Opinion: Why the First World War matters for government for,and by, the people

Lloyd george public domainIn this 100th year since the Great War’s outbreak, and especially around Remembrance Day, we have all been united in sorrow for the pain and loss of life, respect for the ultimate subordination of self to a common good, and gratitude that war on such a scale has been unknown to us for decades and may, with wise leadership, never be seen again.

There is sometimes a view that the First World War was a pointless slaughter. That analysis is too simplistic, in my view. At university, I was privileged to spend a whole year looking at primary sources on British political, economic and military strategy in the First World War. The strategic picture reveals what was at risk in 1914-18. Beyond the pain there was a reason and a purpose.

Today, we see the First World War through the prism of the Second World War, which appears a blatant struggle between good and evil. We all know that on one side in 1939-45 were parliamentary democracies, which won and forged a new order based on human rights – albeit allied by necessity to Soviet Russia. On the other side, were fascist regimes which ruled by fear, governed on racial lines, abrogated the rule of law, committed genocide and initiated the war by aggression upon their neighbours. We have an idea of the horror that would have been inflicted upon the whole world if there had been an Axis final victory.

But similar matters were at issue in the First World War. It was a conflict chiefly between young parliamentary democracies and a near-absolute, highly militaristic monarchy. German defeat led to a new parliamentary republic. In the victorious states democracy gained further momentum: the vote was extended to women and more men than ever before; more progressive social policies were adopted.

Had Britain and France been defeated, we do not know exactly what terms the German Empire would have imposed. It is likely that territory would have been annexed, irrespective of the wishes of people who lived there; the political independence of Britain and France might have been much reduced.

In Britain and France, the birth and growth of parliamentary democracy had been resisted by powerful conservative elites. Democracy, such as it existed by 1914, was still controversial. A real risk was that, just as Axis defeat in 1945 discredited fascism, nationalism and militarism, so western defeat in 1918 might well have discredited key pillars of liberalism: elected government, civilian control of the military and an executive bound by the rule of law.

The war had to be won to prove that a democratic government could protect the nation from existential danger. Defeat would have been used by liberal democracy’s opponents to argue for a less democratic future. Defeat might have strengthened Communism, or very likely have led to calls for more power for the military or monarchy – anyone but elected politicians who had lost the war. British and French defeat in 1918 might well have set back democracy’s progress in Western Europe by decades.

The War was utterly terrible and if it could have been avoided should have been. But the idea that it had no important outcomes is not right.

Those who died, did not die pointlessly. They saved freedom. The horror of the Western Front gives us motivation to prevent war and democracy, which the fallen secured, gives us the means to prevent it.

Photo shows Lloyd George

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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  • Interesting article, Antony. As you point out, we look at the First World War through the prism of the Second but that’s partly because the settlement imposed by the victorious democracies led to conditions in Germany which resulted in another war.
    If you’re up for a series of articles, here’s a suggestion. Taking the presumption that the democracies were right to go to war in 1914, why did they impose the peace conditions in 1919?

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Nov '14 - 11:46am

    “… A real risk was that, just as Axis defeat in 1945 discredited fascism, nationalism and militarism, so western defeat in 1918 might well have discredited key pillars of liberalism: elected government, civilian control of the military and an executive bound by the rule of law.”

    I go along with this – to a point – from a Scottish-English-Welsh point of view (whilst you need to acknowledge that during the conflict, two of the ‘pillars’ you point to were somewhat abrogated, or at least under high stress).

    But in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the tenets of liberal democracy were, for a time (which were under pressure before the war), lost completely and didn’t resurface until after a bloody civil war. And it was the fact of the war that prevented progress and resolution on this point, because of the need to reconcile Unionists and Conservatives into a Liberal cgovernment, that led to downgrading of the devolutionist and Home Rule agenda, and thence to the rise and partial-victory of violent and separatism.

    You cannot point to a smooth, upwards progress towards liberal democracy in the context of the First world war. The fact that the Armistice gives the mainland British public a ‘clean’ date which ‘ended’ the conflict is a European anomaly; in most other coutnries of Europe actual fighting and ongoing internal civil strife and state-reformation went on for the best part of 5 years, and in many countries liberal democracy was damaged and did not categorially recover until very recently. We were lucky; by a combination of chance and judgement, that we got out of it with enough intact that British society didn’t undergo the horrific shocks and systemic jolts that traumatised other nations (which number far more than just nations of the defeated Central Powers). Sacrifices in our democratic life and naitonal integrity – ruthless, cynical ones in some cases – were made, though.

    Its reductionist, however, to argue that we ‘had’ to fight the war. We did, we survived. People suffered because their country asked them to, and we have to respect that. But leave the inevitabilism out of it.

    However, this articlae is well-intentioned and it is still streets ahead of NIgel Farage’s very recent, theroetically-intelligent-and-surpisingly-well-argued but ultimately crass and ill-timed speech about how the armistice was a ‘mistake’ that gave rise to Hitler and we should have fought on. Words fail me.

  • “gratitude that war on such a scale has been unknown to us for decades and may, with wise leadership, never be seen again.”

    Oh so in, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, have not died at all then?

    I think you will find since WW1 that death toll through conflict in various forms, has considerably multiplied, most likely by itself. It is something we are constantly experiencing since. And when I say “we” I mean the whole planet!

  • Marshal Foch said of the Versailles agreement – “this is not peace, it is an armistice for twenty years”. He was ten years short on that, but otherwise accurate, at least in terms of Western Europe.

    One could argue that what happened in 1918 was that the focus of war moved east. The twenties saw the Russian civil war with the interventions by the western powers and Japan, the Russo – Polish war, then conflicts between Russia / Japan and China, which can be seen as a continuum until we move back to Europe in the 30’s with war in Spain (a proxy war between the USSR and Germany and Italy) and appeasement in Eastern Europe, leading up to the forma return to hostilities in 1939.

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Nov '14 - 2:22pm

    … and a civil war in Finland, uprisings in Hungary, a war between Hungary and Romania, war between Greece and Turkey, war between Greece and Bulgaria, and a war prosecuted in Morrocco by France and Spain.

    And the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr.

    And Ireland. And Armenia… And…

    What a peaceful period it was.

  • Ian MacFadyen 12th Nov '14 - 3:12pm

    An excellent article.

  • Max Hastings wrote a brilliant documentary called The Necessary War broadcast on the BBC earlier this year. Unfortunately no longer available on Iplayer but well worth watching.

  • Bill le Breton 12th Nov '14 - 6:32pm

    I am not so sure that Britain in the years immediately prior to the declaration of war was such a shining example of an elected democracy. The unelected House of Lords blocked the Liberal Government at every turn. The media undermined support for it further, so that the Landslide majority was whittled away to nothing by July 1914 – though Michael Steed has evidence from by-elections that support for the Liberal Government was on the rise in 1914.

    And of course the Military were such a power to themselves that they were able to defy the elected Government eg the Curragh Mutiny. Militarists like Henry Wilson engaged in secret deals with the French military – what on earth happened to the democratically elected French socialist government? Grey and Asquith chose to keep the existence of joint strategizing and agreements with the French secret from the rest of the cabinet for 8 years.

    Asquith and Lloyd George were powerless to sack generals. Indeed if the OP has any legs it is that Churchill was able to exert more control over the military than LG and it would be interesting to analyses what made this possible.

    There was of course a movement to try and wrest control over warmongering from the military and the press and the arms manufacturers under the banner of the Union of Democratic Control. This was fighting as much for control by the Executive (and not the Military and the Press) as it was for control by Parliament.

    The truth is that five (or more) elites, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Austro-Hungary failed to prevent war.

    If you wish to promote the work of the journalist Hastings, perhaps you should also read Chris Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. There is a wonderful lecture on YouTube by Bogdanor … directed at countering Clark. He recently told the Liberal History Group that in his opinion the Liberal Government’s failure was that its Foreign Policy (set by Grey well before Sarajevo and July 1914 and broadly that Britain would have in the near future to fight a continental war) was unaligned with its Defence Policy which was to have an army of circa 150,000 which was totally ill-equiped to fight such a campaign.

    And finally, there is T.G. Otte’s excellent ‘The July Crisis’ (a real historian rather than a journalist) which incidentally suggests that Grey, during but also prior to July, saw three potential outcomes from a war in which Britain stood aside: the combatants fought themselves to a standstill and Germany and France/Russia resented Britain for years after not siding with them; France/Russia won leaving Russia (already back in ascendance in 1914) a major threat to Britain both in the Balkans and in near Asia; or Germany won leaving France a basket case and sending Russia back into decline and revolution (eg 1905), again upsetting most of the others by its isolation. These were Grey and Asquith’s reasons for committing British troops.

    They may not convince you. Indeed there is a strong case for isolation and support for the Union for Democratic Control – Liberal tradition going back to Cobden (and opposed to Gladstone).

    However the real culprits were those elites that ran the military, the civil service and the politics who between them totally mismanaged the July crisis. Not to single them out but the real worry for everyone in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London was Russian with its seeming endless supply of resources.

  • @JUF: ““this is not peace, it is an armistice for twenty years”. He was ten years short on that”

    Make that “nine months and 21 days short.”

  • While this is an interesting article the conclusion lacks evidence.

    It could be argued that the peace after the war was a victory for self-determination and nationalism and this nationalism was a cause of many of the conflicts soon after the war ended, such as Greek-Turkish and Polish-Russian wars. Even if you argued that these new democracies were created soon after 1918 most of these new republics we would not consider as being democratic by 1938, Czechoslovakia being the most obvious exception.

