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The Bridge That Began the Great War
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PARIS – Of the many bridges that span the Seine River, none is more beautiful nor majestic than the Pont Alexandre III. Just south of the splendid Grand Palais, this bridge was named in honor of Russia’s Czar, Alexander III.

Completed in 1892, the bridge is a monument to France’s Bel Epoque and represents the high-water mark of European civilization at the end of the 19th century. It’s also an odd monument to Czarist absolutism here in the birthplace of the French Revolution.

For me, the Pont Alexandre III recalls tragedy and immense sorrow, for this bridge symbolically lit the fuse leading to World War I, whose 100th anniversary we observe this fall.

The deft diplomacy of Prince Otto von Bismarck had led in 1871 to the creation of modern, unified Germany. Key to Bismarck’s statecraft, or “Realpolitik,” was keeping Germany’s rivals divided and preventing an anti-German alliance between France and Russia, Europe’s principal land powers.

Bismarck managed to keep Russia and France apart until he was dismissed by the new, Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1892, France and Russia signed an historic, anti-German alliance that left Germany hugely outnumbered, facing Europe’s two biggest land armies on its eastern and western borders.

France thirsted for revenge over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. Russian was determined to tear apart the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s sole major ally.

From the turn of the century, German strategists and its general staff kept warning the Kaiser that Germany could not face a two-front war against Russia and France. Even with the dubious aid of Austro-Hungary, Germany would be seriously outnumbered. Equally ominous, if Britain entered the conflict, blockade by the Royal Navy would eventually starve the Central Powers into submission.

Germany was confronted by a very painful choice. Russia’s economy was growing fast each year, producing more arms and rail transport. Russia could mobilize over 15 million men from its vast population. The longer Germany waited the greater Russia’s menace.

Strike now, urged some strategists, or see our slim advantage in quality evaporate. Japan was faced by a similar dilemma in 1940-41. After the US cut off its oil and metal deliveries, Japan had the choice of going to war at once or waiting and seeing its vital oil reserves used up.

The Pont Alexander III was seen in Berlin as the signature on Germany’s death sentence.

Germany could not win a normal two-front war, it could not wait and see Russia grow stronger, it could not risk the threat of American intervention.

The only way out of Germany’s mortal dilemma was developed in 1904 by Count von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff. His daring plan called for German forces to avoid France’s fortress belt on the Meuse, break through Belgium’s powerful forts, then race southwest in a giant turning movement that would envelop France’s armies along the Marne River and Vosges mountains.

Germany had to strike before full Russian mobilization got under way. Its only hope was to quickly defeat Russia’s western armies, then transfer its troops to the western front against France, which was mobilizing to invade southern Germany and retake Alsace-Lorraine.

The assassination of Austria’s heir, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo in a plot mounted by Serbia’s secret police, set the doomsday machine of war into motion.

Austria mobilized to punish Serbia; Serbia’s ally Russia began it ponderous but massive mobilization. This forced Germany to mobilize and, in turn France, setting into motion a war that would kill 10 million.

Europe’s golden era as the center of the world was ending.


Britain could have stood aside and pressed for peace, but it was too intent on destroying rival Germany. Even today, British historians, like Margret MacMillan, are so steeped in anti-German bias they continue to distort history and blame German for a war that was everyone’s fault.

By 1917, the two sides were exhausted and almost ready to talk peace. But in a final tragic act of folly, US President Woodrow Wilson decided to send a million US troops to aid the Allies, thus tipping the war against Germany. The evil Versailles Treaty followed, and then its frightful spawn, Adolf Hitler.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: World War I 
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  1. Heath says:

    The problem was that von Schlieffen’s Plan didn’t work either because he didn’t have enough men and he got the the sack in in 1912, in an age when when generals stayed on in very old age, usually until they couldn’t mount a horse anymore. Look at the Schlieffen plan and the actual German advance into northern France, very different.

  2. Good analysis Eric. It mirrors what’s found in Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke” that relentlessly tracks developments and their tragic consequences through eyewitness accounts, news clippings and other contemporary sources. Truly, all fought on the side of death and destruction, and we have not finished with the dire consequences yet.

