Europe is Mad. The World is Mad. And According to Niall Ferguson, Perfidious Albion is to Blame

World War One is a conflict that inspires great agony in the souls of those who study it. The numbers can wash over to the point where one becomes numb, but when one reads the stories of the men who were there, seeing their friends mown down by machine guns as they stumbled over mountains of barbed wire, asphyxiating as chlorine gas gurgled through their trench, or blown to pieces by an artillery piece five miles away, those numbers become all too human. The question that rises to mind comes simply enough; who is to blame for this crime against humanity? If you read Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, it’s the British Empire who is entirely to blame for both the beginning and length of the First World War. While I wholly agree with the second conclusion, as the French and Russians likely quickly succumb to the German onslaught without Britain in the war, the idea that the British are to blame for the war beginning and would’ve been much better served by staying out of it is a ludicrous one, and an idea I intend to dispute in this blog post.

Niall Ferguson’s argument is as follows: the Germans were not fighting a war of aggression in 1914, but rather a war of prevention, a war they did not want but were obliged to fight following ambivalent British diplomacy as the pressure mounted in late July of 1914. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in particular draws Ferguson’s ire, for his hmming and hawing over the question of British intervention in any potential conflict as the hand of every continental Great Power twitched ever closer to the mobilization order. Faced with the possibility of being jumped by the French, British, and Russians simultaneously, the Germans had no choice but to initiate the war before the Entente could. The Germans, despite being the most anti-militarist country in all of Europe, were dragged kicking and screaming into war by that most perfidious Albion, whose own fears of German aggression were completely unfounded, as the Germans posed no threat to the British Empire and indeed a German victory leaves the Empire all the more stable for the decades to come.

There are… a lot of incorrect conclusions here. But let’s do some justice to Ferguson in this regard; every nation could have done more to prevent the war, and Britain is certainly no exception. A clear position of intervention in the case of the violation of Belgium neutrality might very well have turned the Kaiser off the final order for mobilization on that awful first of August. The Germans were never certain that Britain would honor their pledge to Belgium, getting drawn into a continental slugfest over a “scrap of paper”, as German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg so eloquently called the Treaty of London of 1839. Instead, Grey refused to commit either way, either to clearly state Britain’s protection of Belgium’s sovereign borders or to declare their neutrality, and in doing so only added to the incredible stress on all parties as July ticked down into Armageddon. In this situation, it only takes one cracking of the nerves for the pin to be pulled, and the grenade goes off. The moment came on the first of August, as Kaiser Wilhelm succumbed to Von Moltke the Younger’s begging for mobilization, and the world was lit aflame with a single telegraph.Ravin de la mort a Verdun 1916 / Gueldry - Ravin de la mort a Verdun 1916 / Gueldry - Ravin de la mort à Verdun 1916 / Gueldry

The rest of Ferguson’s argument is so much tripe, to be blunt. Firstly, the concept that Germany was the most anti-militarist country in Europe is so wildly incorrect that it is a difficult thing to even find where to begin. He bases this off a couple of ideas, the first being the presence in the German parliamentarian system of a higher percentage of socialists than any other European nation, and on the whole the socialist wings in Europe were anti-war. He then challenges the famous spirit of 1914, wherein the people of Germany supposedly exploded in euphoria at the announcement of war. Although there were far more socialists in Germany than other nations, the outcome of the vote for war would give lie to this idea that there existed a great anti-war movement in Germany’s parliament: it was unanimously in favor. Sentiment and feelings are useless without requisite action, and though there were a lot of misgivings in German government at the outbreak of war, they moved into it wholly united for the persecution of that war. Also, although the Spirit of 1914 has indeed been overblown somewhat by virtue of historical revisionism in the interwar period(tsk tsk, Mr. Hitler), this much is true: there were massive crowds in almost all major German cities, cheering the coming of the war, and although there was much apprehension to go along with the wider enthusiasm, the nation rallied as one behind the troops when the war began. Determination to see it through now that it was here was the prevailing attitude; hardly anti-militaristic, no?

