The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)

16

The Road to War

In the late nineteenth century, Russian confidence, bullishness even, was rising fast. It was not long before attention turned to having the Black Sea clauses of the Treaty of Paris rescinded. One after another, chanceries across Europe were quietly canvassed for support for revising the treaty in general and removing the relevant clauses in particular. Most presented little opposition. There was one exception: London. In the winter of 1870, a copy of the circular outlining a proposal to drop the clauses that had been presented to the British Cabinet was leaked to the press in St Petersburg, along with the news that it had been flatly rejected in London. Prince Gorchakov’s efforts to force the matter went down well in Russia; they were met with howls of fury in the British press.1

The line taken by the Spectator was typical of the shocked indignation. Russia’s attempt to renegotiate was diabolical, it declared; a ‘more daring and open defiance of European law, of international morality and of British policy than the Russian note was never uttered to the world’.2 The proposal to drop the clauses convinced some that war was imminent and that Britain had no choice but to use force to maintain the restrictions on Russia. This reaction was monstrous, wrote John Stuart Mill in a letter to The Times; the moves might be provocative, but they should not lead to military conflict. Even Queen Victoria agreed, sending a telegram to her Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville: ‘Could any hint be given to the leading journals’, she wrote, ‘to refrain from rousing the war spirit here?’3

The high levels of anxiety were triggered not so much by concerns about the Black Sea as by the general worry about Russia flexing increasingly strong muscles. With military action an unrealistic possibility and faced with a poor hand of cards, Britain had little choice but to concede – prompting acerbic exchanges between the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and the charismatic Benjamin Disraeli in the House of Commons. Russia got what it wanted, namely the freedom to do as it chose along the littoral and to station warships in the ports of the Crimea and elsewhere on the northern shore of the Black Sea. This was met with euphoria in St Petersburg, according to one British eyewitness, and was presented as a ‘triumph’ for Russia. Tsar Alexander II, who was ‘said to be personally overjoyed’, ordered the ‘Te Deum’ to be sung in the chapel of the Winter Palace, before praying at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul ‘for some time with signs of deep emotion’.4

Britain had been powerless to translate its economic power into diplomatic and political success. New approaches were soon adopted. One of the topics that came up for discussion was that of the title of the British ruler. Given the size and distribution of the dominions, regions, peoples and places that were subject to the British sovereign, it was proposed that the monarch should be upgraded from a royal to an imperial title. This cosmetic change provoked fierce debate in the Houses of Parliament, with traditionalists appalled by the idea of changing ranks, titles and names that had held good for centuries. Kings had supreme authority over subordinate rulers, Lord Granville told the House of Lords; there was no reason or justification for upgrading the sovereign’s title. ‘My Lords,’ he declared, ‘in regard of the dignity of Her Majesty herself, no name can appeal to the imagination so forcibly as that of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.’ This was how the monarch should be known.5

The problem was Russia and the Tsar. Apart from harking back to imperial Rome (the word Tsar is a simple contraction of ‘Caesar’), the Tsar’s formal title in all its glory when used in official correspondence and on formal occasions made reference to an elaborate and lengthy list of the territories that he lorded over. In the mid-1870s, Disraeli – by now Prime Minister – stressed to Parliament that a higher title than queen would help give confidence to the population of India, already concerned about the Russian advance into Central Asia. Queen Victoria agreed with the principle, writing to Disraeli to say that ‘attacking Russia from India is the right way’, and that an upgraded title might help focus the loyalty of her subjects in India.6

Some MPs were unconvinced of the need to compete in this way. Surely we British, ‘who have ruled India for a hundred years’, said one parliamentarian, are not so unsure of ourselves that we need to alter the title of the queen, solely ‘in order that our sovereign may be placed on terms of equality with the Emperor of Russia?’7 Others, however, stressed the dramatic change in the situation in the east, defiantly proclaiming that ‘the British hold over Hindoostan is intended to endure’, and that therefore ‘no part of that territory must be ceded’. That Russia’s frontiers were now only a few days’ march from those of Her Majesty’s dominions in India was a cause for alarm.8 After heated debate in Parliament, the Bill was passed in 1876 proclaiming that Victoria was not only a queen, as she had been crowned nearly four decades earlier, but an empress too. She liked it: at Christmas she sent Disraeli a card signed ‘Victoria, Regina et Imperatrix’ – Victoria, Queen and Empress.9

Seemingly superficial steps like this were accompanied by more practical measures in an increasingly tense environment as the British constantly fretted about losing ground to their rivals. Both Britain and Russia became obsessed with setting up networks to spy on each other, to win over the local population and to cultivate those with influence. Colonel Maclean of the Punjab Cavalry and the Indian Political Service was one of those deputed to monitor events in the borderlands between Persia, India and Afghanistan in the 1880s. He established groups of merchants and operators of local telegraph exchanges and incentivised them to pass on information about what was going on in the region. Maclean homed in on Muslim clerics, providing them with gifts of shawls, carpets, cigars and even diamond rings in order to impress the local population with the benefits of co-operating with Britain. Maclean justified these bribes as a way of channelling support to influential friends. In fact they served to strengthen religious authority across a fractious region that was the focus of intense competition from outside.10

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From the British point of view, there was real concern about Russia’s intentions and capabilities and about the threat that its expansion in Central Asia posed to the defences of India. Talk in London turned to military confrontation with Russia, with Disraeli advising the Queen to be ready to authorise British troops to be sent ‘to the Persian Gulf, and [that] the Empress of India should order her armies to clear Central Asia of the Muscovites and drive them into the Caspian.’12 So nervy were the authorities that the viceroy, Lord Lytton, ordered not one but two invasions of Afghanistan in 1878–80, installing a puppet ruler on the throne in Kabul. Persia was assiduously courted and persuaded to sign the Herat Convention in which it committed to protect Central Asia against Russian advance. This was no easy task, as Persia had its own interests in this region and was nursing bruises following the recent and unhelpful British intervention that had favoured Afghanistan at its expense.12 In the meantime, steps were taken to build up contacts beyond Kandahar in order to have better early-warning systems for any Russian initiative, military or otherwise.13

Considerable energy was expended by senior officers in assessing how to deal with a possible Russian invasion of the Raj. From the late 1870s, a series of reports were prepared that looked at the question from a broad strategic perspective: it was recognised that disagreements and tensions with Russia in other theatres could and probably would have an impact in the east. One memorandum looked at ‘the measures which should be adopted in India in the event of England joining Turkey in the War against Russia’ – following the Russian invasion of the Balkans in 1877. Another, written in 1883, asked, ‘Is an invasion of India by Russia Possible?’, and another not long after that, ‘What are Russia’s Vulnerable Points and How have Recent Events Affected our Frontier Policy in India?’ A sign of how seriously these were taken is clear from the appointment of their author, the hawkish General Sir Frederick (later Lord) Roberts, as commander-in-chief of India in 1885.14

