The Great War

When and why did the Great War first become known as the First World War?

The term ‘First World War’ seems to have been first used in print in Britain in 1920 as the title of the two-volume war memoirs of the soldier-turned writer Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington.

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A veteran of Afghanistan, the Sudan and the Boer War, Repington was a colourful and controversial figure who took up journalism in 1902 after being forced to resign his commission in the Rifle Brigade following an affair with the wife of a fellow officer. In 1915, writing for The Times, he broke the news of the ‘shell scandal’, which brought down Asquith’s government.

Then, in 1918 Repington, now a correspondent with the Morning Post, was fined after being found guilty under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act of disclosing secret information. He died in 1925.

Due in part to the belief that the 1914–18 war had indeed been ‘the war to end all wars’, Repington’s term was slow to catch on. The war continued to be referred to as ‘the Great War’ or simply ‘the World War’ until the outbreak of an even greater conflict in 1939 created a need for differentiation.
 

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Answered by: Julian Humphrys, author of Enemies at the Gate (English Heritage, 2007)