War with some justice

November 6, 1998

Niall Ferguson ("Battle of the dons of war", THES, October 30) and I both had grandfathers who served in the first world war, but our conclusions about our their experiences are rather different.

Everyone must decide for themselves "whether the first world war was worth so many deaths", but distorting and trivialising the issues at stake helps neither historians nor family members to reach that decision. That Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality was "played ad nauseam" by British propagandists does not make the German invasion any less wrong, nor Britain's support for Belgium any less right. The "Great War" was fought more for political and economic advantage than for high moral principles, but there was a moral aspect to the war even so.

The views of Gilbert Murray and Bertrand Russell demonstrate this very well: does Ferguson really believe Britain should not have fought "to uphold the rule of common justice between civilised peoples and to defend the rights of small nations", simply because "Germany (led) the way in the arts and sciences"?

The much greater war of 1939-45 might have been avoided had not western society been misled by misguided thinkers (like the pacifist dons whom Ferguson praises) into thinking the 1914-18 conflict pointless - and so been unwilling once more to fight for the rights of small nations in the 1930s. That this is a cliche does not make it any less true; that "no man is an island" is also true (or should be), even for Great Britain's inhabitants, despite Ferguson's personal insularity.

David Trim. Lecturer in history. Newbold College, Binfield, Berkshire

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