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Eve of Change: Britain in 1914

Eve of Change: Great Britain in 1914

The year 1914 saw three initial crises come to a point in England, and then saw these three crises swallowed whole by the First World War. The first crisis was the question of Irish Home Rule, the second was the question of Women’s Suffrage, and the third labor strikes, was already occurring, as well as the seemingly going to increase in size and number. These however would be overshadowed by the invasion of France by Germany after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which would plummet Great Britain, and the rest of Europe, into a war that would last until 1918. Along with these crises, however it is also important to note the political and social environment which surrounded Britain in that year.

The King of Great Britain was George V. [1] The Government was controlled by the Liberal party, with H. Asquith as Prime Minister, D. Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sir Earl Grey as the head of the Foreign Office.[2] Others in office in 1914 included Winston Churchill, Earl Beauchamp, Viscount Haldane, E. Montagu, and F. Acland. [3] E. Asquith was the leader of the Liberal Party, with the Earl of Crewe as its leader in the House of Lords. [4] The leadership of the Conservative Party was A. Bonar Law in the House of Commons, with the Marquess of Lansdowne in the House of Lords. A Henderson led the Labour Party in the House of Commons.[5] The Irish National Party was led by J. Redmond.[6]

Parliament was broken down, by these four parties with the Liberals in the majority with 275 seats. Next, the Conservative Party held 273 seats. The Irish Nationalist Party held 82 seats, followed by the Labour Party with 40 seats. This Parliament had been seated since the election of December 19, 1910. [7] Parliament met from February 10 to September18 for a total of 130 days, averaging a work day of just over seven hours. A total of 168 bills were passed. Again 1914, Parliament begins meeting again on November 14.[8] According to the book, “British Political Fact 1900-1979” on one “critical vote” was made in the House of Commons, and it is described as: “Government wins guillotine on Budget despite 22 Lib. Abstentions, on Lib. No; setback leads to abandonment of Revenue Bill.”[9] Also according to the book, the House of Lords had no critical votes in 1914. [10] Also mentioned is a major piece of criminal justice legislation, The Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1914, which “required Summary Courts to give time for payment of fines.”[11] 1914 also saw two members of Parliament change party allegiance. B. Kenyon in February switched from the Labour Party to the Liberal Party, and W. Johnson followed suit in April. This would bring the Labour party from 40 members to 38 and the Liberal Party from 275 to 277 members in the House of Commons.[12]

In August of 1914, there were a total of eighteen offices that comprised the Civil Service in Britain. These offices included the Admiralty, the War Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the India Office, the Irish Office, the Scottish Office, the Treasury, the Home Office, Agriculture, Education, Labour (not to be confused with the political party), Housing and Local Government, Munitions, National Insurance, the Post Office, Board of Trade, and Works. These offices employed a total of 779,520 persons.[13]

The total population in 1914 was 46,048,000 persons.[14] The majority of the population was between the ages of ten and twenty-nine years old, this group making up an average of a little over 36%. The next group was between the ages of thirty and forty-nine years old, which made up roughly26%. Roughly 21% of the population was under the age of ten years old. Along with this, life expectancy, for both males and females, was in the range between fifty and sixty years of age.[15]

In regards to the economy, the Governor of the Bank of England was W. Cunliffe.[16] The Net National Income was 2,209₤, with the Income Tax at the Standard Rate in ₤ of ½.[17] The major areas of production in 1914 were steel, coal, and raw cotton. Steel production was at almost eight million tons, with coal just over two and a half million tons. Raw cotton consumption was over 2 billion pounds. Also, over 46,000,000 acres was being used for agricultural cultivation.[18] British imports were worth almost 700,000,000₤ while exports were worth 431,000,000₤. Britain also re-exported almost 100,000,000₤ worth of goods.[19] The total revenue of the Central Government was just at 225,000,000₤, with roughly 60,000,000₤ of this coming from the Income Tax. The National Debt at the end of 1914 was 649,800,000₤.[20] The major economic landmark that occurred in 1914 happened on August 1. It concerned War emergency measures, which included temporarily increasing the Bank Rate to 10%.[21]

In the religious realm, the Church of England was the official and primary religious organization, with over thirty-three million members. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the Primate and Head of the Church of England, was Archbishop Randall Thomas Davidson.[22] Also, the bishop of London was A. Winnington-Ingram, and the Archbishop of York was Archbishop C. Lang.[23] Although the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, was the official religion in England, the Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished on May 19.[24] Along with the Church of England in Britain, you also had the Episcopal Church in Scotland, the Baptist Union, the Congregational Union, the Presbyterian Church in England, the United Reformed Church, The Methodist Church, and the Church of Scotland.[25] These denominations made up the majority of the Protestant groups in Great Britain. The Roman Catholic Church had an estimated five and a half million members, while the Jewish Community had roughly 250,000 members.

The question concerning domestic policies towards Ireland had been an issue since the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840’s. The term Home Rule was given to the movement, lasting from 1870 to 1914, to give the island of Ireland domestic autonomy.[26] It is important to note that the crisis of what to do with Ireland came to a head once the legislation giving Ireland Home Rule passed. The Protestants in Northern Ireland were Unionists, wanting to remain wholly part of Great Britain, fearing that the Irish Catholics would control Ireland, and therefore persecute them.[27] The resistance to Home Rule became so great that in 1912, the northern Protestants signed a declaration towards resisting Irish Home Rule by any means necessary.[28] This was done once Home Rule for Ireland was passed in that same year.[29] Conservatives in the British Parliament, including Balfour and Bonar Law, supported the promised armed resistance of Irish Protestants.[30] Eventually, the Catholics also created their own force, known as the Irish Volunteers.[31] Eventually, Parliament was to give the Home Rule process a six year exclusion for four counties in the northeast, to see how Home Rule worked in the rest of the island. It was to give the majority of Ireland full Home Rule, while keeping the four northern counties under the direct rule of Britain.[32] Even with this compromise, violence still broke out in Ireland. Redmond, leader of the Volunteers, asked for investigations and debates concerning the continued violence in Ireland in the House of Commons. However, soon after he asked this towards the end of July, Austria would declare war on Serbia, following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Once Britain entered the war, soon after hostilities broke out, Asquith, the Prime Minister, and his Cabinet, decided to “shelve” the Irish Question for the duration of the war.[33] Though the coming Great War would keep Great Britain together, the Irish Question was not solved, only delayed until the end of the war.[34] The war breaking out on the continent of Europe was seen as a merciful reprieve from this issue. [35]

Another major issue coming to a head in 1914 was the question of Women’s Suffrage. Though the movement can be dated back to the 1860’s[36], between 1910 and 1911, attempts were made to pass a Bill which would pacify the movement. However, because of people like Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, who was a leader in the Suffragette campaign, many Cabinet members, and members of Parliament, lost sympathy for the movement. This was due to her, and others in the movement, use of violence and embarrassing tactics, such as self starvation.[37] Though the movement, by the time of 1914, was seen as many as an embarrassment, it had allowed for an enabling of women’s rights, and by this time, women were attending school and college.[38] As a note, the Liberals, who controlled the government, were generally in favor of extending the voting franchise to women. Though this was the case, they also saw it as a very complex issue. Many Liberals were convinced that if women were enfranchised, they would in turn support the Conservative Party, which was also known as the Unionist Party.[39] If this would happen, then their position on issues such as Irish Home Rule could possibly be compromised, as well as their term in government leadership. Likewise, the Conservative Party saw women as being too sympathetic and sentimental. Therefore, they were convinced that if women were enfranchised to vote, then they in turn would support the Liberal Party.[40] Because of the thoughts, by both the Liberal and Conservative Parties, women would not be enfranchised until after the First World War. The fear of women supporting their political enemies was greater then their possible support for the enfranchising of women.

