Above, a line drawing of the Hohenzollern III – Kaiser Wilhelm II’s new yacht. (Click on the image to view full size) The Hohenzollern III was launched in September 1914 in Stettin (now Polish Szczecin) but never finished due to war. She was struck in 1919 and scrapped in 1923 at Deutsche Werke in Kiel.
Today, Monday 4th August, 2014 is as we think every British Gazette will know is the 100th anniversary of the British Empire’s declaration of war against the German Empire. You will note we state “British Empire” and not “UK” – this is because when Sir Edward Grey made that fateful decision he made it not only on behalf of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland but also the dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. At that time the dominions were constitutionally bound to adopt a “common foreign and security policy.” Sounds familiar? Did the dominions have any say in the matter? Yes, to an extent they did. In the form of the Imperial Conferences held from time to time. The UK of course was the major influence. Sounds vaguely familiar?
So, we know what happened. We know the results: All of them from 11:00AM on 11th November 1918 to the present day.
Many of course will ask the great “what if” question. What if Sir Edward Grey had not have had the Empire declare war but restrict the Empire’s reaction to recalling our ambassador from Berlin?
This article is NOT going to attempt to predict the way history could have unfolded between 4th August 1914 and 4th August 2014. That would be complete conjecture and would be a very great tome. This is because that tome has already been written by the Editor. And is it a very long tome indeed!
Instead, this article will restrict itself to a synopsis of possible events between 4th August 1914 and 4th August 1924.
To make sensible predictions one must go to the roots of the factors that caused Sir Edward to make the decision he did. One of the principal factors lay not in the Belgian city of Brussels but the Irish city of Belfast. You see at the time of the German invasion of Belgium, the Liberal government in the UK was struggling with a major divisive issue that was tearing the country’s political firmament apart: Irish Home Rule.
The irish Home Rule Bill had passed its stages and had become an Act having received the Royal Assent, but its implementation was suspended following the declaration of war. The Liberals were seriously worried at the prospect of implementing Home Rule in Ireland. And with very good reason for rebellion threatened. Not from Ireland’s nationalist community, but from the Unionists. Whilst a minority in Ireland as a whole they were in the majority in Ulster and had the backing of the Conservatives. The Liberals were divided on the issue.
We are used to the idea of deep divisions in our politics. We have it today. On Europe for instance. However, were any of those who lived through this period in our history still around, they would tell us that the anger and bitterness on both sides was profound. We see that in the divisions of Ulster today. In June before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Asquith government was preparing to send in the British army to the province to counter Carson’s planned rebellion. They were deeply worried that the officer corps may not follow the government’s orders for they overwhelmingly had sympathies for the unionist cause.
When war was declared Asquith was relieved in fact and commented (privately of course!) that the war was most propitious as at a stroke it took away the government’s most pressing political problems. Asquith was hoping for a short relatively bloodless (in terms of British lives lost) war. That sounds ludicrously naïve but IT WAS NOT.
You see, we are looking at the situation with the benefit of hindsight. And as we all know, hindsight is sometimes referred to as “the fool’s wisdom.” What one has to understand was the fact that the French Army was in fact the second largest standing army in Europe. The largest standing army in Europe was Russia’s. Furthermore, everybody knew what the German plan of attack was. It was the famous Scheiflen Plan. It is a commonly understood piece of martial wisdom that surprise is a weapon. Well surprise was a weapon the Germans had most publicly thrown away! Every armchair General in Europe knew the German war plan:
1. Attack France through Belgium.
2. Defeat France within 60 days.
3. Attack Russia after defeating France.
The problem for Germany was that the plan – even assuming British neutrality – looked risky. Why? Because of the statistics. The combined armies of France and Russia were far larger than Germany’s. Why go through neutral Belgium and why the need to defeat France in 60 day? Why delay in attacking Russia? Because Russia needed 60 days to mobilise her forces (call up all reserves, move the troops into position at the front).
Of course the French and Russian general staffs had a plan. It was called M15. This was for Russia to make an attack on Germany 15 days after mobilisation in the hope that such would force the Germans to pull troops away from the attack on Belgium and France and allow France to reinforce her army with North African and West African colonial troops.
