1915: The War Continues

  August 21, 2021   Read time 3 min
1915: The War Continues
Had this been a ‘limited war’ in the style of the eighteenth century, governments might at this point have declared a truce and patched up a compromise peace.

Left to themselves, the original protagonists, Russia and Austria-Hungary, would almost certainly have done so. But the original causes of the war were now almost forgotten, and what those powers felt hardly mattered. Their allies were now in the driving seat, and had no intention of calling a halt.

The German armies after a succession of brilliant successes were deep inside the territory of their adversaries, and were confident that they could complete their victory during the coming year. Their government had already drafted, in the so-called September Programme, the peace terms they intended to impose on their defeated enemies. In the west, Belgium would become a German protectorate. France would be made to yield yet more land on her eastern borders and demilitarize her northern territories as far south as the mouth of the Somme.

In the east, German frontiers would be pushed deep into Poland and extended north along the Baltic littoral. Heavy indemnities would be demanded from the defeated Allies, commensurate with Germany’s own losses of ‘blood and treasure’. For France, naturally enough, there could be no peace so long as the German army occupied a fifth of her most productive territory. As for opinion in Britain, peace was unthinkable so long as Germany continued to occupy and behave so outrageously in Belgium, and the million or so men who had voluntarily enlisted on the outbreak of the war had barely begun to fight.

In any case for both sides, especially for Britain and Germany, the war was no longer just a traditional struggle for power, but increasingly a conflict of ideologies. If conservatives in Britain saw it as a defence of the British Empire against the challenge of a rival Great Power, liberals saw it as a struggle for democracy and the rule of law against the jackboot of Prussian militarism, whose treatment of Belgium gave a foretaste of what Europe had to expect at the hands of a victorious Germany.

The demonization of Germany was, of course, to be intensified by official propaganda, but that did no more than play on emotions already being ventilated and intensified by the press. The degree of popular hysteria was such that even the most distinguished families with German names found it convenient to relabel themselves: the Battenbergs as Mountbatten, the Royal family itself (generally known as the House of Hanover but more accurately Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) as the House of Windsor. At the lower end of the animal scale, the popular breed of German sheepdogs was rebranded as ‘Alsatians’, and dachshunds disappeared from the streets.

Wagner’s music was effectively banned. In Germany reactions were no less intense. The antagonism found expression in Ernst Lissauer’s popular Hassgesang, a Hymn of Hate, which indicted England as Germany’s most dangerous and treacherous foe. German academics and intellectuals joined forces to depict Germany as fighting for a unique Kultur against Slavic barbarism on the one hand, and, on the other, the frivolity and decadence of French civilisation and the brutish shopkeepers’ materialism of the Anglo-Saxons—a Kultur that embodied and was defended by the warrior virtues that the West condemned as militaristic. Such ‘popular passions’ were at least as important as political or military calculations in the determination of the belligerents to press on with the war.