In early August 1914 Britain counted down to war. German soldiers had invaded Belgium and the British government demanded they withdraw. No reply came and the deadline given to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany passed. A declaration of war by the British was inevitable. Naturally the public feared conflict, but many also genuinely thought it would not last long. The professionalism of the British Army, its marksmanship and irresistible bayonet charges would have our boys back in time for Christmas. What few realised was that this was the start of a new kind of warfare.
Lord Kitchener was Britain’s most celebrated living soldier and became Minister for War not long after World War One began. Unlike the majority he predicted hostilities would last years not months and he planned accordingly, creating a recruitment drive that would attract hundreds of thousands of young men into the armed forces. To do so, Kitchener oversaw a campaign that appealed to patriotism and a sense of right, warned of a possible invasion by Germany, and also reminded those who did not take ‘the King’s shilling’ they might easily be regarded as cowards.
Such was the demand for men to wage war against Germany that soldiers from across the British Empire were called into action. In Brighton, a well known building and former royal palace called the Pavilion was converted into a hospital where wounded Indian soldiers could be cared for. The choice of the Pavilion was influenced by its appearance which owed much to Indian architecture.
World War One was a new kind of war, a war fought on a scale that no one had imagined possible. The demand for ammunition, artillery shells in particular, was relentless. As more and more men went away to fight, women were required to take their places in factories making munitions. As many as a million women took up these jobs, and faced terrible dangers from explosions and working closely with toxic chemicals.
World War One became a stalemate in which both sides faced each other from trenches often just a few hundred yards apart. Artillery was used to attack enemy troops as they took shelter in those trenches. An artillery barrage could consist of thousands of shells which were often fired at night. The consequence was trauma for many men, a condition which became known as shell-shock. The poet Siegfried Sassoon spent time with victims when he was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital having been declared mad for doubting the war and his commanders.
World War One ended on November 11 1918. It is hard to imagine the amount of grief endured by families from all walks of life during its four years. Were so many lives lost in vain, and how did 'the war to end all wars' shape the Britain we live in today?