There is no one better placed than Scottish historian Sir Hew Strachan to speak on the subject of the First World War. With a number of acclaimed books to his credit, particularly the volumes on the First World War, the Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, Oxford, speaks to Pranay Sharma on all aspects of the event—from how it began to Britain’s role in it to how it came to be known as WW-I. Excerpts from the interview:
The origins of the First World War have been debated almost from the moment it broke out. Do you see these controversies ever being settled?
They won’t be settled, partly because the contention in 1914 reflected a real set of differing interpretations as to what had caused the war, and partly because the debates keep historians in business. There is, however, circularity in the arguments. German war guilt in 1914 and 1919 gave way to the idea of a more general breakdown in international relations, a view which held till the 1960s. Then Fritz Fischer revived the idea of German war guilt, and now—as that argument is put to one side—the case for a more general breakdown is being revived.
Initially, it was seen only as the third Balkan war, why did it become a global war?
Today’s politicians, who talk of an “increasingly globalised world”, forget how already “globalised” the world seemed in 1914, especially if you happened to live in London. The fact that the First World War was a global war was itself the product of a global order, shaped by European great powers and held together by an embryonic economic system.
Did the main players involved in it see it as a global war; were there enough warnings prior to the conflict?
The literature of warning written before 1914, particularly works published in Germany, spoke of the coming conflict as the ‘world war’, Der Weltkrieg. In Vienna, Franz Conrad von Hotzendorff, the chief of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, had an audience with the emperor, Franz Josef, in January 1913, and took the opportunity, not for the first time, to advocate a preventive war with Serbia. But the emperor told him that he feared Russia above all and that, if there were war with Serbia, wider conflict would follow.
Did that mean a world war?
The title ‘the world war’ was a statement about its importance, not a statement about its geographical scale. It would be a war for the very existence of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. In each of these cases, those who spoke of the threat of world war did so for rhetorical effect, rather than in order to clarify a planning assumption. When Conrad advocated war with Serbia, he was envisaging a limited war to reassert the empire’s authority in the Balkans. After the crisis broke out in July 1914, he was almost wilful in his disregard that a Balkan war would become a European war and a European war a world war.
What about the others—Britain and France—did they also see it as a world war?
French and British official histories, unlike the German, did not use ‘world war’ in their titles, any more than they had used the phrase during the war itself. They preferred the title ‘The Great War’, and in English the war only became widely known as the First World War after 1945, in other words after there had been a Second World War.
Was it then mainly an intra-European civil war?
Implicit in the title ‘the Great War’ is the idea that the war of 1914-1918 was a great European war. Such a description carried the connotation of a civil war between civilised nations, united by Christianity and capitalism, an act of collective folly which would result in their losing their primacy in the world to the United States.
How then did ‘The Great War’ come to be regarded as the ‘First World War’?
Many argue that the First World War did not become a world war in 1914, but in 1917, when the United States entered it and when Russia, by dint of its revolutions, left. In the same way, the Second World War can be seen as a European war between 1939 and 1941 and only became a world war when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December of the same year. This, however, is history written with hindsight, shaped by the Cold War, and by the knowledge that the legacy of 1917 and 1941 would be prolonged stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. The reality was that, because the powers of Europe were colonial powers, a major European war had global impact from the outset. Germany in particular sought to widen the war in order to exploit the imperial vulnerabilities of the Entente powers, and using its alliance with the Ottoman Empire and the call to jehad to do so.
Why was it such a crisis for Britain?
Because Britain found its imperial security had become contingent on its European relationships through alliances with France and Russia. If it had not honoured its commitments to them it would have unravelled the defence of empire and left it exposed in Europe.
How important was Britain’s entry into the conflict?
In July 1914, 59 countries were on the gold standard. In other words, they used gold coin or backed their paper money with a set percentage of gold, and they determined a gold value for their currency and guaranteed its convertibility. During major crises, the central banks of leading nations cooperated. In 1907, the Banque de France and the Reichsbank of Germany drew on their gold reserves to support the Bank of England, caught by heavy American borrowing. Both banks pushed up their interest rates to increase their gold stocks, while trying to prevent the flow of gold to the United States.
