THE GREAT WAR AND ITS CAUSES. By an “OLD BOY” of Victoria School, Wrexham. October 1914
“Now tell us all about the war, and what they killed each other for.”
That is a question many of us must be asking today; why are the nations of Europe flying at each other’s throats instead of trying to live peaceably together? The present can never be properly understood without some knowledge of the past, so I am going to begin by asking you to take a short trip with me into history. There was a time when Western Europe formed, in theory at least, one great Christian empire, obeying a single Emperor (in religion a single Pope). and each district producing for the most part sufficient to satisfy its own wants.
But one by one different countries fell off, and began to act as separate units Our country, being an island, early learned to think of itself as a distinct nation. France became a nation in the fifteenth, Spain in the sixteenth century. During the seventeenth century the “Holy Empire” was a prey to civil war, and lost its strength and importance. Soon afterwards Russia, which had never been a part of the Empire or been mixed up in the politics of Western Europe, was, through the work of a single ruler, cut off from its older Eastern interests, and faced round. so to speak, to the West.
Then, in the last century—largely as a result of the career of the French conqueror Napoleon, whose armies overran the whole of Europe—came the final smashing up of the idea of a united Europe, and the development of the European nations. The “Holy Empire” was dissolved, and from its ruins there sprang up the kingdom of Italy and the empires of Germany and Austria.
All this re-building of Europe could hardly help leading to disputes. Three causes in particular led to them. First there was the difficulty of fixing boundaries, especially under the new theory (called the principle of nationality), that within one national boundary all the people, and only the people of one race and language, should live, now in the past statesmen had thought it impossible to keep the peace without forcing all nations to “mark time” which is, of course, hard on growing states.
Thirdly, there was the growth of commercial rivalry. When every nation grew and produced enough to feed and clothe its own citizens, commercial disputes were almost unknown, but as human wants increased, and came to be satisfied by exchange between one country and another, or by squeezing wealth out of uncivilized lands in Asia, Africa or America, then there was plenty of material for quarrels. And so various attempts at an agreement by the different nations to work for some common end, instead of each striving for its own good only, have all failed.
Instead, we have a system of alliances, or friendships. One nation will agree always to act in friendship with another which has similar interests, to check a third which both look upon as a rival or enemy. So, when disputes arise the different nations are so closely bound together that it is hard to keep the quarrel from spreading. In the present war, Sir Edward Grey, our Foreign Minister, tried hard to keep the dispute between Austria and Servia, which began it all, confined to the two nations concerned, but he found it impossible.
But, although disputes can hardly be helped, that seems no reason why civilized nations should “settle” them in the manner of savages There are other ways of settling disputes; and attempts have been made to set up an “arbitration court,” to which all quarrels shall be brought. These attempts have not been very successful as yet; an arbitration court has no policemen to enforce its decisions as a court of law has. And so, until now, although there has been no great European war for a generation, the nations of Europe have never ceased to be suspicious of each other, and they have kept piling up arms and warships to be in readiness.
This was itself almost bound to bring on a war We have been living in an “armed peace.” Still, agreements have been made between the nations with a view to stopping the worst horrors of war, and certain small countries have been declared neutral, they are not to be dragged into any European quarrels. Belgium, as we know, is one of these. But what have all these European affairs to do with us? We live on an island? Why cannot we keep clear of Continental squabbles?
There are two answers to this. First, our country is not only a group of islands, it is part of an empire scattered over the whole world. Since about 176o Britain has ceased to be a mere “European power,” and has become a “world power.” Second, we cannot produce enough to feed and clothe our own people; our country depends for her very life upon being able to exchange her own products (such as coal) for foreign materials. Now for both these purposes a fleet is needed, and anything which threatens our supremacy on the sea or our commerce makes us fear for our existence.
And what was there to threaten these? Simply the growth and natural ambition of Germany. Germany, we must not forget, is a new country. Of course I don’t mean that the land is new or that the inhabitants belong to a new race.
