The causes of World War I will always be argued over. Whether anything substantial will ever be learned is more debatable.
The historian Niall Ferguson argues that all countries share the blame – that if Serbia hadn’t encouraged terrorist attacks against the Austrian empire the Austrians wouldn’t have been so determined to punish Serbia; that Russia shouldn’t have been so set on protecting Serbia right or wrong; Russia’s ally the French shouldn’t have alarmed the Germans by believing attack was the best form of defence; that Britain’s intervention to protect Belgian neutrality masked our real aim of protecting British imperial interests against a resurgent Germany.
In all of this Ferguson doesn’t mention the elephant in the room – the Kaiser’s blank cheque to Austria, stating in effect, screw the Serbs and we’ll back you come what may. It was this that encouraged the Austrians and set the dominos falling.
Ferguson also argues that it just didn’t make sense to go to war against Germany in 1914. He dismisses concerns that Germany planned to dominate Europe and argues instead that Germany’s main aim:
‘…was to defeat Russia. A breakup of the Tsarist empire would have been a boon for ‘freedom, justice and democracy’ especially from the point of view of the many ethnic minorities oppressed by Russian Rule.’ The dispiriting thing is that these words are presently being trotted out in defence of NATO and EEC interference in present day Ukraine. If Germany had won the First World War it is difficult to believe it wouldn’t have controlled the Ukraine it had wrested from Russia in the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. – for much the same reasons Hitler attempted it again in 1941 and, dare I say, the EEC is attempting it now – through ‘soft power’ rather than overt aggression.
These are not mere abstractions discussed by port-sipping historians. Real people went to war and real people died whilst the port improved quietly in cellars. The article below comes from the Rossendale Free Press. Innocence and naivety breathes through every syllable, along with the melancholy that comes from hindsight.
AUGUST 1914 - "ROSSENDALE has stirred … and the Kaiser must be quaking in his boots as thousands of Rossendalians saw their brave husbands, boyfriends and sons off to war.
"Thousands of cheering witnesses thronged the streets as smiling servicemen marched along Bank Street and along Bury Road to muster points at Hollingworth Lake, Bury and Turton. Brussels has already fallen to Germany and Liege and Namur are in their sights. The French are preparing for what looks like an inevitable Belgian collapse.
"But Rossendale is determined that the Empire will deliver a bloody nose to Germany and sent its men off to war with cheers ringing in their ears … and full breakfasts cooked by church people.
"First to go this week were the East Lancashire Territorial Forces. Nearly 20,000 men headed for Turton and many passed through Rawtenstall. Woman and children were among the most enthusiastic witnesses and church women and boy scouts have already started making calico nightshirts for the soldiers expected to be wounded.
"The day after the Territorial Forces went, there were more stirring scenes as the Rawtenstall Company of the 5th East Lancashire Territorial Arm Service Company left its Cloughfold HQ. Large crowds waved flags and cheered as Captain Kenyon, of Brynbella, mounted his horse and led other horse officers, 14 wagons and a large detachment of men on foot through Rawtenstall and along Bury Road.
"Crowds were even larger when the 5th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, complete with regimental band, passed along Bank Street and Bury Road. Their splendid marching precision won the heartiest enthusiasm from the crowds. Of 1,020 men, 923 have volunteered for foreign service and thousands lined the streets. Crowds even cheered when they stopped at Townsendfold for breakfasts that had been prepared three miles away at Woodtop Mission Church.
"The campaign is bound to be over quickly when the British Expeditionary Force teams up with a promised 100,000 Canadian volunteers to make an early landing in France. Experts say casualties will be light but a larger-than-expected congregation gathered this week at St Mary's Church, Rawtenstall, for a special service of intercession. Even former heroes of the Boer War want to do their bit - the Rawtenstall Detachment of the National Reserve have announced a shooting contest at their Laund Hey rifle range."
- Today our media tells us what to think. It's insidious and subtle. During the First World War propaganda was simple and direct.
The British poster is far more cheery. Peer pressure but one for a sea-side outing.
And if that doesn't work, there's always quiet guilt.