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the United Kingdom during World War I
1914 | 1915 |1916 | 1917 | 1918

The United Kingdom—then consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—was one of the Allied Powers during the First World War of 1914–1918, fighting against the Central Powers (the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria). The country's armed forces were reorganised—the war marked the creation of the Royal Air Force, for example—and increased in size because of the introduction, in January 1916, of forced conscription for the first time in the country's history as well as the raising of the largest all-volunteer army in history, known as Kitchener's Army, of more than two million men.[1] The outbreak of war has generally been regarded as a socially unifying event,[2] though this view has been challenged by more recent scholarship. In any case, responses in the United Kingdom in 1914 were similar to those amongst populations across Europe.[3]

Despite, on the eve of war, there being serious domestic unrest in the UK (amongst the labour and suffrage movements and, most notably, in Ireland), much of the population of the United Kingdom rapidly rallied around the national cause. Significant sacrifices were made in the name of defeating the enemy and many those who could not fight contributing to philanthropic and humanitarian causes. Fearing food shortages and labour shortfalls, the government passed legislation such as the Defence of the Realm Act, to give it new powers to safeguard civilians. The war saw a move away from the idea of "business as usual" (the preservation of the status quo) under prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith,[4] and towards a state of total war (complete state intervention in public affairs) under David Lloyd George,[5] the first time this had been seen in Britain. The war also witnessed the first aerial bombardments of cities in Britain.

Newspapers played an important role in maintaining popular support for the war.[6] Large quantities of propaganda were produced by the government under the guidance of such journalists as Charles Masterman and newspaper owners such as Lord Beaverbrook. By adapting to the changing demographics of the workforce (or the "dilution of labour", as it was termed), war-related industries grew rapidly, and production increased, as disparate groups of people pulled together.[7] In that regard, the war is also credited by some with drawing women into mainstream employment for the first time.[8] Debates continue about the impact the war had on women's emancipation, given that a large number of women were granted the vote for the first time in 1918. The experience of individual women during the war varied; much depended on locality, age, marital status and occupation.[9][10] During the war, the British Royal Family, under George V, dissolved ties with its German relatives and changed its name from the German-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the decidedly British House of Windsor. Meanwhile, the country faced other challenges; plans to rescue the King's cousins in Russia, including Tsar Nicholas II, were largely unsuccessful and the civilian death-rate rose due to food shortages and Spanish Flu, which hit the country in 1918.[11] Military deaths are estimated to have exceeded 850,000.[12] Furthermore, it has been suggested that increased national sentiment from the war helped to fuel the breakup of the British Empire, with countries such as Australia and Canada, then parts of the empire, fighting battles under their own direction.[13] Nevertheless, from a geographical perspective, the empire reached its zenith at the conclusion of peace negotiations.[14]


Head of a white-haired gentleman with prominent eyebrows and a firm expression, wearing a wingtip collar

Herbert Henry Asquith (c. 1915), prime minister at the start of the war

The United Kingdom entered the World War with Herbert Henry Asquith of the Liberal Party as prime minister. Asquith declared war on the German Empire on 4 August 1914, in response to the demands for military passage that were forced upon Belgium by Germany, and the expiration of Britain's own ultimatum at 11 p.m. that day.[15] Britain's reasons for declaring war were complex; the 1839 Treaty of London had committed the United Kingdom to safeguard Belgium's neutrality in the event of invasion, but the Foreign Office had already concluded that it might not apply. Britain's 'moral commitment' to France was another matter; extensive secret talks had been going on since 1905, but most members of Asquith's cabinet were not privy to them until 1911.[15] This lack of proof that war was unavoidable had led to disagreement within the cabinet as late as 31 July.[15]

Prime Minister Asquith took Britain to war in 1914 with a Liberal ministry. On the homefront the Liberals were adverse to government interference with private industry; they held tightly to the philosophy of laissez-faire.[4] However, this policy, characterised by Winston Churchill's declaration of "business as usual" in November 1914,[16] was by necessity replaced over the course of the war. Asquith's wartime cabinet was brought down in May 1915, due in particular to a crisis in inadequate artillery shell production and the failed Gallipoli Campaign in the Dardanelles.[17] Reluctant to give in to demands for an election, Asquith proceeded to form a new coalition government on 25 May, with the majority of the cabinet coming from his own Liberal party and the Unionist (Conservative) party brought in to shore up the government.[17] By late 1916 the war had not gone well under Asquith. There was no movement on the Western Front, despite millions of casualties. The Allied attacks on Turkey through Gallipoli and Mesopotamia were both total disasters. Russia and Italy where proving to be weak allies, and the Treasury was running out of money to buy war supplies in the United States. Asquith showed some imagination, foresight, or energy – Britain needed a dynamic and visionary leader in order to win the war. Such a man was at hand in David Lloyd George.[18]

Lloyd George as Prime Minister

This coalition government lasted until 1916, when the Unionists became dissatisfied with Asquith and the Liberals' conduct of affairs, particularly over the battle of the Somme. The government collapsed as a result of the political manoeuvrings of Andrew Bonar Law (leader of the Conservatives), Sir Edward Carson (leader of the Ulster Unionists), and David Lloyd George (then a minister in the cabinet). Law, who had few allies outside his own party, lacked sufficient support to form a new coalition;[17] the Liberal Lloyd George, on the other hand, enjoyed much wider support and duly formed a new coalition government. He immediately transformed the British war effort, taking firm control of both military and domestic policy.[19][20]

