What the Great War can teach us

A historian always enjoys one of their pet subjects becoming topical and so it is with the World War 1 anniversary. While it would be nice if some of the commentary was better informed (the war didn’t break out on August 4th 1914 for a start) and more balanced (what about the voices for peace, John Burns, Ramsay MacDonald, Karl Liebknecht, Jean Jaures?), it is nevertheless good to see such a critical event getting the attention it deserves. And it’s an excuse for me to write about two of my favourite subjects and make tenuous and facile connections between them. What’s not to like?

WW1 and fundraising then. The story of fundraising in the Great War is fascinating (Tony Charalambides has a great blog post on it) but that’s not what I’ll focus on. What lessons has the Great War got to teach fundraisers now?

Well some of the lessons may be more applicable than others. So Lesson No #1 must be Don’t put the lunatics in charge of the asylum. If you let let Kaiser Wilhelm II and von Moltke the younger (and very much lesser) run the most powerful state/army in Europe and Conrad von Hotzendorf their weak and fading ally, you are in for big trouble. These guys were not of sound mind. But hopefully aristocratic maniacs are not a big problem in your charity.

So more generically then, here are few lessons which can perhaps be more usefully applied

Don’t be a slave to your plan. So the Germans had a lovely plan for winning the war. It was simple, radical and ingenious. Militarily it was beautiful. Unfortunately politically it was extremely stupid. Following this plan the Germans managed both to ensure that the war which started in the Balkans after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand became a general European war and by ensuring that Britain would come in on the opposite side, that they would lose it.

Have the right strategy. The Germans lost the war because they ensure they would fight three major powers at once but also because they had no strategy for winning it after the Schlieffen Plan failed on the Marne in Sept 1914 (The Austro-Hungarian strategy was worse, do what the Germans do). The allies did have a war winning strategy, destroy the German army on the Western Front, they just weren’t very good about sticking to it. Because

You need the right tactics too. That famous “Donkey”, Douglas Haig had, indisputably the right strategy for winning the war, defeating the strongest enemy army on the key front. The problem was he and the other allied commanders were much less good at finding the right tactics to do this, hence the Somme and Passchendaele and all the other terrible, futile slaughters. He did eventually work out how to do it (the war was finally won by the British Army with French and American support cracking open the Western Front in July-Nov 1918) but by then it was too late. Losses had been so high that victory felt like defeat.

Don’t get sidetracked. Horrified by the losses on the Western Front, allied leaders such as Lloyd George searched assiduously to find the “soft under-belly” of the Central Powers where they could achieve a decisive result at much lower cost. The results, Gallipoli, the Middle East ,Italy, Salonika were invariably just as costly and achieved nothing except to disperse the allied effort.

Don’t fight the last war. One of the reasons that the war was so terrible was that it took far, far too long for the generals to realise they weren’t still fighting Napoleon but dealing with machine guns, barbed wire and high explosive which made the mass frontal charges the armies had trained for suicidal. There had been plenty of opportunities for leaders on all sides to realise that technology had fundamentally changed warfare but old habits died hard. And thus so did millions of young men.

Right, next blog post what can fundraisers learn from the Punic Wars? Or, maybe not…






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s