Mr. Hilaire Belloc’s Lecture on the War

Spring Term 1915

On March 11th Mr. Belloc was good enough to come to the School and to give us a most interesting lecture on the war. He spent some time describing what he called the “preliminaries,” that we might have a clear understanding how the war arose.

First, the war broke out at the will of the Government at Berlin, which chose its own hour for it and its own way of making it. It is the North German States, especially Prussia, that dominate Germany, and the North German has learnt to organize his life more thoroughly than anyone else in the world; above all things, he declares a well organized State, and by such a State we understand one that eliminates all things that are not calculable, and makes certitude the basis of value. It does not want creative power, genius, but rather strict order and discipline. For example, German architecture is atrocious, but the houses are warm; meals punctual, but the cooking bad.

We must try to realize this German love of order and fear of the creative spirit in order to grasp one of the motives that induced Germany to make war – terror of Russia. Russia stands for all those things which are disliked by the North German – there is no order, but great creativity, passionate religious zeal, and among the Russian soldiers a devoted but ill-calculated courage. Russia is increasing rapidly in population and wealth, and the German holds Russia in mingled fear and contempt; he looks on Russia as something half-barbaric, and dreads being overwhelmed by her. Now the Balkan States are the battlefield of German and Russian. To understand this we should turn to Ireland, where the Ulsterman says to the Irish; “It is true that you are of a different race and religion from me, but everything will go to pieces unless we manage.” This is, in effect, what the German feels about the Slavs in the Balkan States. The Slavs are spiritually apart of the Russian Empire, and the Germans feel that they are, therefore, in great peril from Russia in the Balkans, and must resist Russian influence there to the utmost. This, then, is one of the motives that led Germany to make war – terror of Russia.

We find a second cause in their misapprehension of the French spirit. They thought the French were decadent, and they had gained this idea from books. The Germans are apt to get their ideas largely from books, and so are unable to give due weight to what their own experience might teach them. Now when the moment for fighting Russia came, Germany had to count with France as well, because of an old alliance between the two countries dating some twenty years back.

France had entered into this alliance in the hope that some day it might help her win back Alsace-Lorraine. After the Franco-Prussian War Germany had annexed these two provinces; they were German-speaking districts, with the exception of Metz and a strip of land round it their villages were arranged on the German system, and Germany ought to have been able to absorb them into herself. Unfortunately the German pays for this gift of organization by a lack of sympathy; he cannot govern others, and so Alsace-Lorraine have not been absorbed by Germany. In spite of this, if Metz had not been taken from France, it is probable that in time the French would have learnt to acquiesce in the loss of these two provinces; but the German possession of Metz must remain an open sore that the French could not forget. For the sake of Alsace-Lorraine the French entered into their alliance with Russia; the Germans could have kept them out of their quarrel with the Russians if they had made various concessions to Alsace-Lorraine; they had an opportunity for reconciliation in the Dreyfus case ten years ago, but they did not take it. They thought France was decadent, that in case of war she would collapse after a brief struggle, and they did not trouble to try to keep her out of the war.

When in July, 1914, Austria, as the price of the murder of her Crown Prince by men of Serbian blood, demanded what was practically a surrender of Serbian independence, Russia was bound to interfere on Serbia’s behalf.

When in July, 1940, Austria, as the price of the murder of her Crown Prince by men of Serbian blood, demanding what was practically the surrender of Serbian independence, Russia was bound to interfere on Serbia’s behalf. Serbia it is more close ally to Russia than any of our Colonies are to us. On July 30, Thursday, Austria realised Russia meant war if she continued as she had been doing, and sent a note that she was willing to reopen negotiations. The government of Berlin heard of that note the same evening, next day, Friday, Berlin not Vienna sent an ultimatum to Russia; and not content with that sent another one to Paris. Even at this last hour Germany might have kept France out of the war, though it would have been difficult, but, conceiving that she was decadent, she wantonly drew her into the quarrel.

At this stage England was not coming into the war. France urged that if England would make a definite pronouncement on her side, Germany would be afraid, and peace might yet be maintained. England refused.

Then on August 4th Sir Edward Grey announced that if Belgian neutrality were violated, England would fight. What was the reason for the sudden change of attitude? England, whether she will or not, must keep her Naval supremacy in order that she may not be starved out by a rival Power. It is not to her advantage that the Channel coast is dominated by one great power; she cannot allow the North Sea to be dominated by another as would be the case if Germany ruled unchecked in Belgium. Germany proceeded to invade France through Belgium in the proportion 16 -10 and England sent her ultimatum to Germany.

Thus we entered the war. At first only a very small force could be sent across to France, but this force was one of professional soldiers, while the French army was one of conscripts, many of them on the reserve and drawn from civilian life. The army was, therefore, of value out of proportion to it’s size, and was placed in the position of the greatest strain. The method of meeting the first German invasion was this: one quarter of the whole Allied Force was to stand against the whole assault of the German attack, and then to retreat as rapidly as possible, drawing the enemy after it; the remaining three quarters would then come in to play and will endeavour to pin the enemy down. Seven and a-half Army Corps were stationed between the Sambre and the Meuse, therefore, to bear the brunt of attack; one and a-half of these are British, and they were placed on the left, General Smith-Dorrien being in command of the extreme left. This was where the greatest strain would be, as a German mode of attack has always been to try to envelope the opposing force – it was the British force that was to prevent this. These Army Corps stood against the German attack and then retreated rapidly for 10 days; the object of the retreat was to reach the line of the Marne, and this they effected with the loss of some 12 per cent of men, guns, and so forth. The whole Allied line had turned on pivot as it where, and it stretched from Paris to Verdun; those in front of Verdun had not retreated at all; those on the extreme left had fallen back some 120 miles.

Meanwhile the reserves had been coming up from all quarters; the battles of the Marne and the Aisne ensued, and the Germans were forced back. The importance of this was that the 10 men have been able to hold the 16.

From October to March there has been little change in the lines; the Germans have extended their position till it touch Switzerland on the one side and the sea on the other. The position is that one may see in wrestling – A lighter wrestler, by some trick, has thrown a heavier man, but now the struggle is to keep him down. The 10 men must keep the 16 pinned; in doing so they have three facts to encourage them:

  1. The 10 men will be reinforced; already more contingents have been sent from Great Britain, and the Expeditionary Force now numbers a quarter of a million.
  2. The Russians will increase their strength on their frontier, and when they do that the Germans must withdraw troops to meet the danger there. At Present the Russians have put less than three million men in the field they are backward in equipment, and until either Vladivostock is free from ice or the Dardanelles open she cannot arm more.
  3. The wastage of the Germans and here we must remember that all through history the Germans have not been able to face odds. At the beginning of the war Germany had some nine million men fit for active service; five million placed in the field at once, and of these the wastage has already been at least 2 1/2 million; two million are required at home to carry on the work of transport, manufacture, and so forth. This only leaves two million in reserve, the greater part of these are already in the field. It is estimated that at the most Germany cannot put more than one more million in the field.

Thus while 10 men are increased to 11, 12, and even 13, the 16 will decrease, and the day will come when the opposing forces may be equal.

Now as to subsequent events since the Allies first pinned the Germans their line of trenches.

  1. There were six weeks in which the 16 men trying to break out, between La Bassee and the sea; the first attempt was made at Dixmunde; the second we call the battle of Ypres. This phase lasted till November 15th, the Germans lost very heavily.
  2. On the Russian front, since November 15th, the Germans have made a desperate effort to arrive at a decision in order to free their troops there and bring them back to the western field. In order to do this Warsaw must be taken, because it is the centre of the railway system of that district.

 This attempt has also had two phases from November 15th to February 8th, when a direct attack was made in Warsaw we call this the “Second Battle of Warsaw” second, from February 8th to the present, when an attempt has been made to surround Warsaw from the North, cutting the Warsaw-Petrograd Railway. This railway is screen by the line of the Niemen and Narew; the three main there this line was attacked are Grodno, Osowiec, and Przenysz; the Germans had been partially successful at the first two places, but defeated at the last.

And now the time they have to take Warsaw is growing short. By the end of May that your Vladivostock will be free from ice, and we hope that our new armies will be in the field; the Dardanelles, too, maybe open; the snow will have gone from the roads over the Carpathians and the Hungarian plain will again be menaced. The Germans, therefore, have only eight weeks left in which to achieve a decision in the East; if they can bring matters to a victorious conclusion there before the end of May, they will probably succeed for good. They will be able to bring back troops to reinforce the men in the West. These next eight weeks then are of the most critical importance; if the German defeat begins it will probably be rapid. The question is, shall we be able to get a numerical superiority in time in order to ensure this defeat?