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18 Nov 2021 5:41 p.m. PST
by Editor in Chief Bill

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    18 Nov 2021 1:18 p.m. PST
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    18 Nov 2021 1:19 p.m. PSTCrossposted to Early 20th Century Discussion board

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Comments or corrections?

Uesugi Kenshin Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2021 1:18 p.m. PST

If in August of 1914 Britain had not joined the side of the French and remained neutral, how many months would France have survived before capitulating?

Wackmole9 Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2021 4:41 p.m. PST

Good question.

To keep the British out of the war would require not Invading Belgium & Luxenberg. The French had spent a large amount on fortifications in the border area with Germany.

I would say, they could hold out for a long time. Now if the Germans just when Defense in the West and crushed the Russians. Without a two front war, I can't see the Germans Losing the war.

Personal logo Dan Cyr Supporting Member of TMP18 Nov 2021 7:16 p.m. PST

The German navy would have had the upper hand in 1914 if the UK did not enter the war. I think that might have made a major difference, rather than if the Germans were forced to only batter their way thru the French fortification and defense zones (assuming the French did not still use Plan 17, but fought on the defensive).

Hard to guess of alt history, as what if the Russians had actually prepared for the war, managed their communications between armies, put capable generals in command that would work with each other, had plans that were practical and rehearsed, and the Czar was not an idiot?

Butterfly wings sow chaos.

Martin Rapier18 Nov 2021 11:25 p.m. PST

In the short term, I honestly don't think those five divisions of the BEF are going to make much difference. The German army commanders are still going to bicker, the logistics of of the watered down Schleiffen plan will still be unworkable and the whole thing will Peter out around the Marne.

Long term, nlitvmakes a huge difference of course.

The obvious thing to do is line up one of the numerous strategic games of WW1 and game it out. We are wargamers after all.

Old Contemptible18 Nov 2021 11:26 p.m. PST

Britain was not obligated to fight for Belgium neutrality. There was no treaty. It was a huge mistake. Britain could live with a German dominated Europe, just as it did when France dominated Europe. Britain could intervene where she pleased and use it's financial muscles against Germany. The Royal Navy could check the German Navy as needed. Britain could have gone to war against Germany and not send one soldier to France. Britain could use the Royal Navy to blockade Germany as it did. Britain could send troops to wherever or whenever she wanted to.

"The Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard University rejected the idea that Britain was forced to act in 1914 to secure its borders and the Channel ports. "This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe.

It wasn't until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time."

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advocate19 Nov 2021 1:18 a.m. PST

Where to start, Old Contemptible?
I'm pretty sure the British were subsidising their Allies on the Continent against Napoleon. The British really didn't want Napoleon to dominate Europe, but their options for direct intervention was limited prior to the opportunity in Portugal and Spain. In 1914 their ally was just across the Channel. Keeping the German Navy in check, as you suggest, would have meant war, so why not prosecute it as fully as possible? And regarding Belgium, wasn't there a "scrap of paper" involved? To say nothing of abandoning France, with whom they had had significant planning talks. Not a treaty, but leaving France to its fate would have been a betrayal.

witteridderludo19 Nov 2021 3:16 a.m. PST

Old Contemptible, the UK was obligated by the 1839 Treaty of London to defend the neutrality of Belgium, just as France and Prussia were.

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Wargamorium19 Nov 2021 4:58 a.m. PST

I am confused by the 1839 Treaty and the UK's obligation to defend Belgian neutrality because I have never found any such obligation in the text. The 1914 Cabinet did not think they were so obliged and were happy enough if the German invasion confined itself to the right bank of the Meuse.

They sent telegrams to both the French and German governments regarding the violation of Belgian neutrality and whereas the French responded immediately it was several weeks before the Germans did.

Joffre wanted to deploy some of his forces along the Belgian border and submitted a proposal to the Conseil Superior de la Guerre but he was forbidden to do so as this would upset the British and cause them to remain neutral in any future war with Germany.

Nine pound round19 Nov 2021 6:24 a.m. PST

The staff conversations and joint mobilization plans, concocted with the approval of the British cabinet, created something more than the appearance of a commitment, and French dispositions (both naval and military) presumed it. The French war plans for 1914 cannot be considered complete without British participation, and although it's certainly the case that Britain could have declined to honor its commitment, the resulting dispositions would have created huge vulnerabilities.

The tricky business of getting Parliament to buy off on a commitment that it had not previously been informed of was a real accomplishment for Asquith and his government, but had the commitment been more visible in advance, it might have helped prevent the war.

whitejamest19 Nov 2021 8:20 a.m. PST

I agree with Martin that the fighting in 1914 would not have looked a whole lot different, as the size of the British forces on the continent at the time was so small. And that the longer term effects of British involvement were on a totally different scale.

