World War I: Great Britain


Figure 1.--This painting appeared in a World War I children's book. It seems to illustrate the patriotic fevor that followed the declaration of war on Germany in August 1914. It is entiteled "Cheering the Chief Scout", of course meaning Baden Powell. The painting was done by W.H.Y. Ticomb.

Britain was the key country in the Great War. Germany was without doubt the most powerful continental power. Germany indutry combined with the professionalism of the Germany Army meant that it could defeat either France and Russia and even the two countries combined. But defeating an alliance including Britain proved to be too much for Germany. Had Germany prevailed in their initial offensive and defeated France, the War would have probably ended quickly. A protracted war of attrition, however, swung the advantage to the Allies because the powerful Royal Navy gave the Allies access to the resources of the Empire as well as neutrals like America. And it enabled the Allies the ability to blokade Germany, cutting it off from raw materials and food. The key conflict in World War I was the conflict between France and Germany which had historic roots but in modern terms began with Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany. Britain at times had sided with the German states when France was the dominant European power. Many historians believe that the British alliance with France (the Entant Cordial) was a foregone conclusion given the rise of Germany and the threat of German dominantion of the continent. This was of course intensified by Kaiser Wilhelm's decession to build a highseas fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy. British policy at the turn of the 20th century, however, seems curiously crafted to oppose German hegenomy. Certain the British were firmly committed to maintaining naval speriority which was demonstrated by the contruction of HMS Dreadnought and the even more powerfull battleships that followed. While the fleet could be used to protect the Empire, it could not be used to oppose the Germany Army. For this Britain needed a large conscript army. Probably for political and financial reasons this was not possible. As a result, when Germany invaded Belgium and France, the BEF which was rushed across the Channel was such a small force that the Germans almost reached Paris and won the War. After the War here were stories of World War I trench warfare and films about the conflict made by British motion picture companies as well as Hollywood. There was also a weekly magazine that built up into a World War I encyclopaedia. Britain had paid a terrible prie in blood and treasure for its victory. Gradually the public came to see the War as not only a terrible tragedy, but a mistake which never must be repeated again.

Pivotal Country

Britain was the key country in the Great War. Germany was without doubt the most powerful continental power. Germany indutry combined with the professionalism of the Germany Army meant that it could defeat either France and Russia and even the two countries combined. But defeating an alliance including Britain proved to be too much for Germany. Had Germany prevailed in their initial offensive and defeated France, the War would have probably ended quickly. A protracted war of attrition, however, swung the advantage to the Allies because the powerful Royal Navy gave the Allies access to the resources of the Empire as well as neutrals like America. And it enabled the Allies the ability to blokade Germany, cutting it off from raw materials and food. The key conflict in World War I was the conflict between France and Germany which had historic roots but in modern terms began with Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany. Britain at times had sided with the German states when France was the dominant European power. Many historians believe that the British alliance with France (the Entant Cordial) was a foregone conclusion given the rise of Germany and the threat of German dominantion of the continent. This was of course intensified by Kaiser Wilhelm's decession to build a highseas fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy. British policy at the turn of the 20th century, however, seems curiously crafted to oppose German hegenomy.

Naval War

Certain the British were firmly committed to maintaining naval speriority which was demonstrated by the contruction of HMS Dreadnought and the even more powerfull battleships that followed. Dreanought was an impressive ship, but it rendered all other battleships of the time obsolete. The Germans cotinued their naval building program. The British overemphasized the German program, higtening tension. The naval war, especially the blockade of Germany, was to prove a key element of the Allied victory, but this took several years to affect the German economy. While vast battles were fought on both the Eastern and Western Front, it was at sea as Winston Churchil explained that the War could be won or lost in a single day. The German surface fleet, the pride of the Kaiser, which had played such an important role in turning the British against the Germans played only a minor role in the War. There were a number of small engagements including German shelling of fishing villages. The only major engagement was Jutland (1916). The German fleet performed well, but unable to overcome the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. The small U-boat fleet, however, proved a major challenge to the British. In the long run, it was the U-boats by bringing America into the War resulted in Germany's defeat.

British Army

While the fleet could be used to protect the Empire, it could not be used to oppose the Germany Army. For this Britain needed a large conscript army. For political and financial reasons the British never did this. Rather they maintained a relatively small, but highly professional army. As a result, when Germany invaded Belgium and France, the BEF which was rushed across the Channel was such a small force that the Germans almost reached Paris and won the War (1914). The BEF slowed the Germans, but it was the French Army that stopped the Germans on the Marne. Britain had fought many wars on the Continent, but as alliance in which the British deployed relatively small forces to bolster allies. World War I would be the first time that that Britain would deploy a massive army on the continent. Britain continued to fight the War with a volunteer force until losses and German presure made it necessary to instutute conscription. After the disaster on the Somme (1916), the British Army had to be rebuilt. It would be that conscript army after the near collapse of the French Army (1917) that with the new American Army that would eventually crack the German Western Front (1918). The regular Army was bolstered by the Territorials.

British War Planning

The British did not devise a general war plan as was done by the major continental powers (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, and Russia). Unlike the continental powers, Britain did not want tgo commit a large conscript army to a European ground war. Britain's main interests was trade with her expansive empire. Long standing British doctrine, however, maintained opposing any hegemonic continental power, especially one threatehning the Lowlands (the Nethherlands, and Belgium). Germany was not only prepared to do just that, but was builfing a high seas fleet to challenge British control of the seas. The Asquith's Government after some indecession decided to support 'Brave Little Belgium' and France. The British planned to deploy the relatively small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) , a professional force, to the continent and then onwards by rail to Belgium. The British and Belgians would thus support the French left flank. Military commanders estimated that it would take three weeks (21 days to mobilise the BEF). German and French commanders plnned to mobilize much larger forces in only 15 days.

Outbreak of War (August 1-4, 1914)

ustria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but ther personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. Lord Grey for Britain attempted to mediate, but tgo no avail. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (August 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of bringing Britain and the Empire with its immenense military and material resources as well as the Royal Navy into the War.

The Western Front

World War I began and was settled on the Western Front. The Germans launched the War on the Western Frint by invading neutral Belgium (August 1914). The Germans gained many victories over Serbia, Romania abd Russia, but they never cracked the Western Front open. They came close to victory in the first 2 months of the war, almost reaching Paris. The resistance of the gallant Belgium Army and the small, but highly professional British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Field Marshal John French helped slow the Germnd down and dexhaust them. The Russian attack in the east forced the Germas to divert forces. As a result, the French army achieved the Miracle on the Marne (September 1914). The result was stalemate in the West and trenches snaked across northern France from Switzerland to the North Sea. French was replaced as commander of the BEF by Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1915), who remained in command for the rest of the War. Gradually the British expanded their Army. After the Somme disaster the British introduced conscription and built a new Army. British forces included Empire forces, especially the Canadians. German commander Erich von Falkenhayn attemted to break the stalemate on the Western Front by destroying the French Army at Verdun (1916), but in the process weakened their own army. French General Robert Nivelle famously declared, "Ils ne passeront pas !" After Verdun, the French Army was if not crippled, severely damaged. It was no longer capable of major offensive operations. It held, but no longer had the offensive capability it once had. The British took on an increasing burden of the War. The German resumption of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare brought America into the War (April 1917). But America did not have a large standing army. It took a year to transport the Americans to France and equip and train them. But by he time the Germans after defeating the Russians moved forces west and launched what they planned as a war-winning spring offensice. Gen. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force was waiting for them and every month thousands more Americans arrived in France. The combination of British tanks and American infantry finally knocked the Western Front wide open.

