The First World War

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The Causes of the War

The First World War was a conflict of unprecedented scale. The great powers of Europe confronted on another in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The war was fought between the allies; Britain, France and Russia and the countries of their empires, joined later by the United States and Italy, and the Central powers; Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

  • Tensions between the European powers intensified before the FWW, making conflict more likely. Conflict and competition emerged over the size of armed forces and an arms raced developed between Britain and Germany over naval armaments and Germany, France and Russia over army size
  • The formation of two groups of alliances added to tensions in Europe as France, Britain and Russia formed the Triple Entente and Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy joined together in the Triple Alliance. Germany feared the possibility of fighting against Russia and France simultaneously and developed the Schlieffen Plan. The plan assumed that the russians would take six weeks to be fully ready for war and therefore that in the event of war, Germany had a chance to defeat France quickly before Russia was ready.
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The Causes of the War

  • Conflicts and power struggles took place in the Balkans were a source of instability in Europe before the First World War. The Ottomans had controlled this area but their grip had weakened and some countries like Serbia had asserted independence. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia, a multi-ethnic state containing many Serbs.
  • The Murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Serb nationalists who wanted Bosnia to unite with Serbia caused a crisis as the Austrians blamed Serbia. Russia, concerned and to prevent Austria-Hungary gaining more territory from Serbia, mobilised their army and the Austrians, backed by their ally Germany, invaded Serbia on 28th July 1914
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The Course of the War

The war drew in all of the European powers after Germany enacted the Schlieffen Plan. Germany invaded France through the flat and accessible terrain of Belgium on 1 August 1914. The British, keen to ensure that Germany did not get hold of France and Belgium ports and wishing to protect Belgian neutrality, declared war on Germany.

  • Phase 1: After the British and French halted the German advance through Belgium and Northern France in autumn 1914, both sides raced to control the nearby North Sea Coastline.
  • Phase 2 1915-17: A front line was established running through Belgium and Northern France. The two sides established trench systems. The war was primarily in stalemate situation.
  • Phase 3: The German high command decided to launch one final push against the Allies on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Initial successes were short-lived however, and by November, the Allies had defeated the German army on the Western Front. 
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Trench Warfare and the Western Front

Following the initial race to the sea, both sides reached a stalemate. A front line developed running from North-West Belgium down through france: the Western front. This was the primary theatre of war for the British although there were also significant British and imperial forces in the Middle East. Trenched were built by both sides along the front line and over time these became more complex and better constructed.

There were a number of problems associated with trench warfare in terms of conditions for soldiers. These included the prevalence of rats, trench foot, and lice causing trench fever. Trench conditions were dangerous: 31% of those who served in the army were wounded compared with only 3 or 4 per cent of those in the navy or the air force.

As Germans were occupying Belgium and French territory, it was the British and the French who had to launch attacks to try to dislodge the Germans. This meant mounting attacks on the opposing force either through infantry advancing by going over the top through no man's land or by bombarding opposing forces with shells and shrapnel. 

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Trench Warfare and the Western Front

Other tactics included the creeping barrage where advancing infantry would be protected by an arc of artillery fire landing in front of them. Another tactic, used by the British at Messines Ridge near Ypres in 1917, for example, was to dig underground towards German lines and detonate mines underneath them.

Tanks were an innovative technological development during the First World War. They enabled movement across difficult terrain. By the end of the war, tanks were being used by the British as a method of breaking through enemy lines. A new and deadly form of warfare, chemical warfare, was also developed: poisonous mustard gas was developed from 1915.

Initially there were shortages of key items such as larger shells while the value of some of the weapons, like machine guns, had not been recognised by those more senior in the army. By 1916-17 however, the British Army was well-supplied with all of these items: Lee-Enfield Rifle, Vickers machine gun, Lewis gun, Stokes mortar, grenades and shells

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The Battle of the Somme July-November 1916

The high levels of casualties experienced during the Battle of the Somme have led to it being remembered as a symbol of the suffering experienced by soldiers sent over the top.

