Yesterday in the library I was reading Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in Wartime (1928). It’s an entertaining book, insofar as it dissects a lot of the myths of the war (such as the Crucified Canadian and the German Corpse Factory) and exposes their lack of basis in fact. It goes further than this, though, suggesting that such stories were part of a concerted and deliberate government campaign of propagandist lies – a proposition for which he offers remarkably little evidence.
Ponsonby also has a lot to say about secret diplomacy before the war, outlining the theory that Britain was committed to the war for reasons of imperialist realpolitik, and was therefore partly to blame for its outbreak. He has much to say about the concealment of secret treaties from the public.
This is an interesting historical question, and might have been an important one if Germany had not invaded Belgium. Would Britain have sent troops if the Germans had only attacked from the East, not the North? A fascinating “what-if”, but the point is that they went through Belgium, to which Britain was committed through a non-secret treaty. The Germans hoped that the Brits would not get excited about a “scrap of paper”, or that if they did the war would be over by the time they got round to responding effectively. It was the Kaiser, more than anyone else, who hoped that everything would be “over by Christmas”.
In today’s Guardian, as his Remembrancetide contribution, George Monbiot takes a break from writing articles over-excited about environmental doom and recycles the “secret diplomacy” theory. He says that secret treaties “ensured that Britain would have to fight from the moment Russia mobilised”. Not so, really. the point of secret treaties is that they are secret, and can be ignored if circumstances so demand.
Britain declared war when Belgium was invaded for a number of compelling reasons. The first was the treaty obligation (though as I’ve said, the Kaiser didn’t think that was something Britain would be too bothered about. The second was a matter of realpolitik. If Germany conquered both France and Belgium, it not only unbalance Europe, but would dominate the channel ports, and pose a real threat to british exports.
The third factor, which Monbiot chooses to ignore, was moral. The German invasion of Belgium was an unprovoked and brutal attack. The atrocity stories that Ponsonby derides were not all fake. The only way in which Germany could maintain its position among a hostile population was by tough measures against the civilian population. The hostage-takings and executions were real.
Writing about British recruits, Monbiot makes the good historical point that “the largest numbers volunteered not at the very beginning of war, but after the disaster of Mons on August 24 1914, when it became clear that there was a genuine threat to national defence.” It had also become cleat that the Germans were behaving brutally in Belgium, but this is something that Monbiot does not want to consider. He wants an easy contrast between the “good war” of 1939 and the “bad war” of 1914.
In his first paragraph he writes that when young, “I felt I understood the second world war.” because it was about stopping genocide. Whereas the first one wasn’t.
Yet the declaration of war in 1939 was not about genocide, but about the invasion of Poland, in which the British intervened with less complete justification than they had done over Belgium. In 1939 the German treament of the Jews was appalling persecution, but was not yet genocide. Monbiot is justifying that war by its end-result, not by its beginnings.
So was British entry into the First World War justified? Had Asquith, Grey and company known the price that was to be paid in human lives, they would have hesitated longer. But then, had the Kaiser foreseen the end result he would have been even more unwilling to get involved. As British wars go, it was probably one of the more justified – more so than most of the colonial wars, or the present horrible adventure in Iraq.
Monbiot visited Thiepval, and quite justifiably thought, “Nothing could be worth this.” But if he is suggesting that just staying out of the business was the best available option at the time, I think he’s probably wrong.