Not everyone shared this bleak view of the situation in Asia, even after a set of invasion plans prepared by General Alexei Kuropatkin had been acquired by the British in 1886.15 Henry Brackenbury, director of military intelligence, felt that the Russian threat was being exaggerated, in terms of Russia’s willingness to attack and in terms of the readiness of the Tsar’s army to do so.16 George Curzon, then a promising young MP and prize fellow of All Souls, but within a decade viceroy of India, was even more dismissive. He saw no master plan or grand strategy behind Russia’s interests in the east. Far from being ‘consistent or remorseless or profound’, he wrote in 1889, ‘I believe it to be a hand-to-mouth policy, a policy of waiting upon events, of profiting by the blunders of others, and as often of committing such herself.’17

It was certainly true that there was much bluster and wishful thinking in Russian attitudes to the big picture in Central Asia, and regarding India in particular. There were hotheads within the military who talked of grandiose schemes of replacing Britain as the dominant power in the subcontinent, while steps were also taken which seemed to suggest that Russia’s interest was far from passive: for example, officers were sent on courses to teach them Hindi, in preparation for imminent intervention in India. There was encouragement too, such as from Maharajah Duleep Singh of Punjab, who wrote to Tsar Alexander III promising to ‘deliver some 250,000,000 of my countrymen from the cruel yoke of the British rule’, and claiming to speak for ‘most of the powerful princes of India’ – seemingly an open invitation for Russia to expand its frontiers further south.18

In practice, however, things were not quite so simple. For one thing, Russia was already struggling with the thorny issue of how to incorporate the vast new regions that had recently been brought within the imperial orbit. Officials sent to Turkestan grappled with land registries that were complex and often contradictory, and their attempts to streamline local taxes and laws met with inevitable opposition.19 Then there were the gloomy realities engendered by public opinion, which gave rise to what the Council of Ministers in St Petersburg called the ‘fanatical mood on our eastern borderlands’ resulting from the influence of Islam in almost every aspect of the day-to-day life of the ‘new Russians’ who were now part of the Tsar’s empire.20 The worry about insurrection and rebellion in these freshly added territories was so great that mandatory military service was waived in these regions, and financial demands were kept deliberately low. Russian peasants, as one leading intellectual noted acidly, did not enjoy such generous treatment.21

Complications also arose from views about the local populations. Russian critics drew attention to Britain’s deeply prejudiced attitudes, observing that British soldiers treated traders in the bazaars in Tashkent ‘as something nearer animals than men’; on one occasion, the wife of a British captain apparently refused to let the Maharajah of Kashmir escort her into dinner, claiming he was a ‘dirty Hindu’. For all their criticisms, however, Russian attitudes were no more enlightened: tsarist officers may have complained to each other about how the British treated the locals, but there was little evidence to show that they truly saw things differently. ‘All Hindus without exception’, wrote one nineteenth-century Russian visitor to India, ‘devote all their skill and all their soul to the most horrible usury. Woe betide the unhappy native who is seduced by their deceitful promises!’22

Nevertheless there was a frisson of excitement about the new worlds Russia was coming into contact with, as the Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Valuev, articulated in his diary in 1865. ‘Tashkent has been taken by General Cherniaev,’ he wrote. ‘Nobody knows why or for what purpose . . . [but] there is something erotic in all that we are doing on the far frontiers of our empire.’ The extension of the borders was marvellous, he wrote. First Russia reached the River Amur, then the Ussuri. And now Tashkent.23

And yet, despite the teething problems, Russia’s influence and involvement in the east continued to expand at accelerating speed as it developed its own Silk Roads. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the connection with the Chinese Eastern Railway, led to an immediate boom in trade, with volumes nearly trebling between 1895 and 1914.24 This was supported by new entities like the Russo-Chinese Bank, set up to finance economic expansion in the Far East.25 As the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, told the Duma, the Russian parliament, in 1908, Russia’s east was a region pregnant with prospects and resources. ‘Our distant and inhospitable frontier territory is rich in gold, wood, furs and immense spaces suitable for agriculture.’ Although sparsely populated now, he warned, these spaces would not remain empty for long. Russia needed to seize the opportunities currently open to it.26

This was hardly reassuring from Britain’s point of view, given how jealously its position in the Far East had been guarded. Opening up markets in China in particular had proved difficult. In 1793, for example, the first British mission had been dealt with loftily by the Qianlong court after asking for the right to establish a trading community. China’s connections penetrated deep into ‘every country under Heaven’. As such, the British request was hardly unexpected, noted a letter from the Emperor that was brought back to King George III. ‘As your Ambassador can see for himself,’ the author went on dismissively, ‘we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’27

In fact, this was bluster – for in due course terms were agreed. The aggressive response was rather based on the acute awareness that Britain’s tentacles were extending ever further, and that attack was the best form of defence.28As it happened, initial Chinese suspicions were not far off the mark, for once trading privileges were given, Britain had little hesitation in using force to preserve and extend its position. Central to the commercial expansion was the sale of opium, despite fierce protests by the Chinese, whose outrage at the devastating effects of drug addiction was shrugged off by the British authorities.29 The opium trade had expanded in a major way following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which opened up access to ports where the trade had been restricted previously, while also ceding Hong Kong to the British; further concessions were granted after British and French forces marched on Beijing in 1860, looting and burning the Old Summer Palace.30

Some saw this as a seminal moment that marked yet another chapter in the triumph of the west. ‘Thus it has been the destiny of England’, ran one report in the British press, ‘to break down a government fabric which has so long mystified the European world, and to uncover to its own subjects its hollowness and its evils.’ Another commentator was equally blunt. The ‘mysterious and exclusive barbarism’ of the Chinese Empire, he wrote, had been dismantled by ‘the force of active and intrusive Western Civilisation’.31

As Britain sought to counter the continuing emergence of Russia in the Far East, the decision was taken in 1885 to occupy the islands of Komondo off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula – ‘as a base’, the Cabinet was told, ‘for the blockade of the Russian force in the Pacific’ and also ‘as an advanced station to support operations against Vladivostock’.32 This was a move aimed at protecting Britain’s strategic position, and above all its trade with China – if necessary with a pre-emptive strike. In 1894, before the railways had opened up new possibilities, more than 80 per cent of all customs revenue collected in China was paid by Britain and by British companies – whose ships also carried more than four-fifths of China’s total trade. It was obvious that Russia’s rise, and that of the new land routes that would bring produce to Europe, would come at Britain’s expense.

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It was in this context of increasing rivalry and tension that it became known at the end of the 1890s that Russia had begun to take steps to woo Persia. This raised the prospect of an alliance that might pose a threat to the north-western approach to India. In London, it had previously been conceded, albeit after much deliberation, that pressure on the subcontinent from Russia via Afghanistan through the Hindu Kush was likely to be limited. For strategists armed with pencils and maps, plotting a route from Central Asia through this geographically challenging region looked easy; but it was recognised that, while a surprise small-scale assault could not be discounted, the reality was that the terrain minimised a major military effort through mountain passes that were well known for being treacherous and extremely difficult to penetrate.

The approach through Persia was another matter. Russia had become increasingly active on its southern flank, occupying Merv in 1884 in a move that caught British officials and agents by surprise – they first learnt about it from newspaper reports – and wooing the leadership in Teheran. With Russia’s frontier now less than 200 miles from Herat, the road to Kandahar and therefore India was wide open. More worrying still was that the expansion had been followed up with infrastructure projects to connect new regions to the Russian heartlands. In 1880, construction started on the Trans-Caspian Railway, with a line soon connecting through to Samarkand and Tashkent, and by 1899 a spur connected Merv to Kushk, within striking distance of Herat.33 These railway lines were not just symbolic: they were arteries that would allow provisions, weapons and soldiers to be delivered to the British Empire’s back door. As Field Marshal Lord Roberts emphasised to the officers of the Eastern Command not long afterwards, it was regrettable that the railways had been extended so far. Now, however, a line had been established ‘over which Russia could not be allowed to cross’. If it did, he stated, it would be ‘considered a casus belli’ – that is, grounds for war.34

The railway lines also represented an economic threat. In 1900, the British embassy in St Petersburg forwarded to London a summary of a pamphlet that had been written by a Russian officer advocating the extension of track into Persia and Afghanistan. It was likely, the officer admitted, that the British would not react well to the new transport system, but this was no surprise: after all, a railway connection that spanned Asia would ‘place the whole trade of India and Eastern Asia with Russia, and Europe in [Russian] hands’.35 This was something of an exaggeration, as one senior diplomat observed in reply to this report. ‘The strategical considerations put forward by the author are of no great value,’ wrote Charles Hardinge, because it would be madness for Russia to make a move on this region given Britain’s control of the Persian Gulf.36

Nevertheless, at a time when British anxieties were already heightened, such murmurs about Russia’s commercial reach extending in this direction provided yet another cause for concern. As it was, phantoms and plots were being seen at every corner, and dutifully recorded by anxious British diplomats. Awkward questions were asked about why the presence of a certain Dr Paschooski in Bushihr had not been spotted more quickly, together with updates on whether his claims to be treating plague victims were really true; the visit of a Russian nobleman, identified as ‘Prince Dabija’, was likewise viewed with extreme suspicion, and the fact that he seemed to be ‘very reticent about his movements and intentions’ duly noted and passed on.37 In London, Russia moved to the top of the agenda of Cabinet meetings, drew the attention of the Prime Minister himself and became one of the Foreign Office’s top priorities.

In the short term, Persia was the arena where competition was most intense. The rulers of Persia had grown fat on generous soft loans provided by those seeking to build good relations with a nation that was blessed with an enviable strategic location as the fulcrum between east and west. Britain had carefully satisfied the prodigal whims and financial appetites of Persia’s rulers in the late nineteenth century until, in 1898, the extravagantly moustachioed Shah, Moẓaffar od-Dīn, dropped a bombshell, rejecting a proposed new loan of £2 million. A high-ranking official was immediately dispatched to find out more, but was stonewalled. Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, followed the situation personally, issuing instructions to the Treasury to soften the conditions and increase the quantum of the proposed facility. Rumours about what was going on behind the scenes began to circulate: finally, it emerged that Russia was offering to lend a much higher amount than Britain was willing to lend, and on much better terms.38

This was smart manoeuvring by St Petersburg. Tax revenues in Russia were rising sharply while foreign investment was also beginning to flood in from outside. Slowly but surely, a middle class was starting to emerge – men like Lopakhin in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, who a generation earlier would have been tied to the land, were taking advantage of social change, new domestic markets and new export opportunities to make fortunes for themselves. Economic historians like to highlight growth by noting sharp rises in urbanisation, in pig-iron production and in the amount of new railway track being laid down. But one need look only as far as the literature, art, dance and music of this period, the blossoming of Tolstoy, Kandinskii, Diaghilev, Tchaikovskii and many many others, to get a sense of what was happening: culturally and economically, Russia was booming.

Increasingly buoyant, it was inevitable that Russia would make overtures to Persia by feeding its insatiable hunger for cash, which stemmed in part from the structural inefficiencies of the administration and in part from the expensive tastes of its ruling classes. After Sir Mortimer Durand, the British minister in Teheran, had reported back with information gathered from Austrian sources in Constantinople in early 1900 that revealed that the Tsar’s government was willing to lend money and effectively outbid Britain, all hell broke loose in London.39 Committees were set up to look at extending the railway from Quetta to Sistan and to build a network of telegraph lines – ‘to save southern Persia’, as Lord Curzon wrote, ‘from falling into [Russia’s] grasp’.40

Radical proposals were suggested to counter Russia’s perceived advance, including undertaking major irrigation works in the Sistan region as a way of cultivating the land and building ties locally. There was even talk of the British seeking a lease of land in Helmand province, so that routes through to India could be protected effectively.41 By now it was thought to be a question of when, and not if, Russia would attack. As Lord Curzon put it in 1901, ‘we wanted buffer states between ourselves and Russia’. One by one, each of these had been ‘crushed out of existence’. China, Turkestan, Afghanistan and now Persia had been lifted off the board. The buffer, he added, has been ‘reduced to the thinness of a wafer’.42

Lord Salisbury was desperate, urging his Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, to find a way to lend money to Persia. ‘The situation seems . . . hopeless,’ the Prime Minister wrote in October 1901. The Treasury was reluctant to improve its offer, alarmed by how quickly the Shah and his entourage worked their way through substantial sums. Options were running out. ‘If the money is not found,’ the Prime Minister wrote, ‘Russia will establish a practical protectorate [in Persia] and we can only by force save the Gulf Ports from falling into it.’43

