Do you think that the young men of Britain would agree with the Lady Reader during the Great War, 1914-1918
In August 1914 Great Britain declared war on the Germany because on 4 August Germany invaded Belgium. Britain had a treaty with Belgium dating back to 1839 so the British Foreign Minister Lord Grey felt justified in Britain honouring this treaty. The invasion of Belgium forced the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) to declare war on the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy). There had been a build up of pressure in Europe after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Countess Sophie on 18 June 1914 in Sarajevo.
He was assassinated by a Slav called Princip who wanted Serbia, an influential state in the area, to be independent. Austria-Hungary, which had thousands of Serbs in its empire who also wanted to be independent, saw this as a chance to crush Serbia and they declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Russia was friendly with Serbia because it had a long history of rivalry with Austria-Hungary and both Russian’s and Serbs were Slavs so Russia felt that they had to help Serbia. Russia mobilised its troops but Germany, who had a treaty with Austria-Hungary, warned Russia not to help the Serbs.
When it was reported that Russia had trespassed on German soil in 1 August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Russia had a treaty with France and Britain which meant that Germany was stuck in the middle between France and Russia and would be fighting the war in two fronts. There was also a lot of tension between Britain and Germany before war was declared. Only a generation before, Germany and Britain had been united, usually against the French. However, when Kaiser Wilhelm announced his intentions to build a powerful German navy, Britain became suspicious.
Germany had hardly any coastline and not much of an overseas empire. The Kaiser, who was cousins with queen Victoria and the Tsar, admired Britain’s empire and therefore wanted one of his own, which he called ‘a place in the sun’. Already in 1905 and 1911 in Morocco the Kaiser had tried to cause trouble by interfering with French and British affairs. Before that, in 1870, Germany had fought a short war with France and had taken the rich industrial region of Alsace-Lorraine from France. France was still angry about it and planned to take it back.
Even before the assassination, Britain had been worried about Germany’s ambitions. Britain’s military planners had been closely but secretly working with French commanders. Britain set up the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which consisted of 150,000 highly trained and well-equipped professional soldiers. They were ready to cross the English Channel and defend Belgium and France from the Germans. Germany’s plan, which was why they invaded Belgium, was called the Schlieffen Plan and was there one and only plan. They planned to defeat France in six weeks by invading at high speed through Belgium and taking Paris.
Then the German armies could turn to fight the Russians, 1000 kilometres away to the East. France’s plan was an all-out attack on Alsace-Lorraine by soldiers trained to fight hard and fast, whatever the odds might be. Austria’s Plan R was to send huge forces across the border into Russia. Russia planned to do the same in reverse. The one thing that unites all of these plans was the assumption that the war would be quickly won. The British public had been told that the war would last six weeks and the soldiers would be home by Christmas and were told this by the newspapers, the Church, the government and the army’s generals.
Throughout Europe thousands of men joined up to fight for their country. In Britain alone, half a million men joined up in the first four weeks. There was a patriotic fever. Young men between nineteen and thirty-eight were urged to join. Whole work forces signed up together – as many as 50,000 a day. Some young men lied about their age so that they could go to war and fight for their country. Wilfred Owen, who was a World War One poet, wrote in ‘Disabled’: “He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years” Many people backed the war.
The Women’s Rights movement, including the Suffragettes, gave their full support to the war effort and women gave white feathers to every able-bodied man who didn’t volunteer to sign on. One mother, Mrs Berridge, wrote into The Morning Post on 30 September 1914, “Those gallant boys of whom we, their mothers, and, I venture to think, the whole British nation are justly proud… If my own son can best serve England at this juncture by giving his life for her, I would not lift one finger to bring him home. If any act or word of mine should interfere with or take from his grandest privilege, I could never look him in the face again”.
Eventually, women were drafted in to work in the munitions factories to keep the front supplied. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke wrote patriotic poems. For example, Rupert Brooke wrote a famous poem called “The Soldier”. “If I should die, think this only of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England… A body of England’s, breathing English air,” Rupert Brooke is saying that whenever any British solider died in a corner of a foreign field, that piece of land would be richer because lying beneath the soil was the heart and pulse of an Englishman.
