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The First World War

First World War Memorial at the Royal Exchange, London

The origins of the First World War are famously obscure, a problem familiar to many school children who are asked to work it out. This is a tall order when famous historians struggle. The debate continues, but the work of Sidney B. Fay who wrote The Origins Of The First World War in 1928 has been influential. Fay thought the underlying causes of the war were a secret alliance system between nations, which resulted in a limited war having the potential to drag many others to the conflict; a culture of militarism, and nationalism, and a newspaper press which blew up every little disagreement and problem into a more newsworthy crisis.

Nationalism is a good place to start. Affinities centred on countries had become stronger through the nineteenth century. We now accept such nationalism as a natural scheme of things, but it has not always been so. Before the Industrial Revolution people identified much more with their local area, their class in society, or their religion. With the increasing power of communications it was possible for people over larger areas to feel a form of togetherness. Far more people were voting, and feeling part of a national scene. Politicians picked up on these trends and appealed to nationalistic feelings to overcome the possibility of internal divisions. It naturally followed that countries with a strong sense of their own identity and importance would want big armed forces. Social Darwinists then twisted the work of one of the nineteenth century's greatest scientists by claiming that "the survival of the fittest" should be applied to nations. Ironically there was no sense of the interconnectedness of life that is fundamental to Darwin's work. Intelligent writers such as Thomas Hardy picked up on this aspect of Darwin's work. Politicians for the most part did not.


Ironically in spite of the rampant nationalism of European countries, the reality of their situation was one of an interconnected mass of alliances. Britain had wanted to align itself with its natural ally Germany, who had provided the country with a royal family since George I in the eighteenth century. But Kaiser Wilhelm, Queen Victoria's grandson was a highly unstable ruler, and faced with his unpredictable outbursts British policy drifted towards an alliance with France. Meanwhile in the Balkans a mass of ethnic division simmered in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Various Balkan peoples wanted to reach out beyond borders to their ethnic "kin". Russia wished to take advantage of resultant instability, and perhaps extend its influence to the Mediterranean. To do this the Russians allied themselves with the Balkan state of Serbia. Meanwhile Austria also wanted to take over some Balkan territory, and had their eye on annexing Bosnia Herzegovina, which they had occupied militarily in 1878, but which still considered itself separate. This was the reality of nationalism. The countries that appeared so proudly separate were also linked in a web of interdependence, and certainly in the Balkans where divisions were particularly bitter it was hard to tell where one country ended and another began. And on top of all this was a feverish atmosphere stoked by newspapers. Bernhard Von Bulow, German chancellor until 1909 commented that "most of the conflicts which the world has seen during the last ten years, have not been called forth by princely ambition or ministerial conspiracy, but through the passionate excitement of public opinion, which through the press and parliament has swept along the executive." (Quoted in The Origins of the First World War by William Mulligan p173) Bulow's words might have been an exaggeration, but they also expressed a fundamental truth about the power of the new media.

On June 28th 1914 the heir to Austria's throne, Francis Ferdinand was killed by Serbian separatists while on a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Austria, having lost its heir, now wished to bolster its shaky international reputation, and Conrad von Hotzendorf, chief of the Austrian General Staff, decided that a good war was required. This war would have to be limited in nature, and Serbia seemed to fit the bill, with the assassination of Francis Ferdinand giving a good cover for starting hostilities. A deputation was sent to Serbia determined to find Serbian government collusion in the assassination of Ferdinand. Even though Serbia had sent its ambassador to warn of the Sarajevo attack, the necessary "evidence" was still found. Germany wanting an ally was backing Austria. Russia waded in and supported Serbia against Germany and Austria. Serbia did not want war and gave in to nearly all of Austria's conditions for avoiding hostilities, but the Austrians wanting their war took no notice. The Kaiser pleaded for restraint. The British suggested talks. The Tsar in Russia couldn't make up his mind what to do, but in response to international tensions military mobilisation had already begun, and could not now be stopped without throwing a huge, carefully planned operation into chaos. Germany also had one carefully built war plan, and when faced with potential hostilities, this is the plan that came automatically into operation. Europe began to slide into war. Out of a mass of interdependence, and advanced planning, which took on a momentum of its own, the First World War began, Germany and Austria on one side, Britain, France and Russia on the other. By August there was fighting in both east and west. In the east Russian armies had been trapped and defeated at the terrible Battle of Tannenberg during which 125,000 Russians were killed. In the west French and British troops were pushed back, the German advance only halting following the Battle of the Marne in early September. Soldiers dug in for the winter, and from then on the struggle would be one of trench warfare.



Statue of General Haig in Whitehall, commander of the British Expeditionary Force

On the Western Front in 1915 France shouldered most of the burden while Britain reorganised. The French lost hundreds of thousands of men at Vimy Ridge in May. Britain began to build a huge volunteer army. Meanwhile the old professional British army fought at Neuve Chapelle, at Ypres, and then at the Battle of Loos in which thousands of advancing troops were cut down by German machine guns. Most of Britain's Expeditionary Force which had begun the war were killed here. The survivors got on with training new volunteers. 1915 also saw Turkey enter the war as an ally of Germany. This worried Russia's government, which felt it couldn't fight Turkey as well as Germany. Appeals were made for help. Under forceful leadership from Winston Churchill a plan was devised to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula on Turkey's coast and take Constantinople. As well as helping the Russians, this invasion would hopefully break the stalemate on the Western Front. During planning, details were left vague, and it was assumed the Turks would put up little resistance. Landings began on 25th April 1915, and the campaign that followed turned into a disaster in which many thousands of British and Commonwealth troops were killed.

