“Worse than a crime — it was a blunder.” — Joseph Fouché on Napoleon’s execution of the Duke of Enghien
That’s one of my favorite quotes of all time because it can be applied to so many things.
After stumbling across an interview with historian Niall Ferguson a few years ago, in which he described Britain’s involvement in the First World War as the “biggest error in modern history,” I’ve been toying with various What-If scenarios. Speaking to interviewers about his excellent history of the conflict, The Pity of War, Ferguson said, “Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory. What’s more, it would have been in Britain’s interests to stay out in 1914.”
But if we rewind the history tape back only to the summer of 1914, Britain’s declaration of war on Germany became nearly inevitable once German forces crossed into neutral Belgium. Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed 75 years earlier by Britain, France, and the German Confederation led by Prussia (Imperial Germany’s forerunner and Prussia was its most powerful constituent state). Among others. Britain was honor-bound to intercede on Belgium’s behalf, not to mention their Entente Cordiale defense pact with France.
What Britain was not honor-bound to do, although it would have shocked the French had they not, was to send the British Army across the Channel to die by the hundreds of thousands over the course of four ruinous years of trench warfare.
The thought that there could have been a middle ground between Britain sacrificing her honor or sacrificing nearly a million lives is actually borne out by history: The Anglo-French Wars and their even bigger sequel, the Napoleonic Wars. For a quarter-century, Britain stood firm against the Kingdom of France and then against Napoleon’s empire. But rather than sending an army across the Channel with marching orders for Paris (which likely would not have gone well), Britain fought mostly around Europe’s periphery. Britain could pick and choose her battles, probing for weakness until finally Napoleon was undone through a combination of his own folly and a growing anti-French coalition.
Imagine that instead of deploying her army to France to fight Kaiser Wilhelm II where his forces were strongest, Britain had engaged in a much longer series of actions at places of her choosing, where she would have the advantage. Think of it as… The Wilhelmine Wars. I’ve been taking notes and coming up with scenarios for the Wilhelmine Wars as a series of adventure/espionage alt-history novels, even though I probably lack the attention span to ever write them. But the reason — and it’s a typical VodkaPundit convoluted bit of reasoning — I mention the topic at all today, is that I was just reminded how unnecessary the slaughter of World War One was…
…by a new article in The National Interest by Kyle Mizokami, explaining why the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia never had an aircraft carrier fleet.
“Wait,” I can almost hear you say. “Your brain went from Russia’s modern naval problems to avoiding World War One? You’re going to have to explain that.”
And so I shall.
Russia never developed the seapower they wanted because, by geographical fate, Russia is a land power. Huge as Russia is, she has very little coastline, comparatively speaking. Worse, her best natural ports are in places like the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, and the Baltic, where ships sailing for more open waters face gauntlets of enemy air and naval bases. Far from ideal, Russia’s main seapower has been concentrated in the northern Barents Sea. Infrastructure is poor, access is poor, the weather sucks most of the time, and in event of war, Russian ships would have to sail past NATO members Norway, Britain, Iceland, and/or France before reaching open waters. For a nation as comparatively poor as Russia, it’s a problem with no solution. Even if Russia were much richer, having to divide its navy between four major coastlines with zero ability of any single fleet to reinforce the others, is a problem with no good solution.
And yet the Soviet Union persisted in trying to build a great blue-water navy, something which kept a traditional naval power like the U.S. on high alert. The Soviets could cry “Peace!” all they wanted, but their growing fleet was a direct threat to our commerce. The U.S. Navy posed little threat to Moscow’s land-based commercial interests. But the Soviets persisted in a huge naval construction program that was destined to accomplish only two things: Keep us worried about Russian intentions, without contributing anything to a Russian victory. Most of the Soviet navy rusted away at port after the fall of the USSR.
Maybe now you see where I’m going with this?
Imperial Germany was also an impressive land power with a sad little coastline and not much access to the open seas. Nevertheless, Kaiser Wilhelm II (in my mind I always think of him as “that shitty little poseur”) insisted on engaging Britain in a naval race that was destined to accomplish only two things: Keep Britain worried about German intentions, without contributing anything to a German victory. Most of the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet was scuttled by the Brits at Scapa Flow after the fall of the German Empire.
