The Great War Debate – Leading Commentators

6 mins read

Military History Monthly and Historical Trips are co-hosting a public debate at the Royal United Services Institute on 27 October this year, asking the question:

Was Britain right to fight in 1914?

Here we give a flavour of that debate with a selection of sound-bites from leading commentators.


“When armchair generals glibly criticise them [First World War generals] for continuing to mount attacks on enemy trenches, we have to ask ‘Why did they continue?’ They did so because no-one knew of an alternative. If it was so demonstrably false and incompetently executed, why didn’t the British Army mutiny like the others?”

Jeremy Paxman
Journalist, broadcaster

“If it was right and honourable for Britain to go to war in fulfilment of its guarantee to Poland in September 1939, then it was right and honourable for it to do so in fulfilment of its guarantee to Belgium in August 1914. Germany, like Britain, had guaranteed Belgian neutrality when that state was set up. Germany flouted that treaty, contemptuously calling it ‘a scrap of paper’; Britain honoured it. Germany’s barbaric behaviour in conquering Belgium… was different in scale, but not in spirit, from the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated there and in Poland in the Second World War.”

Nigel Jones
Historian, journalist, biographer

“The British were able to portray the Germans as ‘aggressors’ and ‘militarists’, and to claim they were ‘guilty’ of starting the war, only because they were defending an existing empire rather than trying to create a new one. But the underlying aims of the rulers of the great powers were identical: to carve up the world in pursuit of profit and power. The First World War was an imperialist war.”

Neil Faulkner
Archaeologist, historian, journalist

“Had we not fought, the 20th century would have been radically different, and we might still be a world power. Germany could well have ended up top dog, but a continent might not have been destroyed. The men who fought and died deserve our unconditional respect; but we should not deceive ourselves that their deaths brought about a better world.”

Simon Heffer
Journalist, author, political commentator

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour, and courage.”

Michael Gove

“Gove wants us all to celebrate WWI as a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’, fought by men ‘committed to defending the Western liberal order’. He seems to forget that one of Britain’s two main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, a despotism of no mean order, far more authoritarian than the Kaiser’s Germany. Until Russia left the war early in 1918, any talk of fighting to defend ‘Western’ values was misplaced.”

Richard Evans,

“France wished to expel enemy troops from its soil, recover Alsace-Lorraine… and clip Germany’s wings. Britain was concerned about the balance of power, and wanted to prise Belgium from Germany’s grasp. Both states were near-democracies… and neither relished the idea of the victory of autocratic Germany. Berlin, by contrast, planned to reduce France to a second-class power, to turn Belgium into a protectorate, and to create Mitteleuropa, a German-dominated economic zone in the centre of Europe. By the end of the war, Germany was busy carving an empire out of the ruins of defeated Russia. These expansionist plans had a good deal of continuity with those of the Third Reich. They lacked [only] the racist and consciously genocidal elements central to Nazi methods, although Imperial Germany’s policies in occupied territories were harsh enough.”

Gary Sheffield,

“Michael Gove is wrong to claim that most men went to war because they were fighting for democracy. The volunteers dried up as the war went on, and so conscription was introduced. It was the attempted introduction of conscription into Ireland which gave further impetus to the movement for independence. Desertion and ‘cowardice’ – often the manifestation of terrible fears and mental injuries at the Front – were met with brutal executions. Those who opposed war or resisted conscription were harassed, imprisoned, and persecuted.”

Lindsey German
Leading anti-war activist

“It seems hugely important that in preparing for this centenary commemoration, our Government and national institutions should seek to explain to a new generation that WWI was critical to the freedom of Western Europe. Far from dying in vain, those who perished in the King’s uniform between 1914 and 1918 made as important a contribution to our privileged, peaceful lives today as did their sons in WWII.”

Max Hastings
Historian, journalist

To find out more about our military history experts – Neil Faulkner, Patrick Mercer, Nigel Jones, and Jan Woolf – in the run up to this exciting debate, and also for details on how to book your tickets, click here.

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