The World At War circa 1920
The First World War was one of the deadliest battles in human history. Four years of war resulted in approximately 9 million dead, 21.2 million wounded, 7.8 million taken prisoner or missing, and 6.6 million civilians perishing, changing the political, and literal, landscape of Europe permanently. Entire villages were wiped off the map and fertile farmland devastated. A war of many firsts, with new weapons and rapidly changing tactics, the slaughter and destruction was on a scale never before seen.
19th century ideas and 20th century technology meant the scale of loss was exacerbated on both sides. The beginning of the war saw men charging in to battle on horseback, however as the war progressed so did technology. Poisonous gas, machine guns, battleships, aeroplanes, tanks and submarine warfare were all perfected during World War One. In mid 1917 the British army required 500,000 shells a day and 1,000,000 was not unheard of. A whole generation of men were affected with approximately 21 million injured soldiers returning from war maimed and traumatised. Many women, already at work before the war but restricted to jobs such as teaching and agriculture, were allowed, for the first time, to drive trucks and ambulances, work in munitions factories, be frontline nurses etc. Drawn in to a new way of life, despite the dangers, there were 900,000 women in the munitions factories by the end of the war. Returned home to their domestic duties when the war ended the ‘roaring twenties’ was a time of huge social change. In 1921 31% of the female population was employed compared to less than 1% in 1911.
This interesting and engaging collection of maps details the various intricacies of the First World War, ranging from the battle lines of the East and Western Front, to the outlook of Imperial Germany. The Air Raid map of Central London has been carefully compiled to show with approximate accuracy where bombs fell in the many air raids during the war and the War Chart of the Grand Fleet details the movements of the Navy.
Sea power was vital and the British Navy was very powerful, the largest battleships providing Britain‘s “sure shield“. Leading in to the twentieth century, Naval warfare had been revolutionised. Boats were now made of steel, not wood and explosive shells replaced cannonballs. The development of the infamous HMS Dreadnought for the British Navy in 1906, lead to a worldwide naval arms race, prior to World War One. Powered by steam turbines, rather than sails, HMS Dreadnought was the fastest battleship in the world at the time. Following this, German Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz formed a plan to build a High Seas Fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy’s mastery and hence the British Empire. German U-Boats, a submarine used against the trade routes of the allies, sunk almost 5,500 merchant ships during the war. In December 1914 German cruisers shelled three English East coast towns, Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, killing and wounding 700 civilians. Fearing the German torpedo-boats, submarines and mines, the British Battleship Fleet was tucked away far up to the north, sometimes even the west coast, and only came in to the southern part of the North Sea when it could reinforce the smaller, lighter fleets on an expedition or when working out a tactical plan. In all this it kept so far away from our coast that a meeting with our fleet - which might possibly have resulted in the defeat of the British - was seriously avoided.
In 1914 aviation was in its infancy. The American Wright Brothers had made the first powered flight in 1903. Despite this infancy, aeroplane technology allowed bombing raids on a huge scale and with the rapid development of camera and radio technology real time reconnaissance became a reality changing the face of war forever. By 1918 aircraft had become much more powerful and reliable and were first recognised as a separate branch of the army - the Royal Air Force. By the end of the war the French had built 68,000 planes and 52,000 of these were lost in battle. A German speciality was the Zeppelin - a gas-filled airship used for long range bombing. Able to rise higher than any aircraft - until 1916 - and to carry 1,000kg of bombs, Zeppelins killed 498 and injured 1,236 civilians in raids on Britain. An official analysis of the returns of casualties shows that 217 men, 171 women and 110 children were killed. The sight of these huge, slow moving machines on the horizon caused massive panic but in reality they had little affect in the war. Once aircraft could reach the same height, their large size meant they became easy targets. Between December 16th, 1914 and June 17th, 1918, there were 51 airship raids on Great Britain, 57 Aeroplane raids, and 12 bombardments from the sea by war vessels. The total casualties were 5,611.
