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Was Britain right to fight the First World War?

David Cameron thinks it was. David Cameron thinking anything is reason to believe the opposite.

Seumas Milne thinks it wasn’t. Seumas Milne thinking anything is reason to believe etc, etc.

Up to now I’ve tended to the Cameron line: appalling war, unsatisfactory conclusion but still worth fighting. But is that true?

We can begin by throwing out some of the canards that Milne so usefully supplies. The fact that Belgium’s government had acted appallingly in Congo does not mean that Belgians had no right to self-defence. It also does not mean that Britain was wrong to aid that defence.

Incidentally, I would be curious to know, were the imperial regimes any more or less brutal than the regimes that either preceded or followed them? Was George Washington really an improvement on George the Third? If commenters plan responding to that last one I would appreciate if they come armed with some comparative facts.

Milne also seems to confuse causes with justice. It may be true that the war was the result of imperial rivalries but that does not mean there weren’t good guys and bad guys – or perhaps more accurately, bad guys and worse guys. And in a fight between bad guys and worse guys I favour the bad guys. Human progress is almost never a case of the good taking over from the bad and almost always the bad taking over from the worse. For example, Deng taking over from Mao.

Getting back to the subject in hand and talking of imperial rivalries – I really don’t think that was a major cause. Europe was going through a political revolution. The masses no longer accepted that monarchs had a god-given right to rule. Ideas such as socialism, nationalism and democracy were challenging the old order and the old orders were scared. Even in liberal, prosperous Britain, suffragists were breaking windows, trade unionists rioting and Irishmen preparing for civil war. When there’s trouble at home regimes start making trouble abroad.

Anyway, back to those canards. Germany was far more of a threat to Britain in 1914 than it was in 1939 (note to Seumas: the second world war started in 1939 not 1940). In 1914 Germany had a powerful navy and it was coming our way. Moreover, in 1939, Germany had a clear ideological commitment to expanding to the East. In 1914 it was far from clear what it was trying to do.

That Britain had a right to defend Belgium is not the same as saying it had the obligation to do so or that doing so was sensible. However, if you are going to go to war with one of the most powerful countries in Europe it is usually a good idea to do so as part of a coalition. In that regard the prospects in 1914 were much better than in 1939. Really, can anyone think of a worse decision in the 20th Century than the Soviet Union signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany?

So, if there ever was a time to go to war with Germany, August 1914 was that time. But that is not the same as saying it was sensible. Two Liberal cabinet ministers, John Morley and John Burns, resigned over the declaration of war. In looking into Morley’s reasons I came across this and then this. I haven’t finished reading either but they do put a rather different perspective on things. Was the Triple Entente as much to blame as the Triple Alliance?

63 comments to Was Britain right to fight the First World War?

  • chuck

    King Leopold II was forced to relinquish control over the Belgian Congo in 1908 and I think it was one of the last acts of a civilized Europe. Similar moral outrage forced Germany to improve their behavior in German East Africa at about the same time. Europe has been in moral decline ever since WW I and such as Milne are a part of the rot.

    It is fun to imagine what Europe would be like if the British had stayed out of WW I. No doubt Germany would have carried the day and perhaps Russia would have avoided revolution. All in all, things might have gone better, but Wilhelm was in many ways a forerunner of Hitler in his perception of Germany’s place in the world; Hitler really wasn’t an original thinker about such things. But over all, I think the last century would have been more civilized. And Europe would despise its US competitor just as much, perhaps more.

  • Washington &Co. gave us a country based on free market capitalism in which it was seldom necessary to ask the government’s permission to do anything as opposed to George III’s mercantilism / crony capitalism which favored his friends at the expense of everyone else.

    Alas, the current regime here has discovered the virtues of being the king.

    As to WWI, I’m convinced we should never have gotten involved. The was was nearly over by the time we got in and would have been negotiated to some new boundaries and everyone could get back to work.

  • Rhukatah

    Britain might have had to have been involved to keep one power from dominating continental Europe, but it was most definitely a mistake for the United States to enter WWI.

    Though in fact the mistake was electing Woodrow Wilson, easily the worst president the United States has ever had.

  • Laird

    I agree with Rhukatah. But I’m not qualified to express an opinion on whether England was wrong to enter the War. Waiting for Paul Marks to weigh in on that.

  • Corsair

    Niall Ferguson certainly argued that Britain was wrong to enter WW1, on the basis that it wasn’t worth all the blood and treasure that it cost us. But what was the alternative for Grey and Asquith in 1914? Would it really have been in Britain’s interest, as seen in 1914, to see France destroyed as a Great Power and Germany commanding not just a large battle-fleet but the economy of ‘middle Europe’ too? And didn’t Fischer argue that Germany was trying to do in 1914 exactly what it did do under Hitler and (dare we say) Merkel ? Namely reorganise the inconvenient and illogical Kleinstaaterei economies of Europe into something more logical and suitable to German requirements. If a Europe dominated by Napoleon was a threat to Britain (and it was) then so was a Europe dominated by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I which case Britain was right to fight.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Corsair asks a good question. British foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries was often driven by a desire to prevent any single power controlling Contintental Europe. For a long time, that power was France.

    In the early 20th Century, Britain had good reason to be worried about Germany under the Kaiser.

    Even so, WW1 was, from many viewpoints, a catastrophe for Western civilisation. I don’t believe we have yet to recover from the baneful effects, not least, the fact that it accelerated the rise of the State and made it easier for the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia.

    I drove past one of the big cemeteries in northern France as a young lad decades ago. It haunts me still.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Policy issues aside, I want to say again that once France and Germany revealed their utter military incompetence at Verdun, the sensible thing would have been for their common soldiers to shoot their generals, hang their politicians, and go home.

    That would also have indirectly solved Britain’s problem.

  • That the fact that the Kaiser’s Germany had an explicit military policy of Schrecklichkeit, translated as “frightfulness” or “terror”, which they fully put into practice in the invasion of Belgium, pushes me in the direction of sympathy with those among the British leadership who thought, this cannot stand.

