This document is the third chapter of 'Tribute to the Fallen, 1914-1920: Men of Alnwick, Amble, Rothbury & Wooler districts' (by David Thompson, MLitt; ISBN 978-1-9997905-7-8; Wanney Books; September 2019), which, in an endeavour to provide context & perspective, provides a concise overview of the First World War in bullet-point format.

 

The first section (the 'Summary') is shown below, followed by a link to download the full document, which runs to 926 KB & 70 pages in WORD format.

 

Tribute to the Fallen, 1914-1920:  Men of Alnwick, Amble, Rothbury & Wooler districts

A concise overview of the First World War (strictly from a British perspective)

Summary; Belligerents; Pre-First World War Army reforms & preparations; Army organisation; Origins of the First World War; Britain’s intended strategy; Irish affairs; Britain in 1914; The spark that lit the touch paper; War aims; 1914; Mobilising the Armed Forces; Mobilising & managing the economy; Support from the Empire; Propaganda; Conduct of the war; 1915; A very different form of warfare; Life in the trenches; 1916; 1917; War weariness; The importance of the United States of America (USA) to the Allied victory; Army Training; Evolution of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) tactics; Technological advances; 1918 – German Spring Offensives, 21 March-18 July 1918; Allied ‘Advance to Victory’, 20 July-11 November 1918; Armistice; Versailles Peace Treaty (28 June 1919); Casualties; Influenza pandemic, 1918-1920; Psychological impact of the First World War on British society; Conclusions; Exhortation to those Lost

Summary

·  The vehemence, debate & argument continuing to surround the First World War is clear evidence of just what a momentous event it was in shaping the twentieth century, with lasting effects on international, national, local & personal levels;

·  In 1914 Britain, arguably there was no real expectation of, or desire for war, & only limited preparations had been made for it;

·  At the outset, the British Army was simply too small to influence events;

·  British hopes that the French & Russian armies would cope with the Central Powers in the land war were soon dashed;

·  Britain was quickly pressured to take more of the burden on the Western Front;

· The BEF was often forced into premature offensives before it was ready, either to display continued commitment to the Entente Alliance or to relieve the pressures under which Britain’s Allies then found themselves, notwithstanding which it was often fulfilling an important role in the war;

· A common complaint against many British commanders is that, too often, they continued offensives beyond their natural closure although, perhaps, this can be attributed, in part, to the technological problems arising from ineffective battlefield communications;

·  Such technological problems cannot be over-emphasised – decisions about stopping offensives are easy to criticise with hindsight, harder to determine in context & in contact;

· Generally, the Germans held the high ground &, after the Second Battles of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915), they remained on the defensive in strongly fortified, deep positions, until early 1918;

· Although the Western Front, rightly, dominated the British effort on land, Britain also had to deploy significant land forces in many other theatres, such as Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Palestine, Egypt, East Africa, as well as having to garrison her Empire;

· This led to internal conflicts & dissension, generally between politicians & military commanders, with many of the former, in order to lessen the horrendous manpower losses in France & Flanders, soon favouring offensives against the perceived under-belly of the Central Powers while most military commanders recognised that the main enemy (Germany) could / would only be comprehensively defeated on the Western Front;

·  The enormous human cost of the conflict precluded Britain’s policymakers contemplating an early end to fighting which did not see the Allies as victors on the battlefield.  To do so would have alienated a public left to wonder what all the sacrifices had been for, with a consequent risk of revolution;

· The German retreat in 1918 never became a rout, but a defeat it was for the German Army albeit the Allied advance was achieved only at significant cost in casualties;

·  Britain failed to achieve her principal war aim, the elimination of German militarism, as the Second World War less than a generation later amply testifies;

· Belgium & Northern France were restored to their pre-war status, but Germany’s inability, & unwillingness, to meet the cost of reparations was an immediate ongoing seed of discontent, which fostered the rise of National Socialism by the 1930’s;

· The Russian threat (to India) was eliminated – the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended any lingering imperialist ambitions about India – & France too was exhausted by the war, so that she no longer posed a serious threat to the post-war British Empire;

·  Eventually, Britain eliminated the German threat to her naval supremacy, but this was a pyrrhic victory as, shortly after the war ended, at the 1922 Washington Naval Conference, she accepted parity with the United States fleet, & a Japanese fleet at least equal to the pre-war German navy, which could dominate the Western Pacific rim;

·  Apart from the enormous human cost of the war, Britain sacrificed her long-term economic power base to the cause of defeating the Central Powers (a process which the Second World War completed!);

·  Perhaps, the First World War’s greatest significance was the exhaustion of Britain’s wealth, so allowing the USA to become the world’s pre-eminent economic power;

·  On a wider footing, the First World War also enabled the rise of communism;

· Nevertheless, Britain achieved some of her original aims, & in doing so she acquired certain new territorial possessions,[1] as well as considerable prestige as a world power, albeit this was not fully exploited & much of it had been lost by the time of the Second World War;

· Throughout, Britain was an important member of an Alliance of powers.  However, unlike Germany’s situation within the Central Powers axis, at no stage could she dominate the Alliance & impose her will on her partners;

·  Until late 1916, Britain was happy to be subservient to French military strategy;

·  The burden of the war effort accepted by the French & Russians, &, to an extent, by the Italians & the Americans, cannot be over-estimated.  Saying this, it would be misleading to suggest the efforts of the Entente Alliance were always well co-ordinated, & that Britain always had harmonious relations with her partners;

· Britain could never have contemplated entering what was, principally, a land war with Germany & her Central Powers partners, & she had no hope of ever defeating them on her own;

·  Britain’s wealth was largely exhausted by the First World War.  She loaned £1,465 million to her Allies, &, in 1922, estimates of Britain’s average daily expenditure on the war (for the Army; Royal Navy; Munitions; Shipping; etc) ranged from just under £6 million to just over £7.5 million.  Converting these figures to sensible 2019 values is not straightforward as sources vary significantly, but a factor of fifty times, at least, might not be unreasonable, i.e., today, the average cost of the First World War to Britain would have been about £300-£375 million per day![2]   Taxation will have covered a portion but the majority was funded by borrowing, notably from the USA, national borrowing (e.g., in the form of War Bonds) & the sale of overseas assets;

·  Contributory factors to the high cost of the war include the sheer size of the armies deployed; the length of the front they covered, which, after only a few months on the Western Front, precluded flank attacks; &, generally, the superiority of the defensive over the offensive, brought about, in part, by geography, in part by the power of weaponry, &, in part, by poor offensive tactics, more particularly in the shortcomings of methods of battlefield control & command.

 



[1] Britain gained League of Nations Mandates in Africa & the Middle East.

[2] http://www.in2013dollars.com/uk/infantrylation/1918?amount=100.

 

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