealthiest aristocrats. He succeeded Aerenthal in 1912 as the youngest Foreign Minister in Europe. Berchtold was an anti-Serbian hardliner, but in the wars of 1912/13 drew back from intervention at the last minute. He lost credibility, but showed more resolve in the July Crisis, sending Count Hoyos to Berlin to secure agreement for Germany support in the event of war, the so-called ‘blank cheque’. Berchtold led the anti-Serbian ‘war party’, with his Chief of General Staff, Hoetzendorf, at the critical Imperial Crown Council on 7 July 1914, being restrained only by the influential Count Tisza of Hungary.  Berchtold was later forced out of office by Tisza and Hoetzendorf after he said he was ready to cede Trentino and part of the Albanian coast to Italy ; he took no further part in the war, and eventually retired to his vast estates in Hungary. Unfortunately, Berchtold was only one of several leading politicians who did not seem to grasp the likelihood of Russian intervention following any Habsburg attack on Serbia.

General Conrad von Hoetzendorf  (1852-1925) Chief of the Austrian General Staff

Hoetzendorf (known as ‘Conrad’) was an able military theorist and teacher, but not at all a good politician or diplomat. Later in the war he had poor communication with the German Chief of Staff, and successor to Moltke, Erich von Falkenhayn. Poor decisions by him after war broke out led to increased weakness in the Austrian army, which became more and more dependent on German support. Like Berchtold, he had not taken account of a conflict with Russian forces in Galicia, though he did well initially in Serbia, Montenegro and Romania. Hoetzendorf was largely responsible for the Galician failure, and the bloody Siege of Przemysl, and for the disastrous Brusilov Offensive in the Ukraine between June and October 1916, when Habsburg forces under his command lost over 600,000 men to the Russians. He is one of those figures over whom historians have disagreed; for some he was a military genius, for others, an incompetent and short-sighted operator and warmonger.

By the time Russia had mobilised her forces to protect her Serbian ally, with Germany mobilising in response against Russia to help Austria-Hungary - and herself feeling trapped and threatened by the great power to the east - matters were hurtling out of hand. France and Russia saw Germany as seeking to control Europe; there was also a widespread feeling that Germany ‘chose war’ because it did not believe that Britain was likely to join in, having no obvious need or reason to do so.

No one was really firmly in charge in any of the countries concerned. No one thought of war as such as illegal or immoral. For many, the advent of war was not necessarily a terrible thing in itself. Some saw it as a ‘cleansing agent’, a solution to territorial difficulties and rivalries, or even as the inevitable consequence of political interaction between states.  Very few were willing to envisage or acknowledge the level of destruction which ensued. The British government in the summer of 1914 was more worried on a practical level about Irish Home Rule, and what was likely to happen in Dublin. Events proved that they had good cause for anxiety on that issue. But after the German invasion of Belgium, in contravention of international law, there was a growing feeling in Britain that Germany was quite likely to behave in a similarly aggressive way elsewhere.

It is true that Britain, even at the last moment, with an uncertain, divided Cabinet, might not have gone to war had the Belgian invasion not occurred. As it was, Grey made a persuasive speech in Parliament, talking of ‘obligations of honour’. All the way through, the British government insisted that ’we are not committed to war’. Public opinion (without hysteria, or ‘wildly cheering ‘ enthusiasm) was on Grey’s side. There was no belief at this stage that war with Germany would be ‘a glorious experience’. By the time conscription came, the mood had changed entirely to sustained anti-German feeling, setting the pattern for decades to come.

Finally, the old question of ‘structure ‘ and ‘agency’ emerges here. ‘Agency’ is about the ‘how’ of events, the actuality and framework in which these events take place, the outcome of personalities, attitudes and decisions. The notion of ‘Structure’ deals with the ‘why’ of events, the formal or informal relationships between states, and with long-term questions of imperialism, nationalism, and the role of armaments, as Christopher Clark has pointed out. The structure in 1914 consisted of Russia, France, Britain and later Italy on the one side, versus Germany, Austria-Hungary and later Turkey on the other. The international order in Europe collapsed because there was no ‘umbrella’ organisation to oversee and broker agreements. After 1918, the League of Nations, and after 1945, The United Nations, strove to provide the right framework for decisions affecting countless millions. Unfortunately the League and then the U.N. found that Realpolitik conditioned everything, and that, even in the best of times, the international community is a frail, fragile and unreliable entity.

Professor Keith Robbins and Dr Robert Blackburn, January 2016


A short Appendix to the Keynote Lecture on the Origins of the Great War

Although Professor Robbins made no reference to The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson, now Professor of History at Harvard University, that book, published in 1998, was about the causes of the Great War, and created a lasting stir at the time. I have therefore decided to write this section in order to acknowledge Ferguson’s ideas, and his interest in the ‘counterfactuals’ ‘of history. There was much hostile comment from those who did not like Ferguson’s analysis of events, or the conclusions he arrived at. In particular, they resented the view in The Pity of War that there had been no good reason for Britain to enter the war at all in August 1914, given the numerous familial and diplomatic ties between Britain and Germany, and the many cultural links which bound the two countries together.  There was, In 1913, no appetite for war with Germany, and certainly no wish in Germany to go to war with Britain. This was so despite the Schlieffen Plan… the deployment plan devised by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905 to defend Germany in the event of a Franco-German war, which would not involve Russia, but would include Austria-Hungary and Italy as German allies. In the 1960s, Fritz Fischer and several other historians led the way into an orthodoxy of belief that Germany wanted European domination, and was the primary aggressor in the summer of 1914. The Schlieffen Plan, taken over and modified (but never wholly abandoned) by Schlieffen’s successor Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916) bore the brunt of the blame.

Niall Ferguson’s argument was that in 1914, the world was going in a generally good direction, with the tendency being towards a fall in violence rather than an increase. Some commentators, such as Norman Angell, had even argued that in the modern era war was ‘inconceivable’, as nation states had too much to lose. In fact, the great mobilisation of 1914 involved 65 million men from twenty different countries. In 1914-18 there were ten million military deaths, while another ten million civilians also died. The great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed another forty million. Ten per cent of all men between the ages of 15 and 49, in seven countries(including  Scotland) perished.

Yet, Ferguson argues, Germany was not in fact the most militarised nation in Europe in 1914. That position went to France, where the peacetime level of conscription was higher. In 1912, the Social Democratic Party majority in Germany was notably anti-militarist, in a country which had the biggest and most innovative economy in Europe.  Von Moltke, who had succeeded Schlieffen as Chief of Staff in 1906, had warned the Kaiser a year earlier about the terrible consequences of a European war.

In Britain, where the government in 1914 was primarily most worried about what to do about the Irish problem, there was no initial appetite for war. At the outset, the mood was one of expectation and some jubilation tempered by trepidation. The Germans feared Russia above all, not Britain. There were high levels of international interdependence between London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. The British did intervene to try to avert a German defeat of France, but the argument in The Pity of War is that this intervention was far from inevitable, as there was no formal agreement with France. Ferguson went so far as to argue that the main motive for the decision to go to war in the British Cabinet was the fear by the LIberals that they would be superseded in the Commons by the Tories. This has notably been an area of big disagreement between Ferguson and other leading historians of the war.

The Ferguson arguments pointed strongly to Britain’s unprepared ness for the war, to the fact that by January 1915 half a million Frenchmen were incapacitated. The highest losses nationally were in Serbia, where 23 per cent of all men of military age were casualties. The Ferguson view is that Germany would have overcome France by 1916, and almost certainly well before that, had Britain not also intervened. By joining in the war, Britain ensured that it became a protracted war of attrition. Though the Entente powers had a vast superiority in resources, perhaps by a 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 ratio, over the Central Powers, and though Allied expenditure on the war was vastly greater that their opponents, the war nevertheless dragged on for four and a quarter years. The Germans, for all their own losses in manpower, killed 35 per cent more than they lost, and took 30 per cent more POWs than the Allies. Ferguson estimated that the cost to the Germans of killing an Allied soldier was £2300, compared with £7,500 to the Allies for the killing of a German soldier. Four million uniformed soldiers and military personnel died from Germany, Britain and France alone.

Niall Ferguson also argued that because, in his view, the Great War was an Imperialist war, the British Empire was actually much weaker by November 1918 than it had previously been. A crucial part of his argument for the consequences of war (purely speculative) was that a German victory would have avoided the continuing sense of grievance among Germans which resulted from the actual defeat of 1918. Further, it might well have led to a peaceful German domination of a future European Union, economically and politically, such as we have today in the EU. This argument has, of course been largely dismissed by virtually all other historians, especially the implication that the whole era of Fascism and the Third Reich would thus have been avoided.

