A most surprising peacenik: Historian Niall Ferguson says Britain should have stayed out of WWI

The Harvard University professor says the country paid too high a price in terms of the lives lost and the vast debts that were run up during the conflict

Britain should not have gone to war in 1914 and the decision to do so was the “biggest error in modern history”, according to the historian Niall Ferguson.

The Harvard University professor said that Britain was ill-prepared for the First World War and paid too high a price in terms of the lives lost and the vast debts that were run up during the four-year conflict.

He also said the UK could have “lived with” an initial Germany victory over Russia and France and dealt with Germany's vast new European empire later.

“We should not think of this as some great victory or dreadful crime, but more as the biggest error in modern history,” Professor Ferguson said in an interview with BBC History Magazine.

“The cost, let me emphasise, of the First World War to Britain was catastrophic, and it left the British Empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state.

“It had accumulated a vast debt, the cost of which really limited Britain's military capability throughout the inter-war period. Then there was the manpower loss - not just all those aristocratic officers, but the many, many skill workers who died or were permanently incapacitated in the war. The death toll… was the most painful thing that Britain has ever experienced in war.”

Instead of going to the aid of neutral Belgium after Germany invaded, it would have been in “Britain's interests to stay out in 1914,” he said, even if this had led the defeat of France and Russia.

“Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory,” he said.

He said a victorious Germany would have had a ”pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British Empire in naval and financial terms“.

“Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later when Britain could respond on its own terms, taking advantage of its much greater naval and financial capability,“ Professor Ferguson said.

“Creating an army more or less from scratch and then sending it into combat against the Germans was a recipe for disastrous losses. And if one asks whether this was the best way for Britain to deal with the challenge posed by imperial Germany, my answer is no.

“Arguments about honour of course resonate today as they resonated in 1914, but you can pay too high a price for upholding the notion of honour, and I think in the end Britain did.”
 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee