The First World War: Was it worth it?

Did the outcome of the First World War justify the enormous loss of life? We ask two leading historians, Gary Sheffield and Richard J Evans, to put the case, both for and against

British troops go over the top of the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, 1916. The Somme was one of the bloodiest clashes of the First World War, causing more than one million casualties over five months. (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Yes, says Professor Gary Sheffield

Was the outcome of the First World War, from the British point of view, worth the sacrifice? At the time, the vast majority of the British population thought it was. But the society of today is very different from that of a century ago and, not surprisingly, we struggle to grasp why our predecessors were prepared to endure privation and the death of young men on a vast scale. Even in Ireland, a majority supported the war until the events of 1916–18 overturned the consensus. In 1914 the UK was a democracy, albeit an incomplete one, governed on liberal principles. The masses actively supported a total war that encompassed the whole of society. Without that ‘buy-in’, waging such a conflict would have been impossible. As dreadful as the war was, a German victory was regarded as even worse.

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I would differentiate between the war with Germany in Europe (essentially a defensive war against aggression) and the imperial campaigns. Britain did not go to war in 1914 to expand its empire, but later acquired colonies from Germany and Ottoman Turkey. There were strategic reasons to do so, but it was also the knee-jerk reaction of an imperial power. The war against the Ottomans increased British empire casualties. So, was the loss of life in, for example, Mesopotamia, justified? I would say not.

The way the war ended – with the Allies imposing terms that are popularly but erroneously believed to be exceptionally harsh, supposedly laying the groundwork for a second global conflict – has cast a long shadow over perceptions of the First World War. But there are good reasons why a negotiated peace didn’t happen in 1914–18: Germany, having conquered substantial tracts of territory early on, refused to give them up; and France was determined to fight on until the enemy had been expelled from its soil.

Neither was there much pressure from below for a negotiated peace. Some tales of enemy atrocities were undoubtedly exaggerated but, nonetheless, German behaviour stoked fear and hatred of a ruthless enemy. Belgian refugees brought to Britain terrible stories of German cruelty.

Imperfect as the world was in 1919, a scenario in which Germany was victorious would have been much worse

Some writers have portrayed imperial Germany as a near-liberal democracy. This is unconvincing. Whatever the theory, real power lay in the hands of the kaiser and his advisers. Equally unconvincing is the notion that European leaders ‘sleepwalked’ into war in 1914. The evidence is clear: Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating conflict. As the war went on, civilian leaders and the kaiser himself were pushed aside as the military ‘silent dictatorship’ of Hindenburg and Ludendorff assumed power. Imperial Germany was not like Nazi Germany, but it was bad enough.

From July to November 1918, Allied forces fought a campaign of liberation greeted ecstatically by French and Belgian civilians who had endured four years of harsh occupation, which included deportations and forced labour. What’s more, the punitive terms that the Germans imposed on the Bolshevik regime at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 left Britain in little doubt as to its fate if it should be defeated. This was an important factor in stiffening British morale in the face of the great German spring offensive launched in France a few weeks later. Although most of the population lived in poverty, they were better off than their ancestors, and they feared a German victory would turn back the clock.

Imperfect as the world undoubtedly was in 1919, a scenario in which Germany was victorious would have been much worse. France would have been reduced to a vassal state; Belgium would have become a de facto German colony; liberal democracy would have been largely extinguished in Europe.

If the Royal Navy had remained intact, Britain would have been safe from invasion but it would have been faced with the nightmare of a continental Europe united under a hostile power that possessed key naval bases that menaced the UK’s security.

The British had no illusions about the gravity of the threat. Allied victory in 1918 averted this threat – for the moment; the Allies were incapable of destroying Germany, even if they had been willing to do so. The war was won, but subsequently the peace was lost. It would take a second, even more destructive war to do away with the German threat. For all these reasons I must conclude, reluctantly, that from the UK’s perspective the outcome of the war in 1918 was worth the sacrifice.

Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton and author of A Short History of the First World War (Oneworld, 2014).


No, says Professor Richard J Evans

This isn’t really a question that a historian should bother answering. There are two common fallacies behind it.

The first is that historians should tell people in the past what they should have done and what they shouldn’t. This is an arrogant, know-it-all position that just isn’t realistic. What the historian has to do is to explain how and why things happened, not lecture the past on what should have happened or why what happened was right or wrong.

The second fallacy is that historians should identify with one side or another in the past. Our job is not to champion a particular party or nation, but, again, to explain why parties and nations behaved as they did. If there’s one word the historian should never use when writing about the past, it’s the word ‘we’ (‘we’ British, ‘we’ Germans, ‘we’ Russians).

So when we talk about ‘the sacrifice’, we should talk about the sacrifice of the lives, not just of British soldiers, but of Russians, French, Serbs, Italians and all the others who died in this terrible conflict.

Politicians tend to justify wars with all kinds of rhetoric – ‘the war to end war’, for example, or the war to build a better world. Historians should be sceptical about such claims. The title of the German historian Jörn Leonhard’s monumental new history of the First World War, just published in English, is Pandora’s Box. And indeed the war, quite apart from its unprecedented destructiveness, did release all kinds of demons and plagues upon the world.

The war destroyed Europe’s economy for a generation. It did not recover until the 1950s. The intervening decades witnessed hyperinflation in a number of European countries, then a world economic depression more serious than anything experienced since. It brought to an end the social and economic improvements of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Mass unemployment, poverty and destitution were the result.

Politically, the war ended the slow and uneven progress the world had made towards greater democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. True, women gained the vote in a number of countries, and the franchise was extended further down the social scale where it had been effectively denied to the working classes, for example in Britain and Germany.

Politically, the war ended the progress the world had made towards greater democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

However, Britain had entered the war allied to the despotic regime of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, while the idea that Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II was some kind of dictatorship does scant justice to the system of checks and balances that characterised the German political system. Millions of the British soldiers who fought in 1914 still didn’t have the right to vote. Whatever else it was, it wasn’t a war for democracy.

Within a few years, in any case, burgeoning democracies had been replaced by brutal and corrupt dictatorships, with the rise of Mussolini, then Hitler, then Franco and Salazar, and the ‘little dictators’ of central and eastern Europe. Britain became in effect a one-party state with the creation of a Conservative-dominated National government. Scandinavia fell to an authoritarian form of social democracy, while in France, the failed experiment of the Popular Front was succeeded by the quasi-fascist regime of Marshal Pétain. And then there was the Bolshevik revolution, leading to the murderous dictatorship of Josef Stalin. All of this was the result of the economic disaster of the First World War, its exacerbation of social antagonisms, its delegitimisation of existing political systems, and its encouragement of nationalism, egged on by the unworkable principle of ‘national self-determination’ in a world where every new state contained national minorities. Even a rare democracy such as Czechoslovakia fell victim to ethnic rivalries. As nationalisms grew more intolerant, the League of Nations proved incapable of fulfilling its objective of keeping the peace.

Beyond Europe, democracy in the US proved resilient but military coups in Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America led to state violence and corruption, and much of the rest of the world remained crushed under the heel of the European empires, which reached their greatest extent in the 1930s.

None of this could have been foreseen in 1914, and much of it was still unpredicted as the war came to an end. Few of those who died really knew what they were dying for, and those who did, often died for an illusion. The Second World War resulted directly from the First World War, which was indeed the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor Emeritus at Cambridge University and author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914 (Allen Lane, 2016).

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This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine