HISTORY: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Understanding the origins of the Great War
, September 3, 2011
In any city or town in Australia and New Zealand, you will find a war memorial. No matter how small the town, young men went to war and never came back. Churches have memorials to parishioners who served, and every synagogue above a certain age has an honour board. Why did they do it? Almost uniquely among combatants in the Great War, Australia’s forces were all volunteers.
I do not wish to rehash the arguments for and against the campaign for conscription in the Great War, as this remains controversial to this day, except to say that Melbourne’s famous Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, who was Irish himself, had amongst his parishioners many fresh-off-the-boat Irishmen.
In the context of the Easter Rising in 1916 and its brutal suppression by the British — “Britannia’s Huns with their long-range guns”, as the song so famously summed up British policy towards Ireland — conscription would never have been universally popular amongst Australians of Irish descent.
Many did serve, as did many Irishmen, who were also volunteers, as conscription was not enforced in Ireland. Even some conservative intellectuals, such as Dr Hal Colebatch, have told me they would never have volunteered for the Great War because it was a “waste of blood and money”.
The term Great War is preferable to the usual First World War as it sums up its importance to Australia. Although the term “first world war” had been used previously, anyone using it as any more than a retrospectively descriptive term would have required the gift of prophecy, as no-one knew there was going to be a Second World War, although France’s Field-Marshal Ferdinand Foch observed after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: “This is not Peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”
Why then did young Australians, in their hundreds of thousands, go off to distant battlefields to fight? Among them was my mother’s father, one of the first Australians ashore at Gallipoli. As a member of the field ambulance, he rescued the wounded and dying alongside that Australian icon, Simpson with his donkey. He served all through France in some of the bloodiest battles in history and returned unharmed, except in his mind, like so many others.
But Australians knew the Great War was important, as historian John Moses clearly shows in Australia and the ‘Kaiser’s War’ 1914-1918 (Brisbane: Broughton Press, 1993). Australians knew it was more than “king and country”, and that their country had what diplomats call “interests” at stake.
What were those interests? First, it is necessary to understand the origins of the Great War.
The popular belief is that after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Slav nationalist in Sarajevo on July 28, 1914, the Great War broke out more or less by accident.
Historians such as A.J.P. Taylor in his War by Timetable: How the First World War Began (1969) have done little to dispel this erroneous perception, when he argued that war was inevitable after the European powers commenced mobilisation and counter-mobilisation — a process that he believed was irreversible.
But if this was the was so, why, after an initial slump, did stock prices hardly move on the London Stock Exchange, the largest capital market in the world and the centre of world finance, for over a month after the assassination? Would Europe have sacrificed 16 million people and a generation of treasure for an accident?
The answer lies elsewhere. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, stability in Europe had been maintained by balance of power politics, as embodied in Metternich’s famous Concert of Europe, and Britain played the role of balancer. The maintenance of this system was complicated by a number of factors, chief among them being the unification of Germany led by Otto von Bismark, and also Austro-Hungarian and Russian competition for dominance in the Balkans, known as “the Cockpit of Europe”.
The Germans had a clear policy aim. That was to shut Britain out of Europe so they could dominate the continent and, after that, the world. The forerunner of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, MI6, when established in 1909, used the code “TR” to refer to the Germans, ironically derived from the term “tariff reformers”, because they wanted to use tariffs to shut British manufactured goods out of Europe.
Britain was a maritime power and needed freedom of the seas to trade, not least the English Channel. Germany was a continental power which wanted to dominate Europe. If Germany could exclude Britain from Europe, it would not only have a captive market for its goods; it would usurp Britain’s traditional role of European balancer.
So, when the German high command in 1914 executed a modified version of the Schlieffen plan and began to sweep through the Low Countries, with the aim of defeating France as they had done in 1870, Britain had to act.
Had not the French army and the British Expeditionary Force, in the last valiant days of Britain’s small professional army, known forever after as the “Old Contemptibles”, held the Germans at the Meuse and the Marne for a month against all odds and been destroyed in the process, history would have been very different. The sacrifice was worthwhile.