How the Great War Might Have Gone Otherwise,
by Gwydion M. Williams
Part One describes the outbreak of the 1914 war occurring almost exactly as it did in our world. The significant difference is that Lloyd George had been forced to resign in 1912 during the Marconi scandal. Being a back-bencher during the crisis, he successfully prevented the Liberal Party from going to war over Belgium. Asquith then split the party and remained Prime Minister, but in a wartime coalition with the Tories.
Part Two describes the opening of the war, and the horrific and indecisive 1914 battles at The Marne and Tannenberg. Also Austria-Hungary’s capture of the Serb capital Belgrade, events happening much as in our own history. But in this alternate history, Lloyd George is waiting in the wings for the best time to protest. He begins this after the Battle of the Marne, and meantime shocking photos of battle deaths emerge. A small left-wing magazine leaks secret documents indicating that the British Empire had long been planning a war. Former war minister Lord Haldane then publicly confirms them as true, probably feeling remorse for the death of his nephew J B S Haldane (who in actual history survived the war).
There was now a substantial anti-war movement, headed by Lloyd George and backed by the bulk of the Liberal Party. Of course many including Labour Party pioneer Keir Hardie would have campaigned for peace regardless of anything Lloyd George might have done. But most of the Labour Party was against him at the time. Fellow anti-war campaigner Ramsey MacDonald was replaced as Labour leader by Arthur Henderson, who supported the war and was sounded out about the possibility of joning the coalition. As he himself later said, he was strongly attracted by the possibility of becoming the first Labour cabinet minister. But Haldane’s revelations shook his confidence, as did the legitimation of anti-war feelings by the majority of Liberal MPs.
During this October Crisis, US President Woodrow Wilson sent Secretary of State William J. Bryan to mediate, and to remind Europe of what he saw as strong similarities with the USA’s own Civil War. In Europe, the horrific casualties and frequent stalemates of America’s Civil War had previously been regarded as due to an inferior grasp military science in the New World. It could not be denied that Prussia had won decisive victories over first Austria and then France with much the same technology, in the wars of 1866 and 1870. France in its involvement in the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859 had not been as impressive as the Prussians, but France had won decisively after a series of battles against Austria spread across no more than four months. That it had taken the US North more than four years to crush secessionists who comprised no more than a fifth of the white population was therefore seen as a sign of poor generalship, up until August 1914 and briefly thereafter. But now an even worse stalemate had happened in a clash between Europe’s finest armies. If it had taken more that four years to break the relatively weak Confederate States of American, how long would it take to defeat the mighty German Empire?
That was his argument, yet each of the belligerent government agreed that peace would be desirable, but only if it were a ‘peace with honour. Yet honour for one side would be dishonour for another. France could not easily end the war without gaining at least part of Alsace-Loraine, yet Germany would never consider giving up those territories (which in any case had largely accepted that they were part of Germany). Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia, but Serbia was disinclined to be punished and still claimed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia had suffered huge losses and could not easily quit without visible gains.
Faced with the complexities of Old Europe, where almost every power had been both an ally and an enemy of every other power across centuries of shared history, Bryan had the inspired idea of ‘Shuttle Diplomacy’. Rather than hoping to bring everyone to the negotiating table, he went on his own to the capitals of each power. He persuaded each of them to tell him in confidence what terms they might settle for, with the assurance that no one else would be told. From this he might come up with an acceptable solution.
These novel tactics did not produce any immediate success. Bryan learned that Germany was quite ready to withdraw to its pre-war borders, provided that Austria-Hungary’s right to rule Bosnia-Herzegovina were guaranteed by all the Powers. Asquith thought this unacceptable, as did Russia and France. The Tsar and his ministers rightly feared a repeat of the 1905 Revolution if the war ended with nothing gained. The French government feared the increased popularity and power for the Socialists, whose votes had risen from 10% in 1906 to 13% in 1910 and nearly 17% in 1914. Whereas a majority of the German Social-Democrats had voted for War Credits, the French Socialists were upholding the memory of their assassinated leader Jean Jaures, the only major leader to try to implement the Second International’s program for an International General Strike to prevent a European war. As well as this, neither Asquith nor his Tory allies wanted a peace that would leave Germany looking vastly stronger, even if they gained not an inch of new territory. So for the time, efforts at peace came to a halt.
Bryan remained optimistic and continued his efforts. And it may well have been his intervention and advice that kept the Ottoman Empire out of the war. There had been a secret Ottoman-German treaty in August, but the Sultan did not sign it, so it was not binding. And there were sensible fears of communal warfare within the mutli-ethnic empire, had they joined the war. Armenian extremists were dreaming of joining a Russian invasion of the Ottoman Empire and taking a huge chunk of Eastern Anatolia as Greater Armenia – territories with a considerable majority of non-Armenian peoples who might have turned violent had these plans ever become a serious prospect.
