ON AUGUST 4, 1914, BRITAIN WENT TO THE HELP OF BELGIUM AND DECLARED WAR ON GERMANY. THE DECISION WAS A REMARKABLE ACT OF FAITH IN EMPIRE BROTHERHOOD, FOR BRITAIN HAD NOT CONSULTED HER DOMINIONS AND WITHOUT THEIR MANPOWER, SURPLUS FOOD AND ECONOMIC STRENGTH, SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN THREATENED BY DEFEAT. THE ROYAL NAVY APART, HER ARMED FORCES WERE ONLY A FRACTION OF THE SIZE OF GERMANY’S AND THE MILITARY POWER OF THE OTHER ALLIES WAS UNCERTAIN. BUT THE IMPERIAL RESPONSE OUTSHONE ALL HOPES, WITH AN OUTPOURING OF BLOOD AND TREASURE WHICH SAVED BRITAIN IN THE OPENING MONTHS AND SUSTAINED HER RIGHT THROUGH THE MOST TERRIBLE WAR THEN KNOWN TO HISTORY.
.The Cabinet met in London at 11a.m. that August Monday, and two ministers resigned in protest at Britain’s preparations for war. During the afternoon, the House of Commons met in special session, and listened to a long rambling speech by Sir Edward Grey,who had been Foreign Secretary since 1905. At 5.03 p.m. The Aldershot Command received a one-word telegram “Mobilise.”
Next day, August 4, was another fine, warm day over most of Europe. The French Army, following a master defence plan perfected over many years, moved across France towards the German frontier. The French plan was acknowledged to be foolproof, and the main worry at the foreign Office in London was whether there would be time for the British Expeditionary Force to get to France before the fighting was over. Crowds waving British and Empire flags gathered at Westminster.
At 2 p.m. A Belgian lieutenant named Picard, peering through his field-glasses on his countries frontier with Germany, saw enemy cavalry crossing the border. Britain had a treaty with Belgium dating back to 1839, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality, and according to the British Government demanded the German advance should end by midnight, or it would mean war. During the evening ministers waited in the Cabinet room at No. 10 Downing Street. No word of a German withdrawal came. In fact a great mass of German Uhlans was already sweeping across the fields of Belgium on a journey which was to change the face of Europe for ever.
As German power in Europe had increased, the possibility of war had been simmering for years. Britain was in alliance with France and Russia: Germany with Austria/Hungary.
The British Empire was something of a mystery to many Europeans, who were inquisitive as to just how strong the oft-mentioned “family ties”really were between to self-governing Dominions and the mother country. Although Britain’s declaration of war was legally binding on all her dependencies, there was no reason whatever why countries such as Canada and Australia should actively participate in a quarrel between the Kaiser and the Tsar. Many thought that the far-flung colonies would show little loyalty.
The answer to this uncertainty was given with a speed and force which astonished all Europe, and which is the most remarkable demonstration in its history of the loyalty that did exist in the Empire.
In Australia, the Labour Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, declared, “Our duty is quite clear: to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons.” He promised to fight “to our last man and our last shilling.” New Zealand, like Australia was socialist:: she was considered to be the most socialist state in the world at the time. Female suffrage had existed since 1893. Richard Seddon who had been Prime Minister for 13 years, was considered to be positively revolutionary in some quarters, yet he proved himself a staunch imperialist. New Zealand immediately announced the formation of an expeditionary force to Europe, charging itself with the whole cost, including transport. The first troops nearly 8,000 strong left New Zealand only 10 days after the outbreak of war.
Australia and New Zealand had some personal interest, because of the presence of some German colonies in the Pacific, at which both Dominions had long looked askance. Such considerations did not exist in Canada. But the Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, had already cabled London, three days before the outbreak of war, promising support, and inviting suggestions as to how Canada could best help. A division of 22,000 men was offered and accepted - the first portion of Canada’s massive war-time assistance: in 1916 she promised to raise half a million men. Canada, said Borden, was “united in a common resolve. “ Even little Newfoundland in 1914 a separate Dominion with a population of 250,000 declared itself ready “to assist in every possible way the justifiable war in which the Empire, of which we are proud to be a part, is now engaged.”
