(on the 90-th anniversary) Dr. Stephen Badsey for RIA Novosti
For the British who fought in it, the 1914-1918 war was always ‘The Kaiser's War', or just ‘The Great War'. For most Britons, the Armistice on 11th November 1918 meant the defeat of Germany. Victory over Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey mattered much less, other than to a few elites concerned for the future of the British Empire. Of course, the war was not really over. Final peace with Germany came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, while the aftershocks to the First World War continued for another five years, involving the British in diplomacy and fighting around the world. In 1922 even the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland changed for ever, with the creation of the Irish Free State. But on 11th November 1918, in cities and villages people cheered and cried with joy and relief; while the troops in France and Belgium found that they could not sleep, because of the silence now that the guns were no longer firing.
In 1914 the British had no peacetime conscription and little experience of military life. Despite ruling a formal and informal Empire that stretched around the globe, they thought of themselves as a peaceful and unmilitary people. Their strength lay in finance and industry, and in the Royal Navy, the best and largest navy in the world, while their volunteer army was tiny by European standards. They went to war chiefly to oppose German domination of Europe, and specifically to preserve the independence and neutrality of Belgium as a buffer-state between Germany and France. There was no formal alliance compelling them to do so, simply a ‘friendly understanding' (entente cordiale) with France and Russia. In this sense the British fought the same kind of war that they had fought for centuries, to prevent any one country dominating western and central Europe, and so creating an Empire big enough to swallow Great Britain in the next war. They fought the Germans just as they had once fought the French and the Spanish, but they did not particularly hate them at first. In the same way, they fought as part of an alliance, although they did not always get on well with their allies. It was also British diplomacy and propaganda, as well as German errors, which brought the United States into the war in April 1917, a critical event in determining eventual victory.
The big difference from previous wars was that in the First World War the stakes were so high, and the two sides so evenly matched, that the British were compelled, for the only time in their history, to create a mass army to fight and defeat the main enemy on the main land front. By 1918 the British Army that led the defeat of Germany on the Western Front was the best and most powerful in the world. But the cost in British lives was heavy: the official figure for British Army dead alone was 702,410 (including 78 generals) from a population of 43 million. In total at least 1.1 million British and British Empire troops were killed in the war, including many from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and from India. Both in absolute terms and proportionally, British losses were lower than those suffered by Germany or France, and no British territory was ever invaded or occupied. But even in victory, the trauma of the First World War had a permanent effect on the British, including for decades the false belief that an entire generation of young men had been lost in the fighting.
In consequence, the British balance-sheet for the First World War matched immediate victories with long-term setbacks. In 1918 the British Empire stood at its largest in history, without a major enemy in the world, and the great strength and resilience of British society had been proved. But Great Britain's position in world trade and finance had been permanently weakened by the war, and wider forces were at work that within a generation would change both British society and Great Britain's place in the world for ever. Most Britons had fought and endured the war in the hope that (in a phrase coined by the novelist H.G. Wells) this should be ‘the war that will end war', and this turned out to be cruelly wrong. But most Britons also believed that for the German Empire, with its posturing militarism, to have won the war would have been a disaster for the world. Whatever might happen in the future, in 1918 most believed that Great Britain had not only been victorious, but also right.
Dr Stephen Badsey, Reader in Conflict Studies, University of Wolverhampton UK;
Member of the International Society for First World War Studies
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.