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Home / Latest News / British historians ask whether staying out of World War I would have made world a better place

British historians ask whether staying out of World War I would have made world a better place

So this week we’ve been told how this cash-strapped country will spend at least £50m on commemorating one of the most pointless wars in history.

The 100th anniversary of the Great War sees Britain reliving a tragedy that cost 15 million lives and changed the course of history very much for the worst.

Last year David Cameron said he regarded the commemorations as “a personal priority”. Of course it is.

It offers a stage to strut while mouthing platitudes about the Glorious Dead and the Supreme Sacrifice.

And naturally, said our PR/PM, his favourite book was Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That, an autobiography including soul-searing memories of the horrors of the Somme.

Well, to quote my favourite political put-down, he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Am I cynical in wondering whether, if speaking at the recent 70th anniversary of the raid on those German dams, would his favourite book have been, er, The Dam Busters?

But the question haunting historians is: could Britain have stayed out of the war in 1914? Would the anticipated stalemate if we had, been better for the world’s future?

The truth is, there was no compelling reason for Britain to join in and we came very close to staying out.

Wrong decision?

The celebrated military historian John Keegan begins his book on the war with this sentence: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict”.

For the “revisionist” historian Niall Ferguson “it was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history”.

For Billy Olsen, a Somme veteran talking in Cardiff on his 96th birthday: “It accomplished nothing, it wasn’t worth it. We were mugs.”

On the night of July 24, 1914 the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wrote of “a coming Armageddon on the continent”. He added: “Happily, there seems no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.”

What a different world if that had happened.

That alternative is imagined in a book called What If? in which military historians wonder what might have been.

And August, 1914, offered so many ifs.

The Cabinet was split, a majority for neutrality, and Asquith feared that abandoning neutrality would bring the government down.

Four ministers threatened to resign and it’s said that had the magnetic Lloyd George joined them it would have been enough to keep us out.

But then came the German ultimatum to Belgium, demanding the unopposed passage of 400,000 troops through the country, France the ultimate target.

In 1839 Britain had signed a treaty guaranteeing Belgian independence.

It was enough to force Britain into war and so was born the myth of “plucky little Belgium” when our real interest was the preservation of empire in face of Germany’s colonial ambitions.

In passing, never has that invasion been more hauntingly described than by the American war correspondent Richard Harding Davis.

His report in the New York Herald Tribune on August 23, 1914 ominously revealed the might of the German army.

“The ranks of grey-clad soldiers passing hour after hour through Brussels are not men marching but a force of nature like a tidal wave, an avalanche or a river flooding its banks…uncanny, inhuman, holding the mystery and menace of fog rolling in from the sea.”

A German minister dismissed the Belgian treaty as no more than “a scrap of paper” which Britain would not honour.

Had we not done so there would be no ceremonies next year, no world-wide conflict a century ago, instead a “continental civil war” which some historians say would have ended by mutual consent by the end of 1914 with Germany “winning on points”.

So there would have been no Treaty of Versailles with Germany ordered to pay compensation of 20bn gold marks. No surrender to neighbouring states of territories with a population of seven million – a suppurating sore for 20 years. No catastrophic super inflation making it cheaper to burn bank notes than firewood. And there would have been no Hitler emerging from humiliating defeat to plunge the world into the most terrible war of all.

For yet another historian, Robert Cowley, founder of the Quarterly Journal Of Military History, no Holocaust, no revolution in Russia so no Stalin and more significantly, no Cold War costing the world untold billions.

Britain would not have been crippled by debt, the decline of empire postponed for decades while the United States, without its implacable hatred of Communism, would not have become a military colossus imposing its will on countries from South America to Asia. So No Korean War, no Vietnam.

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but for all those experts it really might have been that way today.

I trust that David Cameron, when reflecting on the past, will see how easy it is to slip into a war (Syria?) that, as Asquith concluded of another war, is really none of our business.

The Great War should serve as a warning that sometimes the best intentions bring the worst results.  

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