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Britain Should Not Have Fought in the First World War

Was Britain’s involvement in the First World War a vital crusade to prevent an oppressive German-dominated Europe? Or a mistake which brought Communism to power in Russia and left a festering sense of resentment that would fuel the rise of Nazism?

The First World War is not called the Great War for nothing. It was the single most decisive event in modern history, as well as one of the bloodiest: by the time the war ended, some nine million soldiers had been killed. It was also a historical full stop, marking the definitive end of the Victorian era and the advent of a new age of uncertainty. By 1918, the old order had fallen: the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia; the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires had been destroyed; and even the victorious Allied powers had suffered devastating losses. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And yet barely two decades later, the world was again plunged into conflict. Little wonder then that historians still cannot agree whether Britain’s engagement was worth it.

For some, the war was a vitally important crusade against Prussian militarism. Had we stayed out, they argue, the result would have been an oppressive German-dominated Europe, leaving the British Empire isolated and doomed to decline. And by fighting to save Belgium, Britain stood up for principle: the right of a small nation to resist its overbearing neighbours.

For others, the war was a catastrophic mistake, fought at a catastrophic human cost. It brought Communism to power in Russia, ripped up the map of Europe and left a festering sense of resentment that would fuel the rise of Nazism. We often forget that, even a few days before Britain entered the war, it seemed likely that we would stay out. H. H. Asquith’s decision to intervene changed the course of history. But was it the right one?


For the motion

John Charmley

Professor of Modern History

Professor of Modern History at the University of East Anglia, and author of Splendid Isolation? Britain and the Balance of Power 1874-1914. Best known for his revisionist interpretation of British foreign policy in the mid-twentieth century

Dominic Sandbrook

Historian, columnist and broadcaster

Historian, columnist and broadcaster. He is best known for his acclaimed series of four books on post-war Britain, as well as his BBC2 television series on the 1970s and the Cold War. He is a regular book reviewer for the Sunday Times.
Against the motion

Max Hastings

Military historian, journalist and broadcaster

Author, journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared in every British national newspaper. He has written thirty books and received awards for his books and journalism, the most recent being a 2019 Arthur Ross Literary Award from the US Council on Foreign Relations for Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975. He was editor, then editor-in-chief, of The Daily Telegraph from 1986-1995, and of The Evening Standard 1996-2002. His forthcoming book is Operation Biting: The 1942 Assault to Capture Hitler's Radar.   

Margaret MacMillan

Emeritus Professor of International History at Oxford University

Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Toronto and Emeritus Professor of International History at Oxford University.  She was Provost of Trinity College, Toronto and then Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. In 2018 she was the BBC Reith Lecturer. Her books include Paris, 1919; The War that Ended Peace; and most recently War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

Edward Lucas

Columnist at The Times and National Security Expert

Columnist for The Times and consultant specialising in European and transatlantic security. Formerly a senior editor at The Economist, he is now a senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He has written several books including The New Cold War, a prescient account of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Deception, an investigative account of East-West espionage, and Cyberphobia, about the phenomenon of cybercrime. He is an advocate for Magnitsky Law sanctions against Chinese officials.