Imagine that your closest trading partner is also your most threatening potential enemy. Imagine, too, that this partner is building a large navy specifically targeted at yours, hence at the overseas trade vital to you. Does that sound like the current U.S. situation with respect to China? It was certainly the British situation relative to Germany a century ago, on the eve of World War I. History never repeats, but it is often instructive to look at the mistakes of the past. The worse the mistakes, the more instructive. No one looking at the outbreak and then the course of World War I can see it as anything but a huge mistake. Hopefully we can do better.
The worst mistake, from a British point of view, was to forget that this was a maritime war. Had the British not entered the war at all, it would have been a European land war. Once Britain entered, the character of the war changed, not only because Britain was the world’s dominant sea power, but also because the British Empire—including vital informal elements—was a seaborne entity, drawing much of its strength from overseas. As an island, Britain was almost impossible to invade. Centuries earlier, Sir Francis Bacon had written that he who controls the sea can take as much or as little of the war as he likes. The sea power did not have to place a mass army ashore. That was not necessarily its appropriate contribution to a coalition effort.
Our memory of World War I overwhelmingly emphasizes the blood and horror of the Western Front, to which the U.S. Army and Marines were assigned when entering the conflict in 1917. The war at sea is usually dismissed as a sideshow, at best an enabler for the more important action ashore. That view obscures the reality that the war was shaped by maritime considerations, and, at least as importantly, the potential that seaborne mobility offered the British and the Allies. The one instance of a strategic attack from the sea, Gallipoli (the Dardanelles campaign), is usually dismissed as an attempt by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to gain publicity for the Royal Navy. In fact, it was a high-risk, high-payoff operation supported by the British cabinet for very rational reasons. That it failed does not make it a foolish bit of grandstanding. It only proves that planning and execution were extraordinarily poor. Our memory of how the war was fought obscures the fact that there were real alternatives, at least for the British.
Our present situation is more like that of the British than that of their continental allies. How well would we do in a similar situation? We were actually confronted by one during the Cold War. The U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy was an alternative way to fight a continental war. It is still worth thinking about.
The Accidental Army
When the British entered World War I, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith expected the French and the Russians to provide the bulk of the forces on land; the British army’s contribution in France was to be largely symbolic.1 The British expected the French to hold the German army in the west while the “Russian steamroller” smashed from the east. However, Asquith casually approved War Minister Lord Herbert Kitchener’s program to create massive “New Armies” (without ever being forced to explain their rationale). The British slid into creating the largest army in their history. Once that army existed, it could not be denied to the French when they found themselves in serious trouble in 1915. Once there, it could not easily be withdrawn. Most of the 800,000 British Empire troops killed in World War I died on the Western Front.
Were these horrific losses inevitable? Given the sheer depth of modern economies and the power of the defense, the war on land would surely have been a protracted bloodbath. Did it have to be a British bloodbath? Asquith was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not of some Franco-British combination. It was clearly in the interest of the French that the British army fought alongside theirs and helped preserve France. Was that in British interests, too? How deep should coalition partneship cut? Could the British have fought a more maritime war? In Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan the United States has faced the question of how far to go in support of a coalition partner.
Perhaps the saddest feature of British prewar and wartime planning was Admiral Sir John Fisher’s futile attempt to point out that although (as everyone agreed) no success on the Western Front could be decisive, the Germans were extraordinarily sensitive to threats to their Baltic coast—a place accessible by sea, albeit with considerable danger. Unfortunately, Fisher made his point, both before and during the war, in an obscure, even mystical way.2 The often-denigrated Dardanelles operation was a remnant of the abortive British maritime strategy; it was intended to help sustain Russia. Fisher’s great objection was that it would swallow forces he thought could have been used more effectively in the Baltic—again, to support the Russians on what he and others thought was the decisive front.
The deeper reason for British planning failure is that almost up to the declaration of war virtually no one in London believed that there could ever be a war. It was widely accepted that, because the major economies were so closely intertwined, any war would be disastrous. The Britain of 1914 was a much more modern nation than its European partners. International finance played a larger part in the British economy than in any other. The financial sector still considers war futile: If one asks someone on Wall Street right now whether a war with China is possible, the answer is emphatically no, that would be ruinous. If the point of government is to maintain national prosperity, big wars are absurd. The British government of the years before 1914 did not, it seems, understand that those governing Germany had rather different ideas. How well do we understand how foreign governments think? Are big wars really obsolete?
Economy as Weapon = Double-Edged Sword
In effect, those in London thought that what was much later called mutual assured destruction prevailed. War fighting and therefore war planning were of little account. The British army commitment to France was much more symbolic than real, an attempt to show the French that the British would back them in the event of a crisis. This plan was accepted (though not, it seems, wholeheartedly) largely because it was far more important that prewar War Minister Richard Haldane led an influential faction in the governing Liberal Party than that the army’s favored plan for deployment in France made much military sense.
The British government naturally became interested in economic attack as a means of quickly concluding any war that broke out. The Admiralty became an advocate of such warfare as a natural extension of the traditional naval economic weapon of blockade. In 1908 a prominent British economist pointed out that in a crisis the British banks, which were central to the world economic system, could attack German credit with devastating results.3 Somewhat later the British banks pointed out that since Germany was Britain’s most important trading partner, any damage would go both ways. Banking had to be omitted from the arsenal of economic weapons. It turned out that sanctions imposed on Britain’s main trading partner were less than popular in the United Kingdom—and that they badly damaged the British economy which depended on trade. For example, a prohibition against trading with the enemy made it necessary to prove that every transaction was not with the enemy. It was not at all clear that the damage done to the British economy did not exceed that done to the German.
In pre-1914 Europe the single life-and-death problem for most governments was internal stability. Most thought in domestic terms. For example, the British Liberal Party resisted naval and military spending because it considered social spending vital for British stability. The tsarist government in Russia sought to create a strong peasant class as a bulwark against socialist workers (assuring grain exports, which would create the prosperous peasant class, required free access to the world grain market via the Dardanelles). However, the Austro-Hungarian government feared nationalist upheaval triggered from outside, most notably from Serbia (and was unable to promote internal reform).
German leaders thought they faced an imminent internal crisis.4 The perceived crisis was the rise of a hostile majority in the Reichstag, the lower house of the German parliament. Although hardly comparable to the British Parliament, the Reichstag was responsible for the budget. In elections from 1890 on, the Social Democrats, whom the Kaiser and his associates considered dangerous revolutionaries, consistently won majorities of the vote, but because seats were gerrymandered they did not win a majority in the Reichstag until 1912. The German army’s general staff considered itself and the army the bulwark of the regime. Although in theory the Kaiser ruled Germany, in fact he had been sidelined for several years. Army expansion, which might be associated with the sense of internal crisis, began in 1912.
The following year the nightmare became visible, as the Reichstag passed a vote of no confidence after the army exonerated an officer who had attacked a civilian in Alsace.5 The vote did not bring down the government, because Prime Minister Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was responsible to the Kaiser rather than to the Reichstag. The center-left coalition shrank from rejecting the year’s budget. However, there was a sense of escalating internal crisis. A member of the German General Staff told a senior Foreign Ministry official that his task for the coming year was to foment a world war, and to make it defensive for Germany so that the Reichstag would support the war.6
In this light, the event that precipitated the war—the assassination of the Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand—seems to have been much more a useful pretext than the reason the world blew up. The Kaiser was largely on the periphery of rapidly unfolding events during the crisis. He kept asking why the army was attacking France when the crisis was about Russia and Serbia. Do we understand who actually rules countries that may be hostile to us?
Internal Motivations, External Aggression
In 1912–14 the German army general staff could look back to 1870. By drawing France into a war at that time, Prussia had created the German Empire. The spoils of that war were a way of showing that it had been worthwhile, but the war was really about the internal political needs of the German state. In 1914, the general staff doubtless expected that victory would shrivel the Social Democrats (a 1907 military victory over the Hottentots in Africa had reversed their rise, though only briefly). No other military seems to have had a record of deliberately instigating war as a specific way of gaining an internal political end. After World War I, there was a general sense that the German general staff had been responsible for the war, but not to the extent that now seems apparent.