    @ Bill le Breton and T G Otte’s ‘The July Crisis’

    Those three potential outcomes of Grey’s are interesting. If Germany had won a short war as they had planned then the Russian Revolution may well have happened. It is unlikely that Germany would have wanted to have a border with France that included any of the areas that had been lost to France since 1618. Germany was already dealing the problems of having Alsace-Lorraine that they gained in 1871. Would they have wanted to make them worse by having the whole of Lorraine with Bar and the Franche Comte? Would they have given Flanders to Belgium and restored all of the lands lost in the Netherlands to France since 1648? Would Germany have created new states in the east, such as the Baltic States, Belarus, Finland and the Ukraine and restored Poland to the map? (The government of Belarus established in 1918-19 still continues in exile today in opposition to the government in Belarus.) Such a new Europe would be dominated by Germany and this would not be in the interest of Britain and therefore fighting the First World War was necessary to ensure this did not happen, but today we have a Europe dominated by Germany and no-one would consider fighting a war to change this situation. If Germany had won the First World War the forces of democracy would still have existed in Germany and they may have gained control by 1989.

    Therefore to reach any conclusions about what might have happened if history was different is difficult and can result in widely differing conclusions. What I think can be concluded is that it was in the interest of Britain to fight Germany in the First World War as it had been to fight the French one hundred years before. However the nature of what would have happened if Britain had not been involved cannot with any certainty be deduced.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '14 - 9:15pm

    Good article. There is a lot about WW1 that is relevant to today.

    I don’t want to celebrate the war, but I will not pompously look down on it as a selfish adventure.

    We need to be wary of the forces of snobbery. There are some real pompous snobs in high places in society and we need to challenge them. It is most evident when they look down on soldiers and people who were around at the time.

  • Denis Mollison 12th Nov '14 - 9:47pm

    I to was interested in Grey’s analysis. It explains perhaps why we thought joining in WWI was necessary, but is a long way short of demonstrating that that was the correct conclusion.

    They are serious concerns, but not as awful as what happened. The war facilitated Russian communism, the peace German fascism, each of which led to tens of millions of deaths. And WWI itself killed over 10 million, not just the 800,000-odd British that we are myopically fixated on with the ceramic poppies.

    Eddie – I don’t understand your point about snobbery. I don’t look down on the people who caused and fought WWI. I just wish they’d had Harry Patch’s perspective: “politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder”.

  • Agree with Bill le Breton re merits of Otte versus Hastings. It is also worth remembering, though, that while Asquith and Grey believed that Britain should defend France (both out of self-interest and moral obligation) this was not the majority view in the cabinet prior to Germany’s ultimatum to Belgium and the latter’s request for assistance. Had Germany not invaded Belgium the Liberal cabinet may well have broken up and there were very few politicians in Britain who outright opposed entry into the war.

    I am not sure how far the UDC saw themselves as being in a Gladstonian tradition, but when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, the Gladstone administration did seek guarantees that Belgian neutrality would be respected. Had it not been, Britain might well have intervened.

    Regarding wider points about what might have happened had Britain not joined in we can only speculate. An infinite number of permutations could be imagined. But as I heard Vernon Bogdanor say on this subject, war can always be avoided if the victim always gives in.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Nov '14 - 2:28am

    Hi Denis, I am not saying you look down on soldiers, but I know of people who do. Before anyone asks: yes, I do have evidence, but it is not my job to educate people on demand and if people want it they can ask nicely and I’ll give it to them if I find the time.

    Such comments aren’t usually necessary, but the social skills of people on the internet tend to be below average.

  • Shirley Campbell 13th Nov '14 - 10:42am

    Oh my, am I, a seemingly illiterate and nonintellectual article, permitted to comment on LDV.

    My granddad, A. G.J . Campbell (1880- 1965), was borne into the Indian Sub-Continent to a serg(j)eant in the 15th Hussars. Granddad’s father was killed at the battle for Majuba Hill, South Africa. Such was commonplace back then. Granddad was sent to a military school for the sons of the fallen and, ultimately, rose through the non-commissioned ranks and retired with the commissioned rank of Lieutenant. My granddad would have been delighted to know that one of my sister’s sons was a high-flyer from a state comprehensive school with all A grades in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and to know that the boy, my sister’s grandson, was completing his doctorate at a well-regarded University in London.


  • Bill Le Breton 13th Nov '14 - 1:20pm

    Shirley how lovely to hear about ‘your people’. It reminded be of a point made recently by a grandchild whose grandfather had been shot in the face. He survived but was blinded. Nevertheless he led a full life and had six children. The grandson was making the point about what might have been if all those who had fallen had not had to serve and die and all had had six children! What stories, what achievements were lost.

  • Bill Le Breton 13th Nov '14 - 1:37pm

    Iain, interesting points, as ever. Of course Serbia did ‘give in’ to the provisions of the ultimatum.

    The UDC really were following in the Cobden and not the Gladstone tradition. See Martin Ceadel. He suggests, I hope I get it right, that there were two Liberal traditions. One saw trade and the building of international relationships through such activities as sufficient to produce peace among nations, whilst the second strand suggests that intervention is required to impose peace. So, one can see that Clegg was Gladstonian over Syria recently whereas those Liberal Democrats who voted against bombing were following a Cobdenite and a E.D. Morel view. Ceadel spoke to the Liberal History group contrasting the positions and careers of Gilbert Murray and Morel in this light. The invasion of Belgium turned many Liberals MPs from Cobdenites to Gladstones in this analogy. And saved Grey and Asquith the otherwise much more difficult task of carrying their Party in August 14. Murray’s path was therefore the more typical.

  • Bill Le Breton 13th Nov '14 - 1:47pm

    Dennis, I agree, but it is difficult to ask historians to play ‘what if games’. The good ones help us understand why people do what they do. I thought Otte was interesting in giving us an idea of why Grey did what he did. It shows that Europe did not slip or sleepwalk into War. There were choices and the major players made their selections.

  • Shirley Campbell 13th Nov '14 - 2:05pm

    Yes, Bill, whatever, our people, my people , had little choice in determining their future. Our bonny lads and lassies , me for instance, have choices and that is the bottom line. I am too tired to enter into an intellectual debate right now but somehow later at an other place perhaps!

  • Whatever Grey’s reasoning, the Liberal cabinet did agonise over going to war and Belgium was crucial. Of course, it was important for realpolitik reasons – English and then British policy had aimed at preventing a continental superpower controlling the Low Countries for at least five hundred years and Gladstone had warned France and Prussia during the war of 1870 that Britain would go to war with either if it invaded Belgium. But if Britain, with Germany and France, had guaranteed the neutrality and territorial integrity of Belgium, and then Germany cynically violated it and Britain looked the other way, what was left of any basis for fair and rational international relations?

    Guy is absolutely right that the allies’ actions in 1919 led to another war (not inevitably, but few things in history are inevitable), in particular German reparations, but also territorial issues being decided strongly against Germany. The USA promoted a relatively balanced approach, the French were out for revenge and the British held the ring. This is not so strange: of those three, the French war toll was easily the heaviest, then the British, then, far behind, the American. By 1918-19 it was very hard for the victors to see straight, or for democratic countries to take decisions that seemed overly generous to Germany.

    In 1914 nearly everyone thought the war would be short. Indeed, it could have been. One may well ask why, by 1915 or 1916, when the deadly stalemate on the Western Front was well-established, only the Austrians made any approaches about a negotiated peace. But for the Germans that would have left imperial rule dangerously weakened, and for the democracies, a government that talked to the enemy about peace would probably have been hounded from office. This was a war started by rulers and politicians, but once popular war fever had risen, the politicians couldn’t control it, thanks party to the jingoistic press (which was a factor in Germany too).

    The point about a misalignment of foreign and defence policy is valid, or rather, of foreign and army policy since the Royal Navy was massively expanded and modernised specifically in response to Germany. However, the impact of the well-drilled, fast-firing British professionals in 1914 was not minimal. They were brushed aside by massively larger forces, but without them, the French might not have won on the Marne; and soon after, it was outnumbered British professionals who reached the coast and repelled a German offensive to turn the allied line. The tragedy is that this directly led to nearly four years of murderous stalemate.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Nov '14 - 11:22pm

    Interesting thoughts Simon, but does the oft repeated statement ‘In 1914 nearly everyone thought the war would be short.’ stand up to any scrutiny. Why did Kitchener insist on recruiting an army of such huge numbers that would not be in the field until 1916?

    Clearly staff officers had studied the Russo-Japanese War. They knew that fighting would involve trenches, barbed wire and the machine gun. That it would be a war of attrition. They knew that Japan had won by putting mass armies in the field, mass armies that would attack and attack again, armies that would accept mass casualties and still attack again. They believed that victory went to the ‘side’ that could and would attack, attack, attack, regardless of losses. And of course this could not be admitted publicly nor could it be sustained without a huge reduction in liberty and the formation of a strong state. That conscription would eventually be necessary?

    So the military knew. Did the politicians? The military were good at keeping their secrets and had nothing but contempt for politicians in general and Liberals in particular. But then there’s Grey’s reported remark that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” Ummmm. Grey, Asquith, Churchill, Haldane, LG ??? I am not sure they ever believed ‘it would be over by Christmas’.

  • In reality, however, Britain was no less militaristic or aggressive in the Great War.

  • A number of Liberal MPs opposed the war in 1914. It is time to take another look at the League of Liberals against Aggression and Militarism.

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