Was the Great War Necessary?

By Benjamin Schwarz


AMERICANS scarcely marked the eightieth Armistice Day, this past November 11. But standing with stricken faces before the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Ossuaire at Verdun, and tolling bells in the gloomy villages of Lancashire and the Pas-de-Calais, the British and the French, our erstwhile co-belligerents, mourned as if freshly wounded. For them the Great War is not yet merely history.

In this way, among others, the Oxford historian Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War is a very British book. Although Ferguson is young, clever, and ironic, there is nothing cool or dispassionate about his view of the war. The underlying and animating emotion in his book is profound regret. “The First World War,” he states up front, “remains the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure.” Although his rich and provocative book argues many — too many — disparate points, its fundamental argument is that (a) the war was a uniquely terrible event for Britain, and therefore (b) Britain should never have fought it, since (c) the stakes involved were for the British not high. The first assertion is close to indisputable. The second is highly defensible. But the third evades the difficult and tragic aspects of Britain’s experience in the Great War.

In 1929 Virginia Woolf described an Oxbridge luncheon party at which, despite notable food and scintillating conversation, she was overcome by a sense of something missing.

But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk. And to answer that question I had to think myself out of the room, back into the past, before the war indeed, and to set before my eyes the model of another luncheon party held in rooms not very far distant from these; but different. Everything was different.

cenotaph300The First World War (so named in 1918 by a sardonic English journalist, who knew it would not be the last such conflict), engendered in Britain a sense of loss that endures to this day; it remains the great divide in Britons’ sense of their history. Along with the battles of Mons, Loos, the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, and the writings of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden, the statistics are probably known to every sixth-former in the United Kingdom: the 60 percent casualty rate that tore apart the British Expeditionary Force (probably the best army Britain ever fielded) in the first three months of the war, the 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 723,000 British dead by the end of the war (twice as many as in the Second World War).

Although evocative and heartbreaking, this litany doesn’t tell the full story. The war poets’ perspective, for example, was hardly representative. (As the historian Correlli Barnett has argued, much of their revulsion was provoked by the squalor of daily life in the trenches, conditions that the common British soldier from the slums of Leeds, Liverpool, or London would not have found particularly noteworthy.) Nor were the death and mutilation spread evenly through British society. Although the majority of the British dead came from the working class, officers, drawn mostly from the upper classes, paid a disproportionately high price: for mobilized men overall the death rate was about 12 percent, but for graduates of Oxford and members of the peerage it was 19 percent, and for graduates of the fifty-three boarding schools where statistics are available it was 20 percent. Not since the Wars of the Roses had the aristocracy suffered such losses. The tiny, intimate world of the British elite — members of which composed Woolf’s social and intellectual circle, and largely determined how future readers would think about the war — truly lost a generation, and, not surprisingly, it assumed that the country as a whole was similarly devastated.

Britain’s horrendous losses were not extraordinary. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Turkey each lost far more lives. Moreover, as dreadful as was Britain’s experience, “the disturbing paradox” of the Great War was, according to the historian J. M. Winter, that it was at once “an event of unparalleled carnage and suffering and the occasion of a significant improvement in the life expectancy of the civilian population, and especially of the worst-off sections of British society.” Thanks to unprecedented government interference in the wartime economy, wages among the poorest groups in Britain rose significantly, and wealth was effectively redistributed. And because of the economic, social, and political forces the war produced, the kind of poverty endemic in pre-1914 Britain — which gave British males almost the same life expectancy as that which Ecuadorians had in the early 1960s — never recurred.

Yet if Britain’s experience in the Great War was more complex than the popular mythology would have it, that experience was nevertheless just as crippling as Ferguson maintains — albeit as much for subjective and psychological reasons as for objective4 T ones. The war is Britain’s national trauma, and British and Commonwealth historians compulsively revisit it in the way that American historians revisit the Civil War. The results have been glorious. Few other areas of British historical scholarship have inspired works of such range and quality. Ferguson, like most of his fellows, writes with verve and flair, with a sharp eye for detail and a blind eye to narrow specialization.

A number of military historians have searingly elucidated the awful conditions and calculus of combat. Other scholars have inventively fused economic, military, and diplomatic history. And still others — Winter, Barnett, Modris Eksteins, and Trevor Wilson, for instance — have synthesized such seemingly unrelated fields as education, industry, and literature, or demography and military tactics, or economics and art, or sociology and politics, to produce breathtakingly broad histories. Perhaps the most successful of these, Wilson’s aptly titled The Myriad Faces of War (1986), embraces in its densely packed pages nearly the totality of the experience of the British state and people during the Great War, and is perhaps the closest thing to a complete historical synthesis ever written of any war. Ferguson, too, takes a broad approach, and his book — which has aroused enormous controversy in Britain since its publication there last year — seems to me an implicit response to Wilson’s, for their basic arguments are diametrically opposed. To appreciate the nature of their differences, though, an American has to know something about the essential divide between contemporary British historians and British readers in how they think about the war.

“FUTILE” is the word that best describes the judgment presented to the British public regarding the First World War. From the war memoirs of the 1920s and 1930s to A. J. P. Taylor’s illustrated history of the war (almost certainly the most popular chronicle of the conflict) to the recent novels of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks (and from the 1929 playJourney’s End to the 1963 play Oh! What a Lovely War to the 1981 movie Gallipoli), the Great War has been portrayed as a meaningless and unnecessary slaughter, imgresled by stupid generals and feckless politicians. Reviewing a war memoir in 1920, one critic plaintively sought some purpose behind the conflict: “Nowhere will you find a period or a sentence of which you could say, ‘There! that is what we fought for!’ The Cause finds no expression.” But in fact since the late 1960s (when, not coincidentally, official records concerning the war were first made available to scholars) most British historians, echoing the explanations and justifications of British military and civilian leaders during the conflict, have discerned “the Cause”: Britain fought to forestall a German bid for the mastery of Europe — an essential threat to Britain’s national security and political independence. This view has largely failed to penetrate the popular mind, however, probably because the disillusionment of anti-war memoirs is so deeply embedded in the British psyche, and because the British public remains so overwhelmed by the price the war exacted. (Thus, for instance, as long ago as 1964 the BBC showed a lengthy documentary that basically argued that although terrible, the Great War was a “necessary war.” Britons’ response to the twenty-six episodes of battlescape, however, was to describe the war using the very terms — “needless slaughter,” “dreadful waste” — the documentary had attempted to refute.) Oddly, then, Ferguson has self-consciously written an iconoclastic book that attempts to tear down the prevailing scholarly view, but in the public’s understanding he batters down a door already open.

Wilson stated his position clearly at the outset of his book: “Britain’s involvement in the Great War was not some deplorable accident. Nor was it a malevolent deed clandestinely accomplished by home-grown plutocrats and diplomats.” “The conflict,” he explained, “was about preserving Britain as a major, and even as an independent, power.” In opposition, Ferguson opens The Pity of War by declaring,

The fundamental question this book seeks to answer … is … what were all these deaths . . . really worth? . . . To be precise: Was Britain truly confronted by such a threat to her security in 1914 that it was necessary to send millions of raw recruits across the Channel … ? What exactly was it that the German government sought to achieve?

To Ferguson, the answer is obvious: Britain’s intervention in 1914 was “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history,” because Germany in fact did not pose an essential threat to British interests. So Ferguson indicts London, because “it was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long [as] and cost many more lives” than it would have if only Britain had not stepped in the way.

At one level this is a difficult argument to make. Consensus among historians is rare, especially regarding the origins of the First wartime-recruitment-posterWorld War, the search for which has swelled into one of the largest investigations into any historical subject. Nevertheless, historians do now generally agree that, as Ferguson acknowledges, Germany “forced the continental war of 1914 upon an unwilling France (and a not so unwilling Russia).” The notion, advanced by the German historian Fritz Fischer and some of his protégés, that there wasn’t much difference between the war aims of Wilhelmine and of Nazi Germany remains controversial. It’s clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for (along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia) the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a “vassal state,” and the German navy’s taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases — actions that would certainly threaten Britain’s naval security, as Ferguson readily concedes.

The questions historians now debate are Why did Germany essentially force a war in 1914? and Why did it pursue such ambitious war aims? Some, including Ferguson, point to Berlin’s deep-seated anxiety about Russia’s rapid industrialization and growing military power, and thus see German actions as an attempt to pre-empt Germany’s strategic deterioration relative to Russia. They further point to the belief, shared by many Germans, that the balance among the great powers of Europe — the crux of the diplomacy of the past two centuries — was giving way to one among “world powers.” In this emerging pattern only the British Empire, Russia, and the United States had the natural resources, population, and industrial capacity for an assured position in the front rank. For this reason, so the argument goes, Berlin pursued a comparable concentration of power through the destruction of its European rivals’ independence and through arrangements that would guarantee to German industry a continental market and a raw-materials base. In short, the goal was, in the words of the historian Imanuel Geiss, whom Ferguson quotes approvingly, “German leadership over a united Europe in order to brave the coming giant economic and political power blocs.”

