The Great War

Photo from, Lancashire Telegraph

The Great War (1914-1918):

‘Conflict between the Allied and associated powers, principally the British Empire, France, and Russia, later joined by Italy (May 1915) and the USA (April 1917, and the central powers, principally Austria-Hungary and Germany, later joined by the Ottoman Empire (November 1914) and Bulgaria (July 1915). The war’s origins lie in the spread of Slave nationalism in the Balkans, following the decay of Ottoman power, and the threat which this posed to the security of Austria-Hungary. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke France Ferdinand by a Serb nationalist at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 set in train a series of diplomatic events which erupted into a European war on 1 August when Austria’s ally, Germany, declared war on Russia, following this two days later with a declaration of war on Russia’s ally, France. Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August. The ostensible cause of British belligerency was German violation of Belgian neutrality, but behind this lay British strategic determination to maintain the balance of power in Europe and concern for the long-term security and prosperity of the British Empire.

The architects of Britain’s entry into the war, notably the Liberal foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, expected a ‘traditional’ British war, in which Britain’s role would be largely naval and her military effort confined to the despatch of a small expeditionary force to support France. These comforting assumptions were immediately dispelled by the eruption onto the British political scene of the imperial proconsul Lord *Kitchener, ho was appointed secretary of state for war on 5 August. Kitchener believed that the war would be long and require full national mobilisation. He also believed that the war could not be concluded in a way satisfactory to British interests unless Britain raised a mass army and took a full (and preferably a final) part in the defeat of Germany. The immediate decision to raise a mass army was Made with virtually no cabinet, parliamentary, or public debate, but the consequences were profound. Within less than two years from the outbreak of war, the strain of raising, equipping, and supplying Kitchener’s ‘new armies’, numbered in millions, had resulted on the fall of Britain’s last Liberal government (May 1915), the formation of a Ministry of Munitions (May 1915), which (under Lloyd George) was given unprecedented powers to transform the output of Britain’s war industries. The introduction of compulsory military service (January and May 1916), the large-scale employment of women in transport and manufacturing industry, the acceptance of organised trade unionism in the highest councils of state, the suspension of the gold standard, and massive increases in taxation. From 1 July 1916, the beginning of the battles of the Somme, Britain’s new armies also began to suffer the mass casualties for which the war is now principally remembered. The British army fought major wars against the Ottoman Empire at *Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia, and in Palestine, the outcome of which did much to shape the 20th-century Middle East. Substantial British contingents also fought against the Austrians in Italy and the Bulgarians in Macedonia. But what makes the Great War unique in British history is that the main part of the British army, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was engaged from start to finish with the main forces of the main enemy (Germany) on the main battlefield. This was the western front in France and Belgium, characterised from September 1914 by the development of opposing systems of trench fortifications and concrete string points, defended by dense masses of barbed wire, interlocking acres of machine guns, and masses of quick firing artillery. The difficulties and human costs of fighting this war of attrition (leaving some 600,000 British Empire dead) have cast a permanent shadow over British perceptions of the war and especially over the BEF’s principal commander, Douglas Haig. This has disguised the achievement of Haig’s armies, deploying awesome firepower directed by leading edge technologies of sound ranging and flash spotting, tanks, ground attack aircraft, and gas, bringing about the German surrender in November 1918.

The Great War, contrary to later impressions brought about by post-war disillusionment, enjoyed a very high degree of popular support. German violation of Belgian neutrality and subsequent ‘atrocities’ meant that British belligerency camped throughout the war on the moral high ground. Despite this, the war was politically divisive at the highest levels and has been seen by many as instrumental in the decline of Liberalism and the rise of Labour. Prime Minister Asquith’s apparent unwillingness to win the war at all costs gradually undermined his auThority among his cabinet and coalition colleagues and led to his replacement by Lloyd George in December 1916. The Liberal Party suffered split from which it was never to recover. This was not the only important political change associated with the war, for there was a mass extension of the franchise in 1918 embracing all males aged 21 and over, for the first time, women also had the vote (if aged 30 and over). Mass working-class electorates proved, perhaps, even more damaging to the Liberal Party than the leadership split. The enfranchisement of women (from 1928 on the same terms as men) eventually produced an electorate with a female majority, proportionately more sympathetic to the Conservative Party than male voters. Male and female perception of the role of women changed, though the employment of women in ‘male’ industrial occupations did not survive the return to peacetime conditions. Perceptions of the appropriate role of the state were also changed, if not quite transformed. The trade union movement achieved a degree of political respectability and power, which it retained until the 1980’s.

The most important long-term political effect, however, was probably the feeling, soon common to public and elite opinions, that the war had been just too costly in blood and treasure, a view re-emphasized in the 1960’s with growing popularity of post war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the writings of Paul Fussel. After 1918 though, the dominant opinion came, to be just that the experience was one than ought not to be repeated, and this helped to provide the background to appeasement in the 1930’s’.

(See also,) *’World Disarmament Conference or Geneva Disarmament Conference’ on ’37 reasons WHY we should JOIN the EU: World Disarmament Conference or Geneva Disarmament Conference’ available on:

From, John Ramsden, Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London.

References: J. M. Bourne, ‘Britain and the Great War 1914-1918’, London, 1989.

References: John Turner, ‘British Politics and the Great War’, London, 1992.



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