    As I said ten years ago,

    For some reason the mere knowledge that the Kaiser’s Germany was seriously bad news in its own right correlates very highly with political views of which I approve. All the “liberals” think that Nazi Germany came out of a clear blue sky, or was created by the Versailles Treaty, and that all the stories of German atrocities in the First World War were made up by the Daily Mail.


    It’s not new. Orwell mentioned how sick he got of people in his time who wouldn’t even place a fragment of the blame for the Great War on Germany. And it’s still going on. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have explained that there is simply no doubt that the Germans shot and bayoneted hostages in their hundreds at Louvain, Dinant, Tamine and Namur to name but a few. They proclaimed their deeds themselves. The whole point was that potential resisters should know their likely fate.

  • The last para of my last should have been included in the blockquote.

    The point I am making links to what chuck said in the first comment, and also perhaps to Brian’s recent post about Steven Pinker’s book that claims that humanity is getting nicer. A hundred years ago there were dreadful atrocities by European empires against their black and brown subjects, but whereas a hundred years before that scarcely any white person cared, by 1908 public opinion was forcing even monarchs to change for the better. The nature of the dominant ideology matters. That is why I think chuck is right about his observations but wrong in his conclusion. God knows, the world we had is bad enough, but a world in which a Germany wielding unapologetic and triumphant terror had carried the day would have been a terrifying example.

    If the empires had stayed in power there would have been fewer murdered whites but more murdered blacks.

    But would they have stayed in power? Would the emperors who had learned the Kaiser’s lessons not have been likely to bring into being their own Bolsheviks?

  • Snorri Godhi

    As it happens, this is an issue to which I have given quite a bit of idle thought, for quite a while.
    My consequentialist view, based on the 1914 memorandum of German chancellor Bethmann-Holweg, is that a German victory would have resulted in something like an earlier and more German-centered version of the EU. Not something worth fighting against, at least not when “fighting” means millions of war deaths.

    As for this:
    “The fact that Belgium’s government had acted appallingly in Congo does not mean that Belgians had no right to self-defence.”

    Patrick confuses “Belgians” with Belgium.
    Walloons and Flemings certainly had and have a right to self-defense, but how is that relevant to whether Britain should go to war to defend the Belgian State?
    Did Britain go to war to defend the Congolese State?

  • Tijuana Iguana

    Washington &Co. gave us a country based on free market capitalism in which it was seldom necessary to ask the government’s permission to do anything

    Unless of course you were black or an American Indian. And of course it was mercantilism that was in no small part a cause of the civil war.

  • Snorri, I am most certainly not confusing Belgians with the Belgian state. I do not give two hoots about the Belgian state. I do, however, give a little bit more for the Belgian people. And they most certainly were attacked as Natalie explains.

  • Regional

    All wars have one common root cause, incompetent politicians. Remember politicians are effwits who can’t get a job.

  • Regional

    PersonFromPorlock, beautiful sentiment.

  • chuck

    All wars have one common root cause, incompetent politicians. Remember politicians are effwits who can’t get a job.

    Perhaps a bit of exaggeration there. I would posit that the Mongol invasions succeeded because Genghis was a good politician and great general, but later receded because he was followed by lesser politicians. Sometimes and for some people, wars are considered a good thing. If Hitler had triumphed in WWII, I suspect that it would still be considered a ‘good’ war by many. But good for different reasons 😉

  • Snorri Godhi

    Patrick: thanks for your feedback. Granted that the “Belgians” suffered from the German invasion, they suffered much less than the Congolese did from the Belgian invasion.
    Did Britain go to war to defend the Congolese?

    NB: it is very rare that I oppose a British or American war; but when I do, it’s because I feel there are good reasons to do so.

  • Slartibartfarst

    Was Britain right to fight the First World War?

    Good question. Possibly one of the great imponderables.
    Was it a mistake or not?
    For a truly meaningful answer, you may need to go back a little further in time and ask about what led up to that particular decision-point – back to a time of an earlier, more momentous decision: whether it was a good idea to come out of the trees.

  • Rich Rostrom

    What Natalie said.

    I will further add that British (and American) abstention would have led to “an earlier and more German-centered version of the EU” established by brutal force. It would be controlled by men who were firmly convinced that might literally makes right, and that the proper use of national power was national enrichment at the expense of other countries.

    It is possible that the Grosser Deutsche Reich would have yielded to moderating influences and become a just polity in later years. Possible. There was an important Social Democrat Party; there were liberals in some of the university. But likely?

    Imperial Germany was a truly militaristic culture, where racism and conquest for gain were intellectually fashionable, and strutting, bullying officers were the height of social fashion (the Potsdamer ton). Success in conquest would have encouraged such attitudes and the autocratic rule of Kaiser Wilhelm.

    The ideas which coalesced into Fascism were already circulating.

    Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Even when the evil is “moderate”, submission to evil (tacit or explicit) nearly always leads to greater evils.

  • Allan Ripley

    Has anyone read How Diplomats Make War(Link) by Francis Neilson. Written 1914 and upated in 1916, it’s an insider’s view of the global political activities that resulted in WWI. I don’t have the background to evaluate the factual content of the book, but it reads very much like the sort thing that has been the characteristic of our “foreign policies” over the years.

    It was orignally edited by Albert jay Nock and published anonymously, so you get an idea of its world view and flavor. It was a good read for me.

  • Snorri: “Granted that the “Belgians” suffered from the German invasion, they suffered much less than the Congolese did from the Belgian invasion.

    Did Britain go to war to defend the Congolese?”

    No. So what? Really, what point are you trying to make here?

  • chuck

    I sometimes wonder where technology would be if not for the first and second world wars. Would we have the advanced aircraft and avionics that we do? What about computers and the internet? Satellites and smart phones? Penicillin and other antibiotics? No doubt commercial pressures would have gotten us something similar at some point, but I think the wars really did drive those things forward.

  • C R Krieger

    GW was our guy and G3 wasn’t.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  • Harry Dickjohn

    We had no treaty obligations to the Congolese, whereas we did to the Belgians (Treaty of London, 1839).

    Incidentally, “Was Britain right to fight the First World War?” can therefore only really be answered retrospectively (if that’s the right word). If Belgium continues as a single entity, then Britain fighting in WWI was worthwhile; whereas if the country ever did split between the Flemings and Walloons, then it wouldn’t have been – though (for what it’d be worth) such a split would be a massive betrayal of the Allies’ trust.

