BRITAIN IN WORLD WAR I
Britain was one of the main participants in the outbreak and fighting of World War I. In fact, Britain was one of the main Allied Powers, alongside France and Russia. While the war was primarily a European conflict, it ultimately became a global war due to the involvement of countries from around the world. For example, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain had the largest empire, with colonies and dominions across many different regions. Many of these colonies and dominions sent soldiers to the battles of World War I, which made the First World War a truly global war. For its part, British soldiers were present in many of the major battles of the Western Front of World War I and fought in the trenches of northern Europe. The war had a profound impact on the United Kingdom and the vast British Empire and left a considerable legacy on the United Kingdom.
BRITAIN ENTERS WORLD WAR I
World War I erupted during the summer of 1914 in an event that historians refer to as the July Crisis. In short, this crisis was caused by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which led to the major European powers engaging in a conflict. For example, Britain was pulled into the crisis due to its alliance with France and Russia, which was called the Triple Entente. During the war, Britain along with its allies faced off against the Central Powers, which included: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.
Officially, World War I started on July 28th, 1914 when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In response, Russia mobilized its forces further on July 30th and began to prepare for war with Austria-Hungary. Having heard of the Russian mobilization against Austria-Hungary, Wilhelm II of Germany ordered German mobilization on August 1st. German troops were readied to invade France, through Belgium with the plan of attack known as the Schlieffen Plan. In fact, Germany formally declared war on August 1st against France, Belgium, and Russia. Britain finally entered the fray on August 4th when it declared war against Germany. This was due in part to Germany’s invasion of Belgium, which Britain had promised to protect. However, Britain also wanted to keep its commitments to France as outlined in the Entente Cordiale, which was an agreement between France and the Britain. The Entente Cordiale was part of the Triple Entente and linked the two countries together. Finally, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on August 6th in retaliation for its support of Serbia. With that, World War I had begun and Europe was divided.
The call to war was made by King George V, the King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions. A ‘dominion’ is considered to be a partially independent nation under the wider control of the vast British Empire. At the time, the status of ‘dominion’ was given to several nations or regions within the British Empire, including: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa. As a result of being a Dominion of the British Empire, when Britain declared war on August 4th, 1914, these dominions were also automatically pulled into the fighting of World War I. Furthermore, the dominions each sent numerous soldiers to fight in the battlefields of World War I.
BRITAIN'S ARMY & RECRUITMENT IN WORLD WAR I
At the start of World War I, in 1914, Britain had a much smaller army than some of the other major nations in Europe, such as France and Germany. This was due, in part, to the vast British Empire, which required British forces to be spread across many regions of the planet. In all, Britain had a force in 1914 of about 1,000,000 soldiers. Another factor that led to a smaller force was that Britain did not force its citizens to join the military, which is known as ‘conscription’. However, as World War I progressed, the need for more soldiers increased. For instance, the British forces in World War I were made up of four distinct armies. First was the Regular Army, which was mentioned above. Second was the Territorial Force, which was a volunteer force used to support the Regular Army. The Regular Army and the Territorial Force were combined at the start of World War I and sent to fight on the Western Front in France. Together, they became known as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and were later known as the ‘Old Contemptibles’. The third army was another volunteer force referred to as Kitchener’s Army. This army was created following the call for volunteers by Herbert Kitchener, then the British Secretary of State for War. In all, it is estimated that over 2.5 million British men volunteered for war and became part of the ‘Kitchener’s Army’. The final main British army of World War I was made up of conscripts who were forced to join when conscription was made mandatory in January of 1916. By the end of the war, in 1918, the British army totaled 6,200,000.
To promote more volunteers, the British government promoted a strong recruitment campaign throughout the early period of the war. This included recruitment posters that called on British men to sign up and participate in the war. At first, there was quite a bit of excitement for the war among people across Britain. This ‘excitement for World War I’ was a common feature for much of the nations that participated in World War I and was based on several different factors.
For instance, one of the main reasons for the excitement of the war was that many viewed it as an adventure. They read stories about soldiers bravely marching into battle and dying heroically on the battlefields for their countries. For many of these young soldiers, they viewed the Great War as their opportunity to play a role in the ‘glory of war’ and follow in the path of earlier soldiers in earlier European conflicts. To them, war seemed adventurous and a show of bravery that many claimed they ‘did not want to miss’.
