1914: Why the war caught Britain cold

The country was so distracted by its domestic woes that the outbreak of the First World War came as a terrible surprise, writes Mark Bostridge

The Great Ulster Rally in Hyde Park, April 1914.

For many people in Britain, awakening on the morning of 5 August 1914 to discover that the country was at war with Germany, the swift movement of international events climaxing in Germany’s invasion of Belgium, seemed barely conceivable.“It is simply crushing, the suddenness and awfulness of it,” commented David Robson from Malvern in Worcestershire.

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Elsie Stephens in Penryn, Cornwall observed that “everything has come on us like a sudden thunderstorm”. Mrs Purbrook of Hornchurch in Essex summed up the widespread feeling of disbelief when she wrote that “just a week ago I don’t think that, in spite of the newspaper scares, any one of us, the uninitiated public, thought there would be war – and certainly they never really imagined that England would be in it. The final development has been most rapid.”

This sense of palpable shock was reflected in the number of women going into premature labour the day after war was declared.

It also manifested itself in the reports of the suicides of several London financiers, already under pressure from the panic in the foreign markets and the closure of the Stock Exchange, who were depressed by what newspapers called “the terrible state of things”. One of them, a 40-year-old stockbroker, had drowned himself in his bath.

The war that had been imagined and predicted for so long, in novels like Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, or the melodramas of William Le Queux, with their invasion scares and reports of German spies, had nevertheless succeeded in catching people unawares, like “the leap of some awful monster out of his lair”, as the novelist Henry James described this turn of events.

Much of the population had undoubtedly long viewed Germany as the country’s natural enemy in a future war. A meeting, in January 1914, of the Church of England’s Men’s Society in Downton – the real-life Wiltshire village, not the fictional television location – illustrates this belief. A motion proposed by the local curate, “that war with Germany is inevitable”, was carried by an overwhelming number of votes. Yet over time the fear engendered by the spectre of conflict had steadily diminished. As HG Wells had sagely noted, “a threat that goes on for too long ceases to have the effect of a threat”.

News of a steady improvement in Anglo-German relations dominated the headlines at the start of the year when Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer, allying himself with his party’s radical peace wing in the row over the extravagance of the country’s latest batch of Naval Estimates, asserted with confidence that Britain and Germany “seem to have realised what ought to have been fairly obvious long ago… that there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by a quarrel”.

And, in June, the enthusiastic reception of the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, on his visit to Oxford University to receive an honorary degree, was seized upon as yet one more indication “of a far better feeling” between Britain and Germany “than has prevailed for years”. The undergraduate Oxford Magazine, reporting on the visit, observed that talk of war between the European powers had been repeated too often to sound convincing, and suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that “perhaps the armies of 2913 will still be preparing for the ‘inevitable war’”.

Domestic discontent

While the nation may have been lulled into a false sense of security, worrying manifestations of domestic discontent had also been distracting attention from events on the international stage. When the archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang, used his new year message to warn that 1914 might well prove “a very fateful year in the history of our land”, he was referring not to the prospect of European war, but to three other violent challenges to the established order. Clouds, Lang declared, “were hovering over the peace of our industrial life”, and there were fears that the country would soon find itself paralysed by continuous outbreaks of industrial action.

The suffragettes, demanding votes for women, were turning increasingly from symbolic gestures of protest to acts of greater violence. Finally, the direst portents of all, in Lang’s ‘Perils of 1914’, were reserved for Ireland, where the Asquith government’s attempt to introduce a new Home Rule Bill was provoking resistance in Ulster, amid fears that Ireland might soon be on the brink of civil war.

The dramatic levels of industrial unrest, dating from the large-scale, sometimes violent disputes of 1910–12, remained high. The first seven months of 1914 promised an increase in strike action even greater than that of the previous year. Close to a thousand British strikes would be recorded up to the end of July and every week brought some new outbreak of conflict in the workplace.

A strike of Leeds corporation workmen at new year had left the city’s streets shrouded in darkness and church evensong conducted by the light of lanterns. For one bitterly cold week in January, Londoners struggled to keep warm as 7,000 workers in the coal trade came out on strike for increased pay, followed two days later by a strike of 3,000 carmen, responsible for distributing coal to different parts of the capital. There was a five-month lockout in the London building trade, a dispute on the Yorkshire coalfields and a demand for an eight-hour working day among shipbuilders in Liverpool.

Nor was action limited to big industry. A prolonged strike of chair-workers in High Wycombe led to local rioting and an escalation in violence on the picket lines. Even professional sport faced disruption when Warrington refused to play Hull Kingston Rovers after the team was denied a bonus.

