The ‘bad’ war looming over Remembrance Day

Tragedy and triumph: The first world war trenches, and relief as the second world war ends.

Is it justifiable to argue that the first world war was ‘bad’ where the second world war was ‘good’? This weekend is Remembrance Sunday, a tradition which harks back to the day WW1 ended.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” said the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in 1914, as the first world war drew near. Yet despite the moral gravitas of these words, it is the second world war, not the first, which is remembered as being the true fight of good versus evil. Why?

Unlike the second, the first world war is often portrayed as a tragedy resulting in a catastrophic loss of life. Great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, wrote movingly about appalling, futile battles in which soldiers literally drowned in mud. Total British fatalities in the Battle of the Somme – some 420,000 – exceeded total American fatalities for both world wars combined. Countries were needlessly dragged in to the conflict simply to honour a complex set of treaties and alliances.

In stark contrast, the second world war is heralded as a triumph of good over the evil of Hitler and his poisonous, fascist ideology. When shocking images of concentration camps emerged, the “parable of good and evil,” as described by historian Paul Addison, was further reinforced.

In fact, both wars were fought chiefly to contain the threat of German hegemony, which was no less real in the first world war than in the second. Kaiser Wilhelm desperately wanted an empire to compete with Britain’s, and he knew that if the Germans sank 600,000 tonnes of British merchant shipping every month for just five months, Britain could be starved into submission.

There was also as much of a moral dimension to the first world war as to the second. Modern historians have argued that the conflict was initially supported by the British public, who were appalled by Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium, as part of the Schlieffen plan. Reports of German atrocities in Belgium and the arrival of a quarter of a million Belgian and French refugees in Britain, galvanised public support for a war to defeat the “evil hun”.

Good war, bad war

Categorising the two world wars as good or bad is futile, argue some. Both were “bad” because they resulted in colossal loss of life, although in the second more British civilians died than in the first; the Russians suffered the worst casualties on the battlefield. Others suggest that both wars were “good” in the sense that Britain had no choice but to defend itself from German aggression.

But Britain lost an entire generation of men to the trenches in WWI, argue others. The sheer scale of the loss of life, and the harrowing testimony of the war poets show that this was a war unlike others in which the costs far outweighed the benefits. Some historians have even suggested that Britain should have stayed out of it altogether.

You Decide

  1. Was the first world war a “bad” war? Was the second world war a “good” war?
  2. How useful it is to categorise wars as either “good” or “bad”?


  1. Imagine that you were a first world war soldier and write a diary entry about your experiences. Will you choose to describe the conflict either as a hopeless endeavour, or a valiant achievement?
  2. Research three modern conflicts. Decide whether you would describe them as “good” or “bad”, giving your reasons for each.

Some People Say...

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

Ernest Hemingway

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The first world war took place between July 28th 1914 and November 11th 1918. The Allies (including the UK, France, Russia and the USA) fought the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. It was a turning point in world history which claimed the lives of over 16m people across the globe, and its economic consequences (especially for Germany) played a part in causing the second world war.
What do we not know?
Whether history would have turned out better or worse had the war not been fought. Remember that although it seems crude to describe a conflict involving major loss of life as “good”, it is important to assess whether wars can be justified.

Word Watch

The battle of Passchendaele is remembered for its appalling loss of life and dreadful muddy conditions. The battle's enduring epitaph is the phrase from one of Sassoon's poems: “I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele.”
Britain signed an entente or alliance with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907, known as The Triple Entente. Germany had formed an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy, known as The Triple Alliance. When a Serbian nationalist shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Germany promised support to the Austrians, and Russia sided with Serbia. A domino-effect was created, making war inevitable.
President Eisenhower described the fight against Nazi Germany as “the Great Crusade”, while President Clinton said the United States had “saved the world from tyranny”.
The “good” second world war has been used by American politicians to justify more recent invasions. President Lyndon Johnson used it as justification for invading Vietnam, while President George W. Bush used it as a blueprint to invade Iraq.
The German army intended to move through Belgium into France, sweeping around Paris and encircling the French army before the Russians could muster their forces on Germany’s eastern front. It turned out to be a disaster for Germany. It violated a long-standing treaty that guaranteed Belgian neutrality; Britain became convinced of the need to join the war; and Germany was surrounded on all sides by the Entente powers.


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