In 1916 the allies; Britain, France and Russia, decided to launch a co-ordinated attack on the German to try to break the stalemate. The British army was new in excess of 2.5 million strong and General Haig, the British commander on the Western Front, was able to plan infantry attacks of enormous magnitude. A massive German strike agains the French at Verdun meant that the offensive at the Somme was primarily a British attack. German trenches were bombarded for a week in advance of the attack and the assumption was that much of the German trench system and the barbed wire guarding it would be destroyed.

On the first day of the battle, 1st July 1916, a huge British infantry attack was launched: soldiers were ordered to progress at walking pace to prevent panic and were protected by a creeping barrage. Events did not go entirely to plan, however, and the first day of the Battle of the Somme was the single worst day in British military history in terms of casualties. Overall the British and their allies suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and 19,000 deaths. 

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The Battle of the Somme 1916

Many problems emerged for the British on the first day of the battle:

  • Many of the explosives that had bombarded the German trenches were duds
  • German trenches were very deep and well constructed and most were not destroyed: in fact German soldiers has been able to shelter in them from the bombardment
  • Much of the barbed wire remained intact
  • The creeping barrage has some success although it lacked precision

The Battle of the Somme continued until November 1916. Although the Germans did eventually withdraw from the area, no major breakthrough was achieved at the Battle of the Somme and overall casualties were high at 1.2 million, twice that of the Germans.

The length of campaign at the Somme, high level of casualties, lack of decisive result have contributed to widely held view of the FWW as one of cruel futility. General Haig's reputation, high in the immediate aftermath of the war, has been particularly damaged. He devised the battle plan and has been called the 'Butcher of the Somme' for sending wave after wave of soldiers to fight for so little apparent purpose. His tactics were standard for the time, and the Somme contributed to the war of attribution, that was to ultimately grind the German army down. 

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The British Expeditionary Force 1917-18

The BEF had some success against Germans in 1917, no decisive break through achieved. By 1918, BEF had honed its tactics, played a decisive role in the final defeat of the German Army. In 1914, the BEF numbered 80,000 men, but by October 1917 it totalled 3.9 million men. As the Germans concentrated on use of unrestricted submarine warfare to try to starve Britain into defeat, British launched major strike against Germans near Ypres in Belgian Flanders.

Passchendaele is also know as the Third Ypres because the front line near Ypres has already seen two previous battles. The main attack was launched in July 1917 and involved a skilful creeping barrage. The British had initial success, but poor weather and poor drainage rendered the battlefield a swamp. They advanced slowly and at great cost but had established dominance by October. Passchendaele was finally captured by December 1918: it has taken the British four months to advance seven miles. German casualties were 200,000 and British 250,000. Despite its reputation as a futile battle, and the fact the British lost the land they'd gained in March 1918, Passchendaele did contribute to exhausting German army.

In spring 1918, the Germans launched a huge offensive against the allies. They met with initial success, and the british lost nearly all of the gains made at Passchendaele. 

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The British Expeditionary Force 1917-18

However, Britain and her allies halted the German advance at Amiens in August, where Australian and Canadian troops took 18,000 German prisoners; French and Americans did same at the Marne. The German Army; weak/overextended. The Allies launched counter-attack, breaking the Hindenburg Line but September, and on 11th November 1918, Germans surrendered. The BEF, who took 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns from the Germans in 1918, experienced in 1918 greatest military victory in British history; historian Gary Sheffield.

The BEF was effective for many reasons: Skilled and experienced, accuracy of guns and the creeping barrage had greatly improved since 1916, the British had sufficient artillery, a growing tank division and a large air force: military production outstripped German, tanks were now more reliable and could be deployed to seize land quickly. The British could now advance using their creeping barrage, infantry and tanks at a rate of 100 yards every 3 minutes.

