Ten Biggest Battles of the 19th Century


Battle Year Combatants Outcome
Nanjing, China



Taiping Rebellion (Qing victory)
Siege of Paris, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Leipzig, Germany



Napoleonic wars (Allied victory)
Sadowa, Czech Republic



Austro-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Dresden, Germany



Napoleonic wars (French victory)
Siege of Metz, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Sedan, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Solferino, Italy



2nd Italian war (French / Sardinian victory)
Gravellotte, France



Franco-Prussian war (French victory)
Wagram, Austria



Napoleonic wars (French victory)


The question of which was the largest war of the 19th century is a matter of some debate, however broadly speaking, in scale, cost and impact, the biggest four were probably –

  1. The Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815)
  2. The Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864)
  3. The American Civil War (1861 – 1865)
  4. The Franco Prussian War (1870 – 1871)

Although the Franco-Prussian war has many of the century’s largest battles, it was relatively short in duration containing a small number of large battles, most fought on the frontier – as a contest it was over within three months, although the siege of Paris continued into the following year. The American Civil War, by comparison, had more soldiers (about 3m), but lasted much longer (4 years) and consisted of a large number smaller battles (nearly 400). The largest battle of that conflict was the Seven Days which had 195,000 combatants – about the same as Waterloo, but neither make it onto the list above. Neither do two other decisive battles of the 19th century – Austerlitz (1805) and Gettysburg (1863); both of which had about 170,000 combatants although Gettysburg lasted much longer, 3 days, whilst Napoleon needed just 8 hours to annihilate Kutuzov at Austerlitz.

The Battle of Nanjing, China (1864)

The 3rd battle of Nanjing was the decisive engagement of the Taiping Rebellion, which raged across southern China from 1850 to 1864, the latter stages occurring at the same time as American Civil War. About 1,000,000 government troops, loyal to the ruling Qing dynasty, fought about 500,000 well-armed Taiping rebels.

The Qing (“ch-ing”), known in western histories as the Manchu, had ruled China since the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and were originally from Manchuria, being of a separate ethnic group to the majority Han. Qing power reached its zenith in the early 18th century, particularly under the 61 year reign of the Kangxi Emperor and formed the basis of what is now the territorial area of modern China. During the early and mid 19th century a combination of natural disasters, economic stagnation and disastrous wars against more technologically advanced foreign powers, such as the British who annexed Hong Kong, had substantially eroded Qing authority.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom grew from a quasi-religious, millenarian cult founded by Hong Xiuquan (“hung hsiu-chuan”) in Guangxi province during the 1840’s. Hong had been an applicant for the Imperial Civil Service the previous decade who had locally been exposed to the preaching of Christian missionaries, and possessed a Chinese translation of the bible. Although he paid little attention to Christianity at the time, when in 1836 he failed the entrance examinations for the 4th time (not so strange, the pass rate was less than 5%) the failure brought on a period of intense depression which culminated in a nervous breakdown during which he claimed to have experienced a spiritual revelation during a series of dreams. He interpreted this experience as a divine summons to rid China of “demon worship” and came to believe that he was a re-incarnation of the younger brother of Jesus Christ and began preaching among the local community of the Hakka ethnic group, of which we was a member. He laid out a quasi-Christian philosophy that included common ownership of property, equality for women (but also strict separation of the sexes) and the destruction of Buddhist and Confucian symbols and images. By 1840, the sect had as many as 40,000 followers and attracted the attention of the Qing authorities who attempted to violently supress it, leading eventually to civil war.

The revolt proper began in Guangxi province in 1850 when a 10,000 strong Taiping force attacked and captured the town of Jintian (present day Guiping). The Qing government, already heavily committed in the 2nd Opium War against the British, failed to quell the revolt and by 1853 and the rebels had occupied Nanjing and declared it their capital, changing its name to Tianjing (“heavenly capital”). The Heavenly Kingdom expanded its control over more of south east China and attempted to enlist the support of European powers, but were rebuffed. In 1860 they attempted to take the city of Shanghai, but were repulsed by Qing forces, by now trained and advised by a small number European officers, and a slow painful fightback by the government began.

By 1864, most of the rebel area had been re-occupied and the Qing, by now with the support of western powers, prepared to re-take Nanjing. By June, Nanjing had been surrounded and was preparing for siege when Hong suddenly died, most likely of food poisoning. With a force of 500,000 Qing troops against of maybe 400,000 in the city a bitter struggle erupted in the outer suburbs as government troops took the city gates and bridges one-by-one, eventually capturing the city on the 19th of July, and carrying out a massacre of the inhabitants in which as many 100,000 may have been killed. The fall of Nanjing effectively destroyed the Taiping army and, although sporadic resistance and interlinked rebellions in neighbouring provinces continued for several years afterwards, the Heavenly Kingdom collapsed with the fall of the city.

The Taiping rebellion may well have been the largest and bloodiest civil war in all human history, although the Napoleonic wars in Europe were a larger scale conflict. Both sides engaged in the destruction of urban commercial centres and rural agricultural production, including the massacre of inhabitants, as an economic warfare tactic; as many as 600 major towns and cities were destroyed in this way. It has been estimated that as many as 20-30m people died during the conflict – to put that in context, it is more than the total Soviet Union war dead, civilian and military, during the whole of the second world war.

Always an avowedly peasant and working class movement, the Taiping were referenced in later Chinese history by both nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen and communist Mao Tse Tung as examples of the power of ordinary Chinese to stand up to a decaying and corrupt imperial system. Although victorious in the rebellion, the Qing dynasty was gone within 50 years; the last emperor, Pu Yi, was overthrown in 1912 and China became a republic after 2,000 years of rule by the Emperors.

Siege of Paris (1870)

At the outset of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, France was led by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III (nephew of Napoleon I). Although elected as president of the Second Republic in 1848, he seized power in a bloodless coup-d’état in 1851 and crowned himself Emperor, initiating the short lived Second Empire. He had already fought a successful war in Italy to aid the Italian nationalists in ejecting the Austrian army from northern Italy and speeding Italian Unification as well his attempt to install Maximillian Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico; he was also the prime mover in the coalition that fought Russia in the Crimean war.

Prussia was then a monarchy under William I, but real power lay in the hands of his formidable Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Territorially enlarged from wars with Austria and Denmark, and rapidly industrialising – Prussia was the “Tiger” economy of 19th century Europe, riding a wave of German nationalism as head of the North German Confederation – a growing and ever present threat to the pre-eminence of France in European power politics.

When war broke out in 1870, the French appeared the stronger side – the two armies where evenly matched in size (900,000 French v 1.2m Prussians, Wurttenburgers and Bavarians), but the French had the interior lines and a much shorter route to the frontier. In addition, the French army was 50% regular troops, whilst the bulk of German force was conscript. In weapons the French had a clear advantage – the German Dreyse rifle that had decimated the Austrians at Sadowa was now outclassed by the French Chassepot – the best in the world; also the French possessed the Mitrailleuse, an early form of machine gun. The Prussians for their part had the steel barrelled breech loading Krupp six-pounder artillery piece that fired contact detonating shells, whilst the French still used bronze cast muzzle loaders. The greatest advantage the Prussians had however was their leaders – they had the only professional general staff in Europe – the speed and efficiency of their mobilisation plus their adaptable tactics where to prove the decisive factor from day one.

Only partly mobilised and badly organised, the French Army of the Rhine was divided into two wings – one under Marshall McMahon and accompanied by Louis Napoleon; the other, commanded by Marshall Bazaine and under huge political pressure, attacked first and crossed the border to occupy the manufacturing town of Saarbrucken. Rapidly outnumbered by the speedy Prussian mobilisation, the French fell back fighting a series of rear-guard actions as the Prussians, many deployed by rail, started to pour across the border. The fast moving Prussian columns surrounded them and used their superior artillery to destroy most of the French army at the catastrophic defeats of Metz and Sedan in September 1870, after just 3 months of war, with Louis Napoleon himself among the captured. Von Moltke is reputed to have said to a captured French officer after Sedan “If my army had your rifles, I would have won this war in three weeks, and if your army had my generals then you would have won in two weeks!”

What was left of the French army fell back into the defences of Paris. Completely cut off from outside supplies and able to communicate only by hot air balloon or carrier pigeon, the French held out from Sept until January of the following year, by which time much of Paris had been damaged by artillery bombardment and food was running out. The city was surrounded by 240,000 regulars of the pan German force and its defences contained 200,000 French regulars, plus another 200,000 militia and sailors; 640,000 in total. French defeat brought about German re-unification plus the loss of Alsace – Lorraine and a huge indemnity (5 billion francs); the re-building of Berlin was paid for largely with the French indemnity. The most important consequence however was the proclamation of the 19th century German Empire – the Second Reich – in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Dresden and Leipzig (1813)

The four day battle fought near Leipzig, Germany in October 1813 was also known as the Battle of the Nations, and was far the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the largest pitched battle of the whole century. It was the decisive engagement of the Sixth Coalition war, fought by the allied powers to finish off Napoleon after his defeat in Russia. Just two weeks after Napoleon’s return from Russia a coalition formed consisting of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Sicily and Sardinia to capitalise on his defeat and finish him off. Napoleon, who still had a few allies (Kingdom of Italy, Duchy of Warsaw, Naples, Denmark-Norway, Switzerland, Confederation of the Rhine) was able to put 900,000 troops into the field against about 1 million allied troops, although this number swelled as the war went on and Napoleon’s allies began to defect – the allies swelled to 1.2m, whilst Napoleon’s army reduced to 400,000.

The war was fought on three fronts. In Dec 1813, Swedish troops attacked the Danes in Holstein and fought the battles of Bornhoved (Swedish victory) and Sehested (Danish victory). By the terms of a separate treaty after the war in 1814, Denmark was forced to cede Norway, which had been previously ruled by Sweden during the 17th century. The Norwegians however rejected this and declared independence and this led to a Swedish invasion of Norway which restored rule from Stockholm and left Norway part of Sweden until 1905 when it regained its independence.

Meanwhile, in Iberia, A force of British and Portuguese regulars with Spanish partisans led by Arthur Wellesley had been tasked with completing the ejection of the French, begun in 1808. Allied victories at Burga and Vitoria where 100,000 allied troops (50% British, 25% each Spanish and Portuguese) defeated 65,000 French were followed by the Spanish capture of Pancorbo the following month. Despite a French fightback at the battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, by October 1813 the allies were across the Bidasoa river and into France proper.