It was courageous and was written to encourage men to go to war. Poets like Jessie Pope wrote recruitment poems like “Who’s for the Game? ” which ends ‘Your country is up to her neck in a fight, and she’s looking and calling for you. ‘ This portrays war as a game. There were also posters which encouraged men to sign up. The most famous perhaps is the one of Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, pointing at everyone with the words, “Your King and Country Needs You! ” (Left) Another say “Women of Britain say ‘Go! ‘” (Right).
The government also released propaganda posters which showed how evil the Germans were. For example, in the poster that says “How the Hun Hates”. It shows a picture of British fishermen with half of their hair shaved off being jeered at by Germans. Another was of a German sister (right) who poured water on the ground before a wounded British soldier. Underneath it says “There is no woman in Britain who would do it. There is no woman in Britain who will forget it. ” When German warships shelled the east coast of Britain on 16 December 1914, 199 people were killed, including innocent women and children.
In January 1915, German airships began bombing raids on Britain using Zeppelins. There were a total of 57 raids on British towns, killing 564 people and injuring 1370. These were innocent civilians and Britain didn’t even think of invading Germany in the same way. The press used these bombings to show the British public how evil the Germans were and what would happed if Britain didn’t win the war. This made the British public angry and put more pressure on British men. As soon as war was declared, the Government passed the Defence of the Realm Act, which became known as DORA.
It gave the government the power to control many aspects of people’s daily lives. It gave the government the right to control what people knew about the war through censorship. The newspapers were the only way people could find out the latest news and everyone read them so it was essential for the government to control what people read about the war. From the start of the war only good news was published and bad news strictly controlled. In spite of the problems and losses of the first few months of the war, the British public were only told of the great and heroic victories and resistance.
When the British battleship HMS Audacious was sunk in October 1914, it was not reported. In November 1916, the government finally allowed approved journalists to report from the front. The reports focused on good news as the newspaper owners and editors were supporters of the war effort. For example, the Daily Express owner, Lord Beaverbrook, was a cabinet minister from 1916 and became Minister of Information in 1918. The Prime Minister at the time, Lloyd George said in 1917 to the editor of the Manchester Guardian, “If the people really knew the truth about the war it would stop tomorrow.
The censors (do) not pass, the truth. ” Letters and telegrams home were examined and censored by the censors. In 1916 alone, the government Press Bureau along with the Intelligence services examined 38,000 articles, 25,000 photographs and 30,000 private telegrams to stop sensitive information from leaking out to the enemy. So for the first two years of the war, most of the British public and the soldiers would have agreed with the Lady Reader. The nation wanted Belgium and France to be freed from the terrible “Huns”, the derogatory name given to the Germans, and to teach the Germans a lesson.
Men wanted to fight and, as one British soldier said when he was told that he would spend the first part of the war in England, “We felt that time was slipping away. At any moment there might be a decisive battle on land or sea, the war would end, and we would be late for the hunt. ” The BEF had been trained, before the war, to help the French and were immediately in action at Mons. They met the advancing Germans at Mons on 23 August 1914. They were led by Lieutenant-General Douglas Haig and were using Lee Enfield . 303 bolt action rifles which could be fired quickly and accurately.
The Germans thought they were up against machine-gun fire. The German’s Schlieffen Plan had not gone to plan. They had planned to invade France and take Paris via Belgium but had not taken into account the Belgian resistance, which slowed them down and they did not reach Paris in the expected six weeks. The German’s had also not expected the Russians in the east. The German Supreme Commander Moltke had to pull 100,000 troops out of the advancing army to go and fight the Russians in the east. The Germans were now fighting a two-front war, which they had been trying to avoid.
The Germans realised they could not break through the enemies lines. The new commander Falkenhayn decided to outflank the enemy’s lines. The charge began on 12 October 1914 and was known as ‘the race to the sea’. A key battle in the race to the sea was the first Battle of Ypres from 12 October to 11 November 1914. The BEF lost around 50,000 men; one British division lost 365 of its 400 officers and 10,774 of its 12,000 soldiers. The Germans also lost around 100,000 but the British, led by Lieutenant-General Haig kept control of the English Channel ports, which meant they could be supplied with equipment and reinforcements.
