German postcard depicting the British empire as a hungry spider with the Union Jack.

1914: Then Came Armageddon

Great Britain and WWI

“We strove with all our might, as everyone now knows, to prevent its [World War I] outbreak, and when that was no longer possible, to limit its area.”

House of Commons, 27 August 1914

Engaging the Empire: Origins of WWI

British propaganda poster of the King framed and surrounded by the flag and military medals

At the end of the 19th century, Great Britain existed in “splendid isolationism,” as most of its attention was dedicated to internal imperial affairs. While still involved in European affairs, Great Britain did not join in the alliances created in the 1890s between Germany and Austria-Hungary, nor did France or Russia. At the turn of the century, the British competed with the French in North Africa as they sought to expand their Empire, and also worked alongside the Turkish to ensure Russian naval expansion did not occur in the Mediterranean. During this time, Britain and Germany maintained a positive trade relationship as the British did not yet feel threatened by the Germans. However, as Kaiser Wilhelm II took control of Germany, it became clear that he aimed to make Germany a great power in Europe and began building up his military to combat hostile France and Russia on either side of his borders. This effectively created a security dilemma in Europe as states responded by bolstering their militaries. Now feeling threatened by the Germans, Great Britain settled its differences with France and Russia and joined their alliance.

While Great Britain joined Russia and France in the Triple Entente, it would not automatically join any conflict as it viewed Austria-Hungary’s concerns as a chiefly Balkan affair. As late as 31 July 1914, British popular opinion, the British cabinet, and Parliament were divided on the prospect of entering the war, though ultimately entered due to fears that a German victory in the western theater would mean an end to the balance of power in Europe. Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality also made the decision easier. On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

Attempting to Avoid War

In the weeks leading to the outbreak of war, Europe was a powder keg awaiting a spark, with mass mobilization across the continent. When interacting, foreign governments exercised extreme caution to avoid treading on others but refused to appease demands. Within communications between British officials and foreign governments, Sir Edward Grey wrote:

“His Majesty’s Government, on their side, are most anxious to avoid any incident of an aggressive nature, and the German Government will, I hope, be equally careful not to take any step which would make the situation… impossible.”

While the rest of Europe prepared for war, there was hope that the British government and London could act as the mediator in neutralizing the threat of war. However, Ambassador to the Russian Empire George Buchanan stated that discussions between Austro-Hungarians and the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs were reported to have made “no progress whatever.” He reports:

“The real question which they had to solve at this moment was whether Austria was to crush Servia [sic] and to reduce her to the status of a vassal, or whether she was to leave Servia a free and independent state… The only place where a successful discussion of this question could be expected was London… I see no possibility of a general war being avoided unless the agreement of France and Germany can be abstained to keep their armies mobilized on their own sides of the frontier, as Russia has expressed her readiness.”

British propaganda poster of the King next to a map of the United Kingdom

Early War

Though British hesitation was already established in answering the “Servian question” as they viewed it only as a Balkan problem, once Germany declared war on Russia and France, Great Britain ultimately declared war on the Germans. On 27 August 1914, after the British arrived in France to fight on the Western Front, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith addressed the House of Commons:

“The War which is now shaking to its foundations the whole European system originated in a quarrel in which this country had no direct concern. We strove with all our might, as everyone now knows, to prevent its outbreak, and when that was no longer possible, so limit its area… History tells us that the duty of asserting and maintaining that great principle… has fallen once and again, at the most critical moments in the past, to States relatively small in area and in population, but great in courage, and in resolve… We assure [the Belgians] – as I ask the House in this Address to do – we assure them today, in the name of this United Kingdom and of the whole Empire, that they may count to the end of our whole-hearted and unfailing support.”

The support for the war was not just within the House of Commons and Parliament, but local British government as well, as the Lord Mayor of London wrote to the Lords of Edinburgh, Dublin, and Cardiff, urging their support.

“The time has come for combined effort to stimulate and organize public opinion and public effort in the greatest conflict in which our people has [sic] ever been engaged…No one who can contribute anything to the accomplishment of this supremely urgent task is justified in standing aside.”

Mobilization of Forces

Great Britain joined the war with a small professional army, previously used to control their Empire. While small compared to other European powers, the British army was expertly trained and funded, making them among the most powerful in the world. Secretary of State for War Lord Herbert Kitchener realized in August of 1914 that the war effort would not be as swift as expected and began calling for volunteers to create a mass army. Volunteers were persuaded by propaganda posters encouraging enlistment and joined for the duration of the war effort, with many underage and overage men enlisting despite regulations.

Men often joined “Pals” battalions, which were made up on a geographic basis, allowing the men to have a fraternal tie to the battalion, strengthened through the camaraderie of war. While effective in creating ties to the army, these proved dangerous as mass casualties on one battalion would have devastating effects on their home communities. Pals battalions would begin their fighting in late 1915/early 1916, as professional soldiers led the brunt of the fighting before then.

British propaganda poster of a lion roaring on a hill

Beginning Battles, 1914-1916

The British and German Forces met for the first time in the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914. The Battle of Mons, a major battle in the Battle of Frontiers, featured the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) composed of four infantry divisions and one cavalry. The British advanced through northern France to the Sambre River where they would meet a German-launched attack. While the British were initially able to hold off the Germans due to their superior rifles and professional army, they were still immensely outnumbered, causing them to retreat. This British retreat reinforced Lord Kitchener’s belief that a larger army would be necessary within the war, thus galvanizing a recruitment effort throughout the Empire.

The next significant British display of force was the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Here, the British launched an attack aimed to capture the Aubers Ridge high ground, creating a threat to the German army in the town of Lille. The British successfully broke through the German front and captured Neuve Chapelle, but German counter-attacks prevented further advancement. Though entirely successful, the British utilized this same method in the Battle of Hill 60 in April of 1915, first using field mines to weaken German positions. In this battle, the British exploded strategically-placed mines beneath German positions on Hill 60, southeast of Ypres, Belgium. This created fierce fighting, with the British eventually capturing the hill.

The first turning point of the first half of the war was the Franco-British Offensive in the Battle of the Somme, from 1 July through 18 November 1916. After extensive, months-long, cooperative planning, the Battle of the Somme began with seven days of heavy artillery bombardment on German forces, an unprecedented force. This bombardment aimed to wear down German morale, destroy trenches, and limit German supply routes throughout No Man’s Land. Following the bombardment, mine attacks were carried out along the German front before the infantry invasion. On 1 July, troops were called to move across No Man’s Land and engage with German forces, creating the single bloodiest day in the entire war. On the most devastating day of British military history, the British army suffered 57,470 casualties. This fighting would continue until mid-November.

British soldiers on horseback

In the entirety of the war, the British suffered a total of 886,000 fatalities. The heaviest loss of life occurred on 1 July 1916, during the Battle of Somme. The British Army experienced their bloodiest day in history, reporting 57,470 casualties and 19,860 fatalities. They gained three square miles of territory.

British Rule in Wartime

As Great Britain sought to rally the people around the war effort, they aimed to create a persona for King George V to make him equally relatable and patriotic. In the text “His Majesty the King-Emperor’s Activities in War-Time,” photographers followed the King on military and morale trips. The author writes, “it is the absolute truth to say that, in the present time, there is not a man in the whole of the British Empire who works harder than the King-Emperor in the Empire’s cause.” Below are depictions of the King while traveling throughout the war.

The King-Emperor’s Activities in Wartime