The First World War


The British army

The First World War began in August 1914. Britain was the only country involved in the war which had a professional army; in other countries, men were forced to serve in the armed forces by law (conscription). However Britain's army was much smaller than the conscripted armies of other countries, so a massive campaign to recruit volunteers took place.

Recruitment for King and country

At the start of the First World War, there was in Britain, as in other countries, great enthusiasm to join the fight. When troops enlisted, they were fighting for God, King and Country. King George V (1910-36) and his wife Queen Mary were highly regarded by most people.
The government aimed to recruit 100,000 volunteers in 1914 but such was the level of patriotism that one million men volunteered to fight.


Wrong assumptions

At the start of the First World War, leaders in every country believed that the war would be short. Soldiers were told they would be home by Christmas, or even before the leaves fell in the autumn.


World War 1 trenchesAlthough every country involved at the start of the First World War had a plan to win the war quickly, all these plans failed. There were two problems:
  • The two sides were evenly matched; neither had a clear advantage.
  • It was much harder to attack than defend. The most effective weapon was the machine gun, which could fire 600 bullets per minute. However, this meant that, although it could be used to defend a trench, it was not such an effective weapon of attack.
There were huge casualties in the first few months of the war. But by Christmas 1914, soldiers were stuck in trenches, winding through Northern France and Belgium, and this was where they would live and fight for the rest of the war.

A war of attrition

From the beginning of 1915, the First World War became a war of attrition. The focus was on inflicting more casualties on the enemy than you yourself suffered. This meant that, if you wanted to gain land from the enemy, you had to accept that casualty numbers would be very high. One example is the Battle of the Somme in 1916; between July and November, Britain and France together suffered some 610,000 casualties and yet the furthest they advanced at any point on the battlefield was eight miles.

Reactions to the carnage

As the numbers of casualties grew, so the general enthusiasm for the First World War weakened. Although the Government continued positive propaganda, poets such as Wilfred Owen sought to correct the official view of the war which was being fed to the civilian population via the press, by portraying its true horrors. (See in Wilfred Owen text guide The impact of The Great War.)

Increased state control

Before 1914, the government controlled the lives of British citizens much less than it did subsequently. The First World War introduced greater government control than ever before. For example:
  • The supply and the quality of food were controlled
  • The railways and the coal industry were put under government control
  • People's freedom of movement was restricted
  • Laws were passed to govern conditions of work
  • Newspapers were censored, so that people were told what the government wanted them to know about the war
  • Streetlights were dimmed
  • In order to reduce drunkenness:
    • The opening hours of pubs were reduced
    • Beer was watered down
  • British Summer Time was introduced; in the summer, people got up an hour earlier than they used to.



Although Britain and her Allies won the First World War in 1918, no country gained as a result of the war:
  • Britain's debts were ten times higher than they had been in 1914 and consequently the USA replaced Britain as the most powerful country in the world
  • Around 760,000 British servicemen died; there were few families which had not lost a loved one.
The widespread suffering led to increased disillusionment with certain aspects of society:
  • There was a greater questioning of the decisions of those in authority
  • Deference to the higher echelons of society declined
  • Respect for  - and involvement in – organised religion decreased
  • Enthusiasm for the progress of science was challenged
  • The sense of there being a coherent ‘meaning’ to life was questioned, leading to artistic movements such as modernism and surrealism, whilst leading thinkers increasing advanced scientific rationalism. (See in Wilfred Owen text guide A voice against war.)

The position of women

Women played an important part in the First World War, filling jobs formerly done by men. This gave them greater economic and social freedom; they drank, smoked and swore in public. At the end of the war, they were rewarded with being allowed to vote at the age of 30. However, most of them were required to relinquish their jobs when men came home from the war.


Although Ireland was part of the United Kingdom when the First World War broke out, many Irish people were demanding independence. They organised an unsuccessful armed uprising in 1916 but finally achieved their aim after a war of independence between 1919-21. (See Ireland and Northern Ireland.)


When the First World War began, the Liberal Party was one of the two main parties in Britain. During the war, the party split and grew much weaker. After the war, its status diminished and its position of influence was taken by the Labour Party, representing the ‘rank and file’ who had contributed so much to the war effort.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.