Now you can see why such as Asquith and Winston Churchill thought that the war would be over by Christmas. That is Christmas 1914 (which it was not) not Christmas 1918 (which it was). They felt (in August 1914) that the German advance would be halted before they [the Germans] had broken through Belgium and that with Russia’s advance into Germany in October the Germans would be forced to concede defeat and Asquith could call a khaki election, get a majority without reliance on John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party and introduce a reform into the Home Rule Act setting up an Ulster Assembly in Belfast, thus shooting the Tory fox!
“And with one leap he was free!”
Well, as we know, it did not work out like that. But please understand, what we have described was the conventional accepted wisdom of the time. Why did so many men volunteer to the colours? Because they were genuinely worried that if they delayed the war would be over and they would have missed it! In those days there were young men who would have desired a pretty young woman and will have known that in those days, the father of the girl’s permission WAS required. A girl would rarely marry against her family’s wishes. Furthermore the idea of living together was totally out of the question. No respectable girl would have considered such. Furthermore, the vast majority (and by that we mean 99+%) of girls were virgins on their wedding nights. Please understand, sexual activity outside marriage within the upper classes was ALWAYS with married women. No family would have accepted an unmarried daughter loosing her virginity outside wedlock. Such women were essentially unmarriageable. Tales of elopements was to quote the 10th Duke of Chalfont (in Kind Hearts and Coronets) “one of the clichés of the cheaper kind of fiction.” Many young men will have felt that a two or three month stint in the Army would impress their prospective fathers-in-law. They were not wrong.
OK then. Just let us suppose that Sir Edward (who with Asquith were pursuing their own Foreign policy – the rest of the cabinet were kept in the dark) had restrained the British reaction to a réponse diplomatique?
The result would most likely have been a German victory by Spring 1915. The “miracle of the Marne” might still have happened. However other events on the other side of the world would have caused this to be a temporary setback and would have led to a German victory. These other events would have been the entry of Japan on the side of Germany. Japan’s declaration of war – against Germany – followed the British Empire’s declaration a month afterwards. This was due to the Anglo-Japanese Treaty negotiated by the Marquess of Landsdowne in 1902. Had the British Empire remained neutral, it is likely the expansionist minded military leaders would have lobbied for the government to seize an opportunity to capture that part of the island the Russians called Sakhalin and the Japanese call Karafuto. Japan however coveted far more than a sub Arctic island to the north of them. They would have sought the landmass between the Pacific Ocean and the Amur River that bordered China and their territory of Korea. This would have taken Vladivostok – Russia’s only ice free port. Japan would also have demanded French Indochina (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia). Japan would have approached Germany with an offer; In return for Japanese participation [on Germany's side] Germany cede her modest territories in the Pacific to Japan and support Japanese claims to the aforementioned Russian and French territories. There is no doubt that Germany would have accepted such an offer. It would have effectively secured British neutrality in the event of the collapse of the Liberal government and the arrival of a new belligerent Tory government. Germany’s Pacific territories were minor and would have been a price she [Germany] would be happy to pay. Japanese entry [on Germany's side] would have caused consternation not only in St. Petersburg and Paris. It would have caused such in The Hague, London, and Washington. The growth of Japan as a military and industrial power, had been the principal foreign policy concern of the Dutch for they feared (correctly) for their possession of their sole colonial jewel, the East Indies (Indonesia) at the time, the Dutch possession was a major supplier of the world’s oil. The Netherlands were a small minor European power with a large and valuable colonial possession far away. Japan was much nearer and much more powerful. Furthermore, Germany desired to bring the Netherlands securely into her sphere of influence and the loss of the East Indies would assist this. The concerns of the USA vis-a-vis Japan are well known to British Gazette readers and need not be expanded upon. Needless to say, Germany would be highly satisfied by the end result, a nervous Britain pressured into renewing the treaty with Japan, which now bordered Burma and by extension, India. The inevitable tensions between the British Empire and the USA as a result would be a bonus.
