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.

 

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.

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