Jutland

So Germany wanted the war, or at least was not heartbroken to see it arrive. The British declare war and move onto the Continent on the fourth of August, after the Germans invade Belgium in their enacting of the Schlieffen plan. The concept that the German Empire posed no threat to the English is also a fallacious one, as is the idea that the continental behemoth of a post-victory Imperial Germany would have not only peacefully existed with the British, but indeed would have allowed the British Empire to continue on perhaps even into the present day. The Tirpitz plan, German’s design to attain superpower strength through naval dominance, was a direct threat to the British, whose rule of the high seas was paramount to their ability to retain their position at the top of the global pecking order. By 1914, the Germans had the second largest navy in the world, a little less than 40% smaller than the Royal Navy. The bloody nose the British were given in the opening hours of Jutland demonstrates that the German surface fleet, even without being able to strengthen to the full designs of Kaiser Wilhelm before the outbreak of war, was a dangerous opponent indeed for the Royal Navy. A swift defeat of the French(which I maintain is HIGHLY likely without the BEF’s intervention) would have allowed the Getmans access to Belgian and French ports that would have aimed that navy at the heart of the British Empire, London, in addition to the likely overtaking of French colonial holdings in Africa. To say that this would have had no effect on the global balance of power is foolish. A Germany bestriding the Channel, owning most of European Russia, and all of French North Africa knocks the British Empire right off it’s perch, and is hardly a solidifying agent in English hegemony. Mr. Ferguson’s conclusion is erroneous, naive, and wholly divorced from any kind of historical reality.

There is nothing wrong with challenging established historical narrative, it is a central tenet of the profession to investigate narratives with a skeptical eye and it is good to possess a hunger to get to the truth. But this does not allow for baseless speculation, or for crafting a story while ignoring all evidence that would disprove your account of events. Mr. Ferguson constructs an interesting tale that does make one reconsider the history, but his conclusions are simply incorrect and frankly smack of wishful thinking for a world where the sun continues to never set on the British Empire.

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Deus Vult!(?) The origins of the Crimean War

War fought under the pretext of religious fervor is hardly a unique happenstance in the annals of military history. Islam invading Christianized Europe, the Crusades into the Holy Lands by Catholic Europe, Islam-Hindu conflicts in India, the list goes on and on. When we dig deeper, however, we usually find that these “religious” conflicts have far less to do with religion than we would think at surface level. This proves to be the case with the Crimean War as well, a war that ostensibly began over Tsar Nicholas I’s holy duty to protect his Orthodox brethren in the Balkans from Ottoman oppression. In his work The Crimean War, Mr. Orlando Figes makes the case that the Crimean War was indeed a religious war, and that is a claim I intend to dispute in this blog. The Crimean War had far more to do with power politics and the answering of the Eastern question than it did with the religious convictions of it’s participants.

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This is how Mr. Figes argument goes: tensions between the Russians and French are escalated over the question of Orthodox and Catholic rights to certain sites in the Holy Land, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and based on a fairly comical series of mistranslations and diplomatic doublespeak, Tsar Nicholas believed that the British would stay out of any war between his Russia and a nominal Ottoman-French alliance. The tensions over the Holy Land gave Nicholas his pretext to further his ultimate aim: the reclamation of Orthodoxy’s ancient home in Constantinople from the Ottomans and the liberation of his Orthodox kin in the Balkans. Thinking he’s secured the neutrality of the British through diplomatic maneuvering(Tsar Nicholas visited England in 1844 and left with the belief that he had secured something of a non-aggression pact), the Tsar was finally free to realize his holy duty and bring the fight to the Catholics and the Ottoman menace. With one decisive blow, the Russian dominance of the Orthodox homeland would be secure and the sick man of Europe would be in Europe no more.

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The sick man of Europe? This was the nickname of the Ottoman Empire for much of the 19th century, and my my was it well earned. The Ottomans had been declining in power and prestige for decades leading up to the Crimean war, as it’s military strength was consistently drained by the suppression of nationalistic revolutionary movements in both it’s Balkan possessions and revolts in other parts of the empire. The largest of these revolts, the Egyptian uprising led by one Mehmet Ali, was so threatening to the Sultan that he cut a deal with Tsar Nicholas I for help in 1833 via the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi, which gave Russian warships free access to the Turkish straits and essentially made the Ottomans a protectorate state to the Russian Empire. This development was deeply troubling for the Great Powers of Europe, who saw an outright Russian annexation of the Ottoman’s European holdings, including Istanbul, as the next logical step if things continued in this fashion(this was not in the plans of Nicholas, who preferred the Ottomans hold Istanbul but remain a weak state dependent upon Russian protection for the time being). This state of affairs was, quite simply, unacceptable; a Russian dominated Balkans would turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake and grant them access to the Mediterranean through any number of warm water Balkan ports. The balance of power in Europe would be exploded in a single fell swoop.

