A persistent theme in criticisms of the commemoration of the start of the First World War is that it is a celebration of an “unjust war”. Even if this is not widely believed and there is acceptance that the Great War is something to be remembered, there is still a general perception that the immense casualties of the war were such that the justice of whatever cause Britain and the Entente was fighting for is somewhat irrelevant in comparison.
In his monumental history of the First World War, John Keegan called it a “tragic and unnecessary war”. In how it began, with civilised nations giving themselves over to suspicion and violence in the July Crisis, it was certainly tragic. In how it ended, with hundreds of thousands of men dead in the mud and millions more maimed or shellshocked, it is even more tragic. It is tempting to believe that this alone makes the war unnecessary, but the nature of warfare is violence, and with this in mind, I believe that the Entente’s participation in the war was not just necessary, but also just.
What of the war itself? To take a bleak view of history, all but a few wars are unnecessary, if we judge “necessary” to mean “in a nation's interests to fight”. What cannot be gained cheaply in peace will only be vastly more expensive in war, and there are only a handful of “short, victorious wars” throughout history in which this is not true. All too often the gains are transient: the Franco-Prussian War, the archetype of rapid, decisive victories, bred such enmity in France for Germany that the German gains were reversed at ghastly cost to each in the Great War. Yet the unique success of the Franco-Prussian War was what encouraged Germany to seek another lightning victory over France in 1914, and has only inspired others who believe they can have their short, decisive war and be “home before the leaves fall.”
Yet when those nations that begin unnecessary wars in the delusion that they will be victorious, it is often necessary for other nations to go to war and pay that terrible price, lest the peace be even worse. In the Second World War, it was hardly in Britain or the Soviet Union's interests to shatter the flower of their manhood and their imperial wealth to defeat Nazi Germany, but the price of peace, a Europe dominated by Hitler, was too much to bear.
This is the obvious example to give. It might be argued that it is the only example, but I believe the same may be said of Britain and the First World War.
In the case of France and Belgium, it is obvious that their war was a necessary one: they had to defend themselves from German aggression. But what of Britain, guarded by her Navy with a great overseas empire? Could we not have sat it out and avoided its terrible destruction?
To this I say no. It is utterly unrealistic to believe that, even if every single man that died or was injured in her service stayed alive, Britain could have sat out the war and be enhanced. Firstly, her international credibility would have been destroyed. She was committed by principle, if not treaty, to stand by France, and by solemn international covenant to defend Belgian neutrality. While the Foreign Office had noted in 1906 that the Treaty of London did not oblige Britain to aid Belgium “in any circumstances and at whatever risk”, in practice Belgian neutrality was such a core component of the strategy for European peace that had she abrogated her treaty obligations, Britain’s integrity in international relations would have been shot. French fears of la Perfide Albion would have been totally confirmed. In the words of Sir Edward Grey in his speech to the Commons on the eve of war:
If, in a crisis like this, we run away from these obligations of honour and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty... I do not believe for a moment that, at the end of this war, even if we stood aside, we should be able to undo what had happened, in the course of war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite us from falling under the domination of a single power... and we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world and should not escape the most serious and grave economic consequences.
Grey’s last point is particularly important. There is not a single scenario where a German victory is beneficial for Britain: without the assistance of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons and the Marne, it can be argued that France may have been forced to seek a compromise peace. Likewise, the British attacks on the Somme and Passchendaele were vital to relieving a French Army nearly broken by Verdun in the first case and torn by mutiny in the second. A German offensive in the west after the disaster of the Nivelle Offensive could have conceivably broken the French Army. Thus Britain’s involvement was necessary to hold back a German victory, but what would such a victory entail?
Fritz Fischer, Barbara Tuchman and Gordon Corrigan all considered the Septemberprogramm to be the blueprint of a German peace, and it makes for sobering reading: in particular, France would cede the Channel coastal strip down to Boulogne and Belgium would become a German vassal state. The Kaiser suggested that the border area with Germany be cleared and this new lebensraum be used to lodge retired veterans. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz demanded that Antwerp be annexed and used as a naval base.
Since Germany never won, the Septemberprogramm remained purely speculative, but the experience of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk shows that Germany was prepared to demand immense concessions from totally defeated enemies: Russia was forced to yield Poland and its Baltic provinces to Germany, as well as pay six billion Marks in reparations. In its response to Woodrow Wilson’s December 1916 peace proposal, Germany made not a single concession at all. It is not unreasonable to believe that in the event of France capitulating, Germany would have demanded something very like the aims of the Septemberprogramm, which would include the possession of the Channel ports. A German Empire possessing these, and in particular the Rhine delta that gave access deep into the continent, would be in a position to strangle Britain’s continental trade if it so chose to do so, and so demand from Britain any concession.
But are these – Britain’s reputation and its trade – really worth the loss of so many lives? It will no doubt be argued that these are elite concerns and that their pride and wealth was not worth the bloodletting. Unfortunately this is not true: the quality of life of Britain’s poor had improved dramatically over the past century, mostly thanks to the establishment of free trade, which by 1914 Britain clung to as an article of faith. The repeal of protectionist legislation permitted the import of cheap foreign food and so improved the diets and lives of Britain’s poorest. In 1909 the People’s Budget of David Lloyd George dramatically redistributed wealth and brought about new welfare programmes. Old Age Pensions and National Insurance followed. The well-being of Britain’s people was thus intrinsically tied to the wealth of the nation, which was brought about by foreign trade. German domination of Europe had the potential to catapult everyone from the lowliest labourer to the mightiest captain of industry into destitution.
Thus, the potential impact of non-intervention is difficult to reconcile with the idea that Britain’s Great War was unjust or unnecessary. The “poets’ view”, that the horrific struggle rendered irrelevant the merits of the Entente cause, was not shared by those in the trenches. Any sane combatant recoils from the horrors of the battlefield, but this does not mean that they would acquiesce to their enemy’s victory. They would have been rather poor soldiers in that case. It is worth noting that despite the horrors of the trenches, the British Army was the only army on the Western Front not to suffer a serious mutiny or collapse in morale, and the fact that they believed in the justice of their cause played no small part in this. In 1978, veteran Henry Mellersh wrote; “I and my like entered the war expecting a heroic adventure and believing implicitly in the rightness of our cause; we ended greatly disillusioned as to the nature of that adventure but still believing that our cause was right and we had not fought in vain.” To summarise, Britain’s involvement in the Great War was very much justified and very much necessary, yet the horrifying cost that had to be paid for his does indeed prove Keegan right and makes the war all the more tragic.
Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock
Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914
John Keegan, The First World War
Simkins, Jukes and Hickey, The First World War: The War to End all Wars
Jeremy Paxman, Great Britain’s Great War
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August