IMAGINE if we could take today’s world and place it in 1918, exactly 100 years ago. Further, imagine if the First World War hadn’t broken out as it did, instead allowing tensions between Empires to rise.
No United States, no European Union, no NATO, no World Trade Organisation, no International Criminal Court, no United Nations, no Free Trade, no globalisation, Schengen Area, immigration and more — only European nations, their empires, and conflicts between them. By comparing the two different years, we can see that the present more liberal European Union would have taken a different shape if it were 1918. The initial founders of this ‘confederation’ may have been the German empire, the Third French Republic and the Austro-Hungarian empire and most likely, it would have French and German interests at its heart, especially with the German aim of protecting the ‘domination of the Teutonic races’.
The primary aim of this ‘confederation’ would be to remove Britain and its empire from its supreme position, and would most definitely seek to capitalise on Britain’s internal struggles in attempting to further control the Irish population and prevent a Civil War in Ireland, as a starting point to achieve the eventual dissolution of the British Empire.
Secondary aims meanwhile would include aiming to consolidate European power in the face of persistent economic challenges from especially the United States, but also Japan and the other ‘wild Asiatics’, and above all ‘freeze out’ the Russian Empire from European affairs. The Russians, being Slavic, were traditionally seen as inferior purely on this account, and were also factually behind or far behind Western nations on the whole, even after the reign of Peter the Great, who is universally regarded as the one who brought Russia out of the Dark Ages.
Such a ‘confederation’ would not only threaten those above; it would certainly pose a danger to the then crumbling Ottoman Empire, which itself once occupied large swathes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkan regions only 300 years earlier.
Indirectly, it would also cause great concern in neighbouring Italy, mostly through the unavoidable border between them, and through historic tensions between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which were only intensified by the competition between the two for ‘fourth place’ in the European hierarchy.
In Russia, meanwhile, before the actual First World War, official war plans for a war against Germany were decided as early as 1910 in ‘Plan 19’ at a time when Russia’s reputation was badly damaged from defeat in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War a few years earlier. In this conflict, modern Japanese vessels defeated their more outdated Russian counterparts, and the Japanese also had the advantage of high-grade training given to them by Royal Navy officers.
In the last century, Japan had ditched its stubborn protection of traditions for ‘Westernisation’, but this didn’t really take shape until after the First World War. Another major turning point in the war was the diplomatic intervention by the United States in bringing about its end through the Treaty of Portsmouth, which was achieved by the determination of President Theodore Roosevelt — who himself led a company of men over San Juan Hill in Cuba in the 1898 Spanish-American War — to establish the U.S. on the world stage and push Britain aside slightly by preventing Britain from resolving the conflict.
For this, Britain was subject to literal ‘family-like’ jeers and insults from the Germans, mainly by Kaiser Wilhelm. Undisputedly, however, it confirmed increasing American will and capacity to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, a doctrine first introduced by President James Monroe in 1823, aiming to rid and free Latin America of European Powers. Largely, however, the arrival of the 20th century confirmed that times were changing.
Just as the Paris Exposition in 1900 demonstrated the drastic advancements made by the continent in technology and especially motor vehicles, communication and shipping, the U.S. instead saw the 20th century as the ‘American Century’, having also participated in the quelling the Boxer Rebellion in China, which established an ‘open door’ to the lucrative Chinese market of millions of people at a cost of ‘Chinese traditions’.
Aside from that, the Russians had to acknowledge the facts that they would not be ready for the then hypothetical war with Germany until at least 1916 as a result of damages to Russia’s military capacity, ‘traditional’ Russian backwardness and of course Russia’s huge landmass, which always invoked a variety of threats from the Far East to the Black Sea beyond any difficultly linking all the regions of Russia together.
The latter restricted much needed funding for the western border. Importantly, compared to the estimated German mobilisation speed of one week, the Russian mobilisation speed was estimated to be two weeks. Russia was at a major disadvantage, and troubles at home regarding the prospect of a revolution and background disputes in the Balkans only further defined Russia’s persistent history of misfortune, perhaps made so due to its usual stubborn refusal to embrace change and advancement.
Whereas close-together, bustling cities such as Moscow and particularly St. Petersburg — which Peter the Great established in 1703 on the Baltic coast, defining his wishes for Russia’s future — are usually as advanced or even further ahead than their Western counterparts, Russia has always been a very unequal country and one which is seemingly afraid to embrace new ideas.
In the 18th century and before, some Russians saw anything from countries that didn’t share their Orthodox Christian beliefs as being ‘items of the Devil’ — this filtered out into a more moderate wish for Russian traditions to remain intact overall — and various Western academics, businessmen and military figures were astonished at the sharp attitudes of their Russian friends.
Consequently, after Peter’s death in 1725, Russians had already rejected his insistence that they wear ‘Western clothing’, the Navy fell into disrepair and his treasured canal project was delayed. This is why Russian soldiers were respected for their toughness derived from the hardship they faced during the war, but it was also why a battle involving 300,000 German soldiers and 800,000 Russian soldiers would result in a Russian defeat rather than a Russian victory. On the other hand, Germany at the time was a tighter, more compact nation with few colonies, fledging industries and a natural emphasis on the ability to project power by land. Russia, unlike today, was not a committed military power, and nor was it during Soviet times. Although, if Russia were to attack the discussed ‘confederation’ in 1918, it may have been a much fairer contest between the two heavyweights.
On the British side of this war, it may have been basically impossible for the British to conduct an amphibious operation against France and especially Germany. For reference, the failure of the Gallipoli/Dardanelles Campaign of 1915 led many to question whether such an invasion would ever be possible again — something that remained fact until the 1944 Normandy Landings. Therefore, Britain would be challenged with the much anticipated ‘naval grand finale’ against both France and Germany, and we can assume, due to our traditional pluckiness and war ethic, that our battleships and battlecrusiers, which didn’t have additional cordite charge outside of their gun magazines — as in the Battle of Jutland, 1916 — would have heroically broken out of an attempted encirclement near the ‘sharp bend’ between the English Channel and the North Sea. It would have gone into legend — “Cor Blimey! We fought them both at once we did!”, a presumed common response to enthusiastic questions over what happened. Aside from raging battles between the Turkish and Austro-Hungarians, other activities would include tanned, hazel-eyed Italians in torpedo boats valiantly catapulting handfuls of olives at the French amongst other devastating weapons that the Italians may have had at their disposal 100 years ago.
In summary, one should not spend their time watching the news channels, shouting at the television over where and when the next foreign conflict may take place, over where exactly those missile fragments landed and even watching YouTube videos ranking the quality of each countries’ latest field artillery. Instead, one absolutely should be concerned with where they are going on holiday this year, what summer fayre they are looking to attend, and perhaps even which yacht race they are intending to participate in. How times have changed.
Joseph Holroyd, Swinton