After assuming leadership as prime minister, Lloyd George formed a cabinet that included more Unionists than members of his own party.[17] In the first 235 days of its existence, the War Cabinet met 200 times and took complete charge of the national war effort.[5] Its creation marked the transition to a state of total war–the idea that every man, woman and child should play his or her part in the war effort. Moreover, it was decided that government should be the ones who controlled the war effort–primarily utilising the power they had been given under the Defence of the Realm Act.[5] For the first time, the government could react quickly, without endless bureaucracy to tie it down, and with up-to-date statistics on such matters as the state of the merchant navy and farm production.[5] The success of Lloyd George's government can also be attributed to a general lack of desire for an election, and the practical absence of dissent that this brought about.[17]

Head and shoulders of a middle-aged gentleman with a bushy moustache

David Lloyd George (c. 1920), prime minister at the end of the war

In rapid succession in spring 1918 came a series of military and political crises.[21] The Germans, having moved troops from the Eastern front and retrained them in new tactics, and now had more soldiers on the Western Front than the Allies. Germany launched a full scale Spring Offensive starting March 21 against the British and French lines, hoping for victory on the battlefield before the American troops arrived in numbers. The Allied armies fell back 40 miles in confusion, and facing defeat London realized it needed more troops to fight a mobile war. Lloyd George found a half million soldiers and rushed them to France, asked American President Woodrow Wilson for immediate help, and agreed to the appointment of French General Foch as commander in chief on the Western Front so that Allied forces could be coordinated to handle the German offensive.[22]

Despite strong warnings it was a bad idea, the War Cabinet decided to impose conscription on Ireland. The main reason was that labour in Britain demanded it as the price for cutting back on exemptions for certain workers. Labour wanted the principle established that no one was exempt, but it did not demand that the draft actually take place in Ireland. The proposal was enacted but never enforced. The Catholic bishops for the first time entered the fray and called for open resistance to a draft, Many Irish Catholics and nationalists moved into the intransigent Sinn Féin movement. This proved a decisive moment marking the end of Irish willingness to stay inside the UK.[23][24]

When on May 7, 1918, a senior army general on active duty, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice went public with allegations that Lloyd George had lied to Parliament on military matters, a crisis was at hand. The German spring offensive had made unexpected major gains, and a scapegoat was needed. Asquith, the Liberal leader in the House, took up the allegations and attacked Lloyd George (also a Liberal), which further ripped apart the Liberal Party. While Asquith's presentation was poorly done, Lloyd George vigorously defended his position, treating the debate as a vote of confidence. He won over the House with a powerful refutation of Maurice's allegations. The main results were to strengthen Lloyd George, weaken Asquith, end public criticism of overall strategy, and strengthen civilian control of the military.[25][26] Meanwhile the German offensive stalled. By summer the Americans were sending 10,000 fresh men a day to the Western Front, a speedup made possible by leaving their equipment behind and using British and French munitions. The German army had used up its last reserves and was steadily shrinking in number and weakening in resolve. Victory came on November 11, 1918.[27]

Collapse of the Liberal Party

The war struck at the heart of everything British Liberals believed in. The party became divided over the distinctly illiberal policies that were introduced under her auspices, including conscription and the Defence of the Realm Act. Several Cabinet ministers resigned, and Asquith, the master of domestic politics, proved a poor war leader. Lloyd George and Churchill, however, were zealous supporters of the war, and gradually forced the old peace-oriented Liberals out. The poor British performance in the early months of the war forced Asquith to invite the Conservatives into a coalition (on 17 May 1915). This marked the end of the last all-Liberal government. This coalition fell apart at the end of 1916, when the Conservatives withdrew their support from Asquith and gave it to Lloyd George instead, who became Prime Minister at the head of a coalition government largely made up of Conservatives. Asquith was still the party head but he and his followers moved to the opposition benches in Parliament.[28]

Wilson argues that Lloyd George abandoned many conservative principles in his single-minded crusade to win the war at all costs. That brought him and like-minded Liberals into a coalition with the Conservatives, largely on the ground long occupied by Conservatives, were not oriented towards world peace or liberal treatment of Germany, nor discomfited by aggressive and authoritarian measures of state power. More deadly to the future of the Party, says Wilson, was its repudiation by ideological Liberals who sadly decided that it no longer represented their principles. Finally the presence of the vigorous new Labour Party on the left gave a new home to voters disenchanted with the Liberal Party.[29]

In the 1918 general election Lloyd George, "the Man Who Won the War", led his coalition into another khaki election, and won a sweeping victory over the Asquithian Liberals and the newly emerging Labour Party. Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law wrote a joint letter of support to candidates to indicate they were considered the official Coalition candidates – this "coupon", as it became known, was issued against many sitting Liberal Members of Parliament to devastating effect.[30] Asquith and most of his colleagues lost their seats. Lloyd George still claimed to be leading a Liberal government, but he was increasingly under the influence of the rejuvenated Conservative party. The Liberal party never recovered.[31]


A man, wearing a crown and holding a broom, sweeps away a collection of other crowns

A 1917 Punch cartoon depicting King George V sweeping away his German titles

The British Royal House faced a serious problem during the First World War because of its blood ties to the ruling family of Germany, Britain's prime adversary in the war. Before the war, the British royal family had been known as the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In 1910, King George V became king on the death of his father, King Edward VII, and remained king throughout the war. He was the first cousin of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who for the British public came to symbolise all the horrors of the war. Queen Mary, although British like her mother, was the daughter of the Duke of Teck, a descendant of the German Royal House of Württemberg. During the war H. G. Wells wrote about Britain's "alien and uninspiring court", and George famously replied: "I may be uninspiring, but I'll be damned if I'm alien."[32]

On 17 July 1917, to appease British nationalist feelings, George V issued an Order in Council that changed the German name of the British Royal Family to the House of Windsor. He specifically adopted Windsor as the surname for all descendants of Queen Victoria then living in the United Kingdom, excluding women who married into other families and their descendants.[33] He and his relatives who were British subjects relinquished the use of all German titles and styles, and adopted English surnames. George compensated several of his male relatives by creating them British peers. Thus, his cousin, Prince Louis of Battenberg, overnight became Louis Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford Haven, while his brother-in-law, the Duke of Teck, became Adolphus Cambridge, 1st Marquess of Cambridge. Others, such as Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein and Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, simply stopped using their territorial designations. The system for titling members of the royal family was also simplified.[34] Relatives of the British royal family who fought on the German side were simply cut off; their British peerages were suspended by a 1919 Order in Council under the provisions of the Titles Deprivation Act 1917.[35]

Two look-alike men. Both wear beards and are in full military regalia festooned with medals—one uniform dark, the other white.

King George V (right) with his first cousin Tsar Nicholas II, Berlin, 1913

Developments in Russia posed another set of issues for the monarchy. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was King George's first cousin, their mothers were sisters, and the two monarchs looked very much alike.[36] When Nicholas was overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the British Government was prepared to offer asylum to the Tsar and his family. However, worsening conditions for the British people, and fears that revolution might come to the British Isles, led George V to think that the presence of the Romanovs in the United Kingdom might seem inappropriate to the public.[37] Records of the King's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, suggest that George V opposed the granting of asylum for the Romanovs, against the advice of Lloyd George.[38]

The Prince of Wales and future Edward VIII was keen to participate in the war but the government refused to allow it, citing the immense harm that would occur if the heir to the throne were captured.[39] Despite this, Edward witnessed trench warfare at first hand and attempted to visit the front line as often as he could, for which he was awarded the Military Cross in 1916. His role in the war, although limited, led to his great popularity among veterans of the conflict.[40][41]

Five men, all in immaculate naval dress, stand on deck.

King George V and his son the Prince of Wales visiting the Grand Fleet in 1918. From left to right: Admiral David Beatty, RN; Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, USN; King George V; Prince of Wales; Vice Admiral William S. Sims, USN

Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the future King George VI, was commissioned in the Royal Navy and saw action as a turret officer aboard HMS Collingwood against at the battle of Jutland but saw no further action in the war largely because of ill health.[42]

Princess Mary, the King's only daughter, visited hospitals and welfare organisations with her mother, assisting with projects to give comfort to British servicemen and assistance to their families. One of these projects was Princess Mary's Christmas Gift Fund, through which £162,000 worth of gifts was sent to all British soldiers and sailors for Christmas 1914.[43] She took an active role in promoting the Girl Guide movement, the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), the Land Girls and in 1918, she took a nursing course and went to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital.[44]

Defence of the Realm Act

The first Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was passed on 8 August 1914, during the early weeks of the war,[45] though in the next few months its provisions were extended.[46] It gave the government wide-ranging powers,[46] such as the ability to requisition buildings or land needed for the war effort.[47] Some of the things the British public were prohibited from doing included loitering under railway bridges,[48] feeding wild animals[49] and discussing naval and military matters.[50] British Summer Time was also introduced.[51] Alcoholic beverages were now to be watered down, pub closing times were brought forward from 12.30 am to 10 pm, and, from August 1916, Londoners were no longer able to whistle for a cab between 10 pm and 7 am.[51] It has been criticised for both its strength and its use of the death penalty as a deterrent[52] – although the act itself did not refer to the death penalty, it made provision for civilians breaking these rules to be tried in army courts martial, where the maximum penalty was death.[53]

His Majesty's forces


A large throng of people congregate, surrounded by police officers. Approximately half wear peaked caps; the rest wear boaters. Some smile, the rest look pensive.

August 1914: London army volunteers await their pay at St. Martin-in-the-Fields

The British Army during World War I was small in size when compared to the other major European powers. In 1914, the British had a small, largely urban English, volunteer force[54] of 400,000 soldiers, almost half of which were posted overseas to garrison the British Empire. (In August 1914, 74 of the 157 infantry battalions and 12 of the 31 cavalry regiments were posted overseas.[1]) This total included the Regular Army and reservists in the Territorial Force.[1] Together they formed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF),[55] for service in France and became known as the Old Contemptibles. The mass of volunteers in 1914–1915, popularly known as Kitchener's Army, was destined to go into action at the battle of the Somme.[1] In January 1916, conscription was introduced, and by the end of 1918, the army had reached its peak of strength of four million men.[1]

Royal Navy

Four battleships at sea

Ships of the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet

The Royal Navy at the start of the war was the largest navy in the world due, in the most part, to The Naval Defence Act 1889 and the two-power standard which called for the navy to maintain a number of battleships such as their strength was at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies in the world, which at that point were France and Russia.[56]

The majority of the Royal Navy's strength was deployed at home in the Grand Fleet, with the primary aim of drawing the German High Seas Fleet into an engagement. No decisive victory ever came. The Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy did come into contact, notably in the battle of Heligoland Bight, and the battle of Jutland.[57] In August 1916, the High Seas Fleet tried another similar operation and was "lucky to escape annihilation".[58] The lessons learned by the Royal Navy at Jutland made it a more effective force in the future.[58]

In 1914, the navy had also formed the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division from reservists, and this served extensively in the Mediterranean and on the Western Front.[59] Almost half of the Royal Navy casualties during the War were sustained by this division, fighting on land and not at sea.[57]

British air services

A poster reads "ROYAL FLYING CORPS", "MILITARY WING", "VACANCIES EXIST", information about pay, "GOD SAVE THE KING".