  • veryretired

    There is an old newsreel from the funeral of Queen Victoria in which the aristocracy of Europe, and the world, is depicted gathering for the ceremonies.

    It is fascinating to watch the parade of gaudily uniformed kings, princes, nobility of one king or another, emperors, and the vast collection of military and governmental supporting players, all tottering around in the herky-jerky fashion of early movies, and realize that, in just a few years, their entire aristocratic society would be in ruins.

    And, even more fantastic, that it would be the result of a mass suicide—an entire world-wide class so blinded by their narrow view of “how things have been must continue forever” that repeated revolutions and uprisings could not shake their convictions, nor open their eyes to the impending doom of all their hopes and dreams.

    I have written here about WW1 previously, and will not repeat that long, convoluted argument again.

    Suffice it to say that the period of “the fall of the empires”, which began with the Spanish, and continued with the fall of the Eagles in this war, and ending with the collapse of the soviet empire in 1989, was a century of turmoil around the world that might be unprecedented in human history.

    We are still living in an civilizational ocean whose waves are echoes of that cultural tsunami.

    There is today, across the globe, a new aristocracy of transnational elites. One can only wonder which form their demise will take, as the moral and economic and political bankruptcy of the defining cultural assumptions that undergird their exalted positions accelerates.

    I have long felt, as others here have expressed, that the US should have stayed out of the 1st world war. How Britain should have reacted to such a grotesque scenario is beyond me. Their stake in a balance of power in europe is well known, and understandable as a geo-political strategy.

    The latest craze in horror movies is zombies—implacable flesh-eating ghouls who suddenly appear after some form of virus or other cause brings madness and death into every living room and every town.

    I’ve always wondered why the movie makers need this artificial monster, when there are so many humans who could easily be cast in that role—very ordinary people, in all shapes, sexes, and colors, who thought nothing of killing everyone around them for whatever cause they were ethralled with at the moment.

    Maybe its too scary to admit what the real monsters looked like then, and look like today.

    They look just like us.

  • Midwesterner

    Two thoughts come to my mind. One is about George Washington. “Was George Washington really an improvement on George the Third?” Let’s give George III the last word on that.

    The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

    “If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

    That CATO article is short and worth reading.

    On whether the British should have entered WWI, I don’t know. But in everything I’ve read about the times, it appears that of all the casualties of that war, the greatest loss was of heroes, of those individuals with initiative who accepted responsibilities. WWI was the sharpest turning point in which both leaders and individuals began to shrink as persons. Whether of good or bad moral fiber, the strong of character were killed in great disproportion to the weak. Skilled horsemen charged into tanks, dutiful infantry marched into clouds of gas. WWI is when the tall poppies were cleared away and replaced with crab grass. WWI is when ‘leaders’ began to hide among committees and commissions, to take cover behind collective decisions, and the rank and file of society followed course and skewed abruptly onto a more generally collectivist course.

    The disproportionate loss of courageous, strongly principled and honor bound individuals in that war, who’s places in society after the war were filled by cagey, pragmatic and untrustworthy survivors, is a loss with consequences we will never fully understand. But for a small taste, look at the adventure fiction role models of The Gilded Age and compare them to the reckless skyscraper ledge balancing thrill seekers of the Twenties and the noir nihilist ‘heroes’ of the Thirties. In twenty years, explorers and inventors are replaced as role models with daredevil stuntmen which in turn are replaced by thugs on the edge of the law.

  • Steven R

    Was it right for England to go to war over Belgium is no more relevant than asking if Germany was right to go to war over A0H or Russia over Serbia. All of them wanted to go to war. It was manly, it was virtually a sport to go to war. Have a few battles, get a chestful of medals, and be home before the leaves fall. And of course, all those neat new toys like the airplane and battleships would be used to justify the expenses. The whole continent was happy to go to war. If it hadn’t be Serbia it would have been some other reason. There hadn’t been a good European war since the Franco-Prussian and it was just time.

  • Europe has been in moral decline ever since WW I and such as Milne are a part of the rot.

  • James Hargrave

    Many years ago, I got off a Greyhound bus opposite the ‘Woodrow Wilson Correctional Facility’ near his birthplace in Virginia – I thought, ‘a bit late to correct the damage done by that toss pot’, a sentiment later expressed more diplomatically to an American colleague in Oxford who could not see why anyone should have a bad word for him!

  • Paul Marks

    I agree that after the German invasion of Belgium (and with the terrible collectivism that so dominated German academia and the political elite in 1914 – even more so than in Britian and America) war could not really be avoided.

    However, the First World War is dominated in my mind by the terrible way it was faught – a terrible folly at both the strategic and tactical level.

    But we have argued about this before Patrick – and I have no desire to get into a dispute with someone I respect.

    I could not care less about the man in Kent or some terrorist loving scumbag in Arkansas.

    But I do not want to get into some heated dispute with you – and heat is unavoidable when there is such a basic disagreement on General Haig and so on.

    So I, respectfully, wirthdraw.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Patrick: I apologize for my tone which was more dismissive than I meant it to be.
    My point was simply that Britain did not, could not, and should not go to war against every injustice in the world. In the specific case of ww1, my view, which is consequentialist and admittedly based on hindsight, is that the defeat of Germany was not worth the price.

    As for the comments claiming that the 2nd Reich was pretty much the same as the 3rd: that seems a wild exaggeration to me, but even if that is true, was that a good reason to prevent the German invasion of France? it happened anyway, in 1940: why not 2 and 1/2 decades earlier?

    I am quite ready to throw narrow consequentialism out of the window when it is a matter of giving a show of resolve; eg in response to the invasion of the Falklands or to 9/11, the UK and the US simply had to show resolve, whatever the price. (That’s longer-term consequentialism.) I don’t think that ww1 required such a response, though I admit I do not feel sure about it.

    OTOH a case could be made that the US had to show resolve against submarine warfare, so I am more open to the idea that the US was right to join the war, as much as I disapprove of Wilson.

  • RRS

    @ Billll-

    Washington &Co. gave us a country based on free market capitalism in which it was seldom necessary to ask the government’s permission to do anything as opposed to George III’s mercantilism / crony capitalism which favored his friends at the expense of everyone else.

