The political order in Britain is increasingly strained and the imperial system is challenged by new powers and movements which emerge from the chaos of World War I, known as the Great War to those who endured the catastrophe.
Edward VII was the epitome of a worldly, urbane gentleman who personified the fashionable, leisured elite of his age. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the race course and card table and was notorious for his affairs with numerous women. Some disapproved of his lifestyle and character, but others vicariously enjoyed the opulent lifestyle and easy-going dignity displayed by their sovereign - the ruler of ‘the greatest empire the world has ever seen’. His saving graces were good humour, personal charm and tact. As Prince of Wales, he had built up personal popularity with his regular travels throughout Britain. His tours of North America in 1860 and the Indian subcontinent in 1875 were also popular successes. He fostered good relations with European countries, especially France, for which he was popularly called ‘Peacemaker’; but he had always suffered a difficult relationship with his young nephew Wilhelm II, which became worse as the German Kaiser pursued policies of imperial rivalry with Britain and military superiority in Europe.
[swpm_protected custom_msg='If you wish to read or listen to the complete account of this section and gain permanent access to all the other parts of Annals Britannica, please Login now or Join via Credit/Debit card on PayPal for only £5.']
At the end of his relatively brief reign Edward was dispirited by displays of growing political disagreement in the nation. Although affairs in Ireland had quietened considerably since the failure of the second Home Rule bill, the old social order was no longer accepted as timeless and unchangeable by many political commentators and intellectuals. Sidney and Beatrice Webb and friends such as Annie Besant and George Bernard Shaw were publishing democratic socialist ideas to the wider British public with their Fabian tracts and other publications. Karl Marx had distilled his socialist philosophy into a political creed of class struggle in the reading room at the British Museum and Kier Hardie had founded the Independent Labour party, which eventually outflanked the radical wing of the Liberal party. Women like Millicent Fawcett were preaching female emancipation to a deeply unreceptive, masculine world, whilst Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and other women were demonstrating that women could compete and play a valuable part in the world.
At the beginning of the twentieth century much of England had long ceased to be a ‘green and peasant land’. Most people now lived closely packed into dense, overcrowded towns and cities. The buildings were blackened by soot and the continuous effusion of smoke polluted the air and created the impenetrable fogs for which London and other cities had become notorious. Clean water was being piped into the cities and sewerage management was improving, but many working class housing and workplace environments continued to be insalubrious, despite several Public Health and Factory Acts and other measures which attempted to outlaw the worst excesses. The middle classes had begun to move out of city centres into the suburbs from whence they commuted by railways or hansom cab, soon to be superseded or assisted by the motor vehicle and the electric tram. The first ‘garden city’, based on Ebenezer Howard’s ideas, would soon provide a pleasant retreat from the dingy City of London, which had been almost completely forsaken as a habitation by the professional and business men who once lived above or close to their places of business.
Elsewhere, enlightened employers such as Titus Salt, the Cadbury brothers, William Lever and others were not insensible to the socially detrimental effects of poor housing and unhealthy workplace environments: Saltaire, Bourneville and Port Sunlight advertised the benefits of comprehensive social improvements funded by capitalism, but many employers lacked either the capital or the social comprehension to follow their example. The same was true in the countryside, where some well-to-do landlords provided decent housing and good social facilities in their villages, but were frequently branded as ‘paternalist’ by nonconformist preachers and union leaders, who feared the farm worker was being inveigled into compliance by a squire and parson consortium.
Lord Salisbury’s final term in office is mostly remembered for its imperial and foreign affairs events, but the Conservatives also made efforts to deal with the country’s internal problems. After taking a tough stand against crime and violence in his early years as Secretary for Ireland, Arthur Balfour more or less solved the age-long problem of the Irish landlord-tenant situation. He succeeded his uncle as prime minister in 1902 and his Irish Land Purchase Act of 1903 facilitated the wholesale disposal of estates into the hands of the Irish tenantry. By 1921 316,000 tenants had purchased their holdings, amounting in total to 11.5 million acres. Tensions in the countryside declined dramatically and violence also sharply decreased until the tragic events of Easter 1916.
In 1902 he piloted a hard-fought Education Act through parliament which, despite bitter nonconformist objections expressed by a reinvigorated Liberal party, modernised the school system and provided financial support for all schools in England and Wales. In his relatively brief term as PM, Balfour’s government began to reform Britain’s defence policy with the creation of the Committee of Imperial Defence and Admiral Jackie Fisher’s reorganisation of the Royal Navy. The Entente Cordiale was also agreed with France in an attempt to deter increased German belligerence.
However, Balfour met resistance from Joseph Chamberlain, who began to campaign against Britain’s Free Trade policy in favour of Imperial Preference, which aimed to protect British industry with a tariff wall against competition from American and German rivals, whilst giving preference to imports from the empire; it would also provide a source of revenue outside the usual taxation pot for social welfare legislation. However, the suggestion of tariffs on the significant amount of food imports from America made the policy unwelcome to the urban electorate. Balfour, in the hope of encouraging global free trade, favoured retaliatory tariffs to punish those countries which imposed tariffs on British goods. He was weakened when Chamberlain resigned from the Cabinet in late 1903 to campaign for tariff reform; free traders also quit the government at the same time, among them the novice MP Winston Churchill, who defected to the Liberals in 1904 when he was threatened with deselection by Oldham Conservatives because of his opposition to Chamberlain.
Defeats in the Commons and in by-elections caused Balfour to resign in December 1905. At the general election early in 1906 the Liberal won a landslide majority and Balfour lost his own seat. He returned to the Commons via a bi-election soon after and continued to lead the Conservatives until he stepped down in 1911. Even then, his career was far from over; he became First Lord of the Admiralty in the wartime coalition, then Foreign Secretary.
Although it had been badly divided into pro-Boer and imperialist-supporting factions at the 1900 ‘Khaki election’, the Liberal party, greatly aided by nonconformist opposition to Balfour’s 1902 Education Act, won more than 400 seats in the General Election of 1906; the Irish Nationalists won a further 83 seats and there were 29 Labour MPs.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberals differed greatly from the party led by William Gladstone. Gladstone’s late obsession with Home Rule had slipped into the background as Balfour’s land reforms took the heat out of the old landlord/tenant enmity in Ireland. The main pillar of Liberal philosophy, Free Trade, was still standing, but was coming under attack from the imperial preference ideas of the Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain. The Liberals were also beginning to experience competition for the working class vote from the emerging Labour party.
Bannerman was an elderly man (the only prime minister who was also ‘father of the House’ at the same time) and his health was poor; he retired in April 1908 and died nineteen days later. During that brief time his government protected trades unions with the Trades Disputes Act 1906 and allowed local authorities, at their discretion, to provide free school meals. Young criminals were spared prison by serving periods of probation in the community instead. However, the House of Lords defeated the Liberal government efforts to overcome the 1902 Education Act and Campbell-Bannerman had no time to put into effect a proposal to shear the Lords of its powers to veto government legislation.
Herbert Asquith, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, became prime minister. His budgets had introduced fiscal measures aimed at taking extra money from the wealthiest to pay for socially beneficial schemes. In 1907 he imposed a higher tax on unearned, as opposed to earned, income and in 1908 he introduced the Old Age Pension of 10 shillings (50p) a week for people aged 70 and over with incomes of less than £21.10s per annum; married couples received eight shillings and nine pence (44p) each.
Asquith was succeeded at the Exchequer by the radical Welshman David Lloyd George, whose place as President of the Board of Trade was taken by the renegade ex-Conservative Winston Churchill. In 1909 Lloyd George introduced his ‘People’s budget’, which caused a constitutional storm. He imposed a 20% tax on unearned increases in the value of land, payable when the owner died or when the land was sold, he increased Death Duty and Income Tax and introduced a Supertax on income over £3,000. Taxes were also imposed on luxury goods, alcohol and tobacco to help pay for the government’s new welfare programmes, as well as for the building of eight new dreadnought battleships which a popular outcry had forced the government to provide.
The nation’s landowners, well-represented in the House of Lords, were angered by the very high tax on land values and the redistribution of wealth. The last remnant of the Imperialist Liberal Party, led by Lord Rosebery, deserted the party, but Lloyd George won great support as he went on the stump in the country to promote his budget with passionate speeches. King Edward privately advised the Conservatives not to derail the finance bill in the House of Lords, but the measures were soundly defeated in November 1909. Peers maintained they were entitled to oppose the bill as it lacked an electoral mandate. The government replied that the Lord’s vote was an attack on the constitution. Parliament was prorogued in preparation for a general election in January 1910.
