How the Great War Might Have Gone Otherwise
by Gwydion M. Williams
The ‘Point of Departure‘ for this alternate history is Lloyd George losing office because of the Marconi Scandal of 1912. He opposes Britain joining the war, and forces Asquith into a coalition with the Tories.
The war proceeds much as it did historically during 1914, but Lloyd George and the Liberals create a much stronger peace movement within Britain. Also US Secretary of State Bryan comes to Europe and persuaded Tsarist Russia to support an early peace, on condition of a referendum to decide the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is settled in favour of Austria-Hungary, so the Tsar abdicates and there is a peaceful transition to a constitutional monarchy with a strong left-wing parliament and a successful land reform.
Poland is re-created, but without the Polish Corridor or Danzig. Irish Home Rule is established without partition. Things settle down and it is the last European War.
The benefits of such an outcome are told in the form of a speculation by a historian in this alternate world. Some of the biggest benefits – including the non-occurrence of the terrible Spanish Flu – could not reasonably be guessed at by such a person.
We can only guess at the blessings the early peace brought us, the young lives saved that might otherwise have been lost. With a longer war, we might not have had Henry Moseley’s Unified Field Theory or the sensitive watercolours of Adolph Hitler. We might have been robbed of J R R Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur and his other noted poems. We might never have had the plays of Wilfred Owen, and who knows how much else? Perhaps no one would ever have heard of Puddy, Dowden, Bringlow or Sabberton.
A prolonged war might have let loose all sorts of horrors. The British Navy’s high command believed that the best way to win the war was a blockade that would have distorted the terms of existing agreements and allowed them to prohibit the food imports that Germany had become dependent upon. This was briefly begun, but the war ended too soon for it to have much effect. There was also some use of non-lethal chemical agents by both the French and the Germans, with little effect. The development of authentic poison gases for military use was considered as the war ground to a deadlock. But in the anti-war mood after the 1915 peace, much stronger rules were introduced and the stockpiling of dangerous chemicals was successfully prohibited.
One must also wonder what would have happened to the various ethnic minorities co-existing in Middle-Europe if Austria-Hungary had been torn apart to establish or re-establish a set of nation-states. Most of them had not existed since mediaeval times, meaning that the various rival nationalists would have been immediately at odds with each other, much as the Balkan nations have been after freeing themselves from the Turks. And things might have been particularly nasty for the Jews, since they had a high proportion of the middle-class and professional jobs. These would have been occupying the social and cultural territory on which each of the new nation-states would have wanted to cement its own identity, had Austro-Hungary been dismembered as some people urged. Up until 1914, the Emperors of Germany and Austro-Hungary had mostly defused and damped down the widespread hostility to Jews existing in their realms, while the abdicated Tsar Nicolas 2nd can at best be said to have done nothing to discourage the general anti-Jewish policies of the Russian state. During the war, advances by the Tsar’s army had been accompanied by massacres and looting that shocked even those who didn’t much like Jews. Nor would the Western Allies have been reliable protectors: France had had the anti-Jewish Dreyfus affair, an unresolved issue in 1914 and capable of generating further excess. Crude anti-Jewish sentiments had often been part of British patriotic fervour, notwithstanding the patriotic views and actions of most British Jews. Much the same applied in Germany. Had anti-Jewish feelings grown worse, there would have been few places for them to go. The British Empire and the USA wanted no more Jews, while the Jewish settlements that the reformed Ottoman Empire allowed in some territories anciently Jewish within Greater Syria provoked some protest and conflict even with the few hundred thousand who took advantage of the offer. With greater numbers of settlers and without the endorsement and protection of the Ottoman Sultan, it might have been much worse. (The Sultan was acknowledged as the legitimate Caliph for most Muslims in the relevant territories.)
All of this remains hypothetical. Yet with hindsight, we can see how peace in Europe paved the way the next war, the Great Far Eastern War which began Europe’s grand retreat from global imperialism. As one of its last acts, the coalition governement led by Bonar Law had annexed Outer Tibet on 17th April 1915. The Dalai Lama had been claiming independence since the abdication of the Manchu Dynasty in 1912, but had failed to get this recognised by anyone except a similarly isolated secessionist government in Outer Mongolia. At the Simla Conference in 1914, the Dalai Lama’s people had been persuaded to reduce their claim to an acceptance of Chinese suzerainty over Outer Tibet. This was less than they had wanted, ‘Outer Tibet’ being the Lhasa Valley and the rest of the Tibetan Plateau, with the ancient Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham defined as Inner Tibet and under full Chinese sovereignty. A Tibetan-influenced territory south of the Himalayan watershed and sometimes known as South Tibet would have gone to British India. The delegates from the Beijing government accepted this, but the Chinese government later repudiated it. The annexation of at least Outer Tibet had been expected as a consequence, but the immanent war in Europe had delayed it.
With the war in Europe ended inconclusively, annexation of the larger part of Tibet seemed a logical move to conciliate disappointed imperialists. What had not been expected was the outburst of popular anger in China, the May 4th movement of 1915. Nor the way in which it brought China and Japan together as the core of a wider alliance of East Asian peoples ruled by or threatened by the European powers.
The Sino-Japanese alliance nowadays seems so natural that it is almost forgotten the two countries had fought each other in 1895 over control of Korea. And that Japanese forces had been the largest single element in the Eight-Nation Alliance that occupied Beijing in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion. The 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance was the first major alliance with another power that the British Empire had made since the Crimean War in the 1850s. The partial overlap of the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 was suspicious, and the tie with Britain definitely helped deter other European powers from coming to Russia’s aid when it became clear that it was losing to Japan. There was no repetition in 1905 of the Triple Intervention by Russia, Germany and France that had forced Japan to give up some of its gains in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War.
The Anglo-Japanese alliance seemed to be holding firm in 1914, with Japan playing the main role in the Siege of Tsingtao in October-November. Japan had expected to inherit Germany’s position in China’s Shandong Peninsula, and there were those in Japan who urged the establishing something like a Protectorate over the weak Chinese government of General Yuan Shikai. But with the prospect of an early peace in Europe, this plan was wisely shelved. If the rumoured ’21 Demands’ to be made on China ever actually existed, all relevant documents must long ago have been burned and all relevant officials kept a loyal silence to the end.
Japan was right to be cautious: at the Peace Conference they were almost ignored and then compelled to hand back Tsingtao and also some captured German islands in the Pacific as part of the peace. They then noticed the new and much more militant spirit rising in China with the May 4th Movement after the British annexation of Outer Tibet.
Though it was not admitted till long afterwards, Britain secretly offered Germany large rewards in Asia in exchange for peace in Europe. The Japanese would be forced to disgorge Shandong, and German hegemony in North China would be tacitly accepted. The British would remain unofficial rulers of the Yangtze Valley and also the area round Hong Kong. It was also suggested that Tsarist Russia might be given ‘East Turkistan’ and Outer Mongolia, and be covertly given the chance to reverse the War of 1905 and take back Manchuria. Meanwhile France would be given the green light to take over Yunnan, the logical step beyond their Indochinese colony. This was the squalid reality behind the fine talk of ‘eternal peace’. Bryan was probably not told about it, but Lloyd George undoubtedly was. So it is fair to say that the ‘Happy Peace’ of January 1915 led directly on to the Great Far Eastern War a few years later.
One must wonder how things would have fallen out in East Asia had Japan continued the foolish game of acting as Honorary Whites, a status that they were always bound to lose. There was nothing that compelled them to become close to China: Chinese and Japanese are completely different languages, not even part of the same language family. Cultures are not all that similar, with Japan’s traditional ruling class being aristocratic and military while China’s was literary and much more meritocratic. On the other hand, all educated Japanese can read Chinese ideograms, and even hold ‘conversations’ using written notes with literate Chinese. So they were aware almost at once of the new spirit in China, whereas most Europeans knew nothing of it. European traders and businessmen would live for decades in China without learning more than a crude ‘Pigin’ that let them do business with shopkeepers and servants. Even those who did speak some Chinese could seldom read it, and tended to be told what their Chinese acquaintances thought they’d want to hear. But educated Japanese could easily read what Chinese were writing for other Chinese, and noted the new spirit that had sprung up, similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan, but without a respected traditional ruler to reconcile radicals and reactionaries. This was the context in which Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi decided that Japan would never successfully dominate China, even if the Western powers stood aside, which they probably would not. He also suggested, quite correctly, that since Britain had given up the idea of breaking Germany, they would seek to divert its ambitions to China, logically to North China and the very territories that Japan had ambitions for. Korea and even Japan itself might also become targets. Whereas an offer of genuine partnership with China might create a union stronger than the West would wish to fight.