    That certainly does not conform to my understanding of English Economic or political (e.g., the Whigs) history.

    You might want to go back and review your sources.

    France was Mercantile, England was not.

    Oh! Did you ever hear of the Whiskey Rebellion?

  • Snorri: “My point was simply that Britain did not, could not, and should not go to war against every injustice in the world.”

    That’s kind of the point I was trying to get across in the original post. Maybe, I didn’t make it clear enough. And, on reflection, that was not really the point of the war. However, the invasion of Belgium revealed suspicions about German aggression to be accurate.

  • RRS

    Incidentally, I would be curious to know, were the imperial regimes any more or less brutal than the regimes that either preceded or followed them? Was George Washington really an improvement on George the Third? If commenters plan responding to that last one I would appreciate if they come armed with some comparative facts.

    – P.C.

    Do you not miss the point that the comparisons are not between the offices of the chief magistrates in the two systems, nor in how those magistrates were differently administered?

    The comparative “improvement” was in the system put into effect in 1789 to replace unlimited parliamentary authority (which still exist today) .

    While the politics and hubris of those times personified in George III the powers implemented by the English Parliament which excluded colonial participation, there is no basis for comparing the position of an American President to the King in Parliament.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Patrick: maybe I read too much into your post, but to me it seemed to say that the case to go to war against Wilhelm II was stronger than against Hitler.
    Add to that the suggestion in Corsair’s comment that Wilhelm II, Hitler, and Merkel, all had/have pretty much the same plans for Europe, and I thought it appropriate to bring a dose of realism to the discussion.

    Incidentally if Wilhelm II and Merkel have pretty much the same plans, that confirms my contention that what Wilhelm wanted was a proto-EU. Except that in a Wilhelmine EU there would have been no transfers to French farmers, and no Club Med bailouts… OK, now I am fantasizing myself, instead of injecting realism into the discussion.

  • Rhukatah

    @ Snorri re: submarine warfare

    The United States was only affected by submarine warfare because it was hypocritically favoring the British while loudly celebrating neutrality. If the US had been neutral and asserted its traditional rights as a neutral, it would have eventually come into the war on Germany’s side, just as it entered war in 1812 on the side of Napoleon.

  • Tom McKendree

    I am unclear, and still thinking about about the core question, but in the meantime have two books to suggest.

    The first is The Great War of 189-. A Forecast, by Philip Howard Colomb et al(Link). This book was published in 1893, and starts out with break-out of “The Great War” that reads almost exactly like what actually happened. The divergence occurs when, after the Germans have invaded Belgium, it turns out that their was some secret treaty annex, the plot point of this deus ex machina being that Great Britain does not enter the war in defense of Belgium against Germany. (It’s been almost 30 years since I read it, so I can’t place the exact detail.) I read the authors as biased towards Germany in a Franco-German conflict. Some of the later, science-fiction-like details (well, science fiction for the 1890’s), such as night battles illuminated by giant arrays of electric lights, now seem a bit off. (Why don’t those big lights get shot out?) Nonetheless, a very good slice of how people thought, and in some ways, how much WWI was not a surprise at the beginning.

    The second is Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940, by Robert Citino(Link). I rotate various self-made mini-posters on my office door, recommending various books, and this is the one on my door right now. His title is a little too narrow, as the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War are key early chapters. A key point about WWI is the vastly mistaken view about what would actually happen, versus the terrible meat-grinder that did. Maybe Britian was right ex ante to fight the First World War, given what could reasonably be expected at the time about how the war would procede (even in defeat), but Britian was wrong to join given the fighting that actually occured. A key point of Citino’s is that, given recent wars, it should not have been as much of a suprise that that the Western Front would be the machine-gun entrenched meat-grinder that occured. That argues, at least some, in favor of the the “don’t join” side.

    Returning to Patrick’s question, what would have been the behavoir and impact of a neutral Commonwealth over the course of the War? I expect the taxi’s still save Paris, and the Franco-German front stalemates in a similar manner. Certainly the Hoover of a neutral United States was able to ameliorate a lot of suffering. Britain was a lot closer. What would the ability to sell and ship to both sides have done for each side, and for the “English-speaking peoples”?

  • Snorri Godhi

    Rhukatah: while I do not dispute your points, I wish to add 2 further points.
    (a) It seems to me that, during a conflict, the US government had a right to allow or forbid trade with whomever they like … at least as long as they are willing to pay the consequences.
    (b) Even if they don’t have that right, at a certain point the situation is this: the Germans have declared unrestricted submarine warfare. What is the US to do, knuckle under? my instinct says no, appeasement gives an incentive for further threats, but I admit that for the US ww1 was not as clear cut as 9/11.

  • chuck


    I agree about the taxis, but I think the Germans would have won in the end. They nearly did during the Ludendorff offensive in 1918 and without the Americans, and British, they probably would have. The British Empire suffered some 1 million dead and 2 million wounded, add those numbers to the French 1.4 and 4.3 million and I don’t think France would have lasted or managed a stalemate. One does wonder what the impact of such a bloody victory, as opposed to bloody defeat, would have been on Germany.

  • mdc

    The net effect of fighting WWI and WWII is that Europe ended up under an Anglo-American hegemony with governments built along Anglo-American lines, rather than under a German hegemony with German political philosophy. That is an unalloyed good. The EU is an indirect attempt to partially reverse this outcome.

  • Alisa

    Thanks for the link, Mid – a great article.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Really, can anyone think of a worse decision in the 20th Century than the Soviet Union signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany?

    I think that Hitler’s unprovoked declaration of war on the US after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor may fall into that league. While Roosevelt was more concerned with the European theater; after Pearl Harbor in the absence of that German declaration he would have found it impossible to unilaterally get us involved in Europe. American war material would have been reserved for vengeance on the Japanese, and the British would have been stretched too far. I suspect that first the war in North Africa would have gone to Germany, with all the implications of that. In the absence of Lend-Lease to both Britain and Russia the war would have taken some very different turns.

    Speer may have had time to practice some architecture.