The Middle East

World War I began as a Europen war. The Germans courted the Ottoman before the War. A major objective was to build the Berlin to Bagdaf Raikway, An important onjective was Middle eastern oil. The Ottomann Empire joind with the Central Powers after the say the German gain early victories (October 1914). Their assessment that the Germans would help them regain territory lost to the Russians and Egypt which had was nominally still part of the Empire. Th Germans could assiat with equipmnt, but was unable to provide any significant manpower other than advisers. The Ottomans made little headway agaeinst the Russians in the Caucases and suffered heavy casualties. It was the survivors staggling back from Russian Armenia that began the Armenian Genocide. They also attacked the British from Palestine, but failed to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal. Suez was the lifeline to India and the British built up a sizeanle forece to first defend Suez and thaen take theoffensive against the OttonaThe British did not immediately counterattack the Ottoman forces in Palestine, but instead launched the Gallipoli campaign conceived by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill failed (1915). It was a brillint conceptt, but poorly eecuted. After Gallipoli, the British began a two-rong attack on the Ottoman Arab Lands, both Mesopotania and Palestine. They supported the Arab Revolt in the Hejaz. The first Bitish attack in Mesopotamia failed (1916). The next effort destroed the Ottoman armies in both Mosoptamia and the Levant (1917-18).

The Empire

The French success in stopping the Germans on the Marne was far more than a tacical victory (September 1914). It meant meant that the British and French would have time to marshall the ememse resources of their empires. This was especially true of the British. As a result, Canada and the other Domininions would play an important role in the War. And unlike the other Dominions, Canada was relatively close to Britain. Canadian would quickly join te British on the Western Front. As far as we can tell, this had not entered into the German calculation, to the extent they made a real calcultion beyond the immediate military campaign spelled out in the Schliffen Plan. The Germans were focused on a short, sharp victory as they achived in the Franco-Prussian War, and the y lmost suceeded. No real calculation was made to the consequences if they failed. While the Dominions had relatively small populations indvidually, when added together, the population was not inconsequential, they they commanded resources that gave the British economic power that the Germas could not match. And those resources were emense. While industrial development was still not substantial, although it had begin in Canada, manpower, financial, and agricultureal resources were substantial. And agriculture would prove a critical weakness in the German war effort. The Germans, confident of a quick victory, simply ignored the Empire--a mistake another generation would make again.

British War Propagnda

British propaganda proved more effective than German propaganda. The German war propaganda lacked subtlety and was seen as strident by most Americans. The British, however, had important advatages. British propaganda was to play an important part in the Allied victory. The British had no propagbda office when the War began, but quickly created one. The War Propaganda Bureau was placed in the hands of Charles Masterman (September 1914). The British had two concens with one broke out. First, The British from the onset needed to influence domestic public opinion. This was more important in Britain than any other because Britain entered the War with only a small all-volunteer army. Thus Britons until 1916 had to be persuaded to volunteer. And the British public as the War progressed will apauling casualties had to be persuaded to continue the War. Second, the British needed to influence world opinion and here it was the United States that most concerned the British. This became increasingly important as the War progressed and neither the Allies or the Central Powers could break the deadlock on the Western Front. By 1917 with the virtual collaose of the French Army and the disolution of the Russian Army that Allied success would depend on America. Here the Germans had given the British a substantial advantage. However the Germans tried to explin it, the fact remained that the War began wjen they invaded Belgium--a neutral nation. And the brutal German occupation regime in Belgium gave the British material for their progand mill. Certainly the British blew iy up out of all proportions, but the Germans provided plenty of material for the British to work with. Had not America rushed food shipments to Belgium, there would have been mass starvation. The British had another important advantage, they controlled the Trans-Atlantic cabels, which meant they controlled the War news America received. Thus from a very early stage in the War, American sympathies were with the Allies. The German introduction of sunmarine warfare and poison gas only confirmed American attitudes toward the Germans and British propaganda made full use of both in their propaganda.