House of Lords reform was now at the top of the Liberals’ political agenda. During a hard-fought campaign the Liberals, whose leading spokesmen were Lloyd George and Churchill, talked of packing the upper house with new Liberal peers in order to overturn the Lords’ veto, but Balfour, on behalf of the Conservatives, replied with vigour, claiming the proposals were a revolutionary attempt to make the Commons ‘the uncontrolled masters of the fortunes of every class in the community; and that to the community itself no appeal, even in the extreme cases, is to be allowed …’.
No party won an outright majority in the election. The Liberals lost their massive 1906 majority, but retained a slim majority of two over the Conservatives. With Irish Nationalist and Labour support, they still had ample support on most issues. The Irish MPs were particularly anxious to remove the Lords’ power of veto so that they could no longer block Home Rule. In the event, when the Finance Bill was once more presented to the House of Lords in April, it was passed without a division.
However, the majority coalition remained determined to reform Parliament and reduce severely the powers of the upper house. Their plans were scuttled by the death of Edward VII in May 1910. Edward had proved to be a more successful king than anyone had expected. In his short reign, he ensured that his son and heir George V was properly prepared to take the throne. On Edward's death, George wrote that he had lost his "best friend and the best of fathers... I am heart-broken and overwhelmed with grief". Edward was often criticised for his pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure, but he also received great praise for his affable manners and diplomatic skills.
Asquith was reluctant to press the new king, in mourning for his father, for commitments on constitutional change. There was a strong feeling in the country that the parties should compromise, but they failed to reach an agreement. Talks broke down in November over Conservative insistence that the House of Lords retain the power to veto Irish Home Rule. A Parliament bill was presented and was heavily amended by the Lords. Asquith asked King George to dissolve Parliament and threatened to resign unless the king gave assurances that he would create enough Liberal peers to carry the bill through the House of Lords. George V gave his reluctant agreement. The second election of 1910 was held in December and resulted in a dead heat in the number of seats won by the two major parties. The Conservative Unionists won more votes than the Liberals, but Asquith continued in power with the support of the Irish and Labour minorities. The Parliament bill was brought forward once more and, when confronted with the king’s pledge to create large numbers of new peers, the Lords allowed it to complete its passage through Parliament.
The Parliament Act of 1911 removed the power of the House of Lords to reject money bills and replaced the Lords' veto over other public bills with a limited power of delay. In addition, the maximum duration of a Parliament was reduced from seven years to five and MPs were to be paid a salary. The Act was passed by the House of Lords by a 131-114 vote in August. The restructuring of the House of Lords itself remained as part of a future radical agenda.
Lloyd George also introduced a National Insurance Act in 1911 which made provision for sickness and chronic ill health, and provided a system of unemployment insurance. The social reforms introduced by Asquith and Lloyd George are considered as the beginnings of Britain’s Welfare State. Nevertheless, the mounting pressure for female emancipation continued to be rigorously opposed by Asquith, although Lloyd George and Churchill were numbered among cabinet members who, to some extent, were less strenuously opposed to women’s suffrage.
However, foreign affairs were thrusting themselves to the fore of the nation’s consciousness. Reference has been made to the naval competition with Germany, which resulted in the Liberal government, when confronted by vociferous public demand, reluctantly funding the construction of eight new Dreadnought battleships equipped with steam turbine propulsion and an unprecedented number of heavy calibre guns. Austria-Hungary and Italy were also building super battleships, which challenged the power of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. In 1912, Britain was faced with a choice of either building even more battleships or withdrawing from the Mediterranean. The only acceptable alternative option, recommended by Winston Churchill who was now First Lord of the Admiralty, was to make an arrangement with France: the French would assume responsibility for checking Italy and Austria-Hungary in the Mediterranean, while the British would protect the north coast of France. Britain continued to build super battleships, whilst Germany, unable to continue funding both naval and military arms races and fearful of being outgunned by the Franco-Russian alliance, concentrated resources on the army.
Germany and France had sparred for advantages in Africa and, during a tense standoff about the deployment of French forces in Morocco in 1911, Germany had sent a gunboat to Agadir, claiming it was there to protect German trading interests. The British government regarded it as a display of German aggression. Exceeding his brief, the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George made a dramatic speech at the Mansion House (the Lord Mayor of London’s residence) denouncing the German move as intolerable. Germany eventually backed down, but relations between Berlin and London remained sour. The Admiralty, the War Office and other departments were quietly engaged in preparing for a confrontation with a hostile Germany.
Although King George and Kaiser Wilhelm II were cousins, there was little family affection between the two houses. This was partly due to the unfortunate childhood history of Wilhelm. Victim of a traumatic birth, he suffered the disability of a withered left arm. The regime inflicted on him by his English-born mother in efforts to improve his physical appearance and abilities was a torment; he grew up disliking her and the British manners and personnel of her entourage. However, he enjoyed the affection of his grandmother Queen Victoria, but most of his other British relatives found him arrogant and obnoxious. Family relations were further damaged when many of them repaired to Denmark each summer, where they enjoyed the hospitality of Queen Alexandra’s family, from which Wilhelm was excluded on account of the Schleswig Holstein affair. However, he regularly visited Britain and enjoyed competing against the yacht of his uncle Edward VII at the Cowes Week regatta on the Isle of Wight.
As he matured, he was very much influenced by Prussian military culture and resisted attempts to educate him in British liberal values. After he was assigned to a Guards Regiment, he adopted the speech, mannerisms and behaviour which he deemed appropriate for a Prussian officer. The Chancellor Otto von Bismarck also helped foster a dysfunctional relationship with his parents. However, once he became Kaiser, Wilhelm soon tired of Bismarck’s careful and methodical policies and worked with senior military commanders to achieve a more aggressive foreign policy. Bismarck became disenchanted with Wilhelm’s interference and abruptly resigned in 1890.
Wilhelm’s power was now unconstrained. He was intelligent and appreciated the benefits of technological science and industry, but at the same time he was hasty, restless and unable to work steadily towards a desired conclusion. As Bismarck said, he wanted every day to be his birthday. He was more concerned with asserting his will rather than following Bismarck’s policy of gaining specific objectives.
Wilhelm II aroused the anger or scorn of the British population on a variety of occasions and for a number of reasons. The British were alienated by his telegram of 1896 congratulating President Paul Kruger for suppression of the Jameson raid in the Transvaal. In 1898 he gave an interview to the British Daily Telegraph newspaper in which he made wild statements and diplomatically damaging remarks. Wilhelm had hoped to promote his views on Anglo-German friendship, but he ended up alienating not only the British, but also the French, Russians, and Japanese. Many Germans were appalled by the incendiary nature of his comments and there were serious calls for his abdication. Wilhelm kept a very low profile for some months after the Daily Telegraph fiasco.
His consuming personal project was to create a powerful German navy to rival the Royal Navy. He set about achieving his ambition when he appointed the dynamic Alfred von Tirpitz to be head of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897. By 1908 the two navies were engaged in an arms race, exemplified by the Dreadnought building programmes. Admiral Fisher orchestrated the British public to demand more dreadnoughts with the slogan ‘We want eight and we won't wait’. The German strategy was to have sufficient power in the North Sea to prevent a British blockade of Germany’s ports whilst her army dealt with her military rivals on land. People were now contemplating the possibility of the first major European war since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
Britain however, was still trying to solve the Irish problem. Asquith, pressed by the Irish Nationalist MPs whose support kept him in office, presented another Home Rule bill to Parliament in 1912. He wanted to create an Irish parliament responsible for internal affairs whilst foreign affairs remained in the hands of the Westminster government. In the constitutional talks prior to the second 1910 election, the Conservatives had sought, unsuccessfully, to retain a veto for the Lords on Home Rule bills and they continued to oppose it.
They were strongly supported by Sir Edward Carson, MP for Trinity College Dublin, who addressed mass rallies of Unionists throughout Northern Ireland. He demanded a provisional government for ‘the Protestant province of Ulster’, should the Home Rule bill become law. The Ulster Covenant, which pledged to use all means to stop Home Rule, was signed by 447,197 people - some with their own blood - on 28th September 1912. In January 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed to undergo military training and purchase arms, and in April 1914 the UVF was supplied with a large cache of German arms at Larne. The Nationalists responded by forming the Irish Volunteers which also received a supply of German rifles a few months later at Howth.
