When Professor Ferguson suggests that it was a mistake for Great Britain to enter the war, he makes the argument commonly associated with the left (as he points out) that continental involvement in 1914 locked GB into a costly and unnecessary fight. In his view, either Germany was benign and GB had nothing to fear from a proto-EU. Or, even if she wasn’t, it would have suited GB better to wait and fight ‘on her own terms’ later, using naval power. Why anyone would ever choose to fight later without allies than sooner with them, I cannot imagine. Especially when Britain had direct experience against Napoleon of the impossibility of seapower alone, without European allies, defeating a continental hegemon. That would be like GB in 1914 volunteering to be in the position she very unwillingly found herself in between June 1940 and 1941. But let’s leave that on one side.
Also hidden within his argument, however, is a more traditional conservative (or dare I say neo-con) argument. This is that with greater foresight GB could have prepared better for war in 1914 by having a bigger and better army. Now, this was, as everyone knows, impossible. The ranks could only have been filled by conscription, which was anathema to the Liberal government. The administration in any case had wildly different priorities and worries on the home front to distract them from a defence problem which had to be seen not just in European, but also Imperial, terms, which the Royal Navy seemed to have (expensively) covered. There was no sign that taxpayers were willing to take on the indefinite burden of maintaining a much larger army, either.
Still, let’s assume that GB did manage, perhaps in the wake of the Boer War, to build a force which, when mobilised, could muster, say, 2 million men, and that plans existed to send a million of them to France on the outbreak of war. Let’s assume that industry was geared up sufficiently to support them in the field with weapons and ammunition. Let’s further assume that Germany had not launched a preventive war to forestall that development, perhaps while Russia remained prostrate after the Russo-Japanese conflict. Nor reacted in any other way: for instance, by building a bigger army of her own. Then the question becomes whether GB’s possession of a 2 million man army might have deterred Germany during the July Crisis. Well, who knows?
If it didn’t though, there’d have been a million British soldiers in France in the autumn of 1914, fighting the bloodiest of all wars: a mobile campaign with modern weapons. Would an extra million men have been sufficient rapidly to decide the campaign and guarantee a German defeat? Perhaps. But perhaps not. One of the factors which led to stalemate was the fatal interaction between modern firepower and a high number of men in a relatively confined space: there’s no evidence that throwing more men at the problem would have solved that. Indeed, 1915-17 suggests the opposite was true. New technology and new methods were required eventually to break the deadlock.
And if Germany were not beaten in 1914? Then we’d have been in the same situation as we ended up anyway, but with much higher losses, much sooner. As it was, the small BEF suffered 63% casualties in 1914. It’s unlikely a larger force would have suffered such a high proportion. But even the much bigger French and German forces endured shocking losses. Each committed about 4 million men to the Western Front, in front line troops, their supports and replacements. Each endured up to a million casualties. There’s no reason to believe the British would have got off any more lightly. Great Britain, therefore, might have had 500,000 casualties, with perhaps 100-150,000 of those dead: roughly five times as many men as fell in fact. And the result of these losses? Quite possibly little different from the historical outturn.
It seems that Ferguson’s conservative argument makes little more sense than his liberal one.