The other “white Dominion” was South Africa. There the scars of the Boer War were still unhealed. Could the old enemy be expected to join forces with Britain only a decade and a half after one of the most bitter wars in modern history? The Prime Minister was an old Boer general, Louis Botha. But he and his right-hand man, Jan Smuts, had become firm believers in the Empire, mainly out of pragmatism . In the eyes of many diehard Afrikaner nationalists, they had become “more British than the British.” Botha declared South African support for Britain and promised to take the neighbouring German colony of South-west Africa and to assist in the taking of German East Africa ( now Tanzania) .
German East Africa was by far the richest German colony overseas, and its conquest seemed the obvious responsibility of the Indian Army, stationed across the Indian Ocean. India was the jewel of the Empire, and the Indian Army, with its magnificent uniforms, its spectacle and display, was considered to be one of the most powerful weapons available to the Empire. It had not bee engaged in serious campaigning for generations. The response from India as encouraging. Politicians suspended their controversies. Princes made lavish offers of help, thousands of Indians, though involved in a war about which they knew nothing, swarmed to the colours.
Inevitably, as the Dominions knew well, the major part of the war would be fought in Europe. German strategy was based on the Schlieffen Plan, which involved the capture of Paris in a sweeping move from Belgium. Germany concentrated about 1.5 million men on the Western Front, relying mainly on Austria to deal with Russia. After four weeks of war, the German plan seemed to be achieving spectacular success.
The British Expeditionary Force of some 100,000 regular soldiers, under Sir John French, reached the front at Mons, in time to delay the German advance there, and at Le Cateau. But the British were obliged to fall back before the fury of the German onslaught, which as only halted at the Battle of the Marne, in September. The Germans retired and by the end of the year the Western Front had settled down, in a line of wire and trenches, from the Belgian Coast tot the Swiss Frontier.; a line which was to remain substantially unaltered for nearly four years. The Western Front, on which most of a generation of British, French and German men died, was to haunt Europe for half a century.
The war of movement that both the Germans and French had planned had become a stalemate: a war of attrition. The generals and their staffs could think of no other way . As the months passed by, the casualty figures mounted with awful inevitability, neither side seeming to have gained anything.
Overseas the German Empire was beginning to fall. Scattered between West, south West and East Africa, the Pacific and China coast,it depended for its security on command of the seas. With this in mind, Germany had developed a powerful navy, but Britain was also well prepared in this respect. The colony of Togoland, cut off from home on the west coast of Africa, soon fell to a small force from the Gold Coast. The nearby Cameroons feel in 1916 to a force which included Indian and West Indian troops West Africa had been a traditional posting for West Indian regiments, since they were thought capable of withstanding the climate, but the campaign in the Cameroons took a fearful toll in malaria.
The Pacific was primarily the responsibility of Australia and New Zealand. Germany held the Bismark Archipelago. German New Guinea, the Caroline, North Solomon, Marshall and some smaller islands, and Samoa, the total of nearly 100,000 square miles. The German cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Emden and Dresden were operating in the Pacific. Since Samoa was the main objective of the Royal Australian Navy, which consisted only of a battle-cruiser, a cruiser and a destroyer flotilla, three of the German raiders were able to sail for the Atlantic unmolested, where they were eventually destroyed at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.The Emden did not accompany the fleet to the Atlantic; it left for the Indian Ocean where, with the Konigsberg , it caused much destruction among British merchant shipping.
The invasion of Samoa, aided by the Royal Australian Navy was undertaken by a New Zealand expeditionary force of 1,400 men. The expedition appeared unexpectedly, and the island yielded without bloodshed. Ten Fijians were with the force, and it was one of them who hauled down the German flag.