Fighting was a joint effort between allied armies and imperial forces, Germans exhausted because of strain of previous battles, impact of the blockade on German ports, the arrival in 1918 of American soldiers also aided the counter-attack, Americans helped British and French with supplies, finance. Russian wore down Germans from 1914-17.

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Morale in the British Army

  • Post: regular post and efficient postal services were organised by the Royal Engineers Postal Section. In 1916, 11 million letters and 875,000 parcels were handled.
  • Food: managed to keep soldiers supplied with reasonable rations throughout the war. The French Army's ration contained more calories but was of poorer quality nutritionally
  • Tobacco: often issues to soldiers for free by the British Army
  • Leave: many soldiers did not get home to Britain for considerable periods of time during the war, by 1918 soldiers returned home on leave after 6 months
  • Time away from the front line: most soldier were in the trenches for an average of 10 days a month and only 2 of these days were at the front line. Troops received on average 70 days leave per year. The constant rotation of troops meant soldiers were not as familiar with their trench area as were troops of other armies, but helped maintain morale
  • Entertainment: behing the front line, entertainment such as concerts were arranged as were many sporting activities such as football and athletics
  • Pay: not high but those from lowest paid occupations would have been better off in peacetime. The lowest rate of pay was one shilling a day, but average wages were 20 per cent higher than this and soldiers did not have to pay for their food ration or clothing.
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Discipline in the British Army

Strictness of discipline varied across the British army between different units and divisions. During the war, 5952 officers and 298,310 other ranks were court martialled and 89 per cent of these were convicted. The most common offence was being absent without leave. 


  • Execution: controversial use, and in 2006, the British government pardoned all soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion. Of the 5.7 million men who served in the British Army during the First World War, however, only 306 were executed for desertion of their posts or for cowardice. A number of those who were executed for desertion were young men possibly suffering from shell shock.
  • Field Punishment Number One: designed to humiliate miscreants. They were fettered and tied to a field gun for up to 2 hours per day
  • Others: including imprisonment, fines and demotion. Commanding officers could impose extra duties or confine soldiers to barracks for minor offences. 
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Medical Provision

Medical provision was organised by the Royal Army Medical Corps. Provision was generally good with one hospital ship and train assigned to each division. Ambulances, field dressing stations and hospitals were quickly established. On problems was a shortage of doctors. By 1918, 23,000 nurses were employed by British forces, supplemented by 38,000 members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment who undertook roles as nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. In comparison with earlier conflicts, pain relief such as morphine was now available, while stomach disorders were much less common. Inoculation against typhoid and improved hygiene reduced the incidence of the disease to only 2% of that of the Boer War and for the first time, more soldiers died from battle wounds than from disease.

  • Infection: Lack of antibiotics meant that most wounds were septic. Gangrene frequently set in and was a big killer. Shrapnel, shell fragments and bullets often remained within the body and sometime caused septicaemia.
  • Injury: Trench warfare, shelling and gas all created significant problems with injury. British soldiers experienced: 41,000 amputations, 272,000 additional injuries to the arms or legs, 60,500 wounds to head or eyes and 89,000 other serious wounds to the body.
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Medical Developments

  • Psychiatry and shell shock: the war was the first conflict in which the psychological impact that fighting has on soldiers was seriously considered. Shell shock was recognised from 1915 and the Mental Health Bill of 1915 provided for the treatment of mental disorder resulting from war. Shell shock was initially thought to be caused by a physiological reaction to exploding shells. It was gradually recognised that a cause of the condition was the psychological toll that war could take. By the end of the war there had been 80,000 cases of shell shock diagnosed.
  • Blood transfusions: developed in field hospitals during the war although, as transfusions were an innovative treatment, most of those who suffered major haemorrhages died. 
  • Skin grafts: Harold Gillies developed the used of plastic surgery to treat soldiers with facial injuries through pioneering used of skin transplants. He was one of the first surgeons to consider the impact of his own work on a patient's appearance.
  •  Brain surgery: improvements in treatment for brain injuring enhanced survival rates 
  • Prosthetics and orthopaedics: artificial limbs were greatly improved as a response to the high numbers of injured soldiers with missing limbs.
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The Defence of the Realm Act

Introduced on 8th August 1914. DORA gave the government far-reaching powers to decide where people worked, control industry, censor the press and control the food production and supply.

