Britain and World War One

Keep in mind:

How did the War change Britain?

What role did Britain have in the War?

As you know from all your other hard revision, Britain was changed greatly by WWI. Women proved they were more than just housewives; the government increased its control; for the first time *shock, horror* Britain's island isolation was overcome, leaving civilians vulnerable to attack. This occurred much more in WWII though, but that's a different story... Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...

Key dates... They say dates aren't important, but if you don't have them as a starting point, you'll just get confused. Learn these:

1914 August 4th Britain declare war on Germany. BEF sent to France.
  (in August) Schlieffen Plan defeated.
1915 January 19th

Zeppelin attacks on Britain.

  April 22nd First gas used on Western Front.
  May 7th Sinking of Lusitania by German U-boats.
1916 February 9th Conscription in Britain. Men between 18 and 41.

February 21st

Battle of Verdun.

June 1st

Battle of Jutland.

July 1st

Battle of the Somme.

September 15th

First use of tanks.

January 9th

Unrestricted submarine warfare resumes.

April 6th

America declares war on Germany.

October 12th

First Battle of Passchendaele.

October 28th

German fleet mutinies.

November 9th

Kaiser abdicates.

November 11th

Armistice - Germany has lost the war.
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The Long Slog

When Britain joined the war in 1914, most people thought it would be over by Christmas. (Germany certainly believed it would be.) How wrong they were...

A Dead Man's Plan... Not sure how much of this you actually need to know, but I find it amusing...

Germany knew they needed to avoid a war on two fronts between Russia in the East and France in the West if they were to win.

Therefore, Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan to tackle this in 1905. He calculated France to be the immediate threat, so would send 90% of his troops in a surprise attack through neutral Belgium, while 10% would remain to fend off any eventual attacks from Russia. (For more specifics, see here).

However, Schlieffen died in 1912, meaning Germany was following a dead man's plan. Doesn't sound promising, huh? It wasn't. Three main reasons it failed:

  • Russia deployed its army much sooner than expected.
  • Neutral Belgium didn't plan on allowing Germany to march right through them!
  • Britain got involved on Belgium's behalf over "a scrap of paper".

This is one of the key roles Britain played in the war: slowing the Germans initial attack, giving the French time to prepare. They joined the war to defend Belgium's neutrality, a treaty that had been formed in 1839. The Kaiser had overlooked Britain as he thought they'd never join over "a scrap of paper". I'm repeating the quote, but it really is cool.

The four days in which Belgium bravely held Germany up, Britain had time to deploy their small but reliable troops, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). They eventually arrived in France on the 21 August and were in action the next day, advancing to Mons.

They met the advancing Germans head on, and despite their few numbers, they held them up the entire day of 23 August. However, they were forced to retreat due to their few numbers. They showed they were not defeated, though, at the small town, La Cateau, on the 26th, where their rifle fire was so fast the Germans believed they had at least 28 machine guns per battalien, when in fact they had two. (Naturally holding up the Germans and causing many casulties.)

Thanks to the BEF's actions in Belgium and Northern France, France was given the time it needed to get their own plans in action: counter-attack. The French met the Germans at the battle of the Marne on September 6 with the BEF's support, in which the Germans were forced to retreat. They started to "dig in" at the River Aisne.

The Schlieffen Plan had failed and the war of movement was all but over. Germany was faced by a war on two fronts and it said that Molke reported to the Kaiser, "Your Highness, we have lost the war".

The Channel Port... One other significant battle that took place between October and November 1914 was the first battle of Ypres (pronounced: Eeep-res). The British resisted the Germans at a cost of 50,000 men, though the Germans lost twice as many. The significance was that it saved the Channel Port, allowing Britain to continue transporting troops and supplies to Germany.

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The Trenches

Why trenches?

All sides had suffered greatly from the initial attacks and turned their attention to defence. The main reason the war lasted so long? Because defence techniques were greater than offensive and the sides were left in stalemate.

Attacks in the trenches were fairly simple (and predictable). They followed the same stratedy for four years, trying to break through the opponent's trenches, to force them to surrender:

Phase One: A heavy artillery bombardment of the trenches took place.
Myth: This would destroy the enemy trenches, kill men, and destroy other obsticles such as barbed wire.
Reality: The bombardment would ususally make things even worse. Barbed wire would be churned, making it even harder to pass, bridges on No-Man's Land would be destroyed, making it harder to cross, the enemy usually found out about these "secret" attacks beforehand, leading them to digging deeper trenches, and mostly staying unaffected.

Phase Two. March over No-Man's Land. Go "over the top".
Myth: No need to hurry, soldiers - there won't be a man alive out there.
Reality: No-Man's land as previously explained was turned into a cratered marsh, and the enemy were ready and waiting with their machine guns to kill all who moved.

This happened over and over. Why? Perhaps the generals were truely incompetent. They had after all, trained with old methods, like caverellry charges.