Fiji was a colony anxious to join the war in a positive way, but denied by reluctant officialdom. It was British policy not to have large-scale recruiting in the coloured colonies; it was felt that the troops would be inferior and not suited to European conditions, That the colonies could not afford it and in some cases there was a potential danger in raising and arming forces in colonies ruled by a handful of white men. After repeated requests, Fiji was eventually allowed to raise and send to Europe a “labour Contingent” of pioneers.
The remaining German possessions in the Pacific and Far East were taken by Australia, and by Japan, which had entered the war as an ally of Britain. The various centres in the Bismark Archipelago, notably the communications centre of Rabaul, were taken by the Royal Australian Navy without trouble. Only the wireless station on New Pomerania (New Britain) put up a fight; but it too, surrendered to the Australians after 18 hours. The large colony of New Guinea unexpectedly, gave in without a shot. The Australians and New Zealanders had been of great assistance to Britain, destroying the outposts of the German Empire in the East, and thus freeing to Royal Navy for duties in the Atlantic and the North Sea.
Meanwhile larger expeditionary forces than the contingents dispatched at the start of the war were being assembled in Australia and New Zealand. The intention was for this force to join the Canadians on Salisbury Plain, for training. However the shortage of workers made the building of quarters difficult, and the Canadians were already in miserable conditions. At the last minute it was decided that the Anzacs who were already in the Red Sea, should disembark in Egypt, where they could train and from whence they go direct to the Western Front. The presence of this force in the Near East, some 20,000 Australians and 7.800 New Zealanders was to have a vital bearing on the Empire’s part in the war.
Turkey had joined the war against the allies and it was felt that Russia had taken a fearful battering so far; so to assist Churchill decided he would give some support by attacking the Turks via the Dardanelles, the straights connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. This resulted in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, if further information is required on this topic please click here.
FROM ALL OVER THE EMPIRE, FROM THRIVING YOUNG TOWNS, LOWERING FORESTS AND SUN-BAKED PLAINS THEY CAME - CANADIANS, AUSTRALIANS, NEW ZEALANDERS, RHODESIANS, INDIANS AND SOUTH AFRICANS - TO FIGHT A COUNTRY WHICH WAS ONLY A REMOTE THREAT TO THEIR OWN SECURITY. UNHESITATINGLY, THEY ADOPTED BRITAIN’S CAUSE AS THEIR OWN, STRUGGLING OUT OF FLOODED TRENCHES AND DYING IN SHELL-BLASTED BATTLEFIELDS TO HOLD THE THINLY STRETCHED LINES OF THE WESTERN FRONT
In August 1914, Germany launched seven mighty armies in the opening onslaught of four years’ total war on the Western Front. Called the Battle of the Frontiers, it was waged along the Belgian. Luxembourg and German frontiers with France,from the Channel to Switzerland.
Neither Britain nor her colonies were ready. She herself, had only just mobilised. Except for India, the Empire countries had no big regular armies -only small defence forces 2,000 or 3,000 strong. To play their part in the war to which Britain had committed them, the Dominions had first to enlist raw civilian volunteers, supply their units with uniforms and equipment and transport their troops over to Europe.
Throughout the Empire posters and notices in support of the war effort - (examples of which will follow below) - were placarded on street corners and splashed across newspaper columns.
In the first call to arms in their histories, the infant democracies of the Empire mobilized faster than autocratic Germany had done. Within two months of the outbreak of war, Canada had armed 30,000 men and embarked them for Britain in a flotilla of ships. Australia at once pledged the aid of her small regular navy and an initial 20,000 troops. To these, New Zealand, with a population of just over 1 million, added a first contingent of 8.000 men later building up to total of 46,000. These forces were the nucleus of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, popularly known as the Anzacs.
The distinction of being the first imperial troops to fight on the Western Front en to the Indians. A well-trained British officered Indian Corps arrived on the Ypres battlefield in Belgium just in time to reinforce the British at Messines, where two German armies, driving for the Channel were on the point of breaking through. On October 31, they threw back the enemy infantry and saved the Allied front. Their success was an auspicious start to an Empire war effort that led many to believe in the notion of a Greater Britain, world-wide British family in which mother country and colonies were harmoniously united.