As well, many also participated in the war due to a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism for Britain. They had been taught in school to be ready to answer the call of war for their country at any time and to be ready to serve and die for their country if necessary. As such, patriotism and a sense of nationalistic pride drove many to join the armed forces.
Finally, it was widely believed at the time that the war would be over relatively quickly. Since the fighting began in the summer of 1914, many pronounced that the war would surely be over by December of that year. So for many of the young men, they believed that they were heading off to a short adventure and to represent their country.
As the war progressed and a stalemate in the trenches of northern France caused the conflict to extend into 1915, the excitement that many had for the war began to change. The realities of trench warfare were brutal and the image of war no longer had an adventurous or exciting feeling. As such, the British government struggled to gather the necessary volunteers for service in the battlefields of World War I. As a result, this led to the government of Britain attempting to use conscription in Ireland as a means of expanding the fighting force in the later years of World War I. This decision to use conscription proved to be a controversial one, and led to the Conscription Crisis of 1918. The issue of conscription is discussed below under the ‘British Home Front in World War I’ heading.
The British forces had a few different commanders throughout the time period of World War I, including: Field Marshal John French and Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Both had experience from their time commanding cavalry divisions in the earlier Boer War.
BRITAIN'S NAVY IN WORLD WAR I
While the British Army was relatively small in comparison to the other European powers at the start of World War I, the British Royal Navy was the largest in the world in 1914. In fact, in 1914, Britain had 388 ships at its disposal. This was due in part to the Age of Imperialism and Britain’s vast colonial empire. For example, at the outbreak of World War I, Britain had the largest colonial empire in the world with a particular focus in Africa and Asia. As such, Britain required a powerful navy in order to maintain supply lines to its colonies. As well, since Britain was an island nation it needed a strong naval force to ensure it had the ability to carry out trade by sea.
Another factor that led to British dominance in the seas was the ‘two-power standard’. This was a concept in which the British navy would maintain more battleships than the next two largest navies in the world combined.
One of the key developments in naval technology of World War I was the ‘dreadnought’. The dreadnought was a class of battleship that existed in the timeframe of World War I. However, the first dreadnought was the HMS Dreadnought from the British Royal Navy. The name is meant to refer to a sense of ‘fearlessness’. It was first launched in 1906, and completely changed the history of naval warfare at the time.
Naval ships before the HMS Dreadnought were generally smaller, slower and had a smaller array of main guns. The HMS Dreadnought was such a leap forward in naval technology that it caused other nations to copy the British. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain had 29 dreadnoughts.
During the course of World War I, the British Royal Navy faced off against the Central Powers in several naval theatres of war, including: North Sea, English Channel, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea. In general, the British Royal Navy fought against the German navy and its fleet of U-boats (submarines). In fact, since Britain was an island nation it required a steady supply of outside resources and shipments. As such, the goal of the British Royal Navy was to maintain these supply lines, while the German Navy attempted to sink transport ships as a means of hurting the British war effort. Historians estimate that as many as 5,000 transport or merchant ships were lost to German U-boat attacks in World War I. The British, and their allies, responded by grouping merchant ships into convoys that were defended by ships from the British Royal Navy.
BRITAIN'S MAJOR BATTLES IN WORLD WAR I
British forces participated in many of the main battles of World War I, but were primarily active on the Western Front. In general, the landscape of Europe in World War I was divided into a few different ‘fronts’. For instance, the Western Front was located on the western-half of Europe and included a line of trenches that stretched throughout much of northern France and Belgium. With that said, British forces also participated in some battles in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, forces from the British Empire (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, etc.) also participated in battles across the different regions of World War I. However, the primary focus was generally on the trenches of the Western Front.
As stated above, British forces participated in many battles of World War I. Some of the most significant battles of World War I that Britain participated in included:
As stated above, British forces participated in many battles of World War I. Some of the most significant battles of World War I that Britain participated in included:
- First Battle of Ypres
- Second Battles of Ypres
- Battle of the Somme
- Third Battle of Ypres
- Hundred Days Offensive
The British Army was in northern France during the early days of World War I and participated (to some degree) in some of the earliest battles of the war, including the First Battle of the Marne. In fact, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was important in the events related to the ‘Race to the Sea’, which occurred in September and October of 1914. The German Army was successfully stopped at the First Battle of the Marne in early September and each side raced north in an attempt to flank the other. British and French forces countered the German push north throughout September and October until the two sides reached the North Sea in Belgium on October 19th. What resulted was a line of trenches that extended throughout much of northern Belgium and France. It was along this line of trenches that some of the most significant battles of World War I took place.