The British were heavily dependent on imports of food and fuel. By 1916 there were widespread shortages and prices rose, and consequently malnutrition became more common. The Germans' use of unrestricted submarine warfare from 1917 exacerbated the problem, as many supply ships were sunk. Hunger was a frequent occurrence among the poor in urban areas as the price of most basic foods doubled between 1915 and 1917. The government was reluctant to impose compulsory controls on food and first tried a voluntary rationing scheme in February 1917, but with continuing food supply problems, compulsory rationing of some food was introduced in 1918.

  • October 1916: coal rationed
  • January 1918: sugar rationed
  • April 1918: meat, butter, cheese, tea, bacon, margarine
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Control of Alcohol

The government introduced a number of measures to deal with the problems of drunkenness, hangovers and the perceived problem with women drinking- which was thought to have increased during the war as some women had more independence and more money to spend.

  • The Intoxicating Liquor Act, 31st August 1914: the restriction of opening hours in pubs 
  • June 1915, Central Board of Control established to restrict alcohol sales in certain areas: by 1912, 93% of public were subject to regulations
  • Sales of beers with chasers and the purchase of rounds of drinks were prohibited
  • Alcoholic content of beer was reduced throughout the war and spirits was restricted to 70%
  • The government raised alcohol duty and thus the cost of wine and beer more than tripled in price during the war whilst the cost of spirits quintupled 

These measures did reduce problems associated with drinking: in Scotland for example, the weekly conviction rate for drunkenness fell from 1485 in 1914 to 355 in 1918. Middle class consumption of cocaine rose however, and the government introduced import controls on the drug for the first time. 

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Creation and Recruitment of a Mass Army

At the start of the war the BEF had 80,000 men. The size of the German Army and high British casualties during early battles meant that expanding the size of the army was a priority. The Territorial Army was prepared for war, and the army relied increasingly on volunteers.


  • August 1914, secretary of war, Lord Kitchener, predicted he would need army of 1 million 
  • On 6th August, two days after the war started, Parliament authorised the army to recruit an additional 500,000 men and this target was attained by the end of September
  • By November 1914 the recruitment of another 1 million soldiers had been authorised
  • The initial phase of war saw great enthusiasm from young men to join up, and the Pals Battalions were very successful. 
  • After the initial wave of patriotic enthusiasm dampened down, men were encouraged to enlist by government propaganda campaigns and pressure from others; employers.
  • 2.5 million men volunteered for the British army during the war
  • Recruitment levels declined, Lord Derby, director general of recruiting, introduced Derby Scheme
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The Derby Scheme

All men aged 18 and 41 were asked to 'attest their willingness' to serve in the army if asked to do so. This encouraged some to join up, but 38% of single men and 54% of married men who were not working in industries considered vital to the war effort, know as reserved occupations, still did not sign up.

Conscription to the British Army

With the Derby scheme by and large a failure and the army requiring even more recruits, the Military Service Act was introduced in January 1916 and all unmarried or widowed men between 18 and 41 were conscripted. In may 1916 the second Military Service Act extended this to married men. The Act did not apply to those in reserved occupations or to those who were unfit to work.

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Support and Opposition to the War

For the most part, British people were supportive of war effort, and government propaganda/ newspaper coverage helped to maintain this. At the start of the war, the level of patriotic enthusiasm indicates that the British public supported the war effort. All the main newspapers and political parties were pro-war and the Trade Unions agreed to significant reductions in their rights to assist with the war effort. As the war dragged on, however, there were some signs of opposition, such as the expressed by decorated war hero Siegfried Sasson in 1917. The number of strikes started to rise after 1916, which may indicate that workers were less content to support the war effort: in 1918, 5.9 million working days were lost through strike action. Workers mainly protested about economic issues, number of strikes remained below pre-war level. 

