An excessive wave of nationalism had been one of the primary sources of pre-war tension that had been a significant factor to help cause its outbreak. The announcement of Britain’s involvement in the war released this tension and was met with an extraordinary wave of enthusiasm from the public, which was echoed by citizens of countries around the whole Europe. However, Britain’s initial involvement in the First World War demonstrated that they were in need of a larger Army; caused by the fact the rest of Europe’s combatants had started their armament process early and also because conscription to the armed forces had not been made compulsory until now.
The appeal went out and was met with an outstanding reply from British men, eager to do their bit for King and Country. The Secretary of State Lord Kitchener didn’t believe the war would be ‘over by Christmas’ as the mainstream press were predicting, and sent the call for 100,000 men that he needed to send to France for the beginning stages of the war. He got nearly double that. Each man would be signed up for three years, or the duration of the war, with most serving anywhere they were ordered to. By 1916, the year that conscription was made compulsory, around two and a half million men had volunteered for Army service and life on the battlefield.
The main policy that the government used to attract men was to deliver a constant barrage of propaganda all across the country, mainly in the form of posters, broadcasts and public meetings. The famous Lord Kitchener ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster is a product of this time. Public speeches were purposely held after popular events of the time, such as football matches and trade union meetings, with the intention of generating such an extent of patriotism that men would sign up there and then. This also helped tap into the politics of local villages where able bodied men who had not given their services to the Army yet were eventually pressured into doing so.
The standard of living conditions in Britain at the time can also give us an indication of why people may have decided to join up. Many young men’s lives were restrained, especially in places such as Wales and the northern industrial areas, mainly because their job career usually ended up with them following in the footsteps of their fathers down the mines or in the factories. Also, the average Army wage would bring in more money than you would get being unemployed back home and in some cases even more than that of a skilled worker. Barracks would provide better living conditions for those coming from the overcrowded and disease ridden industrialized areas and clothing would be a big improvement from what they previously had to wear. Many believed joining the war effort would mean a freedom that would allow them to experience the things that otherwise they had no chance of.
Popular culture of the time was often based upon the experience that fighting in wars brought. The venture’s that soldiers could experience regulating British colonies abroad was often glorified by the form of poem and painting. Some men were sucked in by the romanticism that was portrayed and relished the chance to achieve the heroic status that previous soldiers returning home received. The Christmas Day truce in 1914, where British and German soldiers fashioned out an amazing ceasefire, was hyped up by recruitment propaganda, misguiding many about what life in the trenches was actually going to be like.
The attraction of the war effort also stretched to minors; sometimes to those as young as thirteen or fourteen. Although this was rather worrying for the authorities and the issue was raised in parliament, this showed the determination of the British youth to do their bit. They were fuelled up with anticipation and excitement that ones so young could feel at the prospect of actually competing in an event as big as a world war. Minors of course, would have also been more susceptible to the Government’s propaganda messages and sucked in by the sense of adventure illustrated by war time posters or poems, printed in such a way to glorify life in the trenches. The reasons mentioned beforehand could be cited as possible motives for under-eighteens to volunteer for service, but some simply joined up because their friends had done so or because they were to be fed better. Why this was allowed to happen can be explained by the fact that recruiting sergeants were paid for each man that actually signed up; they were more likely to turn a blind eye to some men not meeting official requirements because of this. Over the course of World War One roughly two hundred and fifty thousand boys offered their service to the British Army, of which nearly half tragically lost their lives.
What war bought to Britain was a remarkable level of patriotism and national dedication where the differences of times before were sometimes forgotten. For example, women had been campaigning ferociously for more political and social rights during the lead up to 1914; yet as soon as war broke out, these arguments were left alone or at least toned down considerably in respect of the war effort which was underway. Women’s roles in during the war became vital to its success, and they also played an important role in encouraging the men in their lives to enlist. Government propaganda posters of the time persuading women to do this weren’t uncommon, and proved vital in some men’s decision to volunteer.
Left wing anti-war campaigners were not absent during the war but their protests were drowned out by the nationalism that surrounded Britain’s war involvement. Their beliefs caused controversy though with recruitment sergeants though as about 15,000 simply refused to join up after conscription had been made compulsory in 1916, mainly on the grounds of political objection or religious philosophy. The government’s response was to make an example out of these ‘conscientious objectors’ not only on the grounds of treason, but also to scare other non-conformists into not following them. The majority were put into prison and forced into hard labour and others were scared into not following the same path.
The original flourish of volunteers was remarkable, 736,000 enlisted between August and September 1914, a number which was too great for the local Army recruitment agencies to handle them on their own. The traditional view of why this mass enlistment took place is usually attributed to an excessive wave of patriotism that swept the nation where nationalistic pride eclipsed any realistic war doubt. The build up to the war had been drawn out, and many citizens of contributing countries felt a determined and passionate need to express their feelings by actually getting involved themselves. Britons were no different. Also, to aid this jingoistic feeling, reports of German atrocities and unfair treatment of captured soldiers added to the desire to join the war effort. The mentality of people enlisting in such a relaxed and care-free manner has also been put down to the fact there was wide spread belief that the war wouldn’t even last that long and that this was to be more of an adventure than a fully blown battle. Volunteering was seen as a form of escapism from the monotonous and brutal factory-dominated lives that so many Britons were so eager to leave behind.
However, by spring 1915 with heavy losses on the battlefield and the novelty of joining the Army ‘adventure’ wearing thin, the number of volunteers began to decline. The initial euphoric rapture was replaced by the realistic obligation of duty. Reports of casualties discouraged many from signing their name to the British war cause. After this, it wasn’t the love of Britain, protection of Belgium or German retribution that convinced men to join up but the persuasive role of local peer pressure and Government propaganda. This is a view echoed by such historians as Peter Simpkins, who plays down the role of patriotism in volunteer’s decision. Despite this though, Britons from up and down the country gave their lives to the war effort for the sheer want to help their country defeat Germany and save their country from defeat.
A. Briggs & P. Clavin Modern Europe 1789-1989 (Longman London 1997)
A.E Coates The Volunteer: The diaries and letters of Albert E. Coates (W. and W. Gherardin 1995)
M. Gilbert The First World War: A Complete History (Owl Books 2004)
M. Graf On The Field Of Mercy: Women Medical Volunteers From The Civil War To The First World War (Humanity Books 2006)
S. Sassoon Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Faber and Faber Classics 2000)