At this stage the government became worried about how British troops in Ireland would react if they were ordered to put down a rising in Ulster. Officers at the principal army base of the Curragh, in Co. Kildare not far from Dublin, were sounded out and the War Office was informed that many cavalry officers would resign instantly if ordered to act against the Ulster Volunteers. Brigadier-General Hubert Gough, the commander of the cavalry brigade, indicated that he would do the same. The story was published in the press and the War Office was forced to announce troops would not be used to enforce Home Rule.
On May 25th the Home Rule bill passed the Commons at its third reading, but in June the government amended it to allow the temporary exclusion of Ulster for six years. The Lords made changes to the amending bill which were unacceptable to Asquith. With no way to use the Parliament Act to repair the amending bill, Asquith agreed to meet other party leaders at a conference chaired by the King at Buckingham Palace. No solution could be found and the cabinet had no plans for further concessions to the Unionists.
At the end of July a crisis on the continent developed into a multi-national conflict which became known as the Great War. George V gave his reluctant assent to the Home Rule bill in September, but it was put in suspension for the duration of the war.
All the social and political issues bubbling away in the United Kingdom were put to one side as the nation watched with mounting concern as Europe plummeted into the first really major conflict since Waterloo, 99 years earlier. It all began in the Balkans, where nearly all the remaining European territories of the Ottoman Empire were taken by various nationals in the First Balkan War of 1913, which concluded with the Treaty of London. The Balkan allies then fell out over the spoils and a second war broke out, during which Bulgaria was at war with a Serb-Greek alliance in Macedonia and with Turkey (now led by the Young Turks after a coup d’etat) in Thrace, as well as dealing with a Romanian invasion. The territorial adjustments of 1913 created an enlarged Serbia, which also had eyes on Bosnia, inhabited by a large Serb minority. Bosnia Herzogovina was Ottoman territory taken into protection by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878 and annexed outright in 1908, when the Ottomans were in chaos and Serbia’s protector Russia was still weak, following defeat in the 1905 war with Japan.
In June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, paid a state visit to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. Three young Bosnian Serbs recently returned from Belgrade, where they were given weapons and training by Serbian Intelligence, were waiting for them. On the morning of St Vitus Day 28 June, the Serbian national and religious holiday, a royal motorcade of six open-topped vehicles proceeded through the streets towards city hall. The first conspirator along the route failed to act. The next one threw a grenade which glanced off the car containing the royal couple and exploded under the following car. He then swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped in the river, but the water was shallow and he vomited before the poison had any effect. Franz Ferdinand was driven to safety in the city hall, but insisted on visiting his injured aides in hospital. No extra troops were mobilised as he and the Grand Duchess drove back along the same route where the attack took place. The driver at the head of the motorcade took a wrong turning and, realizing his mistake, backed out and stalled his engine, causing the royal couple’s car to come to a halt close to where the third conspirator Gavrilo Princip was standing. He took out his pistol and fired twice. The Archduke was hit in the throat and Sophie was hit in the abdomen; both died of their injuries. Princip took his poison pill, which again failed to work. He and his two fellow-conspirators were arrested and found guilty of treason and murder. Under Habsburg law they were too young to be executed and received sentences of 20 years imprisonment, but none of them lived to see the end of the forthcoming war.
Vienna’s outrage at this act of terrorism was shared in the capitals of the other great powers and it was recognised that Austria-Hungary had the right to seek suitable redress. The Habsburg court instinctively and bitterly blamed Serbia and received strong, emotional backing from the Kaiser, who had been friendly with Franz Ferdinand. Vienna was assured of complete German support if it became involved in war with Serbia and its ally Russia. An ultimatum was then composed which made demands which Vienna believed the Serbs could not accept, and a reply was required in 48 hours. The ultimatum was held back until 23rd July, when the French President was returning home by sea from a visit to the Czar of Russia. There was thus no opportunity for the two allies to make a co-ordinated joint response. However, the Serbian response to the ‘unacceptable’ ultimatum astonished everyone by agreeing to almost all of Vienna’s demands and asking for the two outstanding issues to be referred to arbitration. The British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey believed that the issue could now be resolved by diplomacy. Vienna, however, on receiving Serbia’s reply, immediately severed diplomatic relations and ordered mobilisation of its forces.
All the European powers were now waiting to see how Britain would respond to the possible upcoming conflict. The government was preoccupied with the Irish question and, although Britain was to some extent committed to support France if she were attacked, Grey was not disposed to commit his country to a specific course of action at that stage. He feared a definite promise of support might encourage France or Russia to risk going to war. The French had their own diplomatic problems, being resolute in support of Russia’s stance on Serbia whilst trying to reassure the British that they were not preparing for aggression against Germany. Meanwhile the Russians advised Serbia to offer no resistance should Austria-Hungary invade. They also asked Vienna to extend the time limit on the ultimatum and tried to persuade Grey to side with them in a potential war. The Austrians apparently expected Russia to be deterred from further hostile moves by Germany’s support for Vienna’s bellicose policy. At the last minute, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg of Germany tried to restrain Austria-Hungary, but his own military top brass were encouraging them to move swiftly.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28th July. Belgrade was bombarded the next day and Russia began to mobilise. Germany now realised the ‘localised’ war it had encouraged was widening into a larger eastern European conflict. It sent a 24 hour ultimatum on 31st July requiring Russia to halt its mobilisation and a mere 18 hour ultimatum demanding that France remained neutral should war break out between Germany and Russia. Those demands were ignored and the following day Germany ordered mobilisation of its huge, slick military machine and declared war against Russia. On August 2nd Germany sent troops into Luxembourg and demanded free passage for German troops across the neutral territory of Belgium. The following day Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. That brought Britain into the conflict because, although she had no concern with Serbia and no express obligation to give military support to either Russia or France, Britain (like all the other European powers) was expressly bound by the Treaty of London 1829 to defend the neutrality of Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th. When he heard about the declaration, Bethmann-Hollweg exclaimed he could not believe that Britain and Germany were going to war over a mere ‘scrap of paper’. Several smaller countries, mostly in the Balkans, quickly became involved and Turkey came into the war alongside its new friend Germany against its old enemy Russia.
All the European powers employed conscripts in massive trained armies, very different from Britain’s smaller professional army. The Schlieffen military plan was devised in Germany to outflank fortifications on the French eastern frontier in order to achieve a quick victory in the west before sending troops east for deployment against Russia. The French commander Joffre, in accordance with the pre-planned strategy of Plan XVII, intended to attack immediately with strikes across the border into Germany. Within a few days, the French suffered costly defeats and were beaten back to where they began. Moreover, Joffre was surprised by the gigantic German offensive on his northern flank. However, the German attack through Belgium in the north also failed to achieve its objectives and was beaten off in September at the first battle of the Marne, east of Paris. Manoeuvres by both sides to outflank each other from the west led to ‘the race to the sea’, as each side constructed defensive earthworks all the way to the North Sea coast. The remains of the British expeditionary force finished up defending the western end of the allied line in Flanders and northern France. The first battle of Ypres marked the end of this stage of the war. The number of troops involved was enormous and casualties were severe. Commanders on both sides were learning that the defensive fire-power of machine guns now dominated the battlefield.
Essentially, by December 1914, the German plans for a quick victory in France had failed, but in the east what was considered as a diversionary exercise yielded a stunning victory at Tannenberg, when smaller German forces annihilated an entire Russian army. They then drove a second Russian army out of East Prussia.
With the onset of winter, the British expeditionary force was exhausted and severely depleted. Churchill sent men from the marine and navy reserve 63rd (Royal Naval) division in a vain attempt to hold Antwerp and units were brought in from all parts of the Empire to help hold the line. An Indian Army expeditionary force was deployed at Ypres in October and led the assault at the battle of Neuve Chapelle early in 1915. The Indian infantry were not accustomed to European winter weather and were not properly equipped against the cold. Moreover, officer replacements were unfamiliar with the internal workings of the Indian Army and had no knowledge of Indian languages. Morale remained low until they were replaced in October 1915 by new British volunteer divisions and were sent to the warmer climes of Mesopotamia. However two Indian cavalry divisions remained at the Western Front and took part in several battles, including the Somme. 130,000 Indians served in France and Flanders and almost 9,000 of them died.
The Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener instigated a recruitment campaign designed to raise 500,000 volunteers to serve in the army. The campaign was publicised by the iconographic image of Kitchener commanding young men to join the army. By the end of 1914 more than one million men had enlisted. Many were drafted into special new ‘pals’ battalions, formed so that men from the same towns and cities could serve in arms together. Kitchener did not live to see the fate of his new army; he died when the cruiser carrying him on a mission to Russia struck a German mine and sank in 1916.
Whilst Kitchener’s new army was being trained and equipped, all the belligerent forces in France and Flanders were constantly being reinforced and extended. Field hospitals and other logistical assets were installed and possible opposition weaknesses were probed. The German high command decided a long war was now inevitable and, although they knew final victory would only eventually be won on the western front, the eastern theatre of war offered better chances of immediate success. Joffre still believed continued assaults on the German trenches would secure a breakthrough, but some British leaders were less optimistic and began to support development of a machine which was able to withstand machine gun fire and overcome the German trenches.
Whilst the allies argued over strategy in France, Russia appealed for British help against the Turks, who were causing difficulties for Russia in the Caucasus. A naval expedition was despatched to take the Gallipoli Peninsula on the western shore of the Dardanelles, with the ultimate purpose of mounting an attack on Constantinople and forcing Turkey out of the Central coalition. The naval bombardment began in February, but troops sent from Egypt only began to come ashore in late April, which allowed ample time for the Turks to reinforce the defending forces and prepare adequate fortifications. Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops established a bridgehead on the peninsula, but the British failed to secure all their footholds and required reinforcements.
A political dispute developed in London between Churchill who, after initial doubts, had become the chief spokesman for the Dardanelles operation, and the First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, who always expressed doubts about it. Fisher demanded that the operation be discontinued, but he was overruled and resigned. The Liberals were in disarray and Asquith was forced to form a coalition government with Conservative and Labour participation. Lloyd George became Minister of Munitions and in 1916 he was appointed Secretary of State for War. He raised armaments production significantly, but was frustrated by his limited powers and frequently clashed with the military establishment over strategy. Early in 1916 the government recognised a long struggle lay before it: the unpopular measure of conscription was introduced.
Eventually, the Gallipoli expedition was called off after suffering 132,000 casualties. The ANZAC involvement and losses at Gallipoli played an important part in developing feeling of nationhood in Australia and New Zealand. For Churchill it spelt political ruin; he resigned from the coalition government and eventually resumed his military commission; he was given command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers in the trenches at Flanders until they were merged with other units in 1916.
A joint Franco-British offensive at Lens-Loos in September 1915, which included elements of Kitchener’s new army was also a failure. General Douglas Haig complained that shortage of heavy guns and artillery ammunition of all sorts, plus slow deployment of the reserves by the commander in chief Sir John French, had provided inadequate support for his attack force. Haig replaced French as Commander in Chief in December and Sir William Robertson was promoted to Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the only enlisted private soldier ever to become a field marshal in the British army.
In Mesopotamia, British and Indian forces, which originally were sent to protect the Anglo-Persian oilfields at Abadan in Persia, took the Turkish port of Basra at the head of the Gulf. They continued to advance up the River Tigris towards the city of Baghdad, which had no great strategic significance. They became besieged at Kut, where they were forced to surrender in April 1916. Their commander was given every comfort in captivity but his 13,000 Indian and British soldiers were subject to a dreadful forced march and captivity in Anatolia, where many died.
Another theatre of war was opened when Anglo-French forces were sent to the port of Salonika in Greece, which was officially neutral, on 5 October 1915. They were to provide assistance for the Serbs who were under attack from combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies. After a brief winter campaign in severe weather conditions on the Serbian frontier, the Anglo-French forces withdrew to Salonika and Serbia was lost. The British wished to withdraw from an unpromising situation, but the French, backed by Russia, Italy (which had joined the war on the allied side) and Serbia still believed an allied presence in the Balkans was important. British troops remained there for the rest of the war; they suffered 162,517 cases of malaria and a total 505,024 non-battle casualties altogether. The campaign was regarded as low priority and relied on voluntary medical organisations to provide invaluable assistance.
At sea, the Royal Navy imposed a tight blockade on German ports, which led to many innovative inventions by the German chemical industry and efficient organisation of resources throughout the country. German raiders on the high seas were eradicated and Germany’s naval campaign on British merchant shipping became concentrated on a submarine campaign by U-boats. The British blockade aroused protests from neutral countries, especially the United States, but the sinking of the trans-Atlantic liner Lusitania in May 1915, with the loss of 1198 lives, helped swing opinion against Germany.
In February 1916 the Germans launched a major offensive on the Western Front. Their strategy was ‘to bleed France to death’ by choosing a target for which the French would fight to the last man. The Germans, commanded by the Crown Prince intended to entice a constant flow of French troops into the mincing machine of their massive firepower arrayed around the fortress of Verdun on the Meuse River. General Philippe Pétain was given command of Verdun at an early stage in the battle, which raged throughout 1916. Some 300,000 men died and France suffered about 400,000 casualties in total, whilst the German casualties amounted to some 350,000.
The British and French high commands were planning a major summer assault of their own on the River Somme. They believed the German lines at this point would be weakened by the ongoing battle at Verdun, whilst the Germans saw Verdun as a means to force the French to withdraw men from the Somme offensive. In the event several French divisions were taken to bolster the defence of Verdun and it was British troops who provided the principal effort on the Somme. A week-long artillery barrage was supposed to destroy the German wire and trenches so that the infantry would walk virtually unopposed through no-man’s land into the open land behind enemy lines. On July 1st, 11 British divisions (many of them inexperienced volunteers of Kitchener’s army) began advancing on a 15-mile front north of the Somme. At the same time, five French divisions advanced on an eight-mile front to the south. However, German positions, many of which were deep underground, were much stronger than anticipated. Thousands of British troops were cut down in a hail of German machine gun and rifle fire. The limited gains made by British and French units to the south were little recompense for the disastrous British losses on that first day on the Somme; close to 20,000 British were killed and more than 38,000 were wounded. Hague continued the assault in the days following, partly to relieve the intense pressure being put on the French at Verdun.
The intended breakthrough never materialised, and Haig finally halted the offensive in the mud of mid-November. His army had advanced seven miles and had failed to break the German line, but German morale was shaken, both at the Somme and at Verdun. A week before Christmas, the French finished the recovery of lost territory at Verdun and the Germans acknowledged the battle was over. Both sides had lost hundreds of thousands of casualties without achieving any significant territorial gain.
Germany also tested the power of the Royal Navy in the summer of 1916. The High Seas Fleet and Great Britain’s Grand Fleet met at the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea. It was history’s biggest naval battle to date and both sides claimed a victory. The Grand Fleet suffered the worst casualties, but it remained the most powerful force in the North Sea. The German fleet never ventured out of port to try its luck again, and Britain maintained its tight blockade on German trade.
Marshal von Hindenburg became chief of the German general staff in August 1916 with General Eric Ludendorff as his quartermaster general. They were committed to a military victory although Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was, by this stage, hoping for a negotiated peace. However, the battles of 1916 on the eastern and western fronts had exhausted their armies. During the winter they withdrew from their positions near the Somme and established a shortened line of defences which became known as the Hindenburg Line. They would not be able to launch a major offensive in 1917, but they hoped to overcome any allied attack. Their hopes of victory were also threatened by the British naval blockade, which threatened to starve Germany into collapse. From Feb. 1st 1917, the German navy would give Britain a taste of the same medicine. It was to wage unrestricted economic submarine warfare on merchant shipping in Britain’s Atlantic western approaches.
The Americans ended their attempt to broker a peace and declared war on Germany in early April. The American public was won to the allied cause when a coded message from Arthur Zimmerman the German foreign secretary was intercepted and made public by British Intelligence. The Zimmerman telegram promised that, if America entered the war, Germany would help Mexico take Texas and other states from the USA. Germany now realised it must do everything to reach a resolution in Europe before the new enemy power entered the fray.
In the east, hopes of a Russian steamroller advance were briefly fanned in 1916 when Marshal Brusilov’s offensive wrecked the Austro-Hungarian positions in June; 200,000 prisoners were taken, but his superiors failed to exploit the situation and allowed Germany to reinforce the Austrians with at least seven divisions from the western front, where they should have taken part in the Verdun and Somme battles. By early September the opportunity of exploiting the summer’s victory was lost. Instead, its ultimate achievement was to sound the death knell of the Russian monarchy. The morale and the material strength of Russia’s armies had been depleted by the loss of about 1,000,000 men, mostly consisting of deserters or prisoners. The allied cause seemed strengthened by Romania’s declaration of war on the Central powers in August, but the Romanians soon crumpled before a joint assault; Bucharest fell on December 6th and the crippled Romanian army fell back into Moldavia, where it had the belated support of Russian troops. The Central Powers now had access to Romania’s granaries and oil wells, and the Russians had a more extended front to defend.
One other small military operation in 1916 was to have enormous long term consequences for the United Kingdom and the empire. On Easter Monday a small number of Irish paramilitaries proclaimed the Irish Republic; they seized the Post Office and other buildings in Dublin and elsewhere. Heavy fighting continued for more than a week before they were forced to surrender. Asquith’s government was distracted with other matters and had little idea that a small nationalist outrage was about to develop into a national cause celebre. A number of the republican leaders were quickly tried and executed and martial law was declared throughout Ireland. Mass arrests were made and the heavy-handed post-uprising actions of the authorities caused outrage among many Irish people who, up to that point, had been uncommitted to republicanism. Asquith appointed Lloyd George to come up with a peace-making solution based on the introduction of Home Rule for all Ireland, except Ulster, as soon as the war was over. However the Conservatives partners in the coalition were opposed to the scheme and it was dropped. In the months that followed, the republican cause took firm root in Ireland, opposed by resolute unionists, particularly in Ulster.
At the end of 1916, Asquith, disheartened by the loss of his close friend Venetia Stanley to another man, and accused of continued lethargy by members of his government and in the press, was compelled to resign. He was succeeded as prime minister of the coalition government by the energetic, ambitious and charismatic Lloyd George - a man who came from a humble, Welsh-speaking, shoe-maker's home, was brought up in a Baptist environment and never went to university. As Minister for Munitions, he had already boosted morale and won popular admiration with great improvements to the manufacture and supply of armaments, particularly artillery shells. Confronted with food shortages, he quickly introduced rationing, gave financial inducements to agriculture and approved a convoy system for merchant ships.
However, his relationship with the senior military was not good. They dismissed many of his ideas for extending the war and he was not impressed with their achievements to date; he felt that the French high command had been more skilful and daring than the British on the 1916 battlefields. At the end of the year, the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson explored the possibilities of brokering a peaceful solution to the war, but Lloyd George made clear his terms required Germany’s defeat. Early in 1917 he gave his support to a new strategy devised by the French General Nivelle who wanted British forces to be placed under his command in preparation for a great offensive. He planned an early British attack to tie up German resources, before a swift and powerful French advance which should result in an overwhelming victory in two days. Sir William Robertson protested vehemently and it was finally agreed in mid-March that Haig, as an ally of the French, was expected to defer to their wishes, but was not subject to their command.
The British and imperial forces attack at Arras in April 1917 was fairly successful and important positions such as Vimy ridge were taken, although they suffered much higher casualties than their opponents. The French attack on the Aisne River in Champagne a few days later resulted in heavy losses for both sides. Some tactically important high ground was gained, but Nivelle failed to deliver the promised breakthrough and French army morale was wrecked. Troops began to refuse to move from the trenches and the mutiny continued into June, when their new commander in chief Marshal Petain regained his troops’ confidence by eschewing offensive action until he secured a good supply of tanks and the American army arrived. The British were left to devise their own hostile activity, such as the attack at Messines, until the French restored order in their ranks and were once more ready to attack the foe.
In order to divert pressure from the immobile French sectors, Haig devised the idea of an offensive to liberate Antwerp and the Belgian coast, where many of the German U-boats was based. The Admiralty, feared that, within a few months, the U-boat threat would seriously restrict Britain's fighting ability. The action became known as the Third Battle of Ypres and culminated in the mud and misery of Passchendaele. 3rd Ypres was a substantial success. British forces succeeded in taking the ridges around the Ypres salient and inflicted losses which the Germans would find difficult to replace, but then everything went awry. Unseasonable and persistent rains turned the battlegrounds into a quagmire of deep, stinking mud. Passchendaele became a byword for vile, inhuman conditions. The Canadians succeeded, at serious cost, in capturing the ridge in November, but further progress was out of the question, especially as French and British troops were taken to prop up the Italians who had suffered an enormous defeat at Caporetto and were in danger of losing their war with Austria-Hungary. Lloyd George had fiercely opposed Haig’s strategy and continued to blame the enormous loss of life on his senseless continuation of committing men into the morass, but members of the German General Staff asserted ‘Germany was brought close to certain destruction (sicheren Untergang) by the 1917 battle in Flanders’.
The British army was beginning to employ the tank with variable results, as designs were modified and commanders grew accustomed to using their new weapon. They were of little use in the mud at Passchendaele, but in November 378 tanks were used in the attack on the Hindenburg Line on the firmer ground at Cambrai in Northern France. Air attacks on ground forces were also used to significant effect. Parts of the Hindenburg line were breached, but the Germans made determined counter attacks which gave them hopes that they might drive Britain out of Flanders and negotiate terms before the United States army started to take a major part in the conflict. Cambrai developed into another partial failure and added nothing to Haig’s reputation for dogged non-achievement. Haig pointed out that before Messines the British had expected offensives from Russia, Italy and France, but had been left carrying the burden single-handedly. Lloyd George was more successful in his vendetta with the CIGS Robertson and forced his retirement in February 1918. Jellicoe was also replaced as First Sea Lord at the end of 1917.
Nevertheless, at the end of the year it was clear the conflict was moving to a climax. Trained and fully-equipped American troops were coming to Europe as the army of an associated power and not as a full member of the alliance. The French army had recovered its fighting spirit and Britain and its imperial brothers had begun to grind down German resistance in the trenches. On the other hand, the Germans, who had lost men and equipment which could not be fully replaced on the Western Front, were about to be greatly strengthened by an influx of divisions from the east, where difficult events had turned into catastrophe for the allied cause.
At the beginning of the century, the Czar and his family were held in almost religious awe by most Russians, but demands for political change had been drifting in the air since early in the century. Incompetence, corruption, defeats and failure in many areas all contributed to their loss of esteem. The war with the Central Powers drove home the fact that Russia was no longer a military power of the first rank and its economy was also weak and backward.
In February 1917 food riots broke out in Petrograd, formerly St Petersburg. The military garrison joined the rioters and Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. A liberal-minded provisional government was formed, which intended to continue with Russia’s participation in the Great War. However, a rival authority called the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, with delegates chosen from factories and military units in and around Petrograd, soon provided a serious opposition. The provisional government was unable to cope with the breakdown of order in the country, the collapse in army morale and the soviets which were being set up in cities and army units in many parts of Russia. The soviets favoured an end to the war. By the autumn, soldiers were deserting in great numbers and an extremist group known as Bolsheviks had won considerable support among hungry urban workers for its programme of Peace, Land and Bread. In October 1917 (November by the Gregorian western calendar), the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, staged a coup, and a new government of soviet commissars was installed. In March 1918, news reached Paris and London that their erstwhile ally Russia had signed humiliating peace terms at Brest-Litovsk, which stripped away from soviet rule all the non-Russian western nations of the now defunct Russian Empire. Most of the million or so German troops on the Eastern Front were now freed for service in the west.
One great British success in 1917 was achieved in the Middle East. An unknown junior officer, Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence had managed to get the tribes of Arabia to cooperate in an uprising against their Turkish rulers with a vision of an Arab nation. In July 1917 Lawrence’s Arab guerrillas seized Aqaba, an important port at the head of the Red Sea. Thenceforth, the Arabs interrupted Turkish communications and assisted Sir Edmund Allenby’s campaign to drive the Turks out of Sinai and take Jerusalem. Although he was captured by the Turks in November, Lawrence escaped and the following month he was present at Allenby’s victory parade in Jerusalem. Allenby was the first Christian to administer the city of Jerusalem since the crusades. The campaign ended with the capture of Damascus in October 1918.
