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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The United Kingdom of Great Britain
and Ireland  pt1


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In the years leading up to the Great War, Great Britain was perhaps the most unstable of nations. The growing power of socialists was causing an increasing number of strikes and social unrest that was growing ever more violent. This was overshadowed by efforts to redefine Ireland’s official status as part of the United Kingdom. Discussions over granting limited home rule had caused great divides to open between fractions within the British Parliament. As Prime Minister Arthur Asquith came close to finalizing an agreement, Catholic and Protestant militias began to arm themselves in preparation for immanent civil war. By 1914 the Irish problem had become the most worrisome concern in Europe.

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German leaders were well aware of the secret agreements that Britain made with France to come to her aid if attacked. They also widely believed that Britain’s current preoccupation with Ireland would keep it from participating in any such conflict on the continent. There were no such doubts within the British military. Concerns had been growing in Great Britain over the sudden rise and growing ambitions of the German Empire for a long time. As a world power, Britain enjoyed the status quo and was always wary of anything that might disturb the balance. Some already saw the tide shifting as Germany’s GNP finally surpassed that of Great Britain in the first half of 1914. There was a feeling in high circles that competition between the two Empires would inevitably lead to war. They were already in competition over who would have the largest navy. Germany felt that it needed to match Britain’s navy to ensure access to trade while the British saw this move as a threat to its hegemony over the seas. It can be argued that this arms race is what prompted Britain to ally itself to France, its traditional enemy, and is really why Britain entered the Great War when it could have sat out the conflict.

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Ever since Belgium was formed in 1839, the Treaty of London had given it the status of a non-aligned neutral nation with Britain serving as its protector. While there were no other formal military agreements to draw Britain in to a wider European conflict, they would not tolerate a German presence on the English Channel causing the British military to make secret packs with their French equivalents. It was generally understood that there would be military cooperation between Britain and France should either one waged a war against Germany.




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When German armies crossed Belgium’s border on August 3, 1914, they were still unsure of what Britain&rsqup;s reaction would be. The Crisis over Home Rule in Ireland looked as if it would erupt into civil war, leaving Britain more concerned over Ulster than Belgium. Britain however now had the excuse it needed to implement its secret arrangements, declaring war on Germany the next day. The socialist movement though that they had formed a coalition strong enough to put an end to this momentum towards war, but the vast majority of the country unexpectedly rallied to the fight.

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Even implementation of home rule in Ireland was postponed without negative consequences. As in the rest of Great Britain, most in Ireland opposed getting involved in a European war, but the climate abruptly changed when the Germans crossed into Belgium. Militias ready to fight the Crown suddenly declared their allegiance. Many Irishmen volunteered for the British army, some out of patriotism, others believing it would give them greater leverage later when seeking independence. This created further divisions as many volunteers that were happy to defend Ireland did not want to fight to protect the Empire.

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The British Expeditionary Force was considered one of the few professional standing armies. Once Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, ordered them to France, they began arriving on August 9, 1914. This was hardly soon enough for the Belgians because their forts that were supposed to hold off the Germans were falling faster than expected. By the time British forces under the command of General John French were fielded, most of Belgium was in German Hands. French took up a defensive position around Maubeuge but had little effect on slowing the German advance. Casualties were so high in the ensuing battles at Mons that the British could only retreat. By the end of the campaign in November they only held on to a small portion of Belgium creating a salient around Ypres. As both sides dug in the stalemate of trench warfare would begin.

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There was strong enthusiasm for the War when it was declared, but the people in Britain had no real idea what that would entail. Most still perceived of war as it was fought in the 19th century, and though it should be handled by the professional soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force. Ordinary people who wanted to contribute to the war effort joined local militias to protect the homeland. Although a patriotic gesture, the formation of militias were at odds with the military who saw them as a refuge for those who did not want to fight. Even though their usefulness was questionable, there were still fears of a German invasion and so these informal forces were organized into the Volunteer Training Corps to help quell public concerns. In April 1916 they were officially organized into the Volunteer Force but they had to supply their own weapons until the following year. Shortly after a draft was instituted so only those who were considered essential workers could serve at home. They were required to remain in the Volunteer Force until the end of the War, which was only disbanded in January 1920. Conscription caused a great deal of social turmoil in Britain as many saw it as a major erosion of traditional liberties. Few publishers wanted to wade into this controversy, and so there are not many postcards that honor those of the Volunteer Force.

