I began writing an answer in a comment thread below to my old e-pal, DM, who demanded to know whether I was equally in favour of our commitment to war in 1939, via the Polish guarantee, as I was for our involvment in August 1914. It became a somewhat lengthy reply and so I have decided to make it a seperate blog post. I begin with a quote from DM's comment:
"Should we have given the Polish guarantee in 1938? (I say no.)"
Always a fascinating question, DM, if only we had a few hours to spare and a bottle of your favourite 'Scottish water'! First of all it is even more necessary in this case to differentiate between what our leaders knew then and what we know now. I will start with the latter, of which I have been reminded of the details by reading "KURSK" by Lloyd Clark who begins by sketching in the run-up to Germany's invasion of Russia.
In March 1939 when Germany swallowed the remaining democratic state of Czechoslovakia even the purblind Chamberlain was forced to acknowledge that Hitler was unlikely ever to be satisfied with whatever gains he had taken so far. Hitler was already putting pressure on Poland and a German invasion was increasingly probable given that the Poles would stand their ground. After Poland it was obvious, given Hitler's hatred for Bolshevism and his desperate need for oil (Caucasus) and wheat (Ukraine) that Russia would be next on his list.
By giving Poland a combined Anglo-French guarantee it would, at best, make Hitler pause and/or step back, or at least, force him to weigh matters very carefully - which he did. Hitler immediately made a mutual deal with Stalin to carve up Poland between them - and then invaded Poland. So, it is true that the Anglo-French guarantee wasn't worth the paper it was written on but then everyone knew that. However, it did provide a proper and legal excuse for Britain and France to enter the war - an important feature given American sensibilities.
This was a high risk strategy but remember, all expert military opinion at the time was convinced that if Russia was attacked they would last months at best and mere weeks at worst. If that happened Germany would dominate Europe from the Urals to the Rhine and enjoy huge benefits from Russian natural and industrial resources. How long would France, with its own fascistic leanings (which appeared later!) stay allied to Britain? That situation would leave Britain totally alone and not even with the slight comfort of Germany having to fight a second front in the east! Again, Germany would have the Atlantic ports and would do what they actually did do, put the squeeze on our trade routes.
So, yes, it was something of a gamble as these matters always are but, to the politicians of the day, it was either a question of going to war with an ally in 1939, or being forced to either go to war alone or eat humble pie in 1941.
The favourite argument of those who maintain that we should have stayed out is that it would have allowed Germany and Russia knock six bells out of each other. But that is hindsight and it was considered virtually impossible in 1939. Russia was a basket-case, racing to try and make good on Stalin's follies following his purge of the military hierarchy and his insistence that Party apparatchiks should have equal (in reality - more!) power than commanders at all levels. Remember, the Germans actually invaded in 1941 and came within a whisker of taking Moscow! If they had attacked in 1940, a year earlier, my bet is that they would have succeeded and Russia would have become a German colony. Of course, the reason they did not attack in 1940 was because they were forced to deal with France and Britain first.
So my answer, DM, is an emphatic 'Yes'!