Derek Robinson’s WHY 1914? is a brief and comprehensive introduction to the events that led to the start of the First World War. But why take our word for it – see below for a review from Elizabeth Balmer for the Western Front Association.
For a small book, this one punches well above its weight. In his first 130 pages Derek Robinson, well-known for his earlier fictional works – Goshawk Squadron and Piece of Cake among others – provides a masterclass in the history of pre-1914 Europe and beyond, including the South African War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War. The last 70 pages give a summary of the first months of the war on the Western, Eastern and Balkan Fronts, even taking in the Battle of Coronel on the way. If this seems ambitious, he succeeds admirably in answering the question in his title with a clear and readable account, given in short but comprehensive chapters.
As the background to the war, he describes the social and political complexity of Austria-Hungary, the Balkan Wars, the Unification of Germany, Bismarck’s legacy, the family relationships of European royalty, the all-important implications of alliances and treaties, and the volatile character of the Kaiser (in command of the army, but not in control, Robinson says). In discussing the British army, he has succinct descriptions of the Cardwell and Haldane reforms.
War was inevitable, he says, ‘for the simple and depressing reason that many people on every side wanted [it] and they all believed . . . they would win it’. But he downplays the importance of Princip’s fatal shot as the fuse that ignited it by showing the current preoccupations of the contenders as being more immediately important than yet another assassination of royalty in the Balkans. A good chapter follows on the Curragh Mutiny.
He describes the inexorable buildup of the European armies and the naval race, born out of a mixture of aggression and, on the part of France, seething resentment over her defeat in 1870, with Britain drawn in not only by treaty and alliance obligations, but also from a reasonable anxiety over possible German occupation of the Channel ports.
In his coverage of the battles of the first months of the war and the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, he compares French, German and British arms and weaponry and stresses the often underestimated part played by France, pre-Mons, comparing the mobility of Joffre to the difficulties of communication for the British, and Moltke’s lack of grip, his base so far from the front that he gave no orders for the first five days of the Marne. Robinson also reminds us of the huge losses sustained early on – Germany having lost 250,000 men by the beginning of the Marne, and France 800,000 by the end of 1914.
He refutes any idea of the futility of the war, pointing out how Germany’s war aims as defined in the Mitteleuropa statement of September 1914 and the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918 show what would have befallen the Allies had they lost. With 1916 proving the turning-point, he sums up by saying ‘the astonishing courage and the refusal to admit defeat on the Somme made possible the breakthrough of 1918. And there is no futility in that.’
There are many amusing sidelights and sharp pen portraits of statesmen and generals, and if you want to know about blue margarine, the Gurkhas and corned mutton, or the extent of Tirpitz’s Anglophilia – read this book!
Convinced? Buy WHY 1914? now for less than £5!