Nothing is as approved as mediocrity, the majority has established it and it fixes it fangs on whatever gets beyond it either way. — Pascal

British Empire—Great War

1901 to 1921
Death of Victoria to Aftermath of Great War

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Great War

Thirteen years after the death of Victoria I in 1901, the British Empire faced the worst calamity it its history, the Great War. During the last half of the 19th century, the nation of Germany, dominated by Prussia, had made great gains over its continental neighbors. Its compulsory education and university system produced the best educated population in the world. In the Franco Prussian War of 1870, Germany had established itself as the pre-eminent military force on the continent. Germany was a well-educated, industrious, and ambitious country, with an enormous standing army. It was not, however, a strong naval power and by the time it came to power, most of the desirable areas of the globe had already been colonized by Britain, France, or Spain. Undaunted, Germany realized that if she could get control of the Balkan Peninsula, and ally herself with Turkey, she could control important trade routes to the east.

Great Britain, on the other hand, was very wealthy, powerful, and controlled almost all the strategically important sea routes, but her wealth and industry had given rise to a certain decadence and corruption, and the control of her government alternated between pro-imperialist Tories and liberal, or socialist reformers. Britain, being a self-content, but unwieldly power, did not want war, and was not prepared for it. Germany, being a young, vigorous, and ambitious rising power, did. The leaders in Germany undoubtedly believed they could conquer the corrupt western democracies in a short and decisive campaign, as they had done in the Franco-Prussian war. No one believed in advance that the war would sink to the depths of carnage, barbarism and whole-sale slaughter to which it quickly sank. The Great War, as it was called at the time, was not just a military debacle for all concerned, but a blow at the heart of the modernist idea of moral progress, and the conceits of civilization.

The Western Front—British involvement in the Great war occurred primarily on the Western Front, and in particularly in the regions of Flanders and northern France. The German had planned a very quick foray toward Paris in hopes of a quick victory, but they were frustrated by Belgium's refusal to allow their army to pass through their country. This delayed the German advance by three weeks, giving France and Britain time to marshal forces. Once inside French territory, the Germans advanced rapidly but were stopped and driven back at the First Battle of the Marne. The Germans retreated to a line defense that extended across eastern France from the North Sea to Switzerland, and both sides dug in for a protracted war. Numerous offensives were attempted from this line on both sides, but with modern weapon technology, every offensive resulted in horrendous casualties, and fighting quickly reverted to trench warfare. New weapons, such as poison gas, aircraft bombing, and tanks were invented to make progress on this front, but even these were unsuccessful in breaking the deadlock. The two most famous battles on the Western front, both lasting several months and inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties, were Verdun and Somme. Yet even these ambitious campaigns failed in their objectives. The western front languished for three years, until Germany instigated a final offensive, in an attempt to break through the french line before American reinforcements arrived. The object failed and by 1818, when significant numbers of Americans arrived the Germans were driven out of their positions and far back into German territory.

Gallipoli—The invasion of Gallipoli was the worst British crisis of 1915. The British desired to gain control of the Black Sea in order to supply its ally Russian, and also to cut off German aid to Turkey. It was determined that the straight of Dardanelles could not be taken by British navy due to heavily fortified forts, so a large scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula was planned. Although carefully planned, the casualties were extremely heavy, the conditions were terrible, and the British were too exhausted once they had secured each military objective to follow through on their offensive. After several offensives failed to make headway the project was abandoned. Winston Churchill was one of the Navel commanders at the time who lost their position after the debacle.

Mesopotamia and Palestine—After an initial disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia, in which most of a British army was besieged in Kut en route to Baghdad, the allied campaigns in Iraq and Palestine were generally successful. By attacking from British strongholds in the Persian Gulf and Egypt, several British armies were able to land successfully, secure their supply lines, and over run the southern portions of the Ottoman Empire. They were helped in these endeavors by an Arab rebellion, led by Lawrence of Arabia, a British archeologist who had spent several years traveling in Arabia and befriending important sheiks. The first allied victory in the area was the successful capture of Baghdad by General Maude in early 1917. This was followed up by a series of successful campaigns in Palestine and Syria by General Allenby. Jerusalem fell to the British in late 1917, and most important cities in Syria were in British hands by early 1918.

