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Should Britain have joined World War One? Keep these points in mind during the argument

The unique place of this war in our national story must be understood in terms of class

The battle lines are drawn. On the one hand, the First World War was a necessary struggle and Britain had no alternative but to play its part: on the other, the war was a tragic mess that came about by mistake, and we should have stayed out. Bungling statesmen got us into it, and bungling generals made sure it would be a four-year nightmare of futile slaughter.

Champions of the two sides have already stepped into the ring by way of two admirable polemical BBC programmes: Max Hastings arguing for Britain’s decision to go to war, Niall Ferguson against. We are evidently going to have four years of this sort of thing (plus a coda on the ever-controversial Treaty of Versailles). So here are a few things that I believe we ought to keep in mind.

The perception in Britain of the First World War as a futile, bloody bungle started (as Gary Sheffield has pointed out) with the First World War poets, Owen, Sassoon and the rest. Brought up with public-school ideals of heroism and sacrifice, they came face to face with the hideous physical and mental price soldiers pay, felt their idealism crumble, and wrote about it in striking and memorable verse. Here are Owen’s lines on a gassed soldier:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

There is the literary source of Oh, What a Lovely War, Joan Greenwood’s bitter 1960s satire, and of the celebrated fourth series of Blackadder. Like most poets, Owen and the others were from the middle class. And, unlike most previous poets who wrote about war, they were in the thick of it, as regimental officers in the front line in France. Contrast their disgust and bitterness with Tennyson’s heroic lament for the charge of the Light Brigade, Southey’s gently ironic After Blenheim or Byron’s romantic melancholy over the dead of Waterloo:

Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,

Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay;

The midnight brought the signal sound of strife,

The morn the marshalling in arms, – the day

Battle’s magnificently stern array!

The thunder-clouds close o’er it, which when rent,

The earth is covered thick with other clay.

Which her own clay shall cover, heap’d and pent,

Rider and horse, – friend, foe, – in one red burial blent!

The first thing to bear in mind is that the unique place of the First World War in our national story needs to be understood in terms of class.

From the 17th to the 19th century, the British army was manned by the sweepings of the slums, officered by the younger sons of the aristocracy – two sorts of men regarded by most people as dispensable. Wellington, himself a younger son of a peer, famously called his troops “the mere scum of the earth”, though he did add: “It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them.”

Such men left their bones on every battlefield from Blenheim to Waterloo to Isandlwana, and nobody cared very much. The backbone of the nation, that is the middle class and the “respectable” skilled upper stratum of the working class, took no part in British wars, except to pay the taxes that kept the armies in the field.

In 1914-18, for the first time, the respectable classes saw their sons swept up into a British mass army of volunteers and conscripts, and killed in large numbers. For the first time, any household in the land, even the kind that breeds poets, might receive the terrible telegram. It was a national trauma. Hence the bitter poetry; hence the war memorial in every town and village; hence the remembrance every November; hence the wave of pacifism in the 1930s; hence the commemoration of the centenary; and hence the controversies it has provoked.

This unprecedented blooding of the respectable classes happened to coincide with a turning point in the evolution of military technology. Railways, rifled artillery, magazine rifles, machine guns and barbed wire combined to ensure that the casualties of the new mass warfare should be very numerous indeed, and that at a tactical level the defender should have an easier task than the attacker. You can argue about how much responsibility the generals bore for the horror of trench warfare, and how much of it could and should have been avoided, but the second crucial thing to bear in mind is that they were wrestling with problems of military art that no one had confronted before.

Ponder the difference between the flintlock muskets that equipped the infantry at Waterloo, and the Lee Enfield bolt-action rifle that the British took to France a century later. The “Brown Bess” musket has an effective range of 100 yards, and a rate of fire of three or four rounds a minute. A man can walk about 100 yards in a minute. So troops attacking an enemy position had to survive probably three volleys from the defenders before they reached them with the bayonet. The first action sequence of the Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon gives a good idea of what might happen. Some of the attackers would die, but with iron discipline, high morale and good luck, enough would survive to come to grips with the enemy. 

