Why Britain was right to go to war in 1914

Following on from Niall Ferguson's argument that Britain should not have entered the First World War, we asked six expert historians for their views on the decision. They all came to a similar conclusion

A recruitment poster used during the First World War, c1915.

This article was published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Margaret MacMillan: “Even if Britain had stayed out of the war in August 1914, it would have been difficult for it to stay on the sidelines”

We can never know for certain what would have happened if Britain had stayed out of the First World War, but we can guess. If Germany’s war plans against France had succeeded – and, without the British Expeditionary Force, they might well have – Paris would have been surrounded again.

Although the French might well have surrendered, this is a big question mark: we should not make the mistake of assuming that the France of 1914 was the same as the France of 1940. The country then was far more united, with better forces and leadership than it had in the Second World War. France might well have fought on, and it would have become increasingly difficult for Britain to stay on the sidelines.

Think, as British statesmen did at the time, about what a German victory might have meant. German demands would have been drastic: France would lose part of its northern coast, and Belgium and Luxembourg would have been gobbled up.

A Europe dominated by such a Germany would have been an unhappy place: it would have been disastrous for Britain economically and in every other way. So, yes, I think Britain was probably right to enter the war.

Margaret MacMillan is the author of The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (Profile, 2013)

Peter Hart: “The challenges that Britain faced could only have been answered with war”

British foreign policy had long been worked out based on the necessity of maintaining the status quo on mainland Europe by acting to contain the expansion of any wayward power appearing to be threatening domination. Traditionally, this had involved creating coalitions while contributing only a small army on the continent. Meanwhile, as an aggressive imperial power, Britain had used its naval strength to harvest new colonies, protect maritime trade and concentrate troops at key locations.

Since its defeat of France in 1871, Germany had threatened domination of Europe while also challenging the supremacy of the Royal Navy through a provocative naval race. During the July Crisis of 1914, Britain was not central to events and initially favoured a negotiated settlement. Yet the invasion of Belgium, the possibility of outright defeat for France and the threat to the Channel ports were challenges that, given the sensibilities of the age, could only be answered by war.

Britain was perfectly well equipped for the traditional maritime role that had served it well. Unfortunately, the war would demand an enormous British military commitment on the western front, for which the army was ill-prepared. This tragedy is one that we cannot seem to forgive or forget.

Peter Hart is the author of The Great War: 1914–1918 (Profile, 2013)

Nigel Jones: “The German invasion of Belgium persuaded the British government that war was necessary”

Britain’s government was divided in August 1914, with a clutch of ministers threatening to resign in protest at the war and bring down the government. However the event that changed their minds, and swung not only the cabinet but the vast majority of the country behind the war, was Germany’s brutal, unprovoked and unnecessary invasion of Belgium, whose neutrality both she and Britain had guaranteed.

In spirit, if not in scale, this was a bestial action similar to that of the Nazis 20 years later. Some 6,000 Belgian civilians were murdered in cold blood, and the prospect that such a barbarous militarist power could dominate Europe and threaten Britain’s vital sea links concentrated British minds wonderfully.

Hindsight is a great thing, and the war’s horrendous casualty toll tends to make pacifists of us all. But there are worse things than battles: as the French resistance writer Jean Dutourd put it in the Second World War: “War is less costly than slavery.”

Nigel Jones is the author of Peace and War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014), reviewed in our March 2014 issue

Gary Sheffield: “It is now difficult to capture the sense of moral outrage at Germany’s actions”

When Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, British entry into the war became inevitable. The sense of moral outrage at Germany’s flagrant flouting of an international treaty to which the country was a signatory is difficult to capture in this more cynical age, but it was real enough.

Even more importantly, a fundamental tenet of British security had, for centuries, been to keep the Low Countries out of the hands of a hostile power. In this respect, Britain went to war against Germany in 1914 for the same basic reason that it had fought against expansionist Revolutionary France in 1793.

For centuries British leaders had been concerned with the maintenance of the balance of power. For Britain to stand by while its fellow democracy, France, was defeated, and an authoritarian, aggressive Germany gained hegemony in Europe would have been a strategic catastrophe. While Britain was protected by the battleships of the Royal Navy and thus all but invulnerable to invasion, German domination of the European continent would have been as much a threat as Napoleon’s had been a century before.

If Britain had stayed out in 1914 it is all too likely it would have found itself at war with Germany in the not-too-distant future, except – having betrayed its friends in their moment of deepest need – without allies.

As was well understood at the time, the world faced worse things than war in August 1914.

Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton. His most recent book is The First World War in 100 Objects (Carlton, 2013)

David Reynolds: “To understand Britain’s decision, we must look at its historical ties with Europe”

In the circumstances that Britain faced in August 1914, I think that going to war was an understandable decision. The Germans had invaded Belgium and were threatening France, and historically Britain has never felt comfortable with a hostile power occupying the ports just across the English Channel. So although there was no immediate threat to British territory, it seems to me that, in terms of Britain’s historical tradition, this choice made sense.

It was a difficult decision for the Liberal cabinet, particularly David Lloyd George, who was a radical but had anti-war roots. Deeply sceptical at the end of July, he became convinced by the invasion of Belgium and, in September, gave a big speech in which he called the Prussians the “roadhogs of Europe”, bulldozing their way over – as he put it – five foot five nations who had to stand up against the storming Prussian Junker.

His evolution over those few weeks is a very striking indication of the way in which British opinion developed.

David Reynolds is the author of The Long Shadow (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Heather Jones: “The cabinet delayed involving Britain in the war for as long as it possibly could”

The decisions made by the British cabinet in the first days of August 1914 had truly devastating consequences. Yet the reality was that, by the time the British cabinet agonised over the decision
to go to war, they had little choice.

The cabinet’s decisions on 2 August were based on the facts as they knew them. They expected a short war. They also initially expected that Britain would only provide naval and financial support to France rather than sending in a land army. Britain’s army was tiny compared to its French, German and Russian counterparts – few could have imagined how it would expand, the length of the war, or the scale of British casualties.

By 2 August, most of the major decisions that caused the war had already been taken in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and elsewhere. The British government had, in fact, delayed getting involved for as long as possible: the foreign secretary, Edward Grey, had proposed a conference to find a peaceful solution to the crisis only to be rebuffed.

The cabinet had even privately discussed turning a blind eye and not entering the war if Germany only breached a small corner of Belgium, but it rapidly became clear that its army was intent on invading the whole country with a view to ruthlessly occupying it.

Could Britain have stayed out of the war? The reality was that even those states that remained neutral at the outset – such as Italy or the US – ultimately found themselves forced to take sides and enter the conflict. Based on what they knew in those early August days, the British cabinet believed entering the war was the right decision.

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Heather Jones is a specialist in First World War Studies at the London School of Economics