In 1915, a British attack did make headway in this manner, but lack of communication and supplies halted it. This brought generals to the conclusion that the method did work, it just needed more men. They should really have known better - taking the stalemate of the American Civil War in the 17th Century.

Nature of the trenches

1. Barbed Wire - stopped the enemy.
2. Sandbags - protected from enemy fire.
3. The trench - protected from enemy fire.
4. Fire Step - raised platform to see over trench when shooting the enemy.
5. Ammunition shelf.
6. Duck Boards - Stopped you getting feet in water at the bottom of the trench.
7. Dugout - Protection from enemy artillery.

Fighting in the trenches was "99 percent sheer boredom, 1 percent sheer boredom." Soldiers usually only spent a few days on the front line before moving back to the support trenches, and didn't get exposed to much fighting. That one percent sheer terror.

Soldiers had a regular routine to follow, which kept them working through the day. Sentry duty, digging more trenches, weapons parades, cleaning weapons, burying the dead and filling sandbags, were all common tasks.

The conditions were terrible, one look at any photo will tell you that. Because Britain was on lower terrain, compared to Germany, the trenches were always muddy and waterfilled. Duck Boards were often missing, leading soldiers feet to be drenched in water, night and day. This led to swelling of feet, and the horrible trench foot. Men returned from the trenches with their feet lost, not through fighting, but from amputation to stop trench foot.

Other discomforts were the pests. Nearly all men were infected by lice. Because of all the dead corpses (think on the smell!) rats thrived, and some soldiers swore they saw rats as big as cats.

When it came to fighting, it was horrorfying. Men lived in constant fear of the next attillerery bombardment, and it left many men mentally scarred - suffering from the uncontrollable shaking of "shell shock". Worse was the order of "Going over the top" as this usually meant you were going to your death.

How did men keep up their spirits? Food for the British was fairly good, in comparison to France and Germany. Men also played games, sung songs, and wrote letters home - though those were of course cencored. Men were encouraged to join up with their friends, which probably helped in those long, dark nights... All in all, despite the horrors that faced them, morale stayed fairly high in the British camps.

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The Battle of the Somme

Probably the most famous of all the battles is that of the Somme, and its leader, General Haig. It's important for us, as it was mainly a British assault. Haig is generally seen in a very negative light, although we'll get to that later...


Britain and France had originally planned to launch a combained attack on the Germans in the summer of 1916, at the River Somme. However, the Germans made the first move in February, by attacking the French fortification at Verdun.

Though the Germans took some of the outer fortification, France was determined *best Gandalf inpersionation* they shall not pass! With the onslaught, France asked Britain to launch the attack on the Somme early, and without the support of the French, in order to relieve the pressure on Verdun.

The Master Plan

It fell to General Haig to lead the offensive. With the new priority was "to kill as many Germans as possible", he was still intent on achieving breakthrough. He devised the following plan:

  1. A 5-day bombardment of the German trenches.
  2. The British would march over No-Man's Land, and seize the trenches. They would only have to walk as "not even a rat" would be alive in the German trenches.

... Hold on... Does that sound familiar? As usual, things didn't go according to plan. The Germans heard on the bombardment prior, and so dug extra deep, reinforced dugouts. When the bombing began, they simply retreated to safety.

After the 5-day bombardment, the British went Over the Top. They were met by German gunfire. In that first day, the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 deaths.

It didn't dissuade Haig. Attrition, he decided, was the best option, and so maintained a steady stream of pressure on the Germans.

The Secret Weapon

Britain had a short-lived breakthrough on 15th September, when the tank was used for the first time ever. Tanks could get up to 6km an hour, and were intended

to crush barbed wire and other obstacles. The Germans found the 'metal monsters' terrifying and retreated.

However, the British were too slow to take their advantage, and Germany was allowed to build up its defences. By the end of the first day, all the tanks were either stuck in the mud, had overheated, or were just broken.


The battle raged on until rain turned the grounds to mud. It finished in November of 1916, with neither side having gained much ground. However, the life cost was colossal. Britain lost 420,000 men, France lost 200,000 men, and the Germans lost 500,000.

Haig has been criticised hugely for this event. However, we can't forget that his view on how the war would be won was shared. The Generals had grown up fighting in a very different style. Can this account for their apparent "incompetense"?

For the allies, there were some positives from the Somme and Haig. Verdun had been partly saved, thanks to Britain's interference, though a Russian attack in the east was probably a larger contribution to this.

In the end, Haig did as he's set out to do, "kill as many Germans as possible". If we don't combine the Allies casualties, Germany did suffer the most, a lasting mark on their military. The battle showed tanks weren't quite ready for war, but later attacks (such as Cambrai, 1917) saw Britain using them much more effectively.

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The War at Sea

It felt right to include this little question incase you get a comparative source in the exam between the navy and the army...

The British fleet had two main roles in the war:

  • Transporting troops/supplies across the Channel to France.
  • Defending British shores.

Not that active. In fact, there was only one major sea battle, the Battle of Jutland. This occurred in 31 May to 1 June, 1916. It's pretty obscure as both Britain and Germany claimed victory...

Germany's claim: Britain lost 14 ships compared to Germany's 11.

Britain's claim: Germany retreated and did not venture from it's ports for the duration of the war, leaving Britain's fleet in control of the seas.

The fact that Germany's fleet was not destroyed though, meant the British fleet had to remain to defend the shores, and not combat the next problem...

Submarine Warfare

In February 1915, Germany had developed a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that any British ship was an enemy. U-boats (submarines) were new, and unlike other ships which gave warnings before attacking, the nature of U-boats were underwater, surprise attacks.

However, when the British Liner Lusitania was sunk in 1915, there was an out roar from America, as 128 of the passengers that died were American. The USA threatened to enter the war if Germany did not call of unrestricted warfare, and so Germany was forced to submit.

In 1917, though, with many more U-boats ready, Germany decided to renew their policy. Britain was in trouble. Their cargo loses rose from 386,000 tonnes in January to 881,000 tonnes by April. The British navy had to take action, or Britain would be starved into submission.

  • Depth charges were developed to fight submarines.
  • Britain introduced armed convoys. All merchant ships had to travel in groups with guarded warships with depth charges.
  • Q ships - warships disguised as merchant ships - were sent out to confuse the Germans.
  • Mines and submarine nets were placed down in the Dover Straits, meaning Germany had to waste time and fuel by travelling around Scotland.

Their methods were successful, as more and more German U-boats were destroyed. With rationing introduced to Britain in 1918, food levels never fell as critical as when Unrestricted Submarine Warfare had first been introduced.


Germany's attempt to knock Britain out had not only failed, but also had a knock-on effect. Because they went against the USA's wishes, on April 6, 1917, America entered the war on Britain's side. This tipped the balance at the Western Front, and was a big factor in Germany's downfall on 11 November 1918.

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Life in Britain


Life, and attitudes, changed in many ways as the war progressed. When it was first introduced, for most it was greeted with extreme enthusiasm, or jingoism. This was one reason why, in those early days, so many people volunteered.

Another big reason was propaganda. Posters, flyers, leaflets surrounded British people (see many examples here) all with very similar messages of "enlist now". These played upon the jingoism (see how everything's tied together?) with such slogans as "your country's call" and "God save the King".

Other propaganda was aimed at women "Women of Britain say GO". For young men, to sign up on this adventure was seen as impressive, macho, by the girls, even more incentive. Plus, if they didn't sign up, men were forced to wear a white feather, a sign of cowardice - which also effectively made the wearer a target to everyone around them attempting to persuade them.

Propaganda also played on a genuine belief that the Germans were evil. It didn't help with newspapers broadcasting exaggerations and lies about German atrocities, and people believed what they were fighting for.

Rallies were held, soldiers marched through towns and villages, football matches were turned into enrolment surges... All these reasons people enrolled. People were encouraged to sign up with their friends, as the government promised not to split them up. They fought together and many died together...

Conscription: Of course, as the war dragged on (and it became clear it would not be over by Christmas - another reason people signed up), naturally enthusiasm began to dwindle. In January 1916, the government introduced conscription, which meant all men between 18 and 41 had to join the army.

There were of course, objectors, for whatever reason, such as religion and these could often face jail sentences.


Before the war, women had very little power and were often treated unequally. Suffragettes had campaigned for equality, but their fight had stopped when war broke out, as like most, they were caught up by jingoism.

For women, the war changed things drastically, anyway. With the men going into the army - especially when conscription was introduced - women had to fill the gaps in the workforce. They took on jobs they'd never been allowed before, such as in ammunitions (the canary girls for example, with their skin stained yellow by the chemicals they were exposed to).

Other jobs included, firefighters, steel workers, mechanics, window cleaners, and many, many other jobs.

Women were also responsible for such organisations as the Woman's Land Army, which were encouraged by the government to work on the land, keeping the country supplied with food.

Women even had chances to work at the front line with the VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) that tended casualties on the Western Front, and WAACs (Women's Army Auxillary Corps) who took officers' jobs in the army, to free more jobs for men.

Did things really change?

The men returning from the war, saw life for many women returning to "normal". Many women were dismissed from their jobs, and men replaced them, especially in the heavy industries. In that respect, very little did seem to change.

The war did, however, show men just what women were capable of, and many women had enjoyed their taste of control over their own finances. It is perhaps because of these reasons that in 1918, women over 30 were given the right to vote. Attitudes to women, were slowly, from then on, changing.

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All text copyright © 2006 to EJ Taylor. Page Template created by James Taylor. Site created: 10 April, 2006. Last revised: 2 August, 2015