Hugh Lloyd-Jones on Maurice Bowra Reviews by Colin Wilson, John Bridcut and Auberon Waugh
Patrick Cosgrave on Great War diplomacy
In war, Sir Edward Grey wrote in his memoirs, 'The part of a civilian government is to see that . . . the chief commands are filled by sailors and soldiers best qualified for them; and that these are supported in ttie use of the armed forces." Sir Edward Grey,' Lord Eustace Percy wrote, 'tended to make a virtue of necessity by his dictum that, in war, a Foreign Secretary could have no policy but to do what the soldiers wanted.' These two remarks summarise the way in which military events, and the juggernaut of blood, steel, shell and barbed wire that was the war effort in every country between 1914 and 1918, snatched the determination of the fate of the European states system into the hands of Ate. And when the war seemed likely to shake each participating state to pieces, the diplomatists did not return to prominence; rather, events threw up either commanding war lords, like Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Ludendorff, or fanltic revolutionaries, like Lenin. When the time came to make a peace, the iemocratic war lords sat down together in Paris and drafted a settlement unlike any that had terminated the earlier wars of modern Europe, a settlement in equal parts national, demagogic, and ideological. It was a settlement the diplomatists would have judged dangerously ama teur, and it was significant that the fi,nest diplomatist of the old school still in office, Curzon, was exiled in London for the duration of the peace-making. Foch spoke the judgement of tradition when, having seen the Treaty of Ver he said, This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.'
In spite of Grey's dictum, Dr Zeman has set out to write a diplomatic history of the Great War. Criticism of what he has achieved must be tempered by awareness of the magnitude of what he has attempted. Pingaud's classical Diplomatic History of France during the First World War took three volumes: Dr Zeman tries to summarise the diplomacy of all the belligerents in one. Then, too, apart from a truly enormous amount of secondary reading, Dr Zeman was confronted by a gigantic collection of public papers : he has had, very reasonably, to be content with raiding rather than reading them. His individual successes might well be held to justify his enterprise. His cameo portraits are often fascinating, and his use of a brilliant sketch of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Berchtold, as a key to AustroHungarian foreign policy — a curious mixture of languor and hauteur — is particularly masterly. He is good, also, on the Italians and their disagreeable honesty — they stated openly at the outset that they would be in the war for all the land they could get out of it. And he is outstanding on the diplomatic flotsam, the Central European intellectuals and patriots, cutting dusty paths from Foreign Ministry to Foreign Ministry to Foreign Ministry, in the hope of persuading the victors to carve out new, independent European nation states after the war, pursuivants of an ambition that has since received a bitterly ironic satisfaction. Likewise, Dr Zeman is sound in his accounts of what independent diplomatic action -Aid achieve, in spite of Grey's-dictum in particular, on the Axis side,-Wangenheim's winning over of Turkey, and, on the Allied, Grey's superb courtship of the United StifeS. The 'main difficulty lies in the fact that tii-,:zen-49„h, petty, rather than a grand, cqn-qeption of his subject, To a disturhipg„-Rxtent,,,hetakes his coneeptpal framework from,, the Marxist historian, W. VV. Gottlieb, who attempted a similar one-volume survey in 1957. Much under the influence of Bolshevik historians, Gottleib filled every gap the absence of archives left in his story with the assemption that the gap concealed one of the mean and petty secrets of traditional diplomacy. That the secrets Gottleib thought he had divined were mean and petty, compared to the secrets that really existed, was a consequence of the virulent hostility of his political creed to the international system the diplomatists were defending. Dr Zeman is far too intelligent to share this hostility, but it carries over into his thinking: he tends to miss the design of things, while con centrating his mind on the minutiae, and sees as small scale bargaining what was more complex, more sophisticated, and more tragic.
He is better at dealing with the, effectively, land-locked Powers — the Axis and Italy — for the reason that diplomacy, between themselves or with other powers, was for them less complicated: war, for Germany especially, was a matter of fighting. Her principal war aim was to break out of the central European circle in which she was confined in 1914. That this was so was the measure of the change that had occurred since Bismarck, whose unsurpassed skill had created the country but who had the common sense to know when to stop. Fighting as she was on interior lines, Germany had certain initial strategic advantages. Despite the accession of Italy to the Allied cause, 1915 was her great year. Forcing the closure of Churchill's Eastern strategy at the Dardanelles, and winning the alliance of Bulgaria, her armies swept through the Balkans, ended hopes of re-opening the Straits, and thereby strangled Russia. The preparation for this victory was a long time in evidence: it was completed in 1915 by the destruction of Romania and the defeat of Russia's last attempt to turn the clock back, through Brussilov's offensive across the Carpathians.