The final major issue of 1914, before the impending war, was the issue of the labor strikes that were occurring and seemingly increasing. Britain for centuries had unions, known as guilds, for skilled laborers. These included masons, carpenters, and the like. However, with the industrialization of the 19th Century, non-skilled laborers, such as dock workers, began to form their own unions.[41] Due to working conditions, these unions would organize strikes. These strikes, which in 1910 began to be very large, continued all the way up until the declaration of war against the Alliance powers of Continental Europe. In fact, before war was inevitable in Europe, a large strike was looming for November 1 in an attempt to get the work week reduced to forty-eight hours.[42] Beyond the planned strike in November, there were two major strikes that had already occurred before the beginning of World War I. The first was a builders strike in London on January. Over 200,000 people were affected and over two and a half million working days lost. The second strike consisted of miners in Yorks. Over 150,000 people were affected with just over two million working days lost.[43]

Although the strikes would be halted due to war, the unions were still a very large force. The largest group of unions was the Trades Union Congress. Over 200 unions were associated with the Congress, constituting over two million members who were affiliated with the Congress.[44] The Trades Union Congress consisted of 560 delegates, with Mr. W. Davis as its president.[45] All in all, there were a total of over twelve hundred trade unions which represented over ten million workers.[46]

On a social note, the publication of books was one the rise by 1914. From 1900, in which 5000 books were published, the publication of books had doubled by 1914. The Harmsworth type of journalism was flourishing. This type of journalism was named for Harmsworth himself, who owned the Daily Mail, and by 1914 also owned The Times, and the style could be seen in these, and other periodical publications. In the arts, Theatre had made wonderful progress, with, most notably Bernard Shaw. Also working in the realm of Theatre was Galsworthy and Barrie. Also, Harley Granville-Barker made his name known as an actor-manager, which was something never successful before. Barker revolutionized Shakespearean production by returning to the original text and using it verbatim.[47]

Along with Theatre, the year 1914 was part of the period of the novel. Social criticism was a major feature, especially with writers such as H. G. Wells and Galsworthy. Also, Wells was a pioneer in the realm of science fiction, which shows that during this period there was much progress in scientific knowledge as well. Other novelist included Henry James and George Moore. Also, there were many philosophical writings, especially from those like Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore. Poetry, in its lyrical form, was not very popular; however there were poetic narrators such as John Masefield.[48]

Other areas of the arts also flourished up until World War I. Painting followed the French lead in Impressionism and Post-impressionism. Elgar and Vaughan Williams were very successful in musical composition, and much work was done in gathering together the disappearing songs of English folk.[49]

Architecture and craftsmanship were still being heavily influenced by William Morris. However, town planning and building began to move away from the more traditional concepts by rich businessmen such as Lever and Cadbury. The growing towns led many people to get away to the country on Sunday afternoons. Cycling grew in popularity, and it caused cycling clubs to form. Also, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, which had been formed in 1906, continued to grow strong in 1914.[50]

With everything that was going on in Great Britain, from the crisis in Ireland, to women’s suffrage, labor strikes, and even in the arts and journalism, the one item that remained at the head in the news headlines was the possibility of civil war in Ireland. However, the idea of Germany as a threat, to both Britain and the rest of Europe, had surfaced due to previous wars, as well as novels written at the time. Though this was the case, the Irish crisis still dominated the headlines. [51] Even once Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the seemingly inevitable civil war in Ireland continued to dominate the headlines, and it was not until war was actually declared that this would change.[52]

On June 28 of 1914, while riding in the streets of Sarajevo, Serbia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated[53] by a Serbian terrorist from the organization known as the Black Hand.[54] This, however, only set the spark to a fuse that had already been laid. Austro-Hungry, along with Germany and Italy had signed a mutual protection pact, forming what is now known as the Triple Alliance. Likewise, Great Britain, with France and Russia had also agreed on a pact, though kept secret from the general public, called the Triple Entente.[55] Along with these alliances between the European powers, war plans were also devised. The most famous of these is the Schlieffen Plan, which outlined how Germany would fight a war if one was started, based upon the theory that all of Europe would be involved, thus, involving all of Europe in its plan. Along with these alliances, the general attitude toward Germany in Britain was extremely dim and cautious.

