Britain during WWI

The Allied Powers won the World War I. The Allied powers were Britain and France, Russia to be joined later by Italy and the USA. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland were made up of England, Wales and Scotland too. The Central Powers were Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The navy of Britain was powerful and the Royal Air force was made strong during the war. The world’s largest all-volunteer army called Kitchener’s Army was formed during WWI. It had more than two million men. The war unified the people for a few years even though there were voices of dissent. Newspapers had an important role to play in spreading the propaganda in support of war. It was a ‘total war’ and not ‘business as usual’ attitude during WWI.

Britain at the beginning of the 20th century

The popular but aged Victoria was succeeded by Edward VII who was friendly and popular with a sense of humour. He had been waiting to accede to the throne and was able to do it in 1901. He ruled for nine years till 1901. He was known to be a peacemaker as he wanted all of Europe to be united. He knew many languages like German, French, Spanish and Italian and put it to good use in peacemaking. By now Britain was known as ‘the land where the sun never sets’ because British empire was spread all over the world. At the same time there were freedom struggles in different countries and they wanted to break away from the yoke of the British reign. At home too, there were voices of discontentment.

The power centre was also being shifted within Europe. Once Germany was united they came up as a powerful nation. Outside Europe there was the United States of America which was also becoming powerful and was dictating terms to the rest of the world. This was felt more only after the WWI but, there were signs of it, early in the 20th century. Arthur Balfour was the Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. During his time he gave a lot of importance to education and soon the Civil Services had educated and qualified men to plan for the country. Balfour was also responsible for strengthening the Royal Navy. The death of King Edward brought about changes in the political scenario because there was no one to make peace in the region and all the nations in the region were viewing each other as threats and began to form alliances to protect themselves from possible attacks and wars.

Involvement in WWI

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Britain was in isolation as it was pre- occupied in ruling its large empire. The most important of empire of Britain and Indians were taken into the army and trade with India was its prime economic policy. So it was not watching its neighbours or keeping track on how they were becoming powerful. In 1879 Germany and Austria-Hungary had formed an alliance and in 1892 France and Russia formed their alliance, the Dual Entente. In each of these alliances the terms were that if any one country was attacked the other would come to the rescue. In 1907 Britain joined the Dual Entente and then on it was known as Triple Entente.

The British Army fought the most costly war during World War I. There was something special about the British Army of WWI; it was made up of volunteers. The actual army was small when compared to the German or even the French army. During the war there were three different armies working for Britain. The ‘small’ army included the Regular Army and the Territorial Force. More than half of this army were posted overseas in the garrison of the British Empire. The ‘Second army’, also known as Kitchener’s Army, was an army of volunteers. The ‘Third Army’ was formed in 1916 and by 1918 the British had reached its maximum strength and had 70 divisions. The British fought the major wars against the German Empire. Some units fought against Austria-Hungary in Italy and some units were engaged in Middle East, Mesopotamia and Africa against the Ottoman Empire. One battalion fought in China along with the Japanese army. By the end of the war Britain had lost almost 673,375 and 1,643,469 were wounded. Deaths were due to enemy attacks, food shortage and diseases that was a result of trench warfare.

Political developments: Domestic

There was an upheaval in British politics which totally unprecedented in the history of the country. After the death of Edward VII, the politics took a new turn. There were new debates on the relationship between civil and military and also on military strategy. There were rifts in political parties and new coalitions were being made. A liberal government was ruling Britain from 1906 to 1914. The Liberals brought about fiscal, social and constitutional reforms. But by 1914 they had to face industrial unrest and civil disobedience. The most worrying was the civil war in Ireland. Ireland wanted ‘home rule’. During the late nineteenth century Britain was in “Splendid Isolation” by not being involved into the affairs of any other European country. Britain was busy with her colonies. But in 1904 and in 1907 she formed alliances with France and Russia respectively. Germany’s rise to power was one reason for these alliances. However, when the WWI broke out, the divided Liberal cabinet and the Liberal Party were opposed to the participation in war.

In spite of opposition and talks the war broke out. Not able to stop the war, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, James Ramsay MacDonald resigned. He was replaced by Arthur Henderson who pledged that his party would take part in the war. A political agreement was reached upon and divisive politics and by-elections were put off for a while. After a point the whole country was in support of the war and the British army was mostly made up of volunteers. As soon as the war go over a general election was held. Lloyd who was the Prime Minster won the elections but his Liberal Party was defeated. The Labour Party became powerful. The Irish people also lost their hope of home rule.