As it was, by 1918, the key to ending this increasingly violent, destructive and seemingly unstoppable war was to persuade one side to start surrendering. In 1916, Lord Lansdowne has asked: “Shall we call it a draw?” but this was too late in the day. By then men were being shelled from a great distance, form behind the German front lines. The tenacious British view was that ‘we’re fighting so that war doesn’t happen at home’. Despite the great German ‘push’ in the spring of 1918, it was the Central Powers who in the end turned out to be those who surrendered, as a result of military failures and increasing desertions. It had been desertions from the Russian Army which had led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, and Russia’s withdrawal from the war. By midsummer of 1918, the German High Command decided that military victory, offensive or defensive, was impossible. High Command (Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg) turned to civilians to say ‘You negotiate the peace’. From July 1918, German soldiers began to lay down their arms by order of their officers. The U.S. Army’s intervention in 1917, played down by Ferguson, is now commonly agreed to have made all the difference, practically and psychologically, even though the Germans blamed ‘Jews and Socialists’ (of course they would) for their gradual collapse. The prospect of continuing American help on the Allied side, far beyond 1918, was almost certainly a key factor in Germany’s ultimate decision to go for Armistice in November of that year. As the American historian Jay Winter has pointed out, the Germans asked Woodrow Wilson to broker an Armistice, though they knew very well that this would mean the enforced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm. He did indeed abdicate, and was sent into exile at Doorn in the Netherlands after the Versailles Treaty.

The result of the Great War was 5.4 million Allied dead and 7 million wounded, with 4 million Central Powers dead and 8.3 million wounded. Germany lost 22 per cent of its territory, incurred massive debts, and an unprecedented wave of strikes followed in the seriously unstable atmosphere of 1918-1919. The poverty of the returning soldiers - many of them grievously injured - contrasted sharply with the ‘conspicuous consumption of a hedonistic and decadent elite’ in Niall Ferguson’s words.

Ferguson’s edited volume of essays Virtual History; Alternatives and Counterfactuals was published in 1997, a year before The Pity of War. His essay ‘The Kaiser’s European Union; What if Britain had ‘ stood aside’ in 1914?’ is recommended, together with his long Introduction, and Andrew Roberts’ ‘Hitler’s England: What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?’. Also recommended is the review by Professor Jay Winter (Yale University) of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, and Ferguson’s polite response (Institute of Historical Research, University of London, Reviews of History).  This can be found at http: //


Dr Robert Blackburn, Bath RLSI Convenor


A short select bibliography

Clark, Christopher: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914; Viking/Penguin 2013

MacMillan, Margaret: The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914; Profile 2010

Otte, TG: July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914; Cambridge U.P. 2015

McMeekin, Sean: July 1914: Countdown to War; Icon Books 2013

McMeekin, Sean: The Russian Origins of the First World War; Belknap Press / Harvard U.P. 2014

McMeekin, Sean: The Ottoman Endgame; Allen Lane 2016

Lieven, Dominic: Towards the Flame: Europe, War and the End of Tsarist Russia; Penguin 2015

Strachan, Hew: The First World War; Oxford U.P. 1998/2000

Keegan, John: The First World War; Pimlico 1998/9

Stevenson, David: A History of the First World War; Allen Lane/Penguin 2005

Paxman, Jeremy: Great Britain’s Great War; Viking/ Penguin 2013

MacMillan, Margaret: Sleepwalking in the Dark; Review of new books on the Great War by Dominic Lieven and TG Otto, Times Literary Supplement 22 January 2016

Reynolds, David: The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century; Simon and Schuster 2013

Fussell, Paul: The Great War and Modern Memory; Oxford U.P. 1975 

The Stationery Office, London  (no author or editor given): War 1914: Punishing the Serbs (official papers and diplomatic exchanges covering the July international crisis following the Sarajevo assassinations.)  Uncovered Editions, The Stationery Office, London, 1999.  First published in 1915, Cd. 7860.

Ferguson, Niall: The Pity of War; Allen Lane 1998