Written by Dr Jack Binns
Historians are naturally wary of counter-factual re-plays of the past: many of them will have nothing to do with “what if...” fantasies and prefer to stick with what did happen, not what might have happened. Nevertheless, some speculation about the alternative consequences of a permanent, general cease-fire at the end of 1914 puts the global impact of the Great War into sharp perspective.
The Christmas truce of 1914 was the spontaneous gesture of front-line soldiers on both sides. Though the initiative, in almost every area, seems to have come from the Germans, it was immediately and roundly condemned by all the commanders, military and civilian. What had started on Christmas Eve was effectively over by Boxing Day. Troops who had fraternised with the enemy were withdrawn from the front and replaced. However, the impromptu ceasefire had been so widespread that it was not practicable to punish all those officers and other ranks who had consented to it. Reluctantly and sporadically, the two opposing armies resumed the slaughter, though the discomfort of their trenches during that freezing winter was their chief, common enemy.
But what if the truce had not become merely a 48-hour interruption? What if both sides had simultaneously and by mutual agreement refused to fire their weapons at each other? What if peace and goodwill had won a lasting victory over war and hatred?
There were brief Christmas truces on the Eastern as well as the Western Front, since Austrians, Russians and Serbs were also Christians, albeit of various denominations. Only the Muslim Turks did not observe the birth of Jesus but in December 1914 the war in the Near East had scarcely started. It took the prolonged stalemate in the West eventually to force the Allies into the catastrophic gamble of the Gallipoli campaign in March 1915.
An armistice dating from December 1914, instead of November 1918, would have saved humanity from an average of 6,000 violent deaths a day during the next 50 months. Europe would have been much more prosperous as well as populous and the extreme circumstances that gave opportunities to such revolutionaries as Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler would not have existed. Both Bolshevism and Fascism were indirect products of the Great War’s destructiveness of religious faith, political liberalism and economic stability.
On the positive side of the balance sheet, without the stimulus of defeat in 1918, the dynastic empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans would all have survived. The new post-war European states, such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, that emerged from their disintegration, would have remained potential, only the dream of frustrated nationalists. Also, without the Arab revolt and the Anglo-French military invasions from 1915, the Near East, for the time being, would have remained Turkish. There would have been no opportunity there for Colonels Mark Sykes and Georges-Picot to carve out new artificial, post-war zones for Anglo-French control. It is amazing that only now, a century later, some of these boundaries and states such as Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq) are being redrawn and refashioned.
Subsequently, in November 1917, in a move to win Zionist support, particularly in the USA, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, recognised the Turkish province of Palestine as “a national home” for the Jewish people. In doing so, he helped to create the state of Israel with the most profound consequences for world history which are still on-going.
If a general cease-fire and status quo had been arranged at the end of 1914, the German empire would have been left the dominant state in Europe, perhaps in the whole world. France would still have been without Alsace-Lorraine and the Germans would have kept most of Belgium, Poland and the formerly Russian Baltic states. With the addition of the Belgian Congo, German central Africa would have run right across the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Cameroons on the Atlantic shore. With his High Seas Fleet intact, the Kaiser would have kept his colonies in China and the Pacific.
In contrast, without victory against its old enemy and still shorn of Alsace-Lorraine, the Third French Republic might well have continued its decline towards anti-semitic fascism which it nearly reached in the 1930s.
Finally, if the war had ended in stalemate in 1914, the United States would never have become involved. FD Roosevelt might have remained an obscure lawyer; Woodrow Wilson might not have campaigned for re-election in 1916; and we would never have heard of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, who all served in the American wartime army. Above all, without the economic and financial advantages gained between 1914 and 1918, it would have taken much longer for the USA to become the world’s richest power.
Other effects of an early peace are more difficult to identify. Did the Great War advance or retard the social and legal rights of women? True, they were conceded the parliamentary vote in Britain in 1918, but some historians believe that they would have gained it earlier but for the war and the “flappers” were still denied it until 1928. There is no doubt that the prolonged war accelerated the development of many scientific and engineering advances, some beneficial, such as radio, medical surgery and drugs; others of doubtful value, such as tanks and submarines; and some, such as aeroplanes, which have been used for purposes both murderous and benign.
Clearly, there is no simple, obvious or final answer to the fundamental question: Would mankind have been better after five rather than 50 months of war? Whatever the arguments on either side, in retrospect, the lives, limbs and sufferings of more than 20 million combatants and civilians seem an excessive, insupportable price to pay for what were arguable political and material gains. For instance, was the sacrifice of three quarters of a million young men a fair exchange for the preservation and promotion of the British empire?