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date: 24 September 2021

First World War

A Dictionary of British History

John Cannon,

Robert Crowcroft

First World War 

In August 1914 Britain ostensibly went to war against Germany because of the latter's invasion of Belgium. In reality Britain fought the First World War to prevent Germany dominating Europe and, with the help of her Austrian and Turkish allies, threatening the British empire. The men who made British policy wanted a peace settlement which would reduce Germany's power and also ensure that neither Russia nor France could tilt the European balance against Britain or menace Britain's imperial possessions.

In 1914 the Asquith government believed that the war would reach its climax in 1917. Britain could achieve her objectives at least cost by allowing her allies to carry the weight of the continental land war with only token British assistance. Meanwhile the Royal Navy would undermine the German economy by blockade and Britain would offer financial help to her allies. This policy collapsed because France and Russia were not willing to fight for three years without British military support. By late 1915 the government had reluctantly accepted that if they failed to give their allies large‐scale support on the continent, France and Russia might prefer to make a negotiated peace. But it was equally obvious that the cost of increasing Britain's commitment to the continental land war might be self‐defeating. The British offensive on the Somme in 1916 was an enormous gamble. The government was wagering that the Entente could win the war before Britain went bankrupt.

The attack failed, for although both the British and German armies suffered enormously, the Germans had no intention of asking for peace terms. Instead they tried to starve Britain into submission by launching a campaign of unrestricted U‐boat warfare against British shipping. This was the strategic situation which Lloyd George inherited when he became prime minister in December 1916. Lloyd George knew that the people had to be convinced that their sacrifices were reaping tangible victories, and if they could not be won on the western front, they had to be gained elsewhere. One reason why he supported offensives at Salonika in Greece, in Palestine, and in northern Italy was his belief that a victory gained on one of those fronts would provide a much‐needed stimulus to British morale.

The new government also knew that victory could only be achieved in co‐operation with its allies. But in the spring of 1917 the pillars upon which British strategy had rested began to crumble. In March 1917 the British greeted the first Russian Revolution with cautious enthusiasm, hoping that Russia would follow the same path as France in 1794; from the ruins of the tsarist regime would emerge a new military colossus. But their hopes soon gave way to the fear that Russia would desert the alliance, and that the Germans would move large numbers of troops to the western front. In the meantime a large part of the French army mutinied. At sea German U‐boats were sinking so many merchant ships that Britain was close to starvation. The only cause for optimism in the Entente camp was that in April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany.

The debate about the future of British strategy in the summer of 1917 therefore concerned one question: what should be the new timetable for administering the knock‐out blow against Germany? One option was to divert troops to northern Italy. The Italians had entered the war on Britain's side in May 1915. If they could defeat the Austrians, they would destroy Germany's ambition of establishing an empire stretching from Hamburg, through Austria‐Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, to Baghdad. The alternative was to permit the commander‐in‐chief, Sir Douglas Haig, to have his way and mount an offensive in Flanders. Haig believed that he could force the Germans to sue for peace by Christmas 1917. The politicians doubted, but allowed him to try.

The third battle of Ypres in July 1917 was a failure. Haig then launched a second offensive, using massed tanks, at Cambrai, but that also failed. In October Italy suffered a major defeat at Caporetto and in November the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and soon signed an armistice. The arrival of the American army was even slower than the British had anticipated. Lloyd George decided that Britain must preserve her army and economic staying‐power in 1918. The knock‐out blow against Germany would be delayed until 1919, when the arrival of the Americans would give the Entente a crushing superiority.

Lloyd George's timetable for victory in 1919 collapsed because in the spring of 1918 the Germans made their own final attempt to win the war. But by June the last German offensive had been stopped, and in July the Entente's armies began a counter‐offensive, forcing the Germans back. The way in which the war ended surprised Britain and her allies. As late as mid‐October Haig did not think that the German army was so badly beaten that the German government would accept armistice terms. When the armistice negotiations began the British had to consider several conflicting factors. Should they continue fighting into 1919, to invade Germany and inflict a Carthaginian peace upon the German people? Would such a settlement threaten the future peace of Europe by leaving the French too powerful and by making the Germans vengeful? Were the British people willing to fight for another year? It was only after weighing these factors they opted for an early peace and the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918.