Centenary of the First World War

What ideas and events influenced the poets of the First World War?  Key events and ideas briefly explained, with statements by people of those days

By David Roberts

Read the large print to get the key ideas. Read the small print for the detailed account or evidence.

First Wounded. Painted by John Lavery, 1856-1941.

Part one:
Thinking of a war in Europe

For several decades before the outbreak of the First World War politicians were thinking about and planning for a war in Europe. Some were enthusiastic about the idea. Others saw the prospect of war as possibly a disaster for all concerned.

Randolph Churchill  (father of Winston Churchill) on avoiding war in Europe

Against war in Europe

On the 22nd of December, 1886, the Chancellor of the Exchequer,Lord Randoph Churchill, wrote to Lord Salisbury, who had pointed out the desperate state of Europe and the possibilities of immediate war:

“A wise foreign policy will extricate England from Continental struggles and keep her outside of German, Russian, French, or Austrian disputes. I have for some time observed a tendency in the Government attitude to pursue a different line of action, which I have not been able to modify or check.

This tendency is certain to be accentuated if large Estimates [for Government spending] are presented to and voted by Parliament. The possession of a very sharp sword offers a temptation which becomes irresistible to demonstrate the efficiency of the weapon in a practical manner. I remember the vulnerable and scattered character of the Empire, the universality of our commerce, the peaceful tendencies of our democratic electorate, the hard times, the pressure of competition, and the high taxation now imposed: and with these facts vividly before me I decline to be a party to encouraging the military and militant circle of the War Office and Admiralty to join in the high and desperate stakes which other nations seem to be forced to risk.”

Winston Churchill (then 25 years old)  warning Parliament about a European War, 13 May 1901

“The enormous and varied frontiers of the Empire, and our many points of contact with barbarous peoples, will surely in the future, as in the past, draw us into frequent little wars. Our military system must therefore be adapted for dealing with these minor emergencies smoothly and conveniently.

But we must not expect to meet the great civilized Powers in this easy fashion. We must not regard war with a modern Power as a kind of game in which we may take a hand, and with good luck and good management may play adroitly for an evening and come safe home with our winnings. It is not that, and I rejoice that it cannot be that.  A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heartrending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community.

I have frequently been astonished since I have been in this House to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European war.

I will not expatiate on the horrors of war, but there has been a great change which the House should not omit to notice. In former days, when wars arose from individual causes, from the policy of a Minister or the passion of a King, when they were fought by small regular armies of professional soldiers, and when their course was retarded by the difficulties of communication and supply, and often suspended by the winter season, it was possible to limit the liabilities of the combatants. But now, when mighty populations are impelled on each other, each individual severally embittered and inflamed—when the resources of science and civilization sweep away everything that might mitigate their fury—a European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.”

Late 19th Century
The importance of developing education

Educating all children was an aid to developing British industry and, incidentally, established a reading public open to influence by schools, popular novels, and the newly developing popular press.


The Elementary Education Act 1870 established a plan for educating  all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. About this time in France and Germany the need to educate the whole population was appreciated as a means to develop industry which increasingly needed an educated workforce.


Attendance at school was made compulsory for children up to the age of 13. (Elementary Education Act 1880.)


Poetry  -  How poetry was used to develop a fighting spirit in British children is described on the “warlike poetry” page.

Popular boys books -  Education-for-all led to the development of popular literature. A favourite theme for boys’ literature was the excitement of war as experienced by Britain's forces around the world.

One of the most popular writers of thrilling war stories was G.A.Henty whose bestselling books included With Clive in India, A Story of the Zulu and Boer Wars, With Kitchener in the Soudan, By Conduct and Courage and By Sheer Pluck, A Tale of the Ashanti War. He wrote 122 books in all.

Henry Newbolt (1862 to 1924) wrote “The Young of my generation. . . Expected fighting and we prepared for it: but we felt as mighty as the heroes and heroines in the great sagas and trusted ourselves to Destiny with incredible confidence.” (Quoted in Minds at War)

G A Henty, 1832 - 1902

Adult fiction and the new popular press

The Germans had their censored and subsidised press and their militarist propagandists who promoted the idea of a "British threat" and the need to arm. These included Admiral von Tirpitz, General Frie­drich von Bernhardi, and the historian, Heinrich von Treitschke.

In England a vigorous anti-German campaign began in 1871 with a work of fiction. The story was The Battle of Dorking which was written anonymously and enjoyed enormous popularity. It was the first sug­gestion that England's natural enemy was Germany and told of a Ger­man invasion of Britain. As the Germans had just invaded France it was -easy to make the threat seem real.

In 1914 Shaw recalled this publication . "The lead given by The Battle of Dorking," he wrote, "was taken up by articles in the daily press and magazines." and he listed other contributors to the propaganda: Mr Robert Blatchford, Mr Garvin, Admiral Maxse, Mr Newbolt, Mr Rudyard Kipling, The National Review, Lord Roberts and Mr Wells with his War in the Air. ,

Other fiction contributed to the anti-German campaign. How the Germans Took London appeared in 1900. In 1903 came Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands which described a German plan to invade England.”  (This is an edited extract from Minds at War.)

From 1893 onwards, Alfred Harmsworth, who became Lord Northcliffe, used his newspapers to promote his views including his passionate belief that Germany was a threat. His papers included the Daily Mail and the Observer. Under his direction the circulations of these papers rapidly improved.

In 1906 came a bestselling novel about a German invasion of Britain, The Invasion by William Le Queux. This had begun life as a story commissioned by Alfred Harmsworth for the Daily Mail.

By the time 1914 came along the British people were accustomed to thinking of Germany as a probable threat to Britain and its empire.

More information on this topic in Minds at War.


Part Two: The decision to go to war

One of the most important moments in British history. The decision to declare war on Germany.

