Given the prominent recollections of World War One in modern memory (the most significant of which being the contemporary commemorations of the centenary of the end of the conflict), there is still a debate around the conflict that still continues to this very day. Should Great Britain specifically have fought in that conflict? While personally I would say yes, let us look at the various perspectives.
This question is still a very controversial one, and it crosses political ideologies. While the likes of the left of which are represented by the likes of historian Richard Evans (and from a historic perspective the New Statesman magazine) have consistently been against the war, the right are often split on the issue. While people like Conservative MP Michael Gove (who criticised the way the left has portrayed the war as of late) and journalist Max Hastings have defended Great Britain’s position in the conflict, the likes of historian Niall Ferguson and journalist Peter Hitchens do not. In fact, the latter has gone as far to claim that a lot of the social problems Great Britain suffers today emanated from us entering that conflict.
However, I feel that our entry in to the war was justified for basic moral and legal ones, the latter coming most prominently to a head with the German army’s invasion of Belgium in August 1914. This invasion led to the deaths of 6,000 innocent civilians, not to mention various other horrors of which I shall discuss shortly. Now while I am not one for entering military conflicts overseas based on what a country that isn’t attacking us directly does within its own borders does, there is one significant issue that justifies Great Britain’s declaration of war here; the violation of the Treaty of London through the German invasion.
To make a long story short, back in 1839, the Treaty of London was signed to give international recognition of the newly independent country of Belgium (with signatories including Germany), after they declared it from the Netherlands back in 1830. One part of the treaty (that being Article 7) guaranteed it as a neutral state. Clearly, Germany invading Belgium violated that, and all that Great Britain was doing was upholding international law by doing so, and this isn’t something to be dismissed lightly. The fact that the then German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg had dismissed the treaty as a ‘scrap of paper’ shows the lack of care on the German side for international law and standards, and how Great Britain in turn had to uphold it.
Most notably, given that Great Britain was a world power shown to have upheld international peacekeeping (most notably through their naval power of which they applied the successful Pax Britannica policy in) allowing Germany to trample all over it would have done very poorly for our international reputation on the world stage. And given the arguably intentions of Kaiser Wilhelm II, this would have meant bad news for us later on. To be blunt, Germany violated an international treaty of which Great Britain was also involved in, and from that had to intervene. It is really that simple.
For moral reasons, look at the barbarism that the German army carried out during the first part of the conflict. During their invasion of Belgium, they killed 23,700 Belgian civilians, all the while committing various atrocities during their attack, known as the Rape of Belgium. While this event was often emphasised in the atrocity propaganda on behalf of the British government, its implications were still heavily felt on the people of Belgium. Belgian guerrilla fighters were often killed in brutal fashion, as were their families.
Meanwhile, innocent civilians were executed in various Belgian towns like Aarschot and Dinant. Belgian women were raped. During a raid of the Belgian city of Leuven, German soldiers burned the city’s library, allowing for 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts to be burnt. Many died from disease because of the wartime conditions. It was brutal, as much so as the later Rape of Nanjing was years later. Beyond simple violation of the Treaty of London, the German army behaved like barbarians, on a par of what the Nazis would do a generation down the line, but on a worse scale.
Meanwhile, their attempts at expansion (most notably with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918, of which would have ceded much of Russia’s territory to Germany) shows that they were threatening the sovereignty of other countries, also violating international law. Again, this re-establishes Great Britain’s need to uphold international law, with not only international treaties being violated, but basic human rights being so too. This further justifies Great Britain being in World War One.
Meanwhile, there is also controversy surrounding the Allies we worked with during this time, most notably the then Tsar of Russia Nicholas II. While it is doubtless that the likes of Nicholas II ran an often authoritarian regime (of which had up to that point had partially reformed underneath his predecessors, most notably Alexander II, of whom was often dubbed the Great Reformer), there is a strong caveat; he didn’t violate an internationally recognised treaty, of which Kaiser Wilhelm had done.
This is similar to how in other wars, Great Britain has allied itself with regimes we would consider utterly reprehensible, but as they do not threaten us, and are useful allies in such conflicts. Stalin’s Russia (known then as the Soviet Union) in World War Two and Syria (then led by military leader Hafez al-Assad) aiding us in the first Gulf War are good examples of this. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, if you shall. This, and the fact that Russia at the time did not break any international laws (unlike Germany), shows that this argument isn’t a strong argument against Great Britain (or any of its Allies for that matter) siding with Russia during World War One.
Also, I find the defence of it starting the decline of Great Britain’s morale and social status (as put by the likes of Hitchens) to be odd and contentious at best. After all, beyond the obvious caveat of us winning the war along with the other Allied powers, we did gain some benefits from the war. Most notably this meant gaining land. After the Ottoman Empire (of which had backed both Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the war) fell because of the conflict’s aftermath, Great Britain managed to gain much Middle Eastern land, most notably Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
This (among other measures) allowed us to expand our empire to allow to reach its territorial peak in 1922. Meanwhile, Great Britain still managed to progress in other ways after the war. The aid by women in terms of the war effort inarguably helped to gain them suffrage in 1918, all the while the British military was still strong, as shown by the intense fighting of World War 2. Meanwhile, we were still a prominent industrial power on the world stage, and even if other countries were starting to catch up with (most notably the United States), we were still making many of the world’s goods, despite economic troubles, something we wouldn’t be able to get out of so easily nowadays, with much of the industry gone.
I would say the Suez Crisis and its aftermath were the decline of Great Britain on the world stage; with its end signalling the decline of the British Empire, our glorious country becoming simply part of the world rather than becoming a major player in it, losing its national sovereignty (most notably becoming part of the European Union), losing much of its industry and allowing the left to take over from the collapse of conservatism at that time. All these problems and more we still face today, but that’s an story for another time.
In conclusion, I do feel that Great Britain was right to fight in World War One. Not only because of simple legal reasons, but moral ones as well. The German army behaved in a disgusting manner during the conflict and Great Britain was right to put its foot down in that respect, all the while the various arguments against joining seem flimsy at best and very odd at worst. However, given that this debate is an ongoing one, this is far from a definitive answer on the issue. Research yourself, look at both sides of the debate and come to your own conclusions. That is important to think freely, and it is those freedoms the brave soldiers of World War One fought and died for, and therefore we shall never forget their memory of their sacrifice. Never forget.
(Articles reflect the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Luke Nash-Jones, The Red Pill Factory, or Make Britain Great Again.)