The main action however took place in Germany. Napoleon invaded Prussia with a force of 400,000 in April 1813 and defeated the allies at Lutzen and Bautzen, inflicting heavy casualties; a brief armistice was declared in June with the combined casualties from April having now reaching 250,000. When fighting resumed  in August, Napoleon with 135,000 defeated 214,000 Austrians, Russians and Prussians at the two day battle of Dresden; but weakened by his losses and lacking cavalry he withdrew 190,000 of his force to Leipzig in Saxony, where he was finally cornered by 430,000 Russian, Austrian, Prussian and Swedish troops (although 50% of the allied force was Russian). The resultant four day battle completely destroyed Napoleon’s force and he was compelled to flee. The following year, 1814, the allies invaded France and finally forced Napoleon to abdicate on 6th April 1814 – to be exiled to the Italian island of Elba, whilst the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France.

Sadowa, Czech Republic (1866)

Known also the Battle of Konnigratz, it was the decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian war. Fought less than 12 months after the end of the Civil War in America, it had more than twice the number of combatants as that war’s largest battle – The Seven Days, Virginia (1863) which had 190,000. Austria’s defeat is regarded as an important milestone in the development of Prussian and, ultimately, German nationalism. The conflict marked the end of Austrian ambitions to be the leader of the huge collection of German speaking states that the medieval German empire (the First Reich) had collapsed into after the devastation of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The emerging power of Prussia, now rapidly industrialising and, with possession of the coal fields of Silesia, taken from the Austrians a century earlier, now became the clear leader among the German states. Fought in a single day near the village of Sadowa in Bohemia; 221,000 Prussians, armed with rapid firing, breech loading Dreyse rifles beat 206,000 Austrians and Saxons still armed with muzzle loading musket-rifles; the Austrians suffering 44,000 casualties, against only 9,000 Prussian. The aftermath of the battle led directly to the formation of North German Confederation and fostered the idea of “little-Germany” nationalism – the idea of unification of German speakers, but without Austria. It was also an important pre-cursor conflict to the Franco – Prussian war four years later.

Gravellotte, Metz, Sedan (1870)

Marshall Bazaine’s early advance into Saarland was quickly reversed as the German commander von Moltke deployed his huge force to outflank and surround them. The French rapidly withdrew across the border with the Prussians in pursuit; on 4th August von Moltke attacked part of McMahon’s army at Wissembourg in the first major battle of the war. 8,000 French troops with 12 guns fortified the small town and fought hand to hand in the streets against 60,000 Germans. The local populace, trapped in the town during the fighting were eventually so sickened by the slaughter around them, that they formerly surrendered the town to the Germans to stop the bloodshed.

Further Prussian victories at Worth and Spickeren left Bazaine’s force falling back towards the fortress of Metz and led to the two interlinked battles of Mars-Le-Tour and Gravellotte. At the second of these the French were finally able to establish an effective defensive posture and took a heavy toll of the Prussian infantry, who lost 20,000 casualties to Chassepot and Mitrailleuse fire against 12,000 of their own, almost all of those from artillery fire . Although a tactical French victory, Baziane’s army had been badly mauled and fell back to the defences of Metz to regroup and await re-enforcements from McMahon.

Von Moltke, like Grant at Fort Donaldson in 1862 or O’Connor in the western desert in 1940, realised that by quick manoeuvre he could cut off the routes into the town and turn a fortress into a prison. Quickly surrounding Metz he trapped 190,000 French troops in the fortifications of a small town designed to hold a tenth of that number.

The newly formed French Army of Chalons commanded by McMahon made two attempts to relieve Metz, the first was defeated at Beaumont-en-Argonne whilst the second occurred close to the fortress of Sedan where McMahon’s main force was deployed. Again, the battle centered on a small town, in this case Bazeilles, who’s populace where trapped in the town during the fighting and helped the army build barricades as the battle commenced with a street by street fight for the town. The fighting spread south from the town into the countryside with McMahon himself wounded – under heavy Prussian artillery fire, the French were finally driven inside the defences of Sedan, where they were rapidly surrounded and cut off from any relief. The following day, 2nd September, 120,000 men of the army of Chalons surrendered along with their commander McMahon and their Emperor Louis Napoleon. Shortly afterwards, and facing starvation, the 190,000 troops in Metz also surrendered.

With the fall of Sedan, the bulk of France’s field army had been lost after just 3 months of war; on the following day, 3rd September the news of Louis Napoleon’s capture reached Paris and a bloodless coup-d’état ensued led by Trochu, Favre and Gambetta that overthrew Louis Napoleon and proclaimed the Third Republic, plus a determination to continue the war. Just as in 1940 after Dunkirk, the small remnant of the regular army that survived fought back with near fanatical bravery, but it was too late. Once they had fallen back to the defences of Paris, their fate was sealed. Louis Napoleon was to go into exile after the war in Britain, where he lived at Camden House, Chislehurst until his death in 1873, referring several times in his last words to Sedan.

