Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Niall Ferguson, World War I Pot Stirrer

Professor Niall Ferguson

Professor Niall Ferguson, considered by many a "Revisionist" in his writings about the Great War stirred up a hornet's next last year in an interview published in the BBC's online history magazine.  The quote that caught everyone's attention was – in apparently referring to Britain’s entry into the war — it “the biggest error in modern history.” Since I had had a long discussion with Mr. Ferguson on this very point over coffee one day at Stanford University — and expressed my disagreement over this very point — I made the big mistake of not reading the article. I recently corrected my error and read the article. I recommend our readers also do so. The full piece can be found HERE.

I'd forgotten that he is both brilliant and provocative. I discovered he included some fascinating insights in his responses to the questions put before him.  Here are a few that have given me pause. It will take a long time for me to think through them, but I found them undeniably thought-provoking.

Germany's Miscalculations

The Germans made a series of miscalculations about what was in their own strategic interest, and one of those miscalculations was to believe that the summer of 1914 was the best available moment for a showdown with Russia. This was a mistake because it almost certainly exaggerated Russia’s future strength. After all, Russia had been in a revolution nine years before [the 1905 revolution which did not bring down the regime but greatly unsettled it] and it was hardly as powerful as the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg seems to have thought. 

The Austrians Were the Wronged Party

The heir to their throne had been assassinated and the terrorists had been sponsored by the intelligence service of Serbia. . . the Austrians were the ones in the right and those who lined up on the side of Serbia were essentially backing the sponsors of terrorism.

Politics and the Decision for War

The Liberal government on 2 August 1914 realized that if it did not go to war then it would fall from power, because Grey and Churchill would resign and Asquith would have felt obliged to go to the king and admit the government could not be continued.

British Troops on the Western Front

Did Britain Have a Moral Duty to Protect Belgium?

It had a legal obligation under the 1839 treaty to uphold Belgian neutrality, so would have had to renege on that commitment. But guess what? Realism in foreign policy has a long and distinguished tradition, not least in Britain — otherwise the French would never complain about ‘perfidious Albion’.

About the Costs

When you ask yourself what it was for, answers like the creation of a pan-Slav state in the Balkans or the upholding of Belgian neutrality seem ludicrously small compared with the cost in terms of human life and treasure.


  1. Would that this were anything new. Folks have been making the eame arguments since 1914

  2. There were a number of serious attempts to charge Kaiser Wilhelm with being the man who chose war, with his so-called "blank cheque" to Austria-Hungary in its actions to punish Serbia for the actions of a very few radicals in the assassination of the Grand Duke and wife.
    Holland refused to give up the Kaiser for trial, thereby making Holland complicit.
    Does all this matter today? As Russia seeks to punish Turkey for shooting down a Russian aircraft, Churchill's words still ring true; "better jaw, jaw, jaw than war, war, war."
    Diplomacy could have avoided WW1, and can resolve the Russian/Turkish standoff.

  3. British and French support of Serbian-government backed murderers showed the world that terrorism pays. We're still paying the price.

  4. An interesting article. I also believe that Britain entered the war to check German naval expansion and its interference with British hegemony in Africa and other places. A case can also be made that German support for the Boer Republics in 1899. Fergusson's point on intervention is well taken. England in fact had recently reorganized its forces. There were 14 Territorial divisions. Conscription had been bandied about within British governments in order to have an army for a European war. French, Haig, and many other officers who pointed out that without a draft to use an American term, the army was unable to field an army to capable of making a difference on the Continent. Fergusson's point that Britain had tolerated a Napoleonic hegemony of Europe because England did not have the army to send to Europe. The question than becomes, if England had allowed Germany to seize control of the Channel ports, England and not Germany would be the nation under blockade rather than the other way around.

  5. Good stuff, once again. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Ferguson is wrong that Britain accepted French hegemony on the continent in Napoleonic times. Right from the beginning Britain initiated coalition wars providing fleet, a small mobile army and money. Antwerp port in French hands was considered a gun pointed at the heart of Britain. British strategy in 1914 is similar.

    In general most people expected heavy casualties but also a short war. It turned out not to be that way. It is easy to judge with hindsight. Interestingly Germany would have been better of defending against France and attacking Russia from the beginning and at the same time propably keeping Britain and the USA out of the war.

  7. While war is always a sad choice for most nations and especially liberal democracies with a pluralistic rule, the German invasion of Belgium and march on France necessitated allied actions. To argue otherwise is academic to the great sacrifices made. And while the cost in lives and destruction was appalling, there is always a learning curve for forces engaged in a new war. And the battlefields were no longer the empty fields of ancient times, so the civilian destruction becomes all the more costly. But the sadist note to such a conflagration is the failure to make the peace and League of Nations work. Such that destruction, disorganization and failure to create just systems for the world led directly to the continuation as WWII. Let us hope WE can do a better job in the 21st century.