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The Month That Changed The World

The Month That Changed The World: July 1914
Gordon Martel

Oxford University Press  510pp  £25

There was long a complaint among military historians, one best voiced by Brian Bond, that there was a major disjuncture between their work, notably on the learning curve of the British army during the First World War, and the understanding of the war in contemporary popular culture, which Bond referred to as still stuck on the first day of the Somme. Now we can add much of the recent work on the diplomatic background to the war. Martel comes hot on the heels of Thomas Otte's July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914 (2014) and Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012). Each offers a highly instructive account of the diplomacy immediately leading up to the war; but, nota bene, not 'that led to'. In each case, the highly impressive scholarship and the fluent mastery of multiple, international sources, does not provide the whole of the story. Indeed, in what is traditional diplomatic history (not itself a criticism), there is a tendency to find the answer in the material that is so profitably studied. This leads to a particular slant. In each book, this is a case of individual and collective faults in 1914, the latter set in motion by the former, which led to a degree of collective responsibility, doubtless a conclusion suitable for our 'transnational times'. With Britain, there is blame for Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, not least for failing to send clear messages, which is presented as important in what was a collective malaise.

In terms of the particular diplomatic processes, that may appear reasonable, but is it sufficient? Each author sidelines the military dimension and it is not surprising that military scholars have been sceptical about the first to start, Clark. Martel follows Clark's approach: 'Premeditation is not to be proven by the existence of war plans or by the warlike pronouncements of military men. Strategists are expected to plan for the next war: the politicians and diplomats decide when that war is most likely to occur.' However, that is an unconvincing account of the role of military planning, procurement and preparations, of the military influences in the decision-making process and of cultural bellicosity. These factors were present for all powers – even the Swiss mobilised, although I have yet to find the historian to argue that this caused the war; but they were crucially different in character, context and consequences. This difference is underplayed by diplomatic historians. At one level, the obvious contrast is between France and Britain on one side and Austria, Germany and Russia on the other. For example, the pre-war French government had decided not to pursue the military option of advancing via Belgium, while Germany made its military operational plan central to its war strategy. However, what mobilisation meant for Germany was very different to what it entailed for Russia, a point largely neglected in recent discussion. Such distinctions are important because they counter a widespread intellectual tendency to focus on the supposed faults of 'the system', rather than of particular actors and groups within it.

In 1914 the British sought to rely on traditional means of addressing an international crisis, that of the Concert of Europe, which had succeeded in the case of the First Balkan War (1912-13). Austria and Germany were unwilling to do so. Arguably, their policies and attitudes caused the war, rather than the errors of the statesmen struggling with the developing crisis, the theme of the diplomatic historians. It is also necessary to locate this German preference in the political and cultural bellicosity that was so strong in Germany in the early 1910s. A fervent national patriotism was linked to a fear of falling behind. With respect to Grey, criticisms of him fail to take into account simple parliamentary arithmetic. Any attempts to issue a warning before the invasion of Belgium were likely to be hollow because of the make-up of Asquith's Cabinet and because the Liberals were dependent on Labour and Irish support for a majority in the House of Commons. The debates will continue to echo. For the diplomatic account, Otte is possibly the most precise for July 1914, although Martel writes well and has interesting material on the historiography.

Jeremy Black is author of many books, the latest of which is Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures (Indiana University Press, 2015).

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