Royal Flying Corps recruitment poster

At the start of the war, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), commanded by David Henderson, was sent to France and was first used for aerial spotting in September 1914, but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Aerial photography was attempted during 1914, but again only became effective the next year. In 1915 Hugh Trenchard replaced Henderson and the RFC adopted an aggressive posture. By 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet (4,600 m), and interpreted by over 3,000 personnel. Planes did not carry parachutes until 1918, though they had been available since before the war.[60] On 17 August 1917, General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the army and navy. The formation of the new service however would make the under utilised men and machines of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) available for action across the Western Front, as well as ending the inter-service rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF).[61]

Recruitment and conscription

Poster by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, featuring St. George and the Dragon.

Particularly in the early stages of the war, many men, for a wide variety of reasons, decided to "join up" to the armed forces—by 5 September 1914, over 225,000 had signed up to fight.[62] Over the course of the war, it is thought that a number of factors contributed to recruitment rates, including the work of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in producing posters, dwindling employment opportunities, and a want amongst some to escape humdrum routine.[62] Pals battalions, where whole battalions were raised from a small geographic area (such as the Glasgow Corporation Tramways Battalion) also proved popular. Higher recruitment rates were seen in Wales and Scotland, though in the case of the Welsh and Irish, political tensions tended to "put something of a blight upon enlistment".[62]

Recruitment remained fairly steady through 1914 and early 1915, but fell dramatically during the later years, especially after the Somme campaign, which resulted in 500,000 casualties. As a result, conscription was introduced in January 1916, for single men, and extended in May to all men aged 18 to 41.[63] The Military Service Acts of January and June 1916 specified that all men from the ages of 18 to 41 were liable to be called up for service in the army.[62] In reality, however, a number of industries were prioritised over the army ("reserved occupations"), including food production and merchant shipping. The 1916 legislation did not apply to Ireland, despite its then status as part of the United Kingdom.[62]

Conscription Crisis of 1918

In April 1918 legislation was brought forward which allowed for extension of conscription to Ireland.[62] Though this ultimately never materialised, the effect was "disastrous".[62] Despite significant numbers volunteering for Irish regiments,[62] the likelihood of enforced conscription created a backlash. The reaction was based particularly on the fact that implementation of conscription in Ireland was linked to a pledged "measure of self-government in Ireland".[64] The linking of conscription and Home Rule outraged the Irish parties at Westminster, who walked out in protest and returned to Ireland to organise opposition.[65] As a result, a general strike was called, and on 23 April 1918, work was stopped in railways, docks, factories, mills, theatres, cinemas, trams, public services, shipyards, newspapers, shops, and even official munitions factories. The strike was described as "complete and entire, an unprecedented event outside the continental countries".[66] The ultimate backlash however, resulted in a total loss of interest in Home Rule and of popular support for the nationalist Irish Party who were defeated outright by the separatist republican Sinn Féin party in the December 1918 Irish general election, which was followed by an Anglo-Irish War.

Conscientious objectors

The conscription legislation also introduced the right to refuse military service, allowing for conscientious objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant in the army, according to the extent to which they could convince a Military Service Tribunal of the quality of their objection.[citation needed] Around 16,500 men were recorded as conscientious objectors,[62] with Quakers, traditionally pacifist, playing a large role.[citation needed] 4,500 objectors were sent to work on farms which was deemed 'work of national importance', 7,000 were ordered non-combatant duties as stretcher bearers, but 6,000 were forced into the army, and when they refused orders, they were sent to prison.[citation needed] 843 conscientious objectors who spent more than two years in prison; ten died while there, seventeen were initially given the death penalty (but received life imprisonment) and 142 were imprisoned on life sentences.[67] Conscientious objectors who were deemed not to have made any useful contribution were disenfranchised for five years after the war.[68]

Naval and air raids

A map of England, with towns bombarded during the war marked. All are in the east.

German bombardments were concentrated on the east coast of England

At the start of the First World War, for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, the population of the British Isles was in danger of attack from naval raids. For the first time ever, the country also came under attack from air raids by zeppelins and fixed-wing aircraft.[69][70]

Raid on Yarmouth

The Raid on Yarmouth, which took place in November 1914, was an attack by the German Navy on the British North Sea port and town of Great Yarmouth. Little damage was done to the town itself, since shells only landed on the beach once German ships laying mines offshore were interrupted by British destroyers. One British submarine was sunk by a mine as it attempted to leave harbour and attack the German ships, while one German armoured cruiser was sunk after striking two mines outside its own home port.[71]


British propaganda fuelled by the German raid on Scarborough

Raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby

In December 1914, the German navy carried out attacks on the British coastal towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. The attack resulted in 137 fatalities and 593 casualties,[72] many of which were civilians. The attack made the German navy very unpopular with the British public, as an attack against British civilians in their homes. Likewise, the British Royal Navy was criticised for failing to prevent the raid.[73][74]

Bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft

In April 1916 a German battlecruiser squadron with accompanying cruisers and destroyers bombarded the coastal ports of Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Although the ports had some military importance, the main aim of the raid was to entice out defending ships which could then be picked off either by the battlecruiser squadron or by the full High Seas Fleet, which was stationed at sea ready to intervene if an opportunity presented. The result was inconclusive: Nearby Royal Navy units were too small to intervene so largely kept clear of the German battlecruisers, and the German ships withdrew before first the British fast response battlecruiser squadron or the Grand Fleet could arrive.[75]

Poster: picture of Zeppelin illuminated by searchlight over silhouetted London skyline; headline: "IT IS FAR BETTER TO FACE THE BULLETS THAN TO BE KILLED AT HOME BY A BOMB"

