It is baffling how Haig’s command is picked over, usually unsympathetically, and often by people with no understanding of what Clausewitz called ‘friction’ (that element in war which contrives to make simple things difficult), while the politicians’ handling of the long Edwardian prelude to August 1914 is set aside. It is as if Asquith and then Lloyd George – and all those before them – had said (to use a phrase beloved of Mr Blair with regard to Iraq), ‘we must draw a line under this and move on’. The Great War hardly came out of a clear blue sky, even though the assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo was the spark. Yet there was no formal British treaty alliance with France against the Central Powers, only an ‘understanding’ known as the Entente Cordiale (whose centenary was celebrated – if that word is appropriate – last year), and the consequent (but politically unauthorised) Anglo-French staff talks. There was no treaty obligation on Britain to guarantee Belgium’s independence, let alone her territorial neutrality, only a long-standing obsession with not allowing a hostile power to take possession of the Scheldt estuary: favourable winds and tides had once humiliated the nation when the Dutch had burned our ships in the Medway. In failing to think through the worst political-strategic case of the legacy of the Congress of Vienna, Britain found herself at war not so much with an army (and navy) as with a militarised state, and in the worst possible circumstances – the wrong place, with too small an army, and inadequate means to expand it.
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