A proclamation posted in Whitehall, London, declaring the start of war in Europe
A proclamation posted in Whitehall, London, declaring the start of war in Europe. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The year’s most extraordinary strike, however, began in April in the Norfolk village of Burston. Here a group of 66 children refused to attend the local council school after their teachers, Kitty and Tom Higdon, were dismissed as the result of a vendetta pursued against them by local rector and upholder of the status quo, the Reverend Charles Eland. Unable to get the teachers reinstated, the villagers helped to establish a strike school with the Higdons at its head. News of the Burston children’s rebellion spread rapidly to the outside world, and in time became a celebrated expression of the strength of grass-roots democracy, as well as the longest running strike in British history.

A Venus hatchet job

Meanwhile the suffragettes were stepping up their campaign. On 10 March Mary Richardson, a veteran of the cause, entered the National Gallery in London with a hatchet and made six distinct cuts in the canvas of Velázquez’s Toilet of Venus. Her attack was a protest at the rearrest the previous day of Emmeline Pankhurst and at the barbarity of the forcible feeding being inflicted on Mrs Pankhurst and other suffragettes in Holloway. It soon spawned a rash of imitators.

Over the next few months, the hatchet became the season’s weapon of choice as works of art in various parts of the country sustained damage from suffragette action.

An arson squad of militants continued to cause damage to public buildings, while the destruction of church property became more frequent. At Westminster Abbey, in June, a deafening explosion, which did a small amount of damage to the Coronation Chair, sent visitors scurrying to the exits.

The suffragette leadership had always remained publicly committed to the sanctity of human life. Even as more aggressive forms of militancy were adopted, the rule remained firm: the only lives that could be lost were the militants’ own. But a disturbing escalation of violence suggested that the leadership was finding it increasingly difficult to regulate the pace of militancy among the more fanatical of its followers. Two suffragettes, for instance, set upon the deputy governor of Holloway with horsewhips, while an explosion among mail-bags on a train from Blackpool, caused by a suffragette-designed device containing sulphuric acid, badly burned a train guard.

In February, Lord Weardale, a Liberal peer, was physically attacked by a suffragette who mistook him for the prime minister, encouraging fears that if Mrs Pankhurst were allowed to die on hunger strike, some firebrand might leap forward with the ultimate nightmare scenario: assassination.

The issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the Liberal government’s biggest headache. Asquith, and other members of his cabinet, had fatally underestimated the opposition that Home Rule, through the creation of a Dublin parliament, would face from Protestant-dominated Ulster. Socially, economically and culturally, the north-east province saw itself as wholly distinct from the rest of Ireland. Under

Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist MPs at Westminster, the Ulster Unionists had shown themselves prepared, if necessary, to resort to armed revolt. The Ulster Volunteer Force, founded in 1912, had a membership of 80,000 by the beginning of 1914, while its cache of arms of all descriptions had reached 25,000.

In March, the news that 58 officers from the British Army camp at Curragh preferred to accept dismissal rather than be involved in any “initiation of active military operations against Ulster”, devastatingly exposed the fact that the government no longer had the authority to impose Home Rule on Ulster by force. Months of bargaining lay ahead as Asquith, Carson and the nationalist leader John Redmond tried to agree on a compromise that would allow Ulster to be excluded for a limited period from the ongoing Home Rule legislation.

The image of a magical, idyllic summer of 1914 has etched itself on the collective imagination as marking an abrupt end to Britain’s golden age, but the enshrining of that last summer before the war owes rather more to romantic memory than accurate recollection. For a start, the weather was not as remarkable as it’s often said to have been. A quick glance at the meteorological records indicates that June was sunny and hot, but also rather wet; July was dull and rather dry with temperatures near normal; and August was fairly cool, and unsettled, at first.

The world of entertainment and culture certainly offered plenty of diversion that summer. Record attendances were reported throughout the country in music halls and picture palaces. In London, audiences rocked with laughter as well as shock during the first run of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which Mrs Patrick Campbell, as the flower girl Eliza Doolittle, stopped the show by uttering a ‘sanguinary’ expletive – “Not bloody likely” – at the end of the third act.

The craze for flying, as a spectator and participant sport, was at its height. Displays from celebrity aviators, like Claude Grahame-White and BC Hucks, looping the loop, drew vast crowds from across the social classes to Hendon, the leading flying establishment.

Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, was among the keenest of flyers, notching up nearly 140 separate flights, having achieved an integral role for aeroplanes within the navy, in July 1914, with the formation of the Royal Naval Air Service.

But the tension, never far beneath the surface in Britain that summer, was captured by a new modernist art movement, the Vorticists. Their manifesto ‘Blast’, appearing at the beginning of July, possessed a violent, angry and condemnatory tone, which seemed almost to presage some future conflict.

