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 Wounded French soldiers during the Battle of Argonne, 1918: Trench warfare was costly in lives but not always disproportionately so (credit: UIGVIA, getty images) 


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.

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Patrick Clarke
February 28th, 2014
8:02 AM
A "short, localized European conflict" without British involvement would have led to an early German victory and another war involving Britain and Germany, probably within 5 years. How could Britain not feel seriously threatened by German military bases being established in Antwerp and Dunkirk and further expansion of the German Navy. A virtual 1940 scenario of British isolation in Europe would have existed in 1915. Far from restraining Austria the Germans were actually urging her to "get on with it" regarding invading Serbia. Therefore the cause of World War One lies entirely at the feet of Germany. It amazes me that Germany's culpability has been glossed over for so long. Their aggressive intent in 1914 was in fact even greater than that in 1939 where territorial grabs were at least restricted to Poland & the remainder of Czechoslovakia.

January 11th, 2014
9:01 PM
"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,..." This is a blatant misrepresentation of what Sidney Fay argues in his book. He does not say that "all the powers were more or less responsible". That quote comes from the beginning where he is discussing the historiography of the war and how what historians have focused on has changed over time: " The question of the causes of the War may be said to have passed through three phases during the past dozen years, each phase being determined to some extent by the material available for judging the question...Finally, with the growing realization that all the Powers were more or less responsible, and with the increased attention which came to be given to the underlying causes of the War, more judiciously and historically minded persons were less inclined to accept the easy solution of explaining the War on the scapegoat or personal devil theory—that is, of the “guilt” of this or that individual.[1] They fell back on the truer explanation that the War was caused by the system of international anarchy involved in alliances, armaments, and secret diplomacy.[2] But, after all, the “system” was worked by individuals; their personal acts built it up and caused it to explode in 1914. In the discussion of the future, it will be the work of the historian to explain the political, economic, and psychological motives which caused these individuals to act as they did. "--sidney fay When discussing responsibility he is making the distinction between responsibility for proximate causes and underlying causes: "THE Greek historian Thucydides, in his history of that catastrophe to ancient civilization when Spartan militarism triumphed over Athenian democracy, makes the distinction between the more remote or underlying, and the immediate, causes of war. It is the distinction between the gradual accumulation of inflammable material which has been heaped up through a long period of years and the final spark which starts the conflagration. The distinction is a good one. It is equally applicable to the World War. Failure to observe it has often led to confusion of thought in regard to responsibility for the War, since responsibility for the underlying causes does not always coincide with responsibility for the immediate causes. One country may for years have been much to blame for creating a general situation dangerous to peace, but may have had relatively little to do with the final outbreak of war—or vice versa." And he certainly does not shy away from making moral judgments: "Germany did not plot a European War, did not want one, and made genuine, though too belated efforts, to avert one. She was the victim of her alliance with Austria and of her own folly. Austria was her only dependable ally, Italy and Rumania having become nothing but allies in name. She could not throw her over, as otherwise she would stand isolated between Russia, where Panslavism and armaments were growing stronger every year, and France, where Alsace-Lorraine, Delcassé's fall and Agadir were not forgotten. "--from the conclusion "General mobilization of the continental armies took place in the following order : Serbia, Russia, Austria, France and Germany. General mobilization by a Great Power was commonly interpreted by military men in every country, though perhaps not by Sir Edward Grey, the Tsar, and some civilian officials, as meaning that the country was on the point of making war,—that the military machine had begun to move and would not be stopped. Hence, when Germany learned of the Russian general mobilization, she sent ultimatums to St. Petersburg and Paris, warning that German mobilization would follow unless Russia suspended hers within twelve hours, and asking what would be the attitude of France. The answers being unsatisfactory, Germany then mobilized and declared war. It was the hasty Russian general mobilization, assented to on July 29 and ordered on July 30, while Germany was still trying to bring Austria to accept mediation proposals, which finally rendered the European War inevitable. Russia was partly responsible for the Austro-Serbian conflict because of the frequent encouragement which she had given at Belgrade—that Serbian national unity would be ultimately achieved with Russian assistance at Austrian expense. This had led the Belgrade Cabinet to hope for Russian support in case of a war with Austria, and the hope did not prove vain in July, 1914. Before this, to be sure, in the Bosnian Crisis and during the Balkan Wars, Russia had put restraint upon Serbia, because Russia, exhausted by the effects of the Russo-Japanese War, was not yet ready for a European struggle with the Teutonic Powers. But in, 1914 her armaments, though not yet completed, had made such progress that the militarists were confident of success, if they had French and British support. "--from the conclusion

September 2nd, 2013
6:09 PM
Did you not read the evidence the author gave for Germany's guilt? What is your contrary evidence. Germany did bear the guilt, and rightfully so. If you criticize without evidence, you are the one who "couldn't be more wrong".

August 30th, 2013
8:08 AM
No, the author couldn't be more wrong. The British not the Germans turned what could have been a short, localized European conflict into a world war, which cost tens of millions of lives. All sides, including the Central Powers, bore responsibility for the conflict, but Britain and revanchist France, not Germany and Austria-Hungary bear the primary responsbility. Britain began to lose its Empire and become a third-rate satellite of the United States thanks to the outcome of this destructive and fratricidal conflict.

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