Unfortunately, Lawrence’s promises of a pan Arab nation to succeed the Ottomans in Arabia were undermined by tribal and family factions. The French and British governments also had other ideas about the future of the Middle East. Back in 1916, they, with imperial Russian assent, had made an agreement about the political breakup of the Ottoman Empire. It was named the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the two chief negotiators Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Syria and Mesopotamia would be divided into areas of British or French spheres of influence, whilst Palestine, as home of the sensitive Holy Places, would be controlled by an international regime. Earlier British indications that they were in favour of Arab self-determination were disregarded.
The situation was further complicated when the former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who was now foreign secretary in the coalition government, made a declaration in November 1917 that Britain would support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The declaration stipulated that nothing should prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, but it said nothing of the political or national rights of those (mainly Arab) communities.
These two developments would be fateful to the development and well-being of the Middle East in the post war world but, for the moment, most of Britain’s attention was fixed on matters closer to home. Food shortages were now in evidence and meat rationing was introduced in February. Ration books for other foods such as lard and dairy products were issued in July. Nevertheless, with American help, the convoy system and anti-submarine tactics reduced the U-boat danger in the later months of 1917, and more than 40 U-boats were destroyed in the first six months of 1918. Some heavy bomber raids on London and the South East unsettled the nation, but everyone was looking forward with impatience to the imminent arrival of American forces. Haig was still at risk in the political minefield at Westminster, but, knowing that overarching control and direction of allied military effort was necessary, he agreed to serve under the new French commander Marshal Foch as the supreme allied commander.
On the other side of the trenches, the intention of the German high command was to make one final effort to weaken the allies severely, with the hope of compelling an armistice before the Americans arrived. By March, they had added about 570,000 men to their forces on the Western Front. Backed with a massive artillery arsenal and using new ‘stormtrooper’ and ‘creeping artillery barrage’ tactics, the German Spring Offensive was launched against the British sections of the line in northern France and Flanders. It succeeded in breaking through and making major advances, taking back territory lost in 1916-17 and more, but was unable to maintain momentum due to supply problems. Much of the newly-won territory was of little advantage, being a shell-torn wilderness left by the 1916 battles of the Somme and Passchendaele; spring 1918 was a pyrrhic victory for the Germans.
Both sides once again suffered enormous casualties. The allies could resupply and were beginning to be reinforced by the American army. The final German effort at the Marne had been repelled by French forces aided by an American division. After four separate failed attempts to split the allied forces and win vital objectives, the German commander Ludendorff had lost most of his elite troops. His territorial gains left his exhausted forces in exposed salients, which greatly extended the areas they had to defend. By the end of July, he was faced with disaster as fresh American forces entered the fray and helped a French-led multi-national force regain the ground lost at the Marne. At home, the German nation was hungry, dispirited and politically fractious.
On 8th August the British Fourth Army, which included Australian and Canadian corps, attacked German positions threatening the vital allied railway junction of Amiens. This was the start of the allies’ 100 Days Offensive, which led to the end of the war. Large numbers of German troops surrendered on the first day, extensive gains were consolidated and morale was lifted among the war-weary men, whereas the German troops were demoralised, with no hope of victory. British forces continued to gain ground, capturing guns and munitions and taking thousands of prisoners. Haig’s armies penetrated the Hindenburg Line on 28th September and the Germans asked for a cease fire; discussions continued for a month until the Armistice on 11th November.
Haig wanted the allies to pursue a moderate peace-making agenda, based on the demand that Germany should quit Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine. He feared that humiliating terms might lead to a militarist backlash. France, however, also demanded the evacuation of the Rhineland. There was a strong political demand that Germany pay harsh reparations for its militarist policies under the Kaiser, who had been forced to abdicate when socialist revolutions broke out in Berlin and cities on the north German coast, as well as in Munich and Frankfort.
In December 1918, in a heady atmosphere of victory and desire for revenge against Germany, a general election was called in Britain which returned an overwhelming majority of coalition Liberals and Conservatives. Candidates supporting the coalition received a ‘coalition coupon’ confirming they were endorsed by Lloyd George and Bonar Law, the Conservative leader; they won 525 out of 707 seats contested, more than two thirds of which were Conservatives. Independent Liberals headed by Asquith, who actually lost his seat, were crushed, 62 Labour MPs were returned and 73 Sinn Fein members represented Ireland but did not take their seats. This was the first time women were allowed to vote in a British general election.
Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour represented Britain at the Paris Peace Conference which began in January 1919. The Allied powers did not invite representatives of the Bolshevik government in Russia to attend the conference. They also excluded the defeated Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria). Peace with Germany was eventually agreed at the Treaty of Versailles, signed at the end of June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which started the war. The most important provision in the treaty was that Germany and her allies accept responsibility for causing all the loss and damage during the war and pay reparations amounting to 132 billion gold marks. This later became known as the War Guilt clause. The treaty also required Germany to disarm, give up about 10% of the territory on its western and eastern borders and allowed France to exploit the coal-rich resources of Saarland until 1935. All the Rhineland was to be demilitarised, German overseas possessions were to be surrendered and the size of the German army and navy was limited. John Maynard Keynes said the terms were excessive and counter-productive, but many in France, including Marshal Foch, thought the treaty was too lenient. Although its actual impact was not as severe as feared, its terms led to great resentment in Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party.
In April, the conference approved the Covenant of the League of Nations, which was designed to be an international collective security arrangement and was primarily the achievement of the American President Woodrow Wilson. It became a part of the Versailles treaty, but the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty. America signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and other combatants and never became a member of the League.
Following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the war, a series of new or reconstituted states was formed. Austria itself became a small German-speaking state and the new, independent states of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the multinational Balkan state of Yugoslavia were created. The ancient state of Poland was created from territory recovered from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and Germany. Trieste and the South Tyrol became part of Italy.
The Ottoman Empire was also dismembered at the Treaty of Sevres in 1919. However, Kemal Ataturk and his Young Turk supporters would not accept the treaty. Following the Turkish War of Independence, new arrangements were ratified at the Treaty of Lausanne 1923-4. Anatolia in Asia Minor with Constantinople and an area of southern Thrace across the Bosphorus in Europe were included in the modern state of Turkey. All claims to the rest of the Ottoman Empire were given up and a secret annex to the treaty granted immunity to the Turkish perpetrators of any crimes committed 1914-22, notably the genocidal attacks on Armenian, Assyrian and Greek minorities. Cyprus became a fully British colony, Egypt became a self-governing kingdom, although Britain retained control of its foreign relations, and the Sudan remained an Anglo-Egyptian protectorate. Britain was granted a mandate by the League of Nations to administer Mesopotamia, which became known as Iraq. France received a similar mandate for Syria and Lebanon. Palestine was mandated to Britain and the terms of the Balfour Declaration, declaring a national home for the Jewish people was to be established in Palestine, were recognised.
Britain now entered a post war era with imperial responsibilities stretching further than ever, but with a wrecked economy. The British people were exhausted, with the flower of their young manhood lost or damaged by war. There was a widespread feeling that the old days were gone forever and a new future of social equality and economic security was going to be a just reward for all the suffering endured during the Great War.
1901 The six Australian colonies form the Commonwealth of Australia.
~ Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) sends a wireless message from Cornwall to Newfoundland.
~ Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) publishes The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first of her books about anthropomorphic animals.
~ The British Academy for study of the Humanities and Natural Science is founded.
~ Elgar composes The Pomp and Circumstance march.
1902 The Boer War ends with the republics of Transvaal and Orange Free state (to be known as Orange River) being annexed as colonies under British rule.
~ Cecil Rhodes, financier and imperialist in Africa, dies leaving money to fund Rhodes Scholarships awarded to foreign students of outstanding ability who wish to study at Oxford University.
~ Lord Salisbury retires, succeeded as P M by Arthur Balfour.
~ Balfour’s Education Act standardizes education systems in England and Wales, introduces Local Education Authorities, funds elementary schools run by religious establishments, and leads to a rapid increase in secondary school numbers.
~ Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932) becomes the first British Nobel prize winner (Medicine) for discovering that mosquitoes transmit malaria.
~ The Irish National Theatre Movement is formed by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) and the Fay brothers.
~ Arthur Conan Doyle publishes Hound of the Baskervilles.
~ John Masefield (1878-1967) publishes Saltwater Ballads.
~ Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) publishes Heart of Darkness.
~ Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) publishes Anna of the Five Towns.
1903 Mrs Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst (1858-1928) forms the Women’s Social and Political Union (later known as the Suffragette movement).
