Friday, 6 March 2015

The Illusory Prospect of Peace

Humanity, in war?

By spring 1915, the war on the Western Front had settled down to stalemate and static warfare. None of the combatants had expected this and were largely unprepared for this new form of large scale siege warfare. The reasons for stasis have been discussed elsewhere.  

Wise politicians and even a few generals, on all sides, realised that the power to break the lines and, therefore, end the war was beyond the power of any nation. Therefore, they concluded that the war would be a long drawn out affair lasting years. Victory would go to the side with the greater resources; economic; material and ultimately, and sadly, men.  It was feared that the fabric of European civilisation would be rent asunder and the victor would be no better off than the vanquished.

Approaches for peace were  considered with various degrees of sincerity by all combatants. Between 1915-1916 the Germans directed their attention at detaching allies. Thus their policy was not designed for peace directly, but for the successful prosecution of war and therefore a peace imposed by German might. The Germans contacted the Russians in 1915 through intermediaries and proposed a separate peace. With Russia neutralised, the German army in the East could redeploy on the Western Front. However, at this time the Russian Tsar felt honour bound to uphold his alliance with his Western partners. The Western allies considered offering terms to the Austro-Hungarians. Again this was a ploy to break up and weaken the enemy alliance. This plan was always a nonstarter.  Even if the Austro-Hungarians wanted peace, they could never oblige. They had become fiercely shackled to their senior partner and the Germans were not likely to hand over the key to release the Austrians from wartime servitude.   

The Americans at the end of 1916  proposed a ‘Peace Plan’ based on the principle of ‘No indemnities and no annexation’ and invited the belligerents to formulate war aims.  The plan pleased no one and was rejected out of hand by the Germans. The Allied response was shrewd. They couched their response in idealistic terms hoping to sway American politicians and public opinion. The document was not conceived as the basis for serious negotiation.  It may have achieved its aim, but it was not instrumental in converting the Americans to war;  U- boats would make this so.

The Germans in early 1916 tried again to break up the Western alliance. This time they planned to apply military attrition in cynical earnest. They hoped to bleed the French army white during the battle of Verdun. Artillery would do the killing and German manpower would be conserved. In this way, they would knock France out of the war so they could concentrate their main effort against the British. At this stage of the war, the Germans had recognised, and I think rightly so, that the British were their most formidable and implacable foe. The gambit failed, mainly because the Germans became intoxicated by the battle. Ultimately, they suffered as many causalities as the French. The war would continue, although no one could conceive how to win, or whether victory was desirable or even possible.

All nations perceived the war as one of defence. To return to the status quo would leave them as vulnerable as before. Also, even by the early stages of the war, the belligerents had suffered horrendous sacrifice and causalities. To return to peace would have meant sacrifice in vain. No matter that the sacrifices to come would be greater.

The politicians and press had whipped their respective civilian populations into a frenzy of indignation and patriotic fervour. For most nations the war had taken on the aspect of a crusade: ‘The Beastly Hun;’ The Asiatic Hordes.’ This of course was sound policy. The war needed enthusiastic support from all sectors of society if it were to be successfully prosecuted. The propaganda didn’t need to be true, just useful. But it meant that negotiation to end hostilities would result in disillusion, anger and despair in the homeland. Politicians feared political instability and even frank insurrection. The generals had other concerns. The war could only continue with the consensus of the fighting man. Coercion helped, but was never a major factor in making men fight. Perhaps the exception lay with the Russian and Austro-Hungarian units in 1917. Otherwise, the military relied on the martial ardour of their troops. The will to fight is a complex issue and will not be dealt with here. Patriotism and the need to defend the Homeland are only part of the equation. The generals believed that the ‘will to fight’ and morale would be adversely affected in the event of public negotiations with the enemy. If a compromise peace was not achieved, would the men still fight?  In the final analysis, serious negotiation would encourage debate and engender analysis at all levels of society. This is never a good thing in time of war. 

At the practical level, the common ground for realistic compromise was lacking. The Germans wanted to keep economic control over Belgium and turn Poland into a vassal state. They wanted to keep French coastal territory and sell back the rest. When the allies heard of the German ‘peace plan’ they vowed to fight on until the bitter end, regardless of cost. The belligerents were gamblers, no doubt. But the Allied contingent noted that they held the larger purse.  

So, it would come down to a military solution. The nature of warfare dictated that this would be a war of attrition. The side with the longer line of material and men would ultimately prevail. A war of attrition, in concept and application, is surely chilling and can only occur, paradoxically, in the most civilised of societies. But the world was afflicted with ‘war fever’ in 1915 and the disease would take hold and last a further three years. Indeed, the world had gone mad.

Men of the Great War
The pundits in 1915 were right, of course, the war would result in the destruction of European civilisation, but a 100 years would pass before this became apparent.


  1. I believe it was Marshall Foch who in 1918 declared "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years".

    1. Tis true Ted. At the end of the war, the Germans should either have been gently treated and reassimilated into the fold or destroyed as a nation. The lack of political will mitigated against the first solution and the lack of military might, the second.