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Does 37 days tell the story of how Britain went to war in 1914?


This shows potential and ought to seek funding as a movie – the kind with Daniel Day Lewis and Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey and Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson and Andrzej Seweryn. Then add the set and location values of Anna Kerenina.

BBC One, 37 Days, March 2014.

Of course, 37 days is a questionable premise. In 1912 we nearly went to war over Morocco, locally the beginning of the war for Britain was already the Third Balkan war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. There was newr civil war in Ireland. Russia mobilised on 31st July which pushed Germany to put the Schlieffen Plan into play and invade Belgium. And then until 1916 Britain was playing a costly holding game while an army of suitable size was created and the war could be attempted on terms.


Why did Britain go to war in 1914?


Published in 1916 after Edward Morel had resigned from the British Cabinet as he found the decission to go to war untenable. He blames sculdergy at the top, secret agreements tying Britain to Russia via France, and Russian mobilization on 31st July which in turn resulted in Germany acting. Things would have been different had there been a Commons debate rather than the Foreign Office under Lord Grey being so self-determining. The crisis in Morocco in 1912 had been a close call to war too.

Sir Douglas Haig by J P Harris (2008)


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Douglas Haig and the First World War (2008) J P Harriss

Nearly 600 pages that follow a chronology that is familiar. Insights on Haig are limited – perhaps reading Haig’s diary and a biography at the same time would help. This is written by a military historian with judgement of Haig’s command key. We get little insight into the man – if there is much a a personal life to probe. His diary appears to reveal little. What does come over is how often Haig was to blame for actions that were unlikely to succeed in doing much other than expending a good deal of munitions and men – time and time again he planned an offensive that would lead to a break-through, require cavalry support and put tens of thousands of men against barbed wire, machine guns and shrapnel. His greatest skill was to climb and keep climbing the ladder of promotion and to tread carefully around events which might have led to his being passed over for promotion … or his resignation asked for, or accepted.

My first read. A second read possibly to follow unless I can be pointed to a biography.

Notes as iPhone/iPad pictures with  annotations (Studio) and a mindmap (SimpleMinds)

Britain had been preparing for war with Germany as is clear from manoeuvres, in this instance with both France and Russia, in 1912 (Harris, 2008:51). Perhaps the re-organisation of the Army to have the Expeditionary Force, however small, was part of an anxiety and vulnerability – had Britain not also contemplated conscription?

As the nature of artillery changed – longer range, great accuracy and a diversity of shells types from high explosives to shrapnel it is staggering that proper thought wasn’t given to how destroyed the land was over which the armies would have to travel.

Typo alert! Actually there are a couple more but I so no value


Where tactics have failed to deliver why did Haig persist? How could more of the same possibly get better results next time? What part of his mindset made him stick to this? Does he lack imagination? He appears emotionally dry or aloof – his relationship with his wife and family hardly suggests a person with a close emotional attachment.

Haig’s greatest skill and purpose was to climb to the top of the Army ladder – what he did or could do when he rose to the top was another matter. This isn’t what makes a great leader – he is like a career civil servant. But what would a hot headed, womanizing, gambler of a man done with this power? If Haig made mistakes they need to be considered and compared with other leaders on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Had Britain a leader like Foch, Neville, Falkenhayn or Holweg … or the Russian aristocrats would we have fared better or differently? And if we’d had Robertson rather than Haig?

History written by a military historian is different to history or biography – the audience here is expected to learn and potentially apply at staff level the lessons from past battles. Haig’s diary is revealing because in this supposedly private moments he is reveals so little: statements of the weather, not what this could mean, statement of events without reflection on what he did well or badly. Self-control in both his public and private life.

To understand Haig then we need to know who the alternatives might have been and whether in reality they could or would have behaved differently: Robertson, Du Can and Rawlinson are different men.

My impression is of a deluded fantasist with no one able or willing to stand up to him … not even Lloyd George. Haig, with Royal patronage and few competing for his role, could and would do as he pleased. He resented having to play second fiddle to the French. In the early stages of the war he ignored orders or requests with potentially dire consequences yet he got away with it.