Political developments: Foreign

Britain was as super power during the 18th, 19th and till mid 20th. The influence of Britain over the world slowly declined after the Suez Crisis in 1956. By then the empires, especially her most prestigious one, India had got freedom. From then Britain was not viewed as super power but is a permanent member of Security Council of the UN. The foreign policy of Britain always focussed on a balance of power in Europe and did not allow any nation to dominate or be a threat their position and power. It is for this reason that they took part in World War I and II. The chief enemy of Britain from the 19th century was France. France was also very powerful but the Hundred Years of war and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte gave Britain the edge. However her ambitions to control US went awry in the 18th century. The colonies of America had the support of France. With the empire spreading in the Asian and African countries the administrators and the rulers of Britain were busy looking and looting the colonies. They had no time to be aware of the developments closer home. All they did was to strengthen the Royal Navy as it was the navy that helped and maintain its bases in different nation. After a few wars Prussia unified to emerge into a strong nation. It was only after the unification of Prussia that Britain started to rethink on her position. Till World War II Britain followed strategies where it was the most powerful nation and it did not allow any other nation to surge ahead in terms of colonisation, militarisation.

Economic policies and changes

There were no pre-war plans to keep the economy of Britain stable. Economic planning and controls were done as and when it was required. London was the financial capital of the world so it was a little easy for Britain to handle its finances. The economy actually grew by 14% during the war. There war saw less of civilian consumption and more funds were diverted for ammunitions. Now the British army had a large voluntary force and when it is a service, there are fewer demands on the government. However all its financial resources were used and it borrowed from the US. Shipment of food and raw materials from the US fed the people of Britain. The trade unions were being strengthened but the government had nothing to fear as most of them were in support of the war.

After a little hesitancy initially, the government rationed food supplies. People could not eat three courses meal, could not feed stray dogs and pigeons and more. Total industrial production fell by 10% but the production of war materials increased. Men joined the army in large numbers, so women took their place in many industries. Energy was the most crucial requirement during the war. This was got from the coal mines of Britain. But for the fleet in the sea oil was needed and it was needed for other vehicles. Britain had no oil fields. It was dependent on the US which controlled most of the oil fields in the world. By and large Britain managed the economics of the war.

Social policies and changes

The men of Britain had volunteered to participate in the war. There were many thousands who left home to fight in WWI. This resulted in shortage of manpower in various industries. The women pitched in and they had to take the roles which were dominated by men. This was more so in the manufacturing industry. As soon as the war started men were preferred over women but towards the end of the war there were more women doing the job of men. Trade unions opposed the entry of women but had to give in after a point of time. The trade unions then got women to join their unions as well. Most women worked in factories which manufactured munitions. The concept of ‘working women’ started at this period of time.

During the first two years of the war, women were helping the Belgian refugees and improving recruitment rates amongst men. An ‘Order of the White Feathers’ was created who took care of the home while the men were at the front. In February 1916 some groups were set up to help in agriculture and in 1917 the Women’s land Army was set up. Women joined in non combat roles. British suffrage saw a lot of changes. Once women started working they began to demand for their rights to vote. Soldiers who returned from the war were not entitled to vote. The Representation of the People’s Act of 1918 gave men who were 21 years the right to vote. Women over 30 and fulfilling the property prerequisites were allowed to vote. Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act of 1918 allowed women above 21 to stand as MPs. Many social barriers that were prevalent in Victorian and Edwardian times were broken and it was a new life for the women of Britain.

Consequences of WWI

  • More than a quarter-of-a-million British lost their lives in WWI. The carnage is said to the worst than any other four year period till date.
  • The economic, geopolitics, nationalism, class, culture, sexual liberation, female emancipation and changes in the society were so drastic. The years were four but the changes were that would normally take at least a decade.
  • Almost a whole generation was wiped out and had they lived it would have been a different history.
  • The Second World War was the major consequence of the WWI.
  • The Great Depression where everyone was suffering and everything was in shortage.
  • Industries, communications, women were the most benefitted.

Britain was unwittingly pulled from its ‘Splendid Isolation’ into a war that overhauled the country in so many ways. For centuries they ruled the world and it is nature’s way of changing or tilting the scales. After WWII, Britain went into the background and in the forefront were the US and USSR.