For me the most fascinating aspect of the question of British neutrality is what would be the effects of the absence of the British blockade on Germany throughout the war. A Germany with access to international trade looks like a very different beast to me.

Also, with the British sitting it out, how likely would the US have been to get involved down the line?

Blutarski19 Nov 2021 9:39 a.m. PST

British neutrality would have meant a rapid collapse of France. The US will be free to trade with Germany with no British interference. France's Atlantic coast will be blockaded by the German navy; Austria-Hungary (and likely Italy) will blockade the French Mediterranean coast.

Passage of the German army through Belgium will become a moot issue and Belgium will very likely acquiesce to Germany's offer of compensation in return for right of passage.

There will be no British war loans to France. There will be no provision of war materiel or coal or iron ore to French industry.

The war will be over in a year, IMO.

….. Great Britain held the "sine qua non" keys to either enable or frustrate French intentions ….. which is why France so assiduously courted a British alliance in the decade preceding the war.

B

Nine pound round19 Nov 2021 11:08 a.m. PST

The really interesting question- to which volumes have been devoted- is still the matter of how and why the Germans missed the boat on the opportunity for an alliance with England. They had ample historical precedent, and plenty of chances, but they missed the boat, which is a shame, because that one change in alignment could have prevented a war.

Old Contemptible19 Nov 2021 4:58 p.m. PST

The mere presence of the home fleet would prevent the Germans from blockading France. Just as in the ACW when France could not intervene unless the British did.

I don't believe the German fleet would attempt to prevent British merchant ships from entering French ports. The risk of confrontation with the Royal Navy and brining Britain into the war would be too great.

It's not like France didn't have it's own fleet. The French fleet was formidable by itself. On the outbreak of the war France had 19 battleships, 32 cruisers, 86 destroyers, 34 submarines and 115 torpedo boats. Maybe not as large as the High Seas Fleet, but you can't ignore it.

Britain should have ignored the Treaty of London of 1839. The fallout of not honoring the treaty would be nothing compared to losing a generation of young men.

If Britain went to war, Britain could keep her troops off the Western Front, using it's Navy to blockade Germany and attack Germany's colonies. Britain could claim it was honoring the treaty.

Britain could support France with loans of cash and war supplies. She could do both and stay neutral, ignoring German complaints.

mildbill19 Nov 2021 5:33 p.m. PST

Nobody thought the war would cost a generation when it started. Countries that dont honor their comitments dont last long.

Personal logo Dan Cyr Supporting Member of TMP19 Nov 2021 8:49 p.m. PST

Germany had 14 dreadnoughts and France 4 in 1914 I believe. Germany was building several a year while France was not. If the UK was not going to war with Germany, why would she object to the German navy blockading France?

Assuming that the UK sat out the land war, why would Germany have stopped building battleships? With the defeat of France, Germany would have been able to continue to expand it's fleet, could the UK have continued financially to do so?

What would the UK have been able to do if Germany then decided to occupy France or just it's Atlantic coast line (and ports)?

What was the UK going to do if Germany then occupied Belgium and Holland after France was defeated?

The UK and Germany could not ally or even agree to a neutrality agreement because Germany would not agree to limiting it's growing fleet of battleships and that left Germany as a growing threat (the German government made it very plain as to whom they were building their fleet to confront) to a nation with a tiny army and a total dependence on overseas shipping. There are any number of books out that delve into the naval race and why it happened.

Old Contemptible20 Nov 2021 1:42 a.m. PST

What was the UK going to do if Germany then occupied Belgium and Holland after France was defeated?

Whatever Britain wanted to do.

As per above:

"The Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard University rejected the idea that Britain was forced to act in 1914 to secure its borders and the Channel ports. "This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe.

It wasn't until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time."

"Britain could live with a German dominated Europe, just as it did when France dominated Europe. Britain could intervene where she pleased and use it's financial muscles against Germany."

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Old Contemptible20 Nov 2021 1:46 a.m. PST

In regards to occupying France. Don't assume Imperial Germany would follow the path as Nazi Germany would in World War II and occupy France. 1871 is a more likely model. France would lose territory, perhaps colonies and pay an indemnity to Germany. I doubt that Germany could or would occupy the entire country.

Bill N20 Nov 2021 4:53 a.m. PST

I don't think we can automatically assume that 1871 would have been the model for a 1914-15 German victory over France Old Contemptible. German positions later in the war show that their attitudes could change once they took control of territory. Further in 1871 Bismarck knew he had only beaten France, and he had to worry about alienating Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary if his peace demands were considered too excessive. That concern would be less of a factor in a war where Russia was beaten or checked, and in which Austria-Hungary had been an ally with its own ambitions.

