Britain and World War I

November 21, 2016
8 mins read

As the Twentieth Century began, the European world began to prepare for a major war, which was commonly expected. Literature from the period fictionalized German invasions of England, and other theoretical combative scenarios, though Germany was not always the “bad guy” (James, p. 334). In any event, British society took on a military bearing, as groups such as the Boy Scouts drilled military customs and thought processes into young men’s minds. Governmental officials, especially those in military service, used the social situation to expand expenditures for military concerns. While they did fear that a real conflagration could ensue, they took advantage of public fears, as well. What stoked these fears was not the impressive German army, but their growing navy. While it is debatable that the German Navy could have ever achieved their goals (and British fears), the mere threat was sufficient to motive a major change in British policy and cultural attitude (Cf. Lambert’s Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution). “The first decade of the [20th] century saw immense alteration. Friendships cooled, enemies became friends, and newcomers entered the opposing camps. Of this there were many causes, but most of them may be traced ultimately to the prodigious growth of the German Empire, which is the most striking phenomenon of Europe in [their time]” (Turner, p. 19).
The consequence of this situation was a continued buildup and overhaul of British military equipment, policy, and strategy. The threat of a viable German Navy frightened British interests regarding overseas possessions and commerce (James, p. 336). While James argues that Fisher’s greatest achievement was pushing through the development of a new class of battleship, the Dreadnought, Lambert argues that Fisher’s revolution was really more one of strategy, by focusing upon the use of submarines and torpedoes, rather than conventional naval warfare. Both of these activities increased production of shipbuilding and impacted the economy.
Connected with the evolving military policies was a changing foreign policy (James, p. 337-38). Enemies for centuries, France and England came to terms and became allies. They supported one another, consistently, for the first time. Besides France, overtures were made to Russia and Japan, further strengthening British diplomatic ties, though British politicians never really trusted Russia. All of this allowed Britain to focus on Germany, which was quickly being recognized as the most likely opponent in a future, and increasingly imminent, war (James, p. 339). The diplomatic ties to France, and other nations, led to British intentions to support them in the event of a German invasion. These plans were kept secret, though. “The relations of England and Germany attracted little attention until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the wonderful progress of Germany, the industrial competition which resulted, and the immense power which she was gaining, caused increasing disquietude among British leaders” (Turner, p. 21). “In the Edwardian period, it was civil society which required regeneration, and it was through, and indeed for the army that the process of renewal was to take place. Before, the army had been domesticated; now, society was to be militarized” (Summer, p. 112).
Public opinion was fragile, and it was feared that a government that proclaimed that peace was of paramount importance would be shunned, if it was learned that they were openly planning for war (James, p. 339). The fear of invasion would prompt the populace to support military expenditures and strategy, but events in other places did not elicit the same response. The danger of a German naval invasion in particular aroused great public consternation. To keep these secret plans from becoming public knowledge, much military spending was financed by dominion governments (James, p. 340). This cooperation was vital for British strategy (James, p. 341).  They could finance the ships and other military expenses, reaping the benefit of British support and protection.
Of course, this increase in military expenditure only exacerbated the growing contention between Germany and Britain (James, p. 343). For several years, the two nations warily circled one another, hoping that the other could be dissuaded from fighting the other, if a war did break out. The fear was that if one or the other of these two major powers stayed aloof, the war could be limited. If both were involved in fighting, it would spread and become a major war. When the Balkan Crisis occurred in late June 1914, it aroused little worry in England. Even as war approached and became irresistible, the common folks in England seemed nonplussed (James, p. 346). However, there was a British militaristic streak. “For an island with no system of conscription, and in which no major military engagement had taken place for centuries, [to] furnish 1.5 million volunteers for a war overseas, that island must have developed, over a long period, a very wide and pervasive  range of military or militaristic modes of thinking; and these must have been different from the more conventional and obvious forms of militarism- conscription, garrison towns, duelling manias and the like-which  existed in other European societies at this time” (Summers, p. 105).
Britain did try to stay removed from the conflict, hoping to keep it contained in the Balkans or to the east. When Belgium was invaded by Germany, England was forced to intervene and adhere to treaties with Belgium, France, and Russia (James, p. 347). This German infraction on Belgium also gave British authorities a cause upon which to build public support. A Germany that possessed Belgium and northern France would be a Germany that could more readily attack and harass Britain (James, p. 347). By August 1914, the British public and the dominions were all supportive of British intervention into the war (James, p. 349).
ww1British strategy in the decade prior to the Great War was focused upon maintaining naval superiority, especially over the improving German Navy, and continuing to have an effective, safe, and reliable connection with all the parts of the Empire. The war itself had many unintended consequences, heralding the beginning of the end of Empire, as it had existed for centuries (James, p. 353). As the war began, Britain was the most formidable world power involved, mainly due to territorial resources and manpower.
Racial distinctions in the Empire were highlighted by the way the Empire conducted the war. White men were the bulk of frontline troops, while non-whites tended to be used as porters and other less critical positions. They were viewed as unreliable and not capable of serving effectively and reliably in combat situations (James, p. 354). Of course, this was in line with how the Empire had conducted business since the beginning of the Empire. Not only was race an issue, but so was nationality, as white Australians were often viewed with disdain by English officers, while Indians were relied upon heavily (James, p. 354).