These newly developed weapons led to a war that was fought by large civilian armies rather than small professional ones. By the end of the war 70 million men had been mobilised. Creating conditions never before seen, the only way to survive the newly developed long-range artillery weapons and rapid fire machine guns was to dig trenches. It was too dangerous for troops to enter ‘No Mans Land’ - the area of land between two opposing sides trenches - and so the war became a stalemate with slow movement and constant fighting between two evenly matched sides. Life in the trenches was terrible with men spending only 7 - 10 days at a time on the frontline. The Western Front stretched 440 miles with an elaborate network of trenches along the German border, with most battles taking place in France and Belgium. Battles in No Man’s Land were rare and significant advances were rarely made, battles for break through costing huge losses on both sides. One of bloodiest of battles recorded was on the North and South banks of the River Somme. Lasting 141 days, the first day of the battle claimed 20,000 British troops and 40,000 British casualties in one day alone. Verdun, 170 miles East of Paris, was the scene of the longest fight, lasting one year. The battle field became known as the ‘mincing machine’ with 540,000 French casualties killed and wounded and 400,000 German. Conditions in the trenches were hellish. Rain, snow and natural seepage filled the trenches with water with lack of drainage leading to conditions such as trench foot leading to blisters, boils and trench fever. Wooden slats, known as duck boards, would be laid to try to keep feet reasonably dry but coping with the mud was difficult, living and sleeping amongst rats and lice. As the war progressed trenches became more sophisticated. One of the main dangers of trench life was being buried alive if the walls collapsed. Reinforced walls became common place and some German trenches even had shuttered windows and doormats. Constant readiness for battle was exhausting and time swung between short periods of intense fighting or long stretches of boredom. Most work was done at night, with dawn and dusk high risk of enemy attack. A sudden hive of activity would ensue, filling the trench with casualties with horrifying wounds, before they could be prepared for the long and uncomfortable journey out of the trenches to the field hospital. The bodies of many thousands of troops would be left were they fell as it was too dangerous to leave the trenches to retrieve them. There are 72,000 British & Commonwealth dead at the Somme with no known graves.
The main form of transport remained the horse but increasing use was made of mechanised vehicles. The first tank used in battle by Britain was in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme but early tanks were not hugely reliable. 49 were used in this battle, 17 broke down before they even got to British lines, with 18 of the remaining 32 managing to attack German lines. Breaking through enemy lines, for the infantry to follow, they were successful enough for General Haig to order 1000 more tanks be built.
War propaganda was a necessity for Britain to raise the huge civilian army that was needed. The famous “Your Country Needs You” poster featured British War Minister General Kitchener. By the end of 1915 2.5 million men had volunteered but more were needed to fill the depleted ranks of soldiers. In January 1916, conscription was introduced for all single men aged 18-41.
Fighting along the Eastern Front was a very different war. This war was much more rapid with great armies marching backwards and forwards across many hundreds of miles. Badly led and poorly equipped, the Russian army lost two million men, of which one million were taken prisoner, in 1915 alone. Back and fourth across this territory - which is roughly 200 miles from east to west and 350 miles from north to south - the tide of warfare ebbed and flowed.
The final year, 1918, looked to be turning in favour of Germany and her allies. Russia left the war in 1917 enabling Germany to concentrate it’s efforts on the Western Front. A vast offensive in March bought German troops within 40 miles of Paris but behind enemy lines Germany was far from strong. Morale was low, food shortages leading to strikes and mutinies. Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria had collapsed in the face of Allied attacks, and Italy had gained a victory against Austria - Hungary. By early November Germany stood alone. World War One ended at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1918. Germany signed an armistice, prepared by Britain and France, to end the fighting. Regarded as the first worldwide conflict, people hoped there would never be a war on such a huge scale again but underlying resentments and injustices sadly led to a second more destructive war in 1939.