From this tenable if disputable assessment of German ambitions Ferguson builds his case that British policy was terribly, tragically misguided. Ferguson’s interpretation of that policy, however, is usually simplistic and often clumsy. Central to his argument is the assertion that the causes to which other historians have ascribed the Anglo-German antagonism in the years leading up to the war — imperial and economic rivalry and Germany’s naval buildup — did not menace the British. But this refutes an argument that historians don’t make. In fact the British were often untroubled by German imperial expansion, since, as Winston Churchill argued in 1912, “we should be rather glad to see what is now concentrated [in the middle of Europe] dissipated [overseas].” London’s anxiety about German imperial policy arose not because that policy posed a direct and unambiguous threat to Britain’s colonial 1569_orinterests but because of the shrill and aggressive tone in which it was expressed. In its foreign policy Germany seemed, if not a definite menace, something resembling an increasingly powerful, at times sullen, at times boastful teenager; even the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, described his country’s international behavior as “strident, pushing, elbowing, overbearing.” This restlessness was bound to make the British nervous, especially since it was exasperatingly unclear just what would assuage an increasingly petulant Berlin.

No such mystery surrounded Germany’s naval expansion. Germany’s naval rivalry with Britain demonstrated the fundamental incompatibility of the two countries’ interests and aims. By 1910 Germany’s was the largest navy in the world after Britain’s, and it was built as an offensive force with solely Britain in mind as its opponent. A rising world power, Germany understandably didn’t wish to have its expanding overseas trade dependent on the good will of Britain, which by an accident of geography commanded the maritime approaches to Germany. For Britain’s part, its foreign policy had long included the axiom that national security depended on its command of the English Channel and the North Sea. In other words, what one power wanted, the other would never voluntarily concede. So although by 1912 the British felt sure that they had, at least in the near term, won the naval race, they had come to believe, as the diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe put it, that “the building of the German fleet is but one of the symptoms of the disease. It is the political ambitions of the German Government and nation which are the source of the mischief.”

This conclusion was hardly unreasonable from London’s point of view. Although at first Britain saw a German “threat” in the narrow terms of a naval rivalry, that rivalry provoked British statesmen and military planners to pay closer attention to the geopolitical consequences of Germany’s booming population and industry and its military power. London feared that were Germany to dominate France, through either political intimidation or military conquest, the resulting increase in its economic strength would permit it to outbuild the British navy. And a greatly enlarged German navy, with access both to the North Sea and to French ports, could strangle Britain.

CITING the pace of Russian industrialization and strategic railway construction and the size of Russia’s army (while neglecting to emphasize how ill-trained that mass of peasant conscripts was), Ferguson asserts that although Britain looked at the Kaiser and saw a latter-day Napoleon, pre-war Germany in fact felt threatened by the czarist colossus and believed that its own relative advantage in Europe was slipping away. Had Britain not1280px-Sargent,_John_Singer_(RA)_-_Gassed_-_Google_Art_Project suffered from a “Napoleon neurosis” but instead understood the true balance of power on the Continent, Ferguson argues (echoing the complaints of Germany’s pre-war statesmen), it would have realized that German ambitions in 1914 were preventive rather than offensive, and didn’t call for a British response. This position has some merit. Britain began to focus on the problem of the balance of power when France and Russia were at their weakest, and London was slow to recognize Russia’s surprisingly rapid recovery from the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War. Berlin was more perceptive, and certainly there is considerable evidence that German doubt and pessimism about the future gave rise to the Germans’ appetite for expansion and subjugation. To this day historians are debating whether, as Crowe framed the issue, Berlin was “definitely aiming at a general political hegemony . . . , threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England,” or whether Berlin’s designs were “no more than the expression of a vague, confused and unpractical statesmanship not realising its own drift.”

But to Britain, as Crowe argued, the question of German intentions was far less important than the reality of German capabilities. Unlike Ferguson, who too crudely uses total numbers of soldiers as an index of the military balance, British statesmen rightly regarded the German army as the most technologically advanced and tactically innovative in Europe (a judgment that was to prove accurate during the war). However legitimate Berlin’s anxiety about the long-term rise of Russian power, London couldn’t ignore the fact that Russia’s ally, France, would almost certainly be overrun in the event of a Continental war. For sound geopolitical reasons Britain’s concern was with Germany’s threat to France and Belgium rather than with a potential Russian threat to eastern Prussia. Germany, after all, was only one of three new great powers to embark on expansionist policies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the obvious difference for British calculations was that the other two — Japan and the United States — were a safe distance away. In this regard, the real “historic disaster” that turned the war of 1914 into a world war wasn’t British intervention, as Ferguson claims, but Germany’s war plans, which were plainly to crush France. Had the Germans in 1914, rather than invading Belgium and attempting to annihilate France, simply defended their impregnable frontier with France while moving east against Russia, they would have dispatched their Russian nemesis without provoking war with Britain. No British government would have wished to go — or, given public opinion, could have gone — to war with the Central Powers to maintain some distant and obscure borders in Eastern Europe.

Finally, however much Germany may have “acted out of a sense of weakness” in 1914, as Ferguson maintains, British fears of German power on the Continent and what that implied for Britain’s security seem justified in hindsight, given that — again, as Ferguson acknowledges — without Britain’s intervention France would have fallen in 1914, and that even with the British aiding The-Kensingtons_2656601bRussia in the most strenuous military exertion in their history, Germany managed in 1916-1917 to defeat Russia decisively and to impose a draconian peace on it.

At several points Ferguson strongly suggests that Britain’s decision to intervene wasn’t merely misguided but, in fact, irrational and somewhat sinister. He claims that since Britain’s most formidable imperial rivals were France and Russia (rather than Germany), London sought the “appeasement” (Ferguson’s mischievous use of a loaded term) of those powers. The resulting ententes with the French and the Russians took on a life of their own. He thus argues that the British “were exaggerating — if not fabricating — a [German] threat in order to justify the military commitment to France they favoured. . . . Precisely because they wished to align Britain with France and Russia, it was necessary to impute grandiose plans for European domination to the Germans.” But although it’s true that the entente with Paris was reached to settle the powers’ imperial differences, it was within a year transformed and deepened, thanks to Germany’s antagonistic behavior, into a defensive partnership based on shared fear of German ambitions. As for the entente with Russia, contrary to Ferguson’s assertion, London’s anxiety to help restore Russia as a counterweight to Germany and to form a “triple entente” with Paris and St. Petersburg to contain Berlin clearly played a central role in its creation. The First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, perfectly encapsulated British priorities when he maintained that Germany was a far greater danger to the British than their traditional imperial rival, Russia, because the former “threatens not an outlying possession but our vitals.” Since Ferguson takes for granted that without British military intervention on the Continent, Germany would have beaten France and Russia, his argument rests on his conviction that the peace Germany would have imposed on Europe was one with which “Britain, with her maritime empire intact, could . . . have lived.” To support this proposition, Ferguson asserts that the Europe that would have emerged from a German victory would have been quite benign, “not wholly unlike the European Union we know today” — in which, after all, he reminds us, Germany’s is the dominant economy. Having built this case, Ferguson concludes that “it would have been infinitely preferable if Germany could have achieved its hegemonic position on the continent without two world wars.”

SUCH counterfactual arguments, by definition, can’t be proved or refuted, but Ferguson’s depend on some dubious assumptions and comparisons. The first difficulty is that Germany’s aim, after the war began, to control the Belgian coast and possibly the French Channel ports as well was one that, by Ferguson’s own admission, “no British government could have tolerated.” Ferguson states, however, that had Britain not intervened, Germany would have honored its pledge to London — offered on the eve of war, when the British were wavering about whether to step in — to guarantee French and Belgian territorial integrity in return forE Wadsworth Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, 1919 Britain’s neutrality.

This argument hinges on Ferguson’s assertion that “it would have been foolish [of Germany] to have reneged on such a bargain.” But why would it have been foolish? Ferguson acknowledges that what he terms the “limited” price Germany would have exacted even under these circumstances would have included crippling the French military capacity, thus making France “economically dependent” on Germany; constructing an economic bloc in Northern and Central Europe under “Germany’s economic dominance”; and effectively eliminating Russia as a counterweight to Germany. In other words, Germany, vastly stronger militarily and economically, would have been in a position at any point in the future to go back on its bargain, especially because the injured party — Britain — would no longer have allies to help it put muscle behind its protestations. Since Britain’s inaction would have allowed Germany to strengthen its capabilities enormously, London would have taken a gigantic gamble based on nothing more substantial than German good will. In short, even had the European settlement that Germany would have imposed been one that (to use Ferguson’s judgments) Britain could have “lived” with, the British would henceforth have been powerless to prevent it from being transformed into one that could not be “tolerated.”