Fear of just that happening had surfaced the previous year when it was reported that Russia was preparing to take control of the port of Bandar Abbas, a strategically vital location controlling the Straits of Hormuz – the narrowest point in the Persian Gulf. As one alarmed peer told the House of Lords, ‘the presence of a naval arsenal in the Persian Gulf in the hands of a great Power would be a menace not only to our trade with India and China, but also to that of Australasia’.44 As British warships were ordered to take counter-measures in the event of any move by the Russians, Lord Lansdowne was adamant: ‘We should regard the establishment of a naval base, or of a fortified port, in the Persian Gulf by any other Power as a very grave menace to British interests.’ The consequences, he said, would be serious. He meant war.45

Russian ghosts were everywhere. Anxious Foreign Office officials pored over a stream of reports on the activities of tsarist officers, engineers and surveyors in Persia that was flooding back to London.46 The significance of a new Russian-backed trading company operating between Odessa on the Black Sea and Bushihr on the southern coast of Persia was earnestly discussed in Parliament, while MPs were alarmed by confident reports that shadowy figures who claimed to be spotting ‘birds, butterflies and other animalculae’ were in fact Russian agents distributing rifles to tribesmen in contentious border regions and stirring up discontent.47 The situation attracted the attention of King Edward VII, who wrote to the Foreign Secretary in 1901 stating his concern that ‘Russian influence seems daily preponderating in Persia to the detriment of England,’ and urging him to tell the Shah that failure to stand up to the Russians would not be tolerated.48 It counted for little that the British minister in Teheran, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, reported that the Shah swore blind that he ‘does not intend to take up position in Persia which would facilitate the invasion of India’.49

Anxiety mounted at a time when there was an acute sense of imperial overstretch. Confrontation with the Boers in southern Africa and the Yihetuan uprising (better known as the Boxer Rebellion) in China drove home the idea that Britain was at risk of being overwhelmed overseas – further exacerbating fears of Russian advance. A doom-laden report presented to the Cabinet in London at the end of 1901 stated that the Russians would be able to deliver 200,000 men into Central Asia, and more than half that number uncomfortably close to the Indian border, once the railway line was extended from Orenburg to Tashkent.50 This came hot on the heels of a report from Batumi in Georgia that the Russians were about to transfer 20,000 men to Central Asia – a false alarm, as it turned out.51 The problem was that from Britain’s point of view the options seemed limited: the cost of reinforcing the frontier was ruinous – calculated a few years later to be no less than £20 million, plus a rolling annual cost.52

Violent scenes on the streets of St Petersburg in 1905 and the catastrophic defeat of the Tsar’s navy in the Russo-Japanese War provided small comfort to those who thought it was only a matter of time before Russia broke its shackles. Britain could ill afford to resist what was openly referred to as the ‘menacing advance of Russia’; other solutions were needed to stop a bad situation from becoming worse. Perhaps, one paper prepared by military intelligence suggested, it was time to agree terms with Germany to concentrate Russian minds?53

In London, talk turned to the possibility of a British military intervention in Mesopotamia, part of the now constant preoccupation with shoring up Britain’s presence across the Middle East. The Committee for Imperial Defence reviewed the possibility of occupying Basra, while there was excited discussion about dismembering Asiatic Turkey to gain access to the rich fields of the Euphrates. Then there were proposals in 1906 for a railway line to be built from the Persian Gulf to Mosul, which among other benefits would allow British troops to be delivered to Russia’s soft underbelly in the Caucasus.54 One by one these were dismissed, on the grounds of practicality and cost: as Sir Edward Grey, the new Foreign Secretary warned, the cost of an invasion – and of securing and defending new frontiers – would run into the millions.55

Grey had another idea. Britain’s position in the east was limited and dangerously exposed. What was needed was the reorientation of Russia’s focus away from this region altogether. In a bold statement given to The Times just a month before his appointment at the end of 1905, he made it clear that there would be much to gain if an understanding could be reached about ‘our Asiatic possessions’. No British government, he said, would ‘make it its business to thwart or obstruct Russia’s policy in Europe’. It was ‘urgently desirable’, therefore, ‘that Russia’s position and influence’ should be expanded in Europe – and diverted, in other words, from Asia.56

The timing could not have been better. France was becoming increasingly agitated about the burgeoning economic growth of Germany, its neighbour and bitter rival. Memories of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1, which had led to the siege of Paris and a Prussian victory parade through the centre of the city following the agreement of an armistice, were still fresh in the mind. The speed of that invasion had been a great shock, prompting fears that another lightning strike might catch France unawares again – especially since one of the effects of the attack had been the unification of Germany into an empire, proclaimed in the Palace of Versailles itself.

This was bad enough. The French were deeply alarmed by the surging rise in German industry in the two decades after 1890 as coal production doubled and metal production trebled.57 The upswing in the economy led to greater and greater investment in an already impressive military machine on both land and sea. French diplomats worked furiously behind the scenes in the early 1890s to conclude a military convention and then a full-blown alliance with Russia, the primary purpose of which was self-defence: both countries agreed to attack Germany in the event that the latter or its allies mobilised their armies – and indeed both gave formal undertakings to act against Britain in the event that London moved against either.58

The British desire to reorientate Russian attention to its western border was therefore music to French ears. The first phase of a realignment between London and Paris took place in 1904, when an Entente Cordiale was signed following detailed discussions of mutual interests around the world. Not surprisingly, the role of Russia was central to these negotiations. In 1907, the moment came when the circle of alliances was completed. Formal agreement was reached with Russia across the heart of the world, with a fixed line demarcating spheres of influence in Persia alongside terms to restrict Russian involvement in Afghanistan to a minimum.59 The way to relieve India ‘from apprehension and strain’, Edward Grey argued, was to forge a more positive understanding with Russia. This would ensure that ‘Russia does not get hold of the parts of Persia which are dangerous to us’.60 As he confided in 1912, he had long had misgivings about the traditional policy of simultaneously trying to push and contain Russia, noting that ‘for years, I have held that this was a mistaken policy’.61 Seeking an alliance, in other words, was a much more elegant and productive way to move forward.