~ The Anglo-French Entente Cordiale, an attempt to heal 1,000 years of discord, is agreed during Edward VII’s state visit to Paris.
~ Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal Unionist leader, quits the government to lead the Tariff Reform League which favours Imperial Preference.
~ Austen Chamberlain (1863-1927) becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer in the reshuffle following his father’s resignation.
~ Irish Land Purchase Act provides for sale of Irish estates to tenant farmers.
~ Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) begins to collect traditional English folk songs and dance music.
~ The Seychelles archipelago is separated from Mauritius and becomes a British crown colony.
~ Westminster R C cathedral is completed, Liverpool Anglican cathedral designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) is started.
~ Erskine Childers (1870-1922), Irish author and patriot writes Riddle of the Sands, a novel about German invasion plans.
1904 The first Rolls Royce motor car is produced.
~ Admiral Jacky Fisher (1841-1920) becomes First Sea Lord and starts a major overhaul and renewal of the Royal Navy.
~ Dogger Bank incident. The Russian fleet, en route to the Far East where Russia is at war with Japan, mistakes Hull trawlers for enemy Japanese gunboats and sinks one. France mediates a settlement of the crisis.
~ University of Dublin grants ad eundem degrees to the ’Steamboat Ladies’, successful female students on whom their own universities of Oxford and Cambridge would not confer a degree.
~ The Younghusband Anglo-Indian expedition to Tibet is sent to resolve the Sikkim border dispute and ensure resistance to Russian influence. The terms agreed at the Treaty of Lhasa and the mission itself are regarded as harsh and unnecessary by London authorities.
~ Peter Pan by Scottish novelist/playwright J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) is produced at the Duke of York’s Theatre London.
~ The Abbey theatre, Dublin opens with plays by W, B. Yeats and Lady Gregory.
1905 The Aliens Act safeguards the right of political asylum to foreign immigrants.
~ The Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1902 is revised and extended with Japan committing to assist if India is attacked.
~ Balfour resigns as prime minister due to disagreement with Liberal Unionists over tariff reforms.
~ Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) becomes Liberal P M.
~ Lord Curzon (1859-1925) resigns as Viceroy of India because of Indian Army reforms.
~ Work starts on the garden city at Letchworth following the precepts of
pioneer town planner Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928).
~ Baroness Orczy writes The Scarlet Pimpernel.
~ George B. Shaw’s Major Barbara and Man and Superman are performed at the Royal Court Theatre.
~ The AA Automobile Association is founded.
1906 The Liberal Party, under Campbell-Bannerman, wins its last majority in the House of Commons in a landslide election victory.
~ The Parliamentary Labour Party is founded, leader Kier Hardie.
~ HMS Dreadnought is launched, rendering all other battleships out of date.
~ The Trades Disputes Act protects Trades Unions from claims for damages incurred during a strike.
~ Workmen’s Compensation Act entitles workers to compensation for accidents and ‘industrial diseases’.
~ Joseph John Thompson (1856-1940) wins the Nobel Prize (Physics) for discovery of the electron and other work in atomic physics at the Cavendish laboratory, Cambridge.
~ Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) and 10 other suffragettes are gaoled for disrupting the State Opening of Parliament.
~ Transvaal and Orange River colonies are granted self-government.
~ France and Britain agree terms for joint administration of New Hebrides islands in the western Pacific.
~ Work starts on Hampstead Garden Suburb led by Henrietta Barnett nee Rowland (1851-1936), inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard, designs by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944).
~ John Galsworthy (1867-1933) publishes The Man of Property, first of the Forsyte Saga trilogy.
~ The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) is first published in Blackwood’s magazine.
1907 Sinn Fein is created as a political party intent on seeking self-government in Ireland.
~ The Dominions of Newfoundland and New Zealand are created.
~ Anglo-Russian détente settles differences over Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet.
~ Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) makes a State Visit to England.
~ General Baden-Powell (1857-1941) starts the Scouting movement with a camp at Brownsea Island.
~ Rudyard Kipling, poet and storyteller, is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
~ Playboy of the Western World a play by J. M. Synge (1871-1909) causes a riot at the Abbey theatre Dublin.
~ The world’s first motor racing track opens at Brooklands, Surrey.
1908 The new P M Herbert Asquith (1852-1928) brings in the Old Age Pension Act which marks the beginning of Britain’s social welfare system.
~ New Zealander Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) wins the Nobel Prize (Chemistry) for his theory of atomic structure.
~ The Union of South Africa brings together the colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River under one elected government. It is declared a self-governing dominion the following year.
~ Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) publishes The Wind in the Willows.
~ E. M. Forster (1879-1970) publishes A Room with a View.
~ Elgar’s Symphony No 1 performed at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.
~ First performance of Brigg Fair, an orchestral work by Yorkshire-born Frederick Delius (1862-1934) based on an English folk song arranged by Percy Grainger (1882-1961).
~ Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) American-born sculptor completes 18 nude figures for façade of the BMA building in the Strand.
~ The IV Olympiad is held at White City, London.
~ Queen’s University, Belfast is founded.
~ W. G. Grace’s last first class innings for Gentlemen v Surrey.
~ The first purpose built cinema in Britain opens at Colne Lancashire.
1909 The Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) brings in the ‘People’s Budget’, with provisions to fund his social welfare programme. It causes parliamentary conflict about the powers of the House of Lords and only received the royal assent in April 1910.
~ MI5, the counter espionage organisation, is formed.
~ Suffragettes on hunger strike in Birmingham gaol are force fed.
~ The Anglo Persian Oil Company is set up when a large oil field is discovered in Persia.
~ The Victoria and Albert, the world largest museum of Art and Design, opens.
~ The Girl Guides movement is formed.
~ The first complete performance of A Mass of Life (text by Friedrich Neitzsche) by Frederick Delius is conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961).
~ William Beveridge (1879-1963) publishes Unemployment, a report on state insurance schemes.
1910 Liberals continue in power with Irish and Labour support after the January general election.
~ Edward Carson (1854-1935) leads the Ulster Unionist Council.
~ Edward VII dies, succeeded by George V (1865-1936).
~ Dr Crippen (born 1862) is arrested and later executed for murder after warning of his presence is broadcast by ship’s radio.
~ A Second election in December achieves roughly the same result. Liberals retain power.
~ Sir Aston Webb’s (1849-1930) Admiralty Arch is completed, transforming the Mall into a processional route.
~ Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) publish Principia Mathematica a philosophical work on the foundations of mathematics.
~ E. M. Forster publishes Howards End.
~ John Masefield publishes Ballads and Poems including Cargoes.
~ Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) Sea Symphony is performed in Birmingham.
~ First performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Soloist Kreisler.
~ A Village Romeo and Juliet an opera by Delius is performed at Covent Garden.
~ The London Palladium music hall opens.
1911 The Parliament Act restricting the powers of the House of Lords is passed.
~ Lloyd George introduces a National Insurance scheme to fund sickness pay to workers.
~ The Official Secrets Act is passed.
~ MPs to be paid £400 per annum.
~ The King Emperor visits India and lays the foundation stone for New Delhi. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946) it replaces Calcutta as the new capital of the British Raj.
~ Anti-German demonstrations in London attend the Agadir Incident in Morocco.
~ Winston Churchill becomes First Lord of the Admiralty.
~ Balfour is succeeded as Conservative party leader by Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923).
~ Thomas Blake Glover, recognised as the founder of modern industrial Japan, dies in Tokyo, buried in Nagasaki.
~ Territories in Central Africa administered by the British South Africa company are amalgamated to form the protectorate of Northern Rhodesia.
~ D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) publishes The White Peacock.
~ Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) publishes Poems 1911.
1912 Sir Edward Carson addresses mass meetings in Ulster calling for resistance to Home Rule in Ireland. The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant is signed by hundreds of thousands of Unionists.
~ The Titanic ocean liner collides with an iceberg and sinks on her maiden voyage.
~ Captain Robert F. Scott’s (born 1868) expedition to the South Pole ends in tragedy.
~ The Marconi Scandal. Ministers including Lloyd George are allegedly corruptly involved in insider share-dealing.
~ Informal gatherings of intellectual Cambridge men and Kings College, London literary women develop into the influential Bloomsbury Group.
~ Walter de la Mare (1873-1976), poet best known as a children’s writer, publishes The Listeners.
~ Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) takes charge of the Old Vic music hall.