Dissolution of the British Empire—The immediate effects of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Great War, was to add Egypt, Iraq and Palestine to Britain's dominions. These new acquisitions were the result of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Long term, however, the Great War portended the ultimate dissolution of the Empire. The war had crippled Britain economically, decreased its hold upon its colonies, and most importantly severely diminished its will to power. Britain's war debt was enormous and lead to destabilizing inflation. The Anglo-Irish war of 1919 lead to Ireland's independence from Great Britain in 1922. A few years later the Balfour Declaration of 1926 suggested that the imperial possessions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Newfoundland, and South Africa be governed in cooperation with, but independently of Britain. This arrangement was set formally sent forth in 1931 in the Statute of Westminster. Gradually almost all other British possessions gained their independence: Iraq in 1932, India in 1947, Burma in 1948, Egypt in 1953, Nigeria and South Africa in 1960, and Kenya in 1963. Hong Kong was ceded back to the China in 1997. Today the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland enjoys commonwealth trade relations with most of its former colonies, but it directly governs only the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, and the British West Indies.

Characters—Great War

CharacterDate Short Biography

British Leaders

George V1865–1936 King of England during the Great War. Relinquished all German holdings; changed name to Windsor.
Horatio Kitchener1850–1916 Military hero of the late 19th century, first in Sudan, and later in the Boer Wars
Lawrence of Arabia1888–1935 Middle east archeologist and historian who served with the British and Arab irregulars during WWI.
Rudyard Kipling1865–1936 Kipling's novel's and poetry are associated with British Imperialism, for good and ill.
General Pershing1860–1948 Leader of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.

French Leaders

Joseph Joffre1852–1931 Commander and chief of the French army during the early years of the Great War.
Ferdinand Foch1851–1929 Military theorist and teacher who became Field Marshall of the Allies during the Great War.

German Leaders

Kaiser William II1859–1941 Second Kaiser built up a strong navy, , and bumbled into disastrous World War.
General Hindenburg1847–1934 Field Marshal during WWI, and German Statesman. President of Germany after the War.

Timeline—Great War

AD YearEvent

Events Leading up to the War

June, 1914 Assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by Serbian secret society.


Aug 3 Germany declares War on France, invades neutral Belgium.
Aug 20 Germany enter Brussels after ignoring protests. England declars War on Germany.
Sep 6 First Battle of Marne—French Victory; Germans retreat to Western Front.
Dec 24 First German air-raid on Britain, civilian cities targeted.


Apr 17 Battle of Ypres—First use of poison gas.
Apr-Dec Battle of Gallipoli, costly defeat for allies against Turkey.
May 7 British passenger liner Lusitania sunk by the Germans.
May 23 Italy enters war on the side of the allies.
Oct 13 German execute Edith Cavell, a British nurse, for helping soldiers escape Belgium.
Oct 14 Bulgaria enters the war on the side of the central powers.


Feb-July Battle of Verdun, failed German offensive, over 1 million killed .
May 31 Largest naval battle of the war off the coast of Jutland.
Jul-Nov Battle of Somme, failed British offensive, over 500 thousand killed.
Aug 29 Hindenberg takes supreme command of German armies.


Mar 11 Bagdhad captured by British.
Apr 6 America declares War on Germany .
Jul 20 Kerensky succeeds as premier of Russia
Nov 7 Overthrow of Kerensky by the Bolsheviks—Russia withdraws from the war.


Apr 9 German offensive between Ypres and Arras.
May 27 German offensive near Chateau-Thierry and Marne River.
Jun 11 American offensive in Belleau Wood.
Jul 18 Second Battle of Marne—Allied Victory.
Sep 22 British victory over the Ottomans in Palestine.
Oct 1 Hindenberg Line taken by the French.
Oct-Nov German losses at Laon, Ostend, Lille, Aleppo.
Nov 11 Armistice signed between Allies and German powers.

Recommended Reading—Great War

Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Tappan - The Little Book of the War    entire book
Usher - The Story of the Great War    entire book

Supplemental Recommendations

Gibson - War Inventions    entire book
Fraser - Boys' Book of Battles   Ypres to Argonne-Meuse (4)
Synge - The World at War    entire book

Special Interest - Military

McSpadden - Boy's Book of Famous Soldiers   Kitchener to Pershing (5)
Fraser - Boys' Book of Sea Fights   Running Fight off the Falklands to Battle off Jutland Bank (2)
Mackenzie - Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War    entire book
Wood - Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen    entire book
Leask - Heroes of the Great War    entire book
Masefield - Gallipoli    entire book

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate