WORLD WAR I – 100th Anniversary: TIME FOR THE TRUTH

Historical background to World War 1

(Introduction by Ella Rule to a CPGB-ML meeting on 9 August 2013)

Our purpose this evening is to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I by making sense of it so that we can learn its lesson and mobilise as necessary to avoid a repeat of what was, for the time, an unprecedented disaster.

It was a war in which no fewer than 6 million troops were mobilised between the various warring parties and which resulted in 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded.

As our speakers will be explaining, it was an imperialist war for domination, much as though the warring parties, in order to motivate their exploited and oppressed populations, dressed it up as a war of national salvation on the part of each and every one of the parties involved.

The ruling classes of Europe, however, had been engaging in wars against each other for centuries as, firstly, feudal warlords endeavouring to expand their territories (and hence their wealth and power) at each other’s expense, and then capitalist regimes sought first to expand their home markets and later to expand their colonies and spheres of influence abroad.

Engels wrote extensively for the New York Tribune on the subject of the lead-up to the Crimean war and then the war itself, noting the drive to war that impels the capitalists towards it, even though they know the consequences could be dire.

The supreme necessity of a never-ceasing expansion of trade – the fatum [destiny] which spectre-like haunts modern England, and if not appeased at once, brings on these terrible revulsions which vibrate from New York to Canton, and from St Petersburg to Sydney – this inflexible necessity has caused the interior of Asia to be attacked from two sides by English trade: from the Indus and from the Black Sea”. (Engels, ‘The real issue in Turkey’, New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3740, April 12, 1853).

It was the necessity of English trade to expand, clashing with the necessity for Russian trade at least to recover its earlier commercial predominance in the inner Asian region, that exploded into the Crimean War. As Engels pointed out, Britain simply could not afford to let the Russians take control of the Black Sea at the expense of the fading Ottoman empire, which they had every intention of endeavouring to do (in the name of protecting Orthodox Christians in the Turkish empire!):

England cannot afford to allow Russia to become the possessor of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. Both commercially and politically such an event would be a deep if not a deadly blow at British power. This will appear from a simple statement of facts as to her trade with Turkey.

“Before the discovery of the direct route to India, Constantinople was the mart of an extensive commerce; and even now, though the products of India find their way into Europe by the overland route through Persia, Teheran and Turkey, yet the Turkish ports carry a very important and rapidly increasing traffic both with Europe and the interior of Asia. To understand this it is only necessary to look at the map. From the Black Forest to the sandy heights of Novgorod Veliki, the whole inland country is drained by rivers flowing into the Black or Caspian Seas. The Danube and the Volga, the two giant rivers of Europe, the Dniester, Dnieper and Don, all form so many natural channels for the carriage of inland produce to the Black Sea – for the Caspian itself is only accessible through the Black Sea. Two-thirds of Europe – that is, a part of Germany and Poland, all Hungary, and the most fertile parts of Russia, besides Turkey in Europe – are thus naturally referred to the Euxine [the Black Sea] for the export and exchange of their produce; and the more so as all these countries are essentially agricultural, and the great bulk of their products must always make water carriage the predominant means of transport. …. Then there is another important branch of trade carried on in the Black Sea. Constantinople and particularly Trebizond in Asiatic Turkey are the chief marts of the caravan trade to the interior of Asia, to the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris, to Persia and Turkestan. This trade, too, is rapidly increasing. The Greek and Armenian merchants of the two towns just named import large quantities of English manufactured goods, the low price of which is rapidly superseding the domestic industry of the Asiatic harems. Trebizond is better situated for such trade than any other point. It has in its rear the hills of Armenia, which are far less impassable than the Syrian desert, and it lies at a convenient proximity to Baghdad, Shiraz and Teheran, which latter place serves as an intermediate mart for the caravans from Khiva and Bokhara. …. ” (ibid.)

World War 1 had the distinction of being the first imperialist war – the first inter-imperialist war fought not just to expand home markets and spheres of influence in Europe and the near East, but to expand colonial territories and other subject territories throughout the globe at each other’s expense – since by the time the 1st World War took place, virtually the whole of the planet had been partitioned between various imperialist powers. To the considerations that motivated the Crimean War, which were still very much alive and kicking in 1914, albeit that Britain and Russia had eventually reached an understanding on booty sharing that enabled them to be allied, new considerations were added that turned the 1914 war into a world war

Historians generally agree that the Scramble for Africa, the rushed imperial conquest of Africa by the major powers of Europe, began with King Leopold II of Belgium. After reading a report in early 1876 that the rich mineral resources of the Congo Basin (the modern-day Republic of the Congo) could return an entrepreneurial capitalist a substantial profit, the Belgian king ordered the creation of the International African Association, under his personal direction, to assume control over the Congo Basin region. When Leopold asked for international recognition of his personal property in the Congo, Europe gathered at the Berlin Conference, called to create policy on imperial claims. The conference, after much political wrangling, gave the territory to Leopold as the Congo Free State [where subsequently over 50% of the population was to perish under his tender care] . The conference further decreed that for future imperialist claims to garner international recognition, ‘effective occupation’ would be required. In other words, no longer did plunging a flag into the ground mean that land was occupied. …

“Given notice by King Leopold, the major European powers sprung into action. Within forty years, by 1914 and the end of the scramble for Africa, Great Britain dominated the breadth of the African continent from Egypt to South Africa, as well as Nigeria and the Gold Coast; the French occupied vast expanses of west Africa; the Germans boasted control over modern-day Tanzania and Namibia; the Portuguese exerted full control over Angola and Mozambique. Only Ethiopia and the African-American state of Liberia remained independent. Conquest was relatively easy for the European states: because of previous agreements not to sell modern weapons to Africans in potential colonial areas, Europe easily held the technological and armament advantage. Bands of just a few hundred men and barely a handful of machine guns could obliterate thousands of Africans in mere hours .” (


In 1884 at the request of Portugal, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck called together the major western powers of the world to negotiate questions and end confusion over the control of Africa. Bismarck appreciated the opportunity to expand Germany’s sphere of influence over Africa and desired to force Germany’s rivals to struggle with one another for territory.

“At the time of the conference, 80% of Africa remained under traditional and local control. What ultimately resulted was a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into fifty irregular countries. This new map of the continent was superimposed over the one thousand indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason and divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along.

“Fourteen countries were represented by a plethora of ambassadors when the conference opened in Berlin on November 15, 1884. The countries represented at the time included Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814-1905), Turkey, and the United States of America. Of these fourteen nations, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal were the major players in the conference, controlling most of colonial Africa at the time.

“… The conference lasted until February 26, 1885 – a three month period where colonial powers haggled over geometric boundaries in the interior of the continent, disregarding the cultural and linguistic boundaries already established by the indigenous African population.

“Following the conference, the give and take continued. By 1914, the conference participants had fully divided Africa among themselves into fifty countries. (Matt Rosenberg, ‘Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa’,

The problem was that under the guidance of Bismarck, Germany had been very restrained in its land grab programme, having decided that its best course for expansion was to secure peaceful and cooperative relations with the other European countries that would enable it to maintain its right to trade freely within Europe and the near East. But then its burgeoning industrial capacity soon found this restraint unduly hampered its ability to expand, as the laws of capitalism demand, an expansion which could only be to the areas held by its commercial rivals, in particular Great Britain and France who had grabbed the lion’s share of what was available in Africa.

Not having to bear the costs of colonial expansion, Germany had been able to devote a larger amount of its profits to technical improvements in production and in a situation of free trade was able to make gigantic progress.

In 1862, when Bismarck first became the Chancellor of Prussia, the manufacturing regions of the German states accounted for the fifth largest share of world industrial production (4.9% compared to Britain’s 19.9%). In 1880-1900 Germany rose to third place. By 1913 it was in second place – ahead of Britain, its industrial production having risen four-fold. Its share of world trade in 1880 was 10.3% (Britain 22.4%) and in 1913 it was 12.3% to Britain’s 14.2%. Between 1895 and 1905, German industrial output increased 150%, metal production 300%, and coal production 200%. In 1913 Germany consumed 20% more electricity than Britain, France and Italy combined.

In these circumstances, Britain was desperate to maintain its fast fading supremacy. It was in the context of the German commercial threat that Britain gradually began to mend fences with the countries that hitherto had been its major rivals and enemies, Russia and France, culminating in the Entente Cordiale of 1906. In the meantime everything was done by Britain, along with France which had hated Germany ever since it was ignominiously defeated by it and deprived of Alsace Lorraine in 1870-1, to block German attempts to gain territory outside Europe. In 1883 a Bremen merchant purchased land along the south-west African coast in Angola. In 1884 Bismarck asked Britain whether Britain intended to lay claim to the area. Britain responded to say that it would not allow any country to establish itself between Angola and its own Cape Colony. Germany went ahead regardless, whereupon Britain promptly laid claim to the territory in question. Although Britain did back down in the end, the incident did demonstrate that Germany had an uphill struggle on its hands to expand its markets beyond Europe and the near East.

When the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid, entrusted the Deutsche Bahn-Gesellschaft with the construction of a branch line of the Anatolian Railway to Kenya in the direction of Baghdad, Britain raised loud complaints that the German-financed project was an ” unauthorised penetration into the English sphere” because it would diminish the profitability of the British-financed Smyrna Railway.

