Going Over The Top: A Delayed Start

By David Flin


Previously, I discussed the possibility of the First World War starting as the result of one of the earlier flash points spiralling out of control. In this article, I will look at the situation should the events that led up to the start of the war turned out differently.

It’s at this point that I feel I should declare an interest. I’ve written a story, Bring Me My Bow [Ed. - coming soon from Sea Lion Press], which takes as its central premise that there was no assassination attempt, and so the crisis never arose, and the tensions between the two alliances continues.

It’s a trivial exercise to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand leading to a general war. There are many ways to accomplish this, including: avoiding the assassination, which could simply involve a change of his schedule; having the assassination attempt fail; having Austria-Hungary present less aggressive demands that Serbia could accept; Germany not guaranteeing support for Austria-Hungary whatever happened, but providing more qualified support; Russia chooses not to support Serbia; Germany limits its actions to the east and the Balkans, and manages to persuade France not to intervene.

It doesn’t solve the long-term problem. Sooner or later, there will be a crisis that triggers the complex network of alliances. If not this time, then the next, or the time after that. However, it is a simple matter to avoid a general war breaking out over this particular issue.

The interesting part is what the consequences of avoiding WW1 starting at this time might be. Different causations can easily result in different outcomes. Each of the larger countries have domestic issues, and these will continue to be significant.

Britain Britain had the twin issues of Home Rule and the Suffrage Movement. Irish Home Rule had been a bitterly contested issue right up until the start of the First World War. The Government of Ireland Act was in the process of creating a devolved government for Ireland, only to been suspended because of the outbreak of hostilities. Unionists in Ulster were bitterly opposed to the bill, and had formed the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) with the intention of opposing the enactment of the devolved government, by force if necessary. This was a period when the phrase: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right,” gained currency. A number of British Army officers had threatened to resign their commission should the bill go ahead in the Curragh Mutiny. This led to many Irish nationalists deciding that they would need to depend on paramilitary forces.

How this would have developed is anybody’s guess, but what seems clear is that there would almost certainly have been some sort of violent upheaval, be it from the Unionists or the Nationalists. That could easily have brought about a version of The Troubles, but with 1914 technology rather than 1970-1998 technology. No television crews reporting, no up-to-the-minute updates, just written reports days after the event.

In addition, Britain was facing pressure with regard to the Suffrage Movement, which was in full flow at the time. I cover more details on this in an article on this . The Government was in a bind. It wanted to grant female suffrage, and it was putting forward bills to do so, but it didn’t want to be seen to be giving in to threats of violence. There was also the problem that, in general, the House of Commons was in favour, and the House of Lords dead-set against.

Austria-Hungary Austria-Hungary had issues with regard to the ethnic range in the Empire, and the rising national sentiment among the different groups. This resulted in a general reluctance of the leaders of Austria and Hungary to share power in any meaningful form with the subject nations, which gave rise to unrest among these subject nations, which in turn made the leaders inclined to reduce the influence of the subject nations, and we can see where this is going.

Russia The First World War caused heavy losses for Russia, which resulted in massive discontent, which resulted in the Russian Revolution, which resulted in the Soviet Union, right? Well, not exactly. All of that happened, but it was far more complicated than that.

The "Great Dress Rehearsal" in Russia, 1905

There had already been a revolution in Russia in 1905, brought about by a combination of factors, and which introduced some reforms intended to ease social unrest. Lenin called the 1905 Revolution the “Great Dress Rehearsal”, and said that without it, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened. Whether he was right or not is another matter, but I’m inclined to think Lenin knew a bit about the subject.

What might have happened in Russia in the absence of the start of WW1, but with a continuation of the tensions that were present at the time? It’s possible to argue that change to Russia is coming, and the only detail is what form that change will take, but beyond that, everything is very contingent. Another path to a Communist state might arise, or not. Revolution might arise, or it might be sidestepped. Reforms and democratisation might take off, or unrest might be contained by force – successfully or unsuccessfully.

How might Russia go? Churchill once described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but I rather suspect that it is more complicated than that.

