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First World War

The First World War

'It must come to a fight'.

The reputed dying words, in 1913, of Count von Schlieffen, former chief of the German General Staff and architect of Germany's war plans, reflected the certainty of one of the most brilliant soldiers of his time. For at least a decade before 1914, the European powers had been arming for war.

The causes of the First World War were complex and varied.  Great Britain’s declaration of war on 4th August 1914 was prompted by Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium, which allowed it the chance to attack France for the second time in fifty years.  The War lasted four years and cost the world sixteen million lives, nearly a million of whom were British servicemen and civilians.  Although many civilians died, it was a war fought mainly between large armies.  The battlefield was dominated by artillery, which would cause most deaths, and increasingly by the machine gun.  Aircraft and, later, tanks appeared in increasing numbers but were not available in time or in sufficient numbers or quality to provide – as they would in the Second World War – an answer to artillery and machine guns.  The war therefore became a costly battle of attrition in which attacking infantrymen advanced against the defenders’ guns.  Whether an attack succeeded or failed, the infantry’s casualty list was almost invariably a long one.

Western Front - First World WarWestern Front - First World WarFor the century since 1815 the British Army’s role had been to police an empire in Asia and Africa.  Unprepared to fight a large army with modern weapons in a major land war in Europe, the British Army was also much too small for the task.  Unlike other European nations, Britain did not have conscription: all her soldiers were volunteers.  The British Expeditionary Force sent to France in early August 1914 was therefore too small and, although well trained in many respects, unprepared for the onslaught it faced.  The next two years saw its transformation as it absorbed five million civilian volunteers and conscripts.  These were the men who would win the war.

In the first weeks of war the British (alongside their French allies) fought a long retreat from Mons back to the River Marne, where they successfully halted the German advance on Paris and then began to drive them back.  In the winter of 1914-15 the front stabilised and both sides dug in. Trench warfare, the abiding image of the four-year campaign, had begun.

The British infantry soldier’s life in France and Flanders divided between periods spent in and out of the front line.  In the line he faced mud, dirt, discomfort, occasional shelling and the ever-present threat of being sniped if he stuck his head above the trench parapet.  Supplying food to the front line cost lives among those who transported it and its quality left much to be desired.  Hot meals were often cold by the time they reached the troops, whose diet passed into folk legend: tins of Maconochie (a stew of dubious meat), hard biscuits and tinned jam – often plum and apple.  Cigarettes provided some comfort while the rum ration offered an occasional shot of taste and warmth.  The desolate trench landscape around them had been devastated by war.  The only undamaged view was above: blue or cloudy skies and, at night, the familiar stars. 

Long periods of relative inaction were broken by patrolling, trench raids and each new offensive: at Loos in September 1915, on the Somme from July until November 1916, at Arras in the spring of 1917 and at Ypres from July until October 1917.  Each offensive cost tens of thousands of casualties.  In March 1918 the Germans, freed by the Russian Revolution from having to fight in the east, launched their own massive attack.  Despite being forced to retreat and despite heavy losses, the British fought the offensive to a standstill and, in the process, broke the German Army.  By the summer the Allies were on the advance as never before.  By the autumn their enemies were suing for peace.  The Armistice came on 11th November 1918.

Although the bulk (and the most successful part) of the British effort was spent in France and Flanders, other campaigns were fought against the Germans in Africa, the Austrians in Italy and the Turks in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine.  By September 1918 the Turks were beaten; they surrendered a month later.