Facts and Stories

Road to war

Europe in 1914 was not dominated definitively by any power, yet within it were many powerful and ambitious countries striving for domination and power. Britain, of course, was the owner of the largest Empire the world had ever seen, and although it was keen to stay out of European affairs as much as possible, it could not ignore the emergence of Germany, a country with vast industrial and economic capability, and, more importantly, an overriding ambition to supersede Britain as the Weltmacht, or world power. Germany had only become a unified country in 1871, and its political system, headed by the Kaiser, was highly militaristic and imperialistic. In order to achieve its ambitions of an empire, it needed a great army and a powerful navy and so it invested heavily in its military. Because of this, Germany and Britain entered a Naval race, competing to produce the best navy as quickly as possible. The very fact that Germany was openly threatening Britain’s empire and its control of the seaways, stirred up nationalistic sentiments in Britain and the public began to view Germany as their natural enemy. Government propaganda in both Germany and Britain increased these sentiments.

In the 40 years before the outbreak of war, key alliances were being made between European nations that were ever-changing and at times surprising. Britain distrusted France and Russia because of conflicts in the past century. So, when France and Russia concluded a treaty in 1891, Britain was at first alarmed at the move and in many ways was glad to have a strong Germany as a buffer state between the two powers. However, because of Germany's ever-growing imperial ambition and military power, Britain mended her fences with her traditional rivals and Britain, France and Russia became the Triple Entente. Opposed to this was the Triple Alliance, made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, although Italy was to leave this alliance at the outbreak of the war and later was to join the side of Britain.

The spark which led to the War was not in the west but in the East (of Europe). The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, as he was parading through the streets of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the spark which quickly escalated into a big bang! It was done by a member of the Black hand, a Serbian terrorist organization, and this act of aggression was the final straw for the Austrians who had been in conflict with the Serbians for many years. They were now determined to crush the Serbs once and for all and issued an ultimatum which would make Serbia into an effective client-state of the Austrians. Before issuing this declaration, it received assurances that Germany would support it in the event of war.

Please click here to view our WW1 Commonwealth Contribution Presentation

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was committed by a member of the Black hand, a Serbian terrorist organization, and this act of aggression was the final straw for the Austrians who had been in conflict with the Serbians for many years. They were now determined to crush the Serbs once and for all and issued an ultimatum which would make Serbia into an effective client-state of the Austrians. Before issuing this declaration, it received assurances that Germany would support it in the event of war.

Naturally, the Serbians rejected the Austrians’ aggressive proposal and so, exactly a month after the assassination of the Archduke, on July 28th 1914, the Austrians invaded Serbia. Russia, which has a huge Slavic community and was one of Serbia’s closest allies, hesitantly mobilized its army, placing it on the border with Germany and Austria. The Germans reacted by declaring war on Russia, whilst the French began its mobilization efforts to assist Russia and Germany responded by declaring war on France.

 

With enemies on both sides mobilizing their armies, Germany issued an ultimatum to Belgium demanding free passage through it so that it could attack France from a strategic position-this was rejected and so the following day, German forces crossed the border. This very act united what had a been a deeply divided British public, and parliamentary support for the declaration of war against Germany had been practically unanimous. A state of war was proclaimed throughout the British Empire and World War 1 began, exactly 38 days after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

 

 

 

 

The Cost

The impact of the First World War was considerable across the world.
Some good things did emerge:
Women took over many traditionally male jobs and showed that they could perform them just as well as men. In 1918, most women over the age of 30 were given the vote in the British parliamentary elections. The electorate after 1918 was triple to that before demonstrating a far greater democracy.

In 1914, British home ownership patterns had barely changed since feudal times: only 10 per cent of the 7.75 million households belonged to owner-occupiers; the rest were owned by private landlords. After the Homes Fit for Heroes election of December 1918, and the 1919 Housing Act, a million council houses were built over the next two decades. By 1938, the number of owner occupiers had rocketed to 3.75 million out of 11.75 million households.

The First World War helped hasten medical advances. Physicians learned better wound management and the setting of bones. Harold Gillies, an English doctor, pioneered skin graft surgery. The huge scale of those who needed medical care in WWI helped teach physicians and nurses the advantages of specialization and professional management.

However, before the war there many countries vying for their independence and hoping, that their contribution to the war effort would assist with their cases.  It is fair to say that the war accelerated the transformation of the British Empire into the British Commonwealth but this certainly did not happen over night. 

The war also demonstrated Great Britain’s military and economic reliance on the Commonwealth.  Many heads of Government from these countries saw in their wartime contributions, the route to greater independence.
The immediate impact of the war across the Commonwealth was severely felt.  Poverty, famine and hardship were faced by many of those who returned. 

India


India had 74,000 people killed in the war with a further 65,000 wounded.  The Government in India was pushed close to bankruptcy because of the war.  It had been hoped that India’s contribution would speed up the handing over of power from the British, however, the British still controlled central Government and held onto key positions within provincial Government.

In 1919 the Government of India Act was introduced.

This introduced a national parliament with two houses for India. Additionally, about 5 million of the wealthiest Indians were given the right to vote (this was however a very small percentage of the total population).  Within the provincial governments, ministers of education, health and public works could now be Indian nationals. The act planned for a commission to be held in 1929, to see if India was ready for more concessions/reforms. This was a stimulus for Ghandi's independence movement.

Africa

Africa saw the price of commodities soar whilst the average wage did not match the inflationary increase.  Trade and development did not fare well either, with many public works being postponed.  Nations who had previously traded with Germany felt considerable impact at the loss of trade.  Added to this, colonial Governments increased taxes in order to raise funds for the war effort, which had a deep impact in many communities.

West Indies

West Indian participation in the war was a significant event in the still ongoing process of identity formation in the post-emancipation era of West Indian history. The war stimulated profound socio-economic, political and psychological change and greatly facilitated protest against the oppressive conditions in the colonies, and against colonial rule.

However, it was not a pretty story for those returning from the war.  Many returning soldiers had been subject to race prejudice during the war, and particularly after hostilities had ceased when attitudes changed towards coloured people in Britain.  Some of this was brought on by the competition for jobs after demobilization. Little preparation had been made for invalids and even those entitled to benefits or pensions faced excessive bureaucracy until they received what was rightfully theirs.

Added to this, many who had survived the fighting got struck down soon after from a deadly virus that swept the world:

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 wiped out 3-5% of the world’s population.  The close quarter conditions and massive troop movements from so many people of so many different countries across the world hastened the pandemic and probably increased transmission.  The fatalities were monstrous.  100,000 deaths in the Caribbean. Samoa lost 20% of its population to the flu. Somalia lost 7%, Tonga 8%, Fiji 5% and Western Samoa had a staggering 90% of its population affected.  India is believed to have suffered 12.5 million deaths from the pandemic.

Please click here to view our WW1 Commonwealth Contribution Presentation