First World War

The Royal British Legion remembers the First World War (1914–18) as one of the most significant conflicts of the 20th century, with its impact still being felt today.

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in June 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The First World War, also know as 'The Great War' was fought between the Allied powers (mainly Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and, from 1917, the United States) and the Central Powers (mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey).

After Germany invaded Belgium and France, a defensive line of trenches and front lines was established. Starting in Belgium, it ran south all the way to Switzerland. This line was known as the 'Western Front' and is where the majority of British troops fought in such campaigns as the Battle of the Somme.

First World War battles were also fought outside of Western Europe. In February 1915, British and French naval forces attacked Turkey along the strait known as The Dardanelles. British troops fought alongside Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces to attack Turkey, but the Allied Forces were defeated at Gallipoli and suffered over 200,000 casualties. The defeat led to a change of command at the top and the decision was made to evacuate the Allied Forces. Today, there are 31 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

German withdrawal from Hindenburg Line March April 1917

The withdrawal of German troops from the Hindenburg Line (March / April 1917)

Four years of war

For Britain, the First World War began on 4 August 1914 and ended on 11 November 1918. The formal peace treaty was signed in 1919.

65 million men from 30 countries fought in the First World War. When war broke out, the British Government asked for 100,000 volunteers to join the Army. 750,000 applied in the first month. 

The Victoria Cross, the highest military award, was awarded 628 times in the First World War. Recipients included Jack Cornwell, who was just 16 when he remained at his battle post despite suffering fatal injuries.

It is estimated that around 250,000 British boys lied about their age in order to join up. The youngest was found to be just 12 and was duly sent home. Average life expectancy in the trenches was six weeks, and was considerably lower if you were a junior officer or a stretcher-bearer.

More than nine million fighting men were killed during the conflict, one third of them through disease. At least 750,000 of these were British, and over 188,000 were from British colonies.

"Today almost every one of us, whatever our racial, ethnic, national or religious roots, is directly connected to the First World War. The war of 1914 became global and total: it was hard to escape its impact wherever you were." Professor Sir Hew Strachan, 2014

legacy of the war

The First World War changed many people's understanding of conflict. Young men from across the world either enlisted, or were conscripted, to fight. Battles took place in many locations in Gallipoli (Turkey), the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, at sea and in the infamous trenches of Western Europe. Millions of men died in terrible conditions.

The war introduced new weapons which led to terrifying numbers of dead and severe injuries for hundreds of thousands of people. The new method of war meant that battles went on for a very long time. New Armed Forces units, such as the RAF (Royal Air Force), were created. Some traditional types of force, such as as horse-led-cavalry, became redundant.

The First World War is infamous for the number of lives it cost, however it also generated some extraordinary developments in medicine, warfare, technology and in the global political, social and cultural landscapes. It also laid the foundations of British Remembrance and saw the emergence of the poppy as a universally-recognised symbol of Remembrance and hope.

Medical advances

The rapid advances in warfare during the First World War contributed to millions of deaths and left many hundreds of thousands of people severely injured. Some survivors of the war were left with permanent, life-changing disabilities. The nature of trench warfare meant that the heads and faces of most of those fighting were especially exposed to enemy fire with shrapnel, in particular, causing horrific injuries.

During the war, both civilian and military hospitals acted as theatres of experimental medical intervention, developing pioneering techniques that still influence many surgical techniques used today.

Painting by Norah Neilson-Grey of the Scottish Women's Hospital in the cloister of Royamount Abbaye showing Dr Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient

Painting by Norah Neilson-Grey of the Scottish Women's Hospital in the cloister of Royamount Abbaye showing Dr Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient (1920)

Technology

The First World War was the first time aircraft were used in conflict. Initially, they were used for reconnaissance; but as pilots and engineers learned from experience, new types of aircraft were developed for specific purposes – including fighters, bombers and ground-attack planes.

The war also saw the use of the first tank, which was designed in 1915 and initially saw combat at the Battle of the Somme. Poison gas had also been developed and was used by both sides in the conflict, with devastating effects.

British inventions included tracer ammunition that left a visible phospherescent trail after firing that could pinpoint potential areas of attack and shine light over enemy lines at night.

18-pounder shell dump of the Royal Field Artillery near Albert, September 1916

18-pounder shell dump of the Royal Field Artillery near Albert (September 1916)

Thankful Villages

Of the hundreds of thousands of cities, towns and villages in Britain, only 53 (in England and Wales) were fortunate enough not to have members of their communities die in the war. They were known as 'Thankful Villages' where "all those who left to serve came home again". Not one Thankful Village exists in either Scotland or Ireland, where every single community lost someone to the war.

War memorials were erected all over Britain and several of the Thankful Villages (13 of which became 'Double Thankful Villages' after the Second World War) constructed memorials to remember their communities' good fortune and gratitude.

Memorials to the missing

Those who died in the war were buried close to where they fell, and this resulted in the creation of military cemeteries across the world. The Tyne Cot (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) Cemetery in Belgium has almost 12,000 graves and is the largest Commonwealth way cemetery in the world. Over 8,000 of the graves are unidentified.

Monuments erected to commemorate the missing include the Menin Gate at Ypres (Belgium), and the memorials at Thiepval (France) and Gallipoli (Turkey). The Cenotaph in Whitehall, central London, was erected in 1919 as a temporary structure but replaced the following year by a permanent stone Cenotaph. Its name means 'empty tomb' in Greek.

Women's Army Auxiliary Corps on the Western Front, 1914–18

Members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on the Western Front, (191418)

Language

Another legacy of the war was the influence of trench language that contributed many words to modern English language: 'lousy' and 'crummy' reflected the lice that infested the soldiers, as well as words like 'dud' (something that doesn't work) and 'blotto' (heavily intoxicated). Bits of toilet paper floating across the battlefields were given the nickname 'trench butterflies' or 'bum fodder' leading to the word 'bumpf' used today.

The makeshift grave of a Canadian soldier buried by his comrades on the battlefield at Vimy Ridge, 1917

The makeshift grave of a Canadian soldier buried by his comrades on the battlefield at Vimy Ridge (1917)

100 years on

Many serious issues that affected soldiers and their families after the First World War including injury, permanent disability, homelessness, poverty and a nation challenged economically – still affect Service men and women and their families today. Members of the British Armed Forces community, 100 years on from the First World War, deal regularly with risk and sacrifice. The Royal British Legion is here to support them and provide life-long care today and for as long as it is needed.

The Legion is marking the centenary of the First World War from 2014 to 2016 with commemorations and projects in the UK and Republic of Ireland with a focus on Remembrance, education and legacy. Find out more about our WW1 Centenary projects here.

Related Stories