How the Great War Might Have Gone Otherwise,
by Gwydion M. Williams
The ‘Point of Departure‘ is Lloyd George losing office because of the Marconi Scandal of 1912. Being a backbencher in 1914, he opposes the war and keeps the bulk of the liberals with him. Asquith goes into coalition with the Tories, and the war proceeds much as it did historically, up until the bloody stalemate following the Battle of the Marne and Tannenberg.
But meantime there has been some devious “black propaganda” from the peace side, probably promoted by Lloyd George acting behind the scenes. Earlier secret British plans for a war similar to the war as it occurred are leaked. Also US Secretary of State Bryan comes to Europe to promote peace. He suggests resolving the issue of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is to vote as five separate districts. Tsarist Russia, badly overstrained, decided to support this. A cease-fire begins on 13th January
The fighting had now stopped, but there was nothing to say it would not start again. Troops were held where they were and told to improve their trenches in case the war began again. Though reluctant and with many still remembering the brief Christmas Truce in some parts of the line, men on both sides still obeyed.
Peace talks were immediately begun in neutral Copenhagen, but there were great difficulties. Germany had by now persuaded Austria-Hungary to accept the Bryan Plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina, but flatly refused to include Alsace-Lorraine. Russia and Serbia found this acceptable: France did not, and nor did initially did Britain. Rather, the Asquith government did not, but many Tory back-benchers saw his stand as absurd. The cost of the war had already gone way beyond any possible benefits, and there was no end in sight. Some of these formed a body that they called the 1915 Committee, and let it be known that they saw merit in the Bryan Plan.
Matters rapidly came to a head. Lloyd George, now confirmed as Liberal Party leader, tabled a No Confidence motion and won it, with some of the Asquith Liberals abandoning their leader’s cause and many Tories abstaining. Sensibly, Lloyd George then formed a coalition with Tory leader Bonar Law as Prime Minister, but excluding all of the Asquith Liberals. He justified this by saying that Tories were opponents, people he could work with in the national interests, but the Asquith Liberals were enemies and would remain so. He successfully ended the political careers of most of them: Winston Churchill managed eventually to re-join the Tories, his original party, but got nothing better than the minor post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He took an unpopular stand on the Great Far Eastern War, resigning his seat and re-stood as an Independent in protest. But he lost, and abandoned politics to concentrate on his other role as a popular war historian and occasional artist.
Isolated, France had to accept a peace at the end of January 1915 that gave them no net gains, and made it look utterly unlikely that Alsace-Lorraine would ever be regained. The wartime government fell, replaced by another including the Socialists and other opponents of the war. This new government repudiated the treaties made with Britain and Russia and published their own versions of those secret agreements. Meantime the British election of May 1915 was a triumph for Lloyd George, giving him a bigger Liberal majority than 1905, along with a considerable rise in voted for the new Labour Party. Some Asquith Liberals retained their seats, but Lloyd George could and did govern without them, taking in the Labour Party as junior partners to secure himself from further splits.
Meantime the consequences flowed swiftly. The vote in Bosnia- Herzegovina had been fixed for June, but then the elderly Emperor Franz Joseph announced that he would be abdicating that autumn, letting his great-nephew Charles take over. Charles had previously expressed no very definite views on Imperial politics, but now came out strongly in favour of the pro-Slav policies of his murdered uncle. He was aided by Bryan, who unexpectedly resigned as US Secretary of State and allowed himself to be hired as an election agent for Austria-Hungary. As he explained, it did not come naturally to a Protestant preacher from the world’s largest republic to sing the praises of an ancient Catholic monarchy. But he’d become aware how near the solid, sensible and Protestant Norwegians and Swedes had come to fighting each other over Norway’s demand for independence, and remembered the USA’s own Civil War. So when he looked at the enormous complexity and intermingling of nationalities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he did not think any of them suitable for conversion into nation-states. He made an exception for Poland, but Poland was at that time split three ways and could not be re-created without German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian agreement.
