Britain entered the war because of its implicit support for France, which had entered to support Russia, which in turn had entered to support Serbia. Even more important than that chain of links was Britain’s determination to honour its commitment to defend Belgium. Britain was loosely part of the Triple Entente with France and Russia, which (with smaller allies) fought the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. After a few weeks the Western Front turned into a killing ground in which millions of men died but no army made a large advance.
The stalemate required an endless supply of men and munitions. By 1916, volunteering fell off, the government imposed conscription in Britain (but not in Ireland) to keep up the strength of the Army. After a rough start in industrial mobilisation, Britain replaced prime minister Asquith in December 1916 with the much more dynamic Liberal leader David Lloyd George. The nation now successfully mobilised its manpower, womanpower, industry, finances, Empire and diplomacy, in league with France and the U.S. to defeat the enemy. After defeating Russia, the Germans tried to win in the spring of 1918 before the millions of American soldiers arrived. They failed, and they were overwhelmed and finally accepted an Armistice in November 1918, that amounted to a surrender.
Britain eagerly supported the war, but in Ireland the Catholics were restless and plotted a rebellion in 1916. It failed but the brutal repression that followed turned that element against Britain. The economy grew about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943). The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from New York banks. After the U.S. entered in April 1917, the Treasury borrowed directly from the U.S. government.
The Royal Navy dominated the seas, defeating the smaller German fleet in the only major naval battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Germany was blockaded, leading to an increasing shortage short of food. Germany’s naval strategy increasingly turned towards use of U-Boats to strike back against the British, despite the risk of triggering war with the powerful neutral power, the United States. The waters around Britain were declared a war zone where any ship, neutral or otherwise, was a target. After the liner Lusitania was sunk in May 1915, drowning over 100 American passengers, protests by the United States led Germany to abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. With victory over Russia in 1917, Germany now calculated it could finally have numerical superiority on the Western Front. Planning for a massive spring offensive in 1918, it resumed the sinking of all merchant ships without warning. The US entered the war alongside the Allies (without actually joining them), and provided the needed money and supplies to sustain the Allies’ war efforts. The U-boat threat was ultimately defeated by a convoy system across the Atlantic.
On other fronts, the British, French, Australians, and Japanese seized Germany’s colonies. Britain fought the Ottoman Empire, suffering defeats in the Gallipoli Campaign) and in Mesopotamia, while arousing the Arabs who helped expel the Turks from their lands. Exhaustion and war-weariness were growing worse in 1917, as the fighting in France continued with no end in sight. The German spring offensives of 1918 failed, and with the arrival of the American in summer at the rate of 10,000 a day the Germans realized they were being overwhelmed. Germany agreed to an armistice—actually a surrender—on 11 November 1918.
Victorian attitudes and ideals that had continued into the first years of the 20th century changed during World War I. The army had traditionally never been a large employer in the nation, with the regular army standing at 247,432 at the start of the war. By 1918, there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the “lost generation,” and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon‘s Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front.
The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfulfilled. The harsh peace settlement imposed on Germany would leave it embittered and seeking revenge.
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson and French premier Georges Clemenceau made all the major decisions. They formed the League of Nations as a mechanism to prevent future wars. They sliced up the losers to form new nations in Europe, and divided up the German colonies and Ottoman holdings outside Turkey. They imposed what appeared to be heavy financial reparations (but with in the event were of modest size). They humiliated Germany by forcing it to declare its guilt for starting the war, a policy that caused deep resentment in Germany and helped fuel reactions such as Nazism. Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa, while its dominions added other colonies. Britain gained League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which had been partly promised as a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq. Iraq became fully independent in 1932. Egypt, which had been a British protectorate since 1882, became independent in 1922, although the British remained there until 1952.
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