The Pity of War
What Did World War I Cost Britain?
MAY 01, 2000 by JOHN V. DENSON
Niall Ferguson is a history professor who taught at Cambridge and is now a tenured Oxford don. Those are the credentials of an establishment, or “court,” historian, whose main purpose is to protect the patriotic and political myths of his government. Professor Ferguson, however, has written an iconoclastic attack on one of the most venerable patriotic myths of the British, namely that the First World War was a great and necessary war in which the British performed the noble act of intervening to protect Belgian neutrality, French freedom, and the empires of both the French and British from the military aggression of the hated Hun. Politicians like Lloyd George and Churchill argued that the war was not only necessary, but inevitable.
Ferguson asks and answers ten specific questions about the First World War, one of the most important being whether the war, with its total of more than nine million casualties, was worth it. Not only does he answer in the negative, but concludes that the world war was not necessary or inevitable, but was instead the result of grossly erroneous decisions of British political leaders based on an improper perception of the “threat” to the British Empire posed by Germany. Ferguson regards it as “nothing less than the greatest error in modern history.”
He goes further and puts most of the blame on the British because it was the British government that ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war. He argues that the British had no legal obligation to protect Belgium or France and that the German naval build-up did not really menace the British.
British political leaders, Ferguson maintains, should have realized that the Germans were mostly fearful of being surrounded by the growing Russian industrial and military might, as well as the large French army. He argues further that the Kaiser would have honored his pledge to London, offered on the eve of the war, to guarantee French and Belgian territorial integrity in exchange for Britain’s neutrality.
Ferguson concludes that “Britain’s decision to intervene was the result of secret planning by her generals and diplomats, which dated back to 1905” and was based on a misreading of German intentions, “which were imagined to be Napoleonic in scale.” Political calculations also played their part in bringing on war. Ferguson notes that Foreign Minister Edward Grey provided the leadership that put Britain on the bellicose path. Although a majority of the other ministers were hesitant, “In the end they agreed to support Grey, partly for fear of being turned out of office and letting in the Tories.”
The First World War continues to disturb the British psyche today, much as the Civil War still haunts Americans. British casualties in the war numbered 723,000—more than twice the number suffered in World War II. The author writes that “The First World War remains the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure.”
One of the most important costs of the war, which was prolonged by British and American participation, was the destruction of the Russian government. Ferguson contends that in the absence of British intervention, the most likely result would have been a quick German victory with some territorial concessions in the east, but no Bolshevik Revolution. There would have been no Lenin—and no Hitler either. “It was ultimately because of the war that both men were able to rise to establish barbaric despotisms which perpetrated still more mass murder.”
Had the British stayed on the sidelines, Ferguson argues, their empire would still be strong and viable; instead, their participation and victory “effectively marked the end of British financial predominance in the world.” He believes that the British could have easily coexisted with Germany, with which it had good relations before the war. But the British victory came at a price “far in excess of their gains” and “undid the first golden age of economic ‘globalization.’”
World War I also led to a great loss of individual liberty. “Wartime Britain . . . became by stages a kind of police state,” Ferguson writes. Of course, liberty is always a casualty of war and the author compares the British situation with the draconian measures imposed in America by President Wilson. The suppression of free speech in America “made a mockery of the Allied powers’ claim to be fighting for freedom.”
While the book is addressed mainly to a British audience, it is relevant to Americans who tragically followed the British into both world wars at a tremendous cost in freedom as a result of the centralization of power in the leviathan government in Washington, D.C. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from this timely and important book.
John Denson is an attorney living in Opelika, Alabama, and the editor of The Costs of War.