Senior diplomats recognised, however, that rapprochement with Russia came at a price: Germany. As Sir Charles Hardinge, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office in London, stressed in 1908, ‘it is far more essential for us to have a good understanding with Russia in Asia and the Near East, than for us to be on good terms with Germany’.62 It was a message he was at pains to repeat, even after he had been posted to India as viceroy two years later. ‘We are practically impotent,’ he wrote, if Russia were to escalate in Persia. It was therefore worth doing everything possible to balance the situation in Europe: ‘it is far more disadvantageous to have an unfriendly France and unfriendly Russia than an unfriendly Germany’.63 Britain’s relations with Russia were ‘being subjected to severe strain’ as a result of tensions in Persia, agreed Sir Arthur Nicolson, ambassador to St Petersburg. ‘I think’, he went on, ‘that it is absolutely essential that we should at all costs maintain to the full our understanding with Russia.’64

Keeping Russia happy at all costs became the driving thrust of British policy after the alliance had been signed. In 1907, Sir Edward Grey told the Russian ambassador to London that Britain might consider being more flexible on the issue of the Bosporus – if the Russians agreed to establish ‘permanent good relations’.65 This was enough to prompt a shuffling of the European house of cards, as St Petersburg embarked on a round of diplomatic horse-trading that included gaining Austrian support on the issue of the Bosporus Straits in exchange for acquiescence over the annexation of Bosnia – a deal that was to have spectacular consequences.66

In 1910, Sir Edward Grey wrote again of the need to sacrifice relations with Berlin if necessary: ‘we cannot enter into a political understanding with Germany which would separate us from Russia and France’.67 The single-mindedness of this approach was keenly felt in St Petersburg, which recognised the frantic courting by the British – and the opportunities it presented. ‘It seems to me’, mused the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov towards the end of 1910, that ‘the London cabinet looks upon the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 as being important for the Asiatic interest of England’. That being the case, he went on, it seemed that Britain could be pushed to make valuable concessions ‘in order to keep a Convention alive which is of such importance to them’.68 It was an astute observation.

As Russian forces began in 1910 to make new forays into Mongolia, Tibet and Chinese Turkestan, British observers could barely hide their alarm.69 The extension of Russia’s reach emphatically underlined just how weak Britain’s position was. Things could hardly have looked worse, as Grey’s downbeat assessment in the spring of 1914 made clear. It was the same story in Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia and Persia: ‘all along the line we want something, and we have nothing to give’. In Persia, there remained ‘nothing to concede’ to Russia, he noted, while there was no leverage in Afghanistan either. Worse, ‘the Russians are willing to occupy Persia, and we are not’.70 Britain was spent – at least in Asia. It was time, surely, for the endgame. The question was where and when that would come.

As the reality of the difficulties facing them sank in, British officials did not lose sight of the fact that they also had to contend with the ultimate nightmare scenario, one that could easily make a fragile position even worse: an alliance between Russia and Germany. These fears had stalked British policymakers for some time. Indeed, an important element of the Anglo-Russian alliance of 1907 had been to co-operate and find a status quo that was mutually beneficial in Asia. To maintain the fine balance, Sir Arthur Nicolson stressed to Grey, it was essential to ‘deter Russia from moving towards Berlin’.71

The sense of mounting panic was made worse by the continuing growth of German capabilities – and ambitions. Berlin’s buoyant economy and the rise in its military spending were sources of concern. Some senior figures in the British Foreign Office had no doubt at all that Germany’s aim was to ‘obtain the preponderance on the continent of Europe’, and that this would lead to military confrontation. After all, all empires faced challenges from rivals, Sir Edward Grey was reminded; ‘personally’, said Nicolson, ‘I am convinced that, sooner or later, we shall have to repeat the same struggle with Germany’. It was vital, therefore, to keep France and Russia happy.72

Germany’s potential to destabilise a finely balanced equilibrium in Europe, and therefore beyond, meant that there was something of a perfect storm brewing. Fears that ‘Russia should emerge on the side of the Central Powers’ Alliance [that is, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy]’ became acute. Dislodging relations between Britain, Russia and France and ‘smashing . . . the Triple Entente’ was perceived to be the overriding goal of Berlin.73 ‘We are sincerely afraid’, admitted Grey during a later round of anxiety, of the possibility that Russia could be tempted to leave the Triple Entente.74

The fears were not without some basis. The German ambassador to Persia, for example, recognised that while there was ‘little to be gained’ in that country, useful concessions elsewhere could be wrung from St Petersburg if Russian interests in Persia were perceived as being at stake.75 This is what lay behind a meeting between the Kaiser and Tsar Nicholas II at Potsdam in the winter of 1910, accompanied by high-level discussions between the respective Foreign Ministers, which simply seemed to confirm fears that the ‘European groupings’, as Sir Arthur Nicolson called them, might be rearranged – to Britain’s detriment.76

Suspicion of Germany and its actions (real or imagined) had been burnt into the psyche of British diplomats well before the alliance of 1907. Three years earlier, Sir Francis Bertie received a letter from one of the assistant clerks at the Foreign Office shortly before Bertie’s appointment as ambassador to Paris, which told him how important it was that the mission in France should be led by ‘someone there with his eyes open and above all to German designs’. In reply, Bertie wrote that it was quite right to breathe distrust about Germany: ‘she has never done anything for us but bleed us. She is false and grasping and our real enemy commercially and politically.’77

Ironically of course, the sense of German menace was itself underpinned by the vulnerability felt by this middle European nation as it faced the possibility of being caught in the middle of a Franco-Russia alliance which talked of military co-operation and joint attack in the event of provocation. It was not long before festering paranoia about being trapped on two flanks led the German High Command to consider its own options. In the aftermath of the Franco-Russian alliance of 1904, the Chief of the General Staff of the German army, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, came up with a plan that drew heavily on the experiences of 1870 when the French had been torn to shreds, and posited a scenario in which the Kaiser’s army might neutralise France before swinging east to deal with Russia. The plan was ambitious militarily and logistically: it would require a million railwaymen, 30,000 locomotives, 65,000 passenger cars and 700,000 goods wagons, that would shift 3 million soldiers as well as 86,000 horses and mountains of ammunition over a seventeen-day period.78

This blueprint was mirrored by similar planning at the time by the Russian army, which by the summer of 1910 had devised Plan 19, a set of detailed steps to be taken in the event of a German attack that involved falling back on a chain of fortresses along a north–south line running from Kovno to Brest, and preparing for a counter-attack. Two variants were developed to this proposal in 1912, known as Plans 19A and G, the latter of which involved a swift counter-attack in the event of Germany commencing hostilities, and whose aim was blunt: ‘the transfer of the war into [enemy] territory’ – that is to say, into Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.79

The German High Command, as well as the Kaiser, were acutely aware of the pressure ratcheting up from outside, and of the sense of being pushed into a corner. The public outcry over a proposal to build a railway line from Berlin to Baghdad bemused the Kaiser: surely, he reasoned, the laying down of track thousands of miles away would be an issue only if there were a war between his country and England. And in the event that that happened, he went on, would it be realistic to think that we would want our soldiers stationed so far away from home?80

