Monday 22 July 2013

Was the First World War a just war?

Well we all know the answer to that question, don’t we? We’ve all watched Blackadder Goes Forth so we know it was a futile conflict and a criminal waste of human life. “Lions led by donkeys” and all that.

Historian Professor Gary Sheffield begs to differ. In History Today, he argues that it was a just war. He reminds us that the war was started by the aggressive and expansionary policies of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Had Britain not intervened, the Central Powers would have defeated France and Russia, and achieved complete hegemony over continental Europe.

This argument matters today for two reasons. First, next year marks the centenary of the start of the war, and the beginning of four years of official commemorations. As Professor Sheffield points out, the British government was set to travesty the conflict by adopting a neutral stance:
As it stands, the Government’s position of neutrality regarding the meaning of the war denies the commemorations the context necessary to make sense of them. The UK’s leading historian of the First World War, Professor Sir Hew Strachan, who is a member of the Government’s own advisory committee, early on described official plans for the commemoration as ‘conceptually empty’. Strachan’s criticisms remain valid. The Government has explicitly disavowed trying to create any particular ‘narrative’, but by refusing to set the commemorations into the context of the origins of the war and the aggression of the Central Powers, this is exactly what it has done. Merely commemorating the sacrifice of British troops without explaining why they died tacitly gives support to the dominant popular view that the war was futile and the deaths meaningless. So does the fact that the original programme of official commemorations included defeats such as Gallipoli and the First Day on the Somme, but omitted the great victories of 1918 that won the war, such as Amiens and the breaking of the Hindenburg Line.
The second reason this matters is important for Liberals. A consensus has developed that Britain entered the war only because of the incompetence of the Liberal government and in particular the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Again, this is a travesty of history. True, Britain has had better foreign secretaries than Grey, but even he cannot be blamed for the aggression of the Central Powers.

There are legitimate arguments to be had about whether the conduct of the war was optimal. A stubborn adherence to trench warfare led to a horrendous death toll. A more effective and less costly military strategy was doubtless possible. It always is – 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.

No one is arguing that the centennial commemorations should be turned into an orgy of jingoistic German-bashing. But there is no case for travestying history and no need for Liberals to beat themselves up over what the British government did in 1914. Had Britain stood aside in 1914, the same critics would have been castigating the Liberal government for throwing Belgium and France to the wolves.

Blackadder is one of the finest TV sitcoms ever made but it should not inform next year’s official commemorations, and nor should Liberal guilt complexes.

1 comment:

  1. Lions led by donkeys isn't far off. But just because the generals were mostly donkeys for the first three years (but then, it took about three years into WWII to find competent generals too) doesn't mean that the cause wasn't just and necessary.

    Sure, French wasn't up to much, and Haig was a butcher. Allenby was a fine general, and the army and corps commanders were at least competent by 1918, and sometimes inspired (Monash, Currie)

    If we'd lost, or not fought, then there would still have been a war, the Central Powers would have won, and Europe would have been a far worse, less democratic place.

    Ask a Pole what they think about a war that brought their country back into existence. Ask a Czech. Read the 14 points and try to convince yourself that there wasn't something achieved by all the death.


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