Conscientious objectors refused to fight in the war for reasons of religious faith, if they were quakers, conscience or political belief if they were pacifists. The No Conscription Fellowship was established in 1914 to represent and assist those who did not want to fight. The NCF had a national network of branches by 1915 and campaigned unsuccessfully against the introduction of conscription. The NCF monitored the treatment of conscientious objectives by the government, promoted their message through their newspaper, the Tribunal, through their press office and through contact with MPs.

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The Treatment of Conscientious Objectors

The government established tribunals under first the Derby Scheme and later the Military Service Act to hear the cases of conscientious objectors in order to establish whether these were genuine cases of a moral or 'conscientious' objection to war. The Act allowed CO to perform duties short of fighting in the Non-Combatant Corps or under the supervision of tribunals, such as the vey dangerous job of stretcher bearer. The second Military Service Act allowed some to be exempted from making any kind of contribution to the war effort: 16,000 people chose to register as CO under the terms of this Act. Tribunals were often very unsympathetic towards CO, and some were even sentenced to death after refusing orders to serve. The government, however, commuted these sentences and imprisoned or put to work those who did not want to participate in the war effort. Some agreed to do work for the Pelham Committee, established by the government to allocate work to CO. Those who refused this were imprisoned and often mistreated: 73 died in custody. Around 6,300 CO served in non-combatant roles on the Western Front and 7,750 worked for the Pelham Committee; 1,500 absolutists were jailed. 

Through propaganda, the government encouraged the public to take a negative view of CO as lazy, unpatriotic shirkers and they were widely reviled. Un-uniformed young men were sometimes jeered at or given white feathers, denoting cowardice.

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The War Economy

During the First World War, Britain developed a war economy. This entailed government intervention in industrial production and the labour market. To try to deal with the need for manpower in some parts of the economy, army recruiting officers were told not to enlist men who worked in 'reserved occupations' such as coal mining. Some skilled workers were even returned from the trenches in order to work at home.

Although most of the British economy remained in private ownership, the government took control over many aspects of labour, production and process. Profits in war industries were not permitted to exceed those of 1913.

  • Munitions: In response to a crisis over shortages of munitions, a Ministry of Munitions was formed in May 1915. The ministry co-ordinated the production and prices of munitions, and the purchase and supply of the raw materials needed such as steel. By 1918, there were 3 million munitions workers in more than 20,000 factories. 
  • Mining: Problems with labour shortages and disputes between miners and mine owners in South Wales (culminating in the huge mining strike in July 1915) resulted in the extension of government control over the region's mines.
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The War Economy

  • Transport: Rail company managers ran the railways on behalf of the government through the Railway Executive Committee. Profits were limited to 1913 levels and troops were transported for free. The government gradually took over merchant shipping through the war and by 1918 almost all merchant ships were under government control
  • Agriculture: Huge problems with food shortages and rising prices led the government to introduce rationing and also to take measures to boost production and cultivate extra land. In 1917 the Board of Agriculture used 21 million extra acres of land for food production whilst Agricultural Executive Committee supervised farmers' work

March 1915, Trade Union Congress agreed with the government restrictions on workers rights:

  • Workers agreed no strikes during the war
  • Wages increases were to be authorised by the government
  • The government could direct workers to certain jobs
  • Workers could not leave their job without the permission of their employer
  • Workers could not refuse to do overtime

Wages safeguarded, war industy limited, employers agree to arbitration in labour disciplines 

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The Impact of the War on Women