Britain also had an interest in the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, which they had previously protected against Russia. British Imperial representatives were later shown to have been plotting with some minor aristocrats in Arabia, including a city called Kuwait that sat in the middle of some of the best oil fields. Nor was it all squalid commerce: a man called T. E. Lawrence later wrote a highly popular novel about a character based on himself leading a dramatic Arab revolt against the Ottomans, claiming with some truth that such plans had been in the air. East of Arabia, there was a covert ambition among some British Imperialists to take over the three Ottoman provinces that covered ancient Mesopotamia. Mosul Province and Basra Province both had large oil reserves, increasingly interesting after the British Navy switched from coal to oil. And there was some historical-romantic interest in Baghdad Province, containing not just the famous ancient city of Baghdad but also the ruins of Babylon and Ur and perhaps some even older cities that had been the first cities made by man. There were also some romantic notions that the Garden of Eden must have been somewhere in the area and could be acquired by the British Empire. And on the other side there were Ottoman Turks who dreamed of a Greater Turkistan that would have included Turkic peoples in Central Asia, conquered by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. But with an early peace looking very possible, the dominant Young Turks decided to support the Sultan’s preference to stay out of the war.
Peace prospects seemingly receded in November, particularly with the limited Allied victory at the Battle of Ypres. Still, the refusal of the Ottoman Empire to join in had a bigger effect than was realised at the time. Russia had no particular grievance against Germany, but did have a long-standing ambition to retake Constantinople for Orthodox Christianity. This was an aim that Britain had repeatedly frustrated – the original 1870s “Jingoism” had been anti-Russian and was based on a popular song that specifically said “The Russians shall not have Constantinople“. But by the 1910s, with Germany now seen as the main threat to the British Empire, Britain’s rulers were now covertly willing to allow it. Yet with the Ottoman Empire stubbornly neutral, Russia saw no clear benefit beyond their long-standing ambition for greater influence among Slavs in the west. And even this had gone drastically wrong, with their old ally Bulgaria repudiating them. Had the war lasted longer, Bulgaria might even have joined Germany and Austria-Hungary to wage war against Serbia and recover ethnically mixed territory lost in the Second Balkan War.
The start of December saw a brief rally for the Allied cause, with Serbia winning the Battle of Kolubara and regaining Belgrade. But the cost of the war had been horrific, and many Serbs feared that they would lose their capital again in the long run. And the Peace Movement in Britain kept growing. The German government reacted intelligently, realising that this was their best hope for a peace that would nullify the alarming French-Russian Alliance that they had been facing since 1892. Plans for the shelling of British coastal cities by German warships were put on hold, as were vaguer and more speculative plans for an air raid on London by the famous Zeppelin air ships that had pioneered regular passenger air travel. Later events in the Great Far Eastern War were to show that air bombardments behind the Front Line are fairly ineffective, serving mostly to enrage the victims and make them more likely to support whatever war that their government might be fighting.
What happened next took everyone by surprise. There was no official agreement to do anything different on Christmas, even though Christmas truces or a general habit of not fighting on Christmas day had been common in previous European wars. Pope Benedict the 15th had called for such a truce, but had been largely ignored. But through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many of them and even some French independently ventured into “no man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were even friendly enough to play games of soccer with one another.
Popular histories mostly treat this as if it were the effective end of the Seven Months War in the West. Yet it was not the end: fighting continued and many lives were pointlessly lost in the fighting between the Christmas Truce and the actual Armistice. Had not peace been the policy of the greater part of the British Liberal Party and had not the USA been actively involved as a peacemaker, things might have gone otherwise. The war might have continued with no further truces. Still, news of the truces and the lack of hatred by the ordinary solider on the Front made a further impact on British public opinion.
Bryan meanwhile had been spending Christmas visiting Norway and Sweden, which had seemed odd, since neither country had joined the war or was likely to. But he was quietly making himself familiar with the overlooked process whereby Norway had peacefully achieved its independence. Norway had been unified with Denmark since mediaeval times, but during the final years of the Napoleonic Wars had been separated from Denmark and then persuaded to join a “personal union” with Sweden under the Swedish monarch, though without losing its own distinctive institutions. Moves to re-assert Norway’s separate status looked likely to lead to war, but in the end the Swedes agreed that Norway could go if it opted for independence in a referendum. This might have been a sticking point, since the Norwegians considered that their parliament had already validly voted them out, and merely asked the electorate to confirm this. But support for Norwegian independence was overwhelming and the whole matter was resolved peacefully. It left one anomaly: Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who had died in 1896, had wished his planned prizes to be jointly administered by Swedes and Norwegians. This was resolved by the Peace Prize being given to a committee chosen by the Norwegian parliament, while various Swedish academic bodies controlled the other four. And after nearly going to war over independence, Norway and Sweden have been good neighbours ever since.