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So yes, the British and French will be moving in a very realpolitik manner into this war, but Mr. Fige’s argument is wholly based in the Russian religious reasoning for war, and so we must grapple with that if we are to disprove his thesis. Up to this point, I’ve made a point to avoid the use of one critical word in referring to the Balkans: Slavs. Beyond being the Emperor of the Orthodox, Tsar Nicholas was also Emperor of the Slavs. To say that the Slavic populations of the Ottoman Empire chaffed under Istanbul’s rule would be something of an understatement. Tsar Nicholas I took his role very seriously on both fronts, and that the Ottomans were increasingly unable to resist foreign influence would have presented him with what must have seemed an excellent opportunity to free his religious and ethnic kin. With the rise of Pan-Slavism in the 1840s, Tsar Nicholas was in a political climate that encouraged thinking along racial/ethnic lines in approaching foreign policy. For example, in the discussions that attempted to prevent the war in 1853, the Sultan, encouraged by British diplomats, conceded the contentious religious rights of access to the holy places to the Orthodox faithful in the Holy Lands, but because the Ottomans refused to release the Slavic states in the Balkans into independence as Russian protectorates, the Tsar refused to accept the compromise. Had his intentions been purely religious, this should have been an acceptable compromise for Nicholas. To presume that Tsar Nicholas was only motivated by his racial duty to his Slavic kin would be naive as well. Tsar Nicholas had been aggressively expanding his empire over the course of his reign, in such wars as the Russo-Persian conflict and had been nicknamed the gendarme of Europe for his constant attempts to meditate by the threat of force of arms over revolutionary proceedings in Europe. He was vehemently reactionary, and his foreign policy towards France(who would fight his empire with far more vigor than the British or even the Ottomans in the upcoming war) was influenced by what he saw as a personal betrayal when his personal friend the duc d’Orleans ascended to the French throne as Louis-Phillipe, making him king of a liberal(!) constitutional(!!) monarchy. In his personal writings and in his public discourse, he was consistent in his desire to subjugate, not conquer, the Ottomans, exemplified in this statement of his from an 1833 meeting with Ficquelmont, Field Marshal of the Austrians.

“I know everything that has been said of the projects of the Empress Catherine, and Russia has renounced the goal she had set out. I wish to maintain the Turkish empire… It if falls, I do not desire its debris. I need nothing.”

Though annexation wasn’t on the table, his desire to create a Balkan, Slavic protectorate state was never in question, and this was still not acceptable for the Concert of Europe.

The Crimean War is endlessly complicated in both it’s origins and it’s actual fighting, with the confused threads of history merging to create a war that nobody really wanted fought to prop up an empire that had been the pariah of Europe for nearly four hundred years of that continent’s Christian history. It is a terribly messy affair, but to classify it as a religious war as Mr. Figes does is incorrect; it was far, far more than that. Religion used as a pretext does not a religious war make, and it was little more(though more it was) than a pretext in this most convoluted of conflicts.

Revolution without Revelation: Napoleon’s Military Brilliance

Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, weaved a military career of nearly unsurpassable brilliance in the opening decade and a half of the 19th century. His is a name synonymous with military genius and tactical prowess, with such battles as Austerlitz, Eckmuhl, and the clash at the Pyramids springing to mind easily enough. However, there is hardly a more suspicious thing when it comes to historical truth than wide consensus on a question of such subjectivity as genius. In this blog, I’m going to be examining the claim that Napoleon was a military genius. Ultimately, Napoleon’s tactical innovations along with his crafting of the greatest army the world has ever seen lends much credence to the idea of his being a transcendent mind of the battlefield.

