August 2014 is the Centenary of the First World War – a dreadful war which cost the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. An estimated 9 million soldiers were killed and countless more civilians.
The first thing is to feel grateful that we didn’t live through such an appalling catastrophe, and waste of human life. War is undoubtedly man’s greatest tragedy and the emotional suffering of this ‘Great War’ is incomparable. I’m glad I didn’t have to make the choice that many young men of the 1914-18 period did.
However, if we could go back in time, would you fight for your country of birth or would you be a conscientious objector?
Was there any justification to the First World War?
Would I fight for Britain?
I am British, and have often thought about this question.
Firstly, I believe the British Empire was wrong. Britain had no right to be ruling in India, African countries, parts of Asia and parts of the Middle East. I would not fight to save the British Empire because I would support the independence movements in Ireland and India.
If I joined the British army and found myself in India or Ireland, I would feel compromised because I wouldn’t want to be party to supporting an Empire which denied the democratic rights of the inhabitants.
However, the First World War wasn’t primarily about promoting the British Empire. Most soldiers were sent to the Western Front to fight the German army.
Defence of Belgium and France
Sometimes, the First World War is portrayed as a senseless war where we fought for no reason. However, in 1914, there seemed to be a certain moral necessity for Britain to be involved.
Although the causes of the First World War are complex and multifarious – in August 1914, Germany were invading Belgium and France. This violated Belgian neutrality and also French borders. Britain had signed a guarantee of Belgian independence, and should Belgium request support from an invading army, Britain had a treaty obligation to support.
This makes it very difficult not to join the British war effort. It is true, Britain was fighting for self-interest. We didn’t want Germany to dominate Europe, we wanted to protect our trade interests and also the rule of international law. But, it wasn’t entirely selfish. It was wrong for the Germans to invade Belgium and France. In that sense, the First World War could be seen as a defensive war against an invading army.