[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]
Recently, I read Alan Kramer's Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War. It's an excellent book, both illuminating and informative (being airminded, I found the section on the Austrian and German bombing of Italy to be especially fascinating), and I highly recommend it. 1
But there was one section which brought me up short. In a section on Britain's entry into the war, Kramer says that the breach of Belgian neutrality by Germany was a gift to Asquith and Grey, because it meant that the war could be framed as a just war. Absolutely. Then he goes on to say:
At the time, British decision-makers could only sense intuitively what we know today -- this was far more than a conservative defence of the status quo: had Germany succeeded at the Marne in September 1914, which it almost did, the defeat of France and a separate peace would have been followed by a defeat of Russia and, after a pause to build up the German navy, the invasion of Britain from a position of towering strength on the Continent. 2
Which is where I went 'Huh?' Do we really know that? Because I didn't know we knew that.
It's not that the scenario outlined is implausible -- I'm just not sure how it can be elevated to the status of fact. OK, let's walk through it. (This is all my speculation, as Kramer doesn't explain his reasoning.) So Germany wins the Battle of the Marne, takes Paris, forces France to surrender late in 1914. By this time it's winter, too late to take on Russia in any serious way. But around May 1915, the bulk of the Germany army could have transferred to the east and, let's assume, crushes Russia by the end of the year, about 2 years before it was historically out of the war. It's really only at this point that Germany could afford to start building up for an invasion of Britain. That means dreadnoughts, above all, to secure sea superiority in order to get its troops across and supply them. 3 And Britain had a massive advantage here: 22 dreadnoughts to Germany's 13 in August 1914, and was building them at a faster rate. 4 But let's make a wild assumption and grant Germany the ability to build to a superiority in dreadnoughts in one cycle of construction, about 2.5 years or so. So we're now looking at the middle of 1918: just about the earliest that Germany could possibly be ready to invade Britain in overwhelming strength, about 4 years since the invasion of Belgium and France.
But what's Britain been doing in all that time? I rather doubt it's been sitting on its hands, whether it's a belligerent or a neutral. It would absolutely have been building up the navy; that would have been uncontroversial while so long as Germany was overrunning Europe. But anyway, I've magically waved away Britain's naval superiority, so the main question is what would have happened with the army? Presumably it would have been expanded, but on a volunteer or a conscription basis? Let's say it's a volunteer force (though if the Unionists had come in in the election due by 1916, conscription probably would have too) -- relatively small, but far larger than the home forces in 1914. There might also have been contingents from the Empire too. In the real war, about one million men volunteered by January 1915, so when all is said and done, I'd say Britain could have sustained an army of something approaching a million volunteers for home defence. That is not an inconsiderable force, especially considering that it's had 3 or 4 years to dig in. It's true that Germany would have had a much bigger, veteran army, and I'm assuming that it would have had the power to transport and supply a big army due to its naval buildup. But given the superiority of the defence at this time, perhaps especially for contested landings (how did Gallipoli go again?), it's hard to see how it can be assumed that the Germans would want to chance it. 5
What else might they have done? Well, tried to strangle Britain economically, by U-boat. Already in 1915, U-boats accounted for over a million tons of Allied shipping, so in this alternate timeline, the Germans would have known that their submarines had a good chance of success. 6 If they'd poured resources into U-boats instead of dreadnoughts, and used bases in France to extend their reach into the Atlantic, then surely there's every chance that Britain would have been on its knees at some point in 1917. After all, it practically was in our 1917, with France and Russia both still in the war.
Well, maybe not. I'm sure my alternate alternate history can be picked to pieces as well, 7 but I think I've made my point: we don't know that a German invasion of Britain would have followed from a French defeat in 1914. There are too many imponderables, there's reasonable doubt. Maybe it would have happened that way; and almost certainly, whatever happened would have been bad for Britain. So I agree with Kramer that Britain didn't have much choice about whether to enter the war, strategically speaking, but I don't agree that we know much beyond that.
That's only one paragraph, though -- do read the rest of the book :)
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- Reading really good books is depressing when you're in the middle of writing a thesis -- Nicoletta F. Gullace's "The Blood of Our Sons": Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) was another. Which suggests a New Year's resolution: to read only rubbish ...
- Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 95.
- Air superiority would have been nowhere near as important as it was in 1940, since the use of aircraft against ships was in its infancy at the time.
- 13 under construction by Britain, 5 by Germany. Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 7.
- The ultimate success of such an invasion is another question, but Kramer doesn't actually say that it would necessarily have been successful -- though I think it's implied.
- Though if Britain had remained neutral, then the U-boat would have had far fewer targets and so fewer chances to prove themselves ...
- What's Italy doing? If it joins in with the Central Powers in 1915, Britain's naval superiority vanishes, unless it abandons the Mediterranean entirely. Or, maybe Germany would pursue both tracks (invasion and strangulation) at once, as in 1940, with U-boats taking the place of bombers. And so on.