Was Britain Right To Go To War In 1914?

Despite the fearful losses we should not shrink from celebrating our forebears’ decision to resist German aggression 100 years ago

Nigel Biggar


The History Wars are upon us. The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is less than a year away, but conflict over how to commemorate it is already heating up. In July, Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, made his view robustly clear in the Guardian (“Myth-Busting”, July 13, 2013). Brushing aside the likes of Hew Strachan, Gary Sheffield and Max Hastings, he wrote that “the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong”. Unable to let pass the chance to caricature his conservative opponents and to savour the easy pleasure of watching strawmen scatter before the withering breath of his indignation, Evans accuses those who would celebrate 1918 as a British military triumph of “narrow, tub-thumping jingoism” and asks, “Do we want a narrow, partisan, isolationist national identity where . . . other countries are regarded as inferior, and triumphalist myths are drummed into our children?” 

Well, presumably not. I doubt even Evans’s bête noire, Michael Gove, would be so unsubtle as to nod his head to that. But celebration is possible without tub-thumping, and triumphalism needn’t spoil the sober recognition of triumph. It is possible to honour the military success of our national forebears in defeating an unjust invader without deeming ourselves universally superior. It is possible to judge one nation state’s aggressive action morally wrong and another’s defensive reaction morally right, while recognising that the victim bears some responsibility for the sins of the aggressor. It is possible to judge that it was right to fight back, and still to acknowledge the tragedy of it all.

But how do we judge? During its 1,500-year history, the “just war” tradition — originally fostered by Christian theologians, but now enshrined in international law and adopted by moral philosophers — has developed two sets of criteria, one regarding the justice of going to war in the first place (ius ad bellum) and the other regarding justice in the course of fighting (ius in bello). The six criteria of ius ad bellum are: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality, and prospect of success. Those of ius in bello are proportionality and discrimination. In the case of Britain’s belligerency in 1914-18, criticism has focused on three criteria: just cause, right intention and proportionality (both ad bellum and in bello).  

Since the late 1920s it has been fashionable to attribute the outbreak of the war not to the morally accountable decisions of individuals or governments, but to the effects of impersonal systems or forces. Thus in 1928 Sidney B. Fay wrote that “the War was caused by the system of international anarchy involved in alliances, armaments and secret diplomacy” and that “all the powers were more or less responsible”. This is the morally indiscriminate view taken by Evans, who invokes Christopher Clark’s “magnificent” and indicatively titled 2012 book, The Sleepwalkers. Other contemporary historians, however, are more inclined both to credit human agency and to apportion moral responsibility. Thus, Hew Strachan on 1914: “What remains striking about those hot July weeks is the role, not of collective forces nor of long-range factors, but of the individual.” Thus too, David Stevenson: “The European peace might have been a house of cards, but someone still had to topple it. It used to be argued that 1914 was a classic instance of a war begun through accident and error: that no statesmen wanted it but all were overborne by events. This view is now untenable.”

So who caused it and why? A dominant, if not universal, view has now settled around a modified version of Fritz Fischer’s 1960s interpretation. (Evans confidently denies this; Clark, undercutting him, admits it.) The Fischer thesis, according to Stevenson, is that “it is ultimately in Berlin that we must seek the keys to the destruction of peace . . . Germany willed a local war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, deliberately risked a continental war against France and Russia, and finally actually started one.” Whereas “all the European powers contributed to the growth of tension in the pre-1914 decade…the fundamental contention of the Versailles ‘war-guilt’ article was justified…” While it is untrue that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellor, Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg, were intent upon a continental war in July 1914, they were nevertheless prepared to risk it in giving Germany’s full support to Austro-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, with a view to isolating Russia diplomatically. Britain, France and Russia had all made it quite clear that a local Balkan war would escalate into a major continental conflict; but it was only after hostilities against Serbia had begun that Bethmann-Hollweg, finally persuaded that Russia would not stay out, sought to prevent escalation by restraining Austro-Hungary.