One of the first significant battles for British forces in World War I was the First Battle of Ypres, which took place from October 19th to November 22nd in 1914. The battle was the result of the end of the Race to the Sea and saw the British, Belgian and French forces engage in battle with the German forces. The battle was deadly on all sides and led to numerous casualties. For instance, it is estimated that Britain suffered around 58,000 casualties in the battle, with nearly 8,000 deaths. In all the battle was characteristic of the conditions at the time, in that defensive fortifications ensured numerous dead and injured with little or no results. Ypres is a town in western Belgium that saw intense fighting in World War I between the Allied and German forces. In fact, the region became known as the Ypres Salient and was the site of several major conflicts throughout World War I.
The next major conflict for the British forces was in the Second Battle of Ypres, which occurred from April 22nd until May 25th in 1915. At the battle, the British fought alongside French and Belgium forces against the German Army. Furthermore, the British were supported heavily by the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and soldiers from India. The Second Battle of Ypres was significant because it is remembered today as the first use of poisonous gas on the Western Front. Germany introduced chlorine gas canisters into the battle on the first day of fighting, when they used the deadly gas against the Allied troops.
The Second Battle of Ypres was also significant because it saw the first time that a former colonies soldier’s defeated a European power within Europe. For example, after the German gas attack on the first day of the battle, Canadian soldiers were the primary defenders of the German flank at Ypres. Canadian soldiers defended the town of St. Julien and withstood the gas attacks by the German soldiers. Regardless, Allied soldiers, despite facing heavy gas attacks and German advances, were mostly able to hold back the German advance and prevent Germany from making inroads into Allied held territory. While the battle is viewed as an Allied victory, it still cost the lives of many people on both sides. German casualties totaled over 34,000, and the British casualties were over 59,000.
The next major British battle of World War was the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July 1st, 1916 to November 18th, 1916 and is remembered as one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was a devastating battle that took place along the River Somme in northern France. It was fought between Allied Powers of France and Britain (along with Canadian and Newfoundland forces) and the Central Power of Germany and was a major conflict on the Western Front. France and Britain both hoped that by starting the Battle of the Somme, they would relieve pressure on French defenders in Verdun during the Battle of Verdun where the French were struggling against the German assault on that region. The Allied strategy at the Battle of the Somme was to draw more German troops away from Verdun and into the Somme in hopes of causing Germany to struggle with managing both large battles at the same time.
As stated above, the Battle of the Somme was a deadly battle, which was evident from the first day of fighting on July 1st, 1916. For instance, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the British forces were ordered ‘over the top’ and advanced on the German line of trenches. The attack was a disaster and remains to this day as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. In fact, the British Army suffered over 38,000 casualties and over 19,000 dead. These terrible losses were also true for the armies from across the British Empire that also participated in the Battle of the Somme. For example, the Newfoundland Regiment famously lost almost all of its fighting force on the first day of the battle. The trench warfare of the Battle of the Somme continued for the next few weeks, until the British introduced a new weapon into World War I.
In September of 1916, the British introduced the first tanks ever into the battlefield of the Battle of the Somme. The first use of tanks in battle had mixed results. Many of them failed due to mechanical failure and were largely uncontrollable or became stuck in the thick mud of Northern France. However, they also provided a psychological advantage as the Germans were shocked to see these giant vehicles approaching them across ‘No Man’s Land’.
The Allied forces continued their difficult push forward in the Battle of the Somme but struggled to gain much ground. The battle finally came to an end on November 18th, 1916 when the change in weather and arrival of snow made fighting even more difficult.
In the end, the Battle of the Somme was one of the deadliest battles of World War I. The total casualty count number over 1 million, with the Allied forces having over 600,000 (with approximately 420,000 of them being British) and the German forces having over 400,000. The Battle of the Somme is one of the most notable battles of World War I due to it being such a brutal and devastating conflict.