So what is genius? According to the John Templeton Foundation, genius is defined centrally by brilliance of the mind, with this brilliance being complemented by a relentless work ethic and an imaginative disposition. From what we know of Napoleon the man, he certainly encompasses these qualities, especially insofar as work ethic goes. But it should be fair to also say that genius, if these indeed are qualities thereof, must create and create brilliantly. So in asking ourselves the question of Napoleon’s being a genius, we should examine first and foremost what he crafted. And what he crafted was very impressive indeed.

Le Grande Armee. Even just the name causes a wave of images to crash through the mind; cuirassiers resplendent with gleaming breastplates and plucked plumes atop mighty warhorses ready to smash through an Austrian regiment. The bright blue and red uniforms of the fusilier line infantry whose fierce devotion to their commander and their eagle standards created the bedrock upon which Napoleon built his most famous victories. And of course, the Old Guard, those creme de la creme who had served with Napoleon through at least three campaigns and who served as the hammer blow which shattered a shaken opponent time and time again over the course of the Napoleonic wars. The Armee was, at it’s height prior to the invasion of Russia in 1812, a force that numbered over 685,00 men, and quite simply had no equal among it’s contemporaries, and in my own opinion, has no equal in all the annals of military history beyond perhaps the army of Alexander in Persia and the Imperial German Army of 1914. The combination of colossal size (relative to its contemporaries), the magnificent esprit de corps within the ranks, it’s highly flexible organization of corps acting independently but never straying more than a day’s march from each other, and it’s logistical system that kept it’s men well fed and well equipped through…. most of Napoleon’s campaigns, made it a force without equal on the continent at the dawn of the 19th century. The Grande Armee was Napoleon’s masterpiece even more than Austerlitz, and he deserves full marks for what he created. But so too does Von Moltke the younger deserve full marks for the Imperial German Army of 1914, a wonderful fighting force he played no small role in creating, but he is hardly classified a military genius(and for good reason). It is all well and good to create a fine army, but what you do with it is what really counts, and here Napoleon also exhibits his credentials.

One of my favorite managers in world football is one Jurgen Klopp, a hard driving German who has found a very unfortunate place of occupation at present. He trumpets an idea of “heavy metal football”, which is all running and speed and ferociousness in the press and in the attack. He understands something most don’t: the essence of football is intensity and vigor, and in this it is similar to warfare, where the question of speed and ferocity can usually determine the outcome of a battle. Napoleon is famed for his incredible intensity and work ethic, and this virility was reflected in how he conducted his battles, with a combination of brilliant planning prior to the joining of battle and a whirlwind of violence once the opposing armies clashed. Opponents were constantly surprised when French brigades popped up where they shouldn’t have(ala the mist of Austerlitz and the storming of the Pratzen Heights). Napoleon was an artillery man at heart, and his innovations in this arm of warfare are worth investigating. One issue with artillery when Napoleon was first beginning his career as an officer was the preponderance of the standard batteries of cannon, which would usually have to be placed prior to battle joining and could not be moved with anything approaching quickness while the conflict raged. Like many of Napoleon’s other innovations, here he did not revolutionize, but renovated; he took a tactical unit which had previously existed, the horse artillery(a wing of the calvary which brought small cannon with them into battle), and transformed it into the flying battery, a unit of slightly heavier cannon with large horse teams pulling them with a speed equivalent to horse artillery that could be rapidly deployed in force to problem spots or areas where the enemy was weakening to provide quick and accurate cannon fire. This was not the only tweak Napoleon introduced to the artillery; in the grand battery Napoleon showed he comprehended the need for intensity as well. Used in such battles as Austerlitz, Friedland, and Wagram, the grand battery was a temporary conglomeration of every available battery into one massive(grand) battery, with the fire of this grand battery concentrated at a single point in the enemy’s line in hopes of effecting a breach. These artillery innovations coupled with his sterling record in battle over his career show that he couldn’t just create a hell of an army, he knew how to use it too.

Napoleon has well earned his moniker of military genius, having constructed an army of unmatched ability and wielding it with similar competency. It is easy to imagine that Europe would have been French-dominated for much of the 19th century if Napoleon had not made that fateful leap into Russia, with the Grande Armee remaining pristine and well, grand. But regardless of his later strategic blunders, his tactical brilliance is impossible to contest.