But the waste — the pity of the war, to borrow a phrase — was even worse than all that.
Wilhelm went to war in 1914, confident that he could beat France in six weeks, with or without intervention by Britain’s tiny army. The reason was a famous — infamous, really — planning document known as the Schlieffen Plan. You’ve probably heard of it.
As you may remember from your high school or college studies, Count Alfred von Schlieffen of the German General Staff devised a plan for rapidly beating France. The idea was to leave eastern Germany largely undefended, counting on slow Russian mobilization. The bulk of the German Army would deploy through neutral Belgium (originally Belgium and the Netherlands), with a super-reinforced right wing. The French were expected to have the bulk of their army facing the German left wing in the south to retake Alsace-Lorraine. But that was a German trap. German troops along the French frontier were to stay safe in their fortifications. While the French were banging their heads against German defenses in the south, the Germans would thrust through lightly defended northern France via Belgium, passing west and then sacking Paris from the rear. France beaten, German troops would board eastbound trains to take care of the slowly advancing Russians.
There are just one or two little problems with the Schlieffen Plan, and they had nothing to do with Moltke the Younger weakening the right wing, or the British Army landing in Belgium. The main problem is that Schlieffen’s plan was not a plan for victory. It was merely a paper exercise meant to show that if Germany had to beat France quickly in a two-front war, then Germany would need a much larger army.
John Vincent Palatine wrote in 2018:
Perhaps the most famous – and most misinterpreted military document in world history – but not, as is often claimed, the blueprint for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memorandum” (also known as the “Schlieffen Plan”), written by German Field Marshal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen – dated 1905, the year of his retirement, but probably completed in 1906. It was simply a memorandum – a military-political statement that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opinion) a much-needed expansion of the German army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a current deployment, let alone a mobilization plan.
To accomplish the goals set out in 1905-06, Imperial Germany would need an army of 94 divisions. His successor, Moltke the Younger, had an army of 68 divisions to work with instead.
And why didn’t the German General Staff get the army they said they needed? Because little Wilhelm insisted on building a fleet — a fleet that turned out to be big enough to provoke Britain, but far too small to defeat the Royal Navy. But make no mistake: The Kaiser’s fleet was a dagger aimed at the heart of Britain, even if it proved too small to do the job. Had Germany not decided to challenge Britain on the high seas, the events of 1914 might have been the start of a much smaller, far less tragic war.
Wilhelm’s insistence on a high seas fleet forces Britain and France into an alliance so strong it was unthinkable just a generation before. Without the combined might of both Entente powers to face in the West, Berlin might not have had to wed itself so tightly to Austria-Hungary’s sad fate. Would Vienna, less certain of Berlin’s support, have acted so provocatively against Russia’s Slavic brethren in the Balkans? Under a scenario like this one, without two giant rival blocs eager for war, perhaps Metternich’s “Concert of Europe” could have kept the general peace in Europe for another hundred years.
Barring that more fanciful scenario, had Britain stayed out in 1914, and Germany beaten France and Russia in a hypothetical “Great Continental War,” we’re still left with a much less-awful alternate timeline. German victory might have been complete, but perhaps no longer-lived than Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. Would Berlin have been able to hold onto its multiethnic conquests in the East and West, any more than Austria was able to hold onto its multiethnic holdings in Central Europe? Nationalism was an almost irresistible force in the Europe of a century ago, and Britain could have survived a short-lived German continental empire as well as they survived Napoleon’s. We might have ended up with a map of Europe that looks much like the one we have today, but without all the intervening fuss of two World Wars and a Cold War. Absent a First World War as we know it, maybe there’s no Lenin, no Stalin, no Hitler, no GULAG, no Holocaust. Maybe we’d have a Europe less scarred, more confident.
The thing is, we’ll never know for sure. Which is why in my humble opinion, Kaiser Wilhelm II was the Worst Person of the 21st Century. Because more than any other single person, he unleashed that most unnecessary war, which made the horrors of Fascism and Communism all but inevitable.
What a pity, indeed.