British propaganda poster from 1915, drawing on the fear of zeppelin attacks to aid recruitment

Air raids

German zeppelins bombed towns on the east coast, starting on 19 January 1915 with Great Yarmouth.[76] London was also hit later in the same year, on 31 May.[76] Propaganda supporting the British war effort often used these raids to their advantage: one recruitment poster claimed: "It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb" (see image). The reaction from the public, however, was mixed; whilst 10,000 visited Scarborough to view the damage there, London theatres reported having fewer visitors during periods of "Zeppelin weather"—dark, fine nights.[76]

Throughout 1917 Germany began to deploy increasing numbers of fixed-wing bombers, the Gotha G.IV's first target being Folkestone on 25 May 1917, following this attack the number of airship raids decreased rapidly in favour of raids by fixed wing aircraft,[76] before Zeppelin raids were called off entirely. In total, Zeppelins dropped 6,000 bombs, resulting in 556 dead and 1,357 wounded.[77] Soon after the raid on Folkestone, the bombers began raids on London: one daylight raid on 13 June 1917 by 14 Gothas caused 162 deaths in the East End of London.[76] In response to this new threat, Major General Edward Bailey Ashmore, a RFC pilot who later commanded an artillery division in Belgium, was appointed to devise an improved system of detection, communication and control,[78] The system, called the Metropolitan Observation Service, encompassed the London Air Defence Area and would later extend eastwards towards the Kentish and Essex coasts. The Metropolitan Observation Service was fully operational until the late summer of 1918 (the last German bombing raid taking place on 19 May 1918).[79]

Picture of girl holding infant in front of bombed out building. Caption reads "MEN OF BRITAIN !", "WILL YOU STAND THIS ?", "78 Women & Children were killed and 228 Women & Children were wounded by the German Raiders", "ENLIST NOW".

Propaganda poster following the raid on Scarborough

During the war, the Germans carried out 51 airship raids and 52 fixed-wing bomber raids on the United Kingdom, which together dropped 280 tons of bombs. The casualties amounted to 1,413 killed, and 3,409 wounded.[80] The success of anti-air defence measures was limited; of the 397 aircraft that had taken part in raids, only 24 Gothas were shot down (though 37 more were lost in accidents), despite an estimated rate of 14,540 anti-air rounds per aircraft. Anti-zeppelin defences were more successful, with 17 shot down and 21 lost in accidents.[76]



Propaganda and censorship were closely linked during the war.[81] The need to maintain morale and counter German propaganda was recognised early in the war and the War Propaganda Bureau was established under the leadership of Charles Masterman in September 1914.[81] The Bureau enlisted eminent writers such as H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling as well as newspaper editors.[81] By the summer of 1915, the Bureau had printed over 2.5 million books, speeches, official documents and pamphlets.[81] Masterman also commissioned films about the war such as The Battle of the Somme, which appeared in August 1916, while the battle was still in progress as a morale-booster and in general it met with a favourable reception. The Times reported on 22 August 1916 that "Crowded audiences ... were interested and thrilled to have the realities of war brought so vividly before them, and if women had sometimes to shut their eyes to escape for a moment from the tragedy of the toll of battle which the film presents, opinion seems to be general that it was wise that the people at home should have this glimpse of what our soldiers are doing and daring and suffering in Picardy".[82]


Newspapers during the war were subject to the Defence of the Realm Act, which eventually had two regulations restricting what they could publish:[83] Regulation 18, which prohibited the leakage of sensitive military information, troop and shipping movements; and Regulation 27, which made it an offence to "spread false reports", "spread reports that were likely to prejudice recruiting", "undermine public confidence in banks or currency" or cause "disaffection to His Majesty".[83] Where the official Press Bureau failed (it had no statutory powers until April 1916), the newspaper editors and owners operated a ruthless self-censorship.[6] Having worked for government, press barons Viscount Rothermere,[84] Baron Beaverbrook (in a sea of controversy),[85] and Viscount Northcliffe[86] all received titles. For these reasons, it has been concluded that censorship, which at its height suppressed only socialist journals (and briefly the right wing The Globe) had less effect on the British press than the reductions in advertising revenues and cost increases which they also faced during the war.[6] One major loophole in the official censorship lay with parliamentary privilege, when anything said in Parliament could be reported freely.[83] The most infamous act of censorship in the early days of the war was the sinking of HMS Audacious in October 1914, when the press was directed not to report on the loss, despite the sinking being observed by passengers on the liner RMS Olympic and quickly reported in the American press.[87]

The most popular papers of the period included dailies such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Post, weekly newspapers such as The Graphic and periodicals like John Bull, which claimed a weekly circulation of 900,000.[88] The public demand for news of the war was reflected in the increased sales of newspapers. After the German Navy raid on Hartlepool and Scarborough, the Daily Mail devoted three full pages to the raid and the Evening News reported that The Times had sold out by a quarter past nine in the morning, even with inflated prices.[89] The Daily Mail itself increased in circulation from 800,000 a day in 1914 to 1.5 million by 1916.[6]

News magazines

The public's thirst for news and information was in part satisfied by news magazines, which were dedicated to reporting the war. They included amongst others The War Illustrated, The Illustrated War News, and The War Pictorial, and were lavishly filled with photographs and illustrations, regardless of their target audience. Magazines were produced for all classes, and ranged both in price and tone. Many otherwise famous writers contributed towards these publications, of which H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling were three examples. Editorial guidelines varied; in cheaper publications especially it was considered more important to create a sense of patriotism than to relay up-to-the-minutes news of developments of the front. Stories of German atrocities were commonplace.[90]


On 13 August 1914, the Irish regiment the Connaught Rangers were witnessed singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" as they marched through Boulogne by the Daily Mail correspondent George Curnock, who reported the event in that newspaper on 18 August 1914. The song was then picked up by other units of the British Army. In November 1914, it was sung in a pantomime by the well-known music hall singer Florrie Forde, which helped contribute to its worldwide popularity.[91] Another song from 1916, which became very popular as a music hall and marching song, boosting British morale despite the horrors of that war, was "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag".[92]

War poets

There was also a notable group of war poets who wrote about their own experiences of war, which caught the public attention. Some died on active service, most famously Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen, while some, such as Siegfried Sassoon survived. Themes of the poems included the youth (or naivety) of the soldiers, and the dignified manner in which they fought and died.[citation needed] This is evident in lines such as "They fell with their faces to the foe", from the "Ode of Remembrance" taken from Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen, which was first published in The Times in September 1914.[93] Female poets such as Vera Brittain also wrote from the home front, to lament the losses of brothers and lovers fighting on the front.[94]


The economy (in terms of GDP) grew about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943).[95][96] The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from the U.S.[97] Shipments of American raw materials and food allowed Britain to feed itself and its army while maintaining his productivity. The financing was generally successful,[98] as the City's strong financial position minimized the damaging effects of inflation, as opposed to much worse conditions in Germany.[99] Overall consumer consumption declined 18% from 1914 to 1919.[100] Trade unions were encouraged as membership grew from 4.1 million in 1914 to 6.5 million in 1918, peaking at 8.3 million in 1920 before relapsing to 5.4 million in 1923.[101] In Scotland, the shipbuilding industry expanding by a third.[102] Women were available and many entered munitions factories and took other home front jobs vacated by men.[103]


A document says "DEFENCE OF THE REALM", "MINISTRY OF FOOD", "BREACHES OF THE RATIONING ORDER", "The undermentioned convictions have been recently obtained", and a list of various offences committed and the punishments handed out.

A British government wartime leaflet detailing the consequences of breaking the rationing laws

In line with its "business as usual" policy, the government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets. It fought off efforts to try to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting in the area of controlling of essential imports (sugar, meat and grains). When it did introduce changes, they were only limited in their effect. In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses whilst lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.[49]

In 1916, Germany started using U-boats (submarines) in order to sink Allied and later neutral ships bringing food to the country in an attempt to starve Britain into surrender under their unrestricted submarine warfare programme. One response to this threat was to introduce voluntary rationing in February 1917,[49] a scheme said to have been endorsed by the king and queen themselves.[104] Bread was subsidised from September that year; prompted by local authorities taking matters into their own hands, compulsory rationing was introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918,[49] as Britain's supply of wheat stores decreased to just six weeks worth.[105] It is said to have in the most part benefited the health of the country,[49] through the 'levelling of consumption of essential foodstuffs'.[106] To assist with rationing, ration books were introduced on 15 July 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar.[107] During the war, average calories intake decreased only three percent, but protein intake six percent.[49]


Workers stand around a large forge, where a shell burns red-hot.

Belgian refugees work forging shell cases

Total British production fell by ten percent over the course of the war; there were, however, increases in certain industries such as steel.[7] Although Britain faced a controversial shell shortage, this has been attributed to extraordinary orders placed by the government at the outbreak of war (without concern for the capacity of its industry), rather than inefficient production.[7] In 1915, the Ministry of Munitions was formed to control munitions production and had considerable success. By April 1915, just two million rounds of shells had been sent to France; by the end of the war the figure had reached 187 million,[108] and a year's worth of pre-war production of light munitions could be completed in just four days by 1918. Aircraft production in 1914 provided employment for 60,000 men and women; by 1918 British firms employed over 347,000.[7]

It was only as late as December 1917 that a War Cabinet Committee on Manpower was established, and the British government refrained from introducing compulsory labour direction (though 388 men were moved as part of the voluntary National Service Scheme). Belgian refugees became workers, though they were often seen as "job stealers". Likewise, the use of Irish workers, because they were exempt from conscription, was another source of resentment.[109] Worried about the impact of the dilution of labour caused by bringing external groups into the main labour pool, workers in some areas turned to strike action. Voluntary agreements with trade unions in the early stages of the war became official with the advent of the Munitions of War Act in June 1915, which also placed restrictions upon the speed with which workers could move from job to job.[110]

Social change

Variously throughout the war, serious shortage of able-bodied men ("manpower") occurred in the country, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles, particularly in the area of arms manufacture; though this was only significant in the later years of the war, since unemployed men were often prioritised by employers.[8] Women both found work in the munitions factories (as "munitionettes") despite initial trade union opposition, which directly helped the war effort, but also in the Civil Service, where they took men's jobs, releasing them for the front. The number of women employed by the service increased from 33,000 in 1911 to over 102,000 by 1921.[111] The overall increase in female employment is estimated at 1.4 million, from 5.9 to 7.3 million,[8] and female trade union membership increased from 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918—an increase of 160 percent.[111] Beckett suggests that most of these were working class women going into work at a younger age than they would otherwise have done, or married women returning to work.[8] This taken together with the fact that only 23 percent of women in the munitions industry were actually doing men's jobs, would limit substantially the overall impact of the war on the long-term prospects of the working woman.[8]

When the government targeted women early in the war focussed on extending their existing roles – helping with Belgian refugees, for example—but also on improving recruitment rates amongst men. They did this both through the so-called "Order of the White Feather" and through the promise of home comforts for the men while they were at the front. In February 1916, groups were set up and a campaign started to get women to help in agriculture and in March 1917, the Women's Land Army was set up, though crucially, its members were paid less than their male counterparts. In 1918, the Board of Trade estimated that there were 148,000 women in agricultural employment, though a figure of nearly 260,000 has also been suggested.[8]

The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel's Women's Social and Political Union, calling a 'ceasefire' in their campaign for the duration of the war. In contrast, more radical suffragettes, like the Women's Suffrage Federation run by Emmeline's other daughter, Sylvia, continued their (at times violent) struggle. Women were also allowed to join the armed forces in a non-combatant role[8] and by the end of the War 80,000 women had joined the armed forces in auxiliary roles such as nursing and cooking.[112]

Following the war, millions of returning soldiers were still not entitled to vote.[113] This posed another dilemma for politicians since they could be seen to be withholding the vote from the very men who had just fought to preserve the British democratic political system. The Representation of the People Act 1918 attempted to solve the problem, enfranchising all adult males as long as they were over 21 years old and were resident householders.[113] It also gave the vote to women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers,[113] though the actual feelings of members of parliament (MPs) at the time is questioned.[8] In the same year the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act 1918 allowed women over 30 to stand as MPs.[114]

The new coalition government of 1918 charged itself with the task of creating a "land fit for heroes", from a speech given in Wolverhampton by David Lloyd George on 23 November 1918, where he stated "What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in."[115] More generally, the war has been credited, both during and after the conflict, with removing some of the social barriers that had pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain.[2]


Scotland played a major role in the British effort in the First World War.[116] It especially provided manpower, ships, machinery, food (particularly fish) and money, engaging with the conflict with some enthusiasm.[117] With a population of 4.8 million in 1911, Scotland sent 690,000 men to the war, of whom 74,000 died in combat or from disease, and 150,000 were seriously wounded.[118][119] Scottish urban centres, with their poverty and unemployment were favourite recruiting grounds of the regular British army, and Dundee, where the female dominated jute industry limited male employment had one of the highest proportion of reservists and serving soldiers than almost any other British city.[120] Concern for their families' standard of living made men hesitate to enlist; voluntary enlistment rates went up after the government guaranteed a weekly stipend for life to the survivors of men who were killed or disabled.[121] After the introduction of conscription from January 1916 every part of the country was affected. Occasionally Scottish troops made up large proportions of the active combatants, and suffered corresponding loses, as at the Battle of Loos, where there were three full Scots divisions and other Scottish units.[120] Thus, although Scots were only 10 per cent of the British population, they made up 15 per cent of the national armed forces and eventually accounted for 20 per cent of the dead.[122] Some areas, like the thinly populated Island of Lewis and Harris suffered some of the highest proportional losses of any part of Britain.[120] Clydeside shipyards and the engineering shops of west-central Scotland became the most significant centre of shipbuilding and arms production in the Empire. In the Lowlands, particularly Glasgow, poor working and living conditions led to industrial and political unrest.[122]


File:National Fund for Welsh Troops2.jpg

Poster for a fundraising event in support of Welsh troops by Frank Brangwyn

In the post war publication Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914–1920 (The War Office, March 1922), the official report lists 908,371 'soldiers' as being either killed in action, dying of wounds, dying as prisoners of war or missing in action in the World War. (This is broken down into the United Kingdom and its colonies 704,121; British India 64,449; Canada 56,639; Australia 59,330; New Zealand 16,711; South Africa 7,121.)[11] Listed separately were the Royal Navy (including the Royal Naval Air Service until 31/3/1918) war dead and missing of 32,287 and the Merchant Navy war dead of 14,661.[11] The figures for the Royal Flying Corps and the nascent Royal Air Force were not given in the War Office report.[11]

A second publication, Casualties and Medical Statistics (1931), the final volume of the Official Medical History of the War, gives British Empire Army losses by cause of death.[12] The total losses in combat from 1914 to 1918 were 876,084, which included 418,361 killed, 167,172 died of wounds, 113,173 died of disease or injury, 161,046 missing presumed dead and 16,332 died as a prisoner of war.[12]

The civilian death rate exceeded the prewar level by 292,000, which included 109,000 deaths due to food shortages and 183,577 from Spanish Flu.[11] The 1922 War Office report detailed the deaths of 1,260 civilians and 310 military personnel due to air and sea bombardment of the United Kingdom.[123] Losses at sea were 908 United Kingdom civilians and 63 fisherman killed by U-boat attacks.[124]


The war was a major economic catastrophe as Britain went from being the world's largest overseas investor to being its biggest debtor, with interest payments consuming around 40 percent of the national budget.[125] Inflation more than doubled between 1914 and its peak in 1920, while the value of the Pound Sterling fell by 61.2 percent. Reparations in the form of free German coal depressed the local industry, precipitating the 1926 General Strike.[125] During the war British private investments abroad were sold, raising £550 million. However, £250 million new investment also took place during the war. The net financial loss was therefore approximately £300 million; less than two years investment compared to the pre-war average rate and more than replaced by 1928.[126] Material loss was "slight": the most significant being 40 percent of the British merchant fleet sunk by German U-boats. Most of this was replaced in 1918 and all immediately after the war.[127] The military historian Correlli Barnett has argued that "in objective truth the Great War in no way inflicted crippling economic damage on Britain" but that the war only "crippled the British psychologically" (emphasis in original).[128]