A sex war, a class war and a civil war were indeed by now clearly visible on the horizon. In his speech at the Mansion House, on 17 July, three weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, Lloyd George reassured the City that, despite some “clouds in the international sky”, peace could still be preserved. By contrast, on the domestic front, he warned that the problems faced by the nation were “the gravest with which any government in this country has had to deal with for centuries”.

Apocalyptic nightmare

The tide of public feeling was turning against the suffragettes as a result of the acceleration of their violent tactics, and militants themselves now became the victims of attacks from members of the public and the focus of demands in parliament that they should be left to die on hunger strike.

In industrial relations, the threat of a Triple Alliance, linking the unions representing railwaymen, transport workers and miners, provoked concerns about the likelihood of a nationwide general strike that autumn. It also raised, in some fevered imaginations, the apocalyptic nightmare of revolution.

Worst of all, in Ireland, unionists and nationalists were now engaged in gunrunning on such a scale that they were said to outnumber British troops. On 24 July the conference at Buckingham Palace, called to end the deadlock in the Irish situation, broke down in failure. Asked what the consequences of this were likely to be, Churchill replied simply: “Blood, blood.”

Then, in an almost unbelievable sequence of events, national turmoil was overtaken by developments in Europe. Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, as Asquith recognised, brought the European powers “within measurable, or imaginable distance of a real Armageddon which would dwarf the Ulster and Nationalist Volunteers to their true proportion”.

The only blessing to emerge from the coming war appeared to be that it put domestic problems into the shade, uniting the nation behind a single patriotic purpose – though as Venetia Stanley, the prime minister’s closest confidante, joked, it was a bit like cutting off your head in order to get rid of a headache.

With the declaration of war on 4 August, the Home Rule Bill was placed on the statute book, its operation suspended until the conflict was over, while nationalist and unionist leaders competed to outdo each other in patriotic gestures. An ‘industrial truce’ was called by union leaders and the number of strikes immediately reduced – from the autumn to the end of 1914, only 161,437 working days were lost to strike action, 1.6 per cent of the total for the year.

As for the suffragettes, they were instructed to bring a halt to all militant activities while war was on. “With that patriotism which has nerved woman to endure endless torture in prison cells, we ardently desire that our country shall be victorious,” Mrs Pankhurst told her supporters. Soon suffragettes would be distributing white feathers to men who had failed to answer the call of king and country.

The day before the expiry of Britain’s ultimatum to Germany, the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey defended the government’s decision to fight, in optimistic words that were largely overlooked by the journalists present. In them Grey had told the country “if we engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside”.

Prime Minister Asquith’s presentiments, in a private letter written during the last minutes of peace on 4 August, were both more prescient and full of foreboding: “We are on the eve of horrible things.”


Events that made the news before Britain went to war

10 March 1914 Venus under attack

The suffragette Mary Richardson slashes Velázquez’s painting The Toilet of Venus (shown above) at the National Gallery, as a protest against the reimprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst in Holloway

20 March 1914 A military threat

Fifty-eight British Army officers at Curragh, in County Kildare, threaten to resign rather than impose Home Rule on Ulster. 

1 April 1914 Pupils down tools

Schoolchildren from the village of Burston in Norfolk go on strike at the dismissal of their head teacher, Kitty Higdon, and her husband. 

11 April 1914 A ‘bloody’ sensation

The London opening of the first English production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Henry Higgins and Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle, proves a sensation when Campbell utters the expletive ‘bloody’ on stage

21 May 1914 Showdown at the palace

Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragettes’ deputation to the king at Buckingham Palace is marked by brutal attacks on the women and multiple arrests. 

23 May 1914 The end of an aviation ‘genius’

One of Britain’s most celebrated aviators, Gustav Hamel – described by his friend Winston Churchill as three parts bird, the rest genius – is killed flying across the Channel on his way to take part in the annual Aerial Derby at Hendon

June 1914 Music from the heavens

The British composer Gustav Holst completes an initial sketch of ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, the first in a set of orchestral pieces that will form his Planets suite

2 July 1914 Stone manifesto

The first issue of Blast, the manifesto of the Vorticists, a modernist art movement dedicated to coldness, hardness and “reflections of steel and stone in the spirit of the artist” is published. Edward Wadsworth’s Vorticist woodcut 

24 July 1914 Clouds gather over Ireland

The round-table conference at Buckingham Palace, attended by British and Irish politicians, fails to find a compromise for Home Rule legislation. This increases the likelihood of civil war in Ireland

2 August 1914 A last-ditch appeal for peace

Labour politician Keir Hardie is among those addressing a large anti-war rally, organised by socialist and Labour protesters, in Trafalgar Square. Some 100,000 people join similar rallies around the country on what will be the last Sunday of peace

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Mark Bostridge is the author of biographies of Vera Brittain and Florence Nightingale. His latest book, The Fateful Year: England 1914, published by Viking, is out now