Britain had become the dominant power in the world by 1914.

Warlike poetry before 1914

First World War Poetry - index page

First World War Poets - links to biogs

First World War poetry anthologies

The Young Winston Churchill

Britain controlled about one quarter of the earth’s land surface and one quarter of the population of the world.  Germany was not only rapidly becoming a Modern industrial nation, it was also clearly thinking of expanding its influence. The German leader, the Kaiser, was building up the German Navy to be as large as the British Navy. He spoke of Germany "having its place in the sun". This was widely interpreted as meaning that he wanted more more land, more colonies, in keeping with Germany’s wealth and strength. This alarmed British politicians who feared that one day there might be an armed conflict between Britain and Germany.

However, the immediate reason for Britain declaring war on Germany was the threatened advance of German forces into neutral Belgium. This is clearly seen in the nature of the ultimatum Britain delivered to Germany at the start of August 1914. Germany was told that if it did not promise to keep out of Belgium then Britain would declare war on Germany. This is, indeed, what happened.

For the politicians in Britain that moment of decision was a terrifying moment. They knew how important their decision would be. What was it like as they waited for the answer from Germany? Here is an account by David Lloyd George who was one of the politicians waiting for the German response to the ultimatum.

By David Lloyd  George:

On Sunday, the 2nd of August  . . .  there were clear indications that the German forces were massing on the Belgian frontier. Germany had appealed to Belgium for permission to march through her territories to attack France. . .

The British Government, on hearing the news, issued an ultimatum to Germany warning her that unless by twelve o'clock on August 4th assurances were received from Germany that the neutrality of Belgium would be treated as inviolate, Britain would have no alternative but to take steps to enforce that treaty. Would Germany realise what war with Britain meant, arrest the progress of her armies, change her strategy, and perhaps, consent to a parley? How much depended upon the answer to these questions! We could suspect then what it meant: we know now. There were many of us who could hardly believe that those responsible for guiding the destiny of Germany would be so fatuous as deliber­ately to provoke the hostility of the British Empire with its inexhaustible reserves and with its grim tenacity of purpose once it engaged in a struggle.

The Bells Of Doom 4th August 1914

It was a day full of rumours and reports, throbbing with anxiety. Hour after hour passed and no sign came from Germany. There were only, disturbing rumours of further. German movements to­wards the Belgian line. The evening came. Still no answer. Shortly after nine o'clock I was summoned to the Cabinet Room for an important consultation. There I found Mr Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, and Mr Haldane all looking very grave. Mr M'Kenna arrived soon afterwards. . . .

We sat at the green table in the famous room where so many historic decisions had been taken in the past. It was not then a very well-lighted room, and my recollection is that the lights had not all been turned on, and in the dimness you might imagine the shades of the great Brutish statesmen of the past taking part in a confer­ence which meant so much to the Empire, to the building up of which they had devoted their lives . . .   But never had they been confronted with so tremendous a decision as that with which British Ministers were faced in these early days of August, 1914.

And now came the terrible decision: should we unleash the savage dogs of war at once, or wait until the time limit of the ultimatum had expired, and give peace the benefit of even such a doubt as existed for at least another two hours? We had no difficulty in deciding that the Admiralty was to prepare the fleet against any sudden attack from the German flotillas and to warn our coasts against any possible designs from the same quarter.

But should we declare war now, or at midnight? The ultimatum expired at midnight in Berlin. That was midnight according to Central Europe time: it meant eleven o'clock according to Greenwich time. We resolved to wait until eleven. Would any message arrive, from Berlin before eleven informing us of the intention of Germany to respect Belgian neutrality? If it came there was still a faint hope that something might be arranged before the march­ing armies crashed into each other. •

As the hour approached a deep and tense solemnity fell on the room. No one spoke. It was like awaiting the signal for the pulling of a lever which would hurl millions to their doom — with just a chance that a reprieve, might arrive in time. Our eyes wandered anxiously from the clock to the door, and from the door to the clock, and little was said.

"Boom!" The deep notes of Big .Ben rang out into the night, the first.strokes in Britain's most fateful hour since she arose out of the deep. A shuddering silence fell. upon the. room. Every face was suddenly contracted in a painful: intensity.. "Doom!" "Doom!" the hammer of destiny. What destiny? .Who could tell? We had challenged the most powerful military empire the world has yet brought forth:

We knew what brunt Britain would have to bear. Could she stand it? There was no doubt or hesitation in any breast. But let it be admitted without shame that a thrill of horror quickened every pulse. Did we know that before peace would be restored to Europe we should have to wade through four years of the most concentrated slaughter, mutilation, suffering, devastation, and savagery which mankind has ever witnessed?

That twelve millions of the gallant youth of the nations would be slain, that another twenty millions would be mutilated? That Europe would be crushed under the weight of: a colossal war debt? That only one empire would stand the shock? The three other glittering empires of the world would have been flung to the dust, and shattered beyond repair?  That revolution, famine. and anarchy would sweep over half Europe, and that their menace would scorch the rest of this hapless continent?

Has the full tale yet been told? Who can tell? But had we foreseen it all on the 4th August we could have done no other.

David Lloyd George

This is a shortened version of the account found in Minds at War. The text is from The War Memoirs of David Lloyd George.

French poems of the First World War books

Map showing, in red, British territories shortly after the First World War. By permission of: www.atlasofbritempire.com

David Lloyd George

THE ULTIMATUM TO GERMANY  -  Key moment in British history and the history of the First World War

Minds at War  War poetry anthologyOut in the Dark War poetry anthology

Cockerels and Vultures
French Poetry
of the First World War by Albert-Paul Granier
Translated by Ian Higgins

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French Poems
of the Great War
translated by Ian Higgins

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