  3. Kiza says:

    This is a Micky Mouse level analysis of the European history by an American, full of historical revisionism and half-baked truths. It implies that Russia and France were itching for WW1. Germany and Austro-Hungary which were just defending themselves, preparing plans for an attack to defend themselves!?!? Was Germany doing a predecessor of today’s preventative wars by the US and UK, Iraqi smoking gun and the rest of this blah blah? Pity Germany and Austro-Hungary did not invent R2P then, they were not as ‘smart’ as the US and UK are now.

    And Germany never eyed the British colonies in Africa of the time, Britain joined WW1 out of altruism.

    And Serbian intelligence organised the assassination for nothing on Ferdinand? He was not being provocative by parading in Bosnia? There was no aggressive push of Catholic Austro-Hungary eastwards towards Serbia and annexation of the whole of Bosnia with almost 50% Serbian population?

    But Margolis is not the only one, he is just following the stream of revisionist books in the Anglosphere. Let us rewrite history so that we explain today’s enemies = Russia.

    Margolis’ journalistic credibility is sinking like a rock, he is now a pure regime propagandist.

  4. A good summary. Re Kiza’s criticism: Germany’s colonial ambitions were on the the way to being met by agreement with Britain to partition Belgian and Portuguese possesssions. Britain was incireasingly eager to gain freedom of manoeuvre – the manoeuvre room the government lacked when the decision had to be made to honour the Triple Entente alliance. Serbia had recently passed from being a satellite of Austria to an ally of Russia in a bloody coup d’etat. It had no automatic right to every inch of land on which a Serb stood tkhan France had to Flanders or French Switzerland. Austria took Bosnia from Turkey, just as Serbia took Macedonia and Kossovo. Some there welcomed them, others didn’t. The present day villification of Serbia should not lead us to view their long dead forbears as equally patsies. The background tehsions of 1914 were released by the handof a schoolboy armed by the cabal that ruled Serbia. They were backed up by the Czar.

  5. Excellent piece by Eric Margolis !!! Congratulations , Sir !!

    If Woodrow Wilson had had the sense to remain neutral there would have been a Negotiated Peace in 1917.

    The problem was not just the Schlieffen Plan but its two mirrors, Plan XVII and the British War Book.

    Schlieffen did in fact intend to fight the Battle of Annihilation just west of Liege in eastern Belgium.

    The original draft of his plan says so.

    Because the French intended to march across Belgium to fight it there.

    Another thing is the wording of the Franco-Russian Military Convention – check it – which provided for simultaneous immediate converging strategic offensives into Germany by the French and Russians.

    if the British gave permission within 8 days of mobilisation then the Belgium Variant would beimplimented.

    Meanwhile in London Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, was naughtily plotting ways of starting the war.

    He gave permission for the Belgium Variant on the first day of mobilisation.

    Germany and France were not yet at war.

  6. if Eric, ever does write about prior and after Sept 11 2001. Sound like this, they attacked us because we were middling in the middle east–blah blah blah!
    What really happened in WWI WWII, both were instigated by England/France and USA. And for what purpose? Control of middle East oil and creation of Israel.
    Germany was innocent both times. Just as is Muslims are today.

  7. Dieter says:

    To Kiza: indeed, this is a very shallow analysis. “Guns of August” is much better. Nevertheless, there were influential French politicians and Generals who did press for a revenge for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in 1870. France was not 100% innocent. I have found no evidence that Russia planned to attack Germany directly.
    The Schlieffen plan failed, by a hair, for several reasons. The time table was somewhat wrecked by the Belgian resistance at Liege and essentially all German reserves were in the main body of advance.
    You are correct that Germany, even Hitler Germany, did not aim at the British colonies. It has been reported that Hitler offered Chamberlain military support (troops!) in the case of an uprising in British India. It is my opinion that the British participation in WW1 and WW2 were mainly driven by “no more Napoleons”!
    The onset of WW1 had nothing to do with the Pont Alexandre. Like all wars it was triggered by the conviction of the attacker, i.c. Germany, that he can win the war.
    One of the first things Lenin’s government did was to publish the various secret pre-war agreements among the belligerents. Even though these were already sort-of “known” at the time they are an excellent source of understanding how and why that war started.

