from ‘the War Illustrated’ 21st July, 1917
'If There Had Been a Channel Tunnel'
by Harold Owen

Would It Have Told in Germany's Favour?

from a French magazine
with a Channel tunnel the British army is but a step away from the continent


There are many "ifs" in the Great War, with many more to come, and they will be subjects of endless debate and historical speculation long after we who lived through it are ashes and dust. There is "if the Germans had never marched through Belgium, but had invaded France on the eastern frontier." There is "If Belgium had allowed Germany a passage under protest, and had not held up the grey horde at Liege for that critical fortnight." There is "If Germany had flung three parts of her weight against Russia to begin with, and knocked her out before she could have moved, while holding up the French army round Metz." There are all the "ifs" that arise from the battle of the Marne, and perhaps the greatest of all the "ifs" to us, is "If the Germans had left Paris alone, and had marched straight through Belgium to Calais," from which arises another "if"—"If the Channel Tunnel had been built before the war broke out!"

The other day some wise and learned gentlemen were discussing in mutual agreement that fascinating "if." They assumed, as a matter of course, that it would have made all the difference," as I believe it would, though the opposite "difference" from that in their minds.

Advocates of the Tunnel

They had at their finger-ends the time, money, tonnage, and men that would have been saved if only trains had dived under the sea at Dover and emerged somewhere near Wissant, and then rushed off men and munitions, without a change, straight to the front. And they seemed to have an accurate idea of the immense relief it would have been to the Navy, which for three years had been guarding night and day, and with immense anxiety and resource, those vital twenty miles of water—that perilous, vulnerable, and almost solitary link which unites us to our Allies. And the discussion came to an amiable conclusion with this pronouncement from one of the circle: "The fact is, if the question of the tunnel had been a party question, All I can say is that the party that had opposed it would never have come into power again for a hundred years." And that, of course, settled it. The whole question had been focused down to the politician's final test of political action—party advantage.

As I came away I pondered a little over what I had heard. For experience has led me to this unflattering opinion: that the confidence to be reposed by all rational men in the conclusions of politicians is in a directly inverse ratio to their own. It did not take me long to agree with them that if the Channel Tunnel had been completed when the war broke out, it would indeed have made all the difference—the difference that we should probably have lost the war,

Let us suppose the great work had been completed five or six years before the war broke out. What would have happened? Our politicians would have declared that it was one of the triumphs of science dedicated to the ideal of peace. They would have enlarged upon its completion as the final proof that the era of international strife had passed, and the era of international amity had begun ; and as giving the coup de grace, by this voluntary surrender of our insularity, to the old "unworthy suspicions" concerning our Continental neighbours, and especially as the last pledge of our amity with France,. which, of course, would not have been the point at all.

Prime Military Objective

And if there was one thing they would have insisted upon, it would have been that to the opening ceremony we invited the representatives of "the great German people." At all costs, they would have said, we must avoid giving any offence to that cousinly and cultured Power; above and beyond everything we must make it clear to them that though the tunnel directly connected England and France that fact did not in the least indicate that it had any strategic possibility, or that it was anything more than a geographical accident. Indeed, we should probably have gone out of our way to assure our dear Teutonic cousins that the great merit of the tunnel was that it would enable them to visit us even more frequently without having to embark at Ostend or Flushing; and at the opening ceremony on our side of the tunnel (for the construction of which a German firm would probably have had the contract) the German Ambassador would have been in great form, replying with his tongue in his cheek to our assurances that the tunnel was dedicated to peace and international fraternity, and that we were chiefly pleased to be linked up by dry land with the Continent because Germany also would be brought a few hours nearer.

And, after the little ceremonial farce was over, we should have lapsed into our old somnolence. At Dover, ' of course, we should have had a military guard, and at Wissant the French would have had the same. But as France would not have feared invasion from us, she would still have based her military preparations and policy on the security of her eastern frontier. And Germany would have based her whole strategy upon a swift descent upon Belgium, and a fortnight's time-table to take her to the French end of the tunnel. For the tunnel would then have become a prime military objective. Germany would have directed her whole plans and policy to the one end of getting there, and she would have got there.

What Would Have Happened?

For, with or without a Channel Tunnel, it was of first-rate importance to us that Germany should not get to Calais. But what provision had we made to stop her? Germany could have got to Calais as easily as she got to Antwerp if, instead of her armies turning south from Brussels, to drive "the contemptible little Army" before them on their road to Paris, she had simply left the road to Paris untrod for a week or so and turned towards Calais. Why she did not do so may have been that she was so sure of Paris that she believed Calais and the north French coast would follow at her leisure. But in any case, we could not have stopped her in her first onward march, and she could have taken Calais in her stride.

Nor, knowing what our governmental and national attitude to Germany was, can it be believed that the existence of the Channel Tunnel would have led us to make any adequate preparations for its security against the contingency of its seizure by Germany. In fact had that been proposed, I can hear our politicians declaring: "Gentlemen, this is Jingoism run mad! For years this wonderful achievement of science in the interests of international amity has. been delayed through panic fears of invasion by France. The Entente has at last laid that bogy, but now our implacable and insatiable Jingoes have created another bogy! And this time they say that we must guard the tunnel against being seized—by Germany! Gentlemen, was ever such wicked nonsense—? I ask you, where is this mischievous mistrust to end? How long shall we tolerate these panic-stricken Jingoes in our midst, who poison international relations? ".....etc.

(Loud cheers).

It is certain that Germany would never have planned a campaign by which she marched on to Paris through Belgium, and left her right flank and her rear menaced by the Channel Tunnel.

What Might Have Been

So the German Army would have gone there first. And France would not have been thinking of us and the Channel Tunnel, but very properly of her eastern frontier and her own capital. So France would not have stopped them either.

And, as for ourselves, our politicians would never have had the courage to point out to our people that the Channel Tunnel so greatly modified the military situation that we should have to have an army ready which would be adequate to defend it, not at Dover, but in France; for a howl would then have gone up about our military intervention on the Continent (twelve months before Armageddon began a London paper that had much to do with expressing the policy of the Government, roundly declared that "it could not conceive" of any circumstances which would justify or entail our sending an Army to the Continent), and somebody would have said that the tunnel, after all, was not a "work of peace" at all, but was only "a dodge of our militarists to embroil us on the Continent, to trap us into mad gambles and militarist adventures, and to fasten the yoke of conscription round our necks." And as things were then—especially our politicians—that sort of talk, which largely governed our policy, would have been fatal to anything like an adequate provision for the defence of the Channel Tunnel.

Thus that fascinating "if." - "If only the Channel Tunnel had been going before the war"—really resolves itself into that other tremendous if: "If the Germans had got to Calais in the first months of the war!" And the consequences of that "if" having been realised are more obvious than fascinating.


several sensationalist illustrations showing a heavy artillery transport through the tunnel
and an aerial attack upon one of the tunnel exits


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