Home » voice » Why did the world go to war in 1914?

Why did the world go to war in 1914?


Fig. 1 The Newbury Festival Panel. Prof Gary Sheffield, Professor Sir Michael Howard, Chair, Professor Margaret MacMillan and Professor Chris Clark. 24th May 2014

Professor Sir Michael Howard invited historians to speak the Newbury Festival on Saturday 24th May 2014. The guests were Professor Margaret MacMillan, Professor Gary Sheffield and Professor Chris Clark.

Professor Margaret MacMillan stressed the importance of Europe in the world and pointed out the rate of growth in Russia, both in population and output.  We learnt that the tensions of the period were great, that these were becoming precarious and in some circles it was thought that war would help. With heightened nationalism she felt that certain nations were ‘doomed to confront each other’. She spoke also of social Darwinism, the idea that some nations or people are stronger than others. Increasing democracy was described by Lord Salisbury in Britain as like ‘having a lunatic asylum at your back’.

Professor Chris Clark made the case that interest in and the relevance of the outbreak of the First World War is more relevant today than at any time in the last twenty to thirty years. He described the motivation of the assassins and the shockwaves of a ‘terror event’ such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand comparing this to 9/11. There are some important forgotten ‘links in the chain’ that made war possible:

The Italian wars in the lands that are now called Libya which was the first aggression against the weakening Ottoman Empire.

The Franco-Russian Treaty which in his opinion ‘handed Russia the trigger’ especially as the Entente was weakened by Britain’s prevarications.

And numerous sudden events such as the Greek/Turkish Arms Race, the appearance of Albania, two Balkan Wars and Russia’s shift of emphasis from Sofia to Serbia.

He made a plea against ‘the blame game’.

Professor Sir Michael Howard, a 91 year old who served in the Second World War, spoke of Germany as a militarised nation, of the rail network that allowed swift mobilization, the expectations of war and the need in their minds to defeat France quickly before turning their attention on Russia.

For those who studied it, the Japanese war showed how success was possible where you threw huge armies into the fray. He also spoke of heightened nationalism and of Social Darwinism.

Professor Gary Sheffield had a go at Chris Clark picking up a theme from ‘The Sleepwalkers’ that it was no ‘Agatha Christie’, that there was no James Bond villain. On the contrary, he felt that we could and should blame the criminals in Germany and Austria-Hungary. He said the Germany was ‘nasty, but not the Nazis’. (To which Chris Clark made a cheap riposte suggesting the Sheffield used the term Nazi in an effort to strengthen a weak argument). He spoke of greater state control, the development of weapons, nationalism and the ruthlessness of generals to sacrifice lives in order to achieve their goals. 1914 was not an aberration, rather we should look at how the American Civil War played out for a comparative conflict. The defensive was temporarily superior to the offensive. With no flanks, there could only be full frontal attacks. For this war the Generals had no voice control, this was neither a Napoleonic war with generals on the battlefield, nor a war controlled by radio which was only in its infancy towards the end of the 1914-18 conflict. Once the troops went over there was little the generals could do.

The deadlock was broken with a revolution in military affairs: aircraft, radio and artillery. There was constant experimentation at all levels.

Britain went to war to resist hegemony of Germany in Europe and to protect the Channel ports. There was moral outrage at Germany ripping up agreements so the fall of Belgium was critical to Britain entering the war, though perhaps had Germany remained south of the Meuse Britain would have held back.

Professor Chris Clark had an immediate dig at Gary Sheffield suggesting that he should take some study leave to undertake some foreign language research. He disagreed that there were criminals to blame, that in his view all the great powers were rapacious. Russia was not attacked, yet mobilised under the pretence of supporting Serbia while having eyes on the Dardanelles and Istanbul. War started in East Prussia with the invasion by Russia and in Alsace Lorraine with the invasion of the French. He felt that the Balkans was the only playground left from Russia after their defeats against Japan in the east and having signed agreements with Britain that would keep them out of Persia and India.

 A childish tit-for-tat spat broke out between Gary Sheffield and Chris Clark with both being less that professional in tone and attack. It would be polite to suggest it was like Prime Minister’s Question Time, rather it was like a couple of nerds in the school playground sniping and name calling. Chris Clark came over as an intellectual snob chiding Gary Sheffield for not undertaking foreign research while Gary Sheffield, clearly not used to debate, was reduced to sweeping generalisations regarding the number of (unnamed) historians who did or did not support his views and those of Chris Clark. Unbecoming of both men.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: