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Forgotten victory

'Everybody knows' what World War One was like and what it meant. Modern Britons think of the war as a muddy, bloody mess - a futile massacre in which a generation of young men were slaughtered at the behest of asinine generals.

Those who survived barbed wire and machine gun bullets went mad or wrote poetry. Their sacrifice achieved nothing, succeeding only in laying down the foundations for another bloody conflict 20 years later. World War One has become a byword for how awful, stupid and useless war can be.
Yet these modern beliefs bear only a passing resemblance to the ways the war was experienced at the time. During and immediately after the conflict, Britons built a wide range of different meanings out of the war years.

Notwithstanding the enormous casualty lists, in 1918 many Britons thought they had achieved a miraculous deliverance from an evil enemy. They celebrated a remarkable military victory and national survival. For those who had served in the trenches, and for those left at home, the war experience encompassed not only horror, frustration and sorrow, but also triumph, pride, camaraderie and even enjoyment, as well as boredom and apathy.

For most, it was capable of being all these things, often at the same time. We should not make value judgements about how individuals come to understand their wars, but we do need to recognise the variety and ambiguity of that understanding.

Some aspects of how the war is now remembered have been constant. The shock of three-quarters-of-a-million dead men still lingers in British culture. Other aspects - particularly the positive meanings which could be ascribed to the war - have been all but forgotten.

What sparked the start of the first world war?

The spark that started World War I was the assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The assassination occurred on June 28, 1914 while Ferdinand was visiting the city of Sarajevo in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Although Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of Austria's emperor and heir-apparent to the throne, was not very well liked by most, his assassination by a Serb nationalist was viewed as a great excuse to attack Austria-Hungary's troublesome neighbor, Serbia.

However, instead of reacting quickly to the incident, Austria-Hungary made sure they had the backing of Germany, with whom they had a treaty, before they proceeded. This gave Serbia time to get the backing of Russia, with whom they had a treaty.

The calls for back-up didn't end there. Russia also had a treaty with France and Britain.

This meant that by the time Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, an entire month after the assassination, much of Europe had already become entangled in the dispute.

At the start of the war, these were the major players (more countries joined the war later):

•Allied Forces (a.k.a. the Allies): France, the United Kingdom, Russia
•Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary

Germany didn't want to fight both Russia in the east and France in the west, so they enacted their long-standing Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, who was the chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1905.
Schlieffen believed that it would take about six weeks for Russia to mobilize their troops and supplies. So, if Germany placed a nominal number of soldiers in the east, the majority of Germany's soldiers and supplies could be used for a quick attack in the west.

Since Germany was facing this exact scenario of a two-front war at the beginning of World War I, Germany decided to enact the Schlieffen Plan. While Russia continued to mobilize, Germany decided to attack France by going through neutral Belgium. Since Britain had a treaty with Belgium, the attack on Belgium officially brought Britain into the war.

While Germany was enacting its Schlieffen Plan, the French enacted their own prepared plan, called Plan XVII. This plan was created in 1913 and called for quick mobilization in response to a German attack through Belgium.

As German troops moved south into France and the French and British troops moved north to meet them, the massive armies met each other in a stalemate. By September 1914, neither side could force the other to move, so each side began to dig trenches. For the next four years, the troops would fight from these trenches.

From 1914 to 1917, soldiers on each side of the line fought from their trenches. They fired artillery onto the enemy's position and lobbed grenades. However, each time military leaders ordered a full-fledged attack, the soldiers were forced to leave the "safety" of their trenches.
The only way to overtake the other side's trench was for the soldiers to cross "No Man's Land," the area between the trenches, on foot. Out in the open, thousands of soldiers raced across this barren land in the hopes of reaching the other side. Often, most were hewn down by machine-gun fire and artillery before they even got close.

Because of the nature of trench warfare, millions of young men were slaughtered in the battles of World War I. The war quickly became one of attrition, which meant that with so many soldiers being killed daily, eventually the side with the most men would win the war.
By 1917, the Allies were starting to run low on young men.

The Allies needed help and they were hoping that the United States, with its vast resources of men and materials, would join on their side. However, for years, the U.S. had clung to their idea of isolationism. Plus, the U.S. just didn't want to be involved in a war that seemed so far away and that didn't seem to affect them in any great way.
However, there were two major events that changed American public opinion about the war. The first occurred in 1915, when a German U-boat (submarine) sunk the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania. Considered by Americans to be a neutral ship that carried mostly passengers, Americans were furious when the Germans sank it, especially since 159 of the passengers were Americans.

The second was the Zimmermann Telegram. In early 1917, Germany sent Mexico a coded message promising portions of U.S. land in return for Mexico joining World War I against the United States. The message was intercepted by Britain, translated, and shown to the United States. This brought the war to U.S. soil, giving the U.S. a real reason to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war on Germany.

As the United States was entering World War I, Russia was getting ready to get out.

In 1917, Russia became swept up in an internal revolution that removed the czar from power. The new communist government, wanting to focus on internal troubles, sought a way to remove Russia from World War I. Negotiating separately from the rest of the Allies, Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany on March 3, 1918.

With the war in the east ended, Germany was able to divert those troops to the west in order to face the new American soldiers.

Armistice and the Versailles Treaty

The fighting in the west continued for another year. Millions more soldiers died, while little land was gained. However, the freshness of the American troops made a huge difference. While the European troops were tired from years of war, the Americans remained enthusiastic. Soon the Germans were retreating and the Allies were advancing. The end of the war was near.
At the end of 1918, an armistice was finally agreed upon. The fighting was to end on the 11th hour of 11th day of 11th month (i.e. 11 am on Nov. 11, 1918).

For the next several months, diplomats argued and compromised together in order to come up with the Versailles Treaty. The Versailles Treaty was the peace treaty that ended World War I; however, a number of its terms were so controversial that it also set the stage for World War II.

The carnage left behind by the end of World War I was staggering. By the end of the war, an estimated 10 million soldiers were killed. That averages to about 6,500 deaths a day, every day. Plus, millions of civilians were also killed. World War I is especially remembered for its slaughter for it was one of the bloodiest wars in history.

Tiverton, Devon: Making Munitions and Gas Nets For The Front

The Heathcoat fabric factory in Tiverton recorded its war day by day. The company’s log books are a unique record of a local business at war and are a record of this local business making lace for Americans and for war widows, while making munitions and gas nets for the forces at the Front during World War One. American orders swelled during wartime.

Fitzalan Square, Sheffield: Troops Parading Through the Streets

Fitzalan Square in the centre of Sheffield is now an unloved and largely forgotten public space, with major events in the city usually happening at Barkers Pool.

In 1914, it was a very different story. It was the place to be when the 1365 Hallamshire Rifles marched through the city of Sheffield on their way to the front. Fitzalan Square was the setting for a film of them passing through to jubilant scenes from the gathered crowds.

The square overlooked by a statue of King Edward VII was once home to a cinema and it is likely that this was where the film would have been shown. The images show smiling troops and waving onlookers, nobody at that time had any idea what they would soon be facing overseas. Many of those happy and cheerful faces would never return home.

Little Wigborough, Essex: Zeppelin Crash

The night of 23-24 September 1916, was a dramatic one for Essex, as two German Zeppelin airships crashed in the county. One came down in flames at Great Burstead, and the other landed intact in Little Wigborough.

Having bombed London, the airship L33 was heading for home when it was hit by an anti-aircraft shell. It eventually crash-landed near New Hall Cottages in Little Wigborough, its huge 650ft long body buckling as it straddled a country lane.

The German captain, Alois Bocker, decided to set the Zeppelin on fire. He even tried to warn those living in a cottage nearby, but the terrified occupants refused to open the door. Bocker and his crew then headed up the road towards Peldon but were arrested when they asked a policeman for directions to Colchester. The crew were taken to Mersea Island where they were transferred to the military.

Sandringham Estate, Norfolk: Land Girls Work the Royal Farm

The Women’s Land Army was formed in 1916, in response to the German U-Boat blockade of Britain. At the outbreak of war half of the country’s food was being imported. By the time The Women’s Land Army went to work the country was facing the prospect of food shortages.

The government had been reluctant to force farmers to take female workers but the situation changed when the harvest failed in 1917. Women workers did a range of tasks including milking, ploughing, herding and other heavy work. By 1918, there were 23,000 women working in the fields.

Tower of London, London: The Execution of Eleven German Spies

Eleven German spies were executed at the Tower of London during World War One. All were accused and found guilty of spying and sentenced to death. They were the first people to be executed at the Tower for more than 170 years.
The spies were of different nationalities including German, Swedish, Uruguayan and Brazilian.

Carl Lody, known also as Charles A. Inglis, was the first spy to be killed, by firing squad at the Tower’s Firing Range on 6 November 1914. The last spy to be executed at the Tower was Ludovico Hurwitz-y-Zender on 11 April 1916.
All met their death the same way, although two were shot at the Tower Ditch. They were H. Janseen and W. Roos who were known accomplices. They were shot just ten minutes apart.

Despite widespread spy-scares before and during the war, German espionage against the UK was almost completely unsuccessful.

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London: Munitions Factory

Already a large gun and ammunitions manufacturing site before 1914, The Royal Arsenal in Woolwich expanded into a multitude of factories servicing the war effort.
The huge site, had its own internal railway system, employed 80,000 workers and has been described as the ‘secret city’ of Woolwich.

The work was hazardous. Factory workers faced the dangers of unstable explosives, possible air raids as well as the health risks from handling noxious substances known to cause a range of medical disorders from skin complaints to bone disintegration.

Women made up around a third of the workforce at its peak. Employment at the Arsenal was regarded as well paid, but female workers did not receive the same wages and benefits as their male counterparts. During the war, legislation was passed to ensure that female workers could be quickly dismissed easily when the conflict finished.

Earls Court, London: Belgian Refugee Centre

Of the 250,000 Belgian refugees fleeing their homes following Germany’s invasion of Belgium in August 1914, tens of thousands came through the make-shift refugee centre at Earls Court.

Many came through ports such as Folkestone and Tilbury before moving to other parts of the British Isles. In London, they were processed in huge encampments – including Earls Court and Alexandra Palace – or they were housed with families across London.

At the start of the war public sympathy lay with the fleeing refugees. However, as more British men were sent to the front to free Belgium, the British Government reacted to increasing anti-Belgian sentiments and decided male Belgian refugees should in some way contribute to the war effort at home.

More than 60,000 Belgians worked in Britain during World War One and around 500 Belgian companies were established. The largest was the Pelabon Works, a hand-grenade factory, in Richmond.

On Christmas Day 100 years ago, after months of sniping and shelling, The ChristmasTruce of 1914 brought silence to where Sergeant A. Lovell was positioned.

In his letter he wrote: “Climbing the parapet, I saw a sight which I shall remember to my dying day. Right along the whole of the line were hung paper lanterns and illuminations as to suggest that they were hung upon Christmas trees.”

Sergeant Lovell also described the moment when: “In the searchlight they stood, Englishman and German, chatting and smoking cigarettes together midway between the lines. A rousing cheer went up from friend and foe alike. The group was too far away from me to hear what was said, but presently we heard a cheery ‘Good night. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all’, with which the parties returned to their respective trenches. After, both sides continued to sing song for song for the whole night through.”

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