Or there was the reaction to Germany’s response to the deployment of French troops in Morocco in 1911, in contravention of a previous agreement between Berlin and Paris. On that occasion, the dispatch of a German cruiser, Panther, in an attempt to strong-arm the French into a settlement, backfired badly. Not only was Germany given an embarrassing public lesson that its political reach was severely limited, but to make matters worse Berlin saw a heavy fall in the stock market: in the wake of the Morocco crisis in September 1911, shares crashed by more than 30 per cent, causing the Reichsbank to lose more than a fifth of its reserves in a single month. Even if this financial disaster was not engineered by the French, as many Germans believed, it was certainly true that the former had exploited the situation, withdrawing short-term funds in an act that undoubtedly played a role in creating a liquidity crisis.81

Considerable effort went into opening up new channels and building new connections and alliances. Much attention was paid to the Near and Middle East, with German banks expanding heavily into Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Empire, while a programme of establishing posts in Arabic, Persian and related studies was not only generously endowed but was followed by the Kaiser himself. The increasing links between the Islamic and German-speaking worlds caught the imaginations of the young, as well as of academics, soldiers, diplomats and politicians. One young man in the early years of the twentieth century wrote wistfully that when he looked out at the beautiful buildings of Vienna and at the Ringstraße – the road surrounding the city – he could not help but experience a ‘magical effect’. Yet Adolf Hitler did not feel he was back in the Holy Roman Empire, or in classical antiquity, just two obvious choices of a romanticised past; he felt as though he was in a scene from A Thousand and One Nights.82

A dangerous siege mentality was building up in Germany, alongside an acute sense that Berlin had powerful enemies and was at their mercy. Helmuth von Moltke, Schlieffen’s successor as Chief of the General Staff, as well as other senior officers became convinced that war was inevitable and that the sooner conflict came the better; postponing confrontation, he argued, would be to Germany’s disadvantage. It was better to start a war and engage with the enemy, Moltke said in the spring of 1914, ‘while we still stand a chance of victory’.83

Why was there such hatred of us, asked the German writer Robert Musil in September 1914; where did the envy come from that ‘was no fault of our own?’84 He was right to note the rising tension in Europe, which was being stoked in popular culture. Books about German spies and German plans to take over Europe became enormously popular. The Invasion of 1910, written by William LeQueux, sold more than a million copies and was translated into twenty-seven languages; then there was When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollern, by Saki, another bestseller that came out on the eve of the war, which sees the hero return from Asia to find Britain defeated and occupied by the Germans.85

It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy therefore that the Germans should look to find ways to minimise risks or to be able to counter them. It was entirely understandable, for example, that assurances and agreements should be sought from Russia – though this fact alone further alarmed Britain.86 Likewise, the recommendations for the German army made by General Colmar von der Goltz, who had spent more than a decade reforming the Ottoman army (where he was known as ‘Goltz Pasha’), were all about trying to provide some manoeuvrability in a military crisis. While Turkish support could be useful against Russia, Goltz told his colleagues, it could be ‘of the highest value’ against Britain in the Near East.87

The problem was that the attention that Germany paid to the Ottoman world put too much pressure on Russia’s nerves. Officials in St Petersburg were deeply sensitive about the Straits – and edgy about the prospect of a new player muscling in on what they perceived to be their turf. Talk had turned to occupying Constantinople on numerous occasions around the turn of the century; by the end of 1912, plans began to be developed to have Russian forces take control of the city – in theory only on a temporary basis during a round of warfare in the Balkans.88 Nevertheless, the Russians were antagonised too by the apparent indifference of their allies, the British and the French, to the situation that saw increasing German control of the Ottoman military which included the secondment of a commanding officer of the Ottoman fleet. There was particular anguish about the imminent delivery to the Turks of two British-built dreadnoughts: these state-of-the-art battleships would give the Ottomans a decisive and calamitous advantage over Russian naval forces, wailed the Tsar’s Naval Minister in 1914, and result in a ‘crushing, near six-fold superiority’ over the Russian Black Sea fleet.89

The threat this posed was not just military but economic. More than a third of all Russian exports passed through the Dardanelles before the First World War, including nearly 90 per cent of cereals that were loaded at ports like Odessa and Sevastopol in the Crimea. As such, pleas to London to block, suspend or cancel the delivery of warships became an unhelpful trigger in a game of bluff and double-bluff between the great powers on the eve of war.90Some were in no doubt about how high the stakes were. ‘Our entire position in the Near East’ is at risk, the Russian ambassador to Constantinople told St Petersburg; ‘the unassailable right which we have acquired through centuries of immeasurable sacrifices and the shedding of Russian blood’ was in serious danger.91

In this context, Italy’s attack on Libya in 1911 and the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 that followed simply set off a chain reaction, as the Ottoman Empire’s outlying provinces were picked off by opportunistic local and international rivals at moments of weakness. With the Ottoman regime teetering on the brink of collapse, ambitions and rivalries in Europe sharpened dramatically. For their part, the Germans began to think seriously about expanding into the east and establishing a protectorate to create a ‘German Orient’.92 While this sounded like expansionism, there was an important defensive streak to such thought too which chimed with growing aggressive sentiments that ran deep through the German High Command.93 Germany, like Britain, was coming to expect the worst; and in the Germans’ case, that meant stopping the Russians from taking control of the best parts of an Ottoman Empire that was widely thought to be rotting, while for the Russians it meant realising long-held dreams and securing a long-term future whose significance could not be overstated.

That Britain represented a threat to Germany – and vice versa – was, however, something of a red herring. Although modern historians talk insistently about the desire of the former to contain the latter, the jigsaw of competition across Europe was complex and multi-faceted. Certainly, it was far more complex than the simplistic story of a great rivalry between two nations that only burst into life as the First World War took shape and played out. By 1918, the real causes of the conflict had become obscured, as a distorting emphasis was placed on the naval race that saw expenditure on shipbuilding spiral upwards; on aggressive attitudes behind the scenes demanding war; and on the blind bloodlust of the Kaiser and his generals as they sought to provoke a war in continental Europe.

The reality of the story was very different. Although the days that followed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand saw a series of misunderstandings, discussions, ultimata and permutations that would be all but impossible to recreate, the seeds of war grew out of changes and developments located many thousands of miles away. Russia’s rising ambition and the progress it was making in Persia, Central Asia and the Far East put pressure on Britain’s position overseas, resulting in the fossilisation of alliances in Europe. All that stood in the way of further erosion of the enviable platform that Britain had built over the previous centuries was a series of mutual guarantees designed above all to keep Russia, the master-in-waiting, tied up.

