A Simplified War

[The Nation; December 14, 1916]

It is not enough to say that the downfall of Rumania means the end of a phase in the great conflict. Rumania's disaster means the end of a phase which began with the beginning of the war. It closes the period of adventure which opened for the Germans with the attack on Liège and for the Allies with the invasion of Gallipoli. In both instances the motive was a short-cut to victory. In both instances the military short-cut brought in its train political and diplomatic complications which made the military problem infinitely more difficult, which, indeed, probably doomed it to failure in advance. To end the war quickly, and by way of Paris, was the Kaiser's purpose. It failed within a month at the Marne. To end the war by way of Constantinople was the Allied purpose. It has failed, after nearly two years, at Bucharest. To get at Paris the Kaiser dared the crime of Belgium and brought down on himself the judgment of the world. To get at Constantinople the Allies plunged into the bog of Balkan hatreds and ambitions. But whereas the Kaiser was quick to recognize the defeat of his policy of adventure and to settle down to a humdrum war of defence, the Allies were slow to learn. They cluttered forward from one disappointment to another, always a bit too late, always a good deal unprepared, but always hoping nevertheless for Germany's defeat in the Balkans.

All that is over. The Balkan possibilities are exhausted. Turkey, Bulgaria, Servia, and Rumania have disposed of themselves or been disposed of. Only Greece remains, and it is no longer possible to conceive that any developments in Greece may change the military aspect in southeastern Europe. If the impossible were to happen and King Constantine should strike hands with the Allies, the puny Greek army could be of little help in overcoming the present overwhelming preponderance of the Central Powers in the Balkans. It is idle to speak of Constantinople or of an invasion of Austria across the Danube. The great Allied problem now is the conservation of the army of Salonica. "Will that army be able to hold out against the enormous pressure which the Central Powers can now bring to bear? And if by extraordinary efforts the Allies may succeed in reinforcing Sarrail's army to the point where it could stand up against an attack of Mackensen, is the effort worth while? That is the answer which must soon be given by England through Lloyd George and by France through Briand. The French Premier is credited with being the original champion of the Salonica adventure. Lloyd George likewise has been described as an "Easterner," as opposed to the majority in Asquith's cabinet, which it now appears had no enthusiasm for the Balkan enterprise.

But if Lloyd George has succeeded in ousting Asquith, it is to be noticed that London has predicted no change in policy, but only a greater energy in carrying on the war. Briand has received a vote of confidence in Parliament, but 160 Deputies voted against him, a very significant minority for war-times. In other words, the policy of Asquith of indifference to the Balkans has not been abandoned in England, and in France Briand's policy of active intervention in the Balkans has met with severe opposition. It would be only one more ironic incident in the history of the war if Lloyd George and Briand should now be called on to make the first application of their unquestioned vigor in abandoning the policy of Balkan adventure for which they have hitherto stood out. Energy and decision do not always manifest themselves in bold undertakings and a bull-dog persistence in the face of the inevitable. It requires energy and courage to confess a mistake, to admit a defeat, and to try again elsewhere. With the failure of all hopes of Constantinople there is no longer any excuse, for the efforts and sacrifices which the Allies have expended in that direction. The drain on French resources for the Mediterranean campaign, the strain on English shipping, can hardly be justified by any success now in view. It is now certain that if the Allies are to win the war, it must be done in the west.

For the Allies, therefore, the collapse of Rumania, with the possible end of operations in the Balkans, will have this advantage, that it will serve to clear the air, to simplify their problem. Hitherto it has been altogether too complex for their resources, and for many reasons. It has been too complex because the very nature of an alliance precluded that perfect harmony of coöperation which a delicate and involved undertaking requires. It has been too complex because the war in the Balkans had to be carried on at the end of a thin and extended line of communications by sea. It has been too complex because military operations were made dependent on a delicate interplay of diplomacy. For all the talk of unity of purpose and unity of front, the Allied leadership has not been equal to the enormous task. This confession may now be made openly at London and Paris, in spite of its strictly non-military implications. It would be the acceptance of a moral defeat. It would give new impetus to enemy taunts about Allied "protection" to Servia and Rumania. But in this very bitter business into which the war has resolved itself moral defeats and enemy taunts and confessed humiliations are part of the day's work. In the test of grim endurance which the war will henceforth become, the Allies must, above everything else, avoid all dissipation of energy. They must fight on the shortest front they can make, and as near to their base as they can get; and these indications point to the original theatres of war; for the Anglo-French the western front, and for Russia the present line in the east.

In two ways, therefore, the Allies may draw advantage from the defeat of their Balkan hopes. There should be an end to divided councils as between westerners and easterners which have undoubtedly lamed the conduct of the war both at London and at Paris and as between the two capitals. There should be an intenser effort in the west. The shipping now devoted to Mediterranean enterprises can largely be restored to the feeding of England and her allies and to the munitioning of Russia, In that inexhaustible reservoir of men the annual yield of recruits is a million and a half, and behind the men there is the determination to go on with the fight to the end. All doubts about a separate Russian peace with the Kaiser have been removed. This means that the Allied Governments need no longer spend their energies on diplomacy. The War Offices need no longer wait on the Foreign Offices. There is little for the Governments to negotiate. They can devote themselves with single mind to the grim business of the simplified battlefield.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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