The hundredth anniversary of the Great War seems to have reopened discussions about this conflict in recent times. Preparations for the commemorations next august have stirred up debates over the validity of claims about Britain´s participation in the First World War. British secretary of education Michael Gove, says that some TV shows have spread myths about England´s role in the Great War, have belittled its participation, and have even attempted to clear Germany of blame . He goes on to say that some left-wing historians, such as Cambridge professor Richard Evans, are attacking the memory of British soldiers saying that they were wrong to think they were fighting for freedom and for a better world . Although there seems to be a shade of truth in what the Education Secretary says, the arguments given by Sir Evans in response do indeed give way to rethink Britain´s moral grounds to fight the war .
This work tries to shed some light over the moral and material justifications for the participation of Britain in the Great War to see if it must be praised or condemned for its actions. For finding out if the allied participation in the First World War was justified, there have to be some previous definitions. The next pages discuss the meaning of just war, the elements of just cause, and the establishment of the facts that were present at the time England decided to enter the war can be taken as a justification for armed conflict with other States. This is an attempt to see if England had a moral justification for war, and if it was the only course of action available for the country.
War is an extension of political activity. As Von Clausewitz put it once: “ War is merely the continuation of policy by other means” , but it does not mean that any group can initiate it, justify its use, or even participate in it. Only States or nations can wage wars, and it is always about the governance over a territory , meaning that a war is most likely to happen when there are sharp differences over who gets a say in how a territory is governed.
The concept of just war is an attempt to see when a war can be seen as morally justifiable. It is seen that violence is unjust if one group of people or nation starts it to dominate another group. But in the case of self-defense, or the defense of others subjects of aggressions, violence takes another connotation, not of a means of conquest, but of a means of liberation. The justice of resorting to violence or war depends on the compliance with certain previous conditions known as Jus Ad Bellum . The political leaders who commit their forces to war, following the Jus Ad Bellum moral prescriptions, cannot be accused of waging unjust war, unless it can be proved that other concealed motives were being pursued.
Firstly, a war must be waged for the right reasons. Professor of philosophy Brian Orend mentions that the most commonly accepted conditions for a just war are “ self-defense from external attack; the defense of others from such; the protection of innocents from brutal, aggressive regimes; and punishment for a grievous wrongdoing which remains uncorrected” . Professor of moral theology Nigel Biggar, gives strong arguments that indicate that Germany was indeed waging unjust war against Russia, France and Belgium . He states that the German politicians were following a line of thought that led them to start a preemptive war, but was not supported by any credible threat from any of the countries they attacked . In fact, it is now known that in 1912, Helmuth von Moltke succeeded at convincing the German war council that a European war was inevitable, and that the sooner they attacked, the better the odds of winning it . It is also known that Germany not only supported Austrian-Hungary in a possible conflict with Serbia, justified or not, but they even stimulated it by assuring them they would stay behind them with Nibelungen Loyalty . This proves that Germany was a willing aggressor that knowingly exerted violence over unsuspecting neighbors, and Britain´s response in defense of others, some of them allies, is more than justified under the first condition of just war.
Other conditions that would justify an act of war is that the decision to go to war must be made by the appropriate authorities, and that there must seem that all plausible alternatives have been exhausted . After the Sarajevo crisis, Germany set his Shlieffen Plan in motion, taking the first steps for the Belgium invasion . Great Britain showed great diplomatic efforts trying to persuade the German government to respect Belgium´s neutrality status, but they received a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary that stated they had unimpeachable information indicating that the French planned an attack via Belgium . France of course did not plan any such thing. In fact their troops had explicit orders to remain ten kilometers away from their borders with Belgium, as to make their defensive stance utterly unmistakable . British government was perfectly aware of this fact and considered that the last telegram received from the German Foreign Secretary was not satisfactory. Consequently, His Majesty´s government declared the state of war with Germany on August fourth 1914 .
The rest of the conditions that must be complied for a country to wage a just war are far more complicated to confirm. For instance, the State waging war must have the right intention when doing so, that is to say that there must not exist any ulterior motives for entering in conflict. Even if the reasons are just, motives such as revenge or ambitions for land must be ruled out . In 1917, soldier and poet Sigfried Sassoon expressed his view that British goal to defend the independence of France and Belgium could have been reached without entering to war. He protested against the war, and assured that it was being deliberately prolonged in Britain´s interest of conquering continental land . At the time it could have raised suspicion among pacifists and those more akin to political realism, but at the end of the conflict, it was clear that England´s borders had not augmented in any way.
Lastly, war must be waged only if there is a believable chance that it would affect the situation, and the cost must be proportionate to the gains expected at the end of the conflict . These are speculative conditions, and subject to change, but according to Biggar England could make a prudent assessment of probabilities of winning and cost-benefit analysis. It is true that at the end of the war, Germans had lost more than three million troops while Britain lost one million men , showing that Britain was right in thinking they were going to have less casualties than the opposing band. But the calculations had to be done for all actors, including those Britain was trying to help. It is estimated that the allied front suffered far more casualties than the enemy, even when they won the war , so it might be argued that the costs outweighed the gains. This of course is also apparent, as there were good reasons to believe that if Russia and France had not been able to resist on their own, Britain would have faced a Germany with renewed Bismarckian ambitions, willing to further their gains into the island , so it can be said that England, and their allies, had also won more security. Consequently, the course of action taken by the government of Great Britain was the only one they could afford if they wanted to secure their future peace. Unfortunately it was not going to last too long for the decisions made at the end of the war, led to a far greater conflict just decades later.
It is then clear that the British government had all the moral justifications they needed to go into war against Germany, and even tried to avoid conflict. All six of the conditions for just war were present, giving it undisputable moral grounds for it. Education Secretary Gove´s fear is that some historians might want to impose a vision of an evil England and a victimized Germany, and he would like to renew interest in the history of the Great War at its hundredth year commemoration. Professor Richard Evans made some strong points against the war in the article cited in this work, but these arguments are more useful for pointing out what balanced historians have missed in their research than for giving any new perspective about the moral justification of England´s participation in the war.
Biggar, N. (2013, September). Was Britain Right To Go To War In 1914? Standpoint. Retrieved March 9, 2014, from http://standpointmag. co. uk/node/5143/full
Clausewitz, C. V. (1989). On War. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Evans, R. (2014, January 6). Michael Gove Shows His Ignorance of History – Again. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www. theguardian. com/books/2014/jan/06/richard-evans-michael-gove-history-education
Gove, M. (2014, January 2). Why Does the Left Insist on Belittling True British Heroes? Mail Online. Retrieved March 9, 2014, from http://www. dailymail. co. uk/debate/article-2532930/MICHAEL-GOVE-Why-does-Left-insist-belittling-true-British-heroes. html
MacMillan, M. (2013). The War That Ended Peace. London: Profile.
Morgenthau, H. (1993). Politics Among Nations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Orend, B. (2008, September 21). War. Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/fall2008/entries/war/