Now fast-forward 100 years to the bolt-action rifle of 1915. In small-arms design, as in every other branch of engineering and manufacture, the 19th century was an era of optimism and progress. The result was a rifle with a rate of fire of 15 rounds a minute and an effective range of 500 yards. So the attacking infantry of the Great War had to face, in principle, five times the volume of fire from each defending soldier as at Waterloo, and endure it for five times the distance before they could reach the enemy position. And of course there were machine guns as well.

The cast of 'Blackadder Goes Forth'














To see what that did, turn to the battle sequence in another great Kubrick movie, Paths of Glory. No degree of heroism can overcome such fire, and the French troops are beaten back without even seeing the enemy.  Marshal Philippe Pétain, the man who saved France in 1917 (before, alas, betraying her in 1940) summed up the problem in three bleak little words: “Le feu tue” – “Fire kills.”

The firepower revolution had been accelerating since the mid-15th century, when Turkish gunfire battered down the walls of Constantinople, and French gunfire drove the English longbowmen from Normandy and Gascony. By the early 20th century it had reached the point where the surface of the battlefield was not really habitable for human beings. So the armies dug a line of trenches from Switzerland to the sea. But to attack you had to get up out of the trench and somehow make forward progress.

That was no easier for the Germans than for the Allies. In the big battles of 1916, the Somme and Verdun, both of which involved months of attack and counter-attack, both sides lost hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded. Everybody knows about 1 July 1916, the notorious first day of the Somme, with its 19,000 British dead for very little gain. Less well known is the final tally of dead when the battle ended, four months later:  Allied killed and missing, 146,000; German 164,000. That’s right: more Germans than British.

But throughout the war on the Western Front the imperative to attack was stronger for the Allies, because the end of the war of movement in 1914 left the Germans occupying nearly all of Belgium and about a fifth of France. The allies had to throw them out.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem The General was published in 1918:

“Good morning; good-morning!” the general said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

That is no doubt what it looked like to many regimental officers, but you don’t have to postulate outstanding incompetence among senior officers to account for the enormous death toll of the First World War. The state of military technology offers a full explanation.

By 1918, armies were feeling their way towards a solution to the monumental tactical problem of firepower. By the time the Second World War came along, it had been solved by the Germans, and by 1943 the Allies were beating them at their own game. The solution involved the co-ordination by radio of tanks, artillery, ground-attack aircraft and motorised infantry – the technique summed up in the word “blitzkreig”. Of course, millions of people still got killed, but with armies advancing hundreds of miles in each campaigning season, rather than hundreds of yards, their deaths seemed less “futile”. And in Britain, as it happened, the butcher’s bill was about half as heavy as it had been in 1914-18


So, was the First World War all a mistake? Partly, yes, but the next thing to remember is that most of the major participants had perfectly clear war aims. The French wanted to reconquer Alsace and Lorraine, lost to the Germans in 1870. That aim was achieved. Italy wanted to complete the unification of its national territory by seizing from Austria-Hungary the south Tyrol (achieved) and the Dalmatian coast (only half-achieved). Austria wanted to give Serbia such a bloody nose that it would stop interfering with Austrian ambitions in the Balkans (not achieved). The United States entered the war with more ambitious and idealistic aims (they being Americans) about establishing a new world order of justice and peace. Success may have been patchy, but it was a coherent idea. 

That leaves Russia, Germany and Britain, who largely went to war for no better reason than fear of each other. To that extent, yes, the war was a bungle. However, I confess that I am with Max Hastings in pointing the finger of blame for the bungle overwhelmingly at one man: Kaiser Bill.

Wilhelm II with his mother the Empress Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain

Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany, was a dangerous loose cannon, insecure, vain, weak and bullying, permitted by Germany’s outdated constitution to run the country’s defence policy and foreign relations by whim. Germany under his leadership made two fateful decisions that ensured that the war, when it came, would take the form it did.

First, the Schlieffen plan. Faced with an alliance between Russia and France, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906, devised a cunning plan. He would exploit the slow pace of Russian mobilisation, and the excellent German railway system, to defeat his enemies one by one.

A swift knockout blow against France was to be followed by the redeployment of the German armies to the east to face Russia. To march the bulk of the German army into France meant violating Belgian neutrality, which had been guaranteed by the great powers of Europe back in 1839. Schlieffen accepted that that would inevitably bring Britain into the war but he thought Germany would win before Britain could make any difference. It was a modified version of the Schlieffen plan that Germany put into operation in 1914. (Note in passing that Schlieffen, a well-informed observer at the time, did not believe that Britain could keep out of the war. The German who does back the British “we should have stayed out” brigade is, of course, the man who was wrong about everything, Kaiser Wilhelm, with his oft-quoted bafflement that  Britain went to war for “a scrap of paper” – the treaty guaranteeing Belgian independence.)

Thus it was that Germany’s reaction to the assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Serb in Bosnia was to attack France. Crazy, if you like.

Some decry the idea that the First World War was caused by German railway timetables, but it looks convincing enough to me. In the midst of the crisis, when Russia was mobilising in response to Austrian sabre-rattling, Wilhelm asked the Chief of his General Staff, Count Helmuth von Moltke (nephew of another Helmuth von Moltke, the victor over France in 1870) whether it might be possible to mobilise the German army against Russia alone, leaving France out of it. Moltke had to explain that to try to do that would throw his minutely planned railway schedules into chaos. Wilhelm’s  reaction: “Your uncle would have given me a different answer.”

Astonishing. The Kaiser belittles his chief of staff with the suggestion that he is not the man his uncle was, because he cannot meet a demand Wilhelm should have known was impossible. The swift rail movement across Europe of millions of men and horses, thousands of artillery pieces and all their ammunition and supplies could not be improvised in a few days.

The Kaiser’s answer knocked the stuffing out of Moltke, as well it might. Was Wilhelm really ignorant of the details of the Schlieffen plan, and the limits it would place on his freedom of action in the event of war? The incident casts a lurid light on the chaotic way Germany was governed only a century ago.

Second, the High Seas Fleet. This was Wilhelm’s pet project. Don’t ask me to explain what it was for. It never made any sense.  Wilhelm and his naval supporters seem to have thought that having a good number of battleships was an essential attribute of a great power; and the idea of cocking a snook at Britain soothed the Kaiser’s nagging sense of inferiority towards his urbane uncle, Edward VII.

The upshot was a fleet not big enough to defeat the Royal Navy – as was shown at the battle of Jutland – but big enough to give Britain a big scare, provoke a frantic naval building race, and ensure that Britain would line up with Germany’s enemies in any future war.

There is more. The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s brilliant new biographical study of Gabriele D’Annunzio, reminds us of another reason for the war, one that seems so odd today that it is easily neglected. The final thing to remember is that millions of people all across Europe positively desired a war. It would be a lark, a cleansing fire, an escape from the fashionable mood of ennui. A blood sacrifice was needed to redeem the nations. Here is how another poet, the Cambridge Apostle Rupert Brooke, greeted the outbreak of war in 1914.

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,

And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,

Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,

Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,

And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,

And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh dear, oh dear. The vile but glamorous D’Annunzio, being Italian, was more clear-eyed about the coming war. He knew perfectly well that it would be ghastly, but he liked it that way. He was a poet, an aesthete, a celebrity, an epic seducer of women (no “little emptiness of love” for him) and an ultra-nationalist warmonger who inspired Mussolini’s fascism. For d’Annunzio, Italy’s holding back from the war until 1915 was a source of shame. In 1914 he was living in France and propagandising tirelessly for Italy to seize her rightful place as a top nation by joining her “Latin sister” in a racial struggle against the bestial Teutons.