German responsibility was not limited to the imprudence of the Kaiser and his chancellor, however. It also involved generals who were looking for war against Russia (and its ally, France). Since 1908 the Kaiser and his entourage had been dominated by the military, among whom social Darwinism was a prevailing orthodoxy. For the German general staff and its chief, Helmuth von Moltke (the younger), international relations were about the struggle for survival — and so the dominance — of ethnic nations, and war was the natural way of deciding it. At the war council of December 8, 1912 Moltke pressed the view that a European war was inevitable and that, as far as Germany was concerned, the sooner it happened the better. His advocacy of preventive war prevailed. Twenty months later, when both the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg got cold feet over the prospect of a continental war and called on Austro-Hungary to halt its invasion and seek terms with Serbia, Moltke by-passed the chancellor and urged the chief of the Austrian general staff to mobilise against Russia, promising him that Germany would follow suit. Later that evening Moltke persuaded Bethmann-Hollweg to decide on general mobilisation, regardless of Russian equivocation. Two days later Germany declared war on Russia.

It was the German government, and especially its military leadership, that first risked and then caused continental war in August 1914. Why did they do it? Because they took it for granted that war is the natural way of deciding the balance of international power; because they foresaw that the longer the next war was delayed, the longer the odds against Germany’s victory would be; because they were determined at least to maintain Germany’s ability to back its wishes by credible military force and therefore its status as a Great Power; and because (to quote Stevenson) the memory of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War “still nurtured through annual commemorations and the cult of Bismarck, had addicted the German leaders to sabre-rattling and to military gambles, which had paid off before and might do so again.” Germany’s leaders were not sleepwalkers, but fully conscious moral agents, making decisions according to their best lights in a volatile situation of limited visibility. Error was forgivable. Not forgivable, however, was their subscription to the creed of Darwinist realpolitik, which robbed their political and military calculations of any moral bottom line.

It is natural for a nation not to want to see its power to realise its intentions in the world diminished. But if social Darwinism thinks it natural for a nation to launch a preventive war simply to forestall the loss of military and diplomatic dominance, just war reasoning does not think it right. Just cause must consist of an injury and Germany had suffered none. Nor was it about to: there is no evidence that Russia, France, or Britain intended to attack. On the contrary, Russia mobilised only after Berlin had already flirted with general war and then decided upon it. As for France, it had deliberately kept one step behind Germany in its military preparations so as to make its defensive posture unmistakable, and as late as August 1 France reaffirmed the order for its troops to stay ten kilometres back from the Franco-Belgian border. Notwithstanding this, Germany declared war on France on August 3 on the false pretext that French troops had crossed the border and French aircraft had bombed Nuremberg. 

In Britain a majority of the Cabinet was against entering the fray until August 2. The Entente Cordiale only obliged the British to consult with the French in case of a threat to European peace, and not automatically to activate their joint military contingency plans. What eventually decided the Cabinet in favour of war on August 4 was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality. In British minds “Belgium” conjured up a variety of altruistic just causes: honouring a treaty to guarantee Belgian independence, punishing a violator of the treaty, and defending the rights of small nations. It also involved British national security, however, since the Belgian coast faced London and the Thames estuary, and it had therefore long been British policy to keep that coastline free from hostile control to prevent invasion and preserve command of the sea. It is true that, in rising to Belgium’s defence, the British also sought to forestall a German domination of Europe that they found menacing. Nevertheless, Britain did not initiate a war to maintain a favourable balance of power, nor would it have intervened to maintain it without the invasion of Belgium. 

Germany had suffered no injury, nor was it under any immediate or emergent threat of suffering one. Unprovoked, it launched a European war to assert and establish its own military and diplomatic dominance. In response, Britain went to war primarily to maintain international order by upholding the treaty guaranteeing Belgian independence and by resisting its violator, and to fend off a serious threat to its own national security. In so doing it sought, secondarily, to prevent the domination of Europe by a power that had shown itself willing to unleash war on its studiously unprovocative neighbours. 

But given what we now know of the terrible cost of resistance, it is reasonable to wonder whether it would not have been proportionate — in the sense of “prudent” — for Belgium, France, Russia and Britain to suffer domination by Germany instead. How bad would that really have been?