At one time a standard explanation for enmity between Britain and Germany, leading to war, was commercial rivalry. It was taken so seriously that interwar U.S. Navy war planners used British-U.S. rivalry to explain why a war might break out between the two countries. Similarly, one might see Chinese-U.S. trade rivalry as a possible cause of war. However, those concerned with commerce are too aware of how ruinous war can be. Wall Street really does prefer commercial competition to blowing apart its rivals. It has too clear an idea of what war might mean. Naval wars connected with commercial rivalry were fought before commercial and financial interests came to dominate governments. The perceived need to keep the state alive is a very different matter, and it seems to have been what propelled Germany in 1914. Do we see similar motives at work now, or in the near future? The lesson of 1914 is that others’ decision to fight is far more often about internal politics than about what we may do.
The Vital Importance of Coalitions
British strategy in 1914–15 may not seem odd in itself, but it is decidedly odd in the context of other wars the British fought on the continent. Everyone in the 1914 Cabinet knew something of the Napoleonic Wars, though probably not from a strategic point of view. That was unfortunate, because they might have benefited from seeing the new war in terms of the earlier one. The British fought Napoleon as a member of a coalition. They watched their coalition partners collapse, to the point where they alone resisted Napoleon. They were forced to agree to a peace in 1801, which they rightly considered nothing more than a pause in the war—and they used that peace to consolidate what advantages they could.
Once the war against Napoleon resumed, the British wisely made it their first step to insure against invasion by blocking and then neutralizing the French and their allied fleets. Once they had been freed from the threat of invasion by the victory at Trafalgar, they could mount high-risk, high-gain operations around the periphery of Napoloeon’s empire. Ultimately that meant Wellington’s war on the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon realized that he could not tolerate British resistance. Since he could not invade, he was forced into riskier and riskier operations intended to crush Britain economically. His disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia was in this category (it was intended to cut off Russian trade with Britain). The British limited their own liability on the Continent. Knowing that they could not be invaded (hence defeated), they could afford to be patient—and they won. Victory was a coalition achievement, which is why it did not matter that so many of the troops at Waterloo were not British.
World War I was shaped by the fact that Britain entered it. Until that moment, the German army staff could envisage a quick war which would end in the West with the hoped-for defeat of the French army. Once Britain was in the war, no German victory on land could be complete. Ironically, the Germans guaranteed that Britain would enter the war by building a large fleet specifically directed against it. Some current British historians have asked whether it was really worthwhile for the British of 1914 to have resisted the creation of a unified Europe under German control. They have missed the maritime point. In 1914 the British saw the Germans as a direct threat to their lives, because the Germans had been building their massive fleet. By 1914 most Britons well understood that their country lived or died by its access to the sea and to the resources of the world. The Royal Navy had worked hard for nearly 30 years to bring that message home. It resonated because it was true. In 1914 the British government would have had to fight public opinion to keep the country out of a war the Germans started.
The German decision to build a fleet seems, in retrospect, to have been remarkably casual. The fleet was completely disconnected from the war plan created by the army’s general staff; it had no initial role whatsoever. The German navy came into its own only when it became clear that the army could not achieve a decision on land. Then it was not so much the big fleet (that had caught British attention prewar) but the U-boats that Admiral Alfred Tirpitz, the fleet’s creator, grudgingly built. The British government might well have decided to oppose Germany in 1914 to preserve the balance of power in Europe—a historic British policy—but without the obvious threat of the German fleet its decision would not have enjoyed anything like the same level of support.
In 1939 the British again faced a continental war. Everyone in the British government had experienced World War I as a horrific bloodbath. This time the British consciously limited their liability. It helped that by 1939 they believed that the Germans could not destroy the United Kingdom by air attack (thanks to radar and modern fighters), so that as in World War I, Britain was a defensible island. Winston Churchill, who had a far more strategic viewpoint than most, certainly did not intend to surrender when the British were ejected from the continent in 1940. He understood that the overseas Empire and the overseas world could and would support Britain against Germany (which is why the Battle of the Atlantic was his greatest concern). He also understood that it would take a coalition to destroy Hitler.
During the Cold War, NATO faced a continental threat not entirely unlike that the British had faced in 1914 and in 1939. Attention was focussed on the Central Front, unfortunately so named because it was in the center between the alliance’s northern and southern flanks. The U.S. Navy offered a maritime alternative, both in the 1950s and in the 1980s. Captain Peter Swartz, U.S. Navy (Retired), who chronicled the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, summarized the way that a maritime power deals with a land power: It combines a coalition with its own land partner and it exploits maritime mobility to cripple the enemy army.
‘Hard Thinking About the Object of War’
Not being able to end a war may seem to be a tame sort of disadvantage to the land power sweeping all before it in Europe. However, both in Napoleon’s time and during World War I, the land power (France and Germany, respectively) found that it could not stop fighting. Its effort to knock the British out of the war eventually brought in enemies the land power could not handle. In Napoleon’s time that was the Russians, whose territory absorbed the French army, and whose limitless mass of troops eventually helped invade France. Obviously there were many other contributions to French defeat, including Wellington’s campaign in Spain, but the point is that none of that would have mattered had Napoleon been able to end the war as he liked.
In World War I the Germans found that their only leverage against the British was to attack their overseas source of strength, either at source in the United States or at sea en route to Britain. Either move was risky. Unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping led to angry reactions from the United States; in 1915–16 the German Foreign Ministry convinced the government (i.e. the general staff) to pull back. As an alternative, in 1916 the Germans organized the sabotage of munitions plants supplying the Allies, most notably Black Tom in New York Harbor. Although the U.S. government almost immediately discovered that the Germans had caused the Black Tom explosion, President Woodrow Wilson badly wanted to stay out of the war. That was not enough for the German general staff. Against Foreign Ministry opposition, it turned again in February 1917 to unrestricted submarine warfare as a way of strangling the Allies.
It was understood that resumption of such warfare would probably bring the United States into the war. With this possibility in mind, the Germans authorized their diplomats in Mexico to offer an alliance under which Mexico would regain the territory it had lost to the United States 60 years earlier: California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. Revelation of this Zimmermann Telegram helped bring the United States into the war on the Allied side. U.S. naval and industrial resources helped neutralize the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic. The U.S. Army and Marines Corps tipped the balance of power in Europe, though it was at least as important that the British and the French became adept at all-arms warfare.
It is also possible that, in the end, the Western Front, where so much blood was spilled, was not decisive in itself. In 1918 the defense still enjoyed considerable advantages. The Germans told themselves that they could shore up their defense in the West, but in September and October 1918 their position in the south, the area in which maritime power had made Allied action possible, collapsed. Whatever they could do on the Western Front, the Germans could not spare troops to cover their southern and eastern borders. In this sense the collapse in the south (of Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria) may have been far more important than is generally imagined.
Maritime never meant purely naval. Success came from using land and sea forces in the right combinations. Maritime did demand hard thinking about the object of the war. In 1914, was it to preserve France or above all to defeat Germany? Because the prewar British government believed in deterrence, it never thought through this kind of question, and by the time it might have been asked, there was a huge British army in France. Withdrawal would have been difficult at best. After the disaster on the Somme in 1916, many in the British government began to ask what the British should do if they were forced to accept an unsatisfactory peace, as in 1801. Part of their answer was that phase two of the war should concentrate more on the east. That is why the British had such large forces in places like the Caucasus and the Middle East when the war ended in November 1918.7
A century later, we are in something like the position the British occupied in 1914. We are the world’s largest trading nation, and we live largely by international trade—much of which has to go by sea. We do not have a formal empire like the British, but they and we are at the core of a commercial commonwealth which is our real source of economic strength. In a crisis our trade—our lifeblood—would be guaranteed by the U.S. and allied navies, the U.S. Navy dwarfing the others. That we depend on imports means that we have vital interests in far corners of the world. It happens that relatively few Americans understand as much, or see what happens in the Far East as central to their own prosperity. Access to our trading partners there is crucial to us, just as access to overseas trading partners (and the Empire) was a life-or-death matter for the British in 1914. Like the British in 1914, we regard war as too ruinous to be worthwhile, and we often assume that other governments take a similar view. Like the British, we are not very sensitive to the possibility that other governments’ views may not match ours. A long look back at 1914 may be well worth our while.
1. Michael and Eleanor Brock, eds., H. H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1982).
2. Holger M. Herwig, ‘Luxury Fleet:’ The German Imperial Navy 1888–1918 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980).
3. Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
4. V. R. Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, second ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
5. Jack Beatty, The Lost History of 1914: How the Great War Was Not Inevitable (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).
6. David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (New York: Knopf, 2004).
7. Brock Millman, Pessimism and British War Policy, 1916–1918 (London: Frank Cass, 2001).