Sunday 16 December 2018

Key players: The ten men who shaped the road to war

Damian Corless profiles the main players from 1914

Horatio Kitchener
Horatio Kitchener
Paul Von Hindenburg
John Redmond.
David Lloyd George
Edward Carson
Woodrow Wilson
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Ferdinand Foch
Douglas Haig
Kaiser Wilhelm II


As the first British troops marched whistling off to the front in autumn 1914 the cliche of the hour was: "It'll be all over by Christmas." An experienced campaigner on three continents, Horatio Kitchener from Ballylongford, Co Kerry, knew it would be a long haul. As Secretary of State for War he put together the largest volunteer army the world had ever seen, and put industrial production on an efficient war footing.

Despite proving himself amongst the most astute and alert of Britain's leaders, he was blamed for a shortage of shells in 1915 and his power at cabinet waned with the formation of a government of national coalition. Held in great respect by the British public, he became the poster boy for the war effort as the pointing figure in the 'Your Country Needs You' recruitment campaign. He gave up alcohol as a good example to factory workers, and Buckingham Palace followed suit by going 'dry'.

In 1915 'The Globe' newspaper was raided to suppress reports that the knives were out for Lord Kitchener at Cabinet. Adrift from power he was lost at sea in June 1916 when his cruiser to Scotland hit a mine.


Kaiser Wilhelm II


A first cousin of England's king and Russia's Czar, Wilhelm was subjected to cruel physical conditioning as an infant to 'correct' physical disabilities. This treatment, combined with the standard militaristic upbringing of a Prussian prince, shaped his urge to prove himself as the virile leader of a great military power.

Upon becoming Emperor in 1888 Wilheim set about strengthening German might. His driving ambition was to make his navy the equal of the British one that boasted of ruling the waves. Having talked up Germany as a nation on the prowl for a fight, Wilhelm more than once stepped back from the brink when conflict beckoned. When he realised that the dominoes were lined up to fall across Europe in 1914, he again tried to smooth the situation through his cousins in London and Moscow. This time, however, his own top brass insisted that the Kaiser put actions on his decades of fighting words.

Having laid the groundwork for a massive German war effort Wilhelm was effectively sidelined once battle commenced. His title was commander-in-chief but he was a figurehead with little say in strategy or choosing generals. In 1918 he fled to exile in Holland where he spent his final years.

David Lloyd George



Having served for just over a year as secretary for war, Lloyd George orchestrated a cabinet coup against the national coalition Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in late 1916. Asquith went to the king complaining that he could no longer work with the Welshman who was plotting against him in cahoots with newspaper baron Lord Northcliff. Asquith got the boot and Lloyd was the new PM.

As PM he set about streamlining Britain's factory output and li nes of supply to the front, promising a more aggressive push for victory and chopping his cabinet to make it more decisive and less of a debating chamber. Days after he became PM Germany offered a negotiated peace. US President Woodrow Wilson urged Lloyd George to consider the option, but the response from Downing Street was that Germany must surrender.

In early 1918 Westminster opted to impose conscription on Ireland, despite warnings to the prime minister that it would be unenforcable and would stir up angry resistance. The measure was passed but never enforced, but the resentment would lead directly to the wipeout of the Irish National Party in the first post-war election, and then to the War of Independence. Lloyd George emerged with a landslide victory and remained PM until 1922.


John Redmond.


After the disgrace and death of Parnell, John Redmond became the leader of moderate nationalism. In return for the support of his party, he extracted a government promise that Home Rule would accompany victory.

He sold the war to nationalists as a crusade to prevent the German jackboot crushing the independence of little Catholic Belgium. The parallels between Ireland and Belgium didn't need spelling out in giant letters. In a stirring speech, Redmond argued: "The war is undertaken in the defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right, and it would be a disgrace ... if young Ireland confined their efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion."

Not only was the war a worthy cause in itself, said Redmond, but it allowed Ireland to finally take its place amongst the grown-up nations of the Earth. He asserted that the Irish race "would feel covered with humiliation if, when this war is over, they had to admit that their rights and liberties had been saved by the sacrifices of other men." With his words ringing in their ears, tens of thousands of nationalists marched off inspired by the slogan that the freedom of Ireland could be won on the fields of Flanders.


Edward Carson


Dubliner Edward Carson made the headlines as the barrister who mauled Oscar Wilde in the homosexual libel case that would lead to imprisonment and ruin. He founded the Ulster Volunteer Force to fight the pledge of Home Rule for Ireland and in 1915 became attorney general to Asquith's war cabinet.

When Lloyd George ousted Asquith, he appointed Carson as first lord of the admirality. His time as the political head of naval operations coincided with a new phase in the war. In early 1917 Berlin announced that any vessel entering a forbidden zone, including the Irish Sea, would be sunk. U-Boats were taking a terrible toll of merchant shipping. The US broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and Austria, and President Woodrow Wilson announced that it would arm all ships to maintain "an armed neutrality" against the new German shoot-on-sight policy.

When proposals for a post-war League of Nations were floated in 1917 Carson rubbished the idea, saying: "Talk to me of the League of Nations! Every Great Power in Europe was pledged by treaty to preserve Belgium. That was a League of Nations but it failed!"

Two decades on with the League of Nations an impotent talking shop and Europe again nosediving towards war, Carson was proved right.