With Bryan’s introduction of American campaigning methods, and with a promise that it might in time evolve into a Danubian Federation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire persuaded a clear majority in all five divisions of Bosnia- Herzegovina to stay with them. This and the Eight-Power Guarantee over Bosnia-Herzegovina meant that the dream of both ‘Greater Serbia’ and ‘Yugoslavia’ had ended for ever. A new breed of politician gradually took over, concentrating on making the best of what they had.
So ended the Seven Month War. The name sprang up almost immediately, notwithstanding the fact that there were only 169 days between the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia on 28th July 1914 and the armistice of 13th January 1915, less than half a year. The war had undeniably extended across seven calendar months, July to January, even though most of the participants had not mobilised or declared war until early August.
After the event, many said that the Peace of January 1915 was almost inevitable once the war had become a deadlock. Each side started with reasonable hopes of a clear clean victory at an acceptable cost. But the hoped-for Russian Steamroller was defeated at Tannenberg and the German Schliffen plan was derailed at the Battle of the Marne. Yet the war had carried on after those events, with the ‘Race to the Sea’ culminating with the brutal stalemate of the Battle of Ypres in October / November. It didn’t end at Christmas, despite the fraternisation. Perhaps without Lloyd George and the bulk of the British Liberals standing for peace, it would have carried on till one side or the other lost heart or crumbled into ruin.
Nor would anyone at the time have ventured to say that this would be the last major European war, as it in fact has been. There were fears of another geo-political earthquake in June, when a spontaneous revolt broke out in Russia, based on justified anger at a war that had been bungled and which now looked very much like a defeat. Tsar Nicolas abdicated, and also declared that his haemophiliac son was too sick to succeed him. He nominated his inoffensive brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, as the new Tsar. This surprising action seems to have been prompted by the advice of the Tsar’s much-trusted “holy man”, Father Grigori, also known as Rasputin. A vulgar man but also a man who mixed freely with ordinary Russians, he had been against the war from the start.
Wisely, the Duma accepted the idea of a Constitutional Monarchy rather than a Republic, and then embarked on a widespread program of land reform. In this task they had the able assistance of former Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who had carried through a successful land reform in Ireland a few years earlier. And also by Irish politician William O’Brien, a man of very different views and temperament, but who had successfully cooperated with Balfour to hammer out the compromise of the Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act 1903, resolving the long-standing land issue in Ireland. They used the same successful formula in Russia: the government would pay the difference between the price offered by tenants and that demanded by landlords. And William O’Brien was valuable as a man whose personality could transcend the lack of a common language and convince peasant leaders that this was an honest offer rather than some sort of trick.
There was also no very substantial opposition to this sensibly balanced land reform. It suited the Social-Revolutionary Party, whose main strength was rural and who got most of what they wanted and soon renamed themselves the Radical Labour Party. The fragmented Social-Democrats, representing most of the working class, might have given trouble. But the most substantial Social-Democrat, Vladimir Lenin, endorsed it as part of the Marxist objective of building capitalism now and socialism later. The vocal opposition of another Social-Democrat, a man called Leon Trotsky, may actually have helped the process by alienating moderates. Particularly when it was revealed that he wasn’t actually “Trotsky”, a solidly Slavonic name, but Lev Bronstein and the son of a prosperous Jewish farmer, with all of his Jewish relatives saying that the man was enormously clever and eloquent but also an over-ingenious fool and that the proposed deal was actually very fair and sensible. The main point, however, was that in both Ireland and Russia the current generation of land-owners valued the land mostly as a source of money and were happy to get a secure income without the bother of managing anything.