From there it was a relatively clear path to the Great Far Eastern War and Britain’s great humiliation on the river Yangtze, with the sinking of the cruiser Amethyst and the flight or destruction of its fellow warships. Warmongers like Churchill hoped to use the incident to re-kindle warlike feelings, but many Britons felt that a British warship had no business being on a river in the middle of China after they’d been told to leave. Most, of course, also ignored warnings that a retreat from China would in the long run unravel the entire Empire, as Churchill correctly predicted. But the taste of modern horrors in the Seven Months War had made near-pacifists of many of those involved. Perhaps a longer war would have brutalised and embittered them, made them a generation lost to civilised values. But that, thankfully, is something we will never know.
The 1918 flu pandemic – also known as Spanish Flu – may have begun among US recruits for their intervention in World War One. It was incubated in the trenches to become a form that would kill healthy young men. It killed somewhere between 20 million and 100 million people worldwide. I assume that with the war ending early, this particular form of flu would not have happened. There might instead have been a flu epidemic rather later and milder: more like the 1889–90 flu pandemic, which caused a mere million deaths.
Henry Moseley was a brilliant young British physicists. I am speculating wildly in supposing that he could have come up with a valid Unified Field Theory, something that still eludes us. More plausibly he might have come with one of the variants on a Unified Field Theory that Einstein and Schwarzschild later came up with. These were taken very seriously at the time but have now been abandoned. But the work he had already done would probably have earned him a Nobel Prize had he lived longer – they are never awarded to the dead. And he would almost certainly done other important work in developing our understanding of the atom.
Henry Moseley was not related to Oswald Mosley, who had an aristocratic background and who was elected first as a Tory and then as an Independent before joining the Labour Party. Oswald Mosley was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Labour government of 1929-31, but resigned in 1930 after unsuccessfully urged economic policies very much like what was later applied after 1945 and called Keynesianism. He then formed a ‘New Party’ that attracted some interest from both the Labour and Conservative parties, but failed to get it established. Had he stuck to it he might have done a lot of good in the longer run. Instead he founded the British Union of Fascists, very imitative of Hitler and never significant. But people said he could easily have been a Prime Minister for either the Tories or for Labour. If I eventually expand this short work into a novel of Alternate History, it would be logical to give him a major role.
Adolph Hitler painted a lot of watercolours and most people view them as mediocre. But he did sell some in the pre-war period, and it seems that the majority of the buyers were Jewish.[A] Given a different history he might have achieved more along those lines, and stayed out of politics. Or he might have flourished in graphics design – if you look at the Nazi flag without thinking too much about what it came to stand for, it is a really neat design.
Wilfred Owen wrote some of the best anti-war poetry ever, and was killed in action a week before the Armistice in 1918. I don’t think he wrote any plays, but in an alternate world he might have.
Tolkien enlisted after completing his degree in July 1915, and so would have missed the shortened war of this alternate history. Some of Tolkien’s poems are rather good, notably Mythopoeia, while his much more famous fantasy-novels seem to have occurred by chance. Lord of the Rings owes a lot to his First World War experience, which also colours the Beleriand stories collected as The Silmarillion. The Hobbit has few obvious links, but also occurs within the later history of the world of The Silmarillion, at first implicitly and later made explicitly part of it. His ‘Fall of Arthur‘ was unfinished, but has recently been published along with notes.[B] Mythopoeia was written in 1931 following discussions with C S Lewis and might well be absent in an alternate time-line.
The names Puddy, Dowden, Bringlow and Sabberton were chosen at random from an actual war memorial listing the dead. They stand for the unknown and unknowable names of those who might have made some notable achievement had the war ended early.
One can think of lots of other famous people whose lives were changed by the war and might perhaps have become famous in some other way. One such was Siegfried Sassoon, whom I quote later on. You can imagine your own alternative story for any of them, if you feel like it.
The Balkan countries did indeed have bitter clashes over disputed territories. The First Balkan War in 1912 took over most of the European territories of the Ottoman Empire, but then Bulgaria fought and lost a war against its former allies Serbia and Greece over overlapping claims, with Romania joining in and taking its own cut of what Bulgaria had been. Similar problems arose with the new nation-states carved out of Austria-Hungary and the non-Soviet parts of the former Tsarist Empire. And things were particularly nasty for the Jews, since they mostly had a high proportion of the middle-class and professional jobs which each of the new nation-states thought should belong to its own nationality. The 1920s and 1930s saw various clashed and redrawing of borders. Existing borders in Middle-Europe are those drawn up after 1945, mostly by Stalin.
There had been some Jewish settlement in Palestine before 1914, when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. There was also some Arab opposition, but had the Empire lasted, it might have been contained and some limited Jewish settlement might have been seen as a useful. The Ottoman Sultan was also Caliph for Sunni Muslims, though not for Shia – but most Palestinian Muslims are Sunni. Palestine in 1914 also contained many Christian Arabs, though most have now fled.
Western ‘help’ has mostly been disastrous for the ancient Christian communities of West Asia. This began with various Christian communities expelled from Anatolia when Ataturk consolidated the new Turkish Republic – understandable after numerous cases of Western powers using alleged mistreatment of such communities as a pretext for intervention, and probably not happening in this alternate timeline. The West’s latest round of blunders is well on the way to eliminating Christians and some small but distinctive minority religions in Iraq. It could well do the same in Syria and even Egypt.
Japan before 1914 was widely admired by Chinese nationalists for having successfully modernised, despite Chinese losses in the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese lost almost all of their Chinese friends with their 21 Demands of January 18th 1915. I assume would not have happened with peace immanent. It might also have made a difference if the Ottoman Empire were not at risk.
(Incidentally, the Siege of Tsingtao was a siege of the city now known in English as Qingdao. One of many oddities arising from old and new methods of rendering Chinese names in a European alphabet. I have the imagined historian using the older forms.)
I have the May 4th movement come four years early, 1915 rather than 1919, and directed against Britain rather than Japan. It was the first modern mass political movement in China, and might have caused a shift in Japanese opinion if someone else had been the target.
The annexation of Outer Tibet by British India was indeed expected in 1914 and probably prevented by the war. But after the actual 1914-18 war, the British Empire was over-expanded and glutted with territories taken from the Germans and Ottomans. They wanted no more, so Iraq was made nominally independent, while Tibet was ignored. With no strong central Chinese government capable of recovering control, it drifted along but then fell into chaos when both the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama died in the 1930s. The Central Government of China stepped in to help install the present Dalai Lama in 1940, with Tibet’s status as an autonomous region of China reaffirmed. It was only when it became clear that the Communists were going to win the Chinese Civil War that the claim for Tibetan independence was revived. The Lhasa authorities were probably promised some sort of US support, which in the even amounted to little.[C]
Regarding a possible union of equals between Japan and China, something of the sort had been floated in the last days of the Manchu Dynasty. It would have been good for both, but it’s moot if Japan would have been wise enough and modest enough to try it. Historically, Inukai Tsuyoshi went along with some of the expansionist militarism. He did however try to put limits on it, being aware of the dangers of making an enemy of the USA. For this he was shot by right-wing extremists in 1932. Yet like Lloyd George and Bryan, he was an imperfect man in a position to have done a lot of good had he made the right choices at the right times.
‘Conversations’ using written notes did occur during negotiations over the fate of Korea. Japan uses the ideograms invented in China, though it also has additional semi-phonetic systems based on some of those characters.
The British warship Amethyst that I have depicted as being sunk in a battle on the Yangtze would have been the cruiser built in 1903 and scrapped in 1920, not the frigate of the same name that was launched in 1943 and involved in the famous Amathyst Incident in 1949. Cruisers could sale up the Yangtze, and the heavy crusier London actually did so in a failed attempt to rescue the Amethyst in 1949. Britain had won the right to freely use the Yangtze with the Opium Wars, and took no notice when the Chinese Communists told them to stop doing so. (The Kuomintang ‘nationalists’ had never dared challenge existing British rights, though some of these were allowed to lapse after 1945 at the insistance of the USA.)
Warships on a river should be sitting ducks for modern land-based guns, which can dig in and protect themselves with earthworks. The British were able to dominate the Yangtze for as long as they did, because the people with the heavy artillery lacked fighting spirit and the people with fighting spirit the lacked heavy artillery. A few Chinese warlords had both: Feng Yuxiang was the most notable, but he was based in the north. (The Yellow River is not suitable for large ships.)
One feature I have not included in the Alternate History was the cleverness and increasing extremism of British wartime propaganda. The German Emperor was known as such in 1914, only being called ‘Kaiser’ as he became a confirmed enemy. In a similar spirit, German submarines started being called U-Boats, the German term but one that had previously been translated. George Orwell noticed in passing the shift from ‘German Emperor’ to ‘Kaiser’ in one of his essays, but made nothing of it. Though he had a convincing line of patter as an innocent shocked by inexplicable evil events, he actually showed great selectiveness in what he chose to be shocked by. He never entirely lost his original identity as part of the small class that governed the Empire on behalf of the rest of Britain, and had privileges there they would not have had at home. Orwell was born in British India and his initial choice of career was as a policeman in British-ruled Burma. In his novel Burmese Days, he has mixed feeling about the expatriates, but almost all of the people they rule come across as unworthy, often wicked. The only decent ‘native’ is an Indian doctor who is an enthusiast for British rule.
My imagined history hardly mentions Italy. Italy had an alliance for mutual defence with Germany and Austria-Hungary. They chose not to consider themselves bound by it in the actual circumstances of the war, which may have been correct: I’ve not really investigated the matter. What was definitely wrong was their decision in May 1915 to join the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, in the hope of acquiring ethnically mixed border territories. This ended badly for Italy, mostly due to deficiencies in leadership. But it also started Mussolini on his path from militant socialism to the invention of Fascism. He successfully shifted the blame away from the leaders and officers onto the people. This worked politically, and Mussolini was a reasonably successful peacetime leader. But for all the paramilitary posturing of Italian Fascism, it failed to solve the basic problem of bad military leadership, as was shown graphically by Italy’s hopelessly inferior performance in World War Two.
I also don’t say much about Pope Benedict the 15th. No doubt the man meant well, but I’ve not heard that he had any influence on the Christmas Truce, which must have involved mostly Protestants. His main peace initiatives happened in 1916 and 1917, when it was probably too late. There was also a lot of hostility to the Pope from Protestants and from anti-Clericals, while Orthodox Christians viewed the Pope as an hereditary enemy. It was only during the Cold War that most of this faded and the Pope became a generally popular figure in the West. And even with this, I can’t think of any case where the Pope has been a successful peace-maker. If Stalin actually asked ‘how many divisions has the Pope’ – the remark is hearsay – then he was pointing out the realities of diplomacy and power-politics. European religious leaders from the 18th century onwards were mostly treated politely but not allowed to have any real influence.
In my alternate history, there is no World War Two and the 1914 war is curtailed without ever becoming a true World War. This removes both the evils and the benefits of the prolonged war. The outcome is not so radical, but successful radicalism has its problems. Radicalism either works obediently within the existing framework and confines its radicalism to particular areas, or else smashed everything and has to use extremely authoritarian methods to establish a new order.
I’m aware that most radicals like to reject both options. But I also note that such hybrid radicalism has never yet produced the outcomes that the relevant radicals actually wanted.
It is also sensible to suppose that most of the positive achievements of the 20th century could have been managed and perhaps exceeded had there been an early peace.
The actual course of the war caused great bitterness and maimed the later unfolding of the 20th century. It is worth quoting Siegfried Sassoon’s view of the matter in his famous 1918 poem, The General:
“‘Good morning, good morning!’ the General said
“When we met him last week on our way to the line.
“Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
“And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ muttered Harry to Jack
“As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
Lurking in background of the poem is the unspoken word, betrayal. The war was widely seen as a breakdown of trust. Lives wasted, not at all glorious. Yet this ill-formed feeling could proceed several ways, including Fascism. It would probably have been a much better world if none of it had happened.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams
This first appeared in Past Historic, the magazine of the Mensa History Group
[A] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paintings_by_Adolf_Hitler] as at 3rd January 2014.
[B] I found The Fall of Arthur disappointing, based on the standard myths and not following up his interesting idea from the essay On Fairy Stories, Arthur as an iron-age chieftain who was later mythologized. And ending before the main action of Arthur’s fall in the standard myths. But without the war it might have become something much more substantial. There are also those who think very highly of the incomplete poem as we now have it.
[C] See The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison