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Document packs - in depth studies Spotlights on history - issues from the war Battles - 5 case studies People - 6 individual histories
First World War home page The First World War, 1914 - 1918
Origins of the conflict
Over by Christmas
Britain and the outbreak of war
German ascendancy
Stalemate and change : the war 1916 -18
Final stages of the war
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Britain and the outbreak of war

Germany's ultimatum to Belgium on 2 August, demanding the free passage through the country that was essential to the success of its military strategy, largely silenced the British voices that, in the 'July crisis', had argued in favour of non-intervention. The Liberal government under Glossary - opens new windowAsquith, which had until then been divided about how to proceed, now committed itself to conflict.

War was declared on Germany on 4 August. Three days later, the first troops from the Glossary - opens new windowBritish Expeditionary Force, under the command of Glossary - opens new windowSir John French, landed on French soil. The government initially conveyed a 'business as usual' message to the British people. By sending a small expeditionary force to support France on the Continent and by using naval muscle to exert an effective Glossary - opens new windowtrade blockade against Germany, the war would be won by Christmas. There was thus no full-scale mobilisation of Britain's resources for military conflict in 1914.

British troops in France - opens new window
First British troops in France

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Changed political landscape

The outbreak of war radically altered the British political landscape. The issue that had dominated all others - the situation in Ireland - was suddenly pushed into the shadows. The danger of an invasion of Britain, about which the government's Glossary - opens new windowCommittee of Imperial Defence had written numerous papers since the turn of the century, now seemed a far greater threat.

Amidst an increasingly tense and Germanophobic political atmosphere, the regulations of the Glossary - opens new windowDefence of the Realm Act (8 August 1914) increased the state's power to control and act against 'unpatriotic' forces. Germans and Austrians living in Britain were now categorised as 'enemy aliens' and either deported, interned or prohibited from visiting certain parts of the country. Postal and press censorship was quickly introduced.

Defence of the Realm Act - opens new window
Defence of the Realm Act (161k)

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Patriotism and apprehension

In Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, it was assumed that the outbreak of war would prompt a wave of patriotic enthusiasm. Observing the cheering crowds in Trafalgar Square on 4 August, the philosopher and pacifist Glossary - opens new windowBertrand Russell noted unhappily that 'average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war'. Many politicians and journalists repeated the truism that 'public opinion' had forced the Asquith government to declare war on Germany.

Patriotic crowds and solidarity with 'plucky little Belgium' were undoubtedly important features of the popular mood at this time. But the war also engendered a variety of other responses. It provoked resignations from the Asquith government and was vociferously opposed by left-wing organisations such as the Glossary - opens new windowIndependent Labour Party (ILP). Even war enthusiasts such as the poet Glossary - opens new windowRupert Brooke were ambivalent about a conflict that would be fought against a 'civilised' nation (Germany) and alongside a 'barbaric' one (Russia).

Outside the educated élite, many people greeted the coming of war with a mixture of determination and apprehension, rather than with any great outpouring of enthusiasm. The 'rush to the colours' after 4 August was largely ephemeral. Only in late August and early September were recruiting offices flooded with volunteers keen to enlist for military service. By the autumn, numbers were falling away rapidly.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 38/28/40, 46-47, 50: Various Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) papers on a possible German invasion of Britain, Sep-Oct 1914.
HO 45/10734/258926, 258157: Home Office files on Alien Restriction Orders, 1914-15.
HO 45/10760/269116: Detention of enemy aliens as POWs, 1914-15.
HO 45/10765/271164: Defence of the Realm Act: court-martial sentences, 1914-16.
WO 32/5590: Instructions from Kitchener to Sir John French on the BEF's tasks in France, 11 Aug 1914.

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