By November 1914, it was stalemate and both sides began digging trenches to hide in and to stop the other side from advancing. The line of trenches stretched from the sea in Belgium to the Alps in Switzerland and became known as the ‘Western Front’. At the start of 1915, the war which should have been ‘over by Christmas’ was nowhere near an end. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, said “I don’t know what is to be done. This isn’t war. ” The problem was that none of Europe’s war leaders knew how to end the stalemate in France.
They had made plans for a quick war between fast-moving armies but now the armies were at a halt, digging trenches to stop the other side from advancing. No-one had experience a war like it ad new inventions changed the way it was fought. Guns and artillery became more important whereas cavalry became less. For most of the war, artillery pounded the enemy’s line with hundreds of shells. The machine gun was also used during the First Wold War for the first time. It was more effective than rifles because a machine gun could kill a hundred people in about five minutes.
As one German machine-gunner reported “When we started firing we just had to load and re-load. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. ” The generals had no idea how to defend against machine guns since they were trained in the kind of warfare that had been seen in the Crimea and the Boer War, including cavalry charges on horseback. The way this war was being fought, with a regular supply of new soldiers, with machine guns that didn’t call for accurate fire, with barbed wire across no man’s land, was completely different to anything that had gone before.
Both sides’ generals had no other answer than to dig trenches. A full frontal attack by either side could prove fatal although the French and British troops had the hardest task. They needed to retake land whereas the Germans only had to stay in their trenches and defend it. In November 1914, soldiers found themselves fighting from trenches. However, the conditions were far from perfect. Millions of men and thousands of horses lived close together and the sanitation arrangements were makeshift. In the summer, when the weather was hot, dusty and dry, the smell was appalling due to a combination of rotting corpses, sewage and unwashed soldiers.
In wet weather spent much of their time up to their ankles or knees in water. Thousands suffered from ‘trench foot’, caused by standing in water for hours or days. As one soldier described it “Your feet swell up two or three times their normal size and go completely dead. You could stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are fortunate enough not to lose your feet and the swelling begins to go down… it is then that the agony begins. ” Some men had to have their legs amputated because of trench foot but some got amputated because of frostbite in the winter, as the trenches offered little protection from the cold.
The trenches were also infested by rats, which were described as huge, fat ‘corpse’ rats that thrived on the dead bodies and the rubbish created by the armies. The soldiers were infested by with lice or ‘chats’ as they called them. The soldiers sometimes had to endure hours of non-stop artillery bombardment. Wilfred Owen, the World War One poet, wrote many anti-War poems, one of them being ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ in which he described the trenches. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons No mockeries now for them; no prayer nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,- The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shrines. Ironically, Owen’s first poems had been in favour of the war, along the same lines as Brooke’s. However, neither he nor any of the other men had been prepared for what they had to endure, whereby they would live for months in cold, dank trenches. This was not the kind of war they had been promised.
The generals had no idea how to end the stalemate in 1916. The two main battles during 1916 were the Battle of Verdun in February and the Battle of the Somme in July. Both battles led to huge losses for both France and Britain. At the Battle of Verdun the French lost 315,000 men and the city of Verdun was completely destroyed. At the Battle of the Somme started with a five-day bombardment of the German trenches but it had little effect as the Germans had known for weeks that the attack was coming; their scout had seen men and guns moving forward into position.
They therefore drew back from the front line and built dug-outs more than 12 metres deep. On 1 July 1916, General Haig sent thirteen divisions, around 200,000 men over the top, thinking that the bombardment had weakened the Germans. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 35,000 wounded but this did not make General Haig change his tactics. He ordered more attacks but it was the same as before. By the end of the battle the British and French had lost 620,000 men and the Germans 450,000. Most casualties were young men in their late teens or early twenties.