Solferino (1859)

Louis Napoleon is remembered as the loser at Sedan, but he was no fool, he had his successes too. One of these was his assistance to the Italian independence struggle, Il Risorgimento (“the Resurgence”). Italy had long been divided into petty states that individually fell prey to many foreign powers over the centuries – Spanish, French and Austrian – and its independence movement was initially looked on favourably by France and Britain, but neither were prepared to do anything to upset the Austrians. Consequently the First Italian Independence war, fought by the leading Italian state, Piedmont to drive the Austrians from Lombardy and Venice, failed through lack of great power support.

The situation was brought home to Louis Napoleon personally in 1858, when an attempt was made on his life; this shocked Napoleon into realising that the Italian situation would spiral out of control if not resolved and he determined to aid the nationalists in the hope of acquiring a useful ally in the new Italy and seriously diminishing his rival Austria in the process. Piedmont had previously been an ally for the French in the Crimean war; it also had a railway line designed by Brunel.

Thus was set the scene for the Second Italian Independence war, the decisive engagement of which was the seventh largest battle of the 19th century, fought near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.

In 1858, Louis Napoleon concluded a secret treaty with the Comte di Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont that France would aid the Italians in ejecting the Austrians from Lombardy and Venice, whilst receiving the provinces of Nice and Savoy in return. Napoleon committed half the French army – 130,000 men, plus brought along 70,000 Sardinian troops against 240,000 Austrians.

At the outbreak of war, there were no French troops in Italy, so the French commander, McMahon organised a mass deployment by rail into Piedmont to link up with the Sardinians. The first major clash was at the battle fought for the railway junction at Magenta, near Milan in June 1859 where McMahon’s 60,000 men defeated 125,000 Austrians and shortly afterwards occupied Milan. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I now personally took command of his army, the last European battle in which two monarchs personally led their armies against each other.

Attempting to counter – attack after their defeat at Magenta, they ran into the French at Solferino and were drawn into a confused and fast moving fight for three small towns Solferino, Cavriana and Volta Mantovana. Badly mauled, the Austrians drew off beyond the Micinio and Po rivers and, at the treaty of Villafranca in July 1859 ceded Lombardy to the Piedmontese, but not Venice. The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed two years later, in 1861.

The battle will remain best known however, for the visit to battlefield after the conclusion by a Swiss businessman and philanthropist where he witnessed the suffering of the battle’s estimated 30,000 casualties and was moved to found an organisation to relieve their suffering who took it’s symbol from the reverse colours of the Swiss flag. The businessman was Henri Dunant and the organisation he founded was the Red Cross.

Wagram (1809)

During the Fourth Coalition war, and after Napoleon’s success against the Austrians at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, Austria had been left subdued, and the Emperor turned his attention to Prussia. At the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon’s 120,000 French troops defeated 110,000 Prussians and Saxons so comprehensively that Berlin was occupied shortly afterwards and Prussia reduced to a French vassal state, which it would remain until the Sixth Coalition war in 1812. The trauma that Prussia suffered during the Napoleonic occupation acted as a spur to the modernisation of the state – later reformers such as Clausewitz , Scharnhorst and Gneisenau served in the army and were profoundly affected by it, as was the philosopher Hegel who called it “the end of history”.

Wagram was the main engagement of the Fifth Coalition War, and was fought in 1809; the coalition consisted of Austria, Great Britain, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia and Brunswick against a French led alliance with Duchy of Warsaw, Confederation of the Rhine, Italy, Naples, Switzerland and Holland.

The war was fought on two fronts. In Iberia, both Spain and Portugal had been invaded a few years earlier and the small British force driven out, when Napoleon entered Madrid at the head of 80,000 troops having first fomented a coup. By 1809, however, the British had returned and with Arthur Wellesley in command set about the recovery of Portugal, after Marshall Soult had invaded again. Wellesley’s Anglo-Portuguese force defeated Soult at Grijo and Porto in May, whilst Marshall Ney with another French force was defeated by the Spanish at Puente Sanpayo. With Portugal secure, Wellesley pushed on into Spain and linked up with Spanish partisans. The costly British victory at Talvera forced Wellesley’s hasty retreat after the battle with French re-enforcements nearby, but the essential objective, that of liberating Portugal, had been achieved.

Buoyed by allied success in Iberia, and heavily subsidised by the British, the Austrians made their move by invading Napoleon’s ally, Bavaria in March 1809. The Austrians massed their army in Bohemia on the frontier of Prussia, then a French vassal, in the hope that it would foment an anti – French revolt and bring in Prussia on the allied side, but this never happened. Also, Austrian hopes of assistance from the Russians were dashed by the fact that they were technically at war with Britain, which also meant that Britain’s ally Sweden would not intervene either. Nonetheless, the speed of the Austrian advance across the Inn river caught the French by surprise and at first they fell back as a series of mistakes by the French commander Berthier allowed the Austrians to occupy the old imperial capital of Regensberg. Napoleon himself arrived in Bavaria on 17th April to take command and launched a series of counterattacks that resulted in the French victories at the battles of Eckmuhl and Ebersberg and re-took Regensberg while the battered remains of the Austrian army fled back across the border.

Pursuing them, Napoleon crossed into Austria and, on the 13th May occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Despite a failed attempt to cross the Danube that resulted in the battle of Aspern-Essling (Napoleon’s first significant battle defeat), the French retained the initiative and crossed the Danube in force in June and resumed the offensive. The two armies finally met near the village of Wagram north east of Vienna where 140,000 French fought a two day battle against 160,000 Austrians resulting in a decisive French victory with high casualties on both sides (80,000 in total), mostly caused by artillery fire into the packed ranks of 300,000 troops crammed into a battlefield just a few miles across.