Judging by the “Peace Programme” of war aims framed by Bethmann-Hollweg in September 1914, and by the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, German domination would have been seriously oppressive. According to the programme, Germany would annex Luxembourg; Liège and Antwerp in Belgium; and the Briey-Longwy iron ore field; the fortresses of the Hauts de Meuse; the western Vosges mountains, and possibly the Channel coast from Dunkirk to Boulogne in France. In addition, France was to be subjected to a crippling indemnity that would prevent rearmament for 20 years, and to a commercial treaty that would make it economically dependent on Germany. Belgium was to become a vassal state under military occupation and economically a German province. Although the September programme was not an authoritative policy statement, it was moderate in comparison with the more extreme annexationism of the military and the circles around the Kaiser. Certainly, the peace terms it envisaged for France were less harsh than those imposed on Russia in 1917: at Brest-Litovsk Russia was made to sign away over a third of its population, much of its heavy industry and coal production, and its best agricultural land. 

In addition, we can assume that the brutal relentlessness of the German military toward civilians in 1914 would have also characterised postwar German domination, especially in those regions subjected to military occupation. As John Horne and Alan Kramer have recently shown, it was German military policy to use civilians as human shields in combat, to burn villages in collective reprisal for resistance, and to shoot local irregulars who were caught bearing arms. Between August and October 1914 well over 6,000 civilians were deliberately killed by German troops in Belgium and France, and a further 23,000 were forcibly deported to German prison camps. 

Had Russia, France and Britain not resisted in 1914, therefore, there is good reason to suppose that Germany would have dominated western and eastern Europe in such a rapacious and ruthless manner as to have stoked widespread resentment among its newly subject peoples and high alarm among the newly menaced British. Domination of this kind would have ushered in an era of civil unrest and even more acute international tension. Moreover, as Stevenson says, in 1914 given the cult of Bismarck and the crushing success of the victories of 1866 (against Austro-Hungary) and 1870 (against France), “if Germany had again won quickly (as it probably would have done if Britain had stayed out) the temptation for further gambles would have been stronger than ever”. In short, non-resistance in 1914 would have produced neither a just peace nor a stable one.

A good case can be made that Britain had just cause for going to war against Germany in 1914. But was this cause in fact the reason it went to war? Did it fight with the right intention of reversing Germany’s unjust aggression? Or did it use the just cause as a pretext for waging its own aggressive war of continental domination? This was the substance of Siegfried Sassoon’s famous protest in 1917 — that Britain’s original war aims of self-defence and Belgian and French liberation could have been achieved by negotiation, and that what had begun as a war of self-defence was being deliberately prolonged into a war of conquest. 

Was Sassoon correct? Could Britain have negotiated a sufficiently just peace and stopped the dreadful slaughter before 1917? Apparently not. Germany showed no sign of being willing to return Belgium or France to the status quo ante until October 1918. In the winter of 1915-16, when it was clear that the war was not going to end any time soon, there was an informal diplomatic exchange between Germany and Belgium, in which the former demanded the latter’s alignment with German foreign policy, Belgian disarmament, German occupation and transit rights, a coastal naval base, and German majority shareholding in Belgian railways. At the end of 1916, instead of being chastened by the summer’s military emergency, Hindenburg and Ludendorff chose to expand their annexationist claims. In April 1917 the Kaiser and the German high command endorsed the secret statement of German war aims known as the Kreuznach Programme, according to which Germany would annex Briey-Longwy and Luxembourg and hold Liège and the Flanders coast for at least a century. Even as late as September 1918, Germany still resisted surrendering Belgium. Only in early October 1918 did it offer to enter peace negotiations on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the seventh of which required Belgium to be evacuated and restored. In sum, then, there is no evidence that Britain could have secured satisfactory peace terms before October 1918. Siegfried Sassoon himself admitted in 1945 that “in the light of subsequent events it is difficult to believe that a peace negotiated in 1917 would have been permanent”. It is even more difficult to believe that remotely acceptable peace terms were actually on offer.

A war can have just cause, rightly intend to stop and reverse injustice, be proportionate in offering belligerent resistance, and yet still be disproportionate in its chosen means of resistance. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s going to war in 1914, it was the massive number of casualties suffered for no obviously significant military gain that shocked Britons then-and still shocks us today. Above all else, this is what damns the war in the eyes of many-the apparently futile, industrial-scale slaughter and the generals’ dogged, criminally callous persistence in it. 