The need for servicemen led to an increase in the women's workforce of 1.6 million. In the transport industry, the number of women employed in the railways increased from 12,423 in 1914 to 65,000 in 1918. Women undertook roles in areas not considered typical areas of female employment such as signal operating. Women were also employed on buses as ticket collectors and drivers: in 1916 the London Omnibus Company aimed to train 500 women a month. In agriculture, the Women's Land Army was formed in January 1917 to work in farming and forestry: 16,000 members of the WLA helped to bring in the 1918 harvest. The mainly middle and upper class members of WLA were supplemented by a great many women from rural areas who took on extra work in the countryside. In the Civil Service Women's employment rose dramatically from 33,000 in 1911 to 102,000 in 1921: most were employed in clerical roles. Perhaps the most significant contribution that women made was in the munitions industry. By the end of the war the industry employed 950,000 women: 80% of munitions were produced by women. This was dangerous work as workers were not properly protected from the toxic substances that they were holding. 

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The Impact of the War on Women

Reactions to women's increased role in the labour market were often negative. Some male workers and some trade unions resisted female participation: tramway workers in May 1915; dangerous/unwise to employ women on trams. Agreement to increase female participation often achieved on understanding that women would leave after the war. Working men's resistance; rightly felt employers preferred hiring women, they could get away with paying them less. 

By 1918, nurses in military hospitals 23,000. These nurses were supplemented by voluntary nurses from War Office's Voluntary Aid Detachments to the Sick and Wounded: over course of war 38,000 women volunteered as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers, cooks. A small number of women from First Aid Nursing Yeomanry helped at the front line with ambulance, car, truck driving VADs and FANYs; middle/upper class as they were not paid for the work that they did.

Impact of FWW on women, significant but can be over-stated. Parliament finally granted women the vote in October 1918 albeit on a different basis from men (women of 30 and over were granted the vote at this stage while men had only to be 21). Women's role increased and Women's Union membership rose by 160%. However, women were forced out of jobs after the war as demobilising soldiers returned and women's pay remained half that of men.

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Propaganda and Public Attitudes

During the war, newspapers were used to disseminate the propaganda which the government thought was so vital to retaining public support for the war. Newspaper owners like Lords Northcliffe, Rothermere and Beaverbrook were entirely happy to fulfil this role. The government established a secret propaganda department early on in the war and additionally the foreign office had a News Department aimed at influencing the stories about the war in the newspaper. In 1917, a department for information was set up which included a propaganda section and a News Bureau, which censored press stories and issued D-notices. This body included an Advisory Committee containing three senior newspaper men.

Initially war correspondents weren't permitted from the Western Front as military authorities were concerned that reports damage morale. After some MPs complained about lack of reliable news reports, army officer, Colonel Swinton, appointed as official war reporter but his accounts were censored. Pressure to grant access to the front to genuine war reporters continued, and from spring 1915, four leading correspondents were allowed to report from France. Various issues with reliability of war correspondents' accounts: for the most part they co-operayed fully with military authorities and their reports were not therefore objective: five correspondents received knighthoods after the war. Reports often downplayed the suffering of soldiers. 

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Anti-German Feeling

Publications like the John Bull and the Daily Mail stirred up anti-German feeling and some German businesses in Britain were attacked, Anti-German attacks intensified after the Germans sank the ship the Lusitania in May 1915, drowning many of the civilian passengers aboard. The press seized on any opportunity to depict the Germans as barbaric, reporting extensively upon stories of German atrocities. Some of these were genuine incidents: the German army did respond brutally to Belgian resistance to their invasion. Some stories were, however, exaggerations or inventions, like one infamous Times report of April 1917 claiming that the Germans used the dead bodies of soldiers for oils and pig fodder. 

  • The sinking of the Lusitania May 1915: the ship was carrying arms but the British press and public were outraged that the Germans would attack a ship carrying so many civilians
  • The execution of Edith Cavell: Norfolk-born nurse Edith Cavell was shot as a spy by the Germans for helping British prisoners of war to escape: there was a national outcry in Britain

Films about the war made up about 10% of the films shown in Britain during the war: the popular film The Battle of the Somme 1916 recreated scenes from the battle. News-reel footage also gave cinema audiences information about the nature of the war.

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