Almost exactly 100 years ago (which is to say, longer ago than anything Ezra Klein cares about), British general Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in World War I, was responsible for one of the most significant military failures of leadership in modern history. His failure is, with remarkable parallels, playing out again on the American political stage at the hands of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)Heritage ActionScorecardSen. Mitch McConnellSenate Republican AverageSee Full Scorecard68%.
Modern historians tend to take the view that World War I could not have played out any other way than the messy and brutal war of attrition that it eventually became. Probably, this is correct. Once the trench lines were drawn, particularly on the Western front, neither the central powers nor the entente would have agreed to a peace acceptable to the other, and the nature of industrial warfare made an actual breakthrough highly unlikely. Accordingly, the only realistic scenario which would bring about the end of the war would involve one side outlasting the other – “outlasting” in this context meaning “having more young men and materiel to sacrifice to the cause.” And so millions of young men went to die in abbatoirs like Verdun and the Somme until the Central Powers were finally broken in 1918.
Yet an argument can be made that each side had at least one chance to decisively end the war in the very early days of its inception in 1914. After the Germans initiated hostilities on the Western front by violating Belgium’s neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany; however, until Lord Kitchener was able to raise a continental army (an undertaking that would not be completed until 1916), the British were only able to send a small expeditionary force to the entente’s aid under the command of Sir John French. The French army, under Joseph Joffre, responded to the initiation of hostilities on their border with a disastrous offensive campaign intended to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine, whereupon they were routed by the advancing Germans and driven into headlong retreat. The advancing German hammer fell up on the BEF at Mons, causing them to fall back to Le Cateau, where they were again forced to retreat further into French territory. The advancing First and Second German armies, under the command of Alexander von Kluck and Karl …read more