Yesterday’s article commemorated the 100th anniversary of the British Empire’s declaration of war against Imperial Germany. The speculation contained within the article was of course based on a false premise: That Turkeys Vote Early for Christmas. The fact of the matter is that they rarely if ever do.
The fact of the matter was that Sir Edward Grey was going to commit the British Empire to a war had Germany had crossed Belgium’s frontier.
There is then an interesting question here: Could Imperial Germany have won the war?
The answer to that was almost certainly yes but it would have involved one important development: keeping the British Empire out of the war. The Germans were of course hoping that the Asquith government faced with the problems it had, would confine it’s displeasure to a réponse diplomatique. That was the fateful gamble they took.
Shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff was summoned to an audience with the Kaiser who had been told by Prince Karl Lichnowsky (the German Ambassador in London) that Sir Edward Grey had offered British neutrality if France was not attacked. Prince Lichnowsky’s communiqué was wishful misinterpretation by the ambassador. Armed with this news however the Kaiser, seeing that a two front war could be avoided, told Moltke to reverse the western front forces to the eastern one against Russia. At this, Moltke refused, arguing that such a drastic alteration of a long planned major mobilisation could not be done without throwing the forces into organisational chaos and the original plan now in motion must be followed through. However, years later, General Hermann von Staab, head of the German railway division, wrote a book detailing a contingency plan that the German army had for such a situation.
The reason for Moltke’s disobedience then was clear: He himself was convinced that his famous plan – the Schlieffen plan – was the means with which Germany would win the war. No commander would set out to loose a war.
OK then, we know that Prince Lichnowsky read into Sir Edward’s comments made to him far more than he should have done. Prince Lichnowsky was desperate to avoid a war between Germany and Britain and in fact wept openly in front of Sir Edward after the declaration. We also know (due to General von Staab’s admission) that Moltke lied to his Sovereign. There was a “Plan B”!!! Being lied to is something of an occupational hazard for British and German monarchs!
Therefore let us speculate on a “what if” :- What if Moltke had done what he SHOULD have done: Obeyed his Sovereign. True, the Kaiser was acting on false information. But he did not know that. This of course is PRECISELY why the job of ambassador is so important.
It is a reasonable assumption we think to describe Plan B as most likely to have been:
- Mass as many troops as prudently possible for an immediate attack on Russia.
- Place no more that as prudently possible, troops on the Belgian frontier [with Germany] to guard against a French violation of Belgian neutrality.
- Mass as many troops as prudently possible on the border with France [Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen] to defend the German line against a French attack.
Whilst we know what happened following the adoption of Plan A (the Schlieffen plan) we can only speculate upon the outcome had Plan B had been followed.
Although speculative, we think we are on fairly safe ground to draw these conclusions:
- As stated above, we know that Prince Lichnowsky misinterpreted Sir Edward’s comments. However, had the Germans acted on this misinterpretation it would have left Sir Edward in an impossible position. You see, Sir Edward and Asquith were pursuing their own Foreign Policy. Both were desperately playing one side off against the other ensuring that there were so solid commitments to either side. The French were demanding a definite commitment from Britain. That was not forthcoming. Sir Edward was hoping to keep them all guessing and so, hopefully cause them to desist in making war in Europe. You see, Sir Edward’s aim all along was to see no one European power preponderant on the continent. The fact of the matter was that the cabinet was divided on the issue of entry into the war. Had Germany attacked Russia and defended itself against France by relying on the buffer state that was Belgium (which was the reason why the state was created in the first place) Sir Edward and Asquith would have lost their Casus belli. It was Germany’s violation of the Treaty of London, 1839 (the Kingdom of Prussia along with the UK, Russia and France were guarantors of Belgium’s neutrality) that gave Sir Edward his justification for entering the war. Had therefore Germany not have crossed the Belgian frontier, it is highly doubtful that Asquith and Sir Edward would have been able to persuade the cabinet to commit to a war. The one person who would have demanded war was of course the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Therefore it is a fairly safe assumption to suggest that the first (British) casualty would be the British Cabinet as Churchill would have resigned and possibly have crossed the floor [of the Commons].
- Having recruited “General Surprise” to their ranks, the Germans would have witnessed Britain remaining neutral.
- France would have thrown all her weight against the German fortifications along the Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen border. It is a military fact that fewer men are needed to defend than attack and that the German lines were heavily fortified.
- Russia would have been wholly unprepared to face “Plan B” – she was in fact hard pressed to pursue M15. It is clear that the Germans would have made a very rapid advance into Russian territory. It is also clear that the Germans would have been welcomed by the people as liberators. This was because the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Lativans, the Estonians and the Finns no more wanted to be ruled by Tsar Nicholas II then than they wish to be ruled by Vladimir Putin today.
- Germany’s third order of business (the first being to make rapid advance into Russia, the second is to fend of the French) would be of course to keep the British Empire out of the conflict. They would have witnessed the Liberal government of Asquith was unpopular and facing an election defeat in 1915. Continued British neutrality could have been guaranteed by the involvement of Japan on Germany’s side. Britain would have been treaty bound to become what is known as a “benevolent neutral.” For those readers wanting a historical example of a “benevolent neutral” a good example is the USA between 1939 and 1941. Yesterday’s article described why Japan would have accepted such a German offer with alacrity.
- Japan’s entry would of course have sealed Britain’s neutrality. It would also have ensured the earlier entry (that what took place) of the Ottoman Empire on Germany’s side. It would also have ensured continued Italian neutrality. This would have enabled the German Imperial High Seas Fleet to act against France as well as Russia. The Russian port of Archangel would have been mined. Together with the closure of the Bosphorus and the seizure of Vladivostok, Russia would have been shut off from supplies outside. This would have allowed the Germans to base a large proportion of their fleet in the Austrian naval base of Cattaro (Kotor). From there the Germans and the Austrians would have been able to intercept and attack the vital French military convoys from French North Africa. France drew hundreds of thousands of troops from her African possessions. German interception of this would have been disastrous for France.
Conclusion: It is therefore a fairly safe assumption that if Generaloberst von Moltke had obeyed his Sovereign, Germany would have been victorious. It is also a fairly safe assumption that following a German victory in Europe, the Liberals would have been facing a similar result at the General Election in May 1915 as the one they appear to face in May 2015! Furthermore, in 2015 we will see a German dominated Europe. In 1915 they would have seen a German dominated Europe.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing)!