Many pals battalions, who had signed up together at the beginning of the war were practically wiped out, and villages in Britain and around the empire lost a whole generation of young men. One example is the 11th Cambridgeshire Battalion who sent 750 men over the top on 1 July 1916 and 691 of them became casualties of war. Haig was bitterly criticised after the battle by his own soldiers, politicians and the press and was given the unwanted title of ‘The Butcher of the Somme’. During the Battle of the Somme, a film was made using the new cinecamera.
The Battle of the Somme was released in August 1916 and showed real scenes from the battle including real casualties. In fact, thirteen per cent of its running time showed dead or wounded soldiers. It also included ‘fake’ scenes, often filmed at a training ground. Some anti-war campaigners approved of the film because it showed the horrors of war. Many people talked of it as their first chance to see what conditions were really like in the war. Some were shocked at its realism like the Dean of Durham Cathedral who thought that it was wrong to exploit death and suffering to provide entertainment.
Not surprisingly, the mood of the soldiers and the people back home had changed. The newspapers were still patriotic but people were horrified at what they saw and what they read. At the beginning of the war, the civilians who stayed at home after the men had gone to war were infected by war fever. However, by the end of 1916, civilians were losing their enthusiasm because the war was changing their lives. Civilians in Britain were affected by food shortages. German U-boats were sinking one in every four British merchant ship.
British housewives had to queue at shops, prepare meatless dishes and use less food in their cooking. After the Battle of the Somme, the government decided to introduce conscription for the first time. All men aged between eighteen and forty had to register for active service and could be called up at any time to fight. Eight million people signed up. But, by 1916, the mood had changed and with conscripts fighting now rather than volunteers, the men fighting for Britain were thinking differently that they were in 1914. As D. L.
Rowlands said in 1917, “Not a single one of us has an ounce of what we call patriotism left in him. All that every man desires now is to get done with it and go home. ” These soldiers saw were not fighting as patriots but saw this war as a job rather than a crusade. Most of the conscripts were teachers or worked in other ordinary jobs and they were made to fight which they did but they didn’t favour their leaders. By 1918, they just wanted to beat the Germans and get home but they still wanted to win. This was not the kind of war that Britain had been promised in 1914 and the generals still didn’t know how to end it.
Each day the newspapers were filled with the names of soldiers, sailors and airmen who had died. During the war, people lived with the fear of death. The War Office notified the next of kin by telegram or by ordinary post that their son, husband, brother or father had been killed, reported missing or was a prisoner of war. One woman wrote, “I can remember my mother going pale one afternoon as she saw the telegram boy coming towards the house… My father and brother were in the navy and you never knew if the telegram was for you. Whole towns and villages had to endure news of death and lost a generation of young men. This made them turn against the idea of war being a wonderful patriotic thing. The war was starting to affect ordinary people’s lives and they were beginning to question why the war was taking so long. By the time the Americans came into the war, things were getting desperate. The Americans hadn’t wanted to get involved with the war but when their liner Lusitania was torpedoed by German U-boats in 1915, killing 128 of the American passengers on board, anti-German feeling swept the country.
More American ships were sunk as Germany tried to starve France and Britain out of the war. America finally declared war on Germany after Arthur Zimmerman, Germany’s foreign minister, sent a telegram to Mexico, suggesting that Mexico should attack America’s southern states. America joined the war as Russia was leaving. At the start of 1917, Russia had exploded into revolution and the Tsar eventually abdicated. A new Provisional Government was set up but when whole regiments deserted, a Communist revolutionist Vladimir Lenin staged a second revolution and overthrew the Provisional Government.
Days after coming into power, Lenin announced that Russia would make peace with Germany. The Allies suffered more defeats and losses in 1917. The Nivelle Offensive in April promised a quick victory for the Allies but it failed because the Germans drew back to a new line of strongly defended trenches, the Hindenburg Line. After ten days of killing, 34,000 men were dead and another 90,000 wounded. The French army mutinied after this defeat. Nivelle, the French commander, was sacked and the new commander General Pi?? tain, restored order by using ruthless punishments and improving soldiers’ conditions.