And how did Britain react?
What was important in the 1907 crisis was the behaviour of the Bank of England. Unlike the central banks of France and Germany, it did not build up its gold reserves, preferring to use gold rather than hoard it. It could do that because it was the centre of the world’s money and insurance markets. Its strength was its liquidity. By 1910, the United States may have held 31 per cent of the world’s gold reserves but it still financed its trade through London. Therefore the gold standard worked because it was in reality a sterling exchange system, with the world’s commerce revolving around the pound sterling. The centrality of the pound to international exchanges and to world markets made Britain’s entry to the First World War of paramount importance.
What effect did that have on the war?
“World War I did not become a world war in 1914 but in 1917, when US entered it and Russia left, by dint of its revolutions.”
When Britain became a belligerent, every country in the world was affected. Those who were Britain’s enemies were progressively cut off from overseas trade by naval blockade. Despite being the world’s second largest industrial power by 1914, Germany could only export or import to those neutrals on its immediate borders. It was unable to access international money markets, particularly that of New York, despite strong pro-German sentiment in at least some parts of the United States. Those who were Britain’s allies found that their access to the same money markets, and so to the borrowing required to pay for the overseas imports which they needed to equip their war efforts, depended on Britain’s international creditworthiness, and also on the sterling-dollar exchange rate. From the war’s onset, Russia could not raise funds in the United States, but Britain could. By 1916, Britain had in fact become the vehicle by which France and Italy too raised funds in America.
Weren’t there countries that were neutral? Did it also affect them?
Those who remained neutral found that their wealth and trade were increasingly compromised by the war because of the power of the sterling-dollar relationship and because of the capacity of Britain to keep its shipping and insurance business active despite hostilities. Neutrality proved to be relative, not absolute.
How did the entry of the United States into the war affect the conflict?
The United States may have been a late entrant to the war, but from its outset in 1914, America’s recovery from depression was achieved on the back of orders from the Entente powers. Britain sold treasury bonds to American private investors, using J.P. Morgan as its agents. Much of the finance so raised was then used to maintain the sterling-dollar exchange rate so as to control the prices of goods from the United States. Britain was effectively spending money in the United States which was then borrowed back to be spent in the United States again. Moreover, it was doing so not only on its own account but also on those of its allies, France, Russia and Italy. The Federal Reserve Board’s warning created a crisis in Allied finances which was only resolved (and even then not fully so) by the entry of the United States to the war in 1917.
So did Britain’s entry into the war make it a global conflict?
Britain’s entry to the war in 1914 meant that finance and trade were affected globally, whether a state was belligerent or not, and Britain’s adoption of economic warfare only underlined the point. But the implications were more narrowly strategic. Each of the Entente powers, Russia, France and especially Britain, were colonial powers. As a result of their entering the war, all Africa, save Ethiopia and Liberia, much of Asia, effectively all of Australasia, and parts of the Americas also found themselves at war.
How much of the fighting was actually done by soldiers from the colonies?
For the imperial powers themselves, empire implied resources, especially manpower. By the end of the war, France had raised 2,00,000 men from West Africa alone, and 5,50,000 from the empire as a whole, of whom 4,40,000 served in Europe. In 1914, Britain’s biggest army was not at home, but in India. While Britain prepared one expeditionary force in August, India formed four—one each for Europe, Egypt, Mesopotamia and East Africa. India raised 1.4 million soldiers during the war, of whom 1.1 million served outside the subcontinent.
What in your opinion is the best way to memorialise the event without falling into the trap of narrow nationalism?
The key word is commemoration, not celebration; it is also important to make a distinction between history in the sense of what really happened then and history in the sense of how we elect to remember it—which probably says more about our preoccupations.
Today, it is commonplace to compare US and China with Britain and Germany back then. Does this seem plausible to you?
No, that’s far too simple. Great wars do not begin with great powers seeking them; they begin with local or regional powers manipulating them.