Napoleon imposed harsh terms on the Austrians taking provinces containing 20% of Austria’s population and leaving them bankrupt. Despite his overwhelming success, the Fifth Coalition war was to prove the high water mark for French ambitions – just three years later Napoleon embarked on his disastrous Russian campaign, followed by the cataclysm of the Sixth Coalition war in 1813/14 that climaxed with the battle of Leipzig and the eventual fall of France and Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814.

Copyright ©2015 Savereo John


Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Originally published 21/10/2010

In the wake of the recent, twentieth, anniversary of German re-unification, it is easy to forget that that same day also marked another great milestone. A payment of 68 million Euros was made by the German government as the final instalment of the country’s reparations debt imposed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, after the end of the First World War.

So deep has become the notion of Germany’s guilt for the First World War that it has rarely been questioned outside of Germany, yet the more one looks at the events that led to war in 1914, the more unlikely it seems that the blame should lie with entirely with Germany. Perhaps a greater myth, however, about the conflict is its very name “world” war. In reality, the great bulk of the fighting and dying took place in Europe. True there were other theatres of war; British troops faced the Germans in German East Africa (Tanganyika) and in German South West Africa (Namibia); they also faced the Turks in Palestine (Israel and Jordan) and in Mesopotamia (Iraq); or the capture of the German base at Tsingtao in China by the Japanese; not to mention the little remembered sea battle near the Falkland Islands in 1914 when Admiral Maximillian von Spee’s German Pacific squadron, making a dash for home after the fall of Tsingtao met Admiral Dovetee Sturdee’s British naval task force sent from Scapa Flow to intercept them as they attempted to raid Port Stanley for its coal supply.

So lets begin by calling it the Great European War

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the re-joining of the two halves of Germany was the final act of an ancient tragedy that befell Europe three hundred years ago. In the seventeenth century, Europe’s dominant power was the Medieval German state, known as the Holy Roman Empire. Whilst Shah Jehan, then the world’s richest man, was building the Taj Mahal in Mughal India, Europe was convulsed by a series of conflicts springing from the protestant reformation, such as the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War; the latter being fought almost entirely in Germany. The devastation wrought by the conflict, which ended in 1648, not only re-drew the map of Europe, it also shattered Germany, then as now the richest country in Europe, into so many pieces that it would take 230 years to put them back together again. That is until 1871 when Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, after a Prussian – led alliance of German states had defeated France in the war of 1870, to create the 19thcentury German Empire, sometimes known as “the Second Reich”. The debt whose final payment has just been made was imposed upon Germany by the Versailles Treaty; in addition to accepting blame for causing the war, an indemnity was demanded of 269 billion gold marks (the equivalent of 100,000 tons of gold); that is £23.9 billion, which would be £270 billion at today’s values. Payment was due to complete in the 1980′s, but had been suspended during the global financial crash of 1930, and not subsequently resumed until after 1945.

The actual reparations payments were in fact made, to France and Britain, in the 1920′s under a plan drawn up by the American banker Charles Dawes – the so-called “Dawes Plan”. The payments were supposed to be redistributed among the other allied powers, but this never happened; Belgium for instance, which suffered four years occupation never received anything. The plan involved various US banks (including JP Morgan) loaning the funds in the form of bonds which Germany then repaid to the banks. It was those same banks, or their successors, that received the final payment. Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1925, but his plan proved to be unworkable and had to be replaced by the Young Plan in 1929.

The war came about due to a sequence of events that began when a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot dead the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, in protest at the Austrian annexation of the province. It was the latest in a century long chain of violence and uncertainty that had dogged the Balkans since the withdrawal of the Turks in the 19th century. The Crimean War had been fought in the 1860′s by Britain and France to prevent the Russians from grabbing former Turkish territory, and the early years of the 20thcentury saw the Italo-Turkish war of 1911, fought for control of Libya. Despite the Turkish forces including the young Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the conflict laid bare the weakness of the Ottoman military and encouraged Slav nationalists to embark on the two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 from which the modern states of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania were created as they fought first Turkey and then each other to carve up the Ottoman legacy; with Austria taking the ethnically mixed province of Bosnia, then as now an objective for Serb nationalists.

The Habsburgs delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, laying responsibility for the killing on the Serbian government; since Princip’s group, the Black Hand, had links to the Serbian intelligence services and had been involved in an number of attempts to kill Hapsburg officials in the preceding years. This brought Russia into the equation, which then saw itself as the leader and protector of the Slav minorities within the former Ottoman territories in Europe; and led to a Russian threat to go to War with Austria-Hungary if military action were taken against Serbia.

The Great Power alliances of the period now came into play, with the Hapsburgs calling upon their ally Germany to aid them against Russia. The Germans, whilst they had no great enthusiasm for a conflict with Russia, feared that Austria could never stand alone against the Russians and that their inevitable defeat would open up the Balkans to Russian control – something they would never tolerate. This in turn brought in France which was allied to Russia in an arrangement that included not only military co-operation, but financial support as well – the expansion of the Russian railway network was largely paid for by loans from France. In particular the extension of Russian railways westwards towards the German border was viewed with alarm in Berlin as it would allow Russia to speedily deploy its huge army to the border in the event of war.