What Dr Zeman seems to miss, through his concentration on the individual stones in what was a mosaic pattern, is the significance and consequence of the Allied diplomatic reaction, first to the German threat, and then to its consummation. In changing the character of the war, events ' in the Balkans and Near East were of as much importance as the human cost of the fighting on the Western front. The Russians realised that, if they lost the Balkans, even temporarily, their sway there could never be the same again: they would have lost a part of their position in the balance of power system they were defending. Italy, meanwhile, was negotiating terms that would enable her to create and manage a new Balkan balance between an enlarged Serbia and an independent Hungary. No curtailment of German power, such as the Russians had proposed in talks with their allies, would compensate for such a loss. The dangers were compounded, in the early part of the year, by the Anglo-French presence in the Dardanelles, which Russia feared equally as a threat to her Balkan hegemony. (Significantly, when we are considering the diplomatic definition of the war, powerful influences in the Foreign Office wanted to keep Britain out of the Balkans altogether, on the grounds that involvement would disturb the balance and involve untold post-war consequences.) The simplifying catastrophe of German victory in the Balkans drastically reduced the area of diplomatic bargaining, pruned back the possibilities of peace, and eliminated options; by the shock it gave the Allies, combined with the massacre in Western Europe, and the cost of the Dardanelles, it finally turned the war, in 1917 and 1918, into a hard slog of survival, in which there was little room for the diplomatists, who had been all uncomprehending of military affairs as the Balkan disaster unfolded.
The essentially diplomatic character of the early stages of the war, and the consequences of its military evolution, are very much under-emphasised by Dr Zeman. An illustration of this is his assumption that Britain and France agreed in 1915 to let Russia have Constantinople,
the greatest prize of the war', merely as a means of smoothing Italy's entry into the conflict — as part, that is to say, of a small and sordid bargain.
In understanding the Anglo-French, and especially the British, decision, however, it is essential to put it in its widest context — to remember that, though Germany's frustration was one, and perhaps the most important, potential cause of war before 1914, it was not the only serious threat to peace and the established balance of power. In particular, Russia remained in contact with the British Empire from the Middle East to China, and, despite the regulatory convention of 1907, was a more direct threat to Imperial interests than Germany. Yet the 1915 agreement, if it had been put into effect after the war, would have handed Russia a window on the Mediterranean, and given her sea routes with which to pinch the British Empire as the price of her continued support in a Eurocentric war. It is conventional wisdom nowadays to stress the part played in the destruction of the European powers' world hegemony by the two German wars of this century. It is less fashionable, but still common, to look with trepidation at the growth of Russian power in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean: can we imagine how the situation would have been if the Bolshevik revolution had not, with supreme irony, destroyed the Allied agreement of 1915, and if Russian navies now put to sea from the Soviet port of Constantinople?
Yet this was agreed. The Russians saw far more clearly than Britain or France the potential consequences of their possession of Constantinople, and so they did not at first expect their allies to yield up 'the greatest prize' and, then, obviously were prepared to offer a huge price for it. This made possible a deal in which Britain sought, in exchange for the city, a settlement, not merely in Persia (that is well known), but right across the line of contact between the two empires in Asia. Grey hid this deal from France and his colleagues, because the ally might make claims of equal magnitude, and because his government, distracted by European war pressure, might lose focus on the crucial issue of the future of the marches of the empire. This secret diplomacy was the last attempt to restore the original purpose of the war: again, Dr Zeman seems to have missed the relevant papers, perhaps because the story they tell was not the one he was looking for.
Grey gave up the city without grasping the strategic implications of his surrender for the geopolitical system he was defending. He had no one to tell him what was involved: British military experts (with the honourable exception of Sir Arthur Wilson) told him the city and the straits were of no military importance, and he, a diplomatist, was too ignorant to gainsay this conventional military wisdom. As the dictum quoted earlier suggests, he subjected his judgement to that of the military establishment, on this as on other occasions. The conventional military wisdom that was willing to surrender Constantinople also had no answer to the growing inexorability of the war in the west. Here again, through ignorance and lack of imagination, the diplomatists were helpless, and victory saw the destruction of their fine calculations on the world balance of power. Completely gone, as Churchill wrote, was the time when 'aristocratic statesmen, victors and vanquished alike, met in , polite and courtly disputation, and, free from the clatter and babel of democracy, could reshape systems on the fundamentals of which they were all agreed.'