Still Fighting over the Great War
Was World War I a noble cause or a strategic disaster?

British soldiers exit the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.



War of Choice or War of Necessity?
In the first days of August 1914, Great Britain found itself at a strategic crossroads. Regardless of whom it held responsible for the war, it now faced the prospect of a single adversary dominating Europe in a manner reminiscent of Napoleon. Hastings and Ferguson agree wholeheartedly on two points essential to determining whether the British were wise to fight or had better options at their disposal. First, they agree that a German victory was imminent if the British refused to fight. Second, Hastings and Ferguson agree that the wisdom of the decision to fight depends on the implications of a German victory. Ferguson spells this out more clearly. He explains:

It’s always illuminating to think about what we historians call the “counterfactuals,” the “what ifs” of history. What if the British cabinet had decided not to intervene in 1914. . . . What would Europe look like today if the Germans had indeed won that limited continental war?

To answer his question, Ferguson gestures to a screen behind him that rolls stock footage of a German auto plant. Answering his own question, Ferguson continues, “A Europe dominated by the German economy. What’s more, the German chancellor’s proposal for a European customs union [during the war] . . . was to a remarkable extent an anticipation of our own European Union.”

Ferguson made this same point 15 years ago in an influential book also entitled The Pity of War. The argument drew heavy fire then and is no more persuasive now. Midway through Hastings’s film, the eminent historian Sir Michael Howard tells Sir Max, “If the Germans had won the war, I see no way in which they would not have used their dominance of Europe to bring the British down. So we would not have avoided a war, we would only have postponed one.” In September 1914, when it still seemed that the Germans might achieve the rapid and decisive victory they hoped for, their chancellor composed a list of concessions Germany expected in exchange for peace. It included the seizure of large tracts of land from France and Russia, while Belgium and Holland would become vassal states.

Had the Reich actually prevailed, it is difficult to identify any potential constraints on its ambitions. The Germans might have resumed their decades-long naval arms race with the British, this time with Belgian and Dutch ports under their control. Furthermore, actual German atrocities in Belgium and Eastern Europe during the war suggest a mindset not conducive to a pacific future.

While it may be fascinating to speculate about what might have been, there is simply no way to confirm that one projected future is more plausible than another. When Ferguson and Hastings address the implications of a German victory, they step outside their role as scholars and become educated guess-makers. This is not a condemnation. In the first days of August, 100 summers ago, the British cabinet had no choice but to make an educated guess about whether the consequences of fighting would be better or worse than the consequences of passivity.

The same is true for every government that confronts the prospect of war. For this reason, the effort to distinguish wars of choice from wars of necessity is inherently flawed. To argue that a war is necessary is to argue that the consequences of not fighting would be intolerable. Yet the decision to fight renders the consequences of inaction unknowable. Conversely, the decision not to fight renders the impact of a hypothetical conflict unknowable.

Even resistance to a direct attack on one’s homeland does not amount to a war of necessity. The decision to resist aggression always has a strong ethical component. After Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Americans overwhelmingly supported going to war because our enemies violated our most deeply held notions of justice and freedom. In both instances, there were strong reasons to believe that a refusal to fight would result in further attacks. Yet no one will ever know for sure what would have happened if America chose not to fight. The Japanese sought to pre-empt the projection of American power into the Western Pacific. They had no interest in California. The United States could have pursued al-Qaeda by means of law enforcement, not war, an alternative embraced by some on the left.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was good reason to ask whether the United States should have done more, sooner to prevent the attacks. If invading Afghanistan was the right choice, it would have made more sense to do so before the devastating attack that cost the lives of 3,000 civilians. Similarly, the best time to declare war on Japan was before Pearl Harbor. Yet the imperative to act became visible only in hindsight. Americans believed they had a choice. Perhaps more important, going to war early would have been far more difficult to justify. What one perceives as choice or necessity depends in no small part on moral considerations.

The Future of History
A hundred years from now, the British may remain no less divided than today about the wisdom of the Great War. The threat posed by the Second Reich will never match the malevolence of the Third. The human cost of the First World War will never seem tolerable, especially when the magnificent victory of 1945 demanded so much less.

Today, after lengthy and divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is profound skepticism in the United States of any assertion that enemies must be confronted abroad so they do not strike us at home. Yet the fading memory of 9/11 reminds Americans that sometimes, such warnings are valid. If only there were a clear standard against which to judge the necessity of fighting. The troubling lesson of Britain’s centenary debate is that history may never vindicate difficult choices on behalf of either war or peace.

— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

World War I
THE "GREAT WAR": This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities in World War I, a massive conflagration that would rage across Europe and far-flung battlefields for more than four years. Here’s a look back at the conflict through the faces of the soldiers who fought on all sides. Pictured, British troops climb out from a trench on the Western front.
World War I saw most of the nations of Europe as well as Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, embroiled in a conflict that would cause the fall of four imperial dynasties and alter the political landscape of the world. Pictured, Prussian guard infantry mobilize in Berlin, August 1914.
Though largely fought between European powers, the war spread to battlefields in Africa, the Middle East, and as far away as Asia. Pictured, a Turkish machine gun corps holds a position on the Gaza Line at Tel Esh Sheria, 1917.
The war brought unprecedented destruction and loss of life as modern weapons changed the landscape of the battlefield. But even after all the carnage, the groundwork was laid for an even more horrific world war two decades later. Pictured, a British soldier stands amid housands of spent artillery shells.
World War I saw the introduction of numerous new technologies on the battlefield and put established weapons to use on a whole new and murderous scale. The modern tank was among the innovations that changed the face of battle. Pictured, British armor on the move.
Powerful machine guns brought unprecedented carnage to vulnerable infantry, driving them into the protective trenches that would come to define the fighting across the Western front. Pictured, a Belgian soldier mans a machine gun during fighting in Belgium, 1914.
Airplanes were also used by numerous combatant nations for reconnaissance and bombing, and occasionally in aerial dogfights to determine air superiority for the first time in modern war. Pictured, British Handley-Page bombers in the skies over the Western front.
The war also saw the first widespread use of poison gas, a ghastly new weapon that so horrified the world that its use was later banned by international treaty. Pictured, German soldiers run from a poison gas attack near Flanders, September 1917.
The scope of the war made a final accounting of the human toll hard to measure, but an estimated nine to ten million soldiers were killed and more than 22 million injured. At least seven million civilians also perished during the conflict. Pictured, British soldiers carry a stretcher in Flanders, August 1917.
THE FRONT LINES: French soldiers stage a bayonet charge up a steep slope in the Argonne Forest, 1915.
British artillery pound German forces on the Western front.
A German soldier throws a hand grenade.
An artillery shell lands near a trench at Fort de la Pompelle, France.
American soldiers prepare their 37mm machine gun during fighting at Meuse-Argonne, France, September 1918.
U.S. soldiers in action: Battery C, Sixth Field Artillery Regiment, First Division, fire artillery at Beaumont, France, September 1918.
A German machine-gun position on the Vistula River, 1916.
A British machine-gun team preps their weapon.
U.S. soldiers with Company A, Ninth Machine Gun Battalion, man an emplacement in Chateau Thierry, France, June 1918.
Serbian soldiers man a hilltop trench.
Infantry man a position north of Jerusalem, 1917.
A gang of soldiers pull a heavy field artillery piece through the mud along a railroad track.
A German soldier and his horses wear gas masks as they move through a contaminated area, June 1918.
Soldiers unload 1,400-pound “pill box destroyers” on the Western front. These artillery shells would blow a hole 15 feet deep and 45 feet across.
German soldiers celebrate Christmas at the front, December 1914.
British soldiers enjoy a Christmas dinner in a shell crater and alongside a grave, 1916.
ON THE MOVE: French cavalry ride through the streets, c. 1914
British soldiers on the march at Vimy Ridge, 1917.
German troops on the march c. 1918.
Australian light-horse troops on the march in East Jerusalem, 1918.
Highlander soldiers carry sandbags to the front, 1916.
British soldiers on the beach at Gallipoli, with part of the invasion fleet in the harbor, prior to pivotal and bloody battle.
Russian troops on the run after the Russian Revolution, 1917.
British soldiers march into Lille, France, near the war's end in October 1918.
Going Home: American soldiers of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment arrive in New York City c. 1919.
IN THE TRENCHES: Facing powerful machine gun and the ever-present threat of artillery, armies on both sides dug in for a long and protracted war fought from sprawling trenches. Pictured, a British soldier crouches in a flooded trench near the front line in France.
American soldiers with the Maryland 117th Trench Mortar Battery, load a trench mortar near Badonviller, France, 1918.
French soldiers man an anti-aircraft machine gun in a trench near Perthes les Hurlus.
French soldiers wear gas masks in a trench, 1917.
British soldiers in knee-deep mud at the front lines, c. 1917.
A British soldier cleans his rifle on the Western front.
An exhausted Scottish soldier asleep in a trench near Thievpal, France.
A Dutch soldier writes a letter home while sheltered in a trench.
A posed shot of German soldiers in a trench near the British line, showing their large machine gun and one soldier (at right) using a periscope to observe enemy forces.
The view from inside an ANZAC pillbox near Ypres, 1917.
BUTCHER'S BILL: A British soldier helps a wounded German prisoner, c. 1916
German soldiers support a wounded British soldier, 1917.
German medics tend to soldiers injured in a gas attack.
An American soldier with Company K, 110th Regiment Infantry, is tended by a medic at Varennes-enArgonne, France, September 1918.
German POWs are pressed into service helping push a cart loaded with wounded Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, 1917
THE AFTERMATH: Soldiers stand in a massive artillery crater in Ypres, Belgium, October 1917.
Austrian Fourth Division field artillery soldiers in Chateau Wood near Hooge, Belgium, October 1917
A shattered British MkIV tank near Inverness Copse, August 1917.
Two tanks lie broken on the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium, October 1917.
A bridge snakes through the shattered landscape at Flanders, 1918.
Dead horses litter a battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, 1917.
Lens France
The pulverized ruins of Gommecourt Chateau in France.
Updated: Aug. 06, 2014



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