French policy in this regard was driven by its experience in the war of 1870, when it had had to face an alliance of German states unaided and been soundly defeated; its leader Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner, it lost the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and was forced to pay a huge indemnity of 5 billion Francs – the re-building of Berlin in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies was largely paid for with the French reparations payments. France’s defeat in that conflict had largely come about because of its failure to conclude defensive alliances with Russia and Britain. There was some sympathy for the French from the Austrian and Danish governments, both of whom had lost territory to Prussia after wars in the preceding decades, but they lacked confidence in the French to hold off the Germans, and so stood aside, as did the British. By 1914, however, the French had concluded an alliance with the Russians and also had an understanding with the British, who were afraid of what Germany might demand from France in the event of another victory. From the French perspective, if war came with Germany again, they would this time be aided by the biggest army in the world (the Russian) and the biggest navy in the world (the British).

So, whilst it can be seen that France and its ally Russia, had reasons to want to seek a showdown with Germany and Austria, the reasons why Britain and Germany might want to go to war with each other are less easy to divine since there seemed so little for either to gain from conflict. In the years since 1918, two main strands of thought have arisen, one from a broadly left-wing viewpoint and the other from a broadly right-wing perspective. Both are myths.

The left-wing myth is that war in general, and the Great European War in particular, came about as a consequence of capitalism. Whilst this theory was popular at a time when Marxism was an active force in European politics, it is less commonly heard since the collapse of communism in the 1990′s. The argument goes that firstly imperial competition for colonies inevitably leads to conflict and secondly that manufacturers of armaments stand to make huge profits from any war and thus secretly agitated behind the scenes for a war in order to boost profits. Yet a close examination of the facts shows this to be manifestly untrue. Firstly, the imperial squabble theory falls apart because the two wealthiest combatants, Britain and Germany were not in competition for colonies – Britain and France were in such a competition, but were on the same side. Secondly, whilst arms manufacturers undoubtedly stood to gain from war, at least on the winning side, they form only a small part of the economy; the vast bulk of the business communities in both Britain and Germany where implacably opposed to war as the destruction of property and interruption to sea-borne trade was bad for every other kind of business. A good example of the dilemma facing the European business community was the Rothschild banking family. With successful operations in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin this iconic capitalist dynasty faced complete ruin from the war and went to frantic lengths to try and avert it, including making direct personal appeals to the three cousins that were monarchs of main potential combatants, King George of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholai of Russia – but without avail. In Britain, the days leading up to war saw an upsurge in bellicose anti-German rhetoric in the press, most especially in the Times (whilst the Guardian ran a number of pacifist leaders). The head of the London branch of the family, Lord Charles Rothschild made a desperate appeal to the Times’ Foreign Editor Henry Wickham Steed and its proprietor Lord Northcliffe to tone down their rhetoric which was “hounding the country into war”. Their response was to describe Rothschild’s appeal as “a dirty German- Jewish international financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality” and ran an even more bellicose leader the next day; hardly The Thunderer’s finest hour.

The other great myth is that of German militarism as the war’s underlying cause. Whilst this is more difficult to rebut in the modern era, with our knowledge of the Nazi party in the 1930′s and 1940′s, it is equally false. Whilst it is true that there were hawks within the German government, as there were in every country at the time, the picture of Germany as an authoritarian, undemocratic and militarised state in 1914 simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the main, this false view of early 20thcentury Germany comes about because of a reading of the wilder extremes of pan – German nationalism that existed at the time tend to get interpreted in the 21stcentury as the forerunners of Nazism, which in a sense they were; but – and this is the important point – no-one knew that at the time. Although the polity of the German Empire in 1914 might appear more authoritarian, compared to say, Britain or France, it was far from being the militarised despotism of popular legend.

Take democracy for instance. The Reichstag (equivalent to the British House of Commons) had universal male suffrage from the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, in Britain it wasn’t introduced until 1918. Consequently German enfranchisement for the lower chamber was more widespread than British (23% of the total population in 1900, compared to 18% in Britain). Germany also had much more powerful left-wing, and thus anti-war, movements than Britain. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) had over 1 million members and was not only the biggest political party in Europe, it was the biggest left-wing party in the world; compare this to the various radical nationalist parties at the time, which had barely 500,000 members between them. The British Labour Party in 1914 was the “third party” in the House of Commons with just 42 seats, way behind the Conservatives and the Liberals – a political minnow in comparison.

The notion of Germany in 1914 as being excessively militarised is also false. Whilst it is true that Germany had a larger army than Britain or France, it also had a bigger population, as well as a much longer border to defend. The following table shows starkly the myth that Germany was Europe’s most militarised society; it shows the wartime strength of the armed forces (i.e. Army plus Navy including reserves) in millions as percentage of total population

Country    Millions    % of Population

Russia          3.4             0.77
France         1.8             2.29
Germany     2.1             1.33
Austria        1.3             0.85
Britain         0.5             1.17

We can therefore see that, in fact, the most “militarised” state in Europe was not Germany at all, but France. Another indicator of military strength, the early 20thcentury naval arms race between Britain and Germany, is also not what it seems. That Germany aspired in the late 19thcentury to challenge Britain’s naval dominance is beyond question; what is less well known is the extent to which they failed. The Germans wanted to achieve a parity of battleships with the British; yet despite the scaremongering of the right wing press in Britain they never even got close. In 1914 Britain had 15 Dreadnoughts to Germany’s 9, a fact the Germans were well aware of as early as 1908, when they gave up trying match the British navy and concentrated on funding the army instead, a perfectly sane policy since the most likely threat of attack came from France and Russia, not Britain.

