Going Over The Top: We Will Remember Them

By David Flin

It’s been just over a hundred years since the First World War came to an end. It was a war that, directly or indirectly, led to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, transformed the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, and forever changed European society. It changed the European perception of war, changed the demographics of all the major participants, delivered a shock to the societies of those involved, and brought a definitive end to the “long century”.

In addition, so much of the First World War is very contingent. If Germany hadn’t attacked France through Belgium, if Gallipoli had been an Entente victory, if tanks had been held back at the Somme, and only first used when there were sufficient numbers to make an impact, if Germany hadn’t started unrestricted submarine warfare. Many of the possible changes could have brought about a very different world.

And yet Timelines involving changes starting in the First World War are comparatively rare. It’s almost as though the 1914-1918 is now seen as such a senseless slaughter that the world does its best to forget it ever happened, except for a couple of minutes every 11th November when people pledge to always remember the fallen.

Timelines based about WW1 are certainly few in number compared to timelines based about WW2. When one considers the essential imbalance in the comparative strengths of the Allies and the Axis in WW2 (America, with industrial output vastly exceeding that of the entire Axis; the British Empire, with its dominant Navy, mostly totally inaccessible to attack by the Axis and with access to all the important material resources of war; and the Soviet Union with vast tracts of land into which the Axis has to go to defeat a foe with greater industrial and manpower), WW2 is essentially the story of how the Allies win, not who is going to win. By contrast, WW1 is comparatively on a knife-edge, and the outcome can easily be very different.

I feel that this is something of a pity, and this series will look at various elements of the First World War, try to glean what actually happened (as distinct from the myths that have become accepted fact), and what might have gone differently.

The First World War came about because two power blocs had developed, each in direct opposition to each other, and a situation arose in which these two blocs were drawn into a confrontation that neither felt it could back down from. Each of the two power blocs, the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, were roughly equal in strength, and it was this very fact that had prevented war through earlier crises.

This is the first contingent point. There is no particular reason why the two power blocs had to consist of the powers that they did.

The Triple Entente

This consisted of France, Great Britain, and Russia. Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Bismark of Germany had worked to isolate France from acquiring allies, with the intention that this would ensure that France did not have the strength to reverse its losses during that war. Bismark resigned as Chancellor in 1890, and soon after, France began to be less isolated. The Franco-Russian Alliance was signed in 1894, promptly exposing Germany to the prospect of a two-front war should war come about. The Entente Cordiale between France and Britain was formed in 1904, with Britain’s aim being to ensure the balance of power on the continent was maintained. The Anglo-Russian Entente was signed in 1907, bringing about the Triple Entente.

Already we can see a number of things that could easily be changed, possibly to the detriment of the Entente. Britain has long had the policy of ensuring that no one power dominated on the continent, and by 1905, the power closest to that position was Germany. Opposing Germany is logical from a British point of view, although the country was only just emerging from a period of Splendid Isolation. However, Britain has a number of issues with allying with Russia in view of Russian activities in central Asia, the Great Game in India, and the British alliance with Japan causing Russia issues in the Far East. Meanwhile, Britain and France are competing colonial powers, with any number of potential flashpoints around the world: Egypt, Morocco, Newfoundland, West Africa, Central Africa, Thailand, Madagascar, and the New Hebrides were all issues of dispute of varying degrees of severity.

Britain had held discussions with Germany on three occasions between 1898 and 1901 with the prospect of joining the Triple Alliance, but these discussions broke down each time.

Separating Britain off from the Triple Entente is easily achieved, although getting Britain into the Triple Alliance is much harder.

What happens if Britain remains neutral during WW1?

Despite the huge losses, manpower, and industrial commitment by Britain to the Western Front, this isn’t where the biggest impact British neutrality has. The blockade hampered Germany significantly. There are debates about how much Germany was affected by the blockade, but by the end of the war, the German economy was crippled. Food shortages were such that starvation had claimed the lives of about half a million Germans by the end of the war. This led to riots and revolutionary uprisings. There were also shortages of fuel, fertiliser, and the raw materials for explosives.

No British involvement means no blockade, and in a lengthy war, Germany is probably going to come out on top, all else being equal.

No blockade of Germany also means no German attempt to retaliate by unrestricted submarine warfare, which in turn means much less pressure for America to enter the war.

All of this, of course, presupposes that the neutrality of Britain doesn’t simply result in the Germans reaching Paris, forcing France to concede, and then turning its full weight against Russia.

The Triple Alliance

This consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, signing the agreement in 1882. Romania joined in 1883, although it remained called the Triple Alliance.

Romania secretly joined the Alliance, seeking support from Austria-Hungary in the event of conflict with Russia, Serbia, or Bulgaria. However, Austria-Hungary and Romania had numerous disputes during the period, and Austria-Hungary carried out numerous policies that were directly against Romanian interests.

While Germany and Austria-Hungary had a close relationship, Italy remained something of a peripheral member. Italy and Austria-Hungary had competing interests in the Adriatic, the Aegean, and the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary had to be pressured by Germany into consulting with Italy prior to any attempts at territorial adjustment in these areas. The relationship between Austria-Hungary and Italy was not good. In 1911, the Austrian general staff was openly advocating a military pre-emptive strike against Italy.

Surprisingly enough, these actions did not endear Austria-Hungary to either Italy or Romania, and when the First World War did break out, both Italy and Romania initially remained neutral, both citing the fact that the Alliance was defensive in nature, and only required them to provide aid if other members were attacked, and that Austria-Hungary had taken the offensive against Serbia, and had not been attacked.

Italy had also been in discussions with France, and in 1902, reached a secret agreement that it would not attack France in the event of France being attacked elsewhere.

However, it’s clear that the diplomatic efforts of Austria-Hungary were such that it managed to drive two allies into avoiding providing any assistance, and once the war started, both Italy and Romania joined the Entente in fighting against Austria-Hungary. To slightly adapt Lady Bracknell: “To lose one ally may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like incompetence.”

What if Austria-Hungary had a touch of sanity about conducting diplomacy?

If one looks in detail at the diplomatic efforts of Austria-Hungary from the signing of the Triple Alliance until the start of the First World War (1882-1914), one is left with a feeling of awe at the levels of idiocy displayed. If you took the greatest diplomats from all the ages, gave them the position of Austria-Hungary in 1883 once Romania had joined the Triple Alliance, and told them to make the situation as bad as possible for Austria-Hungary, they couldn’t do a more complete job than was actually achieved.

It would be the subject of a large book to go through in detail what was achieved; from creating internal divisions within an ethnically divided Empire, angering supposed allies to the extent that they join the other side, refusing to listen to military assessments of weaknesses, reducing morale within the Army, the list is endless.

As a result, it’s trivially easy to come up with changes that result in a more effective diplomatic effort by Austria-Hungary, possibly enabling a situation where one or other or both of Italy and Romania remain neutral throughout the war. That takes some of the pressure off of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, possibly leading to greater pressure on Russia, and a possible earlier collapse of the Russian capability to continue the war.

The Balance of Power

The theory behind the system of alliances was that both sides were equally strong, providing a deterrent to a major war starting. In fact, the system worked quite well up until 1914. There were numerous crises that developed, including the Fashoda Incident (1898), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), the First Moroccan Crisis (1905-6), the Casablanca Incident (1908), the Bosnian Crisis (1909), and the Agadir Crisis (1911). These were followed by two wars in the Balkans, before the events in Sarajevo in 1914 proved to be the trigger for four years of mass slaughter.

In the next article in this series, I’ll look at the implications for an alternate history in a general war developing from one of these earlier incidents.

Discuss this article