Britain had won minor successes in battles at Vimy ridge in April and Messines in June and were able to move forward. But in the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, they fought in the worst conditions of the entire war. Men drowned in shell holes or got stuck in mud up to their waists. Corpses of men and horses rotted beneath the battlefield and the ground turned poisonous so that mud on a wound usually made it gangrenous. 400,000 British were killed or wounded and by the end of the battle they had won only 800 metres of mud.
When General Haig sent one of his officers to visit the battle field, the officer burst into tears and said “My God, did we really send men to fight in that? ” On 3 March 1918 the Germans and Russians signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended the war on the Eastern Front. A million German soldiers and 3000 guns were transferred to the Western Front which made the German army much stronger than the Allied armies. But Germany knew time was running out and they calculated that they had six months at most before the Americans joined the fighting.
Germany’s General Ludendorff decided to gamble everything he had on a final, all-out offensive. The Ludendorff Offensive began at dawn on 21 March 1918 when 6000 guns started a bombardment that lasted five hours. The Allies were blinded and suffocated by deadly mustard gas. Under the cover of the fog, seventy German divisions dashed forward towards the British lines. The British, outnumbered and confused, ran. The Germans marched towards Paris, advancing 65 kilometres. The Allied armies were put under the command of the French General Ferdinand Foch.
It looked like he couldn’t do anything as the Germans were unstoppable. However, Ludendorff had sent too many men too far and too fast into French territory. He had no reserves to send after his exhausted army. Meanwhile, Foch had kept men in reserve and American soldiers were arriving in France at the rate of 50,000 a week. Foch gathered all these forces for a counter-attack on 18 July 1918. They steadily drove the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line. Germany itself was also near to collapse. Thousands were dying of starvation and an outbreak of Spanish influenza killed hundreds a day.
Germany could no longer avoid defeat but Ludendorff hoped to delay it. He persuaded the government to write to the American president Woodrow Wilson, asking for an armistice. Meanwhile the German army could build up its strength to fight again later. However, a revolution swept through Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm left Germany and fled to Holland, never to return. A Republic was set up in place of his empire. Two German politicians were sent to France to sign the armistice. The armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 on Foch’s private railway carriage at Compii?? gne in northern France.
The Great War was over but neither side had won. On 11 November 1918 at 11 o’clock, everything on the Western Front stopped. There was joyful celebration in Paris and London. Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist, wrote, “… we watched the crowds singing, shouting, dancing, embracing, vomiting, climbing on top of taxis, grabbing one another, and making off into the parks. It was, to me, an eerie and disturbing, rather than a joyful scene – those flushed animal faces, dishevelled women, hoarse voices. ” However, the scene on the Western Front was the opposite.
David Jones wrote, “He would not be killed… o one else in the battalion would be killed… A thrill of almost painful exultation went through him… Then with a worse, almost unmendable pang, he thought of the millions of men of many nations, who were gone forever, rotting in desolate battlefields and graveyards all over the world… Would they dare to maffick [celebrate wildly] in London and Paris? Probably. Well let them. Perhaps the men’s quietness and lack of demonstration meant they too felt this…. The only victory that had resulted was in fact the victory of life over death, of stupidity over intelligence, of hatred over humanity.
It must never happen again, never, never. ” Even though the British soldiers had fought loyally, many of them had lost faith in their generals. As Private J A Hooper said, “Towards the end of the war we were so fed up we couldn’t even sing ‘God Save the King’ on church parade. ‘Never mind the bloody King,’ we used to say, ‘he was safe enough. It should have been God save us. ‘ They realised they had been lied to. The idea that the Germans were beasts, an idea the newspapers had made out at the beginning of the war, was not understood to be false.
Many British soldiers saw them as no different from them. Many people also began to question why the war had started at all. Everyone had been affected by the war. Families had been torn apart through death; a whole generation of men were lost forever. Even the men who had survived were never the same. Many of them were disabled, or shell-shocked, and all of them had seen things that no-one should see. They had scars inside and out. Four years after the Lady Reader’s comment, no one would have agreed with her. World War One was the war to end all wars, although it never really ended.
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