Finance

Too often finabce and economics are poorly covered in war histories. With men dying in huge numbers on the battlefield, finance seem a distasteful subjet, but it is in fact highly impotant. They are often not important in short wars. Long wars like World War I are very different matters. And in finnce, Britain had a huge advantage over Germans, but an advatage that only came into play when the French held at the Marne (September 1914), meaing that it would not be a short war. Britain in 1914 was what be described as a global enterprise. Germany had a massive industrial base and the world's strongest army. Brutain on the other hand had a small armyb but a large navy. Its industrial base ws potent, but had fallen behind the Germans. But Britain had unrvaled diplomatic and financial resources. This made Britian politically the most powerful country in the world. And Britain ws the unquestioned world finacial center. The British pound stirling was the major global reserve curency. It was backed by the enormous gold reserves held by the Bank of England. The pond stirling was valued all over the world. At the onset of theWar, the combatant countries suspended the conversion of their currencies into gold. The various governments believed with some valiity that they need to hoard their gold and pay for the War by printing money, in part bcause it became difficult to borrow money in international markes. This is why the various countries launched national bind sales. Only the British declined to follow this path. They maintained coinvertability to gold. As a result the British managed to maintain their credit standing. And thus theBritish coulkd birrow money to finance the ar effort. Economist John Maynard Keynes recommened this policy. And the princiapal source of capital o which Britain turned as America. There the House of Mogan played a najor role. Jack Morgan, son of the legendary J.P. Morgan, organized massive loans from New York banks to support th British war effort. urprisingly there were at first net gold outflows from America to ritain. Briish investors sold stocks, bond, and land in America to obtain gold in times of financial uncertainty. The gold was shipped to London and added to the gold stock piles of the Bank of England. The Houe of Morgan helped to ensure that the whole process wa orderly. There were only so many British assets in merica. Soon thegold flow reversed. This occurred only a few months after theWAr began (November 1914). The British needed all kinds of supplies thatAmerica could provide, including food, wool, cotton, oil, munitiins, and much more. And to purchase these materials, the British had to pay in gold or pound stirling that was convertibe into gold. Thegold thus flowed back from London into theFederal Reseve Bank of New Yorkand its associated private member banks. It was at this point that the U.S. dollar emerged as a reserve currency that began to rival the pound sterling. The United States and earlier emerged as thegreatest infustrail power n earg, surpassing both Britain and Germany. It was, however, only at this point that the dollar began to rival the British pound stirling in international money markets. The pondwould be severely weakened by thewar, but it strength throughout War would be a significant assett to the war effort.

The Air War

The air war was primarily fought over the trenches of the western Front. The major combtants were Britain, France, and Germany. It began as atruggle for reconisance, but eventually develoed into tactical operations. The Germans expanded this into a strategic bombing campaign using first Zephlins and thn the Githa bomber. The actual damage was slight, but it captured a huge amount of attention and public concern. The result would play out o have more impct on Workd War II than World war I.

Home Front

Britain was an industrial nation that relied on the sea lanes to import food for its large urban population. The success of the U-boat as a commerce raider forced the British to introduce a rationing system. Food becane increasingly scarce, especially meat. People laregly relied on potatos. The Germans were convinced that Briton's need to import food made it vulnerable to a naval blockade by Germany's U-boats. Even without unrestricted sunmarine warfare. the Germans U-boats took a substantial toll on British shipping. The World War I U-boat, however, was not a true submarine, but a surface bot that could submerge. Restrictions on its operations substantially reduced its effectiveness. Thus the Germans decided to reintroduce unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917), even though it meant that America would probably come into the War on the Allied side. This proved to be dreadful miscalculation. The Ministry of Food finally introduced rationing. The rationing system and, after the U-boat threat was largely defeated, food from America meant that Britons did not go hungary. Briton also benefited from a bountiful 1917 wheat harbest. At the end of the War, food consumption in Brition was close to pre-War levels.

Conscription

England in contradt to the other major European powers maintained only a small fully volunteer, professional army. It was well-trained and disciplined, but very small. Britain relied principally on the powerful Royal Navy for military defense. One aspect we notice is that at the turn of the 20th century such as in the Bohr War (1899-1902), the Briish were still accepting quite young boys in the army to serve as musicians. This no longer appears to be the case by World War I. We know the Royal Navy still had younger teenagers, but this does not seem to have been the case for the army. No British Government had ever dared conscript men for military service--even during the Napoleonic War crisis. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith resisted army requests. The British Expeditionary Force was, however, being chewed up in the killing fields of the Western Front and the force by the end of 1915 could no longer be maintained by volunteers. Asquith finally saw no alternative. He finally introduce a conscription measure. Parliament passed the first Military Service Act (January 1916). This was the first conscription laws ever passed in Britain. At first only single men and childless widowers aged 18 to 41 were called up. The Act applied to men 18-41 years of age. The second Military Service Act made all men regardless of marital service eligible for military service (May 1916).

Medical Care

World War I brought many innovations in warfare, making the battlefield much more deadly. One important innovation which helped to save many lives was a much greater attention to the medical care of soldiers. Ambulance services were organized to get wounded soldiers to medical units. Many Americans served in the ambulance corps with Allied units before America entered the War. Women served in large numbers as nurses. Nursuing sisters played a major role. The Red Cross also played a major role. Countless lives were saved because of the measures taken. Because of the number of casualties, large numbers of hospitals and extended care facilities had to be opened to care for wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. Shell-shock is a term which first came into use during World war. Such soldiers before World war I were generally not treated medically. In addition to military doctors and orderlies, we note not nurses at these faciliites along with Boy Scouts helping out.

Losses


Post-War Public Opinion

The losses of men killed and mutilated were terrible, affecting virtually every British family. Authors after the War published horendous stories of trench war fare and films about the conflict made by British motion picture companies as well as Hollywood. There was also a weekly magazine that built up into a World War 1 encyclopaedia. Britain had paid a terrible prie in blood and treasure for its victory. Gradually the public came to see the War as not only a terrible tragedy, but a horific mistake which never must be repeated again. The consequences of not oposing the Germans became lost on the terrible cost paid to oppose their invadion of Belgium and France.

Economic Consequences

World War I was not, as widely expected in Britain, over by Christmas 1914. Some like Lord Grey, British Foreign Secretary, had a more realistic idea as to what was happening. He told a friend, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." He proved to be more perceptive than he had imagined. World War I proved to be up to the time the most destructive war in human history. It could be have been no different if the allies were to prevail. Germany had the most powerful army in Europe and was well armed because of Germany's a formidavle industrial base well armed and trained. The allies were not going to defeat that army in the field. The only was to defeat the Germans was for the Allies to take advantage a of their superior resources, meaning a protracted, costly war of attrition. Thus the British created a war economy and eventually instituted conscription for the first time. The primary problem faced by Prime Minister Lloyd George after the Armistice was how to transition the British war economy to peace time and how to make sure the demobilized servicemen found jobs. And that process was imeded by the post-War Depression (1920-21). Factories operating on military contracts had to retool and f find new buyers. This meant temporary reductions in employment. Other factors may have been involved including labor unions, monetary policy, deflationary expectations, and other problems. This was part of a wider world-wide Depression which also affected the United States. American war loans had helped to finance the Brirish war effort, some $4 billion from the U.S. Treaury (1917-18)--an enormous sum at the time. After the War, these loans stopped. Demobilization and the post-War Depression were just the most immediate problem. The War proved to be prolonged, deadly, and hugely expensive. Britain fielded its first conscript army. The British suffered 2.1 million casualties, including 0.7 million men killed. This was a massive loss in human terms, but it also involved substantial economic losses, both the loss of men in the prime of life and the cost of medical care and the support of those no longer to care for theselves and their families. One assessment is the destruction of 4 percent of Britain's human capital. Some countries had ligher losses, but it was still a major impact. And that was only the beginning of the economic costs. To finance the War, Britain had to liquidate an estimated 10 percent of its domestic and 25 percent its overseas assets. During the more than 4 years of the war, Britain spent someyhing like 25 of its GDP annully on the war effort. [Broadberry and Harrison]. The economic losses impaired Britain's ability to deal with needs of its veterans and citizens. One ongoing problem was markets lost during the War as foreign consumers rurned to american prducts. The Japanese also benefitted. This was not a problem solved by the end of the War.

Sources

Broadberry, S and M. Harrison. M. “The Economics of World War I: an Overview”, in S. Broadberry and M. Harrison (eds.), pp. 3-40 in The Economics of World War I. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).








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Created: 5:29 AM 3/18/2006
Last updated: 10:51 AM 1/25/2017