Gallipoli – should Britain have steered well clear of it?
‘This was but one dreadful moment in the futile, four-year long abattoir of European civilisation that was the first World War’
‘In a letter of August 12th, 1914, John Dillon wrote: “The violation of Belgium gives only a very convenient excuse . . . to solidify the Party and the Country. I never had any doubt that Grey’s policy would end in a great European war”.’ British troops advancing at Gallipoli, in August, 1915. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One hundred years ago today the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers poured out of the SS River Clyde onto “V” beach at Gallipoli. Of the first 200 men, 149 were killed outright. One eyewitness account has it that the Dublins lost 21 officers and 560 men in just 15 minutes.
This was but one dreadful moment in the futile, four-year long abattoir of European civilisation that was the first World War. Britain should have kept well clear of it. Had she done so, about a million Britons and members of her empire-including 49,000 Irishmen-would have been spared violent deaths on the shores of Turkey and in the mud of northern France. The British should never have fought.
While not held by most English-speaking historians, such a view was vigorously argued by Niall Fergusson in his 1998 book, The Pity of War. Last year it found fresh and polemical voice in Douglas Newton’s The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914. Through an hour-by-hour analysis of the British cabinet’s deliberations in late July and early August 1914, Newton argues that Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary, was unconditionally committed to the entente with France and Russia for geo-political reasons, and manipulated both the cabinet and parliament to make sure that Britain entered the lists on their behalf.
At one point Newton speaks through Ireland’s own John Dillon. In a letter of August 12th, 1914, Dillon wrote: “The violation of Belgium gives only a very convenient excuse . . . to solidify the Party and the Country. I never had any doubt that Grey’s policy would end in a great European war. And that whenever it suited Russia to advance – then we would sink and would inevitably go in . . . The blame is hard to apportion – no doubt – the German war party must bear a good share. But I cannot resist the conviction the greater share of the guilt lies with the new English foreign policy identified with . . . Grey”. But Dillon was wrong.
Grey’s commitment was to France rather than Russia, and it was not unconditional. He assumed, correctly, that France was not planning to launch a first strike on Germany. Paris deliberately kept one step behind Berlin in its military preparations so as to make its defensive posture unmistakeable, and as late as August 1st it reaffirmed the order for her troops to stay 10 kilometres back from the Franco-Belgian border.
At the same time Grey strove to discourage Germany from precipitating war with France by refusing to promise British neutrality. Nevertheless, on August 3rd Germany launched an unprovoked attack on Belgium and France, claiming that French troops had crossed the border and French aircraft had bombed Nuremberg. Both claims were false.
Why did Germany invade? Because it feared that France would attack in support of Russia.
According to Christian just war reasoning, however, the mere threat of attack is no just cause for war. Only if there is substantial evidence that an unwarranted threat is actually in the process of being realised would the launching of “pre-emptive” war be justified; and in this case there was none. It isn’t justified to initiate a “preventative” war simply because one fears that an enemy might attack. War is far too destructive and hazardous to launch on simply speculative grounds.
It isn’t true, therefore, to claim, as Dillon did and Newton does, that Grey and his supporters wanted Britain to join France and Russia in launching an aggressive war against Germany, simply to counter the threat of its rising power.
On the contrary, their Realpolitik was disciplined by moral and legal considerations. Basic to their justification of British belligerency was that France should have suffered unwarranted attack. And were Germany to make that attack by invading Belgium, moral justification would acquire legal force, since Britain was a guarantor of Belgian neutrality by international treaty.
For sure, Britain’s national interest in her own security was also engaged. The Belgian coast faced London and the Thames estuary, and so it had long been British policy to keep that coastline free from hostile control and the threat of invasion.
It’s true, therefore, that, in seeking to bring Britain to the defence of France and Belgium, Grey also sought to forestall German domination of north-western Europe.
Not all national interests are immoral, however, and this one is unobjectionable. What’s morally crucial is that Britain did not help initiate a preventative war to maintain a favourable balance of power.
Germany had suffered no injury, nor was it under any emergent threat of suffering one. Unprovoked and on a fabricated pretext, it launched a preventative invasion of France and Belgium to establish its own dominance.
In response, Britain went to war to repel an unjustified attack on a neighbouring ally, to maintain international law, and to forestall a serious and actualised threat to its own national security, in which it had a legitimate interest. It was right to fight. The deaths of those Irishmen at “V” beach were dreadful, and the Gallipoli campaign they inaugurated ended in failure. But the larger war of which it was a part was justified. So those dreadful deaths, though pitiable and tragic, were not pointless. And since the war was eventually won, nor were they futile.
Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, former Professor of Theology at Trinity College Dublin, and author of In Defence of War (2013).