    Moving back to WW-I, I cannot credibly comment on the alternate histories of the war and British motivations. I will note that to me the proximate cause was more Austrian intransigence against Serbia more than anything else; but given the series of brushfire wars in the Balkans, something would have furnished the casus belli.

    As far as the US entry, I can speak with more certainty. Wilson’s campaign promise to keep us out of the war apparently was a deliberate lie. Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare was an attack on the US, but we had been down that road before, with neutral trade with belligerents being part of the reason for the War of 1812. That did not work out exactly as planned.

    But I assume that Wilson always intended, for ideological reasons if nothing else, to get us into WW-I. He may not have been able to quite pull it off though; without the help of the German Imperial Foreign Ministry and the Zimmermann Telegram. Offering to carve off the SW United States and give it to the Mexico where we had just sent a punitive expedition gave an air of immediate threat to the country that submarine warfare could not.

    Maybe I will essay a guess as to what would have happened if Britain had stayed out of WW-I. I conceive that Russia would still have been defeated, but perhaps before war weariness had time to bring down confidence in the Tsarist system. A reprieve, if you will. France may have been able to hold the line somewhere absent the British, but not to counter attack. When all was said and done, I can picture either a negotiated yielding much of France to Germany, or the Germans breaking through and defeating France after their troops from the Eastern Front moved west. Either would leave a greatly reduced France plotting an eventual revenge, with a lesser loss of life by all parties. Round Two [or Three if you count the Franco-Prussian War] would have been …. interesting.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Jacob

    WW1 was such a gigantic catastrophe, that any alternative scenario could only be better. I cannot imagine any alternative development that would have been worse than what actually happened. That includes Wilhelmine Germany becoming the dominant power in Europe for some time.

    Maybe, if Britain stayed out, the war would have been much shorter and less destructive. Maybe the German empire could be contained by Britain, America and Russia, and, over time, would have disintegrated in some less bloody fashion.

    WW1, as it played out, was the worst thing that could happen, anything else could only have been netter.

  • Ed Snack

    This question has come up before, and I continue to be (on the basis of considerable if somewhat irregular reading on the subject) of the opinion that a German victory was inevitable in the absence of Britain, and that would have almost certainly led to the invasion and absolute defeat of Britain within 10-15 years.

    France barely withstood the first German lunge but turned it back largely because of German errors, which probably would but not have occurred in the absence of the small but very competent BEF. After that though, that same BEF was effectively destroyed holding the front in the Ypres area. Absent that force (reinforced frequently but always I adequately) it is extremely unlikely that the French could have held, leading to another German encircling movement down the western flank.

    Once the foolishness of the original French strategy was revealed Joffre showed a reasonable degree of competence, but the French were simply inadequate in numbers and especially in economic capacity, particularly after the key northern industrial areas had been overrun.

    The German victory what’s more would have been fairly rapid, I doubt France, absent Britain, even if it survived the first Ypres, could have lasted through 1915. And without Britain, Germany would have been free to trade as it liked and would have totally dominated France’s sea coast and trade links as well. Italy would not have entered the war on the French side either, so Austria would be free to concentrate on Russia and to support Germany. The Russians could cope with and probably would defeat Austria-Hungary OK, but were outmatched by the German army, they would lose just like they did, Tannenburg, Masurian Lakes, etc, and would have sued for peace, probably losing something like they did at Brest-Litovsk.

    So, a rampart and relatively easily victorious Germany, I doubt that they would be satisfied with just dominating Europe. And without any continental allies and facing a foe that could now outbuild them in terms of Naval ships, Britain would be dead meat. Unlike the Napoleonic times, without a credibl naval defence, Britain could not stand alone.

    And I’m pretty clear too that a German hegemony would not have been good, for Europe or anyone (other than the German aristocracy and mercantilists). As noted above it was a militaristic regime with strong views on its own superiority.

    WW1 was a terrible occurrence, but for all that, better for Britain than the alternative. And for all those who believe in the possibility of freedom, better for everyone, probably.

    And the war was fought as it had to be. Armchair warriors come up with lots of ways that everyone on the ground got it wrong, but in reality, it was an artillery war dominated by indirect fire and fought in the almost complete absence of tactical communications. To believe that it was anything other than almost insanely difficult to have consistently done a lot better defies the realities. No general or leader at any level was consistently very successful, and as one French General remarked “what ever you do, you lose a lot of men”.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Patrick: Really, can anyone think of a worse decision in the 20th Century than the Soviet Union signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany?

    Quite a few. Stalin’s decision was rational and pragmatic – from the point of view of the Communist dictator of the USSR and leader of the Comintern. He told the Politburo exactly what the object of the Pact was – to start a war between Nazi Germany and Poland and the Western Allies, all of which were long-term enemies. It achieved that.

    It would let the USSR gained a massive swath of land, including half of Poland, the Baltic states, a slab of Romania, and Finland. It achieved that, except that the Soviets could only take a chunk of Finland.

    He did not expect (and neither did anyone else) that Germany was going to defeat Britain and France quickly and rise to mastery of most of the Continent.

    Subotai Bahadur: I think that Hitler’s unprovoked declaration of war on the US after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor may fall into that league.

    ITYM “voluntary”, not “unprovoked”. The U.S. was providing massive arms aid to Germany’s enemies, was patrolling the western and middle Atlantic against German subs, and had pledged itself to “the destruction of Nazi tyranny” in the Atlantic Charter. That adds up to a lot of provocation.

    And while Hitler’s decision was not entirely rational (was any decision by him?), it made a fair amount of sense.

    The U.S. was already hostile, and allied to Germany’s enemies. The leadership clique in the U.S. was anti-German (FDR of course, but also leading Republicans such as War Secretary Stimson and Navy Secretary Knox). These leaders (and the Army) feared Germany more than Japan, because of Germany’s immense industrial and technological resources, and its spectacular military successes in 1939-1941. There was really very little dispute of the “Germany first” policy.

    Britain was allied to the U.S. against Japan, so there would be clear justification for unlimited U.S. aid to Britain, including aid delivered directly to the British isles. That aid would be escorted by the U.S. Navy, and if U-boats or bombers attacked, there would be an easy casus belli for FDR.

    In addition, with the U.S. at war, Isolationists would be silenced, while the government would issue a flood of patriotic propaganda. That propaganda would include every possible reference to Germany as a Japanese ally, and every possible allusion to German complicity in Japan’s attack. (Many Americans assumed that Germany was not only behind the attack, but participated – because it was unthinkable that mere Orientals had done that to white men by themselves.) Hitler would also assume cynically that a cunning politician like FDR with war hysteria behind him and war emergency powers could get whatever he wanted, regardless of popular opinion or the law.

    Given these factors, Hitler almost certainly concluded that the U.S. would declare war regardless in a few months, and that in the meantime the U.S. would behave as if it was at war with Germany anyway – except in actually sending U.S. troops into battle, and the U.S. Army wouldn’t be ready for that for months anyhow.

    By declaring war himself, Hitler achieved two things.

    First, he, the man of destiny, called the shots.

    Second, all restriction on U-boats were lifted and they were sent into U.S. waters. The resultant slaughter was epic.

    He also put pressure on Japan to reciprocate by attacking the USSR, which was plausible, though in the end a fond hope.

    As for worse decisions:

    Japan’s attack on the U.S. in 1941 is a contender. It was based on the fantasy premises that the U.S. could be shocked into submission, and that Japanese forces would by mere force of character outfight all opponents, inflicting that shock.

    Another catastrophic decision was Stalin’s determination that Germany would not attack in 1941.

    Mussolini’s decision to declare war in 1940 is right up there too; though perhaps the invasion of Greece was even dumber.

    While we’re in that era – von Papen and Hindenburg’s decision to bring Hitler in as Chancellor was pretty bad, for reasons that were obvious at the time.

    The Ottoman decision to enter World War I blew up pretty good. So did the German decision to start World War I.

    Another outstandingly bad decision was Britain’s decision to merge naval aviation into the RFC/RAF.

    More recently – Carter’s policy of undermining the Shah was a colossal blunder.

    So was Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait.

    The decision to ban DDT has cost millions of lives; hard to get much worse than that.

    But really, if any decision from 1900 through 1999 counts, what can possibly outrank the adoption of the Euro?

  • Brad

    By the turn of the century, the imperial aims of all but Germany and Italy (those late to nationalize) had been largely achieved. Britain and France probably should have entered the war to keep a balance between those for whom empire building had become passe and those new to the game. As the war progressed, and the deadly toll that was taken, was due to that overall balance.

    But the US should not have entered the war as they tipped the balance in favor of one side, who then was able to put the blame fully on the other side, and we all know the consequences. And if Europe had not done itself in through TWO wars, perhaps the de-imperialization may have gone much smoother than the US largely inheriting being the policeman of the world. The relatively quick dissolution of empires is the destabilization we are still living with to this day.

  • Paul Marks

    I will try not to rise to the bait of a tactical discussion.

    However, I believe the idea that there was (for example) no difference between how General Plummer dealt with a situation and how General Gough dealt with a similar situation is false – quite false. Generals blaming technology (or whatever) for their failures is like a workman blaming his tools – it is the classic sign of a bad workman.

    And, of course, various commands spent years denying their failings – pretending to have killed more enemy troops than the had (for example the French claimed to have killed thousands of Germans when the Germans took an important fort near the start of the Verdun operation, in fact there were no German casualties at all – and during the Somme offensive the British high command magnfied German deaths by HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS, they justified their lack of tactical skill by LYING about the number of Germans they were killing).

    On a strategic level I also disagree.

    The first princple of siege warfare (and the First World War is a siege – on a massive scale, the whole of Central Europe is the target) is for the besiegers to keep in communication (so that the target’s supplies can be cut off – and the besieged can not turn the tables by attacking the various besieging forces in isolation, to try and achieve “breakout” and end the siege).

    The Allied forces besiegeing the Central Powers did not act as one force, they were not coordinated, they were divided.

    It was vital (vital) for them to be linked up – and that means knocking Turkey out of the war so that allied forces could be linked up (supplies got to the Russians and Russian forces libertated from the Turkish fronts to concentrate on the struggle with Germany).

    “You sound like Winston Churchill Paul”.

    It has been fashionable for a hundred years to mock Churchill’s strategic concept – but he was correct. However, the TACTICAL exectution of the operations was hopeless.

    Only a small area of ground needed to be taken to enable the Royal Navy to sail to Constaninople and knock out the Ottomans.

    The Generals entrusted with this task (Stopford and so on) were hopeless – utterly hopeless.

    “Technology and ….”

    Total bullshit.

    S. did not even go ashore at Sulva Bay for days. He claimed his leg hurt him – and that he was tired. And that the elves had stolen his boots (O.K. I made the last one up).

    Tens of thousands of British troops landed (virtually unoposed) and faced only a couple of hundred Turkish troops – with no real defences.

    They, the British, then just sat there – whilst the Turks (and their German “advisers”) rushed in huge numbers of reinforcements and built defences.

    For all my attacks on Haig over the years – there is no way that he would have let such opportunties slip through his fingers.

    He would have attacked at once.

    However, Haig was not there – he did not support the strategic concept.

    Neither did the top military brass in general.

    But that was no reason to send a bunch of clowns to be in charge of the tactical execution of the concept.

  • Paul Marks

    As Ludwig Von Mises tried (in vain) to explain to Murray Rothbard over the years……

    The World War One German elite were dominated by the ideas of German academia – the “Socialists of the Chair” (a sort of proto National Socialism rather than Marxism). It was NOT just Beligium.

    Of course the First World War made the world a WORSE place (not a better place), but that does not mean it could have been avoided.

    France (yes “ultra aggressive” France) tried to avoid it.

    The Germans just lied and pretended that there had been a French attack – thus giving them an excuse to declare war and attack in the West.

    Hitler played a similar trick with Poland in 1939 – even dressing up concentration camp prisoners in German uniforms and shooting them (and then pretedning they were the victims of a Polish attack).

    History (unlike economics) is about empirical facts.

    Rothbard (and some other libertarians) ignore the basic nature of what history is – and write about it as if it was economics (i.e. – apriori).

    History that puts ideology (such as the ideology of nonintervention) above empirical facts (such as the aims of the enemy – and their actions to try and achieve these aims) is of no use.

    For example, it was a common place among the German elite that large areas of Latin America would have to come under the control of the German Empire.

    So if the United States had not gone to war with Germany over Europe – it would have ended up in a war with Germany over the Americas….

    Sorry people – war with Imperial German could not be avoided.

    For German “War Socialism” see “Nation, State and Economy” by Mises.

    For the ideology (and for motiviations – ideology is important, but oddly enough Rothbardians ignore ideology when it comes to THE IDEOLOGY OF THE ENEMY, not just in the First World War, but also the Second World War and Vietnam) of the German elite….

    See “Omnipotent Government” by Ludwig Von Mises, and “The Road to Serfdom”, “The Constitution of Liberty” and “Law. Legislation and Liberty” by F.A. Hayek.

    “But Hayek’s point is that Britian and America are on the same road as Germany”.

    Quite true – but the basic point of Hayek is that Germany (of that time period) has already fallen into evil, he is warning the West to stop going down this road.

    “But the war made the world a WORSE place”.

    That was the very point I started with – that does not mean war could have been avoided.

    The only real way to avoid war with Germany would be for Germany to not have been unified (like Italian unification – German unification was a terrible mistake) or it for it to have been unified by some different ideology than Bismark’s (or the even more extreme types who forced out Bismark).

  • Absolutely not! I believe Britain was looking for an excuse to enter the war, and in so doing, turned what might have been a local conflict in a world war! The Kaiser’s government had sought assurances from Edward Grey that Britain would remain neutral and, that being the case, had agreed NOT to invade Belgium. Grey refused to give such an assurance. The press in all the belligerent nations were driving people to war and the poor Kaiser, Tsar and Emperor of Austria became the scapegoats. (Link)

  • Jacob

    of the opinion that a German victory was inevitable in the absence of Britain, and that would have almost certainly led to the invasion and absolute defeat of Britain within 10-15 years.”

    Of course, a German victory, in the absence of Britain, was probable. It would have come faster, and with much less bloodshed. Germany would have grabbed some pieces of land from France and Russia, with much less attrition being inflicted on all parties. Maybe the fall of the Tsar and the communist revolution would have been avoided.

    It is not clear at all that Germany was so totally crazy as to try to invade Britain. I don’t think so. Maybe it would have demanded some African colonies, that Britain could have handed over at no great loss.

    And, over the years, the German Empire would have dissintegrated in some manner, as they all do.

    As to the tactical errors: European Generals have failed to learn the glaring truth revealed by the American Civil war: offensive attempts in the age of machine guns was madness. The defender is always victorious. The Germans broke their neck in the spring of 1918 offensive.
    The British and French Generals attempted several offensives, failed miserably in all of them, and never learned the lesson.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: my tendency is to find excuses for any war that Rothbard opposed. I think of him as a libertarian version of Chomsky.
    I’d be grateful if you can give a reference where Mises explicitly rebuts Rothbard on foreign policy.

    “History that puts ideology (such as the ideology of nonintervention) above empirical facts (such as the aims of the enemy – and their actions to try and achieve these aims) is of no use.”

    That’s the other face of Hume’s is/ought dichotomy: trying to deduce what is from what ought to be.

    Nonetheless let me mount a feeble defense for the cause of non-intervention.
    First, I note that the question was: was BRITAIN right to fight?

    Second, you note that “lebensraum socialism” was common amongst the German elite, not the masses. Don’t you think that after a Pyrrhic victory over France and Russia, the German masses would have felt alienated from the elite?
    Add to that the hostility of all the occupied people, and it is difficult to see how Germany could translate its dominance in continental Europe, into a program for world domination.
    Not to mention that Austria-Hungary would also have been a winner, and Austro-Hungarian culture had perhaps more affinity with Britain than with Germany: see Popper, Wittgenstein, the logical positivists, the Austrian school.
    On the balance, I still tend to think that letting the Germans conquer much of Europe was a risk worth taking.

  • Paul Marks

    Ludwig Von Mises did not bother to mention Rothbard in print Snorri.

    As for works where Mises tells the truth about the German elite – I have already mentioned them.

    Still what did he know?

    Mises was only a personal friend of the Austro-Hungarian Finance Minister (Eugene Von BB – died in 1914).

    And knew members of the House of Habsburg for decades.

    And was an expert on the German “Socialists of the Chair” and how they dominated political thought and German WORLD aims.

    So the people in this thread clearly know more.

    Sorry for the sarcasm – but I am tired and irritated.

    “Germany would have kept the peace with Britain”.

    Of course – till they were ready.

    The Imperial Navy and the Imperial colonies were of no economic benefit to Germany – the Empire was a massive COST to Germany.

    They were followed for POWER.

    Long term POWER.

    “Germany would just have taken a bit of land off France and Russia”.

    Sure – and my name is Frederick the Great.

    There is just no understanding of the ideology that gripped Imperial Germany – even more than it did other nations.

    And those nations (such as Richard Ely in the United States) got the ideology from Germany.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: nobody here has denied that Mises understood the German elite, but just because the elite wanted to rule the world, that does not mean that they could.
    You say it yourself:
    “The Imperial Navy and the Imperial colonies were of no economic benefit to Germany – the Empire was a massive COST to Germany.”

    Sooner or later, enterprises that do not pay attention to the bottom line go bankrupt. That is what happened to the Soviet Union, which likewise had ambitions to world rule. (And that is also what happened to various Caliphates, though they lasted longer.)
    So the question is: was it more expedient **for Britain** to join ww1 or to adopt a policy of containment, as the US did with the Soviet Union? (And Britain did with Napoleon.)

    Having said that, I thank you for the Mises links, which I downloaded and put on my reading list.
    I have read The Road to Serfdom twice, and chapter 12 is indeed disturbing, but Hayek does not take a stand on whether ww1 was worth fighting as I remember.
    I also don’t remember Hayek saying much about German imperialism in The Constitution of Liberty (I assume you refer to chapter 16) but I don’t have it at hand.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Something else to consider- the British could have tried the Utopian option. Put a price on the head of every officer in the German army, and let the mercenaries solve your problem for you! Meanwhile, stay out of the land fighting yourself, and use fireships to destroy the naval capacity of the enemy.