  8. “One of the first things Lenin’s government did was to publish the various secret pre-war agreements among the belligerents. Even though these were already sort-of “known” at the time they are an excellent source of understanding how and why that war started.”

    That contemplated annexation and division of the rest of the world – colonialism – found in the Sykes-Picot Treaty still drives events today. Again, Russia is the spoiler. Wilson entered the war so that American financial elites could share in the booty, with original hopeful Russia to be deprived.

    That Nazi scoundrel slyly threw in the allies’ face after World War II that “the common people of any country never want war” and observed how easy it was to subvert the will of any people with propaganda – and that it worked the same way in every country. But as my Baptist preacher put it pithily, “War is started to take what belongs to someone else.” That also works the same way in every country, even ours. Unlike the Nazi, his observation is not self-justifying.

    Secrets are the province of elites to avoid democratic accountability. It is no accident that the total surveillance state in which all citizens are now under permanent investigation was constructed in secret, completely contrary to all the votes in legislatures against it.

  9. Yes, Imperial Russia DID intend to attack Imperial Germany directly !!!

    Oh Dear! Oh Dear !

    The number of Germans that have gone along with the British War Innocence Theory !

    That is why Schlieffen was told to go home on leave and draw up proposals for a plan.

    Check the wording of the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1893.

    You will find it on-line in Sydney Fay’s The Origin of the World War.

    So Eric Margolis is correct that the Pont Alexandre III is connected to the beginnings of the war, as it commemorates this.

    Then it was agreed in the Franco-Russian Military Conference of 1912 the first thing Russia would do to please the French was attack East Prussia, which is what happened.

  10. p.s. It was also caused by the belief of the three attackers – Imperial Russia, France -wanted to regain La Gloire – ,and Britain that they could win the war.

  11. Kiza says:

    I am not going to bother answering John Rhode’s or Fran Macadam’s skewed new history, these two individuals are totally lost to reality. But Dieter does raise good points. Yes, France was not totally innocent, there were individuals who wanted a revansh. But none of the European powers were innocent. Dieter and I would not agree on German disinterest in British colonies, Britain has always been a “leveling” power. To remain on top it made sure that competitors remained even and below. Germany was a fast rising power. All these initiatives for mutual support and cooperation between Germany and Britain were always failing when faced with this “leveling” strategy. It has always been Britannia Rules the Waves ahead of Deutchland uber Alles. In the 20th century, Germany was like a poor young cousin from the country, always keener for the British friendship than vice versa. But British Imperium is no more, only hope remains for a rebirth through USUK.

    The Russian tzar needed a war like a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. Putin’s Russia is quite unprepared for the upcoming war, but tzar’s Russia was in a much worse state. Proof is in the outcome of WW1 – death of the whole tzar’s family and communism only in Russia. You have to have a lot of blind hate in your heart to claim that Russia wanted WW1 or that Putin wants a rebirth of the Russian empire blah, blah. But anti-Russian hate is in plentiful supply in the Anglosphere at the moment, as much the worthless paper money.

    Re. Margolis, no matter how biased the writing is, one will always find supporters. It is blatantly obvious that rewriting of history is in fool [sic] swing. We have always been at war with the warmongering Eurasia…

  12. In the final analysis, Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to use the assassination of the Archduke as an excuse to conquer Serbia and Greece in order to link up with the Ottoman Empire and change the balance of power in Europe more in their favor. The fact that they arrogantly hoped or expected Russia, France, and England would do nothing in response to this unfavorable change does not excuse them from most of the blame for WWI. Germany and Austria-Hungary were basically unwilling to accept the limits of being Central European peoples and empires and sought to expand onto Orthodox Christian land they had no legitimate claim to.

    As for the “evil Versailles Treaty”, both Germany and Russia had to give up some land to resurrect an independent Poland. Austria had to give up sovereignty over Hungary and the Slavic peoples of its empire. Alsace-Lorraine(and some money) that Germany had unnecessarily insisted on keeping after the Franco-Prussian War went back to France. All of this was motivated by the selfish interest of England and France, and you could argue for slightly different borders than what was imposed. However, as a general proposition, it was not evil. It created more self-determination in Europe than had ever before existed. Unfortunately, it was not just Hitler and the Nazis who were unwilling to accept this new Europe, but a majority mainstream Germans as well.