1913 The Ulster Volunteer Force is raised to oppose Irish Home Rule ‘by force if necessary’.
~ The Irish Volunteers are formed under the auspices of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in response to the UVF.
~ Emily Davidson, a suffragette, throws herself under the king’s horse and dies at the Epsom Derby.
~ Mrs Pankhurst is imprisoned for inciting the bombing of Lloyd George’s house.
~ Treaty of London peace accord between Turkey and the Balkan nations.
~ The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later to become a constituent of BP with the largest shareholder being the British government) completes the world’s largest oil refinery at Abadan. The Royal Navy, planning to modernize its fleet with oil-fueled ships, becomes its biggest customer.
~ The New Statesman magazine is first published under the auspices of the Fabian Society.
~ D. H. Lawrence writes Sons and Lovers.
~ George B. Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion is produced at St James Theatre London.
1914 The Curragh incident. British army officers indicate they would resign if ordered to take action against the Ulster Volunteers. The government backs off.
~ The third Home Rule for Ireland Bill is passed in the Commons with an amending bill allowing temporary exclusion of Ulster, which is drastically amended by the Lords.
~ Buckingham Palace conference on Ulster fails.
~ The Great War (WWI) starts. A Serbian assassinates the crown prince of Austro-Hungary which declares war on Serbia, whose ally Russia, in alliance with France, declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany declares war and invades Belgium to get at France. Great Britain declares war on Germany to honour its commitment to Belgium.
~ The British Expeditionary force retreats from Mons, helps stabilise French resistance at the Marne and establishes a defensive line with the First Battle of Ypres.
~ German ships bombard Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool.
~ Britain deposes the Khedive and declares a Protectorate for Egypt now independent of the enemy Ottoman Empire.
~ The German Pacific squadron is destroyed at the battle of the Falklands.
~ Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), a young performer from London who grew up in grinding poverty, develops his tramp character and becomes a super star of the silent film era.
~ British colonial and protectorate lands in West Africa are amalgamated to become the colony of Nigeria with the soldier and administrator Sir Frederick Lugard (1858-1945) acting as its first governor-general.
~ Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941) publishes Dubliners.
~ Pygmalion by George B Shaw is produced with Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940) as Eliza Doolittle.
~ Augustus John (1878-1961) paints George B. Shaw.
1915 The British Expeditionary force to France/ Flanders is decimated. Imperial forces arrive to assist and go into action at the battle of Neuve Chapelle.
~ Field Marshal Lord Kitchener raises a volunteer army.
~ British, Australian and New Zealand troops suffer severe losses at Gallipoli as they try to cut off Turkey from its European allies. Australian and New Zealand national consciousness is forged by this event.
~ Chlorine gas is used at the Second battle of Ypres.
~ British win costly battle at Loos, France.
~ Anglo-French force put ashore at Salonika.
~ German Zeppelin airships bomb English towns and cities including London.
~ U boat sinks the Cunard Liner Lusitania killing 1198 and arouses international public opinion against Germany’s submarine warfare campaign.
~ Asquith forms a coalition government.
~ Nurse Edith Cavell (born 1865) is shot as a spy by the Germans.
~ Rupert Brooke (born 1887), author of War Sonnets which includes The Soldier poem, dies at Skyros Greece en route to Gallipoli.
~ John Buchan (1875-1940), Scottish politician and novelist, publishes The Thirty Nine Steps his most famous spy thriller.
~ W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) writes Of Human Bondage.
~ P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) writes the first Blanding’s castle novel Something Fresh and creates the Jeeves character.
~ William L. Bragg (1890-1971), 25, becomes the youngest Nobel Prize winner for work on X-ray crystallography with his father Sir William H. Bragg (1862-1942).
1916 The Battle of the Somme - 20,000 British troops, many of Kitchener’s new army, are killed on the first day.
~ The Military Service Act introduces conscription of civilian men aged 18-41 into the armed services.
~ Troops are evacuated from Gallipoli.
~ Naval battle at Jutland is inconclusive but leaves the Royal Navy in control of the North Sea.
~ Lloyd George replaces Asquith as prime minister.
~ The Easter Rising in Dublin organised by the Irish Volunteers and the IRB is put down, but execution of the leaders and harsh actions by the British authorities fuel nationalist resentment in Ireland.
~ Sir Roger Casement (born 1864) British diplomat, human rights activist and Irish Nationalist is executed for treason.
~ Humiliating surrender of British-Indian force commanded by General Charles Townshend at Kut al Amara in Mesopotamia. Many die on the march into Ottoman captivity.
~ The Sykes-Picot agreement delineates spheres of Anglo-French control and influence in the post-war Middle East.
~ Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) completes his epic story of endurance with the rescue of all his Antarctic expedition comrades left stranded on a remote island.
~ Field Marshal Sir William Robertson (1860-1933) becomes Chief of the Imperial General Staff (head of the army), the only man to rise to this position after enlisting as a private soldier.
~ Douglas Haig (1861-1928) becomes C in C British forces in France.
~ Marie Stopes (1880-1958) publishes Married Love with information about birth control.
~ The Gilbert and Ellice Islands become a crown colony.
~ Police seize copies of The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence as obscene.
~ Edward Thomas (1878-1917) writes Six Poems; he is killed at Arras the following year.
1917 The British gain ground at battle of Arras and the Canadian Corps takes Vimy ridge, but it finishes as another stalemate, costly to both sides.
~ Huge mines exploded at Messines enable British and imperial force to gain important ground, in preparation for the Third battle of Ypres and to relieve pressure on the French, who sit in the trenches after their failed Nivelle offensive.
~ Germany launches an unlimited U-boat campaign.
~ United States declares war on Germany in April.
~ Tanks at the battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres) are mostly ineffective due to relentless rain and thick mud.
~ Battle of Cambrai employs large number of tanks with more success.
~ T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) directs the Arab insurgency at the capture of Aqaba and continues to harry the Ottoman forces and infrastructure in Arabia and Palestine.
~ Kut is retaken, British enter Baghdad.
~ General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) enters Jerusalem on foot at the head of a British military expeditionary force.
~ The Balfour Declaration promises a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
~ Marine artist Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) devises Dazzle camouflage for ships to confuse U boat commanders.
~ Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) writes a letter to his commanding officer entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.
~ The German name of the Royal family is changed to Windsor.
~ The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is formed to fight for an independent Ireland.
1918 The German Spring Offensive, strengthened by the peace treaty with Revolutionary Russia, breaks through British lines and threatens communications to the channel ports but is finally contained.
~ The Battle of Amiens: German lines on the Western Front are destroyed by Imperial forces. Allied forces begin the 100 Days Offensive which ends with the Armistice which terminates the Great War.
~ The Royal Air Force is founded.
~ Food rationing is introduced.
~ Allenby enters Damascus.
~ Wilfred Owen (born 1893), celebrated war poet, is killed one week before the armistice.
~ Women over 30 with property vote for the first time in the General Election. Overwhelming victory for Conservative and Coalition Liberals. Sinn Fein win a majority in Ireland.
~ Spanish flu pandemic spreads world-wide.
~ Fisher's Education Act raises school-leaving age to 14.
~ The Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) publishes the collected edition of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poetry (died 1889).
~ Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) publishes Eminent Victorians.
~ Siegfried Sassoon publishes Counter Attack poems.
1919 The Treaty of Versailles ends the Great War and inflicts punitive reparations on Germany.
~ Sinn Fein form their own parliament (the Dáil Éireann) in Dublin.
~ Hostilities begin in Ireland between the IRA and Loyalist forces which come to include the Black and Tan volunteers.
~ British troops commanded by General Reginald Dyer (1864-1927) massacre 379 Indians at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar.
~ The Government of India Act. Edwin Montagu (1879-1924) introduces dyarchy government, consisting of an executive crown-appointed council and an administrative section of ministers chosen by the Governor from elected Indian members.
~ British troops supporting White Russian counter-revolutionaries evacuate from Archangel and Murmansk.
~ Nancy, Lady Astor (1879-1964) becomes the first woman Member of Parliament to take her seat.
~ The German Fleet is scuttled at Scapa Flow.
~ John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) publishes the highly critical The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
~ Francis W Aston constructs a mass spectrograph and discovers over 200 naturally occurring isotopes.
~ My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse is published.
~ The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham is published.
~ John Alcock (1892-1919) and Arthur W. Brown (1886-1948) fly an aeroplane non-stop across the Atlantic.