Nevertheless, while storm clouds had been gathering, there seemed little immediate danger in the first months of 1914. ‘I have not seen such calm waters’, wrote Arthur Nicolson in May, ‘since I have been at the Foreign Office.’94Indeed, it promised to be a vintage year. Employees at the Ford Motor Co. in the United States were celebrating the doubling of their wages in January, the result of rising sales and innovative attempts to encourage an increase in production. Doctors were contemplating the consequences of the first successful non-direct blood transfusion, carried out in Brussels following pioneering work on the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant. In St Petersburg, what kept most people worried in the early summer were the forest fires whose thick black smoke made the heavy summer air even more oppressive than usual. In Germany, inhabitants of Fürth in northern Bavaria were in ecstasy after the town’s team won a thrilling match against the mighty VfB Leipzig, defeating the odds by scoring a winning goal in extra time to become national football champions for the first time – making a hero of their coach, the Englishman William Townley. Even nature was being kind, according to the English poet Alice Meynell: the start of the summer of 1914 was idyllic, with a bumper harvest to look forward to; moon after moon was ‘heavenly sweet’ as ‘the silken harvest climbed the down’.95

In Britain, there was no sense of impending doom nor of imminent confrontation with Germany. The academics of Oxford University were preparing to celebrate German culture and intellect. There was already a large portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II hanging in the Examination Schools that had been given as a gift following the German ruler’s award of an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law in 1907.96 But towards the end of June 1914, scarcely a month before the outbreak of hostilities, the leading lights of the city gathered to watch a procession of distinguished German figures receive honorary degrees. Among those applauded as they walked to the Sheldonian Theatre in their colourful gowns were the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the composer Richard Strauss, and Ludwig Mitteis, a rather pedestrian expert on Roman law, while honorary doctorates were conferred on the Duke of Württemberg and Prince Lichnowsky, German ambassador to London.97

Three days later Gavrilo Princip, a young idealist who was not yet twenty, discharged two bullets from a pistol at a passing car on the streets of Sarajevo. The first did not hit its target, instead striking in the stomach and mortally wounding the Archduchess Sophie, who was sitting in the back of the car with her husband. The second did: it killed Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And with that, the world changed.98

Modern historians often focus on the ‘July crisis’ of the weeks that followed and on the missed opportunities for peace, or on the way many had long feared and anticipated the outbreak of hostilities: recent scholarship has emphasised that the atmosphere as the world slipped towards war was one not of gung-ho bravado but of anxiety and misunderstanding. It was a nightmare scenario. As one leading historian has so aptly put it, ‘the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror’ they were about to unleash.99 By the time Sir Edward Grey realised that ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’, it was already too late.100

In the days after the assassination, it was fear of Russia that led to war. In Germany’s case, it was the widespread apprehension about its neighbour to the east that was crucial. The Kaiser was repeatedly told by his generals that the threat posed by Russia would get stronger as its economy continued to surge forward.101 This was echoed in St Petersburg, where senior officials had formed the view that war was inevitable and that it was better for military confrontation to begin sooner rather than later.102 The French too were anxious, having concluded long before that the best course they could take was to urge constant and consistent moderation in St Petersburg, as well as in London. They would support Russia come what may.103

In Britain’s case, it was the fear of what would happen if Russia cast its lot elsewhere that drove policy. As it was, by the start of 1914 there was already talk at the Foreign Office of realigning Britain with Germany in order to bring Russia in check.104 With stand-off turning into crisis, diplomats, generals and politicians now tried to work out what would happen next. By the end of July, the diplomat George Clerk was writing anxiously from Constantinople to advise that Britain needed to do whatever was necessary to accommodate Russia. Otherwise, he said, we would be faced with consequences ‘where our very existence as an Empire will be at stake’.105

Although some tried to pour cold water on such alarmist claims, the British ambassador to St Petersburg, who had only recently cautioned that Russia was so powerful ‘that we must retain her friendship at almost any cost’, now sent a telegram that was unequivocal.106 Britain’s position, he said, was ‘a perilous one’, for the moment of truth had arrived: the choice now had to be made between supporting Russia ‘or renouncing her friendship. If we fail her now’, he advised, ‘that friendly co-operation with her in Asia that is of such vital importance to us’ would come to an end.107

There was no middle ground, as the Russian Foreign Minister made clear towards the end of July: while less than two weeks earlier he had been pledging that Russia ‘was free from all aggressive aims and in no way dreaming of any forcible acquisitions’, now he was talking about the consequences if allies failed to stand side by side at the moment of reckoning. If Britain remained neutral now, he warned, it ‘would be tantamount to suicide’.108 This was a thinly veiled threat about British interests in Persia, if not in Asia as a whole.

As the ‘July crisis’ escalated, British officials talked publicly about peace conferences, mediation and the defence of the sovereignty of Belgium. But the die was cast. Britain’s fate – and that of its empire – was pinned on the decisions that were made in Russia. The two were rivals masquerading as allies; while neither was seeking to alienate and antagonise the other, it was obvious that the pendulum of power had swung away from London towards St Petersburg. No one knew this better than the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, a well-connected career politician, who had been having sleepless nights for some time, praying for divine protection. Now, as he sat ‘on the terrace under a starry sky’ ten days after the Sarajevo assassination, as the gears of war slowly locked into place, he turned to his secretary and said: ‘the future belongs to Russia’.109

Just what this future involved was not clear in 1914. Russia’s strength could easily flatter to deceive, for it was still in the early phases of social, economic and political metamorphosis. A scare in 1905 had almost plunged the country into full-scale revolution as demands for reform were largely ignored by a deeply conservative establishment. Then there was the heavy dependence on foreign capital, where outside funding was responsible for almost half of all new capital investments between 1890 and 1914 – money that came in on the assumption of peace and of stable political conditions.110

Large-scale transformation took time, and was rarely painless. Had Russia stayed calm and chosen a less confrontational way to stand by its Serbian ally, its destiny – and with it that of Europe and Asia, if not North America too – would have been very different. As it was, 1914 brought the showdown that Queen Victoria had anticipated decades earlier: everything, she had said, boiled down to ‘a question of Russian or British supremacy in the world’.111Britain could not afford to let Russia down.

And so, like a nightmarish game of chess where all possible moves are bad ones, the world went to war. As the initial euphoria and jingoism gave way to tragedy and horror on an unimaginable scale, a narrative developed that reshaped the past, and cast the confrontation in terms of a struggle between Germany and the Allies, a debate which has centred on the relative culpability of the former and the heroism of the latter.

The story that became embedded in public consciousness was that of German aggression and of the just war fought by the Allies. Explanations were needed for why a generation of bright young men with their futures ahead of them had been cast aside. Answers were needed to explain the sacrifice of brilliant figures like Patrick Shaw Stewart, a scholar whose superlative achievements at school, at university and in business had astonished his contemporaries as well as his correspondent, Lady Diana Manners, to whom he sent letters rich with erotic quotations in Latin and Greek.112 Or to explain why working-class men who joined up alongside their friends to fight in specially constituted Pals Battalions were mown down in the opening hours of the catastrophic Somme offensive in 1916.113 Or why there were war memorials across the country bearing the names of the men who had given their lives for their country – able to record the names of the fallen but not the silence that descended on villages and towns because of their absence.

It was not surprising, therefore, that a powerful narrative emerged that glorified the soldiers, celebrated their bravery and paid tribute to the sacrifices they had made. Winston Churchill wrote after the war that the British army was the finest force that had ever been assembled. Each man was ‘inspired not only by love of country but by a widespread conviction that human freedom was challenged by military and Imperial tyranny’. The fight had been noble and just. ‘If two lives or ten lives were required by their commanders to kill one German, no word of complaint ever rose from the fighting troops . . . No slaughter however desolating prevented them from returning to the charge,’ declared Churchill. The fallen were ‘martyrs not less than soldiers [and] fulfilled the high purpose of duty with which they were imbued’.114

Many at the time, however, did not see it this way. Some, like Edwin Campion Vaughan, a young lieutenant who had enlisted full of hope, could not understand the scale of suffering or its purpose. After seeing his company wiped out and facing the prospect of writing a casualty report, Campion Vaughan recorded, ‘I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future.’115 The stunning corpus of poetry produced during the war likewise paints a very different picture of how the conflict was viewed at the time. And so too do the number of court martials that took place during the war, which hardly suggest a unanimity of resolve: more than 300,000 offences were dealt with by military courts – to say nothing of more minor matters of indiscipline that were dealt with in other ways.116

It was striking too that the locus of the conflict became anchored in the trenches of Flanders and among the horrors of the Somme. War had broken out far away from the networks that linked the empires of Europe with territories across the globe, away from the pressure points that had built up in Persia and in Central Asia and at the gateways to both India and the Far East which were of such great concern to British policymakers and politicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And yet the impending confrontation had been coming for decades. Britain looked on as Russia strained to show its support for Serbia, just as Grey had predicted. ‘A strong Slav feeling has arisen in Russia,’ he noted only a few years earlier, referring to the increasing call in the Balkans for Russia to play a greater role in the region as a protector of Slavic identity. ‘Bloodshed between Austria and Servia [sic] would certainly raise this to a dangerous height.’117 Here was the tinder that could set the world on fire.

In the circumstances, therefore, as Russia began to prepare to make a statement to the rest of the world, Britain had to stand full square behind its ally and rival – even if many found this confusing. When war broke out, Rupert Brooke – soon to find fame as a war poet – could barely contain his anger. ‘Everything’s just the wrong way round,’ he wrote. ‘I want Germany to smash Russia to fragments, and then France to break Germany . . . Russia means the end of Europe and of any decency.’118 He had no doubts who Britain’s real enemy was.

Conversely, the start of hostilities in turn meant sharpening animosities towards Germany – not only in 1914, but in the way that the war unfolded and when peace was settled four gruesome years later. The ‘hoary colleges of Oxford look down / On careless boys at play,’ wrote one war poet, ‘but when the bugles sounded – War! / They put their games away.’ The ‘shaven lawns’ of the university were given up in exchange for ‘a bloody sod’: ‘They gave their merry youth away / For country and for God.’119 The celebration of British ties with Germany and the honorary degrees given to its most famous sons quickly became a bitter memory that was best forgotten.

It was not surprising then that blame for the war should be affixed squarely on Germany, both in principle and in fact. Enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles was a clause that was categorical in assigning blame for the war: ‘The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.’120 The aim was to lay the grounds for redress and reparations to be paid; instead, it all but guaranteed a reaction – providing fertile ground to be exploited by a skilled demagogue who could unite national sentiment around the core of a strong Germany rising from the ashes.

The victors were such in name and in hope only. Over the course of four years, Britain went from being the world’s largest creditor to being its largest debtor; France’s economy was left in ruins after funding a war effort that put immense strains on the workforce and the country’s financial and natural resources. In the words of one scholar, Russia meanwhile ‘entered the war to protect the empire [but] concluded with imperial destruction’.121

The collapse of the European powers opened up the world for others. To cover the shortfalls in agricultural production and to pay for weapons and munitions, the Allies took on huge commitments, commissioning institutions such as J. P. Morgan & Co. to ensure a constant supply of goods and materials.122 The supply of credit resulted in a redistribution of wealth every bit as dramatic as that which followed the discovery of the Americas four centuries earlier: money flowed out of Europe to the United States in a flood of bullion and promissory notes. The war bankrupted the Old World and enriched the New. The attempt to recoup losses from Germany (set at an eye-watering and impossibly high level equivalent to hundreds of billions of dollars at today’s prices) was a desperate and futile attempt to prevent the inevitable: the Great War saw the treasuries of the participants ransacked as they tried to destroy each other, destroying themselves in the process.123

As the two bullets left the chamber of Princip’s Browning revolver, Europe was a continent of empires. Italy, France, Austro-Hungary, Germany, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, even tiny Belgium, only formed in 1831, controlled vast territories across the world. At the moment of impact, the process of turning them back into local powers began. Within a matter of years, gone were the emperors who had sailed on each other’s yachts and appointed each other to grand chivalric orders; gone were some colonies and dominions overseas – and others were starting to go in an inexorable progression to independence.

In the course of four years, perhaps 10 million were dead from fighting, and half the same again from disease and famine. Over $200 billion had been spent by the Allies and the Central Powers fighting each other. European economies were shattered by the unparalleled expenditures that were exacerbated by falling productivity. Countries engaged in the fighting posted deficits and clocked up debts at a furious pace – debts they could not afford.124 The great empires that had dominated the world for four centuries did not slip away overnight. But it was the beginning of the end. Dusk was beginning to descend. The veil of shadows from behind which western Europe had emerged a few centuries earlier was starting to fall once again. The experience of war had been shattering; it made control of the Silk Roads and its riches more important than ever.