  13. Dan says:

    A few things I would add.

    1) It is often said France wanted “revenge” for the Franco-Prussian war and the loss oF Alsace and Lorraine. But France was the aggressor who declared war on Prussia. Certainly France would have annexed Germanic territory beyond the Rhine if it had won the war. And anyways Alsace has always been a German-speaking region. France lost this war, which it started, then complained about losing land as a penalty for its engaging in hostilities!

    2) The pre-war German view that they couldn’t fight a two-front war was quite wrong. They did so quite successfully and only lost when it became a one-front war.

    3) Britain could and should have stood aside. The war would have ended quickly and the minor adjustments in Germany’s favor would have been much better for Europe in the long-run then what actually did happen.

  14. Hi Dan,

    I certainly understand why Prussia went to war to unify Germany. The German people legitimately wanted unification, Prussia would be more secure, and the rest of Europe very probably would not let it happen by democratic means. That said, here is some of what Wikipedia says about the Franco-Prussian War. “Bismarck wrote: “I always considered that a war with France would naturally follow a war against Austria…I was convinced that the gulf which was created over time between the north and the south of Germany could not be better overcome than by a national war against the neighboring people who were aggressive against us. I did not doubt that it was necessary to make a French-German war before the general reorganization of Germany could be realized.” Bismarck adroitly created a diplomatic crisis over the succession to the Spanish throne” etc. Bismarck was a genius who knew exactly how far he could go without pushing the rest of Europe into an alliance against him. Sadly, Kaiser Wilhelm II was not.

    As for point 2, I believe Germany would have won WWI if not for US entry.

    As for point 3, England, being an island nation next to a much larger continent, could not allow any country for any reason to conquer the entire continent. That would leave England much more vulnerable over time to invasion or naval blockade. So England went to war to maintain its most fundamental security interest. Eventually, the US also decided a German unified Europe would become be too powerful and a potential threat, so the US entered the war.

    I grant you that democracy and national self-determination, to the extent they resulted from WWI, were just by-products from England, France, and the US following their own selfish interest. However, it was the most good that could be achieved given the disaster that had already happened.

  15. szopen says:

    It’s weird for Pole to witness such discussion between the West Europeans. Before WWI many Poles prayed “for world war we ask you, our Lord”, as it was believed it was only the world war which could allow the rebirth of the country.

  16. Steve says:

    Re the Franco-Prussian War, it was desired and begun by France with wild enthusiasm, and was intended to destroy Prussian power and keep Germany weak, and had been threatened long before by Napoleon. Bismarck later embellished his own role to make himself appear the master of events, in fact at the time he had no such clear ideas and but for the further French provocation of the Kaiser who had already accepted their demand there would have been no ‘Ems Dispatch’, which was in fact irrelevant anyway, and said nothing of consequence. Its only significance was as the French-manufactured pretence for a war France desired at the time, one regarded as idiotic even by some distinguished Frenchmen such as Thiers. Napoleon later admitted France was the aggressor, and the French invaded Prussia first.

    In 1914, there was no “Schlieffen Plan” operative, see Zuber’s The Real German War Plan for details. The actual plan was a counterattack against expected Entente offensives which began before the German one, both Russia and France mobilized before Germany and were agreed to invade Germany within a fortnight, regardless of German actions, which is what happened, before German troops attacked them (limited German forces were in Belgium only by that time). Many in Russia and France were keen for a war they thought they would win, for details see the relevant works of Christopher Clark and Sean McMeekin especially. And Germany had no interest in conquering Serbia or Greece, quite the contrary, and counselled Austria-Hungary against going too far in Serbia, and refused to attack Greece at all, as one commenter had erroneously asserted. Serbia was at the time itself expansionist in the Balkans, so the idea that only Austria (and Germany) was so is wrong, in fact the Archduke was dead against war with Serbia (as had been the Kaiser), which only came about because he was killed.

  17. I was shocked to read Zuber’s “The Real German War Plan”.

    The Franco-German Plan as refined in their biannual Military Conferences was for simultaneous converging immediate strategic offensives into Germany on the 14th day of mobilisation.

    To do this the French advanced across Belgium.

    The British formed their left wing.