Here in Britain however, perhaps as a result of the fate that afflicts any victor in war, that of believing your own propaganda, we have a whole bunch of myths of our own as to why we went to war with Germany in 1914. The line that was pedalled at the time, and continues to be believed today, is that Britain was obliged to fight because of the Entente alliance with France and because of its commitment to guarantee Belgian neutrality. In fact, neither assertion is true since neither treaty explicitly committed Britain to use force. The greatest myth of all concerning The Great European War, is that Britain’s involvement was inevitable – nothing could be further from the truth. To understand Britain’s alliances in the early 20thcentury, we have to first understand two things; the disconnect between public opinion and the reality of government policy on the one hand, and how British governments in the late imperial era saw Britain’s relations with the outside world on the other.

That popular opinion saw the rapidly expanding economy of Germany as a threat to British interests is beyond question. Popular literature, and the popular press, of the time was filled with lurid fictions of German invasions of southern England. Books such as “The Invasion of 1910”, by the Anglo-French journalist William Le Queux, were just the best selling example of a sub genre of popular fiction at the time, that of the anti-German war fantasy. Originally serialised in the Daily Mail it depicted a seaborne German invasion of an unsuspecting Britain, with the story including scenes deliberately depicting the destruction of selected home counties towns with high proportions of Daily Mail readers, to enhance its sales. To be fair, such junk was not restricted only to Britain; the Germans had their equivalents too, usually depicting a sudden seizure of the port of Antwerp in Belgium by the Royal Navy as a prelude to a huge British army invading the nearby industrial area of the Ruhr Valley.

Yet, whatever its citizens may have thought, British foreign policy shows that right up to 1914, it did not consider Germany a serious threat to British interests. The alliance with France grew out of the international politics of the late 19thcentury and is not at all what it was subsequently represented to be. British policy at that time was remarkably little concerned with Europe; since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain largely withdrew from European politics and concentrated on consolidating its empire instead. Many factors have been identified in explaining the extraordinary success of Britain in the 19thcentury; democratic constitution, modern financial system, rapid industrialisation, high quality education system and, of course, a vast overseas empire. But there is one crucial factor that is hardly ever mentioned – for 100 years from the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain stood aside from every war fought in Europe – this despite the fact that there were many wars going at that time – the Prusso-Austrian War, The Prusso – Danish War, the Prusso – French War, just to mention the main ones. The only conflict that Britain fought during that whole period against another European power was the, relatively small scale, Crimean War – and that was in Asia.

British policy therefore was directed towards a global stage, not a European one. By the late 19thcentury the reality of maintaining history’s greatest assemblage of colonies, territories, dependencies and mandates known collectively as the British Empire was beginning to tell – the so called phenomena of imperial over-stretch. British policy was concerned with identifying and containing threats to the Empire. The danger of direct attack from another European country was considered to be minimal, and could in any event be contained by the Royal Navy. If you had told a British diplomat of the 1890′s that there would be war in the twentieth century with another European power they would most likely have thought either Russia, as almost happened in the 1870′s over Afghanistan, or France as almost happened in 1898 over Sudan, the so – called Fashoda Crisis; the last serious dispute between the two countries which subsequently led to the Entente Treaty.

The main thrust of British foreign policy at that time was to identify potential threats to the Empire and to neutralise them by concluding alliances. Although Germany might have seemed a natural ally to Britain in this process, in fact the opposite was true – Germany’s colonial empire was tiny and did not cut across any British interests. True, they would have helped in the event of a European war, but Britain thought that it would either be neutral in such a conflict, or would only be involved at sea – so what help would Germany really be ? In reality they had far less to offer Britain on a global stage than France did.

We can now see that the Entente Treaty concluded with the French was not, as is commonly supposed, a reaction to German strength – it was actually the opposite. Germany was not considered to be a global player and therefore not worth concluding an alliance with, at least from the British point of view. We should therefore think of the alliance with France as similar to the Nazi – Soviet pact of 1939. I mean that in the sense that it was an alliance intended to neutralise a potential enemy by making them your ally. Far from fearing Germany, Britain allied with France precisely because they considered France to be more of a threat than Germany.