Great Britain’s foreign policy can be called “Splendid Isolation.”[56] Though Britain was heavily involved in world trade, it typically attempted to stay out of continental Europe’s affairs, being more concerned with its own territories and problems. As mentioned before, the crisis in Ireland dominated the majority of British politics, therefore leaving little time for the House of Commons, or anyone else for that matter, to worry about what was going on in the rest or Europe or the world. Despite of this, the German Kaiser, William II tried desperately to garner an alliance and treaty with Britain, but Britain steadily refused. His desire stemmed from him being partly English himself, being Queen Victoria’s grandson. Ultimately, this led the German state leading attempts to antagonize Britain into some sort of alliance. The Kaiser accomplished agitating the British by using everything from building up the German navy, to running guns to the Boars in Africa during the Boar War, and even sending guns and munitions into Ireland.[57] This eventually became too much for Great Britain, and would eventually lead them into secretly agreeing to the Triple Entente, and eventually lead them into war.[58]

Despite all of this, in July 1914, and in early August, Lord Edward Grey, at the behest of the British Government, led the mediation between the continental European powers in hope of a peaceful solution.[59] Grey had a strong desire for peace, also he was committed to the promise that he knew Britain had made with France concerning the Triple Entente. Grey’s attempt to mediate the problem in Europe was met head on with what the solution the German Chancellor, Bethman Hollweg, desired. This desire was to ensure the success of Austria’s policy towards Serbia, without a large war.[60] This ultimately failed, and now war seemed inevitable.[61]

On August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia, then abruptly invaded Luxembourg on their way to France.[62] This, on the German side, was all done in accordance with the Schlieffen plan, which called for a quick, decisive invasion and victory in France, then a turn to the Eastern front to face Russia. This plan was based upon the assumption that it would take at least a month for Russia to be able to mobilize its troops. This would enable Germany to have time to attack and neutralize France first, then face Russia, making a possible two-front war into two wars or one front each.[63]

Although Britain still did not want to enter into a European conflict, it soon became clear that it would be necessary. Lloyd George even said that he was “aghast at the bare idea of our plunging into the European conflict.”[64] However, because of the agreement with France and Russia, as well as treaty obligations with Belgium, which had made the country neutral, Britain would soon find itself in what would become the First World War.[65]

On August 3rd, 1914, at 11:00pm, Great Britain served an ultimatum to Germany to halt its invasion. This was done in response to Germany making demands on Belgium to allow them unrestricted passage on their way to invade France. On August 4th, control of the railways, under a provision from 1871, was taken from the private sector and put in the hands of the government. On the afternoon of August 5th, the first meeting of the British Council of War was held, with Lord Kitchener being made Secretary or War. On August 8th, the Channel Fleet of the British Royal Navy was deployed to patrol the Channel between Britain and continental Europe. From August 12th – 22nd the British Expeditionary Force was transported to France, most by ship, some by airplane.[66] This shows just how quick the British response truly was, especially being in the beginning of the 20th Century. Also, it shows that even though the government of Great Britain did not want to fight, they were willing to honor their word and pledge, and not only to do it, but to respond quickly.

