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The War That Changed The World
In the summer of 1914 the nations were at peace and the future seemed serene. Then the guns spoke, and things would never again be the same
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
The British clung to the old formula of a naval war, in which the small professional British Army would fight with one eye always on the line of retreat to the channel ports; and they wound up with conscription and neck-deep immersion in the kind of continental war which they had hoped at all costs to avoid. And the Russians, as blind to reality as any people that ever lived, set out brightly to capture Berlin and ruined both their military machine and the dynasty which that machine was supposed to protect.
By the end of August all plans had failed. The war had got entirely beyond any man’s control; the only thing that was certain about it was that it was going to go on, all-consuming, drawing in all the world, infinitely destructive. Mrs. Tuchman underlines it: “The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”
There has been no exit, which is why 1914 was such a prodigious turning point. It destroyed the old European society, the old European controls, the stability of the entire world structure. All that has happened since—the rise of monstrous dictatorships, the collapse of colonial empires, the Second World War, the uneasy time in which a world that has lost its equilibrium struggles so painfully and at such mortal risks to find a new equilibrium—all of these things, which we have had to live with, followed inexorably on the First World War.
Many things led up to the First World War. One element certainly was the overpowering fascination that the machinery of destruction exerted on the minds of the men who had the war in preparation. That earlier armaments race was, to be sure, a symptom of society’s progress toward disaster rather than a primary cause of it, but it was a symptom that deserves careful study. At the very least it was an indication that nations which rely too confidently on their ability to wreak destruction may find in the end that it is the only reliance they have.
The classic case, before 1914, was the great naval race between England and Germany, and this comes up for examination in a thoughtful survey by Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow , of which Volume I, The Road to War , is now out.
The Anglo-German naval race, which contributed a good deal to the rising tensions that led to war, was a comparatively short-lived thing. Until some time after 1900, as Mr. Marder points out, England was “building against” France and Russia—nations which were to be her allies when the war at last came. England was following the two-power standard; that is, her navy was to be at least the equal of the next two strongest navies, so that the empire would be secure even if those “next two” combined against her. Until the new century was several years old, it seemed likely that England must some day fight the French and the Russians, and her building program was shaped with that danger in mind.
Then the picture changed. The Russo-Japanese war ended Russia’s naval pretensions. Germany came to look more and more like a nation that might rise to dominate Europe, and in the face of this threat the French forgot their old antagonism toward England. At the same time the Kaiser began to build a battle fleet, with a good deal of carefree talk about getting so strong a navy that even the world’s mightiest naval power would think twice about making war with Germany. The British immediately readjusted their sights and began to build against Germany.
Oddly enough, the British fleet, immense as it was, had somewhat gone to seed when this race began. It had not fought a full-dress war for nearly a century, and it had grown slightly ossified. Encased in a spit-and-polish routine, it was by no means ready for battle. It was brought up to the mark chiefly by the energetic exertions of two remarkable men—Admiral Sir John Fisher, who was First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910, and Winston Churchill, who was made First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911.
It was Fisher who brought in the dreadnought— H.M.S. Dreadnought , specifically, the all-big-gun battleship that made all other battleships obsolete and compelled every navy on earth to rebuild its battle fleet. In a way, this was a disadvantage to England; with everybody starting from scratch, the old overwhelming margin of British superiority disappeared, and Germany’s chance to build a fleet that could fight the British with at least a fair chance for victory was greatly increased. But Fisher saw to it that Britain built faster than Germany, maintaining a substantial margin of superiority.
Naturally, this was enormously expensive, and in 1912 German and British statesmen undertook to see if they could not find a way to end this competition and work out some agreement that would freeze the two fleets at a mutually satisfactory level. The effort failed because the diplomats went off on opposite tacks. The German position was: Let us work out a political agreement between our two countries, and then a naval agreement can easily be made. The British put it other end to: Let us work out a naval agreement, and then we can doubtless reach a political understanding. The result, of course, was a deadlock, and the race went on.