When the crisis of 1914 broke, the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith was caught completely unprepared and was split over whether or not to go to war. Britain then had one of its rare coalition governments; the Liberals were the largest party with 272 seats, against 271 for the Conservative and Liberal Unionists. They were kept in power by 84 Irish Nationalist MPs and 56 Labour

Half of the cabinet were threatening resignation if war was declared, whilst others, led by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) threatened resignation if Britain did not support France. The difficulty that Asquith faced was that whilst public opinion could be brought around to intervention in support of France under the Entente treaty (although statements made at the time that Britain was legally bound to fight were false, there was no obligation to go war in the treaty), it was a different matter to go to war in support of the French alliance with Russia. This was a separate treaty to which Britain was not a signatory; quite apart from the fact that Tsarist Russia was viewed very differently then to now. We tend to think in the 21stcentury of the Romanovs as tragic, almost romantic figures, the “Doctor Zhivago” version of history; but that was not how they were seen at the time. To most people of centre – left outlook in 1914 Romanov Russia was thought of as a backward, medieval despotism – remember that serfdom wasn’t abolished there until 1861. Very few Britons were prepared to fight in order to save Russia from the Germans and the Austrians. As it transpired however, the Germans made everyone’s mind up for them when it became obvious that they intended to invade neutral Belgium. In fact Britain had already considered this possibility and had a plan to prevent the Germans from seizing the Belgian ports, completely unacceptable to Britain, by seizing them itself, just as they and the French would later do in Norway in 1940. Meaning that even if the Germans hadn’t violated Belgian neutrality, Britain certainly would have done so.

In the event however, the Germans got there first and gave Asquith a politically acceptable reason to fight. It was claimed at the time that Britain was obliged to intervene, but again this wasn’t true, there was nothing in the 1839 treaty that established Belgian security that compelled Britain to take military action – it was a strategic choice. Nevertheless, the German invasion of Belgium saved Asquith’s government from collapse and set Britain against Germany even though neither country particularly regarded the other as a deadly enemy. It was of course open to the Germans to abandon their invasion of Belgium, but that would have been disastrous. Mobilisation in 1914 meant assembling millions of troops behind the lines then transporting them by rail to the border. Had they halted the deployment at the last moment, most of their army would have been stuck on thousands of trains close to the Belgian border at exactly the moment that a big French army and an even bigger Russian army was preparing to attack them from east and west simultaneously. Insane at it seems, the calculation was made that this risk was even greater than taking on the richest country in the world, Britain, in an unnecessary war. Somewhat like the USA in the modern world, such were Britain’s huge financial resources that whatever side they were on was bound to win in the long run. Germany had to win by a quick decisive campaign through Belgium and into northern France. When that failed, the final outcome was only a matter of time, the only real surprise is that it took four years.

And so in November 1918, the economics of war finally asserted themselves. Despite the Germans stunning victory in the east against the Russians, a combination of the British naval blockade, the resilience of the French army in the face of horrific losses, the arrival of an American force in France and the full mobilisation of British military power from across the globe had left Germany bankrupt and starving and they finally had sue for an armistice. By this time 13 million had been killed, but that was just the precursor to an even greater horror. An outbreak of the highly virulent Spanish flu among the troops in 1918, was carried around the world as they de-mobilised and led to a world-wide pandemic that killed 20 million – more than had died the fighting.

At the peace talks in 1919, Britain was fully aware of the dangers of imposing too severe a penalty on the Germans; but the French were not to be denied. For them, the war had meant two million dead and a vast tract of north eastern France laid waste. Much has been written about the devastation wrought by the fighting, but nothing in our modern experience even comes close to describing it. Perhaps a single image will help. In 1914, the French village of Douaumont was a thriving rural community, a few miles from an ancient fortress that had guarded the road to Paris since Roman times. In 1916 it was the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting between French and Germans during the battle of Verdun. Such was the intensity of the artillery bombardment that the village was completely obliterated – and I mean that quite literally, there wasn’t a single stone left standing. In fact, the only way you could tell that there had been ever anything there at all was a vague grey smudge in the soil visible only from the air. During the battle, the combatants fired off 40 million artillery shells, that’s six per square metre of the battlefield, which in some places resembled the surface of Mars with a permanent smog overhead of Mustard Gas and Phosgenes mixed in with the noxious smell from the rotting corpses that littered the battlefield. All that is left now is a cemetery containing the remains of 100,000 unidentified soldiers from both sides out of the three hundred thousand who perished there.

In such circumstances, it was idle to expect any sympathy from the French. They were intent first on recovering the territory lost in 1871, then they were going to impose an indemnity on Germany of such severity as to prevent them from ever waging war on France again. The dangers of crippling Germany economically, as described in the book The Economic Consequences of Peace by the economist John Maynard Keynes who was a member of the British delegation and famously stormed out of the conference, were not considered. In his own, prophetic words –

“If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing.”

After a conflict in which so many had died there had to be someone to blame, and that someone was always going to be the loser. But the problem with the demonization of the “other” is that, as the Jihadiis of the 21stcentury have discovered – if you scream for war against the Americans for long enough then one day that war will happen – so it was with Germany after 1918. If you demonise a country long enough and impose a penalty of such severity as to drive them into the arms of a true tyrant, then a real life demon is what you will get. And we did get one, the illegitimate son of Ms Shickelgruber.

Many things led to The Great European War – Turkish political decline, Russian expansionism, Slav nationalism, French wounded pride from 1870, British indifference to European affairs for 100 years and finally, and least importantly, a rapidly expanding Germany hemmed in all sides by envious neighbours. Germany has had to say sorry for many things that happened in the 20thcentury, including some that were genuinely her fault; but it is high time that we acknowledged that we never should have blamed them for the Great European War – it was as much the fault of Britain and France as it was of Germany.

There, was that so hard ?

Copyright ©2010 Savereo John