Among the battles fought by Indians on the Western Front was a cavalry action at the town of Cambrai in Northern France. Barbed-wire entanglements on the front usually denied cavalry much chance of action, but here special circumstances gave the Indian cavalry a fine opportunity to show its battle skill.
On November 20, 1917, British tanks cut great lines in enemy wire, infantry broke through across a front of four miles wide and,in the wide open spaces so created, the Indian Cavalry made a dash for Cambrai - a dramatic though brief advance: the Germans blew up a canal bridge, staled the attacks and forced the British and Indian troops to fall back. Ten days later, when the British line had been broken by a German counter-attack, the Indian Ambala Brigade - including Hodson’s Horse, a unit formed in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny - scattered the Germans in a sharp engagement and subsequently, fighting on foot, took 300 prisoners in an action with the 1st Guards Brigade. For this valuable support, they were presented with a Guards Bugle by the grateful British.
Passchendale, a village on a ridge in western Belgium, near Ypres, has a particular place in Canadian memories. During October and November 1917, 16,000 Canadian troops were killed in the battle to take it and the two surrounding square miles of flooded shell-craters.
For three-years, German guns had pounded the allied trenches there, but on #October 9, 917, a major Anzac-British-French attack began. After a week, four fresh Canadian divisions were brought in to relieve the Anzacs, who had suffered serious casualties. Under heavy fire, these 20,000 men inched their way from shell-crater to shell-crater, and on October 30, with two British divisions, they began the assault on Passchendale itself. They gained the ruined outskirts of the village during a violent rainstorm and for five days they held on grimly, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to a hail of jagged iron from German shelling. By November 6, when reinforcements arrived, four-fifths of them ere dead, Passchendale had become a Canadian Calvary.
In the last two years of the war, Australians took part in some of the heaviest fighting on the Western Front, as the Allies inched the Germans back across France and Belgium at extravagant cost in human life.
Their worst experiences came on the Somme sector of the front in 1916. Unending rain flooded the battlefield, trenches oozed yellow, waist-high mud and the front line was cut off from the rear by swamps and lagoons. On November 5, the Australians together with the British and their fellow New Zealanders in the 1st Anzac Corps, attacked the town of Bapaume, 76 miles north-east of Paris. It was the appalling weather as much as enemy action which cost them heavy casualties. Supply lorries foundered , so that the guns had no shells. As the troops slithered and fell through a sea of mud, many found their rifles and machine-guns clogged and became easy prey to enemy fire. Others drowned in flooded shell-craters. The attack came to a halt, and after the costly failure of a further attack a week later, the Australian survivors were left to endure a long bitter winter in the shattered battlefield.
The New Zealanders, including native Maoris whose submission to white civilisation had begun barely 100 years before, made a forceful impact on the western Front. On their first days fighting - September 15, 1916 - they took part in the worlds first tank action. Joining an attack made by the British 4th Army in the Somme battle area, they advanced with the great steel monsters lumbering beside them. When they were held up by wire and machine-gun fire at the second line of enemy trenches, two tanks broke through and knocked-out the guns. The New Zealanders went in with bayonets and seized the objective, laughing as the Germans fell back in consternation before the rumbling armour.
South African troops fought on the Western Front from the early part of the war, but they made their most significant contribution in its last year, during the German spring offensive of 1918. On March 21, the Germans launched a mass attack with 47 divisions and 7,000 guns on a critical part of the British line at Marriers Wood. The British defences were smashed and part of the 5th Army fell back; but its South African Brigade held on grimly until ammunition ran out, and all but 100 men out of 3,000 were killed or wounded. It was a sacrifice that blunted the enemy advance and saved the tottering British front.
The failure of the Allied landings in Gallipoli meant a renewal of the “easterner - westerner” controversy, the latter advocating all the resources to the Western Front. Naturally the “westerners” were in a stronger position than before. It was decided by the Allied Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Joffre, that a great offensive should be mounted on the Western Front in the valley of the Somme river. This was scheduled for mid-summer 1916. The Somme sector was one f the strongest German positions on the whole front, and Winston Churchill said it was one of the strongest defensive positions in Western Europe. But Joffre, and the British commander, General Sir Douglas Haig insisted on the attack being made at the Somme, partly because the French and British forces happened to join there, and the attack was to be a combined one, although the British were to take the major part.
The Battle of the Somme got off to a disastrous start. There were nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day July 1, for a gain of a few hundred yards. The battle proceeded furiously in the following days, but with no success for the Allies. The Germans were too strongly entrenched in deep dug-outs safe from Allied bombardments.
On Saturday July 15, the newly arrived South African Division was ordered to take Delville Wood “at all costs.” About half the wood was taken after fierce fighting, but then the enemy trained a barrage of shells on the South Africans. Most of the South Africans in the exposed part of the wood were killed. One survivor said that the area was “strewn every yard with the rags of human bodies.” Some of the South Africans clung to life in this hell for five days before being relieved.
There was considerable bitterness among the South Africans, who believed that British troops would have been relieved earlier. Many of them though that Empire troops got the dirty jobs, because British commanders would not have to answer to dominion politicians. Delville Wood is now laid out as a memorial to the South Africans.
The Australian and New Zealand Corps, some of them survivors of Gallipoli, had now reached the front. On July 23, it attacked the hilltop village of Pozieres. This objective was taken after considerable loss. Owing to inactivity elsewhere, the Germans were able to deploy enormous fire-power on this one point, to the dismay of the Australians, who suffered a hellish bombardment in their exposed positions. Ragged men lived in holes in the shaking ground. The fumes made a perpetual vile-smelling fog. The ruins of the village,the orchards round it, bricks, human remains, equipment, were all ground into a grey substance, which from a distance could be seen smoking like a dying bonfire.
Few in the rear had any idea of what it was like in the front line. There was mistrust between the British and Empire Commanders. Haig wrote in his diary “Some of the divisional generals are so ignorant and (like many Colonials) so conceited, that they cannot be trusted to work out unaided the plans of attack.”
No less than 8,000 Canadians served either in the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Navy Air Service, twin British air arms which became the R.A.F. The best known of them was Major “Billy” Bishop, who became the R.F.C.’S top fighter pilot. Bishop began the war in a Canadian cavalry regiment but, one day, aged 20, and knee-deep in mud outside the stables in a camp in England he saw a trim little aeroplane land hesitatingly in a nearby field as if scorning to brush its wings against the sordid landscape, then away again up into the clean grey mists.” From that moment Bishop resolved to fight the war in the air, not in the mud.
Bishop began his flying career as an air observer. By March 1917, when he qualified as a fighter pilot, aircraft were numerous and efficient enough on both sides to affect the battle in the field , by “spotting” for the gunners, bombing and reconnoitring behind the lines. Bishop was outstanding at all of these and at aerial dog-fights. R.F.C. Communiqués credited him with 70 enemy aircraft destroyed during his 20 months fighting.
Modest and humorous about his achievements, Bishop used to say that his best recollection of the war was how badly his boots squeaked when he was walking across the long hall at Buckingham Palace to receive his medals from the hands of King George V
The theatre outside Europe that engaged the Indian Army was Mesopotamia, a Turkish-controlled province. A division advanced into the territory, up the Euphrates and the Tigris, having been landed from the Persian Gulf. Soon there were two divisions and a cavalry brigade under the command of the Commander-in-Chief ,India, some 2,000 miles away in Delhi.
N charge of the probe up the Tigris to Baghdad, was Major-General Charles Townshend, an eccentric who regaled his troops with violin music in the trenches. No railway existed at that time, and there were no roads. In summer the ground was hard-baked, and although vast numbers of pack animals were needed the going was comparatively easy. But in winter flooding was a constant danger. Disease was a worse enemy than even the notoriously fierce Turkish soldiers. There was a shortage of medical staff, and a chaotic muddle over medical supplies and equipment. The sufferings of both sick and wounded became national scandals in Britain and India.