1916 saw more terrible battles, with a vast German offensive against the French at Verdun, and a British offensive against the Germans on the Somme. The Somme offensive began on July 1st 1916, a day that turned into the worst day in British military history, with 19,240 men killed. The policy of keeping together men from the same areas meant that whole neighbourhoods in Britain lost their young men. Meanwhile in eastern Europe the Russians made gains under the Tsar's personal leadership. But gains were won at ruinous cost. Back in Moscow the Tsar's wife Alexandra had fallen under the influence of a wandering mystic calling himself Rasputin, who was supposedly treating their son Alexi for haemophilia. Rasputin's malign influence did little to help matters, and the end for Russia's royal family was near. 1916 also saw the Battle of Jutland, a huge naval encounter in the North Sea off the Danish coast. Both sides claimed victory. The Germans sank more British ships, but the Royal Navy forced the German navy back to harbour, from which it never emerged again. Jutland was indecisive, and 1916 was to be the lowest of low points. In June Lord Kitchener, one of Britain's most visible war leaders was killed when the cruiser Hampshire hit a mine while sailing to Russia. In December prime minister Herbert Asquith resigned, and was replaced by David Lloyd George.



Clouds Hill

In the midst of bad news it was almost required that people be given a more positive story. Lawrence of Arabia was to provide this. There were a number of colonial struggles going on around the world, and one of these involved the Sinai desert, where a British campaign was mounted to protect the Suez Canal against Turkish attack. In this action several Arab tribes rose in revolt against the ruling Turks, assisted and even led by a British intelligence officer named T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence began his war career working at a desk in the British intelligence station in Cairo. But once he got away from the office, Lawrence's exploits in Arabia took on mythic proportions. He became Lawrence of Arabia, and went on to write The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, one of the best known books to come out of the First World War. Lawrence was a controversial and fascinating character who provided a story that Britain needed. He spent his post war years running away from the myth that he became, conscious perhaps that no man could measure up to the idol required by a country in a time of trouble. Clouds Hill, the little house where Lawrence used to think and write near Bovington Camp in Dorset is now owned by the National Trust, and can be visited.






Outlines of practice trenches used in the training of soldiers, at Bodelwyddan Castle, north Wales

In 1917 the war began to stumble towards its conclusion with Russia's collapse. A rising against the Romanov royal family began in Petrograd. The Germans then arranged for socialist agitator Vladimir Lenin to be transported by train from his self-imposed exile in Switzerland back to Russia. It has been written that the Germans injected Lenin into Russia like a plague bacillus, and Lenin's presence had the desired effect of intensifying Russia's downward spiral into civil war. (See for example A Short History of World War One by James Stokesbury.) Back on the Western Front the French army had all but fallen apart, soldiers driven to mutiny by the disgraceful way in which they were treated by their government and most of their commanders. Meanwhile the British lost a quarter of a million men in the thick mud of the Battle of Passchendaele. If Germany hadn't spent crucial months squeezing as much as they could out of defeated Russians in the east, then it is possible that the Western front would have collapsed completely. As it was the Germans delayed, and when they did attack on the western front in 1918 they had to fight fresh American troops - the United States entering the war as a result of German U boat attacks on Atlantic shipping. In one last final effort, the Germans advanced close enough to Paris for long range guns to shell the French capital. But this effort brought on a final exhaustion. The Germans were themselves pushed back, and by the end of September 1918 Germany and her allies were falling apart. By November Germany was in full scale revolution, with Kaiser Wilhelm travelling to army headquarters at Spa in Belgium, and then sitting there waiting to see what would happen. The Kaiser abdicated on 8th November. He crossed into neutral Holland the next day, and stayed there for the rest of his life, dying in 1942. Early on the morning of 11th November 1918 a German delegation met Marshall Foch in his railway command car and signed the armistice. At 11am the ceasefire came into effect and the war was over. This war which the world seemed to have fallen into by accident resulted in fifteen million casualties for Germany and her allies, and twenty two million casualities for Germany's opponents.

Tragically this terrible war had not resulted in the end of attitudes that brought it about. Nationalism continued as a powerful force. In 1917 the British royal family, German in origin, changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in an attempt to play up to the illusions of national sentiment. It was to nationalist feelings that Hitler was to appeal in the run up to the Second World War twenty years later. As in the First World War Hitler manipulated the work of Darwin, playing on ides of pure races and the survival of the fittest, whilst ignoring the basic interconnectedness of life. Darwin showed there were no "pure" races. Perhaps it is this interconnectedness of life which makes the "origins" of the First World War so difficult to disentangle. In history, as in life, everything is interconnected, and there is no starting point which can be picked out from the surrounding mass of events.



World War One trench exhibit at the Imperial War Museum London

The Imperial War Museum, London is one of the best places to explore the First World War in Britain. A small area of trench has been recreated here. Also of interest is National Trust owned Orford Ness in Suffolk, which the military purchased in 1914, and used to develop many weapons, mostly related to aviation. Bovington Tank Museum has a collection of fighting vehicles which include tanks from the First World War. Nearby is Clouds Hill, the little cottage once owned by T.E. Lawrence. The life of wartime leader David Lloyd George can be explored at the David Lloyd George Museum.



For First World War museums in France and Belgium see













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