On the 3rd January 1915, Bryan came forward and proposed that the novel method of a popular vote or referendum be applied to the disputed territory of Bosnia- Herzegovina. He further proposed that it be done for five separate subdivisions, which he had drawn up on plausible historic grounds. Each of the five would each separately vote for union with Serbia or else continuing to be ruled by Austria-Hungary. And once the vote was taken, the outcome would be final. All of the powers of Europe would be pledged to uphold it.
There was considerable doubt, of course. Bryan insisted that that a right to secede by popular vote could not become the norm, and pointed out that the United States had denied it to the states that briefly formed the Confederacy, while Virginia and the pro-Confederate government of Tennessee had in turn had denied rights of sub-secession to West Virginia and East Tennessee. Britain was doubtful about conceding Home Rule to Ireland, while the Irish in turn were outraged at suggestions that the Unionist majority in the north-east of the island might go its own way. Dozens of other such claims existed, and any promise to meet them would undoubtedly cause chaos. Bryan agreed that “Territorial Integrity” for existing sovereign states must continue to trump “Self-Determination”, in almost all cases. But peace without a final and unbreakable settlement of Bosnia-Herzegovina might not last long, so it must be an exception.
It was quickly noted that three of Bryan’s five subdivision would contain a clear Serbian majority. This led to a sudden and hasty decision by the Tsar and a majority of his ministers to express support for Bryan’s plan, assuming that it would enlarge Serbia and allow an increasingly costly and unsuccessful war to be presented as a limited victory. And with the Ottoman Empire still stubbornly neutral, the main aim seemed beyond reach. Serbia itself was more doubtful, but also hard-pressed and unwilling to antagonise Russia. Meantime France suggested that a similar plebiscite be held for Alsace-Lorraine. Then on 9th January, Germany and Austria-Hungary jointly proposed a cease fire on all fronts, while the possible peace was negotiated. News of this at once leaked to the Western Front, and most actual fighting ceased. On 13th January, Britain, France, Belgium, Russia and Serbia formally agreed to an immediate Cease Fire.
The end of the shooting was met with considerable joy, but also some fear. Could a viable peace actually be agreed, with the many outstanding issues still to settle?
In actual history, Labour leader Arthur Henderson joined the Cabinet and moved up when Lloyd George replaced Asquith in 1916. Lloyd George, having been in power and opted for war in 1914, did more than anyone else to keep the war going.
William J. Bryan is best know nowadays for his opposition to Darwinism at the Scopes Trial in 1925. But he was much more than that, one of the last serious Christian to have a major impact in US politics. (Arguably the very last, apart from Martin Luther King.) He was the final representative of radical and left-wing Fundamentalism in the US mainstream, very different from later right-wing sycophants who praise the rich and sneer at the poor. He had been three times the Democratic party Presidential candidate, in 1896, 1900 and 1908. He then supported Woodrow Wilson’s successful bid in 1912 and as a reward was given the post of Secretary of State, which is the closest the USA has to a Foreign Minister.
The claims that the American Civil War in the early 1860s foreshadowed the First World War has often been made, mostly by US historians. As I note, this ignores other wars, notably Prussia’s relatively easy victories in 1866 and 1870. It was probably not a valid precedent, but a US politician would almost certainly cite it for the anti-war cause.
The Ottoman Empire was reforming fast in 1914, and might have successfully modernised regions that have been war-torn ever since. British imperialists did indeed have ambitions to take Mesopotamia, probably for direct rule. In the event, the three Ottoman provinces that covered ancient Mesopotamia were constituted as the quasi-independent state of Iraq after the war. An election for monarch was rigged by the British authorities, who arrested and deported the main locally-born candidate. This secured the election for a son of Britain’s ally, the Sharif of Mecca. (This pro-Western monarchy lasted until 1958, when the man’s grandson was murdered in a left-wing military coup.)
The notion of the British Empire fighting a war to acquire “the Garden of Eden” might seem too absurd to have been real. But George Bernard Shaw in his play Back to Methuselah has the British Empire moving its centre to Baghdad. The play also starts in his rather eccentric version of the Garden of Eden. In any case, there was also the desire for control of oil, something that has lasted with various pretexts down to the present day.
The war may have been forced on the Ottomans, but the immediate pretext was some clashes with the Russians in the Black Sea. The Ottomans did have a secret treaty with Germany that the Sultan refused to sign, as described. Here again, the presence of substantial politicians like Lloyd George and Bryan in the peace camp might have made a difference.
In actual history, Armenian extremists joined a Russian invasion of the Ottoman Empire, ambitious for a Greater Armenia. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres awarded then a huge chunk of Eastern Anatolia, as well as creating an independent Kurdistan and awarding Eastern Thrace and a portion of Western Anatolia to Greece. Armenian support for the Russian invasion was the context of the mass deportation and killing of Armenians which occurred during the war. And the reason why the new Republic of Turkey expelled all of its Christian minorities, even those who had never been rebellious. It should also be noted that some seven to nine million Turkish-Muslim fled or were expelled to Anatolia and Eastern Thrace from territories taken from the Ottoman Empire before 1914.
Russia had been promised Constantinople by the British, a reversal of earlier policies, which had been famously expressed in the original 1870s Jingoism, where the original song said:
We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.
The British promise of Constantinople to the Russians was probably a factor in Churchill’s scheme for a British attack, the process that led to the disastrous Gallipoli landings. Success would have opened up communications with Russia through the Dardanelles and the Black Sea, and would have included the capture of Constantinople. But it was not generally known at the time. The British public were somehow persuaded that the Ottomans had started the war.
Bulgaria was alienated from Russia by 1914, having not been helped during the Second Balkan War, which cost it a lot of territory. Both sides tried to win it over, with the Allies offering Ottoman territory and the Central Powers portions of Serbia. Bulgaria actually joined in on the side of the Central Powers in September 1915.
The First Battle of Ypres ended the “race to the sea”, locking the war in the west into a static Western Front where there were no major movements for years. The Second Battle of Ypres occurred in April-May 1915, and would not have happened in my Alternate History.
Units of the German fleet shelled Scarborough and Hartlepool on 16th December 1914, but were damaged by the coastal batteries and achieved little, though it counts as a German victory.[A] There were repeated Zeppelin raids on London, starting 19th January 1915. Both events were seen as attacks on civilians, contrary to the laws of war. They strengthened British resolve to continue the war. I doubt if peace would have been achievable even in my altered timeline if those raids had been carried through.
Attacks on the enemy society rather than its army have been popular in the 20th century and continue to be favoured, especially in the Anglosphere. But there is a lot of evidence that their main effect is to increase the enemy’s will to fight and win. They only work when it is Total War and no compromise is sought or desired.
The Christmas truce happened just as I described it, and indeed I have “lifted” the entire section from the Wiki text. [B] And like most spontaneous movements with no institutional support, it was easily suppressed. The Wiki account says that the Germans favoured further truces, but that the British High Command successfully limited or suppressed such fraternisation.
The Christmas truce has received surprisingly little attention since it happened, despite the general feeling in Britain that the Great War had been futile. There is a good short account of it on a website called The Historical Eye,[C] and Paul McCartney used it for the video of his 1983 song Pipes of Peace. There was also a 2005 French film, Joyeux Noel, which is available on DVD with English subtitles. But it is far less well know than it should be: most historians treat it as a minor event, or else ignore it completely.
I’d have thought the initial truce and its later suppression was crying out for a popular book. I’ve done my own small bit in this Alternate History, but I have other projects and don’t plan to take it further. The topic is there for anyone who wants to take it up. I’ve been surprised that various peace movements make so little of it.
The separation of Norway from Sweden seems to have been the first time in history that a nation had been allowed to vote itself into independence, apart from the USA persuading its African settlement for freed slaves to separate as Liberia.[D] It deserves to be better known and have a popular book written about it – there is none as far as I known. I use the Wiki entry,[E] but already knew about it from other sources.
Neither country fought in World War One, though Norway gave naval assistance to Britain.
The USA has never permitted secession. It did organise West Virginia from the portion of Virginia that was against Virginia’s secession, arguing that there was no longer a valid state government in Virginia and Congress was free to reorganise portions of the USA that were merely “territories”. Setting up East Tennessee was also considered, but in the event two rival governments emerged, one Unionist and one Confederate, as also happened in Missouri. Much earlier, Maine had been detached from Massachusetts. But this was by mutual consent, and was part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” of January 1918 are often supposed to have established the rights of nation-states. In fact this is granted only to Poland. He speaks of “autonomous development” for Hungary, promises nothing for the peoples of the former Tsarist Empire and fails to mention Ireland.
Though there has since been a lot of talk since about “rights of small nations”, no right to secession has ever been established in International Law. The normal understanding has been that “territorial integrity” overrides “self-determination”, meaning that no sovereign state can be required to offer an independence referendum to a territory that it claims to be an integral part of the state. Exceptions mostly happened thanks to overwhelming force – the USA supporting Panama’s secession from Columbia, various new states created by the victors of World War One, NATO carving out Kosovo from Serbia and recently Russia separating Crimea from Ukraine and making it part of Russia.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams
This first appeared in Past Historic, the magazine of the Mensa History Group