Ottoman Empire The Ottoman Empire had long been referred to as the Sick Man of Europe, with many problems. It had been losing territory in the Balkans. Like Austria-Hungary, it had a wide range of ethnic groups which didn’t always identify with Turkey, Multi-party politics had been restored in 1908, restoring the 1876 constitution.

The various Balkan Wars hacked away at Ottoman involvement in Europe; there was heavy financial investment in the Empire from France, Britain, and Russia in particular. The Ottoman military underwent reforms, to bring it into line with its European counterparts, but without a great deal of success, losing numerous wars right up until the start of WW1.

There were numerous coups and counter-coups in the period, with at least four coup attempts between 1909 and 1914.

However, the big event concerning the Ottoman Empire and the First World War was the Armenian Genocide. There had already been pogroms against Armenians before, the most notable being the Adana massacre of 1909, in which 15,000-30,000 Armenians were murdered by Turkish civilians and soldiers. It was, however, the First World War which gave the opportunity to undertake a programme of eliminating Armenians from the Empire.

Without the war, massacres would have continued, but the coordinated effort would have been much harder. What the impact would have been is difficult to ascertain. It’s possible that the disruptions would have troubled the British, French, and Russian investors in the region, and that could have brought about the flash-point to set things off.

France French foreign policy from roughly 1900 onwards had been aimed at securing allies against German expansion. Culturally, it was a flourishing period, La Belle Epoque. Domestically, it was a period of turmoil, effectively as a result of a collision between the old France of tradition and stability, and the new modern, dynamic France. The separation of Church and State came into force, along with ensuring that the Army was purged of officers likely to oppose Republicanism.

Then the Radical Party, which won the 1906 election with a majority, found that it was being opposed by the Socialists, rather than being able to work with them. This resulted in a lot of strike action, and heavy-handed responses to the strikes. Proposed social reforms were put aside, and reformers opposed. Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau made use of the Army to deal with strikes, gaining the nickname Clemenceau the Killer. France was divided, and for a while, the idea of an external war against Germany to unify France was considered. In 1911, Caillaux moved away from this option, instead promoting peace and conciliation with Germany.


Caillaux’s wife went on trial in July 1914 for murdering the Director of Le Figaro newspaper, who had been attacking her husband in print for three months. She was found innocent, but this trial side-lined Caillaux and his peaceful approach at just the time that events in Sarajevo were growing intense.

France remained in political turmoil, and without the First World War starting in 1914, this turmoil would have continued, and there are many ways things could have developed.

Germany Following the resignation of Bismark in 1890, the political balance in Germany shifted. New Chancellors had difficulties, and Wilhelm II grew more influential. From 1890 onwards, the most effective opposition to Wilhelm II came from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which advocated Marxist policies.

Wilhelm II maintained good relations with the Church and concentrated on opposing Socialism inside the country. This began to unravel when the SPD won a third of the votes in the 1912 elections to the Reichstag, and became the largest political party in Germany. The Government remained in the hands of a series of conservative coalitions, heavily dependent on the favour of Wilhelm II.

Meanwhile, Prussian landowners opposed reforms, fearing loss of their power, prestige, and influence, while liberal educators opposed the state-run schools with their increasing emphasis on military education.

In 1912, several conservative newspapers were writing that the only way to regain national unity to resolve these domestic problems was through a brisk, successful war.

Without the intervention of WW1 starting in 1914, these domestic issues are going to continue to grow, possibly leading to the SPD gaining control of the Government, and putting it on a collision course with Wilhelm II.

How long can plates be juggled? It’s a fairly easy matter to justify WW1 not starting in 1914. The situation Europe was in was like that of an entertainer spinning plates, and having to keep all the plates spinning. Sooner or later, there will be an accident, and one plate will come off, bringing down all the others. Quite when and how this will be is anybody’s guess. What’s more, to extend the analogy, the plates are cracked with internal problems, and the longer they are kept spinning, the worse the cracks are going to get.

Sooner or later, there’s going to be an almighty crash, and a lot of shattered countries.


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