Hughes-Hallett follows d’Annunzio through the streets of Paris:

“He watched lorries pass by, their flat-beds filled with seated soldiers. They wore the uniform of blue jacket and red breeches. Tight-packed, their lower bodies lapped in red cloth, they seemed to be sitting waist-deep in blood.

“Such hallucinatory prescience of the horrors to come did nothing to reduce d’Annunzio’s determination that Italy should enter the war. His Ode to the Latin Resurrection was a call to arms. France had already ‘donned the purple robe of the warrior’ ready to ‘sing like a lark on the summits of death’. Italy should be at her side.

‘This is your duty, this is your hour

‘Italy . . .

‘Unhappy be you who hesitate

Unhappy be you who do not dare to cast the dice.’ ”

Later, Hughes-Hallett summarises d’Annunzio’s warlike creed: “Killing and being killed; pouring out the blood of myriads of young men; only by doing these things could a race demonstrate its right to respect. What d’Annunzio was saying is appalling: what is worse is how few people there were to disagree.”

And in Germany it was the same. Look again at that famous photograph taken on 2 August 1914 in the Odeonsplatz, Munich. Yes, that young man in the crowd, his face ecstatic at the thought of the coming war, is Adolf Hitler. But what about those hundreds of other men in the photograph? They don’t look too upset about it either. This is, in fact, a pro-war demonstration. Such a thing is unthinkable today. We know what the First World War turned out to be like: they didn’t.

Niall Ferguson has argued that Britain should have stood aside in 1914. That is a beguiling counterfactual scenario for saving the British Empire and Britain’s pre-eminent position in world finance. But to sustain it you have to argue that it would be OK if Germany had won the war and established a hegemony over western and central Europe. What then becomes of the familiar notion that preventing the domination of continental Europe by a single power over which Britain had no control had been the cardinal principle of English and later British foreign policy since the 16th century? If we had been right to fight Philip II, Louis XIV and Napoleon, why was it wrong to fight Kaiser Bill on the same principle? 

Of course it would have been better if the First World War had never happened. The most beguiling (to me) counterfactual scenario is not the Ferguson fantasy of Britain ratting on her friends and her treaty obligations in 1914. I prefer to imagine that Kaiser Bill’s father, the German Emperor Friedrich, did not die of cancer in 1888 at the age of 56, a few months after succeeding to the throne. Had Friedrich lived another 20 years, he and his empress, Queen Victoria’s daughter Vicky, might have realised their hope of turning Germany into a constitutional monarchy on British lines. Then, in the early years of the following century, Germany’s government would have been in the hands of responsible statesmen. Then Friedrich and Vicky’s vainglorious son Wilhelm could have pranced around in elaborate uniforms to his heart’s content, but would not have had the power to provoke a disastrous war.


None of that happened, but it might have. But to suppose that somehow the war, once started, could and should have been made less horrible for Britain, if only British statesmen had managed to keep us out, or British generals had been cleverer in fighting it, is wishful thinking.

The peace, however, is another matter. How we won the war is becoming clearer thanks to the work of “revisionist” historians such as Gary Sheffield. That we were losing the peace was obvious to far-sighted observers from the start.

“This is not a peace, it is an armistice for 20 years,” was the judgement on the Versailles treaty of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the allied generalissimo. And J M Keynes, in his short, witty, lucid, angry, prophetic book The  Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919, tells how populist allied politicians (Lloyd George to the fore) and their vindictive electorates saddled post-war Germany with an unfair reparations regime. We now know how that foolishly harsh settlement helped to discredit democratic politics in Germany and to provoke a war that would prove even more terrible than the Great War itself.

Even more terrible, that is, for all the participants except Britain. For while we in Britain may shudder at the memory of the First World War, we wallow in the Second. The casualties (for us, not for Germany or Russia) were less than half as heavy, and the nostalgic glow of our finest hour (which it was) consoles us for the loss of the British Empire. Even then, of course, the “we should have kept out of it” brigade pop up again, arguing this time that the Empire could somehow have been saved if only we had made peace with Hitler in 1940 and abandoned the Continent of Europe to German domination (again). But that is another story.