Another dispute arose in 1894-95 over the Transvaal crisis. The Transvaal was internationally recognised as an independent state but Britain decided to annexe it as soon as it learnt of the huge gold and diamond deposits that it contained. But Germany owned 20% of the capital invested in the Transvaal and was most concerned that Transvaal should maintain its independence. Needless to say, Britain rode roughshod over Germany’s wishes in this regard, blocking plans for a German-financed railway linking the Transvaal with the sea in Mozambique.

Another crisis was caused by the French annexation of Morocco, agreed to by Britain in return for France leaving Egypt to Britain. Since Morocco was the subject of an 1881 international agreement that its status could not be altered except multilaterally by an international treaty, Germany was considerably aggrieved not to receive any compensation from France whatsoever, which it would normally have been able to exact as its price for consenting to the appropriate international treaty. Again its attempts to press its claims (the Agadir crisis of 1912) were blocked.

With its needs for market expansion consistently blocked in these ways, Germany determined to beef up its military, and to engage in a massive new naval construction programme with the aim of being able to confront the all-powerful British navy on equal terms. Germany’s new attitude was well summed up in 1897 by the German Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Bernhard von Bulow, when he famously said ” The times when the German left the earth to one of his neighbours, the sea to the other, and reserved for himself the heavens where pure philosophy reigns – these times are over. We don’t want to be anyone in the shadow, but we too demand our place in the sun”. From the time of the Agadir crisis, German military expenditure increased exponentially, but then so did the military budgets of all the countries destined to be belligerents in the First World War. It is difficult to argue, as does Christopher Clark, that the belligerents ‘sleepwalked’ into the First World War, misled by an unfortunate coincidence of bellicose individuals in powerful government positions in the countries concerned, since commercial necessities were powerfully hurling the various imperialist powers against each other, each and every one of them fighting for their lives to hold on to markets they already had while desperately trying to encroach on those monopolised by rivals. While the ruling powers will grasp at solutions that do not involve war if they possibly can (and the 19th century is replete with treaties of alliance designed to keep the peace by ensuring that any country that went to war against any other would be attacked on all sides by armies from the whole of Europe and could only lose), there comes a point where quantity turns into quality and the antagonistic contradictions between certain countries become so acute that they can no longer be resolved by peaceful means. At this point war will ensue, regardless of how many sages are advising it would be a bad idea.

France, Austria, Russia and Germany had, in the expectation of war, all drawn up elaborate plans of attack in readiness, the best known of which, and the most effective, was the German Schlieffen Plan; which was put into effect as soon as the war started.

The Germans took as their starting assumption a war on two fronts, against France in the west and Russia in the east. The nature of the alliance system ensured that Russia was allied with France (and latterly Britain), set against Germany’s alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Notwithstanding the potentially enormous size of the Russian army, with its never-ending supply of men, Schlieffen assumed – largely correctly, as it turned out – that it would take six weeks or longer for the Russians to effectively mobilise their forces, poorly led and equipped as they were.

Banking on this assumption, Schlieffen devised a strategy for knocking France out of the war within those six weeks. In order to do so he would commit the vast majority of German forces in the west to form an overwhelming assault with Paris as its aim, leaving just sufficient forces in East Prussia to hold off the Russians during the latter’s mobilisation process. Once France had been dealt with the armies in the west would be redeployed to the east to face the Russian menace.

In striking against France von Schlieffen determined to invade through Belgium. Passage through the flat Flanders plains would offer the fastest route to France and victory and enable the Germans to outflank the French armies just where the French were likely to be most vulnerable.

The weakness of the Schlieffen Plan lay less in the rigidity of the timescale – for the German army very nearly succeeded in capturing Paris within the time allotted – but in its underestimation of the difficulties of supply and communication in forces so far advanced from command and supply lines and ultimately, it was these problems that doomed it.

Although the war had clearly been in preparation by the various belligerent parties for many years, the fuse that lit the conflagration, as is well known, was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Austro-Hungary, with the backing of Germany, used the pretext of the assassination to declare war on Serbia which in turn was anxious to push Austria out of the areas it controlled in southern Slav regions driven by a vision of a united and sovereign southern Slav state (Yugoslavia), and the Russians supported Serbia. France took advantage of the situation to declare war on Germany, which had deprived it of Alsace Lorraine, with the aim of regaining its lost territory, and finally Britain joined in on the side of France and Russia (with whom they were partners in the Entente Cordiale, though this did not oblige Britain to join in any war that involved France or Russia). However, Britain wanted to squash Germany as its most powerful imperialist rival before it got any stronger – so, on the pretext that in entering Belgium en route to France, Germany had violated Belgium’s neutrality, Britain entered the war at 11.17 p.m. on 4 August 1914. The problem was that Britain was not militarily as strong as it thought it was. The war was not, as expected, over in a few weeks, but resulted in a bloodbath of unprecedented dimensions.