100 Years Ago: Britain Enters the First World War

25/07/2014  -  11.18

Professor Stephen Badsey, Professor of Conflict Studies

Looking back on the start of the First World War, we are conscious of a world and a Britain very different from our own. The countdown of events that led to Britain declaring war rings like a death-march in the heads of everyone who knows them. The war was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne, on Sunday 28 June in Sarajevo in Bosnia, recently officially annexed to Austria-Hungary, carried out by Serb nationalist terrorists backed by some members of the Serbian government. It was the third war in the Balkans in three years, in a time of tension and instability. This time, the declarations of war went further, involving the complex alliances between the great powers of Europe. A month later, on Tuesday 28th July the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, and next day bombarded the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Serbia’s protector the Russian Empire mobilised its own forces, leading to the German Empire going to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary, and invading Belgium as part of its war plan to defeat France as Russia’s ally. Unable to tolerate this, exactly a week after the Austro-Hungarian declaration, at 11.00 pm (London time) on Tuesday 4 August, the United Kingdom declared war against Germany. At the time it was called the European War or the Great War, involving all the major powers of Europe with their empires.

To modern eyes, the Britain that entered the First World War seems riven with paradoxes.  It was a country of immense disparities, in which class distinctions were visible in the clothes that people wore, in which about one percent of the population owned seventy percent of its wealth, in which fewer than two men in three had the vote, and no women had the vote at all. Britain was the centre of the world’s only global empire, many of whose subjects had no say at all in their own governance. But Britain called itself a democracy, and so did its enemies – as an insult. It was a country of small communities and great regional variations, divided not only by accent and class but by politics, including increasing strikes by organised labour, violent protests by the women’s suffrage movement, and the very real threat of a civil war in Ireland that distracted the British government from events in Europe at a critical time. But in the crisis of the outbreak of the war, Britain also proved to be the strongest and most socially cohesive of all the major powers, able to raise an army of half a million men by the end of the year through volunteerism, with the capacity over four years both to outlast and outfight its enemies. Britain emerged from the First World War as one of the victors, with its empire at its greatest ever extent, and its enemies defeated.

Our modern view of Britain in the First World War is concerned first of all with the dead; and for most British people they were always the most important part of the war at the time. Although no-one can say exactly how many Britons died as a direct result of the war, the number was around three-quarters of a million, plus perhaps a further half-million from the wider British Empire, all unique human beings. But both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population, this was a smaller loss than either France or Germany, or any other major power. British deaths were far from being a “lost generation”; they represented just over one-twentieth of their age-group, comparable to levels of emigration from Britain over the previous decades. Proportionally, the heaviest losses were suffered by the young men of the most privileged classes, who paid in blood for their privileges. Very few people greeted the outbreak of the war with enthusiasm, but from start to finish, for the great majority, it remained one of the most popular wars that Britain had ever fought. The actions and opinions of British dissenters from the war effort are important precisely because they were so rare and unusual.

The immense variations in individual experiences make it extremely difficult to make any generalisation about British opinions at the time, but it appears certain that the great majority of people believed that fighting and winning the First World War was worth it. If that seems strange or hard for us to understand, that is partly due to the war itself, and partly due to the hundred years’ distance from which we are looking at it.

Stephen Badsey is Professor of Conflict Studies in the Department of History, Politics and War Studies; he is also a member of the Conflict Studies group in the School’s Centre for Military History. He was educated at Cambridge University, made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1995, and joined the School in 2007.