    Both the French and the Russians believed they would win.

    But they both believed they could only do this if the French received British help.

    Thus if Sir Edward Grey said “non” there would be no war.

  18. Steve says:

    The French already invaded Germany on the 7th, in Alsace, weeks before the Germans got to France in their vaunted “Schlieffen” plan (which was a fiction as Zuber demonstrates thoroughly). The Russians did so on the 12th, though both main offensives followed on the 14th-15th. The first field battles of the war were inside Germany on both fronts. The French deployed 3 armies out of 5 to the Belgian border before they knew what the Germans were doing, on the 2nd! Clark (The Sleepwalkers – essential reading) and McMeekin (The Russian Origins of the First World War, and July 1914) document Entente aims and moves in detail, Fay also quoted incriminating Russian documents at length, thankfully published by the Soviets, which mention precisely the condition of British aid as essential in a clash. Grey was a Germanophobic hypocrite (Ferguson gives some evidence) who certainly placed strong constraints on (and made threats to) Germany whilst allowing France and Russia to get away with murder, and even lied to his own colleagues about his dealings and intent, and threatened resignation (backed by Asquith and Churchill- and therefore an even more interventionist Conservative government) to browbeat the mostly neutralist Liberal Cabinet into supporting France regardless of Belgium. He was one of the main architects of war in 1914 and the decade leading up to it, and had no qualms about violating Greek or Albanian neutrality amongst others.

  19. Sir Edward Grey one of the main architects of the war, and must be recognised as such.

    This was partly because, not so much of his germanophobia but because he was the leading member of the Liberal Imperialists, the proteges of Lord Rosebery, who had seized the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1905, and were dedicated to the defence of the Empire and the restoration of Britain as World Hegemon.

    Rosebery founded the group for this purpose.

    This meant as the leader of the Liberal Imperialists he was obsessed with 18th century history – British naval and the “Balance of Power”.

    This meant the rising industrial power of Germany was a threat to the European “Balance of Power” and not anti-Germanism per se.

    But Grey also feared (see the introduction to Gooch and Temperley’s Introduction to “British Documents on the Origin of the War” – it’s on-line – that Russia and France might break away from the Triple Entente and become hostile the Britain again.

  20. Steve says:

    Grey’s anti-German (and pro-French) bias should not be underestimated, apart from a number of statements of his as quoted by Ferguson, it came out very strongly in his actions and attitudes during the crisis. He had also been one of the handful of those responsible for secretly committing Britain to aid France without fully informing the cabinet, let alone parliament or the people. Liberal Imperialism was the other aspect, but a misplaced one as Germany did not in fact seriously threaten British imperial dominance unlike France and Russia, though it was a rising trade competitor. Britain chose to appease the real imperial rivals (also Japan)(and as it later would the US) and eliminate the one effective counterbalance to them. This was indeed done out of fear (as you put it) as well as arrogance, never a good combination. Germany was no threat to the “Balance of Power” until provoked into active self-defence by the aggressive powers surrounding it. Grey later (partly at least) realized his error and spoke in favor of Anglo-German cooperation, when it was too late. The result was Britain ended up (after round two) without an empire, and without real allies, other than the current one that views it as a quaint sidekick of diminishing import. Soon even Scotland is likely to go its own way, and good luck to it, it would have happened decades ago but for the suppression of the McCrone report.

    Grey was an idiot and bumbler of the first order, and a grade-A hypocrite and war-maker to boot. It’s high time he was recognized as such more widely.

  21. Grey was not a bumbler, he knew exactly what he was doing and did it for many years previously.
    He never realised his error.

    Grey and his supporters believed the “Balance of Power” theory and Germany by existing with her economic power would be able to out build Britain at any time by her domination of the Continent through economic power.

    This was because of their obsession with 18th century naval history and political history, which was based on the Balance of Power.

    So he regarded it a crucial to keep France and Russia loyal and war with Germany inevitable to restore the Balance of Power.

  22. Steve says:

    He was a bumbler because his policy was idiotic, even if it was deliberate. He did later partly revise his anti-German position, in his memoirs, arguing for an alliance with Germany to counterbalance France. Britain was always able to outbuild Germany in ships and did so, Germany had to also maintain a large army which Britain did not. The balance of power was not restored but shattered by his policy, there was a balance on the continent until Grey and co wrecked it.