Townshend reached the fly-ridden port of Kut with the 6th Indian Division. But he could get no further, as the Turks were well dug in and, according to Townshend, the Indians “had their tails down,” because they were so far from the sea. Having lost nearly one third of his force through casualties, trying to advance on Baghdad, Townshend prepared for siege in Kut, which he believed he could hold for two months with the available food supply. The relieving force was strengthened by the arrival from war-torn France of the 3rd and 7th Indian Divisions, which, predictably, had not settled well to European conditions. But all efforts to relieve Kut were thrust back. After five months, Townshend surrendered.
Command in Mesopotamia passed to the enterprising Lieutenant-General F.S. Maude who had 107,000 Indian troops under him. A steady advance was made, and by October 1918, the Turks asked for an armistice. Nearly 16,000 men were killed in battle in Mesopotamia, and 12,807 died from disease.
It had been the most terrible war in human history. Over 8,500,000 had lost their lives, more than half of them from the Allied powers. The British Empire had lost 908,371 dead, the flower of a generation. The war had been won by overwhelming manpower and economic strength, especially after America’s entry. The fine phrases of the Empire’s premiers in 1914 seemed a long way off, and although common experiences in the struggle had strengthened bonds of loyalty on a personal level, the end of the war heralded a new age for the Empire.
For now, the Dominions were battle-scarred veterans, wearing the honours of a major war. After their sacrifices , they at least believed themselves to be the equals of Britain. The Empire appeared to be more powerful than ever before, but its senior members would never be subordinate to Westminster again.
In Britain,, it was Bank Holiday Monday; a warm, sultry August afternoon. Straw-hatted men punted on the Thames, while their girls lazed under parasols. Drivers in goggles hurled their roaring cars round the track at Brooklands. Bathing-machines trundled on the crowded beaches. Gin was 6d a double, and cigarettes 5½d for 20. It was August 3. 1914.
In those days, Britain was the greatest power the world had ever known; greater than the Romans, greater even than the Mongols. Her empire covered a quarter of the earth’s land surface, and her influence reached to every part of the globe, from North Pole to South Pole, from Vancouver to New Zealand and beyond, into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. It was a world of British self-confidence and superiority. There was a prospect of war, but it was a prospect which filled people with enthusiasm rather than dismay. For they did not know that the First World War heralded the end of their Empire and their world
A NETWORK OF ALLIANCES CAUSES OF WAR
After the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo, the Austrians had gone to war with Serbia in July 1914. Russia was an ally of Serbia and thus Germany through its alliance with Austria, prepared for war with Russia. France hastened to honour its Russian alliance. Europe, ensnared by nationalism and pride rushed to mobilise. When Germany invaded Belgium, it brought Britain inevitably into the war, for it had long been British policy to keep the Lowlands free of the great powers.
The Australians were at last relieved at Poziers by the Canadians, another cause for Dominion grumbling. The Canadians achieved glory the following year during the 1917 spring offensive, when they attacked and conquered the heights of Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge remains one of the proudest battle honours in the history of the Canadian Army.
In five days at Vimy, an unprecedented advance was made. On a front of three and a half miles the Canadian Corps over-ran one of the strongest positions on the entire Western Front, starting from a position that had been dominated by the enemy. It had been achieved by more thorough training and preparation than any previous Allied offensive. The artillery barrage prior to the attack had been a complete success; when the Canadians reached the German trenches, they found them pounded into ruins, and the wire entanglements were a mass of debris.
If the Dominion troops were slowly learning how to cope with the siege warfare in Europe, some said better than the British and French, the war elsewhere began with similar hard lessons. The Indian Army, the pride of the Empire, was generally considered one of Britain’s most powerful weapons, but there was a reluctance to commit Indian troops to European conditions. It was decide they were to be used mainly against the Turks in the Middle East, and against the colony of German East Africa across the Indian Ocean.