Paul Von Hindenburg


A direct descendant of Martin Luther and his ex-nun wife Katharina von Bora, von Hindenburg retired in 1911 following a distinguished military career, only to be recalled at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. An early victory at the Battle of Tannenberg derailed the Russian war effort for at least six months and brought the veteran great public acclaim, even though much of the credit belonged to his sidekick, the great tactician Erich Ludendorff.

As the partnership between the two delivered victory after victory on the eastern front a huge cult of personality grew up around von Hindenberg. Across Germany wooden statues bearing his image were erected, onto which people pinned banknotes and cheques for war bonds. As his popularity eclipsed that of the Kaiser, so did his power. By 1916 he was the real leader of the army and the nation, with Ludendorff his master strategist. Under the absolute control of the pair, Germany became the totalitarian state historians have dubbed "the silent dictatorship".

Called before a German commission into the war in 1919, Hindenberg claimed that victory was snatched away by "a stab in the back" by traitors. His ideas were picked up by a bitter ex-corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler.


Woodrow Wilson



Elected president in 1912, Wilson spent his first term trying to keep the US out of the European war. His offers to act as honest broker between the two sides were rejected by both. The sinking of the Lusitania off Kinsale in 1915, with a heavy loss of American life, stirred the pro-war lobby, but Wilson won a second term on the slogan He Kept Us Out Of The War.

However, even as he campaigned as a dove, he warned Germany that any further loss of American lives to U-Boats would "make the quarrel in part our own" and would mean reprisals. Unheeding, or perhaps believing war with the US was inevitable anyway, the Germans pushed the US to the brink with a warning that all shipping entering a cordon around Britain and Ireland would be fair game. The US was pushed over the brink in early 1917 when British Intelligence intercepted a telegraph from Berlin to Mexico City inviting the Mexicans to join the campaign against the US should Wilson declare war.

While the arrival of fresh, well-armed US troops began to break the stalemate in Europe, Wilson pushed through the Espionage Act and Sedition Act which suppressed pro-German and anti-war opinion, and proved a useful cosh against troublesome organised labour.

Douglas Haig



In the comedy 'Blackadder Goes Forth', the Somme offensive is put down to the efforts of Field Marshal Douglas Haig to move his drinks cabinet six inches nearer the front. The joke is in dubious taste given that one million men were wounded or killed in the mudbath, but it does reflect a popular view that grew up when the dust had settled, with Haig branded The Butcher Of The Somme or simply Butcher Haig.

Haig already had a long career behind him when he was put in command of the British Expeditionary Force on the continent in 1915. Haig was deeply committed to the belief that attacks must be sustained so long as there was the smallest chance the enemy would crack. His No1 Corps began the first Battle of Ypres in late 1914 with 18,000 fit men and finished it with under 3,000. The slaughter of those under his command at the Somme in 1916 was on a far greater scale. Passchendaele in 1917 repeated the sorry tale of huge British casualties under Haig's command for negligable gain.

His 1928 funeral was a national day of mourning, but posterity was already fitting him up as the embodiment of all that was wrong with Britain's Great War.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin



Born into a well-heeled middle class family, Lenin was thrust into revolutionary politics by the execution of his brother in 1887 following a failed attempt on the life of the Czar. Released from a Siberian gulag, he travelled Europe preaching violent revolution.

Russia's ill-equipped troops were lambs to the slaughter before German guns, and with the populace starving and pleading for a peace settlement, Czar Nicholas II decided to try his hand at field command. His incompetence was the final straw, pushing the people into revolt, and he abdicated in March 1917. One week later the Germans sent Lenin home in a sealed train carriage, hoping his troublemaking would take Russia out of the war. Instead he had to flee for his life to Finland, but he returned in triumph for the second revolution of the year which ousted the Provisional government that had remained committed to the war.

Installed with Leon Trotsky at the head of a tiny Bolshevist leadership, Lenin embarked on his so-called 'peace offensive'. His Workers & Peasants' government ordered the troops on the eastern front to demobilise. Germany's plan to drop a cat among the pigeons had been a spectacular success.


Ferdinand Foch


In the first weeks of the conflict Foch led his troops onto German soil before beating a hasty retreat.

His reputation soared after he was credited with masterminding victory at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. If there ever was a possibility that the war could have been over by Christmas, the Miracle Of The Marne was the engagement that quashed it. The Germans were pushing for Paris believing that the capture of the capital would deliver a quick and complete victory. Foch's troops ploughed into the German advance, forcing the invaders to retreat towards the North Sea where both sides dug in and the battlelines were drawn for four years of muddy, bloody stalemate.

Foch was relieved of command after the disaster of the Somme in 1916, but recalled the following year to play a decisive role in the final push for victory. Foch accepted the German request for an armistice which ended the war. He argued in vain for Germany to be dismantled so it could never threaten France again. He denounced the Treaty of Versailles which retained Germany intact, saying: "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years." It would, in fact, last 20 years and 65 days.



See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

Society: What Ireland was really like in 1914 There can never be shame in remembering Ireland's fallen Ireland during World War 1: the facts & figures 'Virtually every town and village had someone who died in the war' We must unlock these stories to learn about ourselves There can never be shame in remembering Ireland's fallen

Irish Independent Supplement

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life