Britain and the First World War

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:20 pm

A summary of the conflict and Britain’s part in it

Poppies in Flanders fields, Britain and the First World WarThe 1914-18 war was a global conflict.  British forces, and those of her Imperial Dominions – particularly Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa – fought in Africa, Italy, the Middle East, Salonica (Greece) and Gallipoli (Turkey), as well as on the Western Front (northern France/south-west Belgium) and, of course, on the high seas.  But it was predominantly a land war and the outcome was always going to be determined by whoever won in Europe.  Britain had no direct involvement in the fighting on the vast Eastern Front, where the Russians engaged the Germans in staggering numbers in the north and, with their Serbian allies, the Austro-Hungarians in the Balkans.

British troops, Britain and the First World WarThe German armies that invaded Belgium and France in August 1914 largely overwhelmed all opposition, including the tiny but highly professional British Expeditionary Force.  With Paris under threat, a French-led counter-attack pushed the Germans back, both sides dug in and a stalemate was reached with a line of trenches stretching 450 miles from Nieuport on the Channel coast to the Swiss border.  The line varied little over the next four years, during which time neither side decisively broke the other’s defences until the final year.  The names of the battles – Mons, Ypres, the Somme (in which 20,000 British troops died on the first day), Vimy, Passchendaele, Verdun – resonate to this day.

Flanders landscape, Britain and the First World WarTrench warfare was an appalling experience for all sides.  Men lived and fought in a network of defensive positions that grew ever more sophisticated.  Everybody was plagued by lice; trench foot was endemic; keeping reasonably clean was impossible and performing basic human functions like going to the toilet was unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous.  Artillery and machine guns ruled supreme; attacks made in repeated attempts to break the stalemate were preceded by massive and terrifying bombardments, and even the setting of high-explosive mines laid in excavated tunnels deep beneath enemy positions.  Infantry ‘going over the top’ (of trenches) were mown down by gunfire like corn by a scythe before many even reached the entanglements of barbed wire that lay in front of enemy positions. Entire villages ceased to exist, shell holes joined up and the landscape became a featureless, alien, world of mud, slime and the detritus of war.  Men disappeared – literally blown to pieces, drowned in mud, buried alive or simply missing somewhere in the no man’s land between opposing trench systems.  Poison gas, tanks, aircraft and flamethrowers introduced just a few more new and ingenious ways of killing or maiming people.  Sometimes, fighting was hand to hand, using bayonets, knives, cudgels, knuckledusters and even spades.  The dead were close neighbours, often forming part of a trench wall – or disinterred by high explosive.  This experience of trench warfare induced almost unbearable levels of stress leading to many cases of ‘shellshock’, or what today we would call ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ (PTSD).  If their condition was acknowledged and not regarded as a form of shirking, the lucky ones got ‘the talking cure’ – psychotherapy was in its infancy; others were treated with experimental electroconvulsive therapy or other untried treatments.  306 British and Dominion soldiers were executed for cowardice.  Many survivors suffered nightmares for the rest of their lives.  And conditions for the British are thought to have been better than those endured by the French or Germans.

War casualties, Britain and the First World WarPeople speak of a ‘lost generation’ dying in the mud and filth of northern France.  That’s not quite true, though casualties were certainly enormous and horrendous.  The British Empire and its Dominions eventually fielded armed forces totalling about 8.7 million service personnel for the whole war, in all theatres, of which about a million died.  Germany, Russia, France and Austria-Hungary lost even more (roughly 1.8, 1.7, 1.4 and 1.3 million respectively).  British losses alone were in the region of 886,000, of which almost 17,000 were civilians.  But losses were disproportionate: in the British Army on the Western Front, junior officers, for example, had a pretty low chance of survival; some of these youngsters, barely out of their teens, many of them products of public schools and universities, would have formed the next generation of leaders.  In the wave of enthusiasm for joining up at the outbreak of war, many from the same factory, street or club enlisted together: the so-called ‘Pals Battalions’ also trained together, fought together – and died together.  But the legacy of ‘never again’, which so influenced British and French policy in the 1930s, was as much a reaction to the manner of the deaths as much as it was the brutal numbers.

Ypres (Ieper) after the war, Britain and the First World WarVisit Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium.  This lovely medieval cloth town, which has been completely rebuilt since the war, is almost like a little piece of Britain overseas.  The memorial to the missing at the Menin Gate, where the troops used to march up to the front, records 54,896 British and Imperial servicemen whose bodies were never found or identified.  It’s hard to imagine – think of it as equivalent to a fairly good crowd at Old Trafford.  However, running out of space, a further 34,984 names are recorded at Tyne Cot Cemetery just up the road.  So – that’s almost 90,000 men who, so far as their wives, sweethearts and parents were concerned, simply disappeared off the face of the earth.  Remember this is in one small sector of the war, and on just one side of the conflict.  It excludes French, Belgian, Portuguese and other allies, as well as New Zealanders and Newfoundlanders.  Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth War Grave in the world and contains almost 12,000 burials – including some German.  Like many cemeteries in Belgium and northern France, it is located at the scene of fighting.  The Thiepval Memorial on the Somme records just over 72,000 officers and men from the United Kingdom and South Africa who died in that sector, 90% of them between July and November 1916, and who have no known grave.  Overall, a little over 524,800 British Empire service personnel have no known grave – a staggering and disgusting statistic.

British troops with German prisoners, Britain and the First World WarGiven the pre-war naval arms race between Germany and Britain, it is perhaps surprising that there was only one really major naval engagement in the whole war, the Battle of Jutland in 1916.  Both sides claimed it as a victory, though Britain lost more ships than the Germans did.  But this was the one and only time the German Grand Fleet ventured out of port until the war ended.  The role of the Royal Navy was decisive in keeping the German Fleet bottled up – and in maintaining a trade blockade on Germany.  This is more controversial; less obvious than the unrestricted submarine warfare conducted by the Germans (which was ultimately beaten by the convoy system), the British blockade was just as brutal, more effective and a deliberate form of social warfare.

Ypres (Ieper) Grote Markt, Belgium, Britain and the First World WarBy 1917, Russia was on her knees, in revolutionary turmoil and the new Bolshevik government asked the Germans for peace.  The French army, bled by its defence of the city of Verdun, had mutinied.  And America had entered the war against Germany, partly because of the German policy of unrestricted submarine (U-boat) warfare and partly because the Germans stupidly sent the Mexican government a telegram in which they promised Mexico several US states in return for support in a war against America.  The (Zimmerman) telegram was intercepted by British intelligence who promptly gave the gen to the Americans. Interestingly, America was ‘an associate power’ of France and Britain’s – never an ally – which meant that there was no single command structure as there was in the Second World War.

Preserved trenches, Sanctuary Wood, Britain and the First World WarThe Germans launched a massive offensive in March 1918.  Using new storm trooper tactics and with numbers swelled by soldiers switched from the Eastern front, they broke the British line and drove the Allies back.  The Germans were in a hurry; they gambled on victory before the huge material resources of the United States would make German defeat inevitable.  By the summer, the offensive ran out of steam and came up against more organised opposition.  The Allies counter-attacked, forcing the Germans to retreat beyond their original starting point.  Broken economically, militarily and facing revolution, the Germans sought an armistice.  The guns finally fell silent on the Western Front at 1100 hours on 11th November (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) 1918.

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