Less concrete changes include the growing assertiveness of the Dominions within the British Empire. Battles such as Gallipoli for Australia and New Zealand,[129] and Vimy Ridge for Canada led to increased national pride and a greater reluctance to remain subordinate to the United Kingdom.[13] These battles were often portrayed favourably in these nations' propaganda as symbolic of their power during the war.[13][129] The war released pent-up indigenous nationalism, as populations tried to take advantage of the precedent set by the introduction of self-determination in eastern Europe. Britain was to face unrest in Ireland (1919–21), India (1919), Egypt (1919–23), Palestine (1920–21) and Iraq (1920) at a time when they were supposed to be demilitarising.[14] Nevertheless, Britain's only territorial loss came in Ireland,[14] where the delay in finding a resolution to the home rule issue, along with the 1916 Easter Rising and a failed attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, increased support for separatist radicals, and led indirectly to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence in 1919.[130]

Further change came in 1919. With the Treaty of Versailles, the United Kingdom found itself in charge of an additional 1,800,000 square miles (4,700,000 km2) and 13 million new subjects.[131] The colonies of Germany and the Ottoman Empire were distributed to the Allied powers as League of Nations mandates, with the United Kingdom at least gaining control of Palestine and Transjordan, Iraq, parts of Cameroon and Togo, and Tanganyika.[132] Indeed, the British Empire reached its territorial peak after the settlement.[14]


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  2. 2.0 2.1 "The war and the changing face of British society". National Archives. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  3. Gregory (2008); Pennell (2012)
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  36. At George's wedding in 1893, The Times claimed that the crowd may have confused Nicholas with George, because their beards and dress made them look alike (The Times (London) Friday, 7 July 1893, p 5)
  37. Nicolson (1952), p 301
  38. Rose (1983), p 210
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  41. Duke of Windsor (1998), p 140
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  48. FitzRoy, Sir Almeric William, Clerk of the Privy Council (14 August 1914). "Part 2: Regulations specially designed to prevent persons communicating with the enemy...". p. 4. "No person shall trespass on any railway, or loiter under or near any bridge, viaduct, or culvert, over which a railway passes." 
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 49.3 49.4 49.5 Beckett (2007), pp 380–382
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  78. Bourne (2001), p 10
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  84. "No. 31427". 1 July 1919. 
  85. McCreery (2005), pp 26–27
  86. "No. 30533". 19 February 1918. 
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  88. Paddock (2004), p 16
  89. Paddock (2004), p 34
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  95. David Stevenson (2011). With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. Harvard U.P.. p. 370. 
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  105. Morrow (2005), p 202
  106. Beckett attributes this quotation (page 382) to Margaret Barnett, but does not give further details.
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  109. Beckett (2007), p 366
  110. Beckett (2007), p 369
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  112. Professor Joanna Bourke. "Women and the Military during World War One". Retrieved 2009-05-13. 
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  115. The Times, 25 November 1918.
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  120. 120.0 120.1 120.2 B. Lenman and J., Mackie, A History of Scotland (London: Penguin, 1991)
  121. D. Coetzee, "A life and death decision: the influence of trends in fertility, nuptiality and family economies on voluntary enlistment in Scotland, August 1914 to December 1915", Family and Community History, Nov 2005, vol. 8 (2), pp. 77-89.
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  123. Gilbert (1994), pp 674–678
  124. Gilbert (1994), p 78
  125. 125.0 125.1 "Inflation value of the Pound". House of Commons. Archived from the original on 2001-11-14. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  126. Taylor (2001), p 123
  127. Taylor (2001), p 122
  128. Barnett (2002), pp 424–426
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  130. Hennessey (1998), p 220
  131. Ferguson (2004), p 315
  132. Olson (1996), p 658


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  • Pope-Hennessy, James (1959). Queen Mary. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd. ISBN 1-84212-032-8. 
  • Powers, Barry D (1976). Strategy without slide-rule: British air strategy, 1914-1939. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-85664-219-3. 
  • Roberts, Andrew (2000). The House of Windsor. London: Cassell and Co. ISBN 0-520-22803-0. 
  • Rose, Kenneth (1983). King George V. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-78245-2. 
  • Shepherd, J (2003). Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Media, Industry and Society v.1: Media, Industry and Society Vol 1. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd. ISBN 0-8264-6321-5. 
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence (2001). Naval Warfare, 1815–1914. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-21478-5. 
  • Taylor, A. J. P. (2001). English History 1914–1945 (The Oxford History of England). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280140-6. 
  • Thornton-Cook, Elsie (1977). Royal Marys, Princess Mary and Her Predecessors. Ayer Publishing. ISBN 0-8369-0940-2. 
  • Tucker, Spencer; Roberts, Priscilla Mary (2005). World War I: encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-420-2.  Available on Google books.
  • The War Office (1922). Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914–1920. Reprinted by Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84734-682-0. 
  • Ziegler, Philip (1991). King Edward VIII: The official biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-7509-2747-X. 

Further reading

  • Beckett, Ian F.W. The Home Front, 1914-1918: How Britain Survived the Great War (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Marwick, Arthur (1965) The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, New York: Atlantic-Little Brown (Norton Library paperback, New York 1970: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-00523-2)
  • Peel, Mrs. C.S. (Dorothy Constance) (1929) How We Lived Then, 1914-1918: a Sketch of Social and Domestic Life in England during the War, London: Bodley Head
  • Turner, John, ed. Britain and the First World War (1988)
  • Turner, John. British Politics and the Great War: Coalition and Conflict 1915-1918 (1992)
  • Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War 1914-1918 (1989) excerpt and text search 864pp; covers both the homefront and the battlefields
  • Winter, Jay, and Jean-Louis Robert, eds. Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919 (2 vol. 1999, 2007), 30 chapters 1200pp; comprehensive coverage by scholars vol 1 excerpt; vol 2 excerpt and text search

External links

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