Monday, December 15, 2014


I have always wondered why the leaders of England were so enthusiastic about entering the First World War. It seemed like such a pointless exercise, you would expect some people to have seen it. I have just listened to a lecture by Dr Robin Archer at the London School of Economics. He explains that a strong anti-war movement was active throughout Europe prior to the war. It quickly died when war broke out. He says that the language of honour was important in justification for the First World One.

Archer explained that the Honour Code common in Europe at the time had the following characteristics.

  1. Fear of shame due to loss of reputation and respect.
  2. A person facing this shame must demonstrate a willingness to engage in physical confrontation that risks major personal loss, up to and including death.
  3. The individual must eschew calculations of cost and benefits, or the balance of reasons.
The essence of the code was willingness to engage in uncalculating confrontation in order avoid loss of reputation.

The importance of honour can be seen in the speeches of some of the leading politicians.

Edward Grey - Foreign Secretary 3 August 2014:

If in a crisis like this we run away, I doubt whether whatever material force we might have at the end, it would be of much value in face of the respect we should have lost. Britain would lose all respect and sacrifice its good name and reputation.
Herbert Asquith Prime Minister 6 August 1914
I can only say, that if we had dallied or temporised, we as a government should have covered ourselves with dishonour. What are we fighting for: to fill an obligation, not only of law, but of honour, which no self-respecting man could possibly have repudiated.
Keir Hardie –Scottish Union Leader and Pacifist
Honour is always the excuse. We shall look back and wonder at the flimsy reason.
David Lloyd George, Future Prime Minister
Fate has reminded Britain of the great peaks of honour we have forgotten.
Emmeline Pankhurst Suffrage Leader
Every man should go to battle like the knights of old with absolute honour to his nation.
Quaker Leader
Avoiding war would have been dishonourable and discreditable.
George Murray, leading peace campaigner, who became an apologist for war, and wrote a pamphlet called How Can War Ever Be Right that appealed to honour and interest.
Interest-based arguments are unclear and uncertain. Honour based arguments are decisive. The argument for peace fails, because it judges war as a profit and loss account, and it leaves out of sight the cardinal fact that in some causes it is better to fight and be broken than yield peacefully, but sometimes the more active resistance to the death is itself a victory. When the question arises, there is no counting of costs, no balancing of good and evil, this is the very essence of honour
Every family that lost a son in the war with given a penny inscribed with the words,
Freedom and honour.
Andrew Fisher, who became Prime Minister of Australia.
Our last man and our last shilling shall be offered and supplied to the mother country in maintaining her honour and our honour.
This explains a lot. In issues honour, considerations of good and evil, or cost and benefit were irrelevant. Defending honour took priority, even if it led to pointless injuries and death.

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