Another significant British battle of World War I was the Third Battle of Ypres. Also known as the ‘Battle of Passchendaele’, the Third Battle of Ypres was fought between the Allied Powers and Germany from July 31st to November 10th in 1917. The battle took place close to the Belgian city of Ypres and was a major battle on the Western Front. The goal of the battle was for Allied forces (including: British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South Africa, Indian, French and Belgium) to push German forces out of the area. The Germans had a strong hold of a ridge that overlooked the city of Ypres. British commander, General Douglas Haig, wanted to carry out an attack of the area in the hopes of pushing back German forces and capturing coastal ports north of the region.
The British attacked the Germans at Ypres on July 31st, but struggled to make any meaningful gains and both sides suffered massive losses. The continuous fire from both sides and the horrible conditions slowed the pace of battle and caused the battle to create stalemate-like conditions.
Eventually, the British would call in the support of Canadian forces, which after many weeks of fighting were finally able to capture the ridge at Ypres from the Germans. The Allies captured the ridge in November of 1917 and the Third Battles of Ypres was over. In total, the Allies and Germans both suffered terrible losses. Historians disagree on the exact number, but it is generally agreed that the British likely suffered around 250,000 casualties, while the Germans suffered between 200,000 and 400,000 casualties.
The last major Western Front battle from World War I was the Hundred Days Offensive, which was a major push by Allied forces, near the end of World War I, against the German forces in northern France. It took place from August 8th to November 11th in 1918. The Allied victories of the Hundred Days Offensive eventually led to the end of World War I, when Germany agreed to the November 11th armistice.
The Hundred Days Offensive was important to both the British Army and the armies from the British Dominions. For instance, both Canadian and Australian forces participated in the battles of the Hundred Days Offensive. In fact, British, Canadian and Australian forces spearheaded several significant operations on the Western Front, such as the Battle of Amiens. The battle took place from August 8th to the 12th in 1918 and was fought just east of the city of Amiens in France. The attack was so successful by the Allied nations at Amiens that the frontline of the war shifted dramatically for the first time in years. In fact, the Germans referred to the August 8th, 1918 attack at Amiens as a ‘black day’ in reference to their losses.
The British Army and the armies of the Dominions participated in a series of other battles during the ‘Hundred Day’s Offensive’, including: Second Battle of the Somme, Battle of Mont Saint Quentin, Battle of Cambrai, Battle of the Selle, and several other conflicts. In all, the Hundred Days offensive was significant in pushing the German Army back and forcing the end of World War I. The British casualties during the Hundred Days Offensive, in all of the battles that they participated in, totaled 412,000.
BRITISH HOME FRONT IN WORLD WAR I
An important aspect of the First World War for all of the countries involved was the impact it had on the home front. This was also evident in the United Kingdom, which saw tremendous impacts on the life of those people that stayed in the United Kingdom during the duration of World War I.
The first impact experienced on the British home front was related to the government and politics. King George V declared war on August 4th, at the recommendation of British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. Asquith was the leader of the Liberal Party and served as Prime Minister of Britain from April 8th, 1908 until December 5th, 1916. Asquith was replaced by David Lloyd George on the 6th of December in 1916 following a crisis related to Asquith’s leadership. While David Lloyd George was also a Liberal he gained control by a coalition with a majority of Conservatives. David Lloyd George remained Prime Minister throughout the remainder of the war and served until October 19th, 1922. As such, David Lloyd George oversaw the war effort in the final years of World War I and handled Britain’s response to the Treaty of Versailles, which was the treaty that punished Germany following the war.
For its part, the British Royal Family was headed by George V, who was the King of England from May 6th, 1910 until January 20th, 1936. As such, he reigned over the entirety of World War I. One major complication for George V was his family ties to Wilhelm II, the German Emperor. They were first cousins, since they shared the same grandmother – Queen Victoria. This created issues for George V and the rest of the British Royal Family because Germany was the main enemy combatant from the Central Powers that the British Army faced in the trenches of the Western Front. As a result, in July of 1917 George V famously changed his House name to the ‘House of Windsor’ and rejected the earlier name of ‘House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’, which had been previously used for the Royal Family. This was done as means of removing any German ties to his and his family’s German lineage.
The next main impact of World War I on the British home front was the changes for the lives and roles of women in British society. World War I is considered to be an example of a total war, which involves all aspects of society being used towards the war effort. For example, during World War I many men volunteered for war while agriculture and factories on the home front were all producing to further the cause of war. Since many of the men in the United Kingdom were gone to the frontlines, World War I saw British women enter the workforce in large numbers for the first time. These women took jobs in factories that produced the weapons of war, in office buildings and other positions. For example, numerous British women found jobs in munitions factories during the course of the war.
