Was Britain Right To Go To War In 1914?

tags: World War I, United Kingdom, Great Britain, Nigel Biggar, Great War



Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and author of In Defence of War, published next month by OUP.

The History Wars are upon us. The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is less than a year away, but conflict over how to commemorate it is already heating up. In July, Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, made his view robustly clear in the Guardian ("Myth-Busting", July 13, 2013). Brushing aside the likes of Hew Strachan, Gary Sheffield and Max Hastings, he wrote that "the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong". Unable to let pass the chance to caricature his conservative opponents and to savour the easy pleasure of watching strawmen scatter before the withering breath of his indignation, Evans accuses those who would celebrate 1918 as a British military triumph of "narrow, tub-thumping jingoism" and asks, "Do we want a narrow, partisan, isolationist national identity where . . . other countries are regarded as inferior, and triumphalist myths are drummed into our children?" 

Well, presumably not. I doubt even Evans's bête noire, Michael Gove, would be so unsubtle as to nod his head to that. But celebration is possible without tub-thumping, and triumphalism needn't spoil the sober recognition of triumph. It is possible to honour the military success of our national forebears in defeating an unjust invader without deeming ourselves universally superior. It is possible to judge one nation state's aggressive action morally wrong and another's defensive reaction morally right, while recognising that the victim bears some responsibility for the sins of the aggressor. It is possible to judge that it was right to fight back, and still to acknowledge the tragedy of it all.

But how do we judge? During its 1,500-year history, the "just war" tradition — originally fostered by Christian theologians, but now enshrined in international law and adopted by moral philosophers — has developed two sets of criteria, one regarding the justice of going to war in the first place (ius ad bellum) and the other regarding justice in the course of fighting (ius in bello). The six criteria of ius ad bellum are: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality, and prospect of success. Those of ius in bello are proportionality and discrimination. In the case of Britain's belligerency in 1914-18, criticism has focused on three criteria: just cause, right intention and proportionality (both ad bellum and in bello). 




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