The following year, Irish Home Rule was secured at last, with the Ulster Unionists demoralised and the German Emperor no longer inclined to help them, as he had been in the Home Rule Crisis of 1912. Great tact was shown by the new Irish Prime Minister John Redmond, who could also point to his firm support for the war and his history as the closest follower of Parnell, who had been both a Protestant and an Irish Nationalists. The Unionists reluctantly accepted his right to rule, while resenting his closeness to the Ancient Order of Hibernians. But there was nothing to say that Redmond would be Prime Minister for very long: he was challenged by William O’Brien’s All-for-Ireland League, by the much more radical Sinn Fein, and by a small but growing Irish Labour Party under James Larkin and James Connolly. Irish Labour won over many Protestant workers who felt betrayed by Ulster Unionism. Politics basically moved on, with Home Rule Ireland as just another Dominion within the British Empire.
In the British Empire as a whole, not everyone welcomed the peace. Since it had been a joint effort by the Lloyd George Liberals and the Tories, there was an opening on the right. This was filled for a time by the Chesterton brothers and their National Distributionist Party, which insisted that the war had been winnable and talked darkly of Jewish plots against the British Empire. They got a few MPs, and began to look more serious after the emergence of their notable cousin Arthur Chesterton as a plausible national leader, even a possible Prime Minister. Still, there was always a lot of resistance to their message. They were hampered by G K Chesterton’s zeal as a convert to Roman Catholicism: there was at least as much anti-Catholic feeling as anti-Jewish feeling among most of the right-wing British circles they were appealing to. And many men who had been through the dark months of Trench Warfare in France were very glad it had ended early on decent terms. When a speaker at a National Distributionist rally loudly proclaimed that it had been Jews who had arranged a peace “dishonourable to Britain”, a hecklers shouted out “good for the Yids”. This became a popular counter-cry, so much so that the Board of Jewish Deputies felt it necessary to issue a pamphlet pointing out that prominent British Jews had actually taken a wide variety of different positions over both the war and the peace, with none of them actually being very significant in the disputes.
On the other side of the Atlantic, ending the war in Europe was seen as a triumph. President Woodrow Wilson thought he deserves most of the credit, and perhaps he did, but it was Bryan who had been in the public eye. Wilson was shoved aside by his own party and Bryan was nominated as Democratic Presidential candidate for the fourth and last time in 1916. But as many had feared, he lost again, with Republican Charles Evans Hughes becoming President and carrying on the Progressive Republican tradition of Theodore Roosevelt. He was helped by a mass defection from the Democrats of numerous communities that had come from some part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had hoped to see their own nationalities established as nation-states. This influx included many socialists of European origin, and began the process whereby the Democrats became Centre-Right in US politics and the Republicans Centre-Left with a socialist wing.
The one remaining issue was Poland. Following new elections in 1920, a Russian government dominated by the Radical Labour Party had a plan to make the Tsarist Empire into a true Federation, with the various non-Russian peoples allowed considerable regional and cultural autonomy. Most found this acceptable, but the Poles were determined to get more and threatened to disrupt the process. So after a heated debate and some resignations, the new Russian government with the new Tsar’s endorsement offered to re-create Poland from the ethnic-Polish lands that were split between Russia and the German and Austrian Empires. This was achieved, and a neutral Polish Republic created in 1921 after the triumph of the German Social Democrats in the election of that year. It was however much smaller than the Polish Kingdom that had been partitioned in three stages between 1772 and 1795, much of which now had an ethnic-German majority. The newly defined independent Poland was broadly similar to the Duchy of Warsaw that Napoleon had established in 1807, meaning that it had no outlet to the sea and was heavily dependent on the German port of Danzig. Polish patriots were disappointed, but very few wanted another European war. Economics gradually triumphed over politics. And with that, the politics of Europe settled down to a relatively stable order that has lasted down to the present day.