Haig’s tactics: more munitions, human dynamism and officers of the ‘thruster’ type – people who would risk all regardless. Is there anything we can learn from Haig’s achievements as a polo player from this? What does it require to win at polo?



Haig pressed on with tactics that would leave many thousands dead for little gain and he wasn’t able or willing to question what he could or should do differently.

How clear did failure have to be to get Haig to change his tactics?

Failure of this kind should surely have seen Haig replaced? To what extend did his ‘moral fibre’, his otherwise untarnished character, make it less easy to remove him?

Overexcited, overoptomistic, blind to failure, forever looking beyond the horizon, convinced cavalry had a role, yet able to try gas and tanks … anxious for his peers and superiors to shower him in praise and his subordinates to be fawning …

Self-righteous and self-assured – did his religious beliefs permit his unstinting view of the world? He had the image of someone who deserved authority and respected it. He was fit, sober and in a stable marriage. He worked hard and played the game well. Born into a different age could he have survived? He lacks the flair of Montgomery or Churchill. Described as taciturn, to what degree might or could his asthma have been a controlling influence?

He looked the part and was fastidious about his health – what else could as asthmatic do in the early 20th century? Did he know what the triggers were, or had he learnt from experience to avoid certain foods and situations – not least smoking? Was he prone to chest infections?

Whilst those around him realised all talk of a ‘break-through’ was unrealistic, this is what Haig constantly planned for and expected. Or was it simply wishful thinking?

Step by step is what occurred … as a result from efforts to breakthrough? A case of shoot for the stars and hitting the moon? That in Haig’s eyes step by step would have equated to inconsequential nibbling?

Obsessive, selective, fixated, God-guided, controlling, cavalry-orientated, driven obdurate, blind … consistent, controlled, tempered, magisterial … aloof and with tunnel-vision.

Able to comprehend, but unable to bend? Unable to think of any alternative. The world around him changed, but Haig stayed resolutely in the 19th century.

Chance the way the leaders played off against each other? Men like so many bullets or sandbags, simply a resource to count then stack in the knowledge that there would be great losses but that these could be shored up?

He didn’t like to have his feather’s ruffled. He wanted the game played in his way with him in charge.

A hypocrite who would fail to come to the aid of others … yet others to come to the aid of him. Too good or important to warrant risking his men, or putting his men under another’s control and willing only at the last minute to seek help when things looked desperate and he had no choice.

World War 1 was a direct consequence of the demise of the Ottoman Empire


Like an undergraduate, rather than a postgraduate, long in tooth, I am reading Prof.C. Clark’s book ‘The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in1914’ for the second time. Read as an eBook, largelly on an iPad with some reading when outdoors on a Kindle, or at my desk, I highlighight in multiple colours and add some short notes as I go along.

With this second reading I am taking notes – in ink using a brand new fountain pen into a softback ‘journal’ or note book. To assemble the information and have it stick I am now professionally aware as an educator with a Master’s degree in e-learning that you need to put in some effort, rather than being passive; that working with different media helps, and that sifting and repeating and reworking content (as I came to appreciate during my A’ levels several decades ago) contributes to this process – as will writing an assignment, working it into fiction (as I plan to do) and even visualizing the content in mindmaps and drawings/paintings.

I have this idea of expressing what I find out as if I could brief my late grandfather; he’d be 117.

For Jack Wilson of Benfieldside, County Durham the First War was a job – he spoke of ‘getting on with it’. As he left school age 14 and was never party to any kind of broader insight, my talking of the Ottoman Empire, the role of Italy, Russia, Serbia and France will intrigue him.

So, we can’t blame the Germans? We have to blame the times? And the Press … and even bankers, at least those in France who financed massive infrastructure and armement projects in Russia and Serbia … and a collection of foreign ministers and other people hungry for power, or for the strength and prestige if their respective nations or empires.

I cannot recommend Prof. Clark’s book more strongly – it should be everyone’s starting point as we approach the hundreth anniversary of this dreadful conflict and reflect on what it did to people and the world.

