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The First World War

Germany nearly defeated the Allies, Britain and France, in the first few weeks of war in 1914. It had better trained soldiers, better equipment and a clear plan of attack. The French army and the small British force were fortunate to hold back the German army at the River Marne, deep inside France. Four years of bitter fighting followed, both armies living and fighting in the trenches, which they had dug to protect their men.

Apart from the Crimean War, this was Britain's first European war for a century, and the country was quite unprepared for the terrible destructive power of modern weapons. At first all those who joined the army were volunteers. But in 1916 the government forced men to join the army whether they wanted to or not. A few men, mainly Quakers, refused to fight. For the first time, a government accepted the idea that men had the right to refuse to fight if they believed fighting to be wrong. But the war went on, and the number of deaths increased. On 1 July 1916 Britain attacked German positions on the River Somme. By the evening it had lost 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. In fact, five months of fighting from 1 July 1916 cost Britain 400,000, France 200,000 and Germany 500,000 dead and wounded. At Passchendaele, the following year, the British army advanced five miles at the cost of another 400,000 dead and wounded. Modern artillery and machine guns had completely changed the nature of war. The invention of the tank and its use on the battlefield to break through the enemy trenches in 1917 could have changed the course of the war. It would have led to fewer casualties if its military value had been properly understood at the time.

In the Middle East the British fought against Turkish troops in Iraq and in Palestine, and at Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles. There, too, there were many casualties, but many of them were caused by sickness and heat. It was not until 1917 that the British were really able to drive back the Turks.

Somehow the government had to persuade the people that in spite of such disastrous results the war was still worth fighting. The nation was told that it was defending the weak (Belgium) against the strong (Germany), and that it was fighting for democracy and freedom.

At the same time popular newspapers, using large print, memorable short sentences and emotional language, encouraged the nation to hate Germany, and to want Germany's destruction. National feelings were even stronger in France, which had already been badly defeated by Germany in 1871. As a result, when Germany offered to make peace at the end of 1916, neither the British nor the French government welcomed the idea. Both were prisoners of the public feelings they had helped to create.

The war at sea was more important than the war on land, because defeat at sea would have inevitably resulted in British surrender. From 1915 German submarines started to sink merchant ships bringing supplies to Britain. At the battle of Jutland, in 1916, Admiral Jellicoe successfully drove the German fleet back into harbour. At the time it was said, with some truth, that Admiral Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in a single afternoon. If Germany's navy had destroyed the British fleet at Jutland, Germany would have gained control of the seas around Britain, forcing Britain to surrender. In spite of this partial victory German submarines managed to sink 40 per cent of Britain's merchant fleet and at one point brought Britain to within six weeks of starvation. When Russia, following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, made peace with Germany, the German generals hoped for victory against the Allies. But German submarine attacks on neutral shipping drew America into the war against Germany. The arrival of American troops in France ended Germany's hopes, and it surrendered in November 1918.

By this time Britain had an army of over five million men, but by this time over 750,000 had died, and another two million had been seriously wounded. About fifty times more people had died than in the twenty-year war against Napoleon. Public opinion demanded no mercy for Germany.

In this atmosphere, France and Britain met to discuss peace at Versailles in 1919. Germany was not invited to the conference, but was forced to accept its punishment, which was extremely severe. The most famous British economist of the time, John Maynard Keynes, argued that it was foolish to punish the Germans, for Europe's economic and political recovery could not take place without them. But his advice was not accepted.

Apart from hatred of Germany, there was great sorrow for the dead. The destruction had been terrible. Wives had lost their husbands, children had lost their fathers, parents had lost their sons. It was natural for a nation in these circumstances to persuade itself that the war had somehow been worth it. Those who died in battle have been remembered ever since.

There was also anger about the stupidity of war, best expressed by Britain's "war poets". As the most famous of them, Wilfred Owen, wrote, shortly before he himself died on the battlefield, "My subject is War, and the pity of War." The poems written by young poet—soldiers influenced public

opinion, persuading many that the war had been an act against God and man. "Never again" was the feeling of the nation when it was all over.

When peace came there were great hopes for a better future. These hopes had been created by the government itself, which had made too many promises about improved conditions of life for soldiers returning from the war. As soon as the war had ended, the government started a big programme of building homes and improving health and education. But there was far less progress than people had been led to hope for.



Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1863

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