I assume that the much-hyped “Belgian Atrocities” by the German Army would have been quietly forgotten about with an early peace. There was anyway a lot of wild exaggeration in the stories told at the time. And this systematic lying was to have tragic consequences: when the lies were exposed after the war, people lost confidence in official reports of such matters. It made them much less willing to believe in the entirely genuine atrocities that were happening in the Nazi Death Camps in World War Two. Accurate reports were smuggled out by the Polish Resistance. But no one did anything, not even bombing the railway lines to the Auschwitz concentration camp, which the RAF or the US Air Force could easily have done. The stories did also circulate, but were widely assumed to be more propaganda even by firm supporters of the Allied cause. Even after the war, they were mainly an issue raised by the left until the 1960s, when the matter rose to its current prominence. (Often with non-Jewish victims being overlooked.)
Winston Churchill’s reputation was damaged by the Gallipoli Landings in mid-1915, but recovered somewhat when he chose to serve at the front. He lost his seat as a Liberal, regained it in 1924 as an Independent with Tory support and then rejoined the Tory Party, which he had abandoned in favour of the Liberals in 1904. He was then unexpectedly made Chancellor of the Exchequer, a job which he is widely viewed as having done badly. He mentions somewhere that he had initially thought he was being offered merely the job of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a cabinet post much more junior than First Lord of the Admiralty, but which he had briefly held in 1915. I choose to believe that in a less warlike world, his career would have petered out.
In real history, the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand was indeed planning to raise the status of the various Slavonic peoples within the Austrian Empire. His nephew Charles had not been prepared for high office and achieved little when he succeeded in 1916 after the death of Emperor Franz Joseph. With the war lost, he ‘renounced participation’ in state affairs, but did not abdicate. He died in 1922, and was made a saint by the Catholic Church. His son, Otto von Habsburg spent most of his life in exile. He was allowed to return to Austria in 1966, after renouncing his claim to the throne. He later became a Member of the European Parliament, dying in 2011.
Regarding Russia, an early abdication might have saved a dynasty that had become discredited by 1917. Rasputin playing a positive role is far from absurd: he was indeed against the war. “Father Gregori” is what the Tsar and his wife preferred to call him. Here as elsewhere, I am assuming that a good peace doesn’t necessarily need good people to make it.
Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich was indeed nominated as the heir in 1917. But the liberals and moderate socialists refused to accept him, going for a republic without wondering what this might cost them in terms of popular support. Had they accepted him in March 1917, it would have been difficult for right-wingers like Lavr Kornilov to rebel, the event which restored Bolshevik fortunes after an abortive left-wing uprising in July. In a less radicalised and war-weary Russia, things might have been different. (And note that King Juan Carlos of Spain defeated a right-wing coup of 23 February 1981.)
In actual history, the Westernised Russian Republic lasted only a few months. Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and executed in 1918. The Social-Revolutionary Party were a hybrid of Marxism and older Russian Populist ideas and might have been more in tune with Russia as a whole than the Bolsheviks ever were. I assume they would not have gone on calling themselves Social-Revolutionaries after a peaceful transition, and ‘Radical Labour’ seems to me a sensible new name.
In actual history, the Social-Revolutionary Party won more than half the Russian Constituent Assembly election that was held after the Bolshevik’s October Revolution. But they split into Left and Right, and the Bolsheviks dispersed the Constituent Assembly and ruled in coalition with the Left Social-Revolutionaries until 1918, when they split over making peace with Germany. The Left Social-Revolutionaries tried an uprising and were crushed.
I include the slightly unlikely pairing of Balfour and William O’Brien because they had indeed already cooperated to push through the Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act of 1903. This had the state bridge the gap between what tenants were willing to pay for the land and what land-owners were willing to accept, and successfully resolved the long-running land issue. Had it been tried in the Tsarist Empire, I assume that it would have been accepted by both the Social-Revolutionaries and Lenin, but rejected by Trotsky. Who was indeed the son of a prosperous Jewish farmer, and who had been reduced to leader of a small faction intermediate between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks when Lenin decided to bring him in as a Bolshevik leader in 1917. Without the collapse of Tsarism after several years of war, I assume that Lenin would have been much less significant and Trotsky largely forgotten.
Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party (commonly called the Irish Party or the Home Rule Party) had direct continuity with the party founded by Parnell. It might well have succeeded as stabilising a Home Rule Ireland within the framework of the British Empire had the World War ended early. Actual history strengthened Sinn Fein, with William O’Brien’s All-For-Ireland League giving up its independent existence and joining Sinn Fein in the crucial election of 1918, which returned a clear majority for an independent Ireland. Without a longer war and without the stupidly vicious British reaction to the 1916 Easter Rising, things would probably have gone otherwise.
James Connolly was shot for his part in the Easter Rising, while James Larkin opted for Communism. But socialism in Ireland has frequently bridged the sectarian divide, notably with the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which was quite significant before the start of communal warfare in the 1960s. And there have always been significant numbers of Protestants in the various Home Rule and Irish Republican movements. Only Ulster Unionism in all of its variants has been purely sectarian, showing no interest in the small number of Catholics who might wish to join it. Had mainland UK parties organised in Northern Ireland, things might have been different: but a long campaign to persuade them to do this did not succeed.
As I mentioned in Part One, the Chesterton brothers had a position in the pre-1914 world. The death from war wounds of Charles Chesterton probably ensured that G.K Chesterton’s Distributionism would never amount to much. With both brothers alive and a right-wing minority discontented at a war that had finished early, it might have been otherwise. And their cousin might have joined their cause.
- K. Chesterton might have preferred to be known as Arthur Chesterton had he gone into electoral politics. He was certainly gifted, but in actual history his wartime service in the British Army in East African nearly caused his death from malaria and dysentery, and left him permanently weakened. His later political career was separate from that of his surviving cousin G. K. Chesterton, varying from non-political to British Fascist to right-wing Conservative to the pre-war National Front. After the war he founded the League of Empire Loyalists and later a new National Front which briefly looked significiant, but split and declined thanks to a large element of obnoxious Hitler-admirers. Most right-wing British nationalists share the Churchillian view of the war against Hitler as the ‘finest hour’.
(Since Hitler also wrecked fascism as a global movement, it’s surprising that so many hard-liners admire him: yet this is the case and has repeatedly crippled attempts at a serious Hard Right movement. UKIP has so far flourished by keeping them out.)
Charles Evans Hughes was the Republican candidate for the 1916 Presidential Election, which Woodrow Wilson won after giving the impression that he was the peace candidate. William Jennings Bryan resigned as Secretary of State in 1915, but did support the war. His later campaign against Darwinism was based on a belief that it was part of a power-orientated outlook that had caused the war. He was too probably too strident and serious about his Christianity ever to get elected US President, with the majority of the electorate seeing religion as a mark of respectability rather than treating it as a heartfelt creed.
The idea of US politics evolving with the Democrats as Centre-Right and the Republicans Centre-Left seems strange nowadays, but the two of them were not polarised as left or right till much later. Franklin D. Roosevelt began the polarisation, with the Democrats as the main supporters of the semi-socialist New Deal. It was largely completed when Barry Goldwater became Republican Presidential Candidate in 1964, but there were Progressive Republicans for some time after that. It might easily have gone the other way. Historian and SF writer Harry Turtledove has his own variant in his alternate history novel How Few Remain, in which the Confederates win in 1862 and an elderly Abraham Lincoln leads part of the Republican Party into union with socialists, founding a party which gradually becomes the left-wing alternative to the right-wing Democrats.
In actual history, an unjustifiably large Poland was created, with a Polish Corridor cut through territory that had an ethnic-German majority, to give them access to the Baltic Sea. Mostly-German Danzig was defined as a Free City, but also part of Poland. In practice the Poles ignored it and built up their own alternative ports, yet also went to war in 1939 rather than renounce Danzig as part of a surprisingly moderate offer that they got from Hitler. After World War Two, the German majority in East Prussia were expelled and Danzig became Gdansk.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams
This first appeared in Past Historic, the magazine of the Mensa History Group