Background on World War One

"The Great War"

At 11 p.m. on 4th August, 1914 Britain found herself at war in Europe. Four years and three months later , before dawn on 11th November, 1918, British soldiers recaptured the Belgian town of Mons. On this same day an Armistice was signed at 5 a.m. in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne in Northern France and hostilities ceased six hours later at eleven o'clock.

During the War's early years Britain (supported loyally by troops from her Empire and Commonwealth, such as; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) and her Allies, France and Russia, fought against Germany and Austro-Hungary. At the War's end many more countries were involved, including; the United States, Turkey, Japan, Italy. What had started over the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on 28th June, 1914 only concluded after the deaths of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians.

The empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Turkey, and Russia had disappeared, countries had lost land or gained land, new counties were created (for example, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia), and new threatening political systems had taken over, or were about to take over in Russia and Germany respectively.

In the past, wars were often of comparatively short duration, with seasonal campaigns, and usually fought between opposing sides each using mercenary or professional armies. The Great War was radically different. Fighting, between volunteer or conscripted soldiers in trenches separated by no-man's-land from their enemy in similar trenches, continued all year; and new, improved methods of killing had evolved such that the scale of injury and death was beyond that which any person had believed possible. With industrialisation in Europe, invention and greatly enhanced mass-production manufacturing techniques gave rise to plentiful supplies of poison gas, tanks, powerful explosives, flame-throwers, hand-grenades, fighter and bomber aircraft, and, above all, machine-guns, and accurate long-range artillery. Killing was on a gargantuan scale, and surprise and inventiveness were forgotten by Generals who developed their new strategy of "attrition". Especially on the Western Front, where all too often only minimal ground was lost or won, battles endured their pitiless course for months, and casualties were reckoned in hundreds of thousands. Names such as The Somme, Passchendaele, and Verdun still evoke awful memories of wanton sacrifice and needless death.

Although also involved in Gallipoli, Salonika, and parts of Africa, much of Britain's war was centred on the Western Front. Simply put, this was an intricate system of trenches which ran from the Belgium coast, through northern France, to the German border. With all its twists, turns, and salients its length is difficult to give exactly; but at it greatest extent, in 1918, the British section probably extended for about 75 miles. Not all this length was involved in battle all the time, though even "quiet" parts suffered not infrequently from shelling, and trench raids. One area, however, did suffer from continuous, unremitting warfare - this was the area which stretched around the Belgium town of Ypres. Overlooked on three sides by the Germans it was shelled day and night for four years. The flat, low-lying clay land was flooded and the millions of shells which fell into it churned it over and over again into an impassable, bloody, choking quagmire. During the Battle of Third Ypres ("Passchendaele") from August to November, 1917 British and Commonwealth soldiers attacked out from this salient and, after suffering about 400,000 casualties, they gained not more than about four miles of ground.

In the early winter, after Passchendaele had drawn to its close, the War still had a year to run, and the Battle of Cambrai, the massive German Spring Offensive of 1918, the American attacks at St. Mihiel and in the Argonne, and the Allies final three months advance still had to be paid for with the lives of a multitude young soldiers.

At the Armistice there was very little celebration by the battle-weary front-line soldiers. That the War had ended and that they, despite fearful odds, were still alive was often difficult to comprehend. Once the fact had been assimilated, however, all they wanted to do was to go back home to a country they knew and to cherished relatives and families.