  • Laird

    Nuke, I agree that the Utopian model is the only moral way to fight a war, but the Utopians would not have put a price on the head of every German officer, but rather on heads of the Kaiser and the senior officials of the German government. Soldiers, even officers, weren’t viewed as the enemy, only those actually responsible for declaring the war were. But of course no modern state would ever fight a war that way, because the enemy might reciprocate and we can’t have actual politicians dying in war, can we?

  • A forerunner of Hitler in his perception of Germany’s place in the world; Hitler really wasn’t an original thinker about such things.

  • Jacob

    We can play, now, based on our knowledge of an additional 100 years, with the idea “what if Britain stayed out of WW1?”.
    I think that it would have been better for her.

    But staying out was not an option in 1914.

    It would have meant an unhonest, unhonorable, treacherous betrayal of her treaties and allies.

    Besides – nobody was aware in 1914 of the terrible catastrophe they embarked upon. Nobody predicted the disastrous outcome of this war. Nobody was aware of the absurd incompetence of all the generals, in all the armies.

    Kaiser Wilhelm II, which was in general just a pompous fool, grasped at the last moment the enormity of the imminent catastrophe, and tried to stop the war, but was overriden by his generals, and not man enough to impose his will.

  • Paul Marks

    You may well be correct Snorri – after all German “War Socialism” (imposed after 1916) helped German lose the war (the “chaos” of French industry was actually far more efficient).

    Jacob – you some it up well. The First World War made the world a worse place – but there was no real way to avoid it.

    As for Willy II…..

    “So it will be a one front war” (when France refused to attack) – and, yes, the Generals overruled him and staged a French attack in order to have an excuse to declare war on France – then the French did attack (in the terrible mess that was the French offensive – men marching brightly coloured uniforms behind military bands….)

    The Russian Emperor wanted to refuse to even mobilize (thus denying the Germans any excuse to declare war on Russia) – however, the minister of war shouted at Nicky till he gave in.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Jacob: speaking for myself, I admitted that my opinion is based on the benefit of hindsight.

    As for this:
    “It would have meant an unhonest, unhonorable, treacherous betrayal of her treaties and allies.”

    It would have been far less treacherous, in my view, than closing Palestine to European Jews after Hitler got to power; far less treacherous than the Munich agreement, the phony war, Yalta, and the Suez debacle. (Did I miss anything?)
    In other words: why protect your reputation if you are soon going to squander it?

    Paul: it seems that we have agreed on what we can reasonably disagree.

  • Jacob

    “In other words: why protect your reputation if you are soon going to squander it?”

    That is again, hindsight, not available to the actors in 1914.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Christina, do you think that Britain started the First World War? How did it rig that? And to what end?

  • Paul Marks

    The person who first betrayed the Jews by preventing Jewish people going to the Holy Land was Herbert Samuel – back in the early 1920s.

    There was no effective control of Arab immigration of course – just Jewish immigration.

    By the way – Herbert Samuel (the coward and idiot who appointed a murderer to be Grand Mufti and broke the British promise of a National Home for the Jewish people) was himself Jewish.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: thank you for the historical note. It was rash of me to challenge a person of such erudition, but it was profitable. (I don’t mean to be funny btw.) I must look Herbert Samuel up.

    Jacob: what I was hinting at, not very clearly, is that the British political class of 1914 was no more honorable than the political classes responsible for the treacherous acts which I listed: that they would have sold France+Belgium down the river, had they assessed the costs and benefits of joining the war. This is where the benefit of hindsight comes into play.
    Another way of looking at it: it was treacherous to send millions of British men to die in the trenches, for a cause less worthy (in my opinion) than some of the others I listed.

  • the last toryboy

    Interesting to see Gallipoli and Suvla Bay mentioned, how true. It was just rank incompetence on the part of those in command.

    Wikipedia has a good screed on that sorry episode. I especially like the quote from Hamilton at the end. :-

    Stopford was satisfied with the results of the first day. On the morning of 8 August, he signalled Hamilton:
    “Major-General Hammersley and troops under him deserve great credit for the result attained against strenuous opposition and great difficulty. I must now consolidate the position held.”

    He had no intention of advancing to the high ground. The British staff had estimated that it would take the Ottoman divisions at Bulair 36 hours to reach Suvla — they could be expected to arrive on the evening of 8 August. Hamilton was dismayed by the lack of progress so far and the absence of any drive from Stopford or his subordinates. He had already dispatched Captain Aspinall to discover first-hand what was happening at Suvla. Aspinall was accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, who was to report on the progress of the campaign to the British Cabinet. When he received Stopford’s signal, Hamilton decided to see Suvla for himself.

    Aspinall and Hankey initially found the ease and inactivity at Suvla encouraging, assuming it meant the fighting was now far away amongst the hills. Once on the beach, they were warned to keep their heads down as the front line was only a few hundred yards away — and that Stopford was still aboard the Jonquil. Aspinall found Stopford “in excellent spirits”, well satisfied with progress. When Aspinall pointed out that the men had not reached the high ground, Stopford replied, “No, but they are ashore.”

    Aspinall and Hamilton both converged on the light cruiser HMS Chatham, the flagship of Rear-Admiral John de Robeck who commanded the landing fleet. Finally, on the afternoon of 8 August, nearly two days after the landing commenced, Hamilton gained a clear picture of events. Accompanied by Aspinall and Commodore Roger Keyes, he crossed to the Jonquil to confront Stopford who had finally been ashore to consult with Hammersley.

    Stopford and Hammersley planned to order an advance the following morning, 9 August. Hamilton insisted that an advance be made immediately and so, at 6.30 pm, the 32nd Brigade was ordered to march two and a half miles to the Tekke Tepe ridge. The march, in darkness over unfamiliar, rough terrain, was difficult and the brigade did not approach the summit until 4 am on 9 August. The Ottoman reinforcements had reached the ridge shortly before them and met the exhausted British infantry with a bayonet charge. The 32nd Brigade was virtually annihilated in a matter of minutes and the remnants of the battalions scattered back towards the beach.

    Hamilton had watched the battle from the Triad. He wrote in his diary:
    “My heart has grown tough amidst the struggles of the peninsula but the misery of this scene wellnigh broke it… Words are of no use.”