The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Britain in the World War I

Category: 20th century

The continent of Europe presented no peaceful scene. German gestures continued, war flickered in the Balkans and, on 28 June 1914, a Serbian national­ist shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at Sarajevo, capital of the recently annexed Austrian province of Bosnia. Aus­tria, determined to smash Serbian expansionist nation­alism, presented, with Germany’s support, an unac­ceptable ultimatum, to which Belgrade made a conciliatory reply. This went unheeded in Vienna, de­spite Germany’s last-minute attempt to apply the brake. On 28 July Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized on Serbia’s behalf, on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia and, on 3 August, on Russia’s ally France.

Germany’s threat to France and German invasion of neutral Belgium prompted Britain to declare war on 4 August. When the World War I began, the German advance through Belgium was carried according to the plan that had been worked out by their General Staff. The main German army, after passing through Bel­gium, was to sweep round in a vast semi-circle, mov­ing to the west and south of Paris and eventually com­ing into the rear of the French armies.

Moltke, the German Commander-in-Chief, at­tempted a sudden change of the plan, abandoned the sweep round Paris for an attempt to surround the French centre, and pushed up into a salient at Verdun. To do this the direction of the advance had to be changed over a wide front, which gave the opportuni­ty for the successful counter-attack known as the bat­tle of the Marne. A British expeditionary force helped to stem the German advance there. The battle was the turning point of the whole war in the West. It made a quick German victory impossible and gave time for the great but slowly mobilized material resources of the British Empire to have their effect. After the Marne, fighting on the Western Front soon became mired in a bloody stalemate amid muddy trenches, barbed wire, and machine-gun emplacements.

For three years both sides made repeated and cost­ly, but quite unsuccessful, efforts to break through the trench barrier by frontal attacks. New weapons, such as tanks and poison gas were used, but not on a large enough scale to be really effective. Such attempts were the battle of Loos and Arras and in Champagne in 1915, of Verdun and the Somme in 1916 and of Ypres in 1917. Battles to push the Germans back failed repeatedly at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Efforts to outflank the Central Powers (Germany, Australia and Turkey) in the Balkans failed also.

The Bolshevik government that gained power in Russia after the Great October Socialist Revolution is­sued an appeal to all the states at war for the conclusion of peace without annexations or indemnities. The appeal was coldly ignored. The Bolsheviks then signed an armistice and began negotiations for a separate peace with Germany, which was finally signed at Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd, 1918.

Although many people in Britain welcomed the end of the tzarist rule in Russia in 1917, they saw the Bolsheviks decision to make a separate peace with Germany as a sellout. Only the USA entry into the war made possible General Douglas Haig’s successful tank offensive in the summer of 1918 and the German surrender in November after revolution had broken out in Germany. On November 6th German delegates asked for an armistice.

The Peace Conference to settle down the prob­lems of post-war Europe was held in Paris in 1919. Severe terms were imposed on Germany of which, perhaps, the war-guilt clause, the occupation and de­militarization of the Rhineland, and the creation of the Polish Corridor were most resented. The Eastern Bal­tic coastline saw a crop of new republics, and the Treaty of Saint Germain achieved the disintegration of the Austrian Empire, putting unfamiliar names such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia on the map. The re­sulting treaties enlarged the British Empire as former German colonies in Africa and Turkish holdings in the Middle East became British mandates. At the same time Britain’s self-governing dominions — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa became sep­arate treaty signatories and separate members of the new League of Nations founded on the initiative of the American President Wilson.

During the war the British did a lot for victory. There were almost no strikes in the first months of the war though prices rose rapidly, while wages lagged far behind. The strikes were declared illegal. The whole economy of the country was made over for war. Gov­ernment control was established over shipping and railways and over the raw materials most important for war purposes, such as cotton, iron and steel.

The war gave industry an artificial prosperity which prepared the way for the great depression that followed.

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