Britain’s entry into the war came on 4 August after the guarantee of Belgian sovereignty was broken by Germany. Many people were optimistic about the war and patriotic crowds gathered in major cities.
2. Signing up
The British army was not big enough for continental warfare – Britain had long relied on a large navy and small army to oversee the Empire. Lord Kitchener called for 200,000 men to sign up for the British army in the 1st month of the war – early optimism saw that some 300,000 men enlisted.
3. Retreat from Belgium
While early optimism remained for much of 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was forced to retreat from Mons in August. However, when they regrouped at The Marne French forces with the supporting BEF outmaneuvered the Germans. Trench warfare began.
4. British Pals battalion
‘The Grimsby Rifles’ pal battalion – formed in September 1914. Some ‘pals battalions’ were so closely knit that they charged £5 for entry. Shortages of uniforms and small arms often meant that recruits went through training without the proper kit.
5. Bermondsey boys
Lads from the Grenadier Guards, showing their proud roots.
6. Young guns
The 1/7th Battalion King’s Liverpool photographed in Herne Bay, with a noticeable amount of young faces. Many British volunteers lied about their age to join up, but their eagerness to fight would be dampened by catastrophe.
Artillery was a major factor in the war effort. 1914-15 German statistics estimated that 49 casualties were caused by artillery to every 22 by infantry, by 1916-18 this was at 85 by artillery for every 6 by infantry. 1.5 million shells were fired before the assault at the battle of The Somme.
8. Over the top
The Somme was the British army’s first major offensive of the war, initiated to relieve the immense pressure on the French forces at Verdun. It began on 1 July 1916.
9. The Somme Offensive
1 July, the first day of The Somme offensive remains the blackest day in the history of the British army – there were 57,740 casualties, with 19,240 dead. More died on that day than in the first three months of the war.
10. On the march
British Tommies looking optimistic whilst on the march at The Somme.
11. Jolly good luck
A British soldier with a head wound. Prior to the Battle of the Somme he wouldn’t have been so lucky – the army was not issued with steel helmets until then.
12. Machine gun corps
Initially the full potential of the machine gun was not appreciated by the British military – Field Marshall Haig even called it a ‘much over rated weapon’ – and the number of guns per battalion was limited to just 2. However, by 1915 their potential was beginning to be realised, and the Machine Gun Corps was formed in October. By July 1918 numbers of deployed machine guns had increased greatly – to 36 per battalion.
13. Trench scenes
The Somme soon turned into a bloody stalemate where British gains were quickly retaken. Here a man guards a trench at Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, surrounded by sleeping comrades. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment
The British Tommy was by and large the best fed warrior on the front. Aside from a short episode in 1915 when Britain was left with 3 days of supplies, the army did not suffer from shortages that affected other nations.
15. Royal Irish Rifles
Weary looking infantry of the Royal Irish Rifles during the Battle of the Somme.
The major offensive of 1917 took place at Passchendaele (Ypres salient) between July – November. Stiff German resistance and unusually wet weather hampered the British advance. Casualty figures are disputed, but some 100,000 British men are likely to have been killed in the battle.
There are numerous pictures of silhouetted British Tommies – this image taken by Ernest Brooks during the Battle of Broodseinde (Passchendaele – October 1917), showing a group of soldiers of the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment moving up to the front, is one of the most iconic.
18. Trench conditions
With an unusually wet Autumn in 1917, conditions at Passchendaele worsened rapidly. Battlefields were carved up into seas of mud by artillery fire, while trenches often flooded – giving rise to the notorious ‘trench foot’.
19. Menin Road
The shattered landscape around the city of Ypres after months of heavy bombardment and torrential rain. Here Australian gunners walk a duckboard track in Château Wood near Hooge, 29 October 1917.
20. German Spring Offensive – 1918
In March 1918, having gained 50 divisions from the Eastern Front, the Germans launched Kaiserslacht – a massive offensive in a last effort to win the war before American manpower arrived in Europe. The Allies suffered nearly a million casualties (some 420,000 British) but the gains made by Germany were wrecked by supply problems. The attack petered out by mid-July, and the war turned in favour of the Allies.
Troops from the British 55th Division in line for treatment after being gassed on 10 April 1918. An estimated 9% of British troops were affected by gas attacks and 3% were casualties. While gas rarely killed its victims instantly, it had horrific maiming capabilities and was outlawed after the war.
22. The Black Day for the German Army
The Allies launched the 100 Days Offensive on 8 August, beginning with the Battle of Amiens. While tanks had been used in combat since 1916, they were most successful here, with over 500 used in operations. The battle marked the end of trench warfare with 30,000 German losses on the opening day.
23. Saint Quentin
Another key victory came at St Quentin Canal, beginning on 29 September 1918. British, Australian and American forces attacked the Hindenburg Line, with the British 46th Division crossing the St Quentin Canal and seizing the Riqueval Bridge. 4,200 Germans surrendered.
24. A very British victory
Men of the 46th Division congregating on the banks of the Saint Quentin Canal for an address by Brigadier General J V Campbell. By this point the British were the major fighting force on the Western Front – a reverse the their earlier support role to the French army. They were also backed up by many fresh but inexperienced American soldiers.
25. Late casualties
Despite the rapidity of the Allied advance into the Autumn, there were still enormous casualties. Poet Wilfred Owen was one of the unlucky ones, losing his life just one week before the armistice.
A jubilant crowd gathered to celebrate news of the armistice at Buckingham Palace on 11.11.1918 – after more than four years of fighting at a loss of some 800,000 British lives.