It was thought, both in Britain and in the rest of Europe, that the war was going to be a short one. Therefore, for Britain, their commitment would be of a limited variety, and would not require any great or prolonged use of its resources. Even if the war was to be longer then expected, the general agreement was for there still to be only a small commitment when it came to men, and use the diversified resources from its far reaching areas of the British Empire. Also, Britain was well suited for Blockading at sea, diversionary expeditions, financial aid, and resupplying missions were her strengths, and that’s were Britain fully expected to be used during the first few months of the war. [67]

Even though the government did not want to get involved in and fight in the war, it was clear that the English people enthusiastically supported Britain’s entrance. In a sense, this was seen as a war that needed to be fought, and therefore the people reacted in jubilation. [68]However, it is important to keep in mind that wars up to this point had been fairly quick, and not very bloody. Because of this, it was easier for the people to be jubilant, especially those not having to go fight themselves.[69] Even so, the jubilance was not only in those who could not fight, but those who could fight showed they were more then willing to do so.

From August to September in 1914, Great Britain saw what Peter Simkins described as a “recruiting boom.”[70] Even before war was declared, young men waited in lines to sign up for the upcoming war. From August 4th to August 8th, an average of 1,640 men enlisted every day. On August 9th, a Sunday, over 2,400 men signed up for enlistment.[71] After August 7th, more recruiting offices were opened throughout London and the rest of the country. Moreover, when recruitment started to fall off towards the end of September, news came in of the British Expeditionary Force engaging the Germans at the Battle of Mons, and then being forced to retreat, led to a resurgence in young men coming into volunteer for enlistment.[72] Ironically, the British had never followed the French sense of a nation at arms, relying on the countries professional army. Though many still believed the war was for others to fight, recruitment still remained to be high.[73]

With the start of the war, the British Admiralty deployed the British Royal Navy into the North Sea to be ready to encounter the German Navy. While the navy was being deployed, and being completely used, the plan for ground troops was different. As before mentioned, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to France, and this was the only plan at the outset of the war that the British had for using ground troops.[74] At the Battle of the Mons, the British force met the large German First Army. Even though the British force fought well, it was eventually forced into retreat. The French plan at first was for a quick, retaliatory strike into Germany. However, with quick defeats, the French commander J.J.C. Joffre realized that defense was going to be the key. This is what he implemented at the Battle of the Marne.[75] Though the British Expeditionary Force played on a small role in the Battle of the Marne, they played a major part in the First Battle of Ypres, which last from October 18th to November 18th. The British force was able to stop the German attempt to outflank the Allied line in what was termed “the race to the sea.”[76] In doing so, the fighting of movement on the Western front came to an end six weeks before the end of 1914.[77]

The British Expeditionary Force had performed with much honor, and for its small size, very well. However, the British government now, at the end of 1914, realized that they had to raise a much larger and massive army. Also, it would have to ensure that this army was fully equipped to handle the German army and the rugged conditions of trench warfare which was now being invented on the Western front.[78]

The battle that was supposed to be done by Christmas, had now turned into a war with no end in sight. A war in which the British government envisioned only a light commitment, would now demand the entire country to take part in the effort of stopping the German invasion of France. In ways, Britain was lucky, for it halted the coming civil war in Ireland, and took the countries eyes off of its own problems an placed them on the world’s. However, though by the end of 1914 Great Britain had not lost many men, by the end of the war in 1918 many lives would be lost.

1914 was a year that was split in two. For the first half, the Irish crisis dominated the headlines and the gossip of the people. However, with the assassination of a foreign Archduke in a country many of the people in Britain had never heard of, all eyes would eventually turn to Germany and the rest of continental Europe.[79] However, even though these two events were the largest events that captured the attention of the British people, other events, such as the Women’s Suffrage movement and the labor issues also caught attention. Also, even with the bleak times, both domestic and foreign, theatre, novels, architecture, music, and many other things were able to flourish and grow in Great Britain.