  23. Steve,

    to us he was a bumbler, and other people said this at the time, notable Joseph Chamberlain in his in his Leicester Manifesto in1899, calling for an alliance with Germany as essential.

    But to the Liberal Imperialists and him his policy was highly logical – based on British 17th and 18th century naval history.

    His patron, and founder of the group, Lord Rosebery, carried round “The Naval Wars of The Two Pitts, Vols 1 &2” as his bible. The Liberal Imperialists were his proteges.

    “Britain was always able to out build Germany in ships and did so, Germany had to also maintain a large army which Britain did not.”

    He believed the opposite, if one power came to dominated the Continent economically and politically, everybody else would be more peaceable to them, less would have to be spend on armies, and the united resources of the nearby Continent would mean they could outbuild Britain.

    Germany had the growth rates of China today, if you check the Dresdener Bank’s statistics, from the 1890’s.

    It was believed on the continent Germany and A-H would defeat R and F, even if it was a long war.

    Sazanov and the Grand Duke Nicholas and their War Parties were only prepared to go to war if the support of Britain, which would allow them to win.

    Grey believed the Balance of Power was disturbed and he was waging an 18th Century Balance of Power war to restore it.

  24. Steve says:

    Nevertheless he was quite deluded and confused, and this comes out strongly in eg Clark’s Sleepwalkers. Germany was no serious threat to Britain, and was quite ‘balanced’ by France and Russia especially as they armed up. In 1914 (indeed already in 1912) France and Russia considered themselves ‘ready’ for a clash and were looking for it, preferably with British support, though even without it initially at least in certain circumstances (of course hoping for it a bit later). By the crisis the Grand Dukes were quite belligerent as were many others, itching to crush and partition Germany en route to “Tsargrad” and much else. Also you should consider that the FO (especially Nicholson and certain others) were terrified of trouble with Russia especially, Ponting is quite good for the details of this though Clark also discusses it, and were willing to do almost anything to appease her even though they knew it was tantamount to being blackmailed.

    Granted Grey thought roughly as you say, but it was rot and he had no excuse, it was quite obvious even then what the real situation and prospects were, and he was warned of it even by some in his own cabinet, including Lloyd George before he defected to the war party in his usual style.

  25. Steve says:

    Also by 1914 it was clear that Russia was surging economically with French capital (despite domestic unrest) and was going to outpace considerably Germany’s ability to expand militarily, something the Germans were in dread of.

  26. Steve,

    yes, I know.

    Grey and the Mandarins were terrified of Russia breaking away from the Entente, forming an alliance with Germany and then attacking our Asian interests, unless appeased.

    See the intro to Gooch and Temperley.

    In 1902 war with Russia was thought inevitable over our East Asian interests until the alliance with Japan.

    In 1907 war was thought inevitable over Persia.

    Grey “we must come to an agreement with Russia or fight her”.

    But his and the Navalist crowd’s views are only deluded until you realise the 18th century naval history ideas and Balance of Power they were based on.

    Grey “if you are the dominant naval power your foreign policy is comparatively simple”.

    These were if realpolitik was followed wrong and they should have gone for the German alliance.

    It is doubtful if Russian economic expansion would have been as great acclaimed, given industrial unrest.

    The enormous French loans were going on railways and depots in the West for faster mobilisation ,whilst a lost of the military equipment they paid for was imported from France.

    See the site “Concealment” for this.

    It is argued they would not be able to repay the loans and this was one of the causes for the war.

  27. Steve says:

    Another lunacy is that it was basically known that even if Germany were crushed, conflict would inevitably follow with Russia and possibly even France over the same old issues, this was actually discussed by some during the war.

    Russia was likely to expand strongly despite unrest, in military and industrial terms, at least for a few years, and even moreso if Russia had been on the winning side and gotten all she demanded and was granted by Britain and France, ie the very things those two had gone to war to deny Russia in the 1850’s, such as key parts of Turkey and Galicia etc. True insanity, trying to crush one (in fact two) less threatening powers in order to then be more likely to have to fight another one or two.

    Grey and co were essentially mad.

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