‘The war to end war’ to quote HGWells correctly cast a long shadow across the world Europe and the Balkans, the former Ottoman Empire and beyond.

‘The more our young people of today get to know of the nature of that world disaster, the less will they be eager to welcome or take part in any other international conflict’.

‘The more our young people of today get to know of the nature of that world disaster, the less will they be eager to welcome or take part in any other international conflict’. Hammerton (1936)

The unknown war against Serbia in 1912 that set the scene for 1914. Come 1914 what do we know of the Battles of Shabatz and Jadar?

QQ Why should war have rules? It isn’t a game. The attitude to the wounded, especially towards the enemy, is bizarre, where the desire to kill becomes a wish to save.

Yet atrocities against Serbia were condoned.

By the end of August 1914 300,000 Austro–Hungarians who had crossed the Drina and Save Rivers, not more than 200,000 returned; it was estimated that 324 officers and 41,215 men were taken prisoners, while the casualties in killed and wounded amounted to approximately 60,000 men.

Hammerton, J (1936) World War


An arm torn off in the corn crusher – North Eastern Brewery 1912

I remember the Forman Joiner, Jack Walton, getting his arm torn off in a crusher


Down the lane from the Royal Hotel there were the stables and the joinery. They had slats of mahogany used for wood storage. They made their own furniture.

Walton was a Cockney – he always had to be right.

This corn crusher had a steel roll and you put the corn in at the top and caught it out the bottom. It was driven by a belt from the pop factory. It got choked and Paddy Rafferty went to fetch Walton. Paddy was an Irish Labourer. He lived at 21 John Street.

Walton got on an empty crate, propped it up to stand on so he could take a look to see what was blocking the crusher and the crate collapsed. His arm went straight through. He was left hanging there by his arm. They had to dismantle the crusher to get him out, the muscles were all torn.

They took him down to the infirmary where they amputated the arm. 

To get some sense of what it was like a hundred years ago I turn to books such as this.

From First World War

The other thing to do is to rent a holiday cottage with no electricity, an outside low and a peat fire.

I found a two room cottage in Donegal that took me back at least 100 years!

Gustav Hamel – Aviator & Aeronaut 1912

In 1912, my Uncle Billy Steel from Penrith took me to see Gustav Hamel giving a flying exhibition at Carlisle Racecourse.

We went over by train from Newcastle and got a bus from Brampton. You paid half a crown to get in. That would be about from £5.50 in today’s money.

Gustav flew a Bleriot Monoplane.

It was fitted with a 50hp Gnome Engine. For six pence you could enter the flying enclosure where the planes were grounded. They were held down with ropes in case they were flipped over by the wind; they were flimsy affairs, just string and paper. More like a kite.

This Monoplane could attain a speed of 65mph. Gustav crossed the Channel eleven times, which didn’t count for much if you weren’t the first, but he was the first over with a lady passenger. He also held the record for flying to a height of 11,500 feet.

I remember him arriving in a chain-driven red two-seater Mercedes sports car.

There was a girl in the front seat waving a hat; that was his youngest sister Annie I believe.

He put his flying gear on, clambered into this Monoplane and went up. He did one circle and down. That was it the first time. There was a near riot. But it the wind was getting up and he understood the risks. It was a couple of hours more before he risked his arm again. This second time he banked the machine, did vol-planes and pan-cake descents which everyone thought was a mistake … it was extremely thrilling.

That’s how Billy and me got the bug.

We bought these model planes as well left and flew them down the bank at the Spa.

They thought he was a spy for the Germans.

He was eventually lost over the North Sea.

Tuesday 24th December, Christmas Eve 1912


Jack walks down from Consett to Benfieldside with his mate Steve Barron. Its been a busy day as poor weather has delayed some order making it to the various pubs of the Northeastern Brewery.  For much of the morning Jack sat by the phone taking calls and relaying messages to the office. He’s 14 and a half, he’s been at the Royal Hotel since August. He lives at home with his father, the Chauffeur and general factotum to JGMurray at Benfieldside House and his mother and his younger brothers Billy 12, and Spencer 7.

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