I think we can learn at least seven things from seeing the war through Rupprecht’s eyes.
1) It would be easy, observing the commemorations of the past four years, to think that this was a British-only event. The fact that British soldiers fought alongside allies, most obviously the French, and against human enemies, most notably the Germans, is often skipped over, and we tend to look at the war from an exclusively British perspective. This is a mistake. It is clear from Rupprecht’s papers that, for the whole first half of the war, it was the French, not the British, who were perceived as the greater threat. Even when the BEF scaled up, from 1916 onwards, it was still the French army, not the British one, which scared the Germans most.
2) The German Army
Myth: The German army was a superb tactical instrument, a true meritocracy with a very flexible system of command which enabled fast responses and great flexibility. It learnt and adapted to the challenges of the new warfare with speed and skill, developing ‘stormtroop’ tactics in the attack, and elastic ‘defence in depth’ tactics when under threat, both of which underpin modern tactics even today.
Reality: The weaknesses within the German army contributed greatly to its defeat. The officer corps was riven with cliques and patronage. Senior commanders interfered all the time in the operations of their subordinates. It was overtaken in the race to innovate by the British and French, who created new ways of fighting by1918 to which the Germans could find no answer.
Just like the British in Blair’s Wars, the German military’s confidence in its ability to solve problems outran its capability. If the German army hadn’t presented the Schlieffen Plan as a workable military solution to Germany’s political problems, the war might never have started. Once war broke out and the Schlieffen Plan had failed, the high command continued to believe that it could find tactical answers to the impossible strategic situation Germany had created for herself, and so refused to consider any kind of climb-down. The army’s failure to be honest with itself, or with its politicians, cost Germany dearly. Arrogance loses wars.
4) The French…
…were seen as more of a threat by the Germans than the British. Not only did the French carry the main brunt of the fighting on the Western Front for at least the first two years of the war, but right to the end of the war the Germans saw them as more skilled fighters than the British. The troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were seen as brave but clumsily handled in battle, poor at coordinating attacks and exploiting success. On the other hand, politically, London was seen as the centre of gravity of the Entente. In March 1918, the Germany army launched its final desperate attempt to win the war with an attack on the BEF: partly because it felt the British were a softer target, and partly because they felt that knocking the British out of the war could cause the French to fold.
5) Learning and Adaptation
Myth: the war was a static, sterile stalemate where everyone just kept bashing away in the same unimaginative and futile manner.
Reality: it was a cockpit of furious innovation. Every time one side came up with some tactic or measure to give it an edge, the other raced to counter it. Brand new technologies such as the aeroplane and the tank were developed as weapons and built into radically different ways of fighting war which, by 1918, were almost unrecognisable to the soldiers of 1914. Learning and adaptation constituted another front in the war, one contested no less savagely than the physical fighting fronts.
6) Winners and Losers
Myth: This was the war no one won. Little changed, and nothing was solved. Domestic social and political change remained glacial. In international relations, it took a second, even more terrible, war, to resolve the German question.
Reality: Domestically, it is true, not much changed in Britain. There were no homes for heroes, and certainly few jobs. Some women got the vote, but they would probably have got it anyway. Politics went on much as before. In much of Europe, however, everything changed. Revolutions brought down the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, and of Germany herself. They swept away monarchies and ruling classes which had endured for centuries. The tragedy, for Germany and the world, was that the Weimar republic which took over from the Kaiser was too weak to withstand the ravages of the Great Depression and the demonic force represented by Hitler and the Nazis.
7) Tsunami of modernity
It’s easy to see the aristocrats of middle Europe who were washed over or away by the tidal wave of change in the first half of the twentieth century as tragic victims of forces beyond their control. The same applies, indeed, to many of those killed or otherwise harmed during the two world wars. For many of these people, however, that would be a sentimental mistake. They saw themselves not merely as passive victims but as responsible agents, making decisions for themselves. Often, sadly, those decisions were poor ones. History, however, should seek to reconstruct their sense of themselves, not rob them of it.