A Failure of Oversight | June 1914

In 1991, in a book about how historians have written about the July Crisis and the wider issues, John W. Langdon counted some 25,000 books or scholarly articles on the causes of the First World War. We can only guess at the total number now. “A lot” is a reasonable answer. I’ve read quite a few recountings of the causes of the war. Some of them have been enlightening, but I can safely say that none of them, but none of them, are actually interesting.

“I wish I were [fond of history]. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome…

Catherine Morland; from Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

(If you’re not particularly interested in a 1,500 word introduction, then day-by-day entries begin here.)

She might have been describing the July Crisis. Recently I tried to work out why I find the July Crisis so interminably boring, and this is the answer. I am an unapologetic lover of social history. Great Men put me to sleep. However, the July Crisis is a gift for Great Man theory. It revolves entirely around a small number of people wielding a large amount of power under the utmost secrecy. Ordinary people are nowhere to be found until the armies begin to mobilise, and then they have to deal with the consequences. Their opinions are treated as something to be moulded and managed rather than respected. (This is the bit of the war I’m most interested in – how do ordinary people deal with the consequences of decisions taken miles over their heads?)

More to the point, there is no way to understand the decisions taken in the July Crisis through studying ordinary people. There is no way to understand the complicated network of political decisions that led to war, other than to delve into treaties and crises. Events kept entirely concealed from the public, as far away from their eye as possible. And it also follows that I’m not interested in apportioning blame. I certainly don’t buy into the myth of a just war to protect liberal democracy against the imperial machinations of the villainous Hun. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the war is senseless and inexplicable. There are a few features of the road to war that interest me. They can be summed up with one sentence. For me, the causes of the First World War keep returning to one thing: a failure of oversight.

In every one of the states that went to war in 1914, we can identify situations in which power is being exercised in unhelpful ways. The power to take literally earth-shattering decisions has either flowed away from its theoretical sources and homes, or is simply being exercised in secret, or both. I also find it very interesting that the “Great” Men whose names are all over the July Crisis immediately disappear once war is declared. For the most part, they’re neither heads of state, nor heads of government, nor chiefs of the military. The war was started by people who did not, in any way, have to be responsible for its conduct or its costs.

That’s not to say that the people at the top were unthinking or stupid, though they may well have done stupid things. Whether they were or not is not important to me. What I think is important was that there was a long tradition in European politics of policy and commitments being made in unusual places, and often by people who were in some way operating outside the theoretical constraints of their position. (If you do happen to be interested in engaging with the July Crisis, you want to do a lot of reading about this sort of thing.)

There’s also a very odd tendency that developed almost simultaneously among all those governments during July 1914, almost a kind of cabin fever, transmissible via diplomatic communiques. A general war between the European powers was by no means inevitable until about the 30th of July (or thereabouts), but long before then, they’d all caught the disease. The disease was a line of reasoning that went something like this: “Our vital interests leave us with no option but to take certain steps in reaction to your actions; and we also consider that you are not constrained in the same way as we are; therefore we have no responsibility for proactively solving this crisis and you must take the initiative.” It led them all to imprison themselves unshakeably on the road to war. Like a cavalcade of mimes, they effectively trapped themselves in boxes of their own creation. And, like the mimes, if just one of them had stood up and declared that their box was illusory, a diplomatic solution could have been found to resolve the July Crisis. It did not need to end in a general European or world war.

Additionally, all the belligerents agreed that civilians had no place interfering with military planning, or overseeing it. Once war was declared, all but a few civilians simply disappear from a story which is primarily about the fighting. The civilians’ job was to tell the military what they wanted to achieve by going to war, and then allow the military to proceed as they thought fit. This principle was, as we’ll see, taken to a truly ludicrous degree, with the effects of pre-war military discussions between various countries never shared with civilian leaders.

After all, why is it any of the British cabinet’s business that the Army has over the past two years effectively committed Britain to sending six divisions to France in the event of war, and worked out a joint naval deployment which has concentrated the Royal Navy’s strength in the North Sea and the Channel, and the French Navy’s strength in the Mediterranean? There are clearly no implications to this whatsoever that might in any way affect either country’s civilian leaders, should they have to make a decision on whether to go to war.

This blog is also an attempt to bring home that the First World War was indeed a world war. Unlike the 1939 war, the First World War is far too often reduced down to simply British and German soldiers, rotting in trenches in Flanders fields on the Western Front. There is so, so much more to the war than just the Western Front. Going day-by-day is an ideal way to draw that out. General histories of the war tend to leave a big yawning gap from (for example) November 1914 to March 1915, as though nothing happened and nobody died between the end of First Ypres and the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Going day-by-day, there’s no excuse to short-change events like the Battle of Sarikamis, the push and shove between the British, French and German Empires in Africa, the brutal early-1915 fighting between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Carpathian Mountains, or even the criminally-ignored Western Front battles fought by the French Army during that winter, First Artois and First Champagne. Word count or page count is not a concern here. We don’t have to worry about nobody buying the internet because it’s got too much blog on it.

And there is one more reason for going day-by-day. One of my favourite books is Eden to Armageddon, by Roger Ford. It provides excellent if rather dry overviews of four theatres of the war. (In turn: Mesopotamia, the Caucasus and Persia, Gallipoli, and Egypt and Palestine.) However, by concentrating on individual theatres in turn, it’s very hard for me to build up a picture of (for instance) what was happening in Mesopotamia at the same time as the landings on Gallipoli. (And, indeed, what was happening on the Western Front, or in Africa, during those days at the end of April.) That’s what going day-by-day solves.

Last point. I have to make some of this funny, it’s the only way I can keep writing about blood and guts and death and destruction for the next four years. Some of it is actually funny, of course. Sometimes it’s not really, and I make jokes about it. (Sometimes the first-hand accounts that I’ll be extensively using make the jokes for me.) Sometimes it’s impossible to talk about some ridiculous happening without calling it a ridiculous happening. Or without swearing, or otherwise making rude comments about people who were involved in some particular cock-up.

Right, that’s enough. On with the story. It’s June 27th 1914. The international mood in Europe is one of short-term calm over a backdrop of gently simmering tension, just waiting for the heat to be turned right up by the hand of fate. However, many of the key players who we’ll be getting to know over the next month are off on their summer holidays. My final thought is borrowed from Winston Churchill. Yes, he was in this war too. As a member of the Liberal Party, even.

I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.

Day-by-day entries begin here.

Leave a Reply