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World War One Key Debates

Read our explanation of some of the key questions raised about the First World War.

Why did the First World War break out?

In the early years of the twentieth century, the major European powers had entered into alliances which offered them military protection from each other if one was to be attacked. In addition to the 1839 treaty which committed them to protecting Belgian neutrality, Britain entered into the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, which grew into the Triple Entente with Russia when they joined in 1907. This defensive power bloc existed alongside the Triple Alliance between Russia, Austro-Hungary and Italy, formed in 1881. These alliance systems were triggered in the summer of 1914 after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian terrorist group the Black Hand during a visit to Sarajevo. After an ultimatum to hand over the culprits was not met, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. To some extent, the assassination provided them with an excuse to extend territory into the Balkans. This action was opposed by Russia, who felt an affinity with the Slavic population of Serbia and had territorial ambitions of their own.

The other major powers in the alliances then honoured their obligations to one another, with the exception of Italy, which declared its neutrality. However, it is unlikely that any of the nations involved would have gone to war without other motivations. Since its unification in the 19th century, Germany had hoped to create its own empire and strengthen its global ambition. Much of the world was already occupied by other colonial powers, predominantly Britain and France, so this aim inevitably brought them into conflict with their European neighbours and explains why there was a naval arms race between Britain and Germany in the years preceding the war and why the latter put the Schlieffen Plan into action in 1914. This plan involved attacking France through neutral Belgium, which gave Britain further justification for involvement.

Does Douglas Haig deserve his reputation as the ‘butcher of the Somme’?

To his contemporaries, Douglas Haig was predominantly seen as a war hero, but within a generation, his reputation had become far more controversial and synonymous with the futile suffering that seemed to epitomise trench warfare. To some extent, attaching blame to Haig seems justified- he repeatedly ordered British troops to walk over no man’s land towards enemy trenches without the protection of an aerial bombardment. On numerous occasions, German troops were able to run to their machine gun posts after shelling ceased and fire on the advancing British with devastating results. The most deadly proof of this was on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when over 19,000 British troops were killed during the advance. Despite the colossal death toll, Haig ordered that the battle continue to November, by which time there were over 420,000 allied casualties. In his official despatch, Haig seems to disregard the extent of suffering in 1916 when he judges the Somme battle as a success. Just five miles of territory were gained by the allies by November, which was of little overall significance and hardly seems to justify the loss of life.

However, Haig was not completely inaccurate in his assessment of the battle, particularly when the context is understood. The Commander in Chief was under immense pressure to launch the offensive in 1916 to relieve pressure on the French who had been attacked at Verdun in the February. By forcing the Germans to divide their forces between two points on the front, the French were able to hold the line in the South. By November, the German army had suffered a similar number of casualties and perhaps the war of attrition meant that this was necessary to enable eventual victory in 1918. Certainly, the Somme became a testing ground for technological developments that would prove decisive two years later, including tanks and the creeping barrage.

Although the repetitive and bloody nature of trench warfare makes it difficult to judge Haig positively, he cannot be held solely responsible for the stalemate on the western front or the misery which resulted from it.

How effectively did the British government mobilise its population for war?

The First World War required the resources of the entire population to be focused on victory, rather than just the army. The conflict cost the British government £385million per day and this figure serves to illustrate the remarkable success of the effort- the British people were mobilised effectively enough for the war to continue until the army had achieved victory on the Western Front, despite the strain it placed on society. By 1918, the Central powers were struggling with a shortage of manpower but this issue did not greatly trouble the British; Kitchener’s early recruitment drives massively exceeded targets and by January 1915, one million men had signed up eagerly. Although conscription became necessary by 1916, this did not reflect the unpopularity of the war, but instead the sheer depth of manpower it demanded. Most of the men who took part in the final assaults of 1918 were hastily trained conscripts who were deployed effectively enough to enable allied victory. Furthermore, DORA and the Munitions of War Act ensured firm control of the economy, with dilution and redeployment being used to ensure that absent soldiers were replaced by civilians, often women.

Despite the pressure they were under, there were less industrial disputes between workers and the government than there had been in the years before the war and initiatives like the Women’s Land Army and rationing helped prevent food shortages from becoming acute. However, it is unlikely that the war effort could have been sustained for much longer. Worker unrest was often kept under control because the government were forced to make concessions, such as with the South Wales coal strike in 1915. The number of strikes actually rose steadily throughout the war, suggesting a limit to worker tolerance, and there were a small, but significant, group of conscientious objectors who preferred prison terms to conscription.

Ultimately, tight control of the media and a highly effective propaganda machine enabled the government to keep morale high enough to enable victory, but without strict measures such as DORA, the British public may not have been as compliant.

Why did the Entente powers win World War One?

By the time World War One headed into its final year, there was a sense of desperation on all sides about how it could be won, and brought to a close. The initial British hopes that it would be ‘over by Christmas’ had proved grossly inaccurate and the major battles had resulted in huge loss of life but little territorial advantage. Yet, in approximately one hundred days in the autumn of 1918, the deadlock was broken and a final armistice was signed following German surrender on November 11th.

The turning point had come in September, as the seemingly impenetrable Hindenburg line of German trenches was breached, allowing for rapid territorial gains for the allies in the weeks that followed. The frontal assaults they employed were successful because of a number of technological improvements; artillery bombardments were calculated accurately as a result of aerial reconnaissance, shells exploded to deadly effect and mines caused chaos in the German trenches before the advance began.

However, German technology had also seen rapid advance and this explanation alone does not fully account for allied victory. Indeed, in the spring of 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive that almost broke the allied forces. Had it not been for the inexhaustible supply of American manpower that was now arriving on the Western Front, it is quite possible that the conflict would have ended differently. Yet, when the Spring Offensive failed to result in decisive victory, German supply lines were stretched to breaking point and their troops were exhausted. This made the allied counter-attack more deadly and, when coupled with a buckling economy at home and the impending collapse of the Triple Alliance, the Kaiser was informed by his generals that the war was lost and agreed to an armistice.