As for how Europe would have looked following a German victory, it would NOT have presented an unrecognisable picture to you, Dear Reader. Russia’s western boundaries would have been pushed back. She would have lost (from North to South) Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Moldova. Western Ukraine was part of Austria Hungary as was southern Poland. The oil rich Caucasus would have been ceded to the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). The aforementioned newly independent states would have German and Austrian princes (of which there were many) as their monarchs. By 1924 there would have been Der Europäische Anschluß. The Kingdom of Belgium would have been broken in two. Dutch speaking Flanders would have had internal autonomy but been pushed into a new United Kingdom of the Netherlands. French speaking Walloonia would have been set up as a Grand Duchy. The rest of continental Europe would have been “encouraged” to join Der Europäische Anschluß.
Military conflict would have continued in Europe after a German victory in Spring 1915. Austria’s nasty little war with Serbia would have ended around Summer 1915. German would have become embroiled in the Balkans. Interestingly, the defeat of France would likely have led to an election victory for the Communists. This would have brought forth military intervention by Germany and her allies. A sort of Spanish civil war but in France. The Bourbons would have been restored to the French throne. Ironically, a Bonapartist prince would probably have been installed as the Grand Duke of Walloonia.
How would this have played out politically in the UK?
Well put it this way; you know how popular Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats are now? Well Asquith and Grey would look with envy on Nick Clegg! Disaster!!!!!! Remember that Labour landslide when Tony Blair entered Number Ten with Cherie on his arm and a relieved John Major left for the cricket match? The Right Honourable, Andrew Bonar Law, Member of Parliament for Bootle (the leader of the Tories) would have been in Tony Blair’s position, except the size of his majority would have been even larger!
Bonar Law however would have inherited a poisoned chalice. He would have taken a huge gulp from it by his first order of business: amending the Irish Home Rule Act to set up an Ulster Assembly in Belfast. This would have destabilised Ireland and have led inevitably to the cessation of the three provinces (Leinster, Munster and Connaught) from the UK. The three provinces would likely have sought entry into Der Europäische Anschluß. The King of Bavaria (the Heir General to King Charles I) would have been declared King of Ireland in Dublin and would have ruled Ireland as Queen Elizabeth II rules New Zealand. Thus Ireland would have two monarchs – the British monarch King George V who would have claimed all four provinces but ruled one and King Ludwig III who would have claimed all four provinces but ruled three. This would not have led to war. English kings claimed France for centuries. It is entirely possible that King George V would have rebranded himself and his Royal House as the House of Windsor, if not in 1917 shortly afterwards.
What would have sealed the Tories fate would have been the setting up of a German naval base on the River Shannon. This combined with a naval base in Antwerp would have caused consternation.
So what would have been the General Election result in 1920? Possibly a Liberal-Labour coalition. What would have been the General Election result in 1924? Possibly Labour. A Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald would have inherited a curate’s egg. Good in parts. The UK’s economic position would have been much healthier than it would have been. The nation was nearly bankrupted by the cost of the Great War. We lost huge numbers of young men. This would not have happened. Furthermore, the economic disruption and ruination of Europe would not have happened on anything like the same scale. The economic effects would have been concentrated on France.
Politically of course it would have been a disaster for the UK. German hegemony would have been established on the Continent of Europe.
Ironically, the nation most effected (economically) by the short war would have been the USA. The USA would not have received the huge transference of wealth from Europe that it did. At the same time Prohibition would have come about bringing with it the concomitant economic and social costs. At the same time she would have been presented with a powerful adversary in the form of Imperial Japan. There would have been no other nations keen to reduce naval expenditure. As a result the USA would have been forced to build the six South Dakota class super super-dreadnought battleships and the six Lexington class super super-dreadnought battlecrusiers on an even smaller budget than they would have had!
It is possible that a US President might have responded positively to a Japanese offer to purchase the Philippines. Possibly at the end of a second term. This would have achieved two things: extricated the USA from a probable conflict with Japan. Paid for those twelve ultra expensive battlewagons.
A final comment: Last night on the eve of the anniversary saw the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games (known as the friendly games) in Glasgow. At the end we saw the athletes of the nations (most not all) once British Imperial domains linked arm in arm singing Auld Lang Syne. A nice touch.