“With the single known exception of Lord  Kitchener,  they  proclaimed in Great  Britain, in France and in Germany that a great European war must of necessity be short” (Maurice, p. 21).  While Britain (and Germany) had hoped for a quick end to the war, with the British navy providing a blockade to starve Germany, that never happened. The war drug on for four long years. Massive offensives were launched in 1915, requiring a continued influx of new soldiers to replace those killed or wounded in the combat (James, p. 356). Whereas original plans had called for lightning strikes to quickly end the war, relying on a volunteer military, it soon became apparent that volunteers would not be able to fill the required ranks. Britain instituted conscription in 1916 (James, p. 356). Maurice states that it was the increase in ability to transport large numbers of troops and equipment that led to the increase in the size of the armies, which resulted in such a horrible war (p. 25).
Early strategy had focused on blockades, but as the war progressed, strategies had to evolve to take into account what was happening on the battlefront. Debates on the strategies were prevalent, and equivocation of the leadership led to some tragic events, such as Gallipoli and Kut (James, p. 359). Others argued that this eastern foci detracted from the events that really mattered, in France. The threat of an Islamic uprising was overrated, but did elicit some serious attention, and resulted in one of the great British war heroes, Lawrence of Arabia (James, p. 361). These heroes were developed by the press, who for the first time, were intimately involved in directly reporting the wartime events. Some have argued “that World War One was a conflict  dominated by inhuman technologies of perception and observation” (Farish, p. 277).
Eventually, the war became one of attrition, both on land and sea. This was a far cry from what had been expected in pre-war days. Without the dominions, Britain would have never been successful. The Navy might survive, but the army never would. During this time, Russia fell apart and France began to weaken. While the United States entered the war in 1917 on Britain’s side, she arrived too late to be of much help, and it would be at least another year before she would be of any benefit (James, p. 363). Because of this, Britain shifted its war aims to one where Britain, regardless of the outcome of the war, would be in a position to demand and get whatever was needed to maintain the Empire. This was a precarious situation, as German armies were shifted from the east to the west (James, p. 366). “Through scale and complexity had forced military planners to depend increasingly on aerial photographs and maps to order the spaces of battle, these technologies of representation created additional problems that were, in turn, magnified by the lingering strategic dependence on traditional combat geometries such as ‘the line’ –  cartographic  inscriptions that  had collapsed, for the average soldier, by the second year of the War. This ‘cloud of unknowing’ caused innumerable deaths” (Farish, p. 278).
German offensives were successful, but bogged down and were driven back. Suddenly in late 1918, public order in Germany broke down and Britain emerged victorious. From one perspective, Britain had simply outlasted Germany, probably because the common man in England had not suffered shortage and experienced warfare in the same way that those on the continent had. Pre-war goals had hoped that the Empire would come together when facing a common enemy, and they did. However, the dominions did not rally to the British cause for patriotic reasons, as much as for the defense of their own nations. By the end of the war, they expected to be treated as equals, for Britain would never have been successful without them (James, p. 370).
British strategy at the outset had expected a short war, where naval supremacy would be vital. Instead, the war dragged on for years. Naval power was vital, but in different ways that originally planned. Blockades were an important part of the strategy, but it was the transfer of troops, equipment, and resources that really demonstrated the Navy’s value. Of course, it was a German naval decisions for unrestricted submarine warfare and sinking of merchant ships that led to US involvement, which did help bring the war to an end. Society in England scarcely seemed to notice that war was imminent in the years and months before hostilities began, and they were not directly hit by war the way Germany, France, and other European nations were. In that sense, things did continue on through the war as they had before it began. The loss of nearly one million young men, and the wounding of twice again that number, did have a huge impact on British society, which is something that had not been considered during the “serve your King and Empire by being a real man in combat” era that directly preceded the war. The world after the war, even in Britain, was terribly different. “Cultural history, in one sense, is the study of narratives of meaning; any cultural history of the 1914-18  war must evaluate and locate in context the various narratives, including ‘shell-shock’, relating to psychological injury and traumatic remembrance during and after the conflict” (Winter, p. 7).
Works Cited:
Farish, Matthew. “Modern Witnesses: Foreign Correspondents, Geopolitical Vision, and the First World War.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2001)pp. 273-287.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994.
Maurice, Frederick. “Military Lessons of the Great War.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Oct., 1928), pp. 20-29.
Summers, Anne. “Militarism in Britain before the Great War.” History Workshop, No. 2 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 104-123.
Turner, Edward Raymond. “The Causes of the Great War.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Feb., 1915), pp. 16-35.
Winter, Jay. “Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 35, No. 1, Special Issue: Shell-Shock (Jan.,2000), pp. 7-11.

Lead Scheduler at MOTW. Husband, Father, but most importantly, a man of God. Possesses more degrees that most people find useful.

1 Comment

  1. May I also recommend “The Twelve Days” by George Malcolm Thompson (1964) about the immediate run up to the Great War. The book has been reprinted several times since 1964. When I was a history adjunct at the local community college (I switched to Criminal Justice) , I used to really enjoy giving my lecture about the origins of WW1 but I read this book recently and I was able to learn so much more.

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