I simply mean that as a nation she only came into being in the seventeenth century on the break-down of that great “Holy Empire” which was once supposed to include the whole civilized world A young nation, just beginning to feel her power and to understand her possibilities, and with a growing population to be fed and clothed, Germany wanted, like England, to be a world power and have colonies like her to build up a great commerce, and therefore like her to have a great navy. This resulted in a jealousy and suspicion which since about 1900 have been almost unceasing between the two countries. It is true that cur relations never seemed better than they were on the eve of the war, but statesmen had never seriously faced the task of a frank discussion of our jarring aims, so that enmity remained below the surface.
As Germany’s naval ambitions brought on her the jealousy of England, so her military aims have led to the enmity of France, France tried to hinder the earliest development of Germany as a nation. Germany, as soon as she was strong enough, attacked France and took from her Alsace and Lorraine, two old German provinces which France had stolen more than two centuries earlier, and which had meanwhile become largely French in language and sympathy. This grievance France has never forgotten.
From the Crimean War (the last war we fought on the Continent) till the beginning of the present century, our policy has been a “splendid isolation” that is keeping clear of foreign quarrels and alliances. But during the late King’s reign a new policy was introduced. As our army is a small one (we have never, like our Continental neighbours, placed the army on the footing of compelling men to join it) it was felt that we needed allies to look after our interests on the Continent.
What those interests were I have shown. France wished to check Germany s military, as we wished to check her naval, power, so France and Britain became friends, not fully allies, because the terms of our friendship were left rather vague. Friendship with France meant friendship with Russia, France’s ally. Germany on the other hand was allied with Austria and with Italy. There we have the grouping of Europe. Placed between France on the one side and the huge empire of Russia on the other Germany felt as if she were in the jaws of a nutcracker, and she was only waiting her chance to strike at one or the other.
So far I have not mentioned what everyone knows was the immediate cause of the war, Austria’s quarrel with Servia. I have avoided doing so purposely, because, so far as we are concerned, it was simply the occasion of a war, the real causes of which lie much further back, Austria has the misfortune to rule over people of very many different races, which have no love for one another or for Austria, and are kept together by little more than force. Among these races is that of the Slays. To the south of Austria, the small kingdom of Servia, also peopled with Slays, was believed by Austria to be stirring up revolt among her own Slav subjects, and above all to have been guilty of helping on the murder of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Servia was willing to make apologies and amends, but Austria deter-mined she must be crushed once for all, this alarmed Russia, who, herself a Slav state, has always looked on herself as the protector of the little Slav states of the Balkan Peninsula.
Russia’s warlike preparations, which her allies could not stop, alarmed Germany, who had long been awaiting a chance to check the growing power of her dangerous Eastern neighbour. While England was trying to keep the peace, she determined to strike first, and to strike at France, the close ally of Russia. The relations between England and France were so close (closer perhaps than Germany or even than most Englishmen knew) that it was hard for her to lie idle in a war between France .and Germany, especially as her commerce might be injured by the naval war, or even the coast put in peril by the appearance of a German fleet in the English Channel. Germany, who neither -expected nor wished that we should join in, tried hard to buy us off with promises, but it was too late.
Finally, to get at France, Germany marched her troops, in spite of our protest and her own. earlier promises, through Belgium. This decided Britain to go to war, for not only had we been one of the powers promising to preserve the neutrality of Belgium, but it has always been the policy of this country to keep any strong military and commercial power (especially a hostile one) out of the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium) a position from which our commerce, and even our safety can be threatened. Our Honour and our interests were both at stake. Here, then, we have the Great War— perhaps the greatest the world has ever seen. France, Britain, Russia, Belgium, Servia, and some other smaller states are fighting Germany and Austria. Italy, so far, has kept out. Japan, our Eastern ally, is looking after our interests (and her own) in the East. At any rate, we are in the war now. If it results in our finding some better way of settling our difficulties, it will have been worth fighting.
By an “OLD BOY” of Victoria School, Wrexham. October 1914
SOURCE: Victoria School, Wrexham.