Posted by: michaeldaybath | February 26, 2014

The First World War: The Debate

The First World War: The Debate, British Library, 17 February 2014

The Menin Gate, Ieper

Post-war remembrance: the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ieper, Belgium

One of the advantages of working for the British Library is the opportunity to participate in its regular programme of events.

On Monday evening last week, I attended an event hosted by the British Library in London entitled, “The First World War: The Debate,” a contribution to the ongoing discussion of the war triggered by the Secretary of State for Education’s comments on the centenary celebrations in January, and involving (amongst others) the historians Richard J. Evans, Tristram Hunt, Simon Schama and Gary Sheffield [1].

The British Library is marking the centenary of the start of the war in various ways, including a new World War One website that was launched last month and a free exhibition on “Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour” due to open at St Pancras on the 19th June [2, 3]. The Library has also been collaborating with other European institutions as part of the Europeana 1914-1918 project [4].

The debate was chaired by Paul Lay, the editor of History Today, who introduced the four panellists after the very briefest of context-setting. They were:

  • Professor Gary Sheffield, University of Wolverhampton
  • Dr Annika Mombauer, Open University
  • Dr Dan Todman, Queen Mary, University of London
  • Dr Neil Faulkner, University of Bristol

Hopefully, a podcast* of the full debate will be made available; if so, there will be no need to provide a full summary of proceedings here. The questions, however, fell into two main groups, one focused on origins, the other mostly on attitudes to the war.


The debate on origins sought the panellists’ opinions on responsibility for the war and whether Britain realistically could have stood aside in 1914. There was at least a degree of agreement amongst most of the panellists on the latter point. Given the geopolitical realities of the time, however, both Todman and Mombauer felt that it would have been extremely difficult for Britain to have made any other decision in 1914. Dr Mombauer commented that, given cultural assumptions about national honour and prestige that are hard to understand now, Sir Edward Grey probably could have made no other decision. Professor Sheffield thought that the war was largely the direct responsibility of Austria-Hungary and Germany, who (at best) were reckless, acting in the full knowledge that war would most likely not be confined to the Balkans, but would at least involve Russia.

Alone of all the panellists, Dr Faulkner adopted an alternative position on the war’s origins, arguing that there was a quite different way to understand it. Ignoring debates on diplomatic history, he postulated simply that there were two Europes in 1914. On one side, there was a Europe of rulers, bankers and industrialists gathered around national flags, all competing for empire, markets and raw materials. On the other, there were ordinary people, e.g. miners who had more in common with each other regardless of whether they lived in South Wales, the Rhineland or Bohemia; suffragettes that had no say in whether Britain went to war; and Irish nationalists, whose real enemies were the British. He noted the holier-than-thou attitude of the British now to the war, contrasting this with their then control of one fifth of the world’s landmass and a quarter of the world’s population, all to enrich a tiny group of bankers and industrialists. To a smattering of applause, he concluded that if 1914-18 was not a world gone mad, he did not know what was.

Of particular interest in this part of this debate were Dr Mombauer’s comments on popular historical understanding of the war in Germany. After many years of relative neglect, there was now a upsurge of popular interest in the war, reflected in the extraordinary success of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers since its publication in German last year [5]. Some German historians were now arguing that it was Britain’s choice to enter the war that converted it into global war. While the 50th anniversary of the war had been dominated by historical debate on the Fischer thesis – which laid  blame for the war firmly at the feet of Imperial Germany – the centenary had given Germans the opportunity to reflect that Germany had (perhaps) not been the only guilty party in the run up to war.

Attitudes to the war

The debate on legacy first considered how British attitudes to the war had changed over time, especially after the Second World War. The discussion started with the commonplace observation that attitudes to the First World War in Britain changed markedly after the Second, which was widely seen as a war of (reluctant) necessity. Elsewhere, Lyn Macdonald has written about the effect this change of attitude had on old soldiers [6. pp. 137-138]:

‘Their’ war had been overtaken and no one, it seemed, was interested. The monster Hitler out-monstered the Kaiser and, in the popular mind, the unimaginable obscenities of the extermination camps far outstripped the horrors of Passchendaele and Verdun. Over the next 20 years the image of a ‘good’ and heroic war was reinforced by a torrent of reminiscences, books, plays and films, fictional and otherwise.

