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1914, Niall Ferguson, and All That


Today, I play amateur historian. I’m not a pro, of course, though I did double major as an undergrad (history & pol sci). In this respect, I have a greater academic background in history than I do in international relations, which is sort of ironic considering I teach a seminar in IR at the Masters level . . . but I digress.[*]

Niall Ferguson, one of LGM’s all time favorite British historians working at Harvard, is making the rounds today, but not for the usual hilarity we have grown to love and expect. Rather, he’s going out on a limb by arguing that perhaps British involvement in the First World War was not such a splendid idea after all. Indeed, with trademark reserve, Ferguson characterizes British involvement as “the biggest error in modern history”.

There are two ways to critique this position. First, the easiest: “biggest”. It’s not. Andrew Gelman cites several alternatives of the same genre, including Operation Barbarossa 1941, Pearl Habor 1941, the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1981, and possibly even Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. I’d add in Germany’s declaration of war on the United States in December of 1941 for good measure. (Gelman’s brief piece is worth a read. It brings the funny.)

The other avenue of critique is the conception of “error” itself. Ferguson is flogging a new BBC documentary based on his 1999 book The Pity of War. With 100 years of perspective, [EDIT: i.e. knowing the consequences in blood and treasure] it’s easy seductive to conclude that Britain’s entry on the side of France and Russia was pointless. From a broad perspective, yes, that entire conflict was pointless as hell. However, from the perspective of the British political leadership between 1905 and 1914, specifically in July to August 1914, it’s not difficult (but it is painful) to understand why Britain indeed entered that war. That said, I do get the occasional bit of stick over here for America’s tardy participation in that conflict. My reply is usually something along the lines of “because we weren’t stupid” and “we didn’t have a dog in that fight”.

First, Britain, courtesy of the rapprochement with France, had a moral obligation to help her erstwhile enemy. They had a deal. The Royal Navy by and large ceded the Mediterranean Sea to France so the RN’s capital ships could be repositioned with the Home Fleet to cover the North Sea (and the rapidly expanding German High Seas Fleet). France was now predominantly responsible for protecting the critical lines of communication through the Mediterranean / Suez from any possible combination of Austria-Hungary / Italy / Turkey. The quid pro quo was that the British Army would send an expiditionary force across the Channel in the event of German aggression against France. (I believe that it wasn’t valid in the reverse scenario: French aggression against Germany, nor do I believe Belgium was included).

Second, nobody predicted that the conflict would ultimately be as costly in treasure and blood as it was. Britain got off relatively easy when contrasted with France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or even Turkey: the public debt increased over tenfold, and 9% of the 18-45 year old male cohort killed (around 725,000). If the major actors in August 1914 knew what their own worlds would look like in 1919, I suggest that they would not have gone forward with war at all. In other words, Ferguson’s thesis could be applied to each and every participant. While Wilhelm II was erratic, vain, restless, and perhaps a few fries short of a full happy meal, he wasn’t suicidal. His conservative harboring of the High Seas Fleet is evidence of this: he knew that the German Navy would lose a classic set-piece battle against the Grand Fleet, and he couldn’t bear to have his beloved navy destroyed. Hence, the adoption of a hit and run strategy against the Royal Navy (and development of unrestricted submarine warfare). Even if Germany had succeeded in the 1918 Spring Offensive and had knocked France out of the war, I doubt he’d have been willing to pay the price aggregated over the four years it took to get there. He certainly wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen the ultimate result: to ruin his country, abdicate, cede the High Seas Fleet to the Allies, and spend the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands.

Ferguson makes two other arguments worth engaging. First, that a German hegemony over the continent was essentially no big deal to Britain:

“Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory. What’s more, it would have been in Britain’s interests to stay out in 1914 . . . Even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British empire in naval and financial terms. Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later when Britain could respond on its own terms, taking advantage of its much greater naval and financial capability”.

What Ferguson doesn’t acknowledge here is that Britain was already in a steep relative decline. The complete economic superiority that it enjoyed during the period from 1815 and roughly 1870 had evaporated. It was losing market share abroad as its own industries weren’t keeping up with advancing technologies and processes, but rather resting on their laurels. Indeed, if it wasn’t for investment income and the finance sector (sounds familiar) the Empire would have had a net negative balance of trade. They were struggling to finance the expansion of the Royal Navy in order to maintain a semblance of the two power doctrine, even when France was explicitly removed from that two power equation. Assuming that Germany over-ran a France lacking in the help of the British Army (which while not certain remained a remarkably high probability), could this Empire in relative decline have really chosen its time to confront a continent under the control of Imperial Germany? Could the Royal Navy kept pace technologically and materially? Germany would have gained the French fleet, the channel ports, and, perhaps more critically, the Mediterranean ports. A Royal Navy that had to concentrate the overwhelming majority of its capital ships in the North Sea to keep the German fleet bottled up would find itself having to be spread perilously thin.

Rather that Britain retaining the geo-political initiative, I suggest that Imperial Germany would have had this advantage.

Simultaneous was the rapidly changing social and political context in Britain. The Liberal government under Asquith and Lloyd George had already taken steps in this direction with the People’s Budget of 1909. The power of the House of Lords was significantly eroded with the Parliament Act of 1914. A viable and vital Labour Party was just around the corner. Domestic politics was about to become a major line item in the budget, against the backdrop of declining economic hegemony. How could Britain continue to build four to six capital ships per year while simultaneously modernising the British Army in preparation for some future conflict against the continent led by Imperial Germany?

Additionally, what good would the Royal Navy have been as an offensive weapon, as Ferguson suggests above? In 1914, it was a defensive weapon. It could have prevented Britain from losing a war, but it alone could not have ensured that Britain win a war. This segues neatly into the second argument that Ferguson cites: Britain’s experience in the Napoleonic wars. Regarding the sacrosanct status of the channel ports to British strategy:

“This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe. It wasn’t until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time.”

The Royal Navy did not win that war. Nelson might be revered, Trafalgar a seminal moment in British history, but that battle was in 1805. Napoleon wasn’t finally defeated until 1815, and his invasion of Russia didn’t help matters much. More critically, Britain had a handful of continental allies against Napoleon. It was a land war. Yes, Britain managed to tread water in economic terms between 1805 and 1815, but there were negative effects of losing the continent as a market, and Britain vis-a-vis the entire planet was in a much better position in 1805 than it was 110 years later. Assuming Germany overran Belgium and France in 1914, then dispatched Russia (two of the three basically happened even with Britain in the war), who would join Britain against a consolidated Imperial Germany when Britain chose its time to counter in 1920 or 1930? Obviously not Austria-Hungary. Not Italy; it was a minor coup to get them to remain neutral at the beginning of the conflict.

There would not be a long queue of applicants for the position of “continental ally” with Team Britain in the struggle against Germany after Russia and France were eliminated, especially given that Britain had reneged on its deal and thrown France under the bus in 1914. How trustworthy would Britain be perceived to a continental minor power with plenty more to lose in squaring up against a Germany dominating the continent?

I’m not arguing that the First World War was a good idea. The entire enterprise was monumentally stupid, horrendous, and ruinous. I defend America’s avoidance of that conflict as long as we could. However, given the choices open to British political leadership in 1914, and what they knew to be true, it’s not obvious that entering on the side of France was “the biggest error in modern history”. They made a deal with France, so they were under a moral obligation to defend it. It’s not at all obvious that Britain would have been in a better strategic position in five or ten years to choose the time to deal with Germany. Such a future conflict would have required continental allies, who would not be willing for a variety of reasons. Britain itself was in relative economic decline. Assuming that German aggression had to be countered some how, it was probably better that it was countered in 1914 rather than some unclear time in the vague future.

Better yet, of course, is that all the principle actors in 1914 known what their world would have looked like in 1919. Of course, the world doesn’t quite work like that.

[*] The more I think about this, the less certain I am of the claim regarding relative academic backgrounds. I did take some IR at the masters and doctoral level, so its possibly balanced considering the quality and depth of those seminars, but I took a lot of history as an undergrad (obviously). None of this matters to the topic at hand, of course.

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