“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)”
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet (Great War), October 1918
Alphen, Netherlands. 2 August, 2017. Why do democracies fight wars? Monday marked the centenary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, or ‘Passchendaele’, as it has come to be known. The operational objective of Field Marshal Haig’s ‘offensive’ was to seize what passes for high ground to the south and east of the Belgian town of Ypres (‘Wipers’, to a lost generation of Tommies), en route to seizing the Belgian ports, including Antwerp, from which German submarines were operating. The strategic aim was to bleed Germany white through a battle of attrition, which in 1917 seemed the shortest bloody route to eventual victory. In fact both sides bled and profusely in a battle lasting over a hundred days that was gruesome even by the standards of that most gruesome of wars. In the struggle between men, mud, machine guns, and military mayhem some 500,000 were killed, of which 300,000 were British, Imperial and Dominion forces. Canada came of age as a nation on the shallow, blood-soaked rise beneath Passchendaele village, as the bravery of its young men carved a blood-soaked maple leaf in mud that freed the spirit of a new nation from an old one.
Like many Britons (at least the ones educated enough to know that World War One even happened), and as someone who knows Ypres and its environs, as I write I am thinking of those young men who saw their youth eviscerated in the murderous morass of ‘Third Ypres’. And yet my focus is not the history of a battle, nor indeed the appalling suffering of those who engaged in it. In fact, in some important strategic and tactical ways Third Ypres marked a shift in the war in favour of the Allied cause. No, my focus is on what the commemorations of that epic battle say about democracies, particularly European democracies, their attitude to war today, and the danger that systemic war is being made more, not less likely.
Sunday’s BBC coverage of the commemoration of the battle was for the most part refreshingly honest, and yet still failed to place Third Ypres in its strategic context. As history was ground up to fit the values of this age the BBC still said far more about the defeatist, pacifist Britain of today, than the Britain that a century ago fought and ultimately won a war as vital to the freedom of Europe as World War One Part Two; World War Two.
There was, sadly, the usual coterie of ‘commentators’ and ‘experts’ presenting the ‘facts’ of the past through the politically-correct lens of today. There was also the now normal, and dare I say North American-inspired, Oh, What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth nonsense. World War One was a kind of European civil war in which a collection of ostensibly civilised states, led by clinically-insane leaders, engaged in form of mass societal suicide as part of a an epic macabre theatre d’absurde.
Here’s the very unfashionable thing: World War One had to be fought by the democracies, a ‘long’ war was the only way to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm, and Third Ypres was far better fought by the Allies than contemporary convention permits. In 1914 Wilhemine Germany as an aggressive, expansionist, autocratic state beset by internal contradictions and weaknesses that emerged from a militaristic and ultra-nationalistic Prussian elite. At Oxford I became a devotee of the German historian Fritz Fischer, whose book Germany’s War Aims in the First World War, (Griff nach der Weltmacht: der Kriegzielpolitik des kaizerlichen Deutschland 1914-1998) demonstrated conclusively, and yet controversially (even in the Federal Republic of Germany of the 1960s), that Kaiser Wilhelm and the Prussian elite planned, triggered, and executed World War One as policy. In other words. World War One was no accident or tragi-comedy of mutual strategic error.
Like most autocracies the Kaiser desperately needed a swift victory as the Germany of the time was simply not strong enough on its own to prevail. The Kaiser, and more specifically the Schlieffenplan, were thwarted because the Western democracies, albeit in concert with autocratic, Tsarist Russia, were just strong enough to prevent the rapid victory Berlin envisaged, as it sought to turn the rest of Europe into a form of colony. However, the Western democracies, albeit very different to today’s democracies, as was the America of the time, as ever took time to muster the martial energy and the many industrial, military, and ultimately manpower advantages available to them. It was in that meat-grinding gap between Wilhelmine Germany’s initial plunge into war, the blunting of German military ambitions (the miracle on the Marne et al), and the eventual defeat of the Kaiser with the decisive British 'Blitzkreig' victory at Amiens in August 1918, that the hell of Passchendaele took place.
There is an old saying to the effect that whilst ‘you’ might ignore war, war will not ignore ‘you’. Today, ‘we’ look back at Passchendaele as if such a battle was a curious if deadly artefact of ‘ancient’ history that could never again come to pass in Europe. Indeed, there is a kind of wilful, naive denial in the Europe of today about such political events, as we seek to will away systemic war. This view is normally reinforced by the laudable, if equally naïve view that if one adheres to one’s ‘nice’ values, and purposively ignore narrow interests, systemic war simply can never again happen. Indeed, ‘it must never happen again’ is invariably the pious sub-text of commemorations. And yet a twenty-first century Passchendaele is not at all unthinkable. In the 1930s there was another name for such piety; appeasement.
Wars are not prevented because ‘nice’ people are ‘nice’, and in so being see no evil, hear no evil, or think no evil of others, however ‘evil’ they may be. Wars are prevented because ‘nice’ people, and the oft not-so-nice people who are charged with leading and defending them, are given the means to prevent decidedly not-at-all nice people believing a quick war might, just might be a viable policy option to in an invariably domestic extremis, that by definition is equally invariably of their own making. Or, to put it another way, it is a profound mistake for liberals to see the world of the illiberals through liberal eyes.
In this world there are more than enough not-so-very-nice at all people who clearly believe the very ‘niceness’ of the European democracies is in fact a weakness that yet again makes ‘limited war’ a possibility. And, that such a very quick war would, of course, achieve clear war aims – domestic and foreign - decisively. However, history demonstrates that wars are always limited until they start. Indeed, those who start such wars have traditionally done so firm in the belief that their ‘might’ will trump ‘right’, often because ‘right’ has decided that weakness is strength firm in the belief that systemic war must never happen again.
How to Prevent Passchendaele 21#
Rather than appease reality for fear of history, or lose themselves yet more deeply in misplaced globalist or Universalist ideology, Europe’s democracies must again think about how to fight such a war. The leaders of democracies today are bound by the same responsibility to strike the same balance between deterrence and defence as they were then. However, it is a balance that can only be struck by properly understanding, and at least matching, the capability of potential threats.
That peace aim can only be credibly achieved by demonstrating that the democracies are not only thinking about future war, they are even preparing to fight one. Only such ‘posture’ renders the political threshold for autocracies so high that even starting a ‘limited war’ is simply not worth the risk. Remember, such regimes have a very different view of the utility of war than democracies, and set the political threshold for war at a much lower level.
Why democracies fight wars? To prevent them. Sassoon was right; war is hell. However, Plato was, sadly, also right: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.
Have a nice day!