Furthermore, Ferguson exaggerates the power Britain gained from its empire. He breezily suggests that German hegemony on the Continent wouldn’t have mattered to Britain, given its “overseas power,” but he fails to define the extent of that power and what, precisely, it afforded Britain. And even if Britain did benefit from its imperial position, after the gains from the empire were balanced against the costs of sustaining it, the British almost certainly benefited more from economic relations with the Continent. This was particularly true for Britain’s dynamic financial and commercial sectors, the central elements of its economic power. These relations would obviously have been jeopardized by German domination of Europe, especially since one of Germany’s primary motives for establishing a Continental preponderance was to challenge Britain economically. Moreover, even those British statesmen who were most devoted to the empire, such as the ultra-imperialists Sir Alfred Milner and Leo Amery, argued vigorously that German hegemony had to be prevented, since, they held, once dominant on the Continent, Germany would resume its fleet expansion with greater devotion and resources than before, shattering British naval mastery, the sine qua non of Britain’s imperial system.

Finally, in arguing that no vital British interests were at stake in preventing German hegemony on the Continent in 1914, since, after all, German hegemony doesn’t menace Britain now, Ferguson fundamentally misunderstands which power is actually preponderant in Europe today. Although Germany’s is the strongest European economy, the United States is indisputably Europe’s military and political leader — and in crucial ways it has sheared Germany of military and political power. By providing for Germany’s security and by enmeshing its military and foreign policies in a U.S.-dominated alliance, the United States contained its erstwhile enemy, thus enabling the Western Europeans to cooperate politically and economically. Whether German hegemony in Europe would in fact have been inimical to Britain (or any more inimical than U.S. hegemony) may be an open question, but Ferguson is wrong to equate the position of a Germany victorious in the Great War with that of Germany today.

IN many ways, then, Ferguson’s is a weak argument. Although he is a talented writer and a versatile scholar, he nevertheless constructs his case not from evidence but from the wish that Britain had stayed out of the colossal slaughter of the Great War and so averted that conflict’s consequences — from the Russian civil war, which may have claimed nearly as many lives as the Great War that spawned it, to the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, to the reduction of Britain and even Europe to minor forces in world affairs — none of which British statesmen could have foreseen in 1914. If only “a minority of generals, diplomats and politicians” had not remembrance-day-the-glorious-dead-cenotaph-jazzvirdee_blogspot_commisapprehended German intentions and British interests, this “disaster” would have been avoided. Ferguson’s impassioned and distorted argument, born of his great sense of regret over Britain’s agony, is vivid testimony to the persistence of the pain of the Great War among the British people. In this way his book, while often unconvincing, is an important cultural document. But in making so stark a case with so simple a solution, Ferguson misses the tough and painful questions his subject raises. Even though much of his argument is highly disputable, his “fundamental question” — Was it worth it? — resonates. To Ferguson, the answer is blessedly simple — Since there was really nothing at stake, of course not. But this position (similar to that of such figures as Bertrand Russell, Ramsay MacDonald, and John Morley, who in 1914 opposed Britain’s entry into the war) really evades rather than confronts the question.

There was in fact a great deal at stake for Britain in the Great War. Even assuming a benevolent German order on the Continent, the result of Germany’s victory would have been that British independence as a great power would have been greatly diminished. This may seem like an abstraction. But those British generals, diplomats, and politicians who soberly committed their country to war in 1914 were hardly brimming with optimism — as Sir Edward Grey’s oft-quoted lament, delivered on the eve of war, attests: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They knew, however, that few responsible statesmen would voluntarily place their country at the will of another in a world in which Thucydides’ hard law, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” has always obtained.

But to say that Britain fought the war so as not to be dependent on the sufferance of Germany doesn’t settle matters, because the price Britain was compelled to pay to preserve its national independence was truly awful. Whether that price was too high is a question more complex and therefore more compelling than Ferguson allows, and it has haunted the British mind for the past eighty years. But the question of whether submission might be preferable to waging war simply did not occur to the men who ruled Britain (or France or Germany or Russia) in 1914. As the cliché goes, the Great War ushered in the modern world. And in the world that began with four years of slaughter on the Western Front and continued with the terror bombings of the Second World War and the prospect of nuclear oblivion, that question will never again go unasked.


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