By Jack Beatty
It was easy filling up the blue book on that one. The war, we were taught, was over-determined to redundancy. “If the Sarajevo crisis had not precipitated a particular great war, some other crisis would have precipitated a great war at no distant time,” writes one historian, summing up a long-regnant consensus of opinion that war was inevitable. In the last decade a new generation of historians has argued that it was “improbable,” even “avoidable.” My new book, The Lost History of 1914, is a contribution to that side of the debate. I discuss events within each of the Great Powers that, in some cases, came within days of derailing the war or deflecting it toward a different outcome. Up until the last days of July, for example, Britain verged on civil war between the Protestant North and the Catholic South over Irish Home Rule. On July 4, the Army Council warned the government that there were 200,000 armed men in Ireland; that if they clashed all available troops would be needed to restore order, including the “whole of the [British] Expeditionary Force” intended for France; and that if the BEF were used in Ireland, “we should be quite incapable of meeting our obligations abroad.” Stipulate that the BEF could not be sent to France in early August. “If the BEF had not been sent,” Niall Ferguson asserts, “there is no question that the Germans would have won the war…Hitler would have lived out his life as a failed artist and fulfilled soldier in a German-dominated Central Europe…” That is the kind of perspective on the war opened by the Lost History of 1914. To quote from a perceptive reviewer, my book seeks “to take apart what is known about 1914 and assemble it in a different form.”
Jack Beatty grew up listening to his father’s memories of serving in WWI as a sailor on a ship torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay. He is a news analyst for “On Point,” the public affairs program on National Public Radio, and the author of The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, and Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900. He lives in New Hampshire.