Niall Ferguson: Britain should have stayed out of WWI in 1914

A Facebook friend tagged me to a link of the historyextra.com preview and asked my thoughts. I had too many to thumb out on my phone, and I’ve been meaning to get this blog going for a little while, and it’s Chinese New Year here in Singapore, so I had some time. The perfect storm for Blog Post No 1:

Harvard Uni’s British historian Niall Ferguson has claimed in an interview with BBC History Magazine that Britain should have stayed out of World War I in 1914 until it could do so “on its own terms”.

Of course, the headlines have it shortened to, “Britain should have stayed out of First World War” (BBC History Magazine, The Independent etc.) although to be fair others have highlighted the much less contentious “biggest error in modern/its history” (eg The Guardian, The Australian).  I have refrained from reading other responses so that I can express my own views first, then I’ll link a few at the end.

I don’t have a subscription to BBC History Magazine or its online historyextra.com so I haven’t read the full article but the free preview’s first seven paragraphs should give the general gist of Ferguson’s thesis:

  • Britain could have lived with an initial German victory
  • It was in its interests to not get sucked into the war until it was ready
  • It should have played to its strengths (ie Navy) until it was ready to fight a land war
  • You can pay too high a price for honour (ie honouring the Treaty of London to defend Belgian neutrality).

I know I am a no one publishing his first blog article versus a Harvard professor, but what the hell: Ferguson is giving a simplistic, naïve, anachronistic view that has rarely been raised in a near-century of analysis because it is so obviously a case of imperfect hindsight. (It is giving him some publicity though…)

I don’t think there is any question of any British government not honouring its obligations, especially at the height of Empire. This is the country that spawned the term “It’s not cricket” to explain why the laws of the game and gentlemanly conduct are more important than winning and this applies to statecraft as well, old chap. At the same time, however, Britain was keen to ensure the status quo in European power. It is certain that the UK paid a much higher price than they expected, given the war was not “over by Christmas” but what is impossible to ascertain is the cost had Germany been able to establish a hegemony in Europe. Despite the headlines, Ferguson is not suggesting that Britain stay out of this for ever, but just not send the underprepared British Expeditionary Force in 1914.

It would be interesting to read the full explanation but I doubt the use of the Royal Navy, as dominant as it was, would have been much of a factor at all if Germany was allowed to run rampant through western Europe. Indeed, with the French countryside under German rule, the impact of the naval blockade that contributed so successfully to limiting the German food supply could well have been neutralised. With a belligerent Germany ruling western Europe, there would have been no exports to the UK nor friendly suppliers once they decided to eventually send in the army. And as the United States have found out multiple times since, you will not win without boots on the ground no matter how good your technological dominance.

Could Britain have launched D-Day almost thirty years earlier than it did – probably without the support of the United States? If Britain had stayed out of the war, then US shipping to the UK would not have been attacked without risking bringing both powers into the conflict. So Britain would have needed to launch a sea-borne invasion that in August 1914 it was absolutely not prepared for. How long would it have taken to design and build a landing fleet big enough to land enough troops to establish a beachhead against an established force? Could this have ever been successful? There is a big difference between ferrying hundreds of thousands of troops to functioning ports versus launching an invasion.

What was not mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the article (and perhaps crucial to Ferguson’s premise – but surely would have been mentioned if Ferguson raised it) was the impact of the loss of World War I – and the hated Treaty of Versailles – on German politics post-war. Could Britain have established a diplomatic relationship with a ‘Greater Germany’? The monarchs of both were cousins and in the real politik of international relations it is not unfeasible that the Germans would have been quickly forgiven and trade reestablished. In this scenario, it is difficult to see not only the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party’s popularity, but probably even Hitler’s membership in it.

So, with the benefit of one hundred years of hindsight, we can come up with whatever conclusion we like. At the time, however, the British Government was concerned with not allowing a seismic change in European power and was diplomatically obligated, but knew 1914 was their best chance to limit German aggression.

Other opinions:

The other side of the debate in BBC History Magazine, Gary Sheffield argues that Britain realised that worse than war was a German victory, borne out in its treatment of occupied territory in Belgium and France.

The Australian offers a range of reactions, including 75% of British food imports would have been lost and that British foreign policy for centuries had been to ensure no one nation created a European empire.

Most of the other pieces I found seem to be mostly a rehash of the free preview of the original article.