“When eleven o’clock came, all was silent: not a gun to be heard, nor any other sign of war. It seemed almost uncanny. The war – that long and bloody and ghastly war – was over! Not only over, but it had been won – decisively won – by us and our Allies”.
Lieutenant Edward Allfree, 111th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, British Army
The fog of peace?
Alphen, Netherlands. 11 November 2018. What did the Armistice of 11 November 1918 really teach Europeans about war and peace? When the guns on the Western Front finally and suddenly fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the shrapnel of Europe lay strewn across the Continental battlefield and far beyond. The war to end all wars was over. Of the ‘main’ power players of World War One on that November day a century ago Britain and France appeared triumphant and restored, whilst the dark, grand ambitions of Imperial Germany lay in shards of hot, angry denial across a battlefield and a country that stretched from Belgium to Berlin. In fact, all was not as it seemed. Broke Britain and broken France were just beginning a precipitous fall from the pinnacle of power, whilst for the Germans, the ‘war’ would continue via Versailles, Weimar, Hitler and the Nazis until 1945 and again engulf Europe in another cataclysm of violence. Only relatively untouched America, America the Banker, really gained the prize of strategic power for which the Kaiser had fought the war. But, Woodrow Wilson’s America neither wanted nor accepted a particularly European idea of power as prize. For over twenty years thereafter America turned its isolationist back on the ‘prize’ it had won and in so doing helped condemn itself and others to a repeat of rapaciousness.
It was a particular honour and privilege for me to be in Berlin this past week at the appropriately timed, named and placed conference Europe’s Strategic Choices jointly hosted by Britain’s Chatham House and Germany’s ISPK. Why? War and peace are the most strategic of choices and we must work hard together never to have to make that choice again. Berliners understand that more than most because History (with a hard capital ‘H’) hangs over Berlin like one of those heavy mist shrouds that the city’s many lakes and rivers regularly spawn. If those with a penchant for stereotypes wished to be disabused of their prejudice go to Berlin and speak to senior Germans. It is almost galling at times how determinedly reasonable and respectful they are, and why I so value and appreciate my friendships with them.
My sense of being a ‘fellow’ European is always reinforced when I am in Germany. This is in spite of my being an Englishman who harbours deep concerns about the EU, the championing of order over democracy, the ambitions of a ‘we know best’ Brussels elite to concentrate ever more distant, unaccountable power in their distant, unaccountable hands, and the growing gap between voting and power in Europe. The spiteful curse of history is that Europeans, with Germans to the fore, must eternally and repeatedly forge a balance between power, order and freedom. There is also a certain irony for in a Continent which bloodily rejected three German (1870, 1914 and 1939) attempts to lead Europe by force of arms modern, democratic Germany is unable to provide the leadership Europe desperately needs by a constitution British lawyers helped write, and the very past that today commemorates.
Europeans, war and power
The commemoration of war is itself telling in Europe as it has helped to make Europeans distrustful of the very idea of power itself. Rather, Europeans have re-invented ‘power’ as ‘non-power’, defanging it, imprisoning it within rigid, set in stone EU ‘laws’, containing and constraining it in grand institutions designed to prevent Europeans doing ghastly things to each other, but preventing Europeans from the ghastly doing ghastly things unto them and others. It is as though Europeans fear the ghost of Marlowe’s Faustus or Goethe’s Faust and that power could once again corrupt the European political soul.
Such fear of self has been apparent at times these four years past in much of the coverage of World War One. World War One has been presented as a European civil war with much of the homage to it one of pacifism. It is apparent in many of the books that have been written that have Europeans sleepwalking into World War One rather than being forced towards catastrophe by the outrageous militarism of Kaiser Bill and his Prusso-German cronies. It is apparent in the endless reading of the war poets Causley, Owen and Sassoon who invoke a sense of understandable hopelessness in the midst of carnage when in fact most Frenchmen and Britons who went to war believed their cause to be just. It is as though Sir Edward Elgar’s mournful I Sospiri has been playing on a permanent loop since the commemorations began in August 2014.
With such images repeatedly and constantly invoked it would even be easy to re-imagine the final Act of Brexit Capitulation when it comes being signed in some forlorn Belgian railway siding deep in the woods south of Brussels. In fact, one need only witness the respectful manner in which German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier laid a wreath at the Cenotaph to understand no German with a brain wishes to humiliate Britain a century on from the Armistice. It was wonderful to see such a historic act of reconciliation which brought a tear to my eye. Let’s remember this moment in the coming days, weeks and months.
Democracies and war
At times democracies are faced with a terrifying choice between fighting for freedom or appeasing autocrats. It was just such a choice that faced Britain and France on 4 August 1914. Some historians deny that. For example, Niall Ferguson argues that Britain could have stood aside from the Prusso-German conquest of Europe and have consoled itself with Empire. Really? Would Erich Ludendorff and Reinhard Scheer have been content with ‘Europe’ as they stood on Cap Gris Nez victorious looking across the Channel at the White Cliffs of Dover? Would Kaiser Wilhelm II have assuaged his British psychosis without his Imperial Garde marching down Whitehall? Surely not.
Some other historians, Max Hastings to the fore, argue that Britain fought the war incompetently. There can be no question that at times both Britain and France fought the offensive war between 1914 and 1917 incompetently. That is because in 1914 unlike the Kaiser and General von Schlieffen neither power had prepared to fight an offensive grand strategic continental war. The democracies had first to survive and then learn, and learn they did. Consequently, there can be no comparison between that contemptible little British Army that the Kaiser so dismissed at Mons in 1914 and the massive 6 million strong British Imperial Army that arrived back at Mons in November 1918 triumphant. The force that on 8 August 1918 broke the German Army at the Battle of Amiens and began the crushing One Hundred Day Offensive and which led Ludendorff to describe Amiens as the “blackest day of the German Army”. Or, the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy that decisively and patiently prevented the Imperial German Navy from breaking the blockade at the strategically-decisive May 1916 Battle of Jutland, or from starving Britain into submission during the U-Boat offensive of 1917.
Contrast that with today. One has only to look at the bonsai militaries of contemporary Britain, France and Germany to see that once again the European democracies are not really preparing to fight any war at all and that to a very real extent the European democracies are once again back in 1910 and 1935. If a major war were to break out in Europe over the next decade, Heaven forbid, the major European democracies would again be pretty much unable to fight it – NATO or no. But, that is the way of democracies which between major wars tend to purposively forget the lessons of them. Could it be that one-day future historians will look back on this age and ask who made war possible through neglect and weakness?
The strength of democracies
On 3 August 1914 Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey went for a walk at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. A lover of birds he spent a despairing hour in the Bird House trying to work out how a war might be avoided before concluding it could not be. War for Grey was failure for he foresaw what war between industrial titans would entail. For all that the real, terrifying reality for him was that Britain would have to fight just such a war and the price would be enormous, as it was. However, the alternative he realised would be worse, the effective subjugation of Britain and the rest of Europe to Prussian militarists.
Fantasy? Reimagine Europe had it been the Allies who had been forced to sign an Act of Capitulation in some German railway carriage deep in some Belgian wood somewhere near the German Imperial Military Headquarters in Spa. The ‘Europe’ far too many of us today take for granted would simply not exist. Yes, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh, but so was the damage Imperial Germany had inflicted on much of Europe. What if the Americans had forcefully backed Wilson’s Fourteen Points? What if the League of Nations had been endowed with Realism rather than simply Idealism? What if the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had not happened…what if…if…if…maybe Hitler, Tojo, even Stalin and World War Two might have been avoided.
The eleventh hour…
Today I commemorate the millions who lost their lives in World War One. Specifically, I remember and pay respect to the 900,000 of my own countrymen who lost their lives in World War One. In paying my respects I do not do so in the belief that their sacrifice was futile, or that they were lions led by donkeys, even though at times they were. No, I celebrate them as ordinary heroes, ordinary men and at times women in extraordinary circumstances without whose sacrifice the freedom which is today taken far too much for granted would not have been possible. There is thus no spirit of pacifism in my commemoration even though as a historian and strategist I strive every day to maintain the legitimate and just peace I crave.
Wars are not prevented by democracies renouncing war. No, wars are stopped by democracies that show they understand the dark art and science of war and by so doing prepare to preserve and thus ensure peace. That is the true lesson of this mournful day. Have Europeans learnt it? Will they ever learn it?
Requiescat in Pace. Lest we forget.