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In the first month of the War, very little of what was happening on the Continent reached the British public. After that all news from the front lines was controlled by the War Ministry in accordance to the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), which meant that when it was finally reported it was highly filtered and distorted by the War Propaganda Bureau. They dictated what could not be published but these regulations were often vague to encourage self-censorship. Even so, printed material deemed unsuitable was seized and the authors and printers responsible for it were prosecuted and often imprisoned. This turned into what many called an epidemic of prosecution by the end of the War. Above all the press was not to inform the public that the official material it was being fed was censored or altered in any way. Even the word censored was not to be used in reference to art, photographs, and writing. It is often difficult today to decipher motives of wartime publishers because so many of the laws and regulations were not transparent. Many British publishers concentrated on producing propaganda, of which the fate of Belgium became a continuous rallying point throughout the War. Once the Germans perpetrated atrocities against civilians, it became the main focal point of British propagandists.

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In December 1914 a German battlecruiser squadron raided the English coast bombarding Scarborough and some neighboring towns. While Scarborough was probably attacked because it held radio towers used for naval communications, the public sat it as an attack on defenseless civilians that was supposed to be prohibited by signed conventions. The British public on their island kingdom were not accustomed to civilian deaths, and this attack caused much outrage against Germany and the Royal Navy that failed to protect it. There would be many more raids to follow but Scarborough became a catch phrase for all of them since it was already a well known resort with much name recognition. The incident was widely used in propaganda.

The Royal Navy knew of the pending attack on Scarborough in advance because of intercepted messages, but they kept it a secret to bait the German ships and destroy them. What they did not know was that the German High Seas fleet was also using the attack to bait the British. Both plans failed in the fog of war, with only the coastal raid succeeding.

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It did not take long for most of the original professional troops in the British Expeditionary Force to become casualties. Despite this the British presence on the Continent grew and they extended their lines across a wider front. The ability to accomplish this was largely due to the efforts of Lord Kitchener who managed to raise the world’s largest volunteer army. He was aided by The British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee who commissioned many artists to create designs for recruitment posters that would also be placed on postcards. The most famous of these was by Alfred Leete who pictured Kitchener himself demanding volunteers.

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With the Western Front stalemated, Germany decided to shift troops eastward in 1915 to take advantage of unexpected victories over the Russians. To cover this movement a major assault was launched against the British position at Ypres but it only reduced the size of the salient a bit. As more British poured onto the Continent they extended their line further to the west and began offensive operations of their own. Attacks were made at Neuve-Chapelle in March, and they fought many battles during the summer as part of the Artois offensive. The largest of these was directed against Loos in September. When all these efforts produced high casualties without strategic results, General French was removed and replaced by General Douglas Haig in December.

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Although Britain had many artists that provided dramatic military illustrations for books and magazines for decades, little of this tradition was translated into postcards during the Great War. Despite all the heavy combat, most publishes concentrated on generic depictions of soldiers, political cartoons, humor, and sentimental subjects. French publishers also produced many cards for British soldiers stationed on the Western Front, but these too are usually general patriotic greetings or symbols of friendship and unity. Most of these cards were studio compositions produced as hand colored real photos.

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Recruitment dwindled as casualties mounted, and conscription had to be instituted. The antiwar movement was larger in Britain than most other places, and this new policy caused many internal problems. Though hotly debated, a draft was not instituted in Ireland as it was feared it would add to the unrest. Though many Irishmen had already volunteered for the British army, the underlying desire for independence from Britain never abated. Many nationalists grew impatient for independence when the War did not look like it would end any time soon, and felt the present government had sold them out.

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Believing the English too preoccupied with the war in Europe to interfere in Ireland, armed nationalists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood seized important buildings and barricaded streets in Dublin on Easter Sunday 1916. They then declared themselves the provisional government of an Irish Republic. General French, now commander of Home Forces, then ordered army and navy units in to crush the revolt. The Easter Uprising only had limited local support, and failed to inspire the rest of Ireland to join the fight. Order was restored after a week of street fighting, and the rebel leaders were executed. Rather than strike fear as expected, the creation of martyrs only wound up strengthening the nationalist cause, which flared up again in 1919. There are many postcards depicting buildings that were damaged in the Easter Uprising but they fail to capture the brutality of its suppression. While the rebellion was short lived, these postcards spread the news and remained a constant reminder of those who died for Irish independence. Many of these cards were published by Valentine’s Dublin office.

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Kitchener had been appointed Secretary of State for War by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith as soon as the conflict broke out. He was a competent officer with a long military career, which led to constant arguments with others of less merit like General French leading the British Expeditionary Force. Infighting would reduce his effectiveness, but he remained popular and found his way onto many postcards. He would die aboard the HMS Hampshire in June of 1916 when the warship hit a mine while transporting him on a diplomatic mission to Russia. Although Kitchener’s official position was filled by Lloyd George, his antagonistic relationship with General Robertson, Chief of the General Staff, led to most military decisions in the field being deferred to General Haig.