This new role for British women occurred at the same time as the suffrage movement in the United Kingdom wherein women fought for and won the right to vote in general elections. For instance, in 1918, the government passed the Representation of the People Act. In general, the act enfranchised all men over 21, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property requirements. British women also played a role in World War I in the armed forces. While they were not allowed to join in combat-related roles, British women joined the armed services during World War I. For example, by the end of the war, over 80,000 British women served in nursing or cooking roles for the British war effort.
Another impact on the British home front was the restrictions placed on resource use, which is referred to as ‘rationing’. For example, the British government created initiatives to control the production and use of resources to ensure that as many resources were being put towards the war effort as possible. This became especially true in the later years of the war. For example, once Germany began carrying out its U-boat Campaign against British merchant ships in the Atlantic, the island nation began to experience relative need for rationing in food items. As such, citizens on the home front were required to ration food items and other resources in order to make them for use on the frontlines. It was the belief of military generals that well fed soldiers would help overcome the enemy and bring about an end to the war. The rationing of food included items such as: sugar, butter, meat and bread. To promote the practice of rationing, the government introduce laws with consequences for that that did not carry through with limiting resource use.
In order to promote rationing and other initiatives, the government of the time used propaganda to convince citizens of certain messages. For example, the British government issued propaganda that worked to recruit soldiers for the war, ration certain items and to demonize the enemy. British citizens on the home front were subjected to constant messaging to ensure they supported the war effort and to maintain the push towards victory. For example, the government established Wellington House (War Propaganda Bureau) in September of 1914 as a means of producing and distributing wartime propaganda. The War Propaganda Bureau created cartoons, short films, leaflets that were distributed throughout the United Kingdom. Furthermore, they even enlisted the efforts of some of the most prominent British writers of the time, including: H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. Wartime propaganda in Britain also included censorship of sensitive information. For instance, the government limited what newspapers and other publications were allowed to publish with the Defence of the Realm Act. The act was passed on August 8th, 1914, in the very early part of World War I. In short, the Defence of the Realm Act stated that ‘No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty's forces or among the civilian population’.
The final main impact on the home front in Britain during World War I was the bombing raids carried out by Germany. As stated previously, the German U-boat Campaign had an impact on the lives of people in Britain. However, the Germans also carried out air and naval raids against Britain during the course of World War I. For example, in 1914, the German navy carried out a series of naval raids. First was the Raid on Yarmouth in November, which was followed by the Raids on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby in December. The raids focused on the coastal towns and shipyards. Finally, the German also used Zeppelin airships in World War I to carry out air raids of British towns, including the city of London. As the war progressed into 1917, the Germans also began using airplanes to carry out their bombing runs. These naval and air raids impacted the home front in Britain, as they created a sense of unease among the population. For example, during the war, the Germans carried out 51 airship raids and 52 bomber raids on England, which together dropped 280 tons of bombs. Historians estimate that over 1,400 people were killed as a result of the raids, with another 3,400 wounded.
SIGNIFICANCE OF WORLD WAR I FOR BRITAIN
In all, World War I was a highly important event in the history of Britain. First, and foremost, over 6,200,000 Britons served during World War I, and represented their country bravely on the battlefields in Europe and the Middle East. As well, approximately 800,000 Britons died as a result of military action during the war. These numbers are much higher when the soldiers from the Dominions of Britain are also factored in.
Second, the brutal and horrendous nature of the fighting in World War I (especially along the trenches of the Western Front) came to characterize much of the war for people in Britain. For instance, today World War I is remembered as a conflict wherein million fought, were injured and died for little outcomes. In Britain, this was especially true in relation to how the Battle of the Somme is remembered.
Beyond this, World War I had a large impact on the Dominions of the British Empire. For instance, in India, World War I helped increase calls for independence. As well, at the conclusion of World War I, the Canadian Prime Minister, Robert Borden, argued that Canadians had fought for earned their sovereignty on the battlefields of World War I. As such, World War I led to Canada arguing in favor of more self-determination from the British Empire. This was also true, although to a lesser degree, in Australia.
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