Several of the panellists identified the early 1960s as a particular cultural turning point for attitudes towards the First World War, with mention of literature (J. B. Priestley), music (Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which incorporated the poems of Wilfred Owen), theatre (Joan Littlewood’s stage musical “Oh, What a Lovely War!”) , and television (the documentary series The Great War). Much of this reflected the political and cultural realities of the 1960s, which was also the age of the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin War, and the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps it may also have been part of a counter cultural backlash against the Edwardian conformism of Harold Macmillan, who himself had fought in the First World War?

Dr Faulkner commented that Gove’s attack on the 1960s consensus was based on an ignorance of what was happening inside European society one hundred years ago. While many had been gulled by nationalism and imperialism, Faulkner argued that there had been a significant minority that had opposed war from the very beginning and pointed to frequent mutinies and strikes, then the unrest that eventually led to revolution in Russia – shutting down the war in the east in 1917 – and (eventually) Germany. Before the First World War, the impact of conflict had been relatively small; societies then engulfed with industrialised slaughter resulted in a huge anti-war backlash. In response, Dr Todman was more pessimistic, thinking that the real lesson was the ability for society to delude itself into non-critical support of the war.

The debate was then opened to the audience, provoking questions on:

  • Imperialism and the arms race – Professor Sheffield argued that while these factors made war more likely in the long-term, the war itself was caused by individual decisions made in Austria-Hungary and Germany.
  • The Treaty of Versailles and links with the Second World War – Dr Mombauer commented that anger about the war guilt ruling united practically every German, an anger later harnessed by Hitler; however, the NSDAP was not anti-war, e.g. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) was one of the works chosen for destruction in the Nazi book burnings. Professor Sheffield later argued that Versailles might have worked if breaches had ever been enforced, commenting that it was in many ways a fairer (i.e. more normal) treaty than Brest-Litovsk, or that which followed 1945.
  • The role of popular consent – Professor Sheffield responded that while British military discipline could be brutal, relatively few soldiers were executed (around 350 out of an army of 5.4 million) and that life in the trenches was held together by good junior officers that looked after their men. Unlike the French or Italian armies, the British army did not face any serious mutinies, at least until after the war had ended. Dr Todman commented that there had been a lot of research into popular consent, noting that the dynamics of consent worked differently at the levels where war was typically experienced, e.g. taking into account village or county loyalties.

Throughout the debate, there was a feeling that the centenary of the war perhaps needed to open up new vistas, in particular to get away from a parochial focus on the British experience and the western front (Paul Lay). The First World War was a global war and much could be learned by looking at in more detail at events in central Europe (which was perhaps one of the reasons for the success of The Sleepwalkers), Russia or the Middle East.


This was an interesting debate to have at the beginning of this centenary year; an intelligent and considered response to a debate initially triggered by those that seem to want to use the centenary to gain political advantage over their rivals (or critics). The debate itself revealed a great deal of consensus. In particular, most of the panel were in agreement that once war came in 1914, Britain’s options were extremely limited. Imperialism and global capitalism were doubtless important contextual factors in the lead up to war, but I was not personally convinced by Dr Faulker’s alternative (and to me over-simplistic) vision of a Europe (world?) divided between the beneficiaries of capitalism (rulers, bankers and industrialists) and its victims. The historical challenge for us is to understand the spirit of the age, which, as Paul Lay pointed out during the debate, was typically based on world views quite different from our own.

Like Dr Mombauer, however, I do wonder, however, whether months (and years) of constant media coverage and debate may not eventually lead to war fatigue. I guess, however, that we will find that out as we approach the end of August. Or will we have to wait until the 1st July 2016?


[1] See, for example: Anthony Beevor, “A century on, this bloody war still divides us.” Evening Standard, 7 January 2014, p. 14.

[2] British Library, World War One website:

[3] British Library, Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour:

[4] Europeana 1914-1918 project:

[5] Christopher Clark, The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2012); Christopher Clark, Die Schlafwandler: Wie Europa in den Ersten Weltkrieg zog, tr. Norbert Juraschitz (München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2013)

[6] Lyn Macdonald, “Oral history and the First World War.” In: A part of history: aspects of the British experience of the First World War (London: Continuum, 2008), pp. 137-141.


Update (3 March 2014)

* A video of the debate is now available on the British Library’s YouTube channel:



  1. […] events devoted to the subject. The British Library is no exception. I have already reported on a panel discussion on the war hosted in February, and there have been other events held at the Library since then, […]

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