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The failure of the Allied offensives in 1915 led General Joffre to conclude that the only chance for victory was if a heavy smashing blow was delivered to the enemy. Though the French had taken serious losses the previous year, Haig would have new British recruits at his disposal for Conscription had begun in March. While the sector surrounding the Somme did not offer any strategic value, it was where British and French lines met so it was chosen for his grand offensive against the Germans. Though it would take time to get all the preparations in place for such a mammoth undertaking, the German offensive at Verdun was creating pressure that demanded a distraction and Haig was asked to attack sooner than scheduled and without all the French troops he expected. Though great preparations were made, the British would suffer their worst casualties on a single day of fighting when the offensive opened in July 1916. Total casualties in this four month long battle were well over a million men. A few miles of ground were captured but no breakthrough was made.

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The scope of the disaster on the Somme was so great that it has largely come down to us in the form of myth representing the casual callousness by which the military throws away the lives of their soldiers. In reality much military planning went into protecting the lives of soldiers, and officers far from popular belief did not stay behind but suffered very high casualties on the battlefield. The real problem was that British leadership never came to understand what it took to fight on a modern battlefield and never learned from their mistakes.

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While news received on the home front from the Allied General Staff tended to proclaim victories that were not there along with highly exaggerated enemy loses, the large body count could not be hidden from grieving families. The British government then took the risky move of allowing a bit more realistic images to reach the public. Those at home wanted to better understand the lives of loved ones fighting at the front, and these more honest pictures, though never really gruesome, gave a better idea of the sacrifice their soldiers were making. This reinforced the feeling that they were all fighting for a noble cause, and public support for the War increased. The photographs that reached the public were of course all from official sources. Though British offices often defied regulations and took photographs while at the front, Enforcement began to stiffen in 1916 and arrests were made.

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In January 1915 the War came to England itself as bombs fell silently out of the sky. They were delivered by German Zeppelins that first strictly targeted military objectives, even if that is not always where the bombs fell. By the summer of 1915 civilians were being targeted as well. While early raids generated a lot of fear, they caused very little damage. It was difficult to aim from high altitudes and bombing at night made the situation worse especially after the policy of blackouts were instituted. Raids would later be conducted by a multitude of craft that began to have a real effect on Britain’s industrial capacity. The worst of these raids took place over London in September 1916.

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Germany had hoped that the terror caused by Zeppelin raids might knock Britain out of the War. Britain remained resolved but terror was indeed struck. These craft appearing silently and unobserved in the night were very effective as weapons of terror. No one felt safe as a bomb could just fall from the sky and explode anyplace anytime without warning. A great sense of personal violation was created. War had rules, it was to be conducted between soldiers on a battlefield not against civilians asleep in their homes; and now this social contract had been violated. While these raids did not turn civilians against the War, those even perceived as German began to be attacked on the streets. Many postcards were produced displaying these behemoths caught in searchlights over Britain. Once a way to destroy them was discovered, images of them falling in flames became the next popular depiction of these craft. It was as if owning a postcard of a Zeppelin being destroyed was a form of personal vengeance.

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Although the introduction of bombing raids over civilian targets created true terror, human nature seems to be able to eventually integrate these experiences into everyday normalcy even when they remain distasteful. No one in London wanted bombs raining down on them, but this new environment created solidarity. Not only did all civilians face the same danger from these seemingly random attacks, the shared danger brought them closer to those serving on the battlefront. New types of postcards were introduced that do not depict scenes of conflict but express the atmosphere of living while on alert under blackouts.

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While the British had the largest and most powerful navy afloat, most actions involving the Royal Navy had been small affairs. Most ships were involved in the North Sea blockading Germany, which not only created shortages of war materials, it threatened Germany with starvation. Desperately needing to break the blockade the entire High Seas Fleet sailed out in May 1916 on a mission to destroy Britain’s smaller blockading squadron. The Royal Navy, having learned of their plans sent out their entire fleet to meet them. Both sides had committed all their dreadnoughts to battle. The British caught up with the German sortie off the coast of Jutland resulting in the largest sea battle of the War. Britain lost more ships and sailors but the Germans were unable to break the blockade. This would be the last large close range battle between capital ships as both sides became fearful of losing them, which neither could afford to do. Since both sides claimed victory, they each produced many postcards of the Battle.

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When the Great War broke out, Lloyd George was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but in less than a year he was called on to solve the Shell Crisis as Minister of Munitions. His reforms that solved the ammunition shortage also propelled his political career. In June 1916 he succeeded Kitchener as Secretary of State for War, and by the end of the year he became Prime Minister after Asquith was forced out for perceived mismanagement of the war effort. While Lloyd George proved to be a better manager of the War, his bad relationship with many generals prevented him from being told the truth on many military matters.

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By 1917 the French armies were no longer an effective fighting force, and General Haig felt it was up to the British to keep the pressure up on the Western Front. He resumed his offensive around Ypres resulting in the battles of Messines Ridge and Passchendaele. Fighting continued into November with no appreciable results. For the British the War on the Western Front became little more than one of attrition. Haig would try to break the German line with one last offensive for the year at Cambrai. Their extensive use of tanks greatly aided in their breakthrough but when the Germans counterattacked they regained all lost ground. Much of what we now think of combat in World War One is derived from this fighting in Flanders Fields. Though highly romanticized in postwar years, few postcards at the time captured the horrendous conditions of these flooded worn out battlefields. It is usually only captured on German or unofficial postcards.

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By July 1917, anti-German sentiment had reached a feverous pitch. King George V not only relinquished all his German titles, he issued a royal proclamation that changed the name of his family’s royal name from the House of Saxe-Colburg and Gotha to the more English sounding House of Windsor. From this point on the entire family would also only have British-sounding surnames. While the King did not direct the conflict, he always appears in uniform during the War years. Many postcards show him visiting with troops.

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The Germans would make a big push into Flanders during their spring offensive in April 1918 to drive the British into the sea. While they advanced a remarkably good distance, they failed to take the Channel ports as they had hoped. The British Expeditionary Force however suffered so many casualties that they lost their ability to carry out major offensive operations. They would gain ground when offensive operations resumed in August and September, but by this time the exhausted Germans were giving up ground with little fight. When the Germans fell back on defensive ground of their own choosing, resistance stiffened and the British advance slowed.

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Although the close British pursuit was designed to prevent the Germans from entrenching, long supply lines slowed them enough to allow a new defense to be set up along the Sambre canal. A final successful push would be made at the Battle of the Sambre, and fighting would come full circle to end at Mons. While many paintings documenting Britain’s experience in the War were commissioned at this time, publishers seem to have mostly concentrated on placing captured German equipment on postcards as a sign of impending victory. There are however cards that mimic French production in that they capture British troops being greeted as liberators.

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After the United States entered the War, tensions grew as the British wanted these incoming troops to replenish their own depleted ranks while General Pershing leading the American Expeditionary Force insisted on keeping his army intact. These disagreements caused Pershing to keep his men out of the fight until they were absolutely needed to help stop the German spring offensive. The presence of so many Fresh American troops on the Western Front eventually convinced Germany that they could not win the War and they sent out feelers to the Americans to see if a peace could be negotiated on the principals of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Haig believed the Germans were far from beaten, and seemed willing to accept a peace that would just remove Germans from Flanders and Belgium. The Royal Navy however was particularly adamant against any American proposal that would threaten British hegemony over their vast empire. In the end neither Haig’s nor Wilson’s views were represented when the Armistice was negotiated on November 11, 1918.

Britain’s problems with Ireland flared up again when the pro-independence republican party, Sinn Fein (we ourselves), defeated the moderates by winning an overwhelming number of delegates in the December general election. By January 1919 they declared an independent Irish Republic and set up their own government. They requested a seat at the Paris Peace Talks to discus their independence, but Lloyd George prevented any representation and the other Allies did not object. Instead Ireland was confronted with a brutal military response, which in turn inspired many to volunteer for the Irish Republican Army. A three year long guerrilla war would follow.

Although Lloyd George was as insistent on punishing Germany as France, he believed that reparations should be demanded at a level that was obtainable. His exact positions vacillated to match changing public opinion, and in the end he acquiesced to French demands for a harsh peace. He did however secure Britain’s hegemony over the high seas. While Great Britain did not gain any territory on the Continent as a result of the Versailles Treaty that ended the War, they did take control over some of Germany’s African colonies and much of the former Ottoman Empire.

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British forces also played important roles in campaigns against the Ottomans in Egypt, Palestine, the Dardanelles, and Mesopotamia. While these operations were rarely depicted on cards manufactured in Britain, they can often be found from publishers in Egypt, India, and Australia due to the large amount of colonial troops that fought there. British troops also contributed to Allied armies in Salonika and Italy, but these fronts also received scant attention from British publishers.

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The term Tommy Atkins has been used as a generic name for British soldiers since the late 18th century, though there are a number of competing stories regarding its origin. By the time of the Great War the reference had become a generally accepted. Although the full name still appeared on some postcards, it was usually shortened to just plain old Tommy. Eventually use of the name became so widespread that it entered the vocabulary of most Allied and enemy troops.

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As with other parts of Great Britain, the antiwar labor movement in Scotland had a strong voice but many unexpectedly rallied to support the War when it came. Publishers in Great Britain generally depicted Scott soldiers in the same manner as they did English troops, but they were often be singled out by title or the traditional kilts they wore. Some cards went further to jokingly make fun of their accents and dress. Sometimes the Scott soldier is depicted as a fierce warrior from which German soldiers flee. Less flattering are their depictions on German cards where they are most often shown as sub-human prisoners of war.




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