[1] Butler, David & Sloman, Anne. British Political Facts 1900-1979, (St. Martin’s Press, 1980). 379

[2] Ibid., 5

[3] Ibid., 5-6

[4] Ibid., 149

[5] Ibid., 135

[6] Ibid., 167

[7] Ibid., 206

[8] Ibid., 169

[9] Ibid., 174

[10] Ibid., 200

[11] Ibid., 279

[12] Ibid., 216

[13] Ibid., 264

[14] Ibid., 293

[15] Ibid., 295

[16] Ibid,. 346

[17] Ibid., 348

[18] Ibid,. 350

[19] Ibid,. 352

[20] Ibid., 356

[21] Ibid., 343

[22] Fryde, E.B., Greenway, D.E., Porter, S., Roy, I. Handbook of British Chronology, (University College, London, 1986). 235

[23] Butler, David & Sloman, Anne. British Political Facts 1900-1979, (St. Martin’s Press, 1980).469

[24] Vexler, Robert I. England: A Chronology and Fact Book 1485-1973, (Oceana Publications, 1974). 61

[25] Butler, David & Sloman, Anne. British Political Facts 1900-1979, (St. Martin’s Press, 1980).470-472

[26] Steinberg, S.H. A New Dictionary of British History. (Edward Arnold LTD., 1964), 161

[27] McCaffrey, Lawrence J. The Irish Question: 1800-1922, (University of Kentucky Press, 1968) 151

[28] Ibid., 152

[29] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 14, 2008

[30] McCaffrey, Lawrence J. The Irish Question: 1800-1922, (University of Kentucky Press, 1968) 152-153

[31] Ibid., 156

[32] Ibid., 158

[33] Ibid., 159

[34] Ibid., 160

[35] Pelling, Henry. Modern Britain: 1885-1955, (Thomas Nelson and Sons LTD, 1960). 54

[36] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 17, 2008

[37] Pelling, Henry. Modern Britain: 1885-1955, (Thomas Nelson and Sons LTD, 1960). 55

[38] Ibid., 62

[39] Pearce, Malcolm & Stewart, Geoffrey. British Political History 1867-2001: Democracy and Decline, (Routledge, 2002). 207

[40] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 17, 2008

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Butler, David & Sloman, Anne. British Political Facts 1900-1979, (St. Martin’s Press, 1980). 338

[44] Ibid., 340

[45] Ibid., 330

[46] Ibid., 340

[47] Pelling, Henry. Modern Britain: 1885-1955, (Thomas Nelson and Sons LTD, 1960). 60-61

[48] Ibid., 60

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 61

[51] Marwick, Arthur. A History of the Modern British Isles: 1914-1999, (Blackwell, 2000). 3

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 17, 2008

[55] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 19, 2008

[56] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 17, 2008

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Medlicott, W.N. Contemporary England 1914-1964: with epilogue 1964-1974, (Longman, 1976) 11

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., 12

[62] Marwick, Arthur. A History of the Modern British Isles: 1914-1999, (Blackwell, 2000). 3

[63] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 19, 2008

[64] Medlicott, W.N. Contemporary England 1914-1964: with epilogue 1964-1974, (Longman, 1976) 12

[65] Ibid., 13

[66] Marwick, Arthur. A History of the Modern British Isles: 1914-1999, (Blackwell, 2000). 3

[67] Medlicott, W.N. Contemporary England 1914-1964: with epilogue 1964-1974, (Longman, 1976) 14

[68] Marwick, Arthur. A History of the Modern British Isles: 1914-1999, (Blackwell, 2000). 4

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid. Quote came from Peter Simkins’ book “Kitchener’s Army”

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., 6

[75] Ibid., 7

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid., 8

[79] Willis, K. Lecture, University of Georgia, History 3372: Britain since 1660. November 19, 2008


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Fryde, E.B., Greenway, D.E., Porter, S. & Roy, I. Handbook of British Chronology,
London: University College, 1986.

Jackson, Alvin. Home Rule: An Irish History, 1800-2000, Oxford: Oxford University
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Laybourn, Keith. Modern Britain Since 1906: A Reader, London: I.B. Taurus, 1999

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Pearce, Malcolm & Stewart, Geoffrey. British Political History 1867-2001: Democracy
and Decline,
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