Gary Sheffield on First World War debate: 'A German victory would have been a disaster for Britain'

Gary Sheffield, professor of war studies at Wolverhampton University, has contested Niall Ferguson's suggestion that Britain made a terrible mistake in taking up arms in 1914. Writing for History Extra, Prof Sheffield said Britain entered the war because people "recognised that there was something worse than the war – a German victory".

A British recruitment poster - Topfoto

If Britain had stayed out of the First World War in August 1914, or even delayed its entry, it could well have resulted in Germany defeating France and Russia. This would have been a disaster for Britain and Europe. The Kaiser’s Germany was not Hitler’s, but it was bad enough: an aggressive, militarist, expansionist, near-autocracy. While the Reichstag was democratically-elected, it was largely toothless.

The choice to wage war, and the key decisions thereafter, were made by a tiny unelected clique of politicians and military answerable only to the Kaiser. Indeed, from August 1916 onwards the German government became even less democratic when the military duumvirate of Hindenburg and Ludendorff established what has been called a ‘silent dictatorship’. Any idea that in a victorious Germany democracy would have emerged is pure fantasy.

German policies in occupied territory fell short of the genocidal approach of their Nazi successors, but were brutal enough. In occupied France and Belgium there was a ‘reign of terror’, to quote two modern French historians, involving deportations, forced labour, and harsh living conditions. Democracy and liberalism would have been extinguished in most of continental Europe. No wonder the Allied troops advancing in 1918 were greeted rapturously as liberators by French and Belgian civilians in the occupied zone. For Britain to have stayed out of the war would have been to condemn the peoples of occupied Europe to a very dark existence.  

British faced an existential threat in 1914. A German victory would have imperilled the security of the British state and Empire, and left it in the position it actually found itself in a generation later, in 1940 – isolated, without allies, and facing a bleak future. That is why Britain entered the war and continued to fight it, in spite of the appalling cost. The British people were prepared to bear that cost: the evidence is clear that they recognised that there was something worse than the war – a German victory.

Professor Ferguson’s attempts to draw parallels with British strategy in the wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France are puzzling. Pace his assertions, Britain sent ground troops to the continent as soon as they entered the war in 1793. They were small in number, but that was a reflection of the small size of the army and global commitments. The 1793-95 campaign was where the future Duke of Wellington saw his first action. There were also sizeable commitments to campaigns in the Netherlands, Egypt and the Mediterranean before the Peninsular War began.

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The full story can be found in the February issue of BBC History Magazine. To access the magazine digitally, click here.

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