Let’s start with the numbers. The war against Wilhelmine Germany cost Britain and its empire 1,114,914 military deaths. This was a dreadful, unprecedented, and (mercifully) unsurpassed cost; and when compared to the 568,200 British and imperial deaths in the longer-lasting Second World War, it looks profligate. But appearances deceive. The casualties suffered by the other major combatants in the First World War were far higher than Britain’s; and its casualty figures in the war of 1939-45 were flattered by the fact that it never fought on the front that was decisive in breaking Hitler’s armies. That was in the east, where the Soviet Union suffered the deaths of 10,700,000 troops (and a further 11,500,000 civilians). 

Nevertheless, Britain’s losses in 1914-18 were appalling. Why? This is a highly controversial question, to which the most popular answer since the late 1960s is simple: military incompetence and callousness. Military historians today, however, tend to be more forgiving. A measure of incompetence was inevitable when British officers, trained to command small colonial forces, found themselves having to learn to manage millions. What is more, they were compelled to take the offensive against an invader at a stage of technological development that gave advantage to defence, coming after the mass production of machine-guns but before the mass production of tanks and, more importantly, the development of the creeping artillery barrage, of sound-ranging techniques in counter-battery fire, and of wireless communications. The United States was very fortunate indeed to stage its Civil War in the 1860s. Fifty years later, technology alone would have raised its 600,000 fatalities into the millions. 

Without doubt, the feature of military conduct during the First World War that most excites moral indignation is attrition — the tactic or strategy of wearing down the enemy’s forces faster than they wear down one’s own. To some this seems a boneheaded way of waging war, and immorally profligate in sacrificing the lives of one’s own troops. But appearances deceive here, too. Wearing down the enemy is a reasonable aim of military endeavour in situations where a decisive breakthrough cannot be achieved, and this need not be done carelessly. It can be done efficiently, in a manner least expensive to one’s own side. 

During the First World War, British generals and government ministers strove to find ways to break the stalemate on the Western Front and overcome the need for prolonged attritional warfare. That is why the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign was launched in 1915-to try and open up a new, more mobile front in south-east Europe. That is why Douglas Haig was so quick to champion the development of the tank. And that is also why Haig persisted in planning for a dramatic breakthrough on the Western Front in July 1916, long after others had concluded that it could not be achieved. 

Besides, those who damn British generals for waging attritional war and tolerating high casualty rates for months on end, must reckon with the fact that the undisputed turning-point in the later war against Hitler — the Battle of Stalingrad — was horrifically attritional, its human cost rivalling that of the Great War battles. They must also take on board the fact that on the mercifully few occasions in the Second World War when British troops found themselves bogged down in near-static fighting-hill-to-hill in Italy and hedge-to-hedge in Normandy — they reverted to the attritional tactics of 1917, and that casualty rates in the 1944-45 campaign in north-west Europe equalled, and sometimes exceeded, those on the Western Front in 1914-18.

All things considered, then, Britain’s war against Germany in 1914-18 was morally justified. It had just cause: the unprovoked German invasion of Belgium and France. Its intention was right: to expel an invader who would not countenance voluntary evacuation until the very end. It was proportionate ad bellum, in that the failure to resist would have resulted in grave oppression in Belgium, Luxembourg and France; the entrenchment on the Belgian and French coasts of a direct threat to British security; Germany’s confirmation of ruthless military aggression; and a consequently fragile peace. Yes, it was sometimes disproportionate in bello, where the military strategy and tactics adopted were more expensive of troops’ lives than necessary. And yes, sometimes the generals should have known better. But war, even when just overall, is only ever waged by imperfect human beings; and strenuous efforts were made to render attrition ever more efficient, and to overcome the need for it altogether by making a decisive breakthrough — as was eventually achieved in 1918. Meanwhile, the enormous costs in men and materiel were in fact affordable — because they were in fact afforded — and in that sense, the manner of Britain’s waging war was proportionate.

It is absolutely true, as Richard Evans says, that Britain’s expensive efforts in the First World War failed to usher in perpetual peace. But no war can be expected to do that-not in 1918 or in 1945 or in 1989. At most a justified war can stop a particular manifestation of serious wrongdoing in its tracks and open up a space for something better. So while it doesn’t mark the end of history, November 1918 does mark an important, provisional victory of justice. For that it deserves our grateful celebration-alongside our lamentation that justice should ever warrant such dreadful costs.

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