Gary Sheffield: Britain’s First World War was a War of National Survival

tags: World War I, Germany, United Kingdom, Gary Sheffield, war guilt, Austria-Hungary, just wars



Professor Gary Sheffield takes up the Chair of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in September 2013. He is the author of The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (Aurum, 2011).

‘At that point in Britain’s history, it was important that there was a war that ensured that Europe could continue to be a set of countries which were strong and which could be working together.’ Such was the view of Maria Miller, the culture secretary, on why the First World War was fought, given on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme on June 10th, 2013. Her comments were greeted with a range of responses, in which mockery was to the fore. One of the more considered was that of the journalist Andy McSmith in the Independent: ‘Oh dear!’ McSmith exclaimed. Because the UK Government ‘wants to honour those who died in the conflict without making a judgment on why that war began’, he continued, Miller, who heads the department taking the lead on the centenary commemorations of the First World War, ‘had to improvise when asked what it was all about’.

McSmith’s insight is astute. It was the government’s ‘non-judgmental’ approach that led to the culture secretary’s moment of car-crash radio. She was responding to the journalist and historian Max Hastings, who had stated that most historians held Germany and Austria-Hungary primarily responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. While recently there has been an attempt to spread the blame, particularly by pinning responsibility on Russia, this indeed remains the mainstream position among serious historians. In the debate over war guilt, what happened next is often ignored. However the conflict started, Germany took full advantage to carry out a war of conquest and aggression. Britain’s First World War was a war of national survival, a defensive conflict fought at huge cost against an aggressive enemy bent on achieving hegemony in Europe....



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