As for Niall Ferguson's claim, Britain did not simply sit back until 1808 while Napoleon dominated Europe. Britain went to war with Napoleon before anyone else. War plans for the third coalition had British land forces being deployed to the Continent, and some forces were actually deployed. Napoleon just managed to defeat Austria and Russia before British forces were engaged. Not sure what Britain's plans for its army were in 1806, but some were engaged in occupying or attempting to occupy colonial possessions. British forces also helped defend Sicily, moved against Denmark and were prepared to support Sweden in the 1806-8 time period.

Swampster20 Nov 2021 9:05 a.m. PST

"This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe.

It wasn't until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon."

To add to what Bill N has said…

Britain had fought in the Low Countries in the 1st and 2nd Coalitions, suffering defeats each time. Once French control of the area was established, it was even harder to intervene there, so attempts were made elsewhere. The British fought the French in S. Italy in 1806, for instance.

Britain's chance of doing anything around the Channel Ports was next thought to be feasible in 1809 – the importance placed on it being shown that the expeditionary force to Walcheren was larger than the force in the Peninsular at the time. This attempt failed to even really get going – whether it would have been successful even with Austrian success elsewhere is a moot point.


As for war aims in 1914, we have things like the Septemberprogram to let us know what was wanted at the time.
Territory loss in metropolitan France was intended to be quite small, though the north-east coast was to be annexed by Germany or a German-dominated Belgium. Belgium and the Netherlands were to become closely aligned with Germany. Germany would dominate an economic union which would be imposed on France.
Territorial gains would be greater in the east. Not only would Germany gain, but AH would also have a free hand in the Balkans.
Germany expected to gain considerable territory from France and Belgium in Africa.

Blutarski20 Nov 2021 3:21 p.m. PST

Great Britain first took up arms against France at least a decade before Napoleon took political power as emperor of France in 1804. The first descent of British troops against France occurred in 1793 with the Anglo-Spanish attack upon Toulon and the consequent seizure/destruction of the French Mediterranean fleet and its naval base and stores. Napoleon was a mere lieutenant of artillery at the time.

The issue was always geo-political in the sense of France's position as a powerful continental European state traditionally hostile to Great Britain. Napoleon per se had nothing to do with it; It might just as easily have been Inspector Clouseau.

B

Martin Rapier21 Nov 2021 1:18 a.m. PST

I guess the real strategic question is, given Britain's neutrality, would Germany still reverse their pre war strategy and switch their main focus to Eastern Front before defeating France.

I still don't see a good chance of the Schleiffen plan working, but would Germany keep battering France in 1915, or go for easier victories in the east?

Blutarski22 Nov 2021 6:27 p.m. PST

Hi Martin,
Given that a Schlieffen-like concept of a massive and immediate offensive against France, coupled with an initial holding/delaying operation against Russia in the East, was in the General Staff's playbook even after GB had joined the Entente, my impression is that the odds of a big offensive against France would only have been seen as better if GB had displayed any reticence at all about entering the war.

Also, given the hugely complicated pre-planning and organization involved in a national military mobilization, I'm not confident that Germany could have easily shifted her operational stance from West to East at the last minute.

Strictly my opinion, of course.

B

Nine pound round23 Nov 2021 7:21 a.m. PST

I'm not a 100% fan of Terence Zuber's "Inventing the Schlieffen Plan," but there are some interesting insights in his summaries of various German war planning documents. He makes a good case that the German General Staff largely abandoned offensive planning for a conflict with Russia after 1900, focusing instead on developing their plans to defend East Prussia using a combination of terrain, fortifications and interior lines.

Germany's lack of staying power tended to drive them toward plans aimed at rapid decision, which seemed more attainable in the West than the East. Interestingly, Zuber notes that Moltke the Elder's offensive plans for the East were built around securing Poland and possibly the Baltic States- not in themselves necessarily a route to rapid, decisive victory, but important over the longer term to solidifying Germany's great power status. Moltke felt that Germany needed a third war along these lines to complete the task of unifying and consolidating the country. He never got it, but there's a remarkable continuity between his vision, the goals of the Pan-Germans in WWI, and the General Staff view (as opposed to Hitler's view) of Germany's aims in the East in WWII.

The problem with an offensive campaign against Russia never fundamentally changed, though: it was a giant country, whose frontage expanded as an army moved East, with few terrain features that an army could be pinned against. These objections were serious enough that Imperial Germany only ever seriously sought to undertake the program once she was already committed to the war.

Wargamorium23 Nov 2021 9:17 a.m. PST

I don't think it is reasonable to suggest that Germany could have stopped her pre-war planning and suddenly switch her main effort to the east. Besides the incredible amount of staff work involved it would have been unthinkable for Germany to turn her back on a mobilised France. France